It's a big weekend for Doctor Who fans — first, there's the final episode of spinoff show Torchwood: Miracle Day, in which we finally learn what this long miniseries was all about. And then there's one of the most important Who episodes of the season.
We've seen the Miracle Day finale, and Doctor Who's "The Girl Who Waited." Here's our spoiler-free review of both!
And by spoiler free, I really mean "spoiler free." There will be vague generalizations, but no plot information. This review assumes you've watched all of the already-aired episodes of both shows, but that you haven't even seen a trailer or synopsis for either of the new episodes. With that out of the way...
Here's the quick verdict: Doctor Who's "The Girl Who Waited" is a strong contender for best episode of the year. It's up there with "The Doctor's Wife." Meanwhile, Torchwood's season finale has a few genuinely spine-tingling moments of brilliance, and... it falls flat overall. It's a disappointing conclusion.
Sadly, the contrast between the two episodes does Torchwood no favors — it's kind of sad that Torchwood happens to be ending the same week that Doctor Who is having one of its best stories of the year. The Doctor Who episode is audacious and just sparking with ideas and energy, even if the plot doesn't entirely stand up to much examination. The Torchwood finale feels as though the excitement has gone out of it, somehow.
Doctor Who's new episode is important, not because it advances the over-arching story of the season or contains any important plot twists, but because it focuses on the relationship between Amy and Rory. The Doctor's two companions take center stage in this episode, and it's already being compared to last year's "Amy's Choice." For what it's worth, though, I felt like "The Girl Who Waited" was a much stronger episode than "Amy's Choice."
"The Girl Who Waited" feels like the kind of story that showrunner Steven Moffat used to write, when he was doing standalone episodes instead of writing a huge arc: it's got an outlandish premise that opens up a twisty, timey-wimey conundrum, which in turn puts Amy and Rory in the middle of a huge dilemma. As a bonus, it's also a really strong emotional episode in which you really believe that Amy and Rory are a couple. This story puts the relationship between Amy and Rory back at the center of the show, where it belongs.
This was also one of the first episodes in a while where I really noticed the direction — Nick Hurran, directing his first ever Doctor Who episode, puts everything he's got into creating interesting camera angles and making the frequently spare white backgrounds creepy and fascinating. It's visually gorgeous as well as unusually well-written and acted.
And then there's Torchwood. I really want to be able to report that the Miracle Day miniseries returns to greatness in its final hour, that there are answers that make everything worthwhile, that the audacious mix of plot elements (such as including pedophile Oswald Danes as a major character) comes together in a final burst of cleverness. But then I would be describing a different finale than the one I watched.
The truth is... it ends okay. It all makes sense, more or less, and there are a couple of clever twists. And like I said, there are some brilliant bits of writing — the episode was co-written by Russell T. Davies and Jane Espsenson, and both of them are geniuses at clever, heart-shredding dialog. But for the most part, this final episode is true to the form of the last four or five episodes before it — very focused on an insidious conspiracy that feels like it was sketched on half an envelope.
It's sad that Torchwood is having a lackluster finale the same week as Doctor Who hits a high note. It's especially sad because I would have said, after the first few weeks of Torchwood: Miracle Day, that the Doctor Who spinoff was doing the kind of grown-up, cerebral storytelling that Doctor Who would never be capable of. Torchwood was doing one of the coolest things that science fiction can aspire to: examining a big premise from every angle, and showing how it affects society. While Doctor Who's whiz-bang storytelling depended on serving up a new idea every few minutes without really exploring any of them, Torchwood was delving into one cool idea. But sadly, Torchwood just couldn't sustain its more cerebral approach.
I'll have a fuller post mortem of Torchwood: Miracle Day later, but in retrospect the show seemed to lose its gusto right around the time Dr. Vera Juarez got burned alive — all of the interesting stuff about healthcare went with her.
So in short — Doctor Who's latest episode is a must-see, that manages to be character-driven and beautiful and clever. Meanwhile, Torchwood's finale is a solid conclusion that wraps up all the major plot points and will leave you satisfied that you got the answers and resolution you were owed after 10 episodes — but it's not all that thrilling.