Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Girl Who Waited: A La Tuhuelpa Legria Macarena! Eeeh, Macarena!

A couple of years ago, dear blog reader, a particularly emotional late-period Russell Davies episode of Doctor Who was shown. I can't even remember which one it was now, although I've a feeling it may have been The Waters of Mars. Anyway, it doesn't really matter what the specific episode in question happened to be, the point was that on the Gallifrey Base forum Rant The Episode thread for that particular week several fans commented that the episode'd had a, genuine, emotional impact on them. More than one mentioned that it had made them cry. A perfectly reasonable response to a bit of emotionally-charged TV drama, one might suggest. Something which moves the viewer so much as to provoke a direct emotional response from them - of any sort - in the world of television is something to be cherished, I'd argue. Cause for celebration for all concerned, you might think? Well, maybe so but, sadly, the only reply that I can remember to these comments was from one of The Special People. You know about The Special People, right? One of those army of The Darkness. The sniffy, soul-dead pondscum lice who seem to have hang around various corners of the Internet for, seemingly, no other purpose than be caustic and cynical, to cast a jaundiced, mocking, appallingly dismissive glance at other people's enjoyment. Wretched things who, because they derive no enjoyment from something themselves, believe that it's their right, no, their duty, to scorn others for having a heart and expressing pleasure at some of life's little victories. They're quite a sight, to be honest and I loathe them more than I hate tyranny. Which, on some level, probably makes this blogger as bad as they are. But, anyway, the reply from this bloke (or, it might've been a woman, it's difficult to tell with screen-names these days) was to suggest that those having such a good weep at whatever it was had something wrong with them. 'I save my crying for stuff that matters,' was the line that really did resonate. You could just imagine this person sitting at their computer, a mixture of impotent fury and casual disdain battling for supremacy as they spake forth onto the Great Unwashed and pronounced judgement thereupon. That memory has stuck with me through the last couple of years. I don't post much on Gally Base these days - certainly not in the parts of it that actually discuss Doctor Who, which is hugely ironic since without Doctor Who the forum wouldn't even exist! - in part directly because of that one posting. And because ... well, because life's too effing short for all that bollocks, frankly. This week's Doctor Who was good/bad/indifferent. Cast your votes and then we can have a good fight about it. Errr ... no thanks, I'll stick to, what was the phrase? 'Stuff that matters.' Which brings us, interestingly, to a Doctor Who story that is all about life being, quite literally, too short. And, about - movingly - special people of a completely different kind.

I met Tom MacRae once, a few years ago in Los Angeles and I was stunned by just how young he was. I think he was just twenty five when he wrote Rise of the Cybermen. Jeez, when I was twenty five I could barely write my own name. Some would argue I still can't. Which probably explains much. So, young Tom's come a long way since those beginnings and his latest Doctor Who script is, by a considerable distance, his best for the show so far. Were it not that this was The Year of Gaiman it might even be the best of the series. The Girl Who Waited, we'd been promised, was a rip-roaring rollercoaster of emotion and, for once, such bland knackerless clichés actually turned out to be spot-on accurate. It was that, and more besides. It included some big ideas, some daring conceits and also, hidden away within its arsenal of treasures, a few little mini-gems of subplots that might have been missed if you didn't know what you were looking for. There was, for instance, a witty critique on the problems you often encounter when popular travel destinations become just that little bit too popular. 'Everyone goes to number one. It's hideous. Planet of the coffee shops.' There were allusions to cultural scavenging, what I think might well be the series first direct reference to Twitter, issues of choice, abandonment, loss and grief and, one I particularly enjoyed, a really clever metaphor for the horrors of immigration at airports. I wonder if, when Tom wrote that bit, he was thinking about arriving at LAX for the Gallifrey One convention, because that's the first thing that went through my mind as faceless robots chanted 'this is a kindness, do not be alarmed' whilst, simultaneously, doing everything in their power to make Amy Pond's life miserable. Yeah, travellers - not just time travellers, but commuters everywhere - knew exactly how she felt.

