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Doctor Who: Review supplemental on Amy's Choice

REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO

We sneered a little at this low-budget Who outing on Saturday, but is it redeemable?

Toby Jones as 'The Dream Lord' in 'Amy's Choice'

John Bensalhia reviews Amy's Choice:

It’s been a week of mind-blowing decisions. Should Nick Clegg sell his soul to the devil and make a pact with Tory Boy? Should Gordon Clown stay or go? Who does Sralan Sugar choose out of the Mini Pops?

On top of all that, Amy is forced to make a choice in the latest episode of Doctor Who which is called – um, Amy’s Choice. Popular writer Simon Nye makes his writing debut in Doctor Who, and as one of the veterans of sitcom, in a way he was a good choice to helm the cheapy episode of the season – since comedies can normally be confined to a couple of sets, a handful of actors and a fairly low budget.

Sure enough, Amy’s Choice doesn’t look as lavish or as glossy as some of the earlier episodes of the season. Apart from the regulars, there’s the ranting Dream Lord and a couple of speaking old biddies. Half of the action takes place in the TARDIS set, while the other half takes place in the dreary location of Upper Leadworth. No high profile guest stars. No big budget monsters. No glossy visuals. It’s a brave move, and is one that harks back to stories such as The Mind Robber, when the kitty money ran out, forcing a few short cuts.

Amy’s Choice does remind me a bit of The Mind Robber, since both revolve around surreal dream-like worlds in which it’s impossible to tell what’s real and what’s not. What Amy’s Choice does is to alternate between two apparent realities in regular succession, something that’s not really been tried before in Doctor Who. The story structure works reasonably well, and adds to the mystery of which reality is which.

The problem is that neither of the two options presents a particularly inspiring plot. In Upper Leadworth, Amy is married to Rory (who’s channelling Rodney in the Only Fools And Horses episode with the fake ponytail) and pregnant. Doctor visits, and then trouble brews in the form of a band of OAP’s who have weird alien eye things poking out of their mouths. What is it with characters and bad mouths this season? The Eleventh Hour, The Vampires Of Venice and now Amy’s Choice have aliens with worse oral conditions than the winner of a 24-hour non-stop fizzy drink challenge. It’s hardly original, and even the setting was done better in The Eleventh Hour. The location shoot of Amy’s Choice is hampered by snow, rain and mud, but then maybe that’s the point – Upper Leadworth is hardly meant to be a verdant oasis teeming with life. The only problem is that this results in a rather dull viewing experience.

The other crisis facing The Doctor, Amy and Rory is the threat of a freezing sun. The TARDIS has died and is now floating aimlessly towards the sun, threatening to reduce the crew to frozen icicles. Again, it’s not a particularly original idea. Stories such as The Edge Of Destruction and Castrovalva have dealt with similar scenarios, albeit considerably warmer ones. The only difference is that The Doctor and co are being hounded by the enigmatic Dream Lord, a man that’s in danger of piss-taking everyone to death.

"Toby Jones is perfect as the sneering nemesis, full of funny put-downs about The Doctor’s appearance and personality"

Actually, The Dream Lord was rather amusing. Toby Jones is perfect as the sneering nemesis, full of funny put-downs about The Doctor’s appearance and personality. “If you had any more tawdry quirks, you could open up a tawdry quirk factory” or “You're probably a vegetarian, aren't you, you big flop haired wuss?” That said, substitute Jones for Martin Clunes and any of the quotes could have fitted into Men Behaving Badly.

The mystery of The Dream Lord’s identity is nicely handled throughout the story. The Doctor evidently knows him, so is it The Master? The Celestial Toymaker? The Valeyard? Actually, the last alternative isn’t so far off the mark, since he actually turns out to be a distillation of everything that’s bad about The Doctor. Since The Valeyard is also the Dark Side Of The Doctor, it’s debatable as to whether The Dream Lord will return and whether we’ll get any more forthcoming answers as to whether he really is the pioneer of the catharsis of spurious morality. Certainly the last shot of the Dream Lord’s reflection on the TARDIS console suggests a further rematch in the future.

The Dream Lord does throw up a few issues for The Doctor. Apparently, he betrays his friends. And he still has the need for travelling with young companions (Oh really, what about Wilf?). Whether or not this can be taken as a genuine need by an ageing Time Lord to keep young or whether there’s more pervy issues at work here is left up to the viewer. Although The Doctor does seem to be a bit of a fifth wheel at the end as he hovers awkwardly around when Amy and Rory have a quick snog in front of his eyes.

That’s one of the funniest scenes of the episode, when The Doctor awkwardly applauds, and if there’s one plus point of Amy’s Choice, it’s the performances by the regulars, Matt Smith and Karen Gillan. Smith is on top form as usual, and following on from the hilarious cake scene in The Vampires Of Venice, provides some more comedy gold this week. The aforementioned awkward bumbling. “Are you pregnant?” To counterpoint this though, we see shades of a more vulnerable Doctor when he fails to save Rory from collapsing into dust. And it’s here that Karen Gillan shows her acting chops when she questions what exactly The Doctor is good for if he can’t save people, and also her determination to end the Leadworth version of reality, which is now Rory-less. Oh, and the scene in which she screams and pretends that the baby is coming in order to get her own back on The Doctor’s tactless comment about her “dull” life.

