‘Doctor Who’: ‘The Girl Who Waited’ review

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One of the countless great things about Doctor Who is the way an episode can change in a heartbeat, ending up a million miles away from where it started. 

‘The Girl Who Waited’ begins as a fairly unassuming sci-fi adventure about an alien plague in the far future – but then, as if the Super Pursuit Mode button has been pressed on the TARDIS console, it zooms off in a completely different direction, outstripping almost everything that has preceded it and becoming something beautifully moving and utterly unexpected.

Amy inadvertently becomes separated from her companions at the Two Streams quarantine facility on the planet Appalachia when she goes back to the TARDIS to get her phone (‘I’ve brought you to a paradise planet two billion years from Earth and you want to update Twitter?’ the Doctor groans).

The next time they see her, thirty-six years have passed, and Young Amy has – via a mixture of subtly superb prosthetics and the acting of Karen Gillan – become Old Amy: a tough-as-old-boots fifty-something who has spent decades with only Interface (a chatty computer, voiced by Imelda Staunton) and the Handbots (faceless androids with human hands who offer kindness in the same way a man-eating tiger offers a cuddle) for company. Unsurprisingly, she’s a bit pissed off.

The Doctor and Rory want to save Young Amy, of course, but Old Amy doesn’t, because she knows it’ll mean her timeline will be wiped and she’ll never have existed. Then – in a contender for the finest ever single image in Doctor Who – both she and her younger self look into the huge magnifying glass that Rory is carrying (it handily displays the past on one side, the present on the other) and we see the two Amys side-by-side: ‘our’ Amy, young, full of life and free of acrimony, and a reflection of the older, bitterer Amy that she becomes by staying trapped in Two Streams.

It’s a stunning, instantly iconic moment, but it’s only the beginning of a sequence in which Karen Gillan is as good as she’s ever been, growing in power and presence and poignancy as the scene progresses. If there isn’t something in your eye by the time the two Amys say in unison, ‘Rory’s the most beautiful man I’ve ever met,’ someone’s replaced your soul with a boring robotic head that waffles on in a whiny, sneering voice about paradoxes and illogicality and blah-blah-blah. If you’re hearing the voice of that robot, paint a smiley face on it and call it ‘Rory’. You’ll feel a hell of a lot better.

But good though Karen Gillan is – and Matt Smith, despite the Doctor having a reduced role this week, is as on-the-money as ever – this is in fact Arthur Darvill’s episode. He’s magnificent, as funny as ever when he’s trying to mediate between his two bickering wives and truly breathtaking at the end when he gets back to the TARDIS and the Doctor – who has known all along that two Ponds are a paradox too far – refuses to allow the older one aboard, telling Rory he must choose which Amy to save.

‘This isn’t fair,’ Rory protests miserably. ‘You’re trying to turn me into you.’ He can’t decide, of course – who could? – so Old Amy does it for him, her resentment and bitterness cured not by the magic and mystery of the Doctor but by the simple, unquestioning, endless devotion of her husband. ‘If you love me, don’t let me in,’ she says, and turns away to face the approaching Handbots, deciding that the happiness of her younger self and Rory is more important than her own survival. ‘This is kindness,’ the Handbots say – but it’s of the cruellest possible variety.

Then it’s all over. Some people – possibly of the embittered variety who have spent decades with only chatty computers for company – may protest that the paradox at the core of this episode unravels like a cotton reel being flung down some stairs, but that spectacularly misses the point. The paradox (which, like all paradoxes, is as easy to pick apart as an old, fraying cardigan but is also perfectly satisfactory, provided you accept that time can be written and unwritten along the lines stipulated here) isn’t the heart of the story at all. Love is – and like all things truly beloved, ‘The Girl Who Waited’ is something to cherish in spite of its illogicality.

Aired at 7.15pm on Saturday 10th September 2011 on BBC One.

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