The Girl Who Waited (Doctor Who series 6, episode 10)

[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.

9 responses to “The Girl Who Waited (Doctor Who series 6, episode 10)

  1. You’re just trying to check that I’m still reading these, aren’t you? Clapton played on While My Guitar Gently Weeps, not Something…

    As you’ll have seen from my own review, I’m pretty much in agreement here.

  2. Ghghghrrrah! Dumb mistake on my part. Yes, of course, While My Guitar Gently Weeps is the Clapton solo; but the one in Something is better, fully reflecting the melody, harmonic structure and emotional mood of the song.

    (I’ve not seen your review yet: I always avoid reading other people’s before I’ve written mine. But I will!)

  3. I thought this was one of the better adventures. I’m just a little unnerved now that we’ve only got–what is it–two or three more episodes to go? How many questions will they leave un-resolved?

    Will they really be able to get the various mysteries solved in time to the audience’s satisfaction? Probably not. Oh well.

    Anyway, this was a good adventure, and I think it was a good twist on the classic there’s-two-instances-of-you-but-there-can’t-be thing. This is the first time I’ve seen a story where the other instance tenaciously clings to existence rather than placidly accepts not existing. (Although now I come to think of it, 10th Doctor mentioned the Could Have Been King or something like that.)

    On the Blinovitch Limitation Effect: Yeah, it was originally invented by the writers to conveniently gloss over a plot hole, but it’s a lot of fun. I mean, here in America, where still even many geeks have not heard of or are not overly familiar with Doctor Who: suppose you’re watching some non-Doctor Who time travel story and someone brings up the question: “well how come they don’t just go back in time again?” You throw it back, “Oh that’s because of the Blinovitch Limitation Effect!” The dumbfounded stares you get at that point are priceless I tell ya, priceless. And apparently I’m not the only one who does this: Blinovitch Limitation Effect in Popular Culture.

    But I always figured, apart from the energy discharge goofiness which they used in Mawdryn Undead so they could have younger Brigadeir have a case of amnesia, that the Blinovitch Limitation Effect was just a formalization of the problem presented in Father’s Day before everything went nuts with the paradox. That is: you’re going back in time, but if you don’t get it right the first time and you have to go back again, now there’s two sets of you present. You want to try to go back a third time? A fourth time? Each time you add another set of you there. Each time, since you didn’t already run into yourselves the first 1,2,3, .., n times, you must now precariously prevent your nth selves from running into your 1st, 2nd, 3rd, through (n-1)th selves lest a paradox ensue.

    Here’s a thing we can turn into a quote: Nature abhors a vacuum. And you really don’t wanna know what she does to temporal paradoxes or the perpetrators thereof.

    There’s a plan.

    Oh no! I mean–it’s great to believe that all the plot threads will be sewn up, and I’m sure Moffat really does have a planned story arc for this series (British sense).

    But that phrase “There’s a plan” that’s too much like Battlestar Galactica and that series (American sense) clearly didn’t have a plan (even though they claimed the Cylons did). That lack of a planned story arc showed most painfully as they repeatedly retconned the characters which is why I bailed on the series at the end of the second season.

    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  4. I’ve never watched any Battlestar Galactica, so I don’t know what planning there may or may not have been. But rest assured I didn’t have it in mind. My point is that Moffat’s Doctor Who is more like Veronica Mars than like Lost, in that there is a clear destination in mind, even if the exact route that we’re going to take to get there isn’t apparent yet.

  5. My God… that garden sure looked stunning. Budget-saving-episode my arse [*].

    I noticed on Doctor Who’s Facebook page, when they asked what they thought of the episodes, that a lot of them complained that there wasn’t any real point to this episode, as there is no villain, the Doctor is mostly-absent etc… you know, things that Doctor Who has become known for. Their argument confuses me, however. Post-revival Doctor Who has definitely become more of a character-based, er, “Sci-Fi”. And by now I expect that those watching it would have know this. Moffat-Who has been criticised for lacking the emotional value that RTD-Who had. But Moffat-Who has always had a hell of a lot of emotion. Flesh and Stone contained one of the best interactions between the Doctor and his companion I’ve ever watched. The Lodger was a great piece showing off who the Doctor really is in the eyes of a complete stranger (“emotional” doesn’t always mean over-the-top emotion that Doomsday contained).

    And don’t get me started on The Big Bang… or The Doctor’s Wife… or A Christmas Carol…

    We now have an entire freakin’ episode here dedicated to the emotional values of the characters, and now people were complaining about the lack of monsters (it sounds like they just really, really want to find something to hate Moffat about). Well, I say I’m glad they didn’t have one here. And I’ll also go as far to say that they really shouldn’t have included a monster in Vincent And The Doctor… or The Eleventh Hour for that matter.

    Obviously, I’m glad they do have monsters most of the time, (like Flesh and Stone) but I’m also glad that they are, most of the time, more the drive of the episode to show the interaction between the characters (just like Flesh and Stone [**]) than the actual focus of the story itself (like many RTD-era stories). So I rate The Girl Who Waited, ‘Magnificent”.

    Also, can I just point how amazing Arthur Darvill was? He was easily the star of the episode.

    And also, you would not believe the temptation I had to slap people when they said on the Facebook page, “It’s supposed to be DOCTOR Who! No-one cares about the companions…”

    [*] Or at least I certainly wouldn’t have thought that this was low on the budget (how much do they get per series?).
    [**]Sorry. I just really, really, liked that episode.

  6. I’d agree with about all of that, Julian. I do think that Arthur Darvill has quietly made Rory one of my very favourite companions. Some other reviews (I think maybe Andrew Hickey’s or Gavin Burrows’s) have criticised The Girl Who Waited because it did have monsters (namely the faceless robots) that we could have done without. But I think it was judged about right.

  7. I hadn’t thought about this until just now, but in the new who, episode 10 always appears to be the “Doctor Lite” episodes. If I recall correctly, Blink was number 10, as was the hideous Gods and Monsters, and I think, the VanGogh episode last year. All had a bit less Doctor and a bit more other character development.

  8. Pingback: The God Complex (Doctor Who series 6, episode 11) | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  9. Pingback: It Takes You Away: interesting, and that’s worth something | The Reinvigorated Programmer

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