BBC1 - 15th May 2010 - 6.25pm
Something's been nagging at me for a few weeks now with this new series. And no, I'm not referring to Amy Pond. Well, not just yet. Although, she has been the source of much of my consternation too and will be again by the time I've finished with this review. This series is not really engaging me as much as I thought it would and with Amy's Choice some of these concerns are thrown into sharp relief. On paper, this is terrific. A very witty and imaginative script from Simon Nye. Nye is a seasoned television writer and an extremely well thought of translator of Moliere and Dario Fo so I wasn't in the least bit worried that he was writing for Doctor Who, unlike others who immediately fixated on his Men Behaving Badly credentials and though the sky was falling in because a mere sit-com writer was daring to write telefantasy for a Saturday night BBC1 audience. I mean, how dare he!
There is a great deal to admire. Nye succinctly grasps one of the central conceits of Doctor Who here - what makes the ordinary so extraordinary, the domestic so terrifying - and weaves a magical little tale about repression, guilt and deadly pensioners. It's good to see that what is clearly the 'cheap' episode of the series is being used to unpack a few of the Doctor's darker aspects without tipping the whole thing over into the hyperbole of the 'Time Lord Victorious' of The Waters Of Mars and it's following in the tradition of the much admired Turn Left and Midnight. Like Buffy, Nye uses the fantastic to try and deal with a number of personal themes; Amy's child-like relationship to and dependency on the Doctor, her wavering love for Rory and the constant check that the Doctor keeps on his dual nature.
There's genre hybridity too, where he emulates The Avengers and its use of a threatened English pastoral (and by extension an erasure of Rory's particular hopes and desires); the comedy horror of Peter Jackson's Braindead (minus the hyper-gore - well it is 6.30 in the evening, after all) and the reality versus dreamscape games of the series own The Edge Of Destruction, The Mind Robber and The Deadly Assassin.
The episode opens with an establishing scene of the English countryside, verdant and sunny, with a domesticated, pregnant Amy and a pony-tailed Rory fretting about her contractions in their idyllic little country cottage. I was struck by how much this also reminded me of the relationship between Charlotte Coleman and Dylan Moran in Nye's equally surreal series How Do You Want Me? about urbanites coping with life in the country. In fact, if Coleman were still alive and was the same age as Karen she would have been a shoe in for the role of Amy Pond.
That fretful acclimatisation to 'country ways' is writ large here by the marauding villagers who all turn out to be infested with alien creatures. Into this nightmarish idyll plunges the TARDIS ('Leaf blowers! Use a rake!' shouts Rory over the distant wheezing and groaning of the TARDIS engines). Similar to the depiction of English pastoral in The Avengers, and as James Chapman points out in 'Saints And Avengers', Leadworth is seen as 'a facade of olde England that hides deadly secrets'. Here the tranquility of Rory's idealised English green and pleasant land is twisted by the darkest aspects of the Doctor, in the form of the Dream Lord, into a nightmare of alien possessed old codgers who vaporise children, and ultimately Rory, into dust.
Even the Doctor, who should be so used to the slow path of life in the English home counties after his exile on Earth in the 1970s, finds little to inspire him. 'What a result. Look at this…bench…what a nice little bench. What will they think of next,' he observes after confessing he's turned up by mistake five years later into Amy and Rory's countryside bliss. It's a line that Dylan Moran would have delivered with similar disparagement in an episode of How Do You Want Me?. To his enquiry about staving off boredom, Amy and Rory counter with an uninspiring but slightly nightmarish litany. 'We relax. We listen to the birds.' The birdsong volume goes up and a flip to the interior of the TARDIS confirms that what we've just seen is far more complex that it seems.
