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Doctor Who: The Girl Who Waited (Review)

You always said that for Christmas dinner, you wish there were two of you.

– Rory tries to look on the bright side

The Girl Who Waited might just be the most Moffat-esque Doctor Who script that wasn’t written by the man himself. “Timey wimey” hijinks, killer robots, glitchy technology and cultural misunderstandings all tie together one of the best episodes of the show’s sixth season. Writer Tom MacRae even throws in a juicy character dilemma to add flavour. Offering a fairly explicit example of why travelling with the Doctor might not necessarily be a good thing, despite how much fun it might seem, The Girl Who Waited serves as a prelude to The God Complex, while continuing the season’s exploration of just how tough it is to be the companion.

The waiting room…

The Moffat era isn’t over yet, so it’s too soon to really consider eulogising it. Still, it’s fun to imagine what people might take away from it. Not die-hard fans mind you, but casual viewers who would discuss the show with their own children. Barely eight years old, it’s probably too soon to ask that question of the revived series, but it still makes for an interesting thought experiment. What parts of Moffat’s era jump out at us as we watch, and will those parts be the parts recorded for posterity?

After all, Doctor Who is a show with many different facets, and how you react to it depends on when you started watching. Even within the tenure of particular actors, there are major and subtle shifts to be discerned. These inform what we deem to be Doctor Who, providing a ruler against which we can measure the show. While John Nathan Turner might have been launching an unfair attack when he accused the fondness for earlier Doctor Who of being the result of a “cheating memory”, there is a valid argument that many fans have difficulty accepting any version of Doctor Who that doesn’t conform to their own vision of the show.

The outside, looking in...

The outside, looking in…

So what what be the version of Doctor Who taken away by a child growing up during the Moffat era? In the classic series, we associate producer Philip Hinchcliffe with gothic horror and his successor Graham Williams with light-hearted science fantasy, so how will we classify Moffat’s tenure as showrunner? Time inevitably makes fools of us all, but I suspect it might be termed the “timey wimey” era of the show, as Moffat’s tenure has been marked by a rather serious up-swing in the number of stories exploring the temporal mechanics and consequences of the Doctor’s time-travel.

Russell T. Davies seem preoccupied with the destruction of the physical space – even when Davros threatens “reality itself”, there’s no indication of how this might affect time; all we see is matter deteriorating. In contrast, Moffat’s threats typically seem to involve damage to time itself. The Big Bang sees space folding in on itself, but also time. The end of the universe allows the Doctor to bend the rules of time, as an explosion scatters the TARDIS’ remains in time. In The Wedding of River Song, time itself is destroyed.

Infectious fun...

Infectious fun…

Moffat’s work on the series has been defined by a willingness to play with time. In The Empty Child, Jack Harkness happily used time travel as part of an elaborate long con. In The Girl in the Fire Place, a space ship becomes linked with 18th century France. In Blink, the Weeping Angels kill using time travel. In Silence in the Library, the Doctor meets his future wife, only to discover that this will be the last time that she sees him.

Moffat’s first season as executive producer was build around the mystery of a TARDIS that explodes in the penultimate episode, while his second was devoted to the non-linear life of River Song and his third featured a companion who cast herself back into the history of the show itself, right down to earlier episodes of the season. With The Girl Who Waited, it seems like this interest in the implications of the manipulation of time itself has reached beyond Moffat’s own pen.

A smashing time...

A smashing time…

While The Girl Who Waited doesn’t play directly into the season’s over-arching temporal mysteries – the murder of the Doctor or the life of River Song – it does develop some of the recurring themes of the Moffat era. It uses several familiar Moffat motifs and builds them into a bleak character study that condemns the Doctor for his recklessness. Rory gets to continue the critique he began back in The Vampires of Venice, daring to challenge the Doctor’s careless attitude towards his companions.

“No, this is your fault!” Rory protests. “You should look in a history book once in a while, see if there’s an outbreak of plague or not.” The Doctor protests, “That is not how I travel.” To be fair, the show needs excitement to thrive, and the adventure relies on the Doctor not knowing where he might land, but Rory has a very valid point. When the Doctor promises “sunsets, spires, soaring silver colonnades”, his companions shouldn’t have to live in fear of massive psychological damage.

