Hi folks—first off, if you're wondering, no, Keith has not regenerated. I'm just filling in for a week while he's off fighting crime, or perhaps committing crime, or whatever he's up to. If you're following the Doctor Who Classic writeups where I normally hang out, we're pushing coverage of "The Aztecs" back a week to Sept. 18 to accommodate this shift. It's 47 years old; it'll wait for "The Girl Who Waited."
The best thing about traveling with the Doctor is that he's pretty much making it all up as he goes along. He always has been, in all his incarnations, ever since he stole the TARDIS in the first place. He bounces around time and space essentially at random, usually with no more solid plan in mind than seeing what fantastic new horizon appears each time he lands. Those guys on Star Trek are always talking about diplomatic missions and border patrols to explain why they're traveling around, but on Doctor Who, you don't need a reason, you just go. It's the pure spirit of adventure, pure curiosity, that motivates him, and what's more fun than that? That's shown to great effect here by the opening scene of "The Girl Who Waited," in which a typically ebullient Eleventh Doctor talks up the wonders of (but sadly for me, not the spelling of) Apulapuchia, or perhaps Appleapplechia, or perhaps Apoo-lapoo-chia, the second-greatest vacation planet in the known universe.
The worst thing about traveling with the Doctor is that he's pretty much making it all up as he goes along. And pretty often, things go wrong. In fact, as much as he might talk about vacation planets, something terrible happens every single time we've ever seen him land somewhere. That's shown to great effect here by the rest of "The Girl Who Waited," in which it turns out that Apeuailabbajia, or whatever the hell it is, is not the vacation paradise described on the brochures, but a planet-sized plague hospital under strict and harshly enforced quarantine—a detail which the Doctor overlooked because he apparently never bothered to do any simple research before landing. Toward the middle of this episode, the usually passive Rory loses his cool and becomes one of the few characters in the history of the series to really call the Doctor out on the consequences of his happy-go-lucky approach to traveling. And he's earned the rebuke; at one point, my wife turned to me and asked "When do you think Rory's going to punch the Doctor out?"
That's always been an undercurrent on Doctor Who, but the Steven Moffat era has taken pains to highlight just how disruptive the madman with a box can be on the lives of the people around him, even those he calls friends. River Song is disruptive too, but that's nothing compared to the Doctor, who has left a trail of massively changed lives behind him for hundreds of years—not always for the better, nor with the greatest of intentions or foresight motivating him. Amy pays the price for this in "The Girl Who Waited," but of course that's not a new thing for her—the episode title is a callback to her first appearance back in "The Eleventh Hour," and her first unintentional betrayal by the Doctor when he showed up 12 years late to meet her. And Amy's deep-set abandonment issues come up again here when she's trapped for 36 years in the hospital, slowly turning bitter and angry at both of the men who, from her perspective anyway, have left her behind.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Easy enough to do that with this show. First, there's the episode's memorable early scene setting up Amy's accidental abandonment, a sequence peppered by zingy dialogue like "Your mobile telephone? I bring you to a paradise planet two billion miles from Earth, and you want to update Twitter?" Instead of the soaring silver colonnades the Doctor promised, there's just a door. The Doctor and Rory push a green button on the door to enter a room, followed moments later by Amy, who pushes a red button at the same door, enters the same room, but not the same room the others are in. They soon realize that they can see each other's alternate realities though a large round magnifying-glass that I think might have been nicked from the set of Fringe. It's an enticing puzzle of the kind that Moffat's series has been particularly keen on throwing at us, but I found myself enjoying the cleverness of the explanation without really buying into it. Maybe because I'm pretty sure it's not really clever, just glib. The way this time-shift works, I think, is that the victims of the one-day plague come here to die in rooms where time has been sped way up so that their relatives can watch them live all the decades that they were supposed to if they hadn't caught the plague that's supposed to kill you in one day. But if time is sped up for the sick people, wouldn't the people watching see them seem to die in mere seconds? How do they get to live for decades? And how did a week go by for Amy trapped in that room, but she survived without food or water? We do get an answer, but it's some mumbled bafflegab about time compression, which zooms by so quickly that Matt Smith might as well have explained it by saying "well, it works like this—wow, look behind you, there's a neon giraffe!—and that's how it works. Oh, look, another shiny thing…"