Nye establishes two realities and manages to generate suspense and tension about those realities very consistently throughout the episode, leaving the viewer and, to an extent the characters, with a guessing game as to which reality is true and which is false. The denouement, that posits a third reality, is clever because it's the Doctor himself that has created the other realities but it also loses credibility with the dreadful reveal of the space pollen 'MacGuffin' that supposedly promulgated the narrative in the first place and, alas, that falls into Terry Pratchett's criticism that the series often does rely on 'Deus ex Machina' to quickly resolve its plots.
There is a lot to enjoy - the scene in the old people's home has a lovely, creepy vibe to it, the frosted up TARDIS (a classic fairy tale motif, think of The Snow Queen and her icy palace, and the frozen and sleeping curses of so many similar tales, that provide a further self-conscious exploration by the writer and the characters that they are "caught in a story"), the marauding old pensioners (the threat of old age as a nightmare concept) taking a battering ('Whack her!) from Rory and the Doctor, and the multiple personalities of the Dream Lord (the doctor, the butcher) are rather fun.
In the centre of this there is also the examination of the Doctor's nature and the sparring between what is, essentially, the ego and id, between Time and Dream Lords, in one of the more enjoyable elements in the story. Apt that this was shown in the week that those other ego and id sparring partners of Cameron and Clegg sealed their marriage to save England from the marauding spectre of the deficit. It works especially well here because you've got Toby Jones as the Dream Lord, playing with relish a vindictive fantasy version of the Truman Capote he played in Infamous. Nye's theme is clear. The Doctor has accumulated enough trauma over the centuries for the 'space pollen' to trigger the release of his id (and, no, it's not the bloody Valeyard). It's a classic Freudian analysis of the Doctor suggesting that for the majority of the time he exists in a state where he can channel the libidinal energy of the Dream Lord, or his own id it is revealed, to more socially acceptable ends.
Normally, the Doctor is able to put his id to work for him when he needs to. It just so happens to manifest itself here and sets the ego the task of reintegrating the id back into itself. The Doctor's ego must therefore integrate the id in order to function properly at an instinctual level. It's also, broken record time again, a classic fairy tale mechanism where the hero of the tale must restore order and healthy function to blighted kingdoms, oppressed villagers and must rescue the sacrificial maiden. Rory and Amy are there as the super-ego, always unsatisfied with what the Doctor's done ('I was promised amazing worlds. Instead I get duff central heating.') and his inability to heed their warnings, take their advice or answer their questions ('I can't know everything. Why does everybody expect me to, always?').
That said, the Dream Lord, if he is an amalgamation of all the Doctor's repressed anxieties and traumas, should really have been more vicious. There's 900 odd years of skeletons in the closet he could have exploited and instead he spends his time babbling on about his appearance ('the clothes designed by a first year fashion student' - I bet Ray Holman was chuffed about that line) and Amy's choice ('Oh, Amy. You'll have to sort your men out. Choose even.'). The really uncomfortable moment is when he's alone with Amy in the TARDIS and transforms himself into a libidinous, open shirted sex fiend. Bring him back and let's see him do some real damage because the idea of an adventure where the danger lies in the Doctor actually talking to himself is only scratching the surface about the psychologically damaged Doctor and his companions.
That problematic ending aside, there are also other problems for me here. Karen Gillan does put in her best performance as Amy but the character really has failed to engage me over the last six episodes and therefore the emotional and moral choice that forms the heart of the episode actually lacks a consistent development. Whether that is symptomatic of performance, scripting or direction is hard to tell. It could be a combination of all three. The producers have been so busy over the last six weeks positioning Amy as this spiky, feisty, spirited, plucky…(insert any description that Messrs Moffat, Wenger and Willis have used here)….woman that I've actually found myself drawing further and further away from her as a character. She's teetering on the brink of becoming one dimensional.
