A bit late again this week for my Who views – and in this case, only because I’ve spent the last few days feeling somewhat off. It wasn’t a lack of enthusiasm, as this was actually an episode which (despite its small flaws) I enjoyed the hell out of. Fear the spoilers…
Opinions are fascinating things, especially when it comes to a show like Doctor Who, which has evolved and adapted so many times over the years that it’s easy for different people to have a completely different idea of what what makes a good episode. It’s especially noticeable on a slightly more oddball episode like Amy’s Choice, with some people proclaiming it the best of the season, and others saying it’s rather a disappointment with a cop-out ‘it was all a dream’ ending (which is rather bizarre for a story that’s all about dreams). And I have to say that while Amy’s Choice is undoubtedly an odd episode, it’s also a highly enjoyable one, and certainly the first non-Moffatt episode to not feel like a repurposed off-cut from the David Tennant era.
After the flat disappointment of The Vampires of Venice, I was a bit concerned, and the fact that this was coming from Men Behaving Badly scripter Simon Nye didn’t exactly tell me what to expect – but the end result is a romp that feels very much of a piece with The Eleventh Hour, following on the same fairy-tale tone and intimate English sense of oddness. One of the main complaints in some of the feedback I’ve seen is “Oh, it’s a very Red Dwarf episode”, when to be honest it’s actually much closer to being an episode of either Buffy or Star Trek: The Next Generation – a standalone episode that uses an oddball and surreal plot device to do a more character-centric story than usual. It’s not exactly a revolutionary set-up – a convenient maguffin that strands our heroes in a dream-like realm where they’re faced with threats both outward and internal.
The Next Gen similarities are mainly thanks to the sardonic and hugely entertaining presence of Toby Jones as the Dream Lord – but while it’s easy to target him as a replica of Next Gen adversary ‘Q’, what he simply is a similar example of an archetypal Trickster figure, something that’s rarely been seen on Who (the only villain who really qualifies is The Celestial Toymaker from 1965, and even in that story his presence is somewhat minimal). He’s also the kind of catty, bitchy villain that Russell T. Davies wrote quite a few of (the most notable ones being Cassandra and the Master), and yet he’s played at the right level here. Jones remains fun without going too campy (even getting away with a couple of truly dreadful puns), and while the final revelation of the Dream Lord’s identity is one of those reveals that initially feels like a cop-out (despite the fact that they flagged it up by having the Dream Lord first appearing in the Doctor’s costume), it still manages to pitch the story in a completely different direction, while also suggesting we may not have completely seen the back of the Dream Lord. And I have to admit – surprisingly enough, I’d actually be more than happy to see a rematch at some point; the ‘Dark side of the Doctor’ idea has an awful lot of potential, and it’s interesting that they’ve essentially come up with an idea of using the basic concept of the Valeyard without the hideous tangle of continuity that goes with it.
(For all non-Who-obsessives in the audience, the Valeyard (played by Michael Jayston) is a villain who was introduced in the 1986 14-part story The Trial of a Time Lord (which is a serious mess, but a mess I have a certain fondness for). Initially a menacing court prosecutor out to get the Doctor, it’s finally revealed that he actually is the Doctor – although the explanation gets a little garbled. One episode seems to clearly state that he’s a future incarnation of the Doctor who’s gone evil, while another says that he’s more of a ‘dark side’ Doctor, a flipside megalomaniac. It’s never made particularly clear, and while a couple of the spin-off novels have referred to him, it’s one of those garbled bits of Who’s tangled history that is simply too complicated to explain further (another one being Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor categorically saying in the TV Movie that he’s half human…)).
