Contains spoilers, sweetie
I’ve been, if I’m honest, a bit of a critical friend of Doctor Who in recent times. There’s been something bugging me about the current direction of the series that I’ve tried to explain piece-meal in various reviews and articles.
The only 2011 episode up to now that I can say that I loved without reservation was Neil Gaiman’s “The Doctor’s Wife.” This was a clever, incredibly well-written piece that managed to include a number of fascinating and inventive science-fiction ideas while never losing sight of the characters and the real emotions at the core of the story; a story that made wonderful use of Doctor Who’s unique format; a ‘bottle’ episode that was also timelessly connected to the show’s fundamental nature and history, yet which could only have been told here and now, with this collection of characters and performers. It was superb.
Now: cut and paste that paragraph, replace ‘Neil Gaiman’ with ‘Tom MacRae’, “The Doctor’s Wife” with “The Girl Who Waited”, and my work here is done.
In fact, in many ways, this episode’s achievement is even greater than Gaiman’s earlier episode, because it succeeds despite some quite daunting limitations – some self-imposed, but others required by the nature of TV series production. For one thing, I suspect this was probably one of the most “budget limited’ episodes of the year. Not that you would know it from what you see on the screen, however: it’s beautifully designed, and so stylishly and kinetically directed by Nick Hurran that it genuinely looks a million bucks. (And way better than last week’s ghost tale where the nature of the story required a more flat, old-fashioned look to it than this week’s sci-fi story allowed. Consequently “Night Terrors” tended to look a bit budget-challenged and cheap in exactly the way that “The Girl Who Waited” triumphantly transcends any such financial constraints.)
But then this episode goes further and decided to limit itself to just the three regular cast (plus a couple of speaking computer interfaces and some stunning-looking handbots). Yes, just the three regu… Oh, wait, no. Let’s make it even harder shall we? Let’s also schedule this story so that it’s the one where the Doctor can only be in it briefly because the actor is shooting another episode back-to-back at the same time, shall we? Less three regulars, more like 2.25 once you factor that in. Pretty much fatally compromises the show, you’d think, right?
Actually this is the episode that makes you think that ‘Doctor-lite’ episodes not only can work – brilliantly – but that the show would actually be better off if they were more the norm than ‘Doctor-heavy’ ones. Despite only being in the story for a short time, Matt Smith is a knock-out in every frame and the presence of the Doctor looms large throughout; when he’s not there it’s simply because he’s not needed and you never have the sense that he’s been written out for any other reason than that the story itself requires it.
The real advantage of backgrounding the Doctor is that it throws all the focus onto the remaining crew, Amy and Rory. Regular readers of Taking the Short View will know that I’m a huge fan of Rory as a character and of the actor who plays him, Arthur Darvill, and he’s brilliant here (yes, again, sorry) in some quite wonderfully underplayed but spot-on ways.
I’ve not normally been so gushing about Karen Gillan as Amy in the past – she’s fine, but never quite as good or stand-out as I’d perhaps hoped. But in this episode, she was … Stunning. Truly superb, in a way that I never would have expected or dared hope. She’s got a tough gig in this story, playing an Amy 36 years older than her regular self and one who has had to survive all that time in isolation escaping the merciless intentions of the merciful handbots.
It’s incredibly hard to convincingly act ‘aged up’. Even more so when one of the key scenes requires you to directly act opposite your younger self and make both incarnations believable and yet very different. But Gillan does it, so beautifully that I admit I teared up during that scene (and there’s another wonderful moment with Old Amy and Rory at the end) and totally sells the Old Amy role in a myriad of small but vital ways. It helps that the ageing prosthetic make-up is one of the best such pieces I’ve seen, even if they cheat a little by making her look one of the most glamorous and well-preserved 60-year-olds of all time so as not to push it into too many layers of rubber face mask.
Yes, you can nit-pick this episode if you want to. Once again the villains are kindly (medical-ish) droids rather like those we’ve seen in “The Curse of the Black Spot” or “The Doctor Dances” or “Let’s Kill Hitler”. Yes, once again a regular sort-of dies for a while (they get better, though, after a fashion.) Yes, this could be made to stand as a “Rory’s Choice” bookend to last season’s “Amy’s Choice”.
But you know what, such criticisms would be churlish and uncalled for. This was just a terrific piece of drama – one of the best hours of TV I’ve seen in a long time, not just one of the best Doctor Who episodes. It was all kinds of awesome, and any negative comments are simply not to be allowed this week.