"It’s refreshing to have a companion that’s not heroic or willing to save the day, but Rory is too much of a spare part"

I’m still not entirely sold on the presence of Rory though. His monotonous moaning and ineptitude are starting to wear a bit thin. It’s refreshing to have a companion that’s not heroic or willing to save the day, but Rory is too much of a spare part. Interestingly, he is killed in the Leadworth dream: Will this prove to pre-empt events in the real world? There’s rumours around the campfire that maybe Rory won’t be part of the regular TARDIS crew much longer, so it’ll be interesting to see how this pans out.

In the end though, I quite enjoyed Amy’s Choice. I went into the episode with low expectations, but actually it turned out to be better than expected. It certainly won’t rank as one of the all-time greats in Doctor Who, but there’s enough little nuggets of greatness tucked away to entertain – Some witty lines from Simon Nye. Matt Smith and Karen Gillan. Toby Jones’ performance. Even Murray Gold’s score is effective – he always works better with surreal, off-kilter cues rather than OTT bombast (think the Library two-parter or Midnight), and Amy’s Choice is no exception. And OK, the story’s comparatively miniscule budget doesn’t exactly allow it to stand tall, but then I can relate to that completely. Take it as a lightweight, mid-season breather, and Amy’s Choice is actually quite enjoyable in its own quirky way.

Calvin Peat reviews Amy's Choice:

This episode, written by Simon Nye and directed by Catherine Morshead, bears similarities to The Matrix and the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode Normal Again in that the main characters are in two worlds, trying to work out which is the real world and which is the dream world.  While The Matrix sees Neo escaping from the Matrix and discovering the real world relatively early on, Amy’s Choice is more like Normal Again in that the characters spend most of the episode trying to work out what’s real and what’s not, though it’s not quite so epistemologically bleak as the Buffy episode.  Although Amy’s Choice doesn’t quite reach the heights of those masterpieces, it’s nonetheless an excellent episode, combining humour, tension and emotion very effectively.

It begins with Rory and Amy living in the tranquil village of Upper Leadworth, now married and with Amy pregnant.  The Doctor shows up, and the episode wastes no time diving into the story.  They all ‘fall asleep’ and ‘wake up’ in the Tardis, realise that they had the same ‘dream’, then ‘fall asleep’ again and ‘wake up’ in Upper Leadworth.  The Doctor realises that they don’t know which is real, and instructs them “Trust nothing.  From now on, trust nothing you hear, see, or feel.  ...  Hold on tight.  This is going to be a tricky one”, before giving an ambivalent smile: his usual relish for adventure tempered by a genuine concern at the gravity of the situation.  And then it cuts to the opening credits.

The episode intercuts between dangers in both worlds, one of which we’re told is real, lending the episode pace and tension.  The Tardis segments have the characters trying to survive proximity to a freezing sun, whereas the Upper Leadworth segments recall Shaun of the Dead in juxtaposing a mundane setting with a credible, dangerous threat.  That is, old people controlled by aliens.  Well, it sounded better in my head.  But that’s one of the things Doctor Who does so well: taking ridiculous situations and making them exciting.

The characters’ reactions to the situation clearly illustrate the differences in outlook between them.  Rory likes the idea of having a nice, quiet life in the village.  Amy makes an effort to treat it as home, but it’s clear that she misses the adventure of travelling across time and space with The Doctor.  The Doctor himself finds Upper Leadworth intolerably boring, calling it a nightmare before backtracking with “Did I say it was a nightmare?  No, more of a really good...mare.”  As Rory comments in the Tardis world, “Oh, this is so you, isn’t it Doctor?  ...A weird new star, only 14 minutes to live, and only one man to save the day.  I just wanted a nice village and a family.”

However, The Doctor soon warms up to Upper Leadworth upon discovering that “There’s something that doesn’t make sense.  Let’s go and poke it with a stick.”

The characters also make some amusing attempts to work out which world is real, such as when Amy reasons “The science is all wrong here.  Burning ice?”, to which The Doctor retorts “No, no, no, ice can burn, sofas can read, it’s a big universe.”

Similarly, the following exchange is quite funny:

The Doctor: “Look around you.  Examine everything.  Look for all the details that don’t ring true.”
Rory: “Okay, well we’re in a spaceship that’s bigger on the inside than the outside...”
Amy: “With a bow-tie-wearing alien...”
Rory: “So maybe what rings true isn’t so simple.”
The Doctor: “Valid point.”

After last week’s episode, where The Doctor was somewhat thrown by Rory’s unfazed, analytical reaction to the inside of the Tardis (objecting “I like the bit where they say it’s bigger on the inside than the outside...”), Rory’s delayed statement of this is nicely thrown in as an aside here.

