“I got old, Rory. What did you think was going to happen?”
“Hey, I don’t care that you got old! I care that we didn’t grow old together.”
In which one of the turns of phrase the show smugly pats itself on the back for is co-opted for a bit of glum drama in which an old lady spends twenty-some-odd minutes grumbling and snarling at her two dearest friends and acting as a bit of a plot obstacle. There are certainly things to recommend “The Girl Who Waited,” like the fantastic scenic design both spare and lush, standout performances from the two regulars who AREN’T Matt Smith, and some nifty slow-motion swordplay. It also affords us another deeper look at the characters of Rory and Amy, why they’re together, and how deeply they care for one another. Really, you put all this together and it’s clearly a very good episode. It just doesn’t strike me as one I’d be fired up to revisit any time soon; there’s no clever hook, there’s no moment that got punching the air. I admire the hell out of it, and the ending is punch-to-the-gut painful in the best dramatic fashion, but I don’t see myself watching and rewatching it the way I’ve already done with “The Doctor’s Wife” and “A Good Man Goes To War.” Then again, I do find myself liking it more on the second watch — I’m writing this as I make my way through it the second time — so this may change. Certainly I see myself watching this a third time over giving “Let’s Kill Hitler” its second proper viewing. As always, spoilers follow.1) There’s something very video gamey about the Two Rivers Facility (and, oh god, it just hit me: Two Rivers? Really? Please don’t tell me that’s a hint for later …). When Amy enters the hub with the calming tranquil music, starts hitting the buttons that each bring up their own “theme,” and ultimately walked through the portal into the garden all I could think of was playing MYST on my Sega Saturn fifteen years ago — although the sort of stage select-style of choosing the area is a bit more MEGA MAN, the atmosphere of the whole thing, complete with New Age BGM, was very MYST. The fact that the story goes on to armor Amy up, give her a sword, and have her fight faceless robots in slow motion only amplifies this video game-like feel, albeit borrowing from a different genre and style of game.
2) This is the SECOND time in the half-season where a big point has been made about a threat preventing the Doctor’s regeneration. I question whether this raising of stakes is entirely necessary after the Doctor made such a big deal during “The End of Time” about regeneration being death: as the Tenth Doctor put it, this man, with this personality and these particular quirks, dies, and another fellow saunters back into the TARDIS to wander the universe. Regeneration may be an “out” of sorts, but it’s not like it allows the Doctor to wander on out into traffic without looking both ways; he’d still rather not walk into certain death. It doesn’t really raise the stakes that much for him — but for his companions, for whom the Doctor is their only ticket back home, it raises the stakes considerably. Now, if this were McCoy’s Doctor — especially the version who appeared in the New Adventures novels — I’d wonder if the contagion really would inhibit regeneration or the Doctor just knows he can’t let this incarnation die now, not with so much else to do with this face and this personality; given the Doctor’s behavior at the end of the episode, I wonder if I shouldn’t be suspicious of this remark anyway. After all, per River Song, Rule #1: The Doctor lies.
3) This is also the second time in the season as a whole that the immediate threat is medicine run amuck — and, oddly, both instances have to do with hands. (In this one, don’t let the robots’ hands touch you! In “Curse of the Black Spot,” the black spot appears on YOUR hand and then the siren takes you away.) I now suspect that moving “Night Terrors” to the second half was less about lightening up the tone of the first half and more about keeping this and “Curse of the Black Spot” away from one another due to these similarities, which I assume would only stand out if the episodes were aired within a few weeks of one another. (Honestly, who but a dedicated WHO aficionado even REMEMBERS “Curse of the Black Spot”?)
4) It also occurs to me that this shares another similarity with “Curse of the Black Spot”: Amy gets to swing a sword around. Difference is, this time, with thirty-six years of experience under her belt fighting off medical robots throughout the Two Rivers Facility, by the time we see her wielding that samurai sword she’s gotten quite good at it, making for some very cool sequences, especially in the final stretch. I wonder how she got so good. I realize that you can do and learn a lot in thirty-six years, but sword skills and, say, building a jury-rigged Sonic Screwdriver and hacking a verbal interface are the kinds of things that take specialized training. Maybe one of the unseen sections of the Two Rivers Facility is a library.
