a warm glow on a cold September Saturday night

TV One of the problems with the BBC’s new policy of seemingly sending Doctor Who preview discs (or passwords) out to anyone with a keyboard is that those of us who haven’t had the giant golden finger of their publicity department pointed at our letterbox (email in-box) have to endure a week of chatter across blogs and the social networks related to an episode before its been broadcast, never mind the Pick of the Day paragraphs which appear in newspapers. The buzz ahead of Tom MacRae’s The Girl Who Waited across twitter was strong bordering on ecstatic and this morning The Guardian called it “world class television” and “outstanding”.

That shouldn’t be seen as a burst of jealousy from this keyboard. I like watching it with everyone else, well half of everyone else, when it's broadcast on a Saturday night. It gives me something to look forward to in a world were there are increasingly fewer things to look forward to. But the knock on effect of the chosen ones chattering is that it can, if they’re not too careful create expectations of what’s about to appear, and in the case of this week’s episode, expectations so high that the episode that followed could never quite fulfil them. If someone else had implied that it the new Blink, I would have unfollowed them with extreme prejudice.

Luckily, and I’m going to savour these paragraphs because it’s not often I’ve been able to write this lately, The Girl Who Waited lived up to the hype. More than lived up to it. As with Blink, it’ll take some thought, a few polls and perhaps a Hugo before it can be heralded in as one of the great classics of the series, but sitting here with a warm glow on a cold September Saturday night, I’ve been reminded of why I love this franchise, why along with Shakespeare and films it’s the closest thing I have to a religion, and how as ever it doesn’t matter how many Daleks you have in your season finale, it’s the smaller stories about human choices that are the best.

For much of its run, apart from the early dalliances with pure historicals, it's been generally agreed that Doctor Who has two plots, alien invasions and bases under siege and sometimes at the same time. But really, there’s always been the third thread of time paradoxes. They appeared as early as The Space Museum, but because every other episode of The Space Museum was rubbish (no matter the political thematic aspirations of the writers) it went unacknowledged for years. But there were others, notably Mawdryn Undead (with which this also has superficial similarities) but only recently has the tv version really begun experimenting with the concept, and in nuWho it’s become, as Moffat said recently, an extra character.

The central premise of two different time streams touching has been done a few times in the past few years then, most recently in Time/Space, the Children in Need special, in which like The Girl Who Waited, there were two Amys and in that case two Rory’s chatting, passing information along. Then there’s the Doctor himself in The Big Bang and well, I’m just saying everything which went through your head tonight. Two Amys? We’ve already had two Doctors this series, that sort of thing. It’s Kazran in A Christmas Carol again isn’t it? The Girl in the Fireplace with a giant spyglass replacing the many mirrors and curtains and the fireplace. Well, yes, but like alien invasions and bases under siege the most important thing is what you do with it.

If The Girl Who Waited transcended its premise, became a truly great episode of Doctor Who, it’s primarily because of two things. Firstly, like I said, the simplicity. Shot in just a few functional but tasteful white box Evan Hercules inspired sets, Wales Millenium Centre and someone’s beautiful garden this is a story unencumbered by an over-elaborate setting, and definite contrast to MacRae's previous entry, the reintroduction of the Cybermen from series two. The scenario, a kind of nursing home for people with only a day to live, with medical robots that can kill again has all of the elements of complexity but in reality are just there to serve the dilemma at the heart of the story. Even the information computer was just a beam of light and Imelda Staunton’s voice.

That meant that for once in this era, plot could take a back seat to character and allow Smith, Darvill and especially Gillan, not just to act, but offer some of their best ever performances (quite something for a group which have already been consistently excellent). Karen in particular has always had something of a question mark over her for some people, partly because neither she or Amy have been as instantly likeable as Billie or Rose. I’ve never had that problem, I’ve always adored both of them but I have at least been able to understand why her slightly nervy approach could irritate the less tolerant viewers, especially during Confidential. Who was Karen Gillan and as Amy Pond was she just playing a version of herself?

If The Girl Who Waited proved anything, it’s that Karen is a proper actress, that Amy as a role has been carefully thought through and when presented with the challenge of playing an older, wiser, kick-ass version, the actress is entirely capable of tweaking her performance to suit. Aided by sympathetic make-up, she is able to bring to the fore the weariness of a person who’s not seen a living soul for decades and suddenly presented with what might as well be a hallucination, on the other side of the moment in the TARDIS corridors during The Doctor’s Wife when she sees an older version of her husband. Like Rory, she’s grown to hate the man who’d put her in that position, in this case the Doctor, and to some degree become him.

Which as Rory says in the climactic scene was what the episode was about, putting the Ponds in the position of becoming the Doctor, she to survive, he to face up to the moral dilemma the Time Lord has to face whenever he opens that door. Who to save? Sometimes its easy, largely because the Whoniverse is filled with enough morally ambiguous potential Darwin Award nominees so all he has to do is hang around for a few episodes and see who’s left standing. But sometimes he finds people he can genuinely care about and then it’s all about who to leave behind, who to sacrifice and who’ll be willing to sacrifice themselves for him. Cue the Davros montage from Journey’s End.

This is one of those occasions when it looks as though the friendship between the Doctor and Rory is finally going to fracture or at least return to the cynicism in evidence during Vampires in Venice. Rule One. The Doctor lies, and he does again, putting Rory in the very worst decision, the anxiety lacerating Darvill’s face. Those of us lapsed-Trekkers would have recognised is a similar impasse in the Deep Space 9 episode Children of Time, in which the crew had to decide whether to crash and allow the descendents they’d met to live or fly away and save themselves from years of suffering building a colony.

Like them, having made the difficult choice, arguably Rory is saved from himself by the older Amy’s sacrifice. The braver move for the series would perhaps have been to continued with the older Amy and damn the merchandising implications, but what sells this solution is the emotional poetry of the dialogue (“Tell Amy, your Amy, I’m giving her the days, the days with you, the days to come, the days I can’t have…”), Arthur’s tears and Nick Hurran's direction which brought the two of them together in the frame despite the obvious gap between shooting the exterior and interior of the TARDIS, confirming again the benefits of making those doors a very real threshold.

Was this as The Guardian Guide’s preview suggests “to all intents and purposes a perfect Doctor Who” episode? Like I said, it is early hours and we did witness the destruction of what has to be a copy of the Mona Lisa since it looked far more convincing than the version in my favourite Doctor Who story and this admittedly had no Louis Kearns scene. But a few minutes ago, I went back in to find and transcribe the quote in the previous paragraph and found myself being captivated again and crying, just as I did the first time. If our expectations of what constitutes perfection have changed, that’s as close as we’ll ever get.  Amazing.

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