'Rory, I love you. Now, save me!' I'm not sure if Amy's said that line (or one very similar to it) before. I've a feeling she might have but, for this episode, the horrors of what can happen when you push the wrong button - metaphorically, as well as literally - made this, and other obstinately normal, everyday working lines into something so much more. 'Smash through a time wall? Could get a bit hairy,' The Doctor confesses. 'Is it safe?' asks Rory, not unreasonably. 'Don't know. Never tried!' Humour is present in some more than decent doses; the reference to a Disney 'Warp Speed Death Ride' (on Clom!), for instance, or The Doctor's sudden realisation when a klaxon starts to go off, loudly, 'that'll be the "small act of vandalism" alarm.' But, really, The Girl Who Waited existed far above and beyond many standard Doctor Who norms. Cold, hard reality instead of caustic whimsy. Bitterness and anger where normally there'd be a touch of mild sarcasm. An unrequited-no-more love story that spanned decades. When Amy, left alone for thirty six years calmly tells her suddenly reappeared husband 'You didn't save me!' there's a barely suppressed fury that bubbles beneath the surface and then loses any lingering pretence of suppression when The Doctor speaks a moment later. 'And there he is, The Voice Of God.' Wow. Hell hath no fury like a woman ... abandoned on a death planet with the kindness robots. 'C'mon Rory, this isn't rocket science. It's quantum physics!'

The foreshadowing of Amy's thirty six year, three months and four days in Hell (well, in Apalapucia, anyway) comes when her younger self notes upon seeing the beautiful gardens that 'you really could spend a lifetime here. Not that I'm going to.' Oh, do you think so? Ultimately, due to The Doctor's carelessness, she isn't given much of a choice in the matter. But then, The Doctor is in a very strange mood in this episode. When he and Rory see the ghostly figures of some of the thousands of people spending their lives-in-a-day in the Two Stream Facility, Rory asks 'are they happy?' There's something very disturbing about The Doctor's reply of 'Oh Rory, trust you to think of that.' If only because it's normally the sort of thing that one would expect The Doctor himself to articulate first. But then, its possibly because he's got other things on his mind. Like Chen Seven, the one day plague. 'What, you get it for a day?' asks Rory. 'No, you get it and you die in a day.' It only affects those with two hearts - like Apalapucians and, of course, Time Lords. So, fair play to the lad, he's a bit concerned about not catching the dreaded lurgy, I'm sure we can all empathise when there's a nasty strain of Man 'Flu going around and we fancy a Monday off. This is, effectively, the Doctor's first Monday off with the Man 'Flu since Adric died. But still, in this episode The Doctor is unexpectedly casual, lax and, in places, downright absent-minded. And, at the climax, he's also almost cowardly in the way in which he places the responsibility for which Amy lives or dies in Rory's hands. It's a necessary lesson that many companions go through, of course and a lot fail the test, but it's still a bit of a twattish thing to dump in poor old, loyal, uncomplaining Rory's lap. 'You're turning me into you,' Rory observes, not unreasonably as a hand at the window provides one of the most poignant and unexpectedly beautiful moments of the series so far.
The Girl Who Waited benefits not only from a great script and lots of clever ideas, well executed, but also two absolutely wonderful performances from Arthur Darvill and Karen Gillan. Viewers were told in advance that Karen was going to have many of us blubbing like little 'uns. And, her duel performances as the Amy we know and the battle-hardened, world-weary survivor of constant sorrows who turns up faster than you can say Blinovitch's Limitation Effect, would be the stuff of awards if it had been in a more - theoretically - 'serious' drama than some space monster nonsense. When Rory tells the Aged Amy that this is the saving, The Doctor just - annoyingly - got the timing 'a bit out,' she replies: 'I've been on my own here a long, long time. I've had decades to think nice thoughts about him. It got a bit harder to stay charitable once that entered decade four.' 'You look great,' says Rory, attempting a bit of flattery. It almost works. Amy, her voice a flat, matter-of-fact monotone without the expected white-hot anger smiles, for what is possibly the first time in decades and says 'Eyes front, solider.' When The Doctor - safely in the TARDIS - attempts a conciliatory note a moment later, however, he is shot down in flames as Amy spits viciously 'you have nothing to say to me.' A line which echoes something he once told her in a moment of anger a long time ago (in The Beast Below). This Amy is a warrior queen, a scarred veteran of years of struggle with death her walking shadow. 'Feedback loop knocks them out,' she says when disabling another two robots. 'I learned that on my first day.' As, indeed, earlier we'd seen earlier in the episode and earlier in Amy's timestream, albeit by accident. Gillan is wonderful in both roles. But it's as the older, harder Amy that she gets all the best lines. 'I got old, Rory,' she says, sadly. 'What did you think was going to happen? Thirty six year, three months and four days of solitary confinement. This facility was built to give people the chance to live. I walked in here and I died. Do you have anything to say, Doctor?'