It’s also an episode that manages a nice balance between comedy and weirdness. The bouncing between realities is vaguely reminiscent of S4’s Forest of the Dead (something Murray Gold’s music seems to acknowledge, using a couple of similar-sounding effects), and the oddball tone keeps this episode on a very unusual balance between a darker episode and a comic romp. (A side thought – along with Moffatt (at least, the pre-Who Moffatt), Simon Nye is best known for his comedy writing, and he’s the first non-Moffatt writer to click very well with Moffatt’s style. Maybe the Eleventh Doctor/Amy setup is so inherently oddball that they work better in a more comedic framework, rather than Victory of the Daleks and The Vampires of Venice, which were simply runaround adventures with gags sandwiched in? It’ll certainly be interesting to see how Richard Curtis fits in with the general style…)
In fact, it’s a surprise how well the episode keeps the balance – it could possibly do with being a little bit scarier, and it does suffer from some slightly clunky direction in the action scenes, but this is one of the stronger standalone Who episodes I can remember (It ain’t Blink, but it sure as hell isn’t Love and Monsters either), a fun and inventive episode that utilizes the intimate English fairy tale tone set by The Eleventh Hour in an interestingly different way (although I am hoping for a moratorium on aliens disguised as humans – the mouth eyeballs were wonderfully icky, but what was pretty impactful in The Eleventh Hour is starting to wear out its welcome). It also manages to play with the more grown-up and multi-layered nature of the current Doctor/Companion relationship, as the whole story is essentially the dark side of the Doctor’s subconscious getting worried by Rory’s presence and the fact of Amy’s impending marriage, trying to force her into choosing between them, and not getting the result he wanted. Again, Amy is partly an incredibly feisty, heroic character, and partly a girl who’s running away from the idea of growing up, and it takes seeing Rory actually die in front of her to shock her into the realization that she really does love him. After the pretty weak and rushed treatment of Amy and Rory’s relationship in The Vampires of Venice, this is a major step back in the right direction – their relationship might still be slightly comic, but it does at least feel a lot more real (as well as tying in better to The Eleventh Hour), and while Rory is still something of a comic character, he’s much less of the S1 Mickey Smith replacement here. I don’t think it’s ever going to necessarily be the most convincing romance in the world, but I’m a lot more sold than I was, and it’s going to be interesting to see what they do next – especially as this episode clearly shows us Amy choosing Rory, and strengthens their relationship while leaving the Doctor feeling like a third wheel (Matt Smith’s performance in the final minutes of the show, particularly the slightly insecure applause, is brilliant stuff).
Yet again, one of the defining features of the Eleventh Doctor is that he’s falliable – this is a story that I couldn’t see working at all with Tennant’s Doctor, and it gives a humanity and comic vulnerability that’s really effective. Smith yet again knocks it out of the park, being given plenty of the material he’s best at, and I can’t remember the last time an actor playing the Doctor has been such a delight to watch. When he’s firing on all cylinders, he’s genuinely reaching Tom Baker levels of eccentric brilliance (as someone who grew up with Baker, that’s a major admission), and it’s the fast-paced character interplay that makes this episode so much fun, and lifts it up from the Sarah Jane Adventures cast-off it could so easily have been.
It’s also a refreshing sign to see the extra thought that’s going into the worldbuilding – I knew that the ‘Cold Star’ was completely ridiculous, and it’s hardly the least insane thing that New Who has pulled in the past (it says a lot that I was perfectly willing to let it go, as the episode was so much fun), but to actually have a character say “Stars don’t do that! The science is wrong!” is something of a watershed. There are some weak areas in the script – the climax does gloss over the Doctor’s admission that the Dream Lord was a chunk of his psyche a little too easily, the issue and consequences of Amy’s dream pregnancy do get quietly forgotten about at the finale (probably partly to avoid a replay of Forest of the Dead, and partly to underplay a climax that essentially revolves around a nine-month-pregnant woman committing suicide), and it’s rarely a good idea to have characters actually saying the episode’s title (unless it’s something truly punchy and pulpy like ‘The Brain of Morbius’).
And yet, unlike many of New Who’s previous standalones, the good points more than outweighed the bad. There’s a whole series of standout moments – from the Doctor’s casual “What do you do to stave off the self-harm?” to the extensive TARDIS scenes (the new set has rarely looked better, and this gives us more TARDIS-based action than New Who has ever given us before),the wonderfully ludicrous moment with the Doctor panicking over Amy’s impending birth (especially the ‘ready to catch’ pose), the moment where Amy makes her choice and the brilliant silent appearance from the Dream Lord, and the scene where Amy and Rory wake up, which was what completely sold me on their relationship (and it’s going to be interesting to see how they handle it from here – having established it, I really hope they don’t backtrack later. And it certainly makes me wonder what’ll happen when the Wedding Day finally arrives (as I suspect it will in the Season finale)). This was the first non-Moffatt episode to feel like it really got the characters and the whole ethos of the show, and I’d actually rank it above The Beast Below in terms of my own enjoyment. Other people may not have been convinced, and I can understand why it’s a divisive episode – but if Who can continue serving up episodes this offbeat and fun, I’m certainly not going to complain.
And next week? We have the return of the Silurians – and, rather more frighteningly, the return of Chris Chibnall, the man who brought us the Torchwood ‘Cyberwoman’ episode (plus both eyewateringly dreadful TW season finales). Admittedly, I did enjoy the derivative but fun 42 from S3, and I’d really be happy to be surprised by this upcoming two-parter – but I am certainly approaching it with a little more trepidation. Only time will tell…