Through the looking glass...

Through the looking glass…

The Doctor is reckless, and people suffer. The failures of Moffat’s Doctor tend to be more intimate and personal than the failures of Davies’ Doctor. Moffat’s Doctor manages to save the universe quite frequently, and has a fairly impressive track record of preserving those around him. However, he does seem to cause large amounts of pain to anybody who gets close to him. He’s not malicious, he just attracts tragedy and unfortunate accidents. He’s careless; Moffat suggested that the Doctor sees all of time and space as a “backyard.” It’s no wonder he misses the small minutes.

The Girl Who Waited builds off the Doctor’s oversight in The Eleventh Hour, as he rushes to the rescue of Amy Pond, only a little bit too late. In the grand scheme of the universe, thirty-six years in nothing. To Amy and Rory, it’s practically a life time together. “You didn’t save me,” Amy protests. Rory responds, “The Doctor just got the timing a bit wrong.” To the Doctor, this is a blink of an eye. The Eleventh Doctor lives for over three centuries. This is next to nothing to him. To his companions, however, it’s everything.

Garden-variety temporal disturbances...

Garden-variety temporal disturbances…

And this is where Rory comes in. While Amy has a personal investment in her raggedy Doctor, Rory exists to provide some perspective on all of this. He is well-aware of the smaller moments, the personal scale. In The God Complex, it’s Rory who gets to know Howie and who admires the character’s ability to overcome a speech impediment. Here, Rory is completely shocked by “the two-streams facility.” Watching the residents, Rory asks, “Are they happy?” The Doctor smiles. “Oh, Rory. Trust you to think of that.” The personal stuff. The stuff that gets lost.

There are hints that Amy is coming to realise that Rory might not have a time machine, but he’s a better life partner than an immortal alien with a very bad sense of timing. Building off A Good Man Goes to War, it seems like Amy has moved past her crush on the Doctor; stranded on an alien world with no company, she names her only companion “Rory.” Amy Pond is growing up, realising that becoming an adult means making adult choices, and perhaps even leaving the imaginary friends behind. She’s just not there quite yet.

Talking to herself...

Talking to herself…

Here, the Doctor makes an absolutely horrible choice. He decides which version of Amy gets to exist – the young version who travelled with him in the TARDIS, or the older version who has spent the best part of four decades alone. Sure, he tries to fob the decision off on Rory, but the Doctor is the one who lets Amy’s younger self into the TARDIS and slams the door on the older Amy. He tries to force Rory to validate his decision, but it has already been made – it’s hard to imagine young!Amy leaving the TARDIS willingly.

“You’re trying to turn me into you,” Rory accuses the Doctor, and the line seems to implicitly acknowledge that the Doctor does stuff like this on a macro scale all the time. By affecting the outcomes of events, he effectively “prunes” history, so that he alters the courses of billions of lives every time he sets foot out of the TARDIS. The Girl Who Waited just makes the choice that much more intimate and personal, and dares to challenge the morality of the Doctor’s choice.

Amy’s most faithful companion…

Indeed, one of the stronger aspects of The Girl Who Waited is the way that it is willing to actively question the Doctor’s choice. old!Amy is treated as a valid character in her own right. Her thirty-six years may have sucked, but they belong to her. The person – that identity, that sum of memories – will cease to exist if young!Amy leaves. It’s a heavy concept that is too easily overlooked with a “set right what one went wrong” gimmick, and it’s to the credit of The Girl Who Waited that the show is willing to broach the issue.

That said, it does feel like a bit of a cop out that old!Amy eventually makes a decision to cease to existing – this validates the Doctor’s choice somewhat. It might have been bolder to have old!Amy continue to assert her right to exist up until the end of the episode, which would really leave the matter open to debate and discussion. However, even with her retroactive consent, The Girl Who Waited still leaves some dangling questions around the Doctor’s morality.

It’s all screwed up…

Moffat’s Doctor is a decidedly ambiguous figure. He recruits both Amy and Clara partially because he’s curious about them – about Amy’s crack in time and Clara’s previous appearances. Operating on the scale that he does, Moffat has reinforced the idea that the character might even be vaguely sinister figure – a “trickster.” It’s a portrayal that harks back to the sixties. Troughton has been a massive influence on Smith, but it reaches even further than that. Indeed, locking old!Amy out of the TARDIS almost calls to mind the way that William Hartnell’s Doctor locked Susan out at the end of The Dalek Invasion of Earth.

