[A revised and improved version of this essay appears in my book The Eleventh Doctor: a critical ramble through Matt Smith’s tenure in Doctor Who.]
Waiting has been a recurring theme in New Who. Sarah Jane waited thirty years (in real time!) to see the Doctor again after The Hand of Fear. Captain Jack waited in Cardiff for somewhere north of a hundred years before finding the Doctor in Utopia. Amy waited twelve years for the Doctor within a single episode (The Eleventh Hour), and then for another two years later in the same episode! Rory waited two thousand years for Amy to emerge from the Pandorica in The Big Bang. (It’s part of Rory’s charm that he is the only one of these to have waited for anyone other than the Doctor. Amy means more to him than the Doctor does.)
What happened to these people when they waited? Sarah Jane got on with her life, on the whole rather successfully. Nothing of the remotest importance happened to Jack because of his convenient Never Dying Or Aging Or Anything superpower. Nothing happened to Rory, either, because he was plastic. But Amy, alone of the four of them, felt it. We’re left in no doubt that her encounter with the Doctor at age seven shaped the whole of the rest of her childhood, adolescence and early adulthood. All those Raggedy Doctor dolls, and the four psychiatrists tell a story. Amy was damaged. Her twelve-year wait for New Who was as painful for her as the most obsessed fanboy felt the sixteen-year wait from 1989 to 2005.
So it was particularly cruel to make her wait another 36 years — time spent isolated from both Rory and the Doctor, and indeed any other person. If 36-years-in-the-future Amy was not quite the same person we know, she can be forgiven for having gone slightly round the twist. I’ve been unapologetically a Karen Gillan fan since her earliest performances as Amy, and she was excellent again in the difficult double role of Young Amy and Old Amy — the latter role apparently initially intended for a different actress, but given to Gillan on her own request.
It’s an extraordinary make-up job: you really need to click through to the full-size image to appreciate it. Amy is very recognisably Amy, but also absolutely convincing as twenty years older. (A shame, then, that the story says she’s 36 years older — she does not look 58, which is the absolute youngest she can be. Maybe that duration was a hangover from when a different actress was envisaged, but it would have been so easy to fix.)
But all the make-up in the world can’t overcome an inadequate performance, so it all hung on Gillan’s ability to walk, talk, and even appear to think like a different person — like someone 36 years older, in fact. Apparently she worked extensively on this. The result was a subtle performance in which the two Amys were rather different but not dramatically so. Part of me thinks that in terms of Oscar Clip Potential, this is a bit of a missed opportunity — she could have gone further with the differences. But at the time I watched it, it seemed appropriate, and on mature reflection I realise that I was right the first time. We don’t need Oscar Clip stuff here, we need acting that serves the story — just as
Eric Clapton’s George Harrison’s solo in Something serves the song rather than drawing attention to itself as a more technically impressive solo would have.
Visually it’s a beautiful episode, switching between three very different kinds of environment: the sterile, minimalist rooms of the main complex (see above), the grimy industrial underbelly where Old Amy lives, and the gorgeous stately home and gardens outside (see below). As a design choice it’s striking, and the sudden transitions between the three environments serve to highlight the sense of disconnection in Amy’s life.
So all of this is good: the make-up, the acting, the sets. But the real question is, does it work? Yes, it’s yet another time-travel story, but it’s resolutely not timey-wimey. (I can’t believe that’s a thing now, but it is.) In fact, it’s very linear, and the questions it raises are more moral and emotional than causal. The fact that Old Amy makes a choice that contradicts her own memory of that choice from long ago is casually thrown away, because that’s not the focus. The making of that choice is the point, not its consequences.
And yet … There are consequences, and they are hard to think about. It’s is strange to think of how time-travel, as well as its other paradoxes, provides a simple way to make multiple instances of the same person. If I step into the TARDIS, the Doctor takes me back sixty seconds and I step back out, then I meet my sixty-seconds-younger self. Now the Doctor can dematerialise and never return, but there are two of me. That’s strange, isn’t it? Which one is real? Surely both. Why shouldn’t both continue to live? In the case of the two Amys there is a further problem of course: who gets Rory? But the solution seems obvious. Drop off one of the Amys on a nice planet, then once she’s settled in, travel back sixty seconds to make a duplicate Rory for her.
It can’t be that easy, can it?
But why not, exactly?
I suppose this is just a special case of the classic narrative difficulty of time travel: that you can use it to solve any problem, taking as many attempts as you need. In the past, Doctor Who simply ignored this, eventually coming up with the Blinovitch Limitation Effect as a technobabble rationalisation. But since New Who has played fast and loose with the timey-wimey, especially in the Moffat era, these may be issues it has to confront sooner or later.
Well. That’s a problem for Moffat. For some unaccountable reason, I have never been invited to write any epsiodes, so I’m not going to let it bother me too much.
I leave you with the observation that in this episode the Doctor is not merely largely absent, but rather ineffective when he’s around. If Amy’s own carelessness gets her onto a different timeline from him, it’s his mistake that locks here there. It’s been a frequent criticism of the last few series that the Doctor is becoming an increasingly mythologised character, known and feared through the universe. But we know from this episode and others that he is very fallible. What might the consequences of that be next time out?
There is a plan.