Wednesday, September 14, 2011

"The Girl Who Waited"

A different showrunner and actors can go a long way. In this episode Tom MacRae, who previously only had the dreary Series 2 Cybusmen two-parter to his name, writes for us an episode which, while somewhat over-sentimental and wishy-washy plot-wise at times much like last week's offering, nonetheless is an enjoyable and moving piece of drama.
The Doctor and the Ponds arrive on the planet of Apalapucia - nice name, I guess. However it turns out that the entire planet is under quarantine due to an outbreak of Chen-7, a disease which conveniently only afflicts species with two hearts, like the natives and Time Lords. As such the Doctor must retire to the TARDIS. However do not fear that this is the feared "Doctor Lite" episode of RTD era fame because despite being stuck in the TARDIS watching everything on screens the Doctor has a constant presence and important role in the story and is far from being a bookend character. Nonetheless the focus of the plot is the situation with Amy and Rory.
Amy rather arbitrarily pushes the wrong button on this door in the endless white void in which all the rooms of this Kindness Facility seem to exist and ends up in a "faster time stream". Apparently this is so that in the 24 hours an infectee of the Chen-7 virus has to live they can actually live out an entire lifetime. I'm not sure how this works. Amy doesn't get hungry over a week in the Red Waterfall stream, which is a few minutes for the Doctor and Rory in the Green Anchor stream, but over the next period of time she is stuck in the time stream for 36 years and grows old. If she doesn't get hungry, how does she age? Even if she got hungry later, how does "compressed time" let you live out a natural life in 24 hours? Surely from the Doctor and Rory's perspective everything in the Red Waterfall stream as visible through the time glass would simply be moving incredibly slowly. Does it slow down your metabolism, explaining why Amy doesn't get hungry and why the viral progress is slowed, but not slow down the speed at which your brain works? I'm really unclear on how it functions. Unfortunately I believe it suffers from a good deal of the magic thinking which afflicts the New Series and which has practically become my catch-cry for the plots. How does your mind function in normal time if you don't get hungry? How do you age? Ageing, brain function, processing food and contracting a virus are all cellular electrochemical processes in some form or another - how does this time stream divide slow the last two but allow the former to happen at a normal rate? It's something which is obviously implicit in the concept but is never specified in the dialogue. All we hear is "compressed time" which is hardly adequate as an explanation.
What's more is that this is considered a kindness, but how does that work? Is it really kinder to thrust a victim into a world where they are alive but completely alone for, to their perspective, many years, while their family and friends pop in to see them age and wither away on their own? The time streams are all layered over each other - not every infectee is in together but each in their own stream so they don't even have company. I think it's hard to say either way but it's fairly ambiguous. I'm not sure either option is particularly preferable.
Anyway Amy gets stuck in this faster time stream so in the time it takes Rory and the Doctor to bust through into that time stream in the TARDIS Amy ages 36 years and turns into a jaded wreck, as you would if you were stuck on your own for nearly four decades in an unfamiliar environment. Somehow in the meantime she becomes a genius and invents devices, hacks computers, reprograms robots and so on. I guess she read up on how to do it or got the Interface computer to help her? It's not really clear. Unfortunately a problem with this episode is that a lot of the fine details and explanations are extremely secondary to the exploration of Amy and Rory's relationship and are given such low priority that they are glossed over and handwaved at a moment's notice through some brief technobabble from the Doctor or with no explanation whatsoever. Nonetheless we do have a nice sci-fi concept: the application of time dilation to palliative care and time dilation in general and how this would effect people. Amy perhaps understandably feels abandoned and hates the Doctor, and it takes a confrontation with her past self to rectify this situation, relying on reminiscence about what a wonderful chap Rory is and how old Amy should probably let them save her young self. It's interesting that she refuses for so long, but if you thought your life was hell as Amy put it and every moment had been a misery why did she refuse to let them save her in the past and erase this horrid existence? Is it to punish the Doctor for being reckless about where he takes people and inaccurate and irresponsible with his saving? I suppose being erased from existence wouldn't be too different to dying and would be unpleasant after surviving and waiting for so long.
Either way it's an interesting dilemma - does Rory effectively euthanise this old, long-suffering version of his wife who's clearly just as much Amy as the person he arrived with, or does he rewrite time to spare Amy the suffering and maintain a normal sequence of events with his younger (and prettier) version of Amy who is only a week or so out of sequence? Of course it's not a choice he's willing to make and it's interesting to see how much Rory resents the Doctor for forcing him into this situation. We see a lot of the dark side of the Doctor in this episode and it's done quite effectively. The scene where he traps the older Amy outside the TARDIS to save the younger relationship is a rather unpleasant inversion of what happened when the First Doctor trapped Susan outside the TARDIS to force her to have the life she deserved rather than the life she felt obliged to maintain. In this one he reinforces the notion that the older Amy should be erased for the sake of the younger, to again have the life she deserved but at the price of another life for the sake of covering up his own mistake and he then foists the decision upon Rory. Of course the only way to solve this is to get old Amy to change her mind and sacrifice herself and it's a deeply unsettling scenario. I particularly liked the moment when, in an effort to convince Rory to abandon the older Amy, the Doctor dismissively but painfully claims "she's not real", a dubious suggestion at best and one which you've got the feeling is a very convenient salve for the conscience in these kinds of circumstances.
That being said I feel like the ending was too drawn out. First we have an absurd effort to bring young Amy up to Rory's time involving a "thought that will break through the barrier" or something. Again, magic thinking rears its ugly head - if you want something hard enough, it will happen. Unless someone throws the word "psychic power" in there I'm not even starting to buy it. Rory has to do some technobabble mechanics with a very convenient and arbitrary time control device thingie in the corridor. Speaking of this corridor it's nice to see the Milennium Building in Roald Dahl Plass in Cardiff being used again for a sci-fi looking locale. The endless white voids and the CGI Governor's garden are a good deal more effective. Why would there be this big corridor with counters (which are obviously ticket booths) if each stream of the facility was for one patient? A lot of the time also Amy conveniently jumps somewhere and is suddenly in a different area - the garden, a corridor, underneath somewhere in Portal-style gas tunnels - and the sense of location is rather unsteady, although perhaps this was intentional.
Anyway after they rush back to the TARDIS there's a long drawn-out lamentation of Rory talking to old Amy and while this was understandable I felt that it went for too long. While the anticipation of what was going to happen kept me going the first time I saw the episode upon rewatch I found that it dragged heavily at times. The plot can be devastatingly brief - Amy gets trapped in fast timestream, Rory busts in and finds her old, they agree to rescue young Amy, they go back to the TARDIS and old Amy sacrifices herself. A lot of the rest is just padding and while I don't mind a good wordy episode I feel like it could have been integrated with a bit more plot. I know the word "arbitrary" is another of my catchphrases but there's no other way to describe the handbots, who are the most pointless antagonists imaginable even if they do satirise the notion of medical "kindness" a little bit and the idea that they'd try to eradicate essential human bacteria is a nice touch. Nonetheless that whole "statement rejected" thing was stupid. It was as if despite the fact that they were meant to help people they were ignoring them just to be dicks.
Where'd old Amy get the sword from? Who knows.
That being said I think the performances were all good, especially from Arthur Darvill as Rory, although Matt Smith was extremely watchable as well and for a character confined to the TARDIS his presence in the episode was nonetheless exuberant. Old Amy was a good chance for Karen Gillan to flex her chops too. Considering the limited cast everything went swimmingly and it proved my regular complaint of this series regarding how underused Amy and Rory have been considering how strong they are as characters.

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