All of this is building quite logically towards the Doctor’s decision to send Amy and Rory home at the end of The God Complex, suggesting that the Doctor himself is coming to realise the tremendous cost paid by those closest to him. It’s a rather thoughtful exploration of the relationship that exists between the Doctor and those closest to him, and it’s something quite common in the Moffat era – a sense that the universe and the world are so much smaller and more intimate than the world the show inhabited the tenure of Russell T. Davies.


White out…

Amy and Rory don’t have a network of supporting characters to anchor them to the real world. Amy has no relationship to speak of with her mother. As such, there’s a tighter focus on the pair’s relationship to the Doctor. Amy’s family cameoed in The Big Bang, but only briefly. We don’t meet any of Rory’s family until Dinosaurs on a Spaceship. As such, Moffat doesn’t focus on external angst about Amy’s family problems or the duo’s intersection with the real world. He focuses on their interactions with the Doctor.

The Girl Who Waited has a distinctly “Moffat” feel to it, cementing the idea that the executive producer has found a way to make the show completely his own. His first season was very much patterned in the style of the thirteen-episodes seasons that Davies’ had produced since the show came back. A past/present/future opening trio of stories, a two-parter, stand-alones building character and theme, another two-parter, big bombastic finalé. In contrast, Moffat’s second season feels quite distinct from what came before.


Amy doesn’t need a hand…

Tim MacRae populates the script with clever ideas that fit perfectly with Moffat’s vision of the show. Most interestingly, there’s the idea of software that is trying to be helpful malfunctioning horribly. In The Empty Child, alien technology tries and fails to rebuild a child. In The Girl in the Fire Place, drones try to affect repairs on their ship with horrible consequences. In Silence in the Library, the computer ensures that everybody has been “saved.”

Here, there are well-intentioned medical drones. “Their kindness will kill you,” the Doctor explains. They are only trying to help, unaware of the fact that our leads are completely different from them. In a way, it’s the perfect metaphor for Moffat’s Doctor, a character who seems to constantly mess up because he’s unaware that humans have different needs and different views than he does. The Doctor means well, but allowing people to travel with him is downright reckless. Sure, he means well. The Doctor wants to show his companions the universe; he misses the fact that the universe just wants to kill them.


Double trouble…

Then again, there’s something wonderfully wry about setting a story in a hospital that is so poorly run that the medical staff are slaughtering the patients. It could even be a cheap shot at the N.H.S., although that’s probably reading too much into things. The production design for the episode is quite impressive, using a lot of white space to create the impression of a truly alien world. Moffat’s Doctor Who has really released the tether from planet Earth, and is embracing the possibilities of modern technology and craft.

MacRae also uses the very Moffat-esque concept of “one room, two different time zones”, creating a rather literal waiting room in this gigantic alien hospital. The Girl Who Waited serves as an example of just how thoroughly Moffat has managed to put his mark on Doctor Who, and to build his own ideas into the show. Although the work of another writer, The Girl Who Waited is very much a Steven Moffat episode, and it demonstrates how heavily he has reinvented the series.

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11 Responses

  1. I think the question of “right” is essential to looking at the episode. I’m grateful that the episode didn’t make light of the consequences of the decision, but I do believe the Doctor went too far, which could potentially be fantastic for the narrative.

    A few too many thoughts on last night’s Doctor Who: http://theoncominghope.blogspot.com/2011/09/doctor-who-on-forgotten-wives-and.html

    • I really liked it. Again, I think it’s the fact that Moffat is picking apart the Doctor – a metaphorical death to mirror a literal death – is one of the stronger aspects of the season. The overly-plotted and oft-ignored central arc is probably the weakest.

  2. The only thing that bothered me about this episode was still the lack of any mention of Melody. I realize that there are alot of complications there (growing up with your daughter as your best friend is certainly at the
    top of the list) but two straight episodes and nary a mention of the overarching plot development. I’m hoping the Silence
    are making them forget about their child…or some sort of equally adequate explanation.

    • Yep, that’s the weakest thing about these types of arcs. The show needs to be accessible to tea-time viewers and families, so you can’t carry long-winded plots for too long. So most season-long arcs tend to be nothing but token references (and not just the new series, The Key to Time was very similar… oohh… adventure of the week… oh, and a piece of macguffin in the first or last ten minutes). That’s why I think thematic arcs work better, like the links between The Girl Who Waited and the God Complex or Tom Baker’s final year, or Sylvester McCoy’s final year – you can watch the individual stories without being locked out, but all together they work even better.

  3. I didn’t love this episode, for a few reasons, the main one being that I’m still perturbed at the abrupt detour from the story arc. I also thought the decision to keep only “young” Amy was a no-brainer, not because she’s younger and hotter, but because she’s “our” Amy (Rory’s and the Doctor’s Amy from their timeline) and by rescuing her, this particular “old” Amy will be erased from existence. To me that isn’t the same as killing her, it’s sparing her the 36 years that she suffered alone, waiting. They rescue the Amy they brought to this planet only a short time earlier (per Rory & the Doctor’s timeline) and the three of them leave together on the TARDIS just as they arrived. Rory & Amy carry on with their life together as before.

    Which apparently doesn’t include worrying about their daughter. :S

    • Yep, I think that the baby storyoline was a bit too much. Even though you know she’s going to be “okay”, that doesn’t mean you forget about her. But you can’t turn the show into “The Quest for Amy’s baby”, because it has to be tea-time viewing and “accessible to all.”

  4. Not perfect but a definite improvement on “Night Terrors.”

    • I really liked it, I must confess. I think that this final stretch has had a higher everage quality than the original run, even if there’s nothing as good as The Doctor’s Wife (there’s also been nothing as bad as The Curse of the Black Spot).

  5. really nice review, I’ll definitely have to keep stopping by! This was by far my favorite episode this season, hope the “final three” are just as good.

  6. If Season 5 was the fairytale season….in Season 6 the shine wears off. Again and again S6 makes the point that travelling with the Doctor is dangerous. As you have brought up elsewhere, the 11th Doctor is excellent at saving the universe without breaking a sweat, but he repeatedly failed his friends. He left young Amelia Pond behind in “The Eleventh Hour”. His deepest failing though, was 3 episodes prior, when he failed to save Amy and Rory’s baby. They lost their child because of his arrogance and hubris–he strayed from the cosmic hobo of the classic series to become the Oncoming Storm of the Davies era, and Amy and Rory paid the ultimate price. The show’s failure to deal with that even metaphorically of course remains one of the Moffat Era’s most notorious missteps. And yet I imagine it was running through old Amy’s mind when she venomously states how much she hates the Doctor. Michael G McDunnah did such a brilliant job pointing out this episode’s subtext that I must simply quote his review, despite the fact that I have deep disagreements with him on other aspects of the show (he’s a Capaldi-era skeptic, whereas I love it).

    “The Doctor promises adventures and wonderlands, a never-ending waterfall of excitement—but the price of admission is that you must sacrifice your normal life. He has the best of intentions, but they paved the way to the hell Future Amy has lived. The Doctor is unfailingly kind, but kindness can kill. He’s a “blue-box man, flying through time and space on whimsy,” but he leaves innocent lives altered and corrupted and destroyed in his wake. Amy and Rory love each other deeply, but their love is being tested in a way no couple’s love should ever be. There comes a time when you have to live an actual life, stable and solid and real: there comes a time when you have to choose the security of an anchor over the ever-changing excitement of a waterfall.

    This is not a silly children’s program. This is sophisticated storytelling, mature and provocative and powerful. This is an incredible example of what science fiction can do, and a stunning demonstration of the artistic heights to which this show can rise.”

    I somehow never picked up on that subtext but it’s absolutely true. “The Girl Who Waited” is first-rate sci-fi drama, and Doctor Who nearing its very best. 10/10 without question. S6 has 4 episodes vying it out for the best that the Matt Smith era has to offer–this, “The Doctor’s Wife”, “A Good Man Goes to War”, and “The God Complex” are sheer perfection.

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