This problem was then exacerbated with the inclusion of Rory Williams. A complete charmer, bumbling but brave, insecure but loyal, he's a character I've warmed to instantly and Arthur Darvill has deftly manifested his idiosyncratic attractions. Frankly, I really don't get what Rory sees in Amy and that's obviously intentional. If you look at the body language between the two of them, which is deliberately highlighted in The Vampires Of Venice for instance, they have some emotional and physical intimacy issues that clearly need resolving. He's a 'giver', often needing emotional dependency and she's rather aloof and seems to be pushing Rory away just as he tries to get closer to her. I've found that her act of keeping Rory at a distance has translated into the character's so called 'feistiness' and 'kookiness' also putting me at a distance. Rory's persistent, I'll give him that.
Amy's Choice is obviously an attempt to not only demonstrate that Amy and Rory actually do love one another (and it takes Rory's nightmare death for Amy to realise this) but it is also used as a narrative mechanism to ring fence their relationship in opposition to the ill-defined, 'will they - won't they' dynamic between Amy and the Doctor, expressed by that 'one night stand' that Amy attempted, rather dubiously with the Doctor, the night before her wedding at the end of Flesh And Stone. The difficulty with this is that as I draw away from the character of Amy I also find it very hard to emotionally empathise with Rory's death scene. Yes, it's upsetting but it didn't move me. And that's a tragedy because it should. Ironically, given the theme of the story, the emotional core of the narrative is at the mercy of 'choices' in performance and direction. The scene on the page may well have been terrific but even the combined efforts of Gillan, Darvill, Smith and director Catherine Morshead can't fully communicate the truth of it.
The choice for Amy, deciding that this English idyll is a false reality and life is not worth living without Rory, is a great way of finally exposing the humanity of her character and 'having to grow up eventually' (both Amy's choice and Rory's symbolic shedding of the pony-tail) but is too little and too late no matter how good Gillan, Darvill and Smith are in it? I have to ask myself, do I really care about her? And, I find I don't. Not just because her humanity has only just scrambled its way to the top of the heap of the soundbites that have drowned out the initially intriguing idea of Amy but because her choice barely acknowledges the fact that she's also pregnant and carrying Rory's child. That she doesn't give the child a thought, or that it is articulated in the script at that point, is the final straw that breaks the camel's back as far as the appeal of the character goes for me.
I'm not looking for the histrionics of Rose Tyler here, much of which tipped the series into over-wrought melodrama in the first year with Tennant, but just a woman who you can even begin to like, who even registers that if the camper van crash is actually real then she's killing herself, the Doctor and her child. To get that across properly is really the point of the episode (as much as Amy observes 'what is the point of you' to the Doctor) and it fails to do that for me, even if it is all revealed to be an inconsequential set of dreams concocted by the Doctor's alter-ego the Dream Lord. However, it's effective when Amy and Rory emerge from their sleep in the frozen TARDIS, a very tender scene indeed, as they banish the damaging id of the Doctor and declare their love for one another.
The ending, in which the dreamscapes are revealed to be the symptom of 'space pollen', doesn't quite help shore up Amy's choice. It's just cheapens it and that's a shame. Not only do we have the space pollen sending the Doctor on some kind of psychedelic trip but the Doctor clearly knows who the Dream Lord is and that they've been given two dreams to choose from, acknowledging the cold star they were plunging into was a fiction. Very convenient of him to realise but I can live with that and the Doctor blowing up the TARDIS as a way of restoring reality, mirroring the destruction of the Leadworth reality with the camper van crash.
The psychic pollen is just a bit of guff unnecessarily tacked onto the end to explain the Dream Lord and the dream states. Why not leave it ambiguous with that sudden reflection of him in the TARDIS console? Overall, it's a good script but horribly marred by very average execution, with some quite disappointing direction from the usually reliable Catherine Morshead (the quirkier style of Adam Smith would have suited this down to the ground) who doesn't add vision and energy enough to the threat of the dreamscapes, making them creepy but not particularly scary.
A completely revised and much fuller version of this review is now available in my book Doctor Who: The Pandorica Opens - Exploring the Worlds of the Eleventh Doctor published by Classic TV Press and also available on Amazon.