|For once I’ve picked the image because it illustrates a point and not to make
a bad joke about it. So I’ll just give you a bad joke with nothing to do with
the image. What’s brown and sticky? A stick.
It’s September 10th, 2011. Example are at number one with “Stay Awake,” with Ed Sheeran, Maroon 5, Olly Murs, and Calvin Harris also charting. There’s not exactly been a ton of news in the last twenty-four hours, with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces declaring a state of emergency, along with Barack Obama, the former covering Egypt, the latter Texas. While on television, it’s The Girl Who Waited.
The Girl Who Waited marks one of a handful of times that more or less the entire Doctor Who fandom was properly blown away and surprised. Nothing about Tom McRae’s previous Doctor Who story, the largely unloved Tennant Cybermen two-parter, really suggested that he was capable of this story. And so when McRae was announced as the writer, a large swath of the audience was not particularly enthused. It wasn’t until the title, which magnificently baited the audience by drawing unapologetically on the Moffat era’s established iconography and mythos, that things started to seem a bit more interesting, and not until the revelation of the story’s real premise, the heavily aged Amy Pond, that it started to become clear that, far from being a dud filler episode marking time between the big River episodes on either side of this half-season, The Girl Who Waited was a stunningly interesting episode in its own right.
First and foremost, The Girl Who Waited is a piece of superlative character work. There’s a school of thought, not entirely unjustified, that suggests that Karen Gillan’s interest in Amy declined over the course of the show, and that she phoned in large swaths of Season Six and more or less the entirety of Season Seven. There’s another that says that Gillan was actually fine, but that Moffat ran out of things to write about the character, hence her spending most of Season Six as fridge bait. This school of thought is, as we’ve seen, self-evidently ludicrous, but it’s worth acknowledging as well. Both, ultimately, end up treating Amy as something of a problem companion in this period. But in many ways, both lines of criticism almost necessarily have to avoid this story (and it’s telling, I think, that the “Moffat is an arch-misogynist” crowd mostly steers around this story in their criticisms) in order to work.
Certainly, whatever one might say about her in Season Seven, Gillan is absolutely on fire here, managing to distinguish Young Amy and Old Amy as real and distinct characters through a host of subtle but deliberate ways. Old Amy carries her body differently, speaks with a slightly different timbre, and genuinely, properly feels like a different character to Young Amy. The entire episode is set up to live or die by the strength of Gillan’s performance, and she rises to the occasion magnificently in a way that anchors everything around her. Given her strength here, it’s perhaps easy to see why her character falters in stories where she’s reduced to being a generic companion with relatively little to do, and certainly easy to see why she might have been frustrated at how much of her character development is pushed off-screen with the River plot. As noted before, the alternative – showing Amy Pond, feisty protagonist beloved by a nation of young women, shattered by sexual assault and slowly healing – was completely untenable, but from Gillan’s perspective, it’s still a fantastic chunk of material that she had to act around.
But it is fair to say that even though Moffat continued to give Amy an interesting plot line over the course of Season Six, he didn’t necessarily serve Karen Gillan terribly well. Which is where this episode comes in. Because even though it’s completely detached from the season’s overall arc, it hits many of the same thematic notes. Ultimately, both the River arc and this explore the same basic question of what it means for Amy to wait for the Doctor, and what it means for him to come back after she’s waited. In A Good Man Goes to War he is pointedly and tragically too late to stop River’s abduction, and here he’s too late to rescue Amy at all, so that his arrival becomes something entirely more unsettling. But unlike the River arc, this time the consideration of the Doctor returning too late focuses on Amy herself, instead of deflecting the arc off to another character.
But all of this is really just a reconsidering of her Season Five arc. There the season focused on the Doctor’s quest to fix his error from The Eleventh Hour – to restore Amy to being Amelia, in effect. And by the end of it, he succeeded. Fourteen years of being late were finally paid off, and Amelia Pond was restored at her own wedding. Except, of course, healing is not the same as preventing. That is, I would argue, a fundamental premise of the Moffat era. The Doctor fixes things. He is a healer – a bringer of reparation. But this doesn’t mean that bad things don’t happen. Moffat, when quizzed on the “fairy tale” aspects of his tenure, has always stressed that fairy tales are how we teach the fact that there are terrible things in the world. And so after his arc of reparation and healing for Amelia, Moffat goes back and re-examines the question, focusing on the basic fact that there is healing to do in the first place.
So in this regard, The Girl Who Waited is an essential thematic component of the season. Moffat’s decision to move the focus from Amy to River was perfectly sensible, not least because he had a mystery to resolve, but it left a narrative gap regarding Amy, which this fills nicely. Or, rather, not very nicely at all. Because this is a story that puts a tremendous amount of emphasis on the fact that healing necessarily requires damage. Because at the heart of this story is the fact that there is no way out of this that doesn’t cause damage. Either Amy has to live through decades of anguished isolation, or a version of her has to be murdered. Those are the only two choices the narrative gives. And so we are put into a position where the Doctor is fundamentally unable to avoid causing pain and damage.
That doesn’t mean that the Doctor can’t heal, of course. He does, ultimately. The horrible fate of being trapped in Two Streams for decades is, in the end, averted. But just because he averts it doesn’t mean that there’s no harm caused. And the Doctor is pointedly forced to confront that, in a way that tips him into a moral ambiguity that the series hasn’t really seen since the McCoy era, and even then more in the novels than the television series. The Doctor outright lies to Amy and Rory, telling them he can save both Amys when he knows he can’t, just to manipulate Old Amy into helping him. It’s not a situation I’m comfortable calling outright morally wrong, but it’s clearly meant to be an uneasy sequence, and it succeeds at its goal. The Doctor is put in a situation with no good answers, and doesn’t get to dodge choosing a really shitty one.
But equally, this isn’t presented as an occasion for the Doctor’s angst. There’s no standing out in the rain feeling guilty about shamelessly ignoring his companion’s end-of-life directive. He may be wounded by Rory’s anger, but even that is clearly only in passing for him. Instead the moral ambiguity is presented as the price of doing business – as a fundamental aspect of what the Doctor is. It’s tempting to read this as post-Dark Knight “let’s make all our heroes dark and tormented,” but The Girl Who Waited actively resists this reading. For one, the Doctor isn’t particularly tormented by all of this. But for another, there doesn’t really seem to be any sense in which this is a critique of the Doctor as a character. Rory gets some zingers, but they’re not exactly deconstructive swipes at the heart of the show. You can tell because they’re actually reasonably well-founded. Unlike, say, Davros in Journey’s End, where the attempts at moral critique only land because the Doctor declines to offer the obvious refutations, Rory’s pointing out that maybe doing a spot of research to avoid landing in the middle of a plague, or that the Doctor is kind of a dick in making him explain to Old Amy that, yeah, he’s totally murdering her is, on the whole, a fair point.
But the truth is that it wouldn’t be Doctor Who if it didn’t feature the Doctor imprudently landing in trouble. More broadly, this script fits firmly into one of Moffat’s most basic and recurring themes, not just in Doctor Who, which is that there is a price for having gods. Great men who can serve as ontological forces within a narrative are scary things. But this isn’t a critique of them. As Moffat said quite early on in writing Doctor Who, the Doctor is worth the monsters. And ultimately, for all that it’s an emotionally brutal episode that pushes characters to awful places, The Girl Who Waited is not a refutation of either the Doctor or Amy. Murray Gold’s decision to reuse lots of the classic Amy Pond musical cues emphasizes this, making it impossible to separate this story from the basic mythology of Amy Pond. (As, of course, does the title.) The result is, in effect, a story that symbolically fills the biggest narrative gap in the River Song arc without having to get into any of the problematic content.
And it’s interesting to note just how much this story really is based on Amy as a character. It’s not just the ways in which being abandoned is the thing she’s most scared of, or the role Rory plays in her personal mythology. It’s also littler things about the particularities of her strength. More than once we’ve seen sequences where Amy, after vowing in some way to never give up, almost immediately does – Curse of the Black Spot being a recent example. Here we get one of the best, where she vows that she will fight like hell to survive and then stands and lets the handbots get her instead of fighting to her last breath. It’s a little thing that doesn’t undermine her strength in the least, but that rips apart any argument that all of Moffat’s companions are the same. Indeed, it quickly becomes clear why critics who push this sort of argument almost entirely ignore this episode – because there is no other companion pairing in all of Doctor Who that this story would work with. Maybe, maybe you could do it with Ian and Barbara, but you’d need a massive retcon to have “do it for Ian” work as a way of persuading Barbara to save her past self. So maybe, but not really. This is a story that depends, in a deep and fundamental way, on the complexity and detail of Amy’s character, and it’s in its own way as much a triumph for her as Last of the Time Lords is for Martha or Turn Left is for Donna. Except instead of making the case for her character with a big hero moment, it makes a case for her by aggressively interrogating the basic premise of the character.
Absolutely none of which is actually the most interesting or important thing about this story. No, what’s really important about this story is that it marks the debut of Nick Hurran on Doctor Who, and Nick Hurran is very probably the most important director in Doctor Who since Graeme Harper. Yes, even moreso than Euros Lyn, who is excellent, but who is ultimately a director who embodied a straightforward style. Hurran, on the other hand, is aggressively experimental. The Moffat era has always embraced subjective camerawork, a technique that came to a triumphant conceptual endpoint in Day of the Moon with that brilliant scene in which the Silence edit themselves out of the narrative. But Hurran is the first director to take that as a starting point, and it’s no surprise that Moffat promptly grabbed him for himself, both on Doctor Who and Sherlock.
We’re going to talk more about Hurran on Monday when we deal with a story that is much more drenched in his directorial style, but even here there are some clear signs of the sort of thing he does. The camera angles are all dynamic and dramatic, with lots of low angles and decisions to shoot people’s hands doing things. But the most dramatic trick he develops is the superimposition of two shots. This makes its first appearance when the two Amys talk through the glass, and Hurran opts to frame the shot by showing both of them on screen, talking directly to each other, instead of doing it as a shot-reverse-shot across the glass. Then he does it again when Rory and Old Amy have their final conversation through the TARDIS door, which is on the whole a stranger time to do it, since in that case the entire point is that the two characters can’t see each other, which differentiates it sharply from the first one. But in both cases, there’s a decision to completely abandon the idea that what’s on the screen is a depiction of a real space at all. And the implications of this in terms of how future stories are going to be constructed is profound. As I said, we’ll talk more about this on Wednesday, but for now let’s point out the profound appropriateness that one day after the final Russell T Davies story airs comes a story you can point at and say “here’s where the post-Davies style begins in earnest.”