If it's Karen's episode then it's only by a fraction as Arthur reminds us what a really very good actor indeed he is. He has a beautifully sympathetic way of conveying both appealing cluelessness and, at the same time, quiet, determined strength which eventually turned him into an Action Hero. The touching Amy-and-Rory-laughing sequence, for instance, recalls the way in which the most comparable figure in recent Telefantasy history (Wesley in Buffy and Angel, I'd argue) was also allowed to grow from a caricature into a proper three-dimensional person who's bloody useful with a pointy weapon in his hand. All it takes, in the end, is some good writers and a bloody good actor and you're away. Arthur, not to put too fine a point on it, acts his little cotton socks off in this episode. The line 'so, I have to chose which wife I want' becoming more and more important as the episode progresses and several variants of it are used. 'I don't care that you got old,' he tells old Amy. 'I care that we didn't grow old together.' And, you believe him, too. It's hard not to agree with young Amy's confession to her older self that Rory is 'the most beautiful man I ever met.' When a woman says that about you, she's probably worth saving. No, forget the probably. 'I'm coming with you,' Rory tells her. 'Then, try not to get killed.'  

With some design links to Warrior's Gate, The Mind Robber and The Greatest Show In The Galaxy and conceptual ones to The Ark, The Ark in SpaceTerminus and The Invisible Enemy, The Girl Who Waited is a Doctor Who story with bags of history. It's one with depth and courage and more than a touch of moral ambiguity too. Well, that's a turn up, this week's Doctor Who had moral ambiguity. Haven't seen any of that since, ooo, last week. But, when it arrived it was worth waiting the seven days for. 'I'm gonna pull time apart for you!' Missed signs and 'defying causality' (and the nexus of reality, apparently), failed rescues and time being rewritten. Major events and little victories. The episode tackles big, mountainous concepts and small, almost invisible matters of the heart. 'You being here is wrong, for a single day, an hour, let alone a lifetime. I swore to protect you. I promised.' Even at its darkest, most bleak-looking moment, The Girl Who Waited still has time for sly moments of humour. Like the 'not in front of the robot' bit, for example. Or, even better, 'two Amy's together, can that work?' to which The Doctor replies 'I don't know, it's your marriage!'

'This! Is! Your! Fault!' The gradual darkening of The Doctor's place in the universe - which he been played with by successive productions over the last two or three years but is now becoming a major source of inspiration for the series - is the most interesting, and intriguing aspect of the episode. Here we have a Doctor who gets things wrong - not wantonly or deliberately, of course, but still someone who makes the odd mistake. Mistakes which, inevitably, have consequences not just for himself but for those he travels with. 'Tell Amy, your Amy, that I'm giving her the days. The days with you. The days to come. Days I can't have. Take them, please. I'm giving you my days.' And then, heartbreakingly, 'If you love me, don't let me in.' It's one of the great moments of sacrifice in the series' history. Thirty six years of fighting ended because of a look. Again, little victories. 'When you carried her away, you used to look at me that way. I'd forgotten how much you loved me.' And, shockingly, by a lie. Possibly a lie. Almost certainly a lie. But, we know from two weeks ago that rule number one is 'The Doctor always lies.' The Girl Who Waited is, in many ways, a critical summation of Steven Moffat's ideas for Doctor Who - just as Vincent and The Doctor was last year, just as The Girl In The Fireplace was for Russell Davies' show four years ago - and Tom MacRae has written what might well be a template for the way in which the characters may develop over the coming year. 'I've known you my whole life. How many games of Doctors and Nurses?' It is a beautiful episode. Lyrical, poetic, a pocket action movie with some deep philosophical and emotional points to make. Emotion. Proper honest to God emotion. We're back to that subject which seemed to so terrify one particular Doctor Who viewer a couple of years ago that he (or she) went out of their way to pour scorn on how the series was perceived by others. I wonder if he or she was watching tonight? I wonder whether there was a trace, so much as a flicker of feeling when the episode ended. A tiny pricking behind their cold, dead eyes. 'You're turning me into you.' God, I hope not.
I'm making a pact with my older self tonight. Don't ever let that happen to me. Don't ever let me get so arrogantly dismissive of something which can produce an episode like this. Don't let me forget that watching this series through a child's eye doesn't have to mean that one is blind to mature conceits. Most importantly, don't ever let me become one of The Special People. I really don't think I could take that. Now, 'show me home.'
'Will you be visiting long?' 'Good question. Bit sinister. What's the answer to not get us killed?'

For the latest Keith Telly Topping's 45 of the Day, this one's for Karen. And for Tom for putting a bit of sunshine into a dull mid-September Saturday evening.