5) Yet another parallel to an earlier episode this season: Rory coming face to face with a bitter, left-behind old Amy is a reversal of the illusion House placed in the TARDIS in “The Doctor’s Wife,” where Amy found a bitter, left-behind old Rory who hated her for leaving him behind in the TARDIS corridors. Unfortunately for Rory, this is no illusion.
6) I have to say, they did a remarkable make-up job to turn Karen Gillan into nearly sixty-year-old Amy. Certainly not exactly what she’s going to look like when she’s doing the convention circuit in 2047, but terribly convincing and not weird-looking even in high def; there are theatrical films that have aged actresses far less convincingly. It’d be nothing without Gillan’s performance, though, and the lower, sterner voice is effective and sells the years and the bitterness. It’s hard not to sympathize with her, and not just because of the abandonment. The most difficult part of the story is the creepy feeling that despite Rory’s insistance that he still loves her, despite the fact that he says he doesn’t mind that she got old, the dilemma once the Doctor and Rory have found Amy goes from “we have to save Amy” to “we have to save young, hot Amy.” She says it herself, they could just grab her and get back into the TARDIS and go, but no, they have to do some tricky DOCTOR WHO wibbly-wobbly stuff and loop timelines and get young and happy Amy back as opposed to the one who’s waited all this time for them. Certainly the Doctor’s just trying to set everything right, and Rory’s all about preventing Amy from going through all these years of suffering and growing bitter, but from old Amy’s perspective the people who left her to rot for thirty-six years have shown up to save her only to let her die in favor of a younger, prettier girl with a nice smile.
7) The one big, bad temporal problem with the story: old Amy says she remembers being young Amy and failing to convince herself to help, thus causing her to wait thirty-six years for them. But hang on, that means that old Amy, when she was young Amy, knew the Doctor and Rory were coming, that they didn’t abandon her, that they screwed up but were trying to set things right. She said it was at about the thirtieth year that she stopped feeling charitable towards the Doctor, but if you witnessed that, if you saw yourself tell your closest friends that you wouldn’t save your younger self, wouldn’t THAT be the thing that stuck with you? Wouldn’t you be filled with hate, not for your friends, who screwed up but tried to set things right, but for the person who wouldn’t let them: yourself?She saw them trying. Maybe this is what’s going on in her head, maybe she’s lashing out at Rory and the Doctor because they’re convenient targets and, yes, the whole mess IS the Doctor’s fault. But the real problem, the bit that knocks down the whole house of cards: wouldn’t what Amy said to her older self ALWAYS be what Amy said to her older self? It’s not like something happens that alters the timeline. It’s not like there’s some spanner in the works here. It’s just old Amy and young Amy talking to one another, and old Amy specifically says that she remembers this conversation, but she remembers it happening differently. Perhaps if it was handled like “A Christmas Carol,” where she DIDN’T remember this happening but now she did, it would frustrate a little less. But there’s no reason whatsoever for young Amy to do a damn thing differently this time than before, and yet old Amy changes her mind and agrees to help the Doctor and Rory change her past. The speech she makes about causality and defying the nature of time and all that doesn’t ring true, either — this is a woman whose best friend BESIDES the Doctor and Rory turned out to be her grown psuedo-Time Lord daughter who turned out to be the Doctor’s mysterious friend/lover who he keeps meeting in roughly reverse chronological order. She already KNOWS time can be rewritten, she already KNOWS causality is a joke — why would it matter now more than any other time in her crazy mixed-up life? It comes off like something out of a vaguely-placed tie-in novel rather than a proper episode of the show post-“Let’s Kill Hitler.”
