Sunday, 11 September 2011

It's Your Wife: Doctor Who review


TELEVISION REVIEW

DOCTOR WHO: 'The Girl Who Waited'

This review may be arriving a day late, but seems appropriate for an episode whose drama revolved around tardiness. The Doctor and co. arrive at what is supposed to be the second greatest holiday destination in the universe, only to find... a door. The Doctor and Rory open it using a green button and amble through, discovering a looking glass on the other side. Amy, having lost her phone, arrives late and presses a red button, finding herself in a whole other room. Unfortunately, the planet is under quarantine and the room where Amy has found herself is where the infected go to die, stuck in an accelerated time stream so that friends and family in The Doctor's room can watch through the looking glass as their loved ones live out the rest of their lives in what seems to them only twenty-four hours.

The Doctor resolves to save Amy, but - as is not entirely uncommon - gets his timing a little wrong and winds up meeting a version of her who is forty years older. And a samurai. 'The Girl Who Waited' took the recurring Moffat theme (even though the episode was actually written by Tom MacRae) of characters having to wait out long stretches of their lives between the visits from The Doctor and crafted from it an affecting, if far from flawless, tragedy.
  
Even though it was one of my favourites since Who's revival, last week's episode strongly divided opinions. This was in no small part down to its use of the Ponds, who were seen as not making any significant contributions to the resolution of the story. It was also considered odd that the characters are parents who recently lost a child, yet seemed to not to show much interest in the little boy whom the Doctor went to help. That didn't particularly bother me since the Ponds never actually met the boy in question - although Amy did appear a little flippant when learning it was a child they were looking for - and because the episode was originally scheduled to air in the first half of the season, before being swapped for Curse Of The Black Spot.

'The Girl Who Waited' had similar problems, although without the excusing context. The aged Amy quite rightly felt aggrieved that The Doctor had apparently left her behind for forty years - although, episode title aside, there was little reference to his having previous in this department - but it was strange not to see Rory use the fact that he waited for her for almost two thousand years back when she was locked in the Pandorica. It could be argued that Amy's real source of anger was the fact that she felt abandoned by those she loved, where Centurion Rory knew that she would be waiting for him when the Pandorica finally opened in the distant future, but if that was the case, too much emphasis was put on the amount of time that had passed, rather than how she felt during that time. It was strange that Rory didn't mention his similar experience anyway, especially when trying to reconnect with her.

The set-up also felt a little contrived, a small point in practice but one which undermined the foundations of the problem. Because the manner in which Amy got into trouble seemed too writer-engineered for its own good, a nagging doubt persisted throughout that all this was really her fault, rather than a twist of misfortune. For one thing, when Rory calls out to her to 'press the button' in order to get through the door, it seems unlikely that she wouldn't have asked which one, given her choice of two. The second issue - and the reason Rory isn't to blame - is because, when faced with a decision between a green and a red button, who on Earth (from another planet with different colour interpretations, perhaps) would press the red one? Like I said, small points in practice, but ones informing and casting doubt over the validity of the episode's most crucial decisions.

If the set-up was questionable, at least the drama it produced hit all the right notes. Where 'Night Terrors' sidelined the Ponds in order to position The Doctor as the driving force of the story (leaving the Ponds to bring the scariness), 'The Girl Who Waited' reversed the polarity and left The Doctor stranded in the TARDIS, doling out the occasional bit of exposition, while the key action played out between Rory and the elder Amy. Amy is usually such a sparky character that it is easy to forget how brittle that side of her really is - so easy, in fact, that many Who writers have done just that in the past. There are some serious abandonment issues lying beneath the surface, with her having not only been left behind by The Doctor when she was a girl, but also had her parents swallowed up by cracks in time before his later intervention.

In many ways, her and Rory's roles have been reversed since they were first introduced: Amy is now only strong when she knows she has people she loves by her side. Rory, who first appeared as the gormless comic relief, has taken to the role of being his wife's support and protector, becoming arguably the most admirable and engaging of the current TARDIS trio. He's even willing to stand up to The Doctor, berating him for the carefree attitude which puts the people around him in danger, leading to an announcement ('Then I don't want to travel with you!') which is surely setting up consequences for the future.

Although a great deal of credit must go to the production design team once again, who did a fantastic job last week of making a council house into the eeriest place in the galaxy and this time gave the Two Streams Facility a nice Portal-esque look (complete with oval-faced robots and grimy guts beneath the polished white exterior), it was the scenes between Amy and Rory which were the most enrapturing part of the episode. Arthur Darvill and Karen Gillan have created a powerful sense of devotion between their two characters, making Rory's attempts to convince his embittered, aged wife that he still loved and wanted to protect her all the more heart-wrenching, both for his evident guilt and determination to put things right, and her having to get in touch with feelings that had been long since been consumed by anger and fear. The wealth of little touches, like Amy going to put on lipstick before thinking better of it, were endearing reminders of what was really going through the character's minds even while they were saying the opposite.

Gillan, in particular, did wonderful work portraying an Amy whose enthusiasm for adventure and reliance on loved ones had been crushed into an attitude of grim survivalism and self-reliance. Even whilst giving the character more jagged edges, there was never any doubt that the old Amy was locked somewhere deep inside her. Between her inability to look Rory in the eye and the nervousness of her first laugh in forty years, Gillan showed that she has much greater talents in her acting repertoire than the natural ebullience which has become her trademark. At the very least, it should silence those who have been (unjustly) criticising her as one-note.

Darvill also should be commended for once again effortlessly working his character's more nebbish qualities alongside a fierce conviction to protect Amy, no matter which version of her, but this was Gillan's episode all the way. I hope it's not undermining to also mention how, even by her usual standards as a flame-haired Scottish amazon, she looked absolutely spectacular. At least when not wearing her older-self makeup, which was at least far more convincing than anything David Tennant got to wear when portraying the grandpa version of his Doctor.

Regardless of its flaws, 'The Girl Who Waited' was another strong and touching episode of a season which seems to have taken quite a turn for the better since its return. (Only Neil Gaiman's superlative The Doctor's Wife stood out from a very average first seven episodes). Next week's trip around a labyrinthine hotel, complete with a Minotaur of sorts by the look of things, also promises greatness. With gorgeous production design and engaging performances from Darvill and Gillan, which should satisfy those annoyed at the characters' lack of definitive action in the previous episode, the episode marks a second strong stand-alone in a row (even if both were quite similar) for a series which has at times seemed at a loss to know what to do when looking outside its main story arc.

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    1 comment:

    theoncominghope said...

    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