With the broadcast of The Doctor’s Wife in May, I thought the slot for this year’s thoughtful, left-field, format-bending Doctor Who episode – you know, the kind that usually wins the end-of-year awards (and the kind that Steven Moffat once made his own, back when he was writing a story-a-year for Russell T Davies) – had been taken. But then, Tom MacRae’s The Girl Who Waited is something else.
This time last year, if you’d offered me the chance of an Amy-centric, Doctor-lite episode, I’d have had to have a serious think before saying yes. Karen Gillan’s first term in the TARDIS was a bit of a bumpy ride, truth be told. A bit shouty, shall we say. Anything but subtle. But then, the Amy Pond – the Karen Gillan – of Tom MacRae’s The Girl Who Waited is something else.
And this time five years ago, if you’d told me the author of Rise of the Cybermen would return to Doctor Who with an episode as thoughtful, as elegiac, as beautiful, as complicated and as simple as Blink – and as good – I’d have laughed in your face. But then, Tom MacRae’s The Girl Who Waited is something else.
There’s never been a Doctor Who quite like it.
Sure, there are robots. There’s an opening sequence that’s a little bit like The Ark in Space. The whole thing, in fact, has something of the atmosphere of The Mind Robber’s opening instalment. And Rory’s choice at the end – the Doctor’s choice; Amy’s choice, even – is a little reminiscent of, well, Amy’s Choice. But last year, there was little emotional impact; last year, Doctor Who didn’t quite resonate. Last year, Amy wasn’t quite fully-formed, and her relationship with Rory was not one of equals. Tonight, they matched one another in every respect.
The story’s a bit of nonsense, it goes without saying (the best Doctor Who stories always are). A series of brief, technically gobbledygook explanations sets up a scenario whereby Amy Pond waits 36 years in a room for the Doctor and Rory to come and pick her up. But how she came to wait 36 years is pretty much irrelevant; when Rory tells her they should have grown old together, you know what’s coming. For all that the episode looks and sounds like no episode of Doctor Who ever has before (the production design and the location shooting – together with some perfectly married and impossible-to-detect effects work – look a million dollars, literally), this is the moment when the hairs on the back of your neck make their presence felt. This is the moment when you realise that if MacRae can pull off the extraordinary feat of making the second half of the episode fulfil the promise of the first half, then you’ll have witnessed something very special indeed.
There’s robots, of course. They might look a little bit unimpressive, but then they’re nurses really, aren’t they? The fight-and-flight sequences are there to keep the dads happy. There’s nothing else about this story that’s in the least underwhelming.
And there’s charm and humour, too. The moment when Rory realises he’s just met his namesake is priceless. The expression on Rory’s namesake’s face is better yet. A little bit of levity in stories like this always makes the bitter pill that must ultimately come just that much harder to swallow. If you hadn’t laughed so much at the two Rorys, then you might not cry so much at the two Amys. And you will cry, there’s no escaping it. Tom MacRae has, perhaps unwittingly, stolen some of the golden moments of recent Doctor Who, and thoroughly made you forget that they were ever anyone else’s but his. Rory and Amy on opposite sides of the TARDIS door; that’s a scene that will live on as long as people are still watching Doctor Who. There’s so much going on – Rory’s indecision, the Doctor’s cruelty, Amy’s strength – it plays out as a symphony of emotion and decision. The epilogue to it, the surrender to the inevitable that the elder Amy makes, is stifling. The epilogue to that, the question that the younger Amy asks to close the episode, is a killer. The Girl Who Waited finishes with a moment of perfection.
Ah yes, the elder and the younger Ms Pond.
It’s a subtle but effective make-up job, one that genuinely convinces. But what’s even more convincing is Karen Gillan’s performance. And again, it’s the subtlety that’s convincing. The slight lowering of the voice, the slight bowing of the head; last year, Gillan might have overplayed the differences between the two Amys. This year she’s proven her worth to the show once and for all. This is every bit as classic an episode for the companion as Turn Left was in 2008. This is the episode when Karen Gillan turned right. You need not just talent and charisma, but confidence and wisdom to be able to hold a story like this together. It’s an astonishing performance.
Just as astonishing, but in a quieter, more understated way, is Arthur Darvill as Rory. We’ve always known that Arthur Darvill is capable of impressing; that he continues to impress, and that he continues to surprise us with his continuing ability to impress, is no mean feat. Finally, in this episode, you can see how magical and how magnificent the Ponds really are. If Tom MacRae wrote this story as a love letter to Amy and Rory, then we the audience are privileged to bear witness to it.
It’s not a love letter, Tom. It’s bloody poetry.
I should have gone over the plot, but reading about it won’t do you any good. You just need to watch it again. And again. It’s that good. To have this and The Doctor’s Wife in the same calendar year is something special. But then, Tom MacRae’s new story isn’t just something special, Tom MacRae’s The Girl Who Waited is something else.