It’s interesting to note that when they ‘fall asleep’ and go from one world to the other, The Doctor tends to cling more to the world he’s just left, whereas Amy tends to embrace the new one as real.  This also seems to become less the case as the episode goes on.  All of this might be significant, or I could just be over-analysing it.

"Toby Jones gives a brilliant, smug, creepy performance as the Dream Lord, mocking The Doctor and his companions as he poses his twisted dilemmas"

Toby Jones (the voice of Dobby the House Elf in the Harry Potter films, and soon to feature in Tintin and Captain America) gives a brilliant, smug, creepy performance as the Dream Lord, mocking The Doctor and his companions as he poses his twisted dilemmas.

When The Doctor says that there’s only one person in the universe who hates him that much, it implies that the Dream Lord could somehow be the Master, although later in the episode The Doctor claims that it’s actually his own dark side.  This would imply that The Doctor has a significant streak of self-doubt, and perhaps self-loathing, buried deep down (hints of Buffy the Vampire Slayer again, especially Season 6, with the notion of being one’s own worst enemy).

The three main players, of course, also acquit themselves well.  Arthur Darvill is solid as the funny, down-to-earth, yet perceptive Rory Williams, Karen Gillan is great as the adventure-loving Amy Pond, and Matt Smith continues to be utterly fantastic as The Doctor.

I like the fact that this season is taking the tension between the characters seriously.  Instead of being underwritten and mostly shunted aside like Mickey was initially, Rory is being fleshed out into a multi-dimensional and significant character.

The situation tests all three of the main characters (which, of course, is the Dream Lord’s idea, though he concentrates on Amy Pond).  And they each get their own moment to shine.  The Doctor chooses to go back and save Amy in Upper Leadworth, and hence acknowledges the possibility that he might be wrong, and the dull village life that he can’t stand might be real.  Rory cuts off his ponytail for Amy (after the Dream Lord taunted him for thinking that it was “the only thing he needs to be interesting”), thus proving that he’s more than just a comedy sidekick, but in fact a hero in his own way.  Amy risks her life to get back to Rory, thus making the crucial choice between him and The Doctor.  As hinted by the ending of Flesh and Stone, this could be of vital importance to the timeline.

It’s interesting to note that in the Firefly episode War Stories, Zoe’s faced with a similar dilemma to Amy, and makes her choice much more decisively, without an instant’s hesitation.  Still, constructing the whole episode around Amy’s choice in this way does work, and makes for a good alternate universe story to boot.

As always, Murray Gold’s score also significantly strengthens the episode.  While his usual epic bombast is indeed awesome, he tries something different here.  Most of his score for the episode is thrilling and suspenseful, as the characters face encroaching dangers in both worlds.  In the emotional moments, though, he takes a quieter approach, which is effectively moving.

Sometimes (usually just before they go from one ‘reality’ to the next) the music sounds like one of the cues from Torchwood.  Perhaps this is hinting at some kind of rift, tying in with the season arc?

"Instead of being underwritten and mostly shunted aside like Mickey was initially, Rory is being fleshed out into a multi-dimensional and significant character"

At the end, it’s revealed that the Dream Lord comes from the dark side of The Doctor’s psyche: it couldn’t have been the others because they don’t have enough darkness in them.  This is heart-warming enough, but actually nonsense: it’s a very naïve view of human nature.

When Amy makes her choice, she hardly seems to consider the life of her (possibly real) unborn baby.  After Rory’s death, she says “Because if this is real life, I don’t want it.  I don’t want it.”  This seems to imply that if Rory were dead in (what Amy knew was) the real world, then she would actually consider killing herself (and thus also her unborn baby, if she were pregnant), which is obviously awful.  Perhaps the point is how destructive people’s reactions to grief can be.  Or maybe this is actually Amy’s dark side coming through, in which case The Doctor has underestimated it.  And it could be foreshadowing if Rory were actually to die later on in the series.

As Wesley observes in Angel, “Love can be a terrible thing.”  However, this may not have been what the writer was getting at.  He may just have been trying to illustrate Amy’s love for Rory: she cares about his life more than her own, and shows decisively where her loyalties lie.  In that respect, it’s very effective.

It’s interesting to note that The Doctor sees his reflection as the Dream Lord at the end.  Does this mean they’re still in a dream, or simply that his own dark side is still present?  And if the latter, is that why he interrupted Rory and Amy’s romantic moment?  As with previous episodes, it hints at the ongoing storyline, which gives the show as a whole more momentum.  This is one of the reasons why Steven Moffat makes such a good showrunner.

In summary, Amy's Choice is a very enjoyable genre-hopping ride with some solid character work and hints at what's in store for the rest of the season.

Next week’s episode should be good too, as it’s the first of a two-parter written by Torchwood genius Chris Chibnall.

See also:

Doctor Who reviews: Amy's Choice

Doctor Who complete