I'm not at all convinced that it makes any sense, but I didn't really mind because "The Girl Who Waited" isn't about that stuff, it's about Amy confronting her old self's embittered self-preservation with her young self's hope and idealism. The timey-wimey bits are a necessary contrivance for the meat of the story, setting up the situation for the trio: There's Amy in the faster time stream, living like Newt in "Aliens" and growing old by herself while learning how to fending off well-meaning euthanasia robots and building an ersatz samurai outfit out of scraps. And because the one-day plague affects Time Lords but not humans, the Doctor is prevented from rescuing Amy directly but can have Rory act as his proxy, giving Rory a pair of glasses that let him see anything Rory does. The plan, I gather, was that the Doctor would pilot the TARDIS through Amy's sped-up timestream and rescue her just after she got stuck in the Red Waterfall zone. But that goes wrong and they land instead, from Amy's perspective, 36 years too late. And she's not interested in helping them save her younger self, thus preventing her from having to be imprisoned for so many decades, because it will erase her current self from reality.
The unfolding of this dilemma feels a bit too thin to carry the entire episode, and yet somehow it has to, since beyond the setup of the time-shifty plague hospital, there's basically nothing happening here outside of the main trio (or quartet, temporarily). There are no other characters besides the bland, generic Handbots and disembodied computer interface. We've already seen doubled Amys in the short episodes "Time" and "Space," and they were a lot more fun to watch than this (justifiably) crabby version. Neither is it mindblowing to be confronted with a fiftyish quasi-samurai Amy after we've gotten used to the idea of a two-thousandish centurion Rory. So the drama of Amy's anger at her abandonment and her eternal-flame love for Rory has to carry all the weight here, and it just doesn't pull it off. It feels like a return to emotional turf already mown over in earlier episodes. Smith, Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill are as engaging to watch as always—Darvill gets some great moments of exasperated confusion in that first scene in the mysteriously doubled room. But "Girl" doesn't really tell us anything about Amy and Rory that we didn't already know, though it confirms Amy's true feelings for her husband if there were any lingering doubts. (Amy's naming of her "pet" robot after Rory, and Rory's reaction when he finds out, is kind of their relationship in microcosm—a simultaneously sweet and slightly demeaning gesture on her part that's deeper than she's willing to admit it is, accepted by him with a silent, slightly wounded stoicism that's nevertheless thrilled that she remembered him.)
"The Girl Who Waited" also tells us something that we basically knew but maybe hadn't seen confirmed yet about the Doctor—that he's willing to make the hard choice, and to lie to make sure the hard choice gets made. In this case, that means telling Old Amy he can rescue her so she'll help the others get back to the TARDIS safely, then locking her out and truly abandoning her. It wasn't a snap decision—Smith gives a small but resolute shake of his head the instant he realizes that the paradox of two Amys is too great for the TARDIS to handle, suggesting to me that he knew in that moment he'd have to toss one Amy overboard and knew which one it would be. It's a more devious portrayal of the Doctor than we saw with David Tennant's version (though it'd be perfectly in character for the scheming Sylvester McCoy incarnation), and in its subtler, less histrionic way also drives home that for all his flightiness and whimsy, the Doctor is someone you don't want to cross.
• The voice of the hospital computer system is provided by Imelda Staunton, best known as Harry Potter's pink nemesis Dolores Umbridge.
• "Don't you lecture me, blue-box man flying through time and space on whimsy."
• "Sometimes knowing your own future's what enables you to change it, especially if you're bloody-minded, contradictory, and completely unpredictable." "So basically if you're Amy, then." "Yes. If anyone can defeat predestiny, it's your wife."
• "Come on, Rory, it's hardly rocket science! It's quantum physics!"