'The Girl Who Waited', the latest episode of Doctor Who, is on the surface a story of love and devotion across the decades, interspersed with some decent action scenes (at least for Doctor Who) and set in a very striking aesthetic space. The story concerns Amy, the titular Girl Who Waited, being stuck in a divergent timeline for thirty-six years, and what happens when the Doctor and Rory manage to track her down again. Moments for them, a lifetime for her.
But as I was watching it, I was struck by something I don't think the writers quite intended. You see, when the Doctor and Rory realize what's happened, that Amy has been living there for nearly four decades on her own, under constant threat of death and utterly isolated from any other sentient life form, they understand how hard it must have been for her. How it must have hurt her. Not just that she was afraid, but that she felt abandoned by the two most important, and ultimately the two most reliable, men in her life. And they decide that they should do something about this. Now, that's all well and good; if you have a time machine, and someone has had a bit of a rotten life, I'm sure your first impulse would be 'let me just pop back a few decades and set that on a better path for you'. But old-Amy doesn't want them to do that, for the very simple reason that doing so would mean she ceases to exist. That she would die in favour of a younger, prettier, more liked version of herself, who in thirty-six years would grow into a totally different person. Unsurprisingly, this is not exactly a great argument to make for ending the existence of a human being, and old-Amy is never really convinced of it.
"Wipe myself out of existence because you don't like my wrinkles and attitude? I've got a sword, y'know..."
And that's where the episode's morality went rather off the rails for me. It's a problem you often find in stories that involve clones or duplicates or some other kind of replica, this idea that the original's existence is somehow more privileged than that of the copy. Doctor Who itself took this very idea to task in the recent two-parter The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People, wherein the idea that the Flesh versions of the people there, including the Doctor himself, were any less worthy of respect and existence than the original versions was treated as rather heinous. The primary antagonist in those episodes was a woman who seemed dead-set on killing the Flesh versions for no reason but that they weren't 'real', and that's pretty much exactly what seemed to be happening in The Girl Who Waited. Old-Amy may be a human being, but she's not the 'real' Amy, so it's okay to erase her from existence to make things easier for the 'real' Amy.
The question of who, or what, is 'real' is one science fiction has been tackling pretty much as long as there's been science fiction. It's perhaps the central issue surrounding Frankenstein's monster and the replicants of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and it's a recurring issue for the Tanks and Silicates and Chigs of Space: Above and Beyond and the clones in Schwarzenegger’s often-unappreciated The Sixth Day, with as many more examples as a perusal of What Measure is a Non-Human (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/WhatMeasureIsANonHuman) can provide. The question is such a recurring one, of course, because it's the purest metaphorical device for the many different 'versions' of humanity that societies have decided, over the course of thousands and thousands of years, aren't quite human enough. There's a very good reason many of the groups science fiction holds up as being non-human but still deserving of human rights and respect are bound up with labouring and servitude, after all. And an equally good reason why so many robot uprisings are led by servant-class robots; it's rarely the military machinery that actually gets the ball rolling, but the robots who are most personally involved with human affairs. The fact that actual slave uprisings were both more rare and less successful than robotic uprisings is beside the point. Science fiction is attempting to warn by pointing to the worst possible outcome, not simply recreate the past with more pistons and brushed steel.
Though there are occasional, glorious exceptions.
And one of the best things about science fiction's treatment of non-humans is that, so long as they're not mindlessly or unceasingly hostile, like the bugs of Starship Troopers or the Tyranids and Necrons and Orks of Warhammer 40K or the Martian tripods in War of the Worlds, the moral of the story is always to err on the side of rights and respect. Just because Data was built in a lab, or the Tanks were grown in tubes, or Frankenstein's monster was stitched together from the pieces of corpses, doesn't mean they're not just as human-like as the actual humans that surround them. Indeed, in the case of Frankenstein's monster, the original science fiction treatment on the subject, it's rather more human than its creator, to said creator's ultimate detriment. It is Victor Frankenstein's gross failings as a human being that turn his creation into his monster, not any kind of inherent quality in the creation itself. As one of the characters in the Hellboy comics put it, to be different from human is not to be less than human.
This is all bound up in autonomy, of course. The surest way to tell when a sentient is being repressed in fiction is to find a sentient who is being denied the most basic autonomy. The replicants of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? are told they can't live on Earth, no matter what they want, and killed if they try. Data is only considered non-human property when he attempts to resign his Starfleet commission. And old-Amy, in The Girl Who Waited, is utterly incapable of deciding she wants to live and having that decision respected. To his credit Rory initially responds to old-Amy as just Amy, who happens to be a bit older than the last time he saw her. It is the Doctor who initially decides it's possible to go back and rescue young-Amy, but once that idea is put forwards neither men treat old-Amy as any kind of possessor of autonomy. Even the one decision she makes that they seem to abide by, that she will help rescue young-Amy so long as they both get to continue existing, is nothing more than a lie; there was never any intention to allow her to continue to exist. Her autonomy was never real, merely coincidentally aligned with the desires of the 'real' people.
"Old-Amy, as seen by Rory and the Doctor."
The worst thing, of course, is that from a storytelling perspective there are tons of alternatives. The easiest would've been to simply switch old-Amy and Rory's reactions; to have him determined to make things work (two millenium as the Last Centurion didn't do him in, why should thirty-six years finish off Amy) only to have old-Amy determine that she'd rather not have spent the time here in the first place. There are other options as well, that's just the first that leaps to mind and doesn't have a slightly ugly undertone.
This season seems to be about the Doctor overstepping himself, something of a return to the dangers of the Timelord Victorious. In that sense, you could make an argument that this is appropriate for his character. But it's still the antithesis of the morality of science fiction in general, and the Doctor in particular, and it's something I hope doesn't set the tone for the rest of the series.