As always, Spoiler Warning.
I didn’t have high hopes for this episode. From the previews, I got the impression that the story was going to go something like this: Amy gets trapped in an accelerated time stream. The Boys™ repeatedly try (and fail) to save her, while she repeatedly grows older, until finally they use techno-magic to undo the ageing and fly off into the Time Vortex toward their next adventure. In the middle, we would get some action sequences and some Rory-and-Amy-love-each-other-so-much-and-isn’t-that-just-so-fucking-sweet sequences.
And I felt justified in this impression. After all, Tom MacRae’s previous effort for Doctor Who was The Rise of the Age of Steel Cybermen, a disappointing romp to a parallel universe that re-introduced the Cybermen to New Who. This didn’t bode well for a story in which the central premise appeared to be ‘Amy needs to be rescued’.
But, look… Mr. MacRae, I’m sorry I doubted you. I’m sorry I judged you on Rise of the Cybermen. Because you most certainly can write a good episode of Doctor Who.
This episode is good. On a lot of levels. The dialogue is unrelentingly dark, tense, urgent; the only comedy we get is in the first act. After that it is a downright brutal story. Because MacRae took a story that looked like (and could have been) “Amy needs to be rescued” and he turned it into “Amy doesn’t get rescued”. The result is what feels, to me, like an attempt at a Feminist critique of the Damsel in Distress story. And it does a pretty good job.
So, Amy doesn’t get rescued. Instead, she spends 36 years stuck in a Tower, not being rescued. And this Tower has an endless supply of faceless robots that want to kill her. So she does the only thing that anyone who could survive for 36 years alone in a Tower of Death could do: she gets tough. She may still be trapped, but she saves herself.
And the Amy we get to see here gives us a lot to admire. She can fight, she can hack (I’m using that term very charitably here. After all, computers are bound to be a bit wibbly-wobbly in Doctor Who), build a sonic probe, and she seems to be a genuinely strong female character. The fact that she is filled with bitterness and hatred towards Rory and the Doctor comes across as a realistic consequence of spending three decades in isolation. The venom with which Karen Gillan utters the phrase ‘Raggedy Man’ really sells Amy’s hatred of the doctor, and her later conversation with him really illustrates her character:
And there he is, the voice of God. Survive, ‘cause no one’s gonna come for you. You taught me that… Don’t you lecture me, Blue Box man flying through time and space on a whimsy. All I’ve got, all I’ve had for thirty-six years, is cold, hard reality.
Then we have Rory’s reactions. The narrative makes it clear that he is torn between the young and old Amys. The line “Leave her and take you?” is voiced with outright contempt, but shortly after that, he appears more sympathetic, and by the end of the episode is heartbroken at the prospect of leaving her behind.
But, crucially, he does leave her behind. And this brings us to the Feminist overtones that this episode takes on. A core message that you can extrapolate from this story is this: If you trust men, they will lie to you and betray you. Especially if there’s a younger, prettier option nearby. They may feel bad about doing it, they may have so many justifications they’ve sold themselves, but in the end, they betray you. The men here don’t just fail to save Amy, they actively refuse. And why? Why does Rory choose young Amy? Because an Amy with decades of resentment and anger is less compatible with him. Because it isn’t his Amy. The implication is clear: a woman’s personhood is worth less than a woman’s utility to her man.
Another thing to consider is why it is Rory’s choice in the first place. The Doctor emphasizes that Rory has the choice. He could choose his young, perky, conventionally pretty wife, or his old, disillusioned, angry, bitter wife. And the Amys have no agency in the decision. This is Rory’s choice, because it’s Rory’s wife we’re talking about. Despite all the talk of Amy Pond as a fierce, independent, and wilful character, here she is conveniently scripted out so that the men in her life can decide which version of her gets to be saved.
The thing is, the story manages to pull all of this off. Yes, this has strongly sexist underpinnings in a way that makes all the other Feminist complaints about Moffat’s Who seem to pale in comparison. But MacRae doesn’t shy away from them. Rory knows he’s being a selfish ass. Darvill delivers a superb performance here, and Amy’s final line in the episode (and the way we cut away from it abruptly) underlines it. We are not supposed to feel like Rory and the Doctor are the good guys here. This is a bold statement, and it is complex and morally ambiguous storytelling in a way we haven’t really seen in Doctor Who since Sylvester McCoy.
And speaking of Sylvester McCoy, well. This whole episode has a very strong Seventh Doctor underpinning, the same way The Rebel Flesh / The Almost People was a modern Second Doctor story. Matt Smith is playing a much darker, harder Doctor here. I was reminded of this line in the New Adventures novel Conundrum:
"But that’s the whole point, though, isn’t it?” said Ace. “To the Doctor, it did mean nothing. Just another of his games, another upset in the universe to be dealt with and then chucked.“
That quote summarizes the Seventh Doctor better than any description I could possibly muster. Notably, that isn’t the totality of the Doctor, but it is an accurate description of his practical relation to, and effect on, other people.
And here, Eleven acts in much the same way. Rory’s accusatory “You’re turning me into you” validates this reading; in the same novel, Ace explains that the reason she stays with the Doctor is that she’s gotten a taste for the same manipulative games the Doctor plays.
In this story, there is notably an entire scene that happens off-screen: when old Amy has the glasses, she has a conversation with the Doctor (in which she cries) that we are not privy to. I suspect this is the tie-in to the ongoing story arc for this episode: the Doctor tells old Amy something, and I suspect it is about the events prior to the tuxedo scene in Let’s Kill Hitler. Whatever it is, it makes her cry, and I have a suspicion that it is the thing that convinces her to accept death at the end of the episode.
Because that’s the one strange beat to this episode; old Amy eventually accepting her betrayal seems outright unlikely to me. So either that’s a weak character beat, or she has learned something about young Amy’s (potential) future that makes her change her mind. I’m hoping for the latter, because it will make this story feel that much stronger once the ongoing arc plays out. And there are no other ongoing arc references in this story, which was good after the heavy-handed, tacked-on reference at the end of the previous episode.
So, in the final analysis, I think this story is good on every level. The things I haven’t talked about - pacing, dialogue, camerawork - have only been omitted because they all functioned well for the story. There’s nothing there to criticize. There’s actually quite a bit to praise, especially regarding the cinematography and visual aesthetics in this episode, but this review is already feeling a bit hefty, so I’ll leave off here. See you next week!