8) Poor plot mechanics aside, the scene where young Amy convinces old Amy contains within it my favorite moment in the episode: Amy verbalizing why it was always Rory, why (Mels/Melody/River’s intervention aside) she would pick him over all the boys who would have pursued her even in as small a town as Leadworth. Beyond the sweetness of the scene, though, the clever thing about it is that it turns the story on its ear. It’s not about saving Amy anymore, it’s about Amy saving Rory from … well, turning into a moping grumpus, I guess. Young Amy reminds old Amy that, as much as Rory wants to spare Amy all those years of suffering, deep down inside she wants to spare Rory the heartbreak of seeing her suffer and losing her to this life of bitterness and living hell.
9) Rory and Amy’s condemnations of the way the Doctor flits through life make a whole lot of sense, although complaining about the way DOCTOR WHO works in a DOCTOR WHO episode seems to me like a bad idea, since it’s not like the Doctor’s going to stop traveling in his ever-irresponsible fashion. The peril of the episode is very much in the “Caves of Androzani” mold: Doctor decides to go someplace on a whim with his companion(s), ignores the fact that it looks all wrong, lets his curiosity get the better of him, companion touches the wrong thing and endangers her life, and the rest of the running time is devoted to getting everyone out of trouble and back to the TARDIS. In “Caves of Androzani,” of course, the Doctor sacrifices his life for his companion’s. He screws up and makes the ultimate sacrifice to set things right. Unfortunately, due to the nature of this particular dilemma, the sacrifice in “The Girl Who Waited” is the companion’s, to save her past self from suffering the life she’s lived. Meanwhile, in another bizarrely apt parallel, Rory carries an unconscious Amy into the TARDIS. Huh.
10) Rule #1 is invoked again, and this time unambiguously, when old Amy insists on rejoining the TARDIS crew alongside her younger self. When Rory asks if that’ll work, the Doctor makes a joke, tosses out some cute suggestions for making it work, and then assures him that yes, the TARDIS can sustain the paradox. You can see it written all over Matt Smith’s face: no, it really can’t, but in order to get the proper result he’ll say it can. Again, it’s the sort of blatant manipulation, ala the revelation at the end of “The Almost People,” that very much recalls the McCoy Doctor at his worst. Rory’s disgusted protests inside the TARDIS afterwards even sound a bit like Ace’s condemnations towards the end of the final season of the original series, albeit a bit more emphatic and teary-eyed. McCoy’s Doctor, after all, had a plan and was testing Ace. Smith’s Doctor, however, seems to be playing a dangerous game with a marred couple without a plan or a net, and he just keeps on dropping one or the other of them. This is the second time that Amy’s died in her travels with the Doctor, after all. I wonder if Arthur Darvill’s playing coy when he says he’ll be back sort of, kind of, to some extent next season or if he really only will be back for, I don’t know, the opener or the ender. Because after this episode I can’t see Rory Williams staying in the TARDIS at the end of episode thirteen. I just don’t think he’ll be able to deal with much more of the Doctor’s crap.
11) You know how in a lot of classic DOCTOR WHO stories, the Doctor causes a revolution or something and he looks around at the people and the devastated seat of evil power and he grabs his companion’s hand and drags her into the TARDIS and avoids dealing with the fallout? When Amy asks the question, “Where is she?” regarding her future self, and the Doctor gives this hard-eyed look and can’t meet his companions’ gaze and walks away as the episode ends … well, it’s a lot like that. I swear, we’re getting the McCoy arc here, playful to slightly sinister, albeit better planned this time out (see last season’s “Amy’s Choice”), with a touch more humanity and remorse, and I believe that the end result is supposed to be a full reversal from that direction — stepping back from the all-knowing, all-powerful legendary Doctor and trying to bring him back to the bohemian wanderer of the Tom Baker years, stumbling onto spaceships and into sealed-off facilities, getting in and out of trouble solely by his wits, and leaving before history can record his name. I think that’s where we’re headed, and if so, I’m curious if Moffat can pull it off. And if that’s not where we’re going, well, then I wonder what the point of all this is. (And despite the fact that I’m bringing up the season-long arc, thankfully there was no direct reference to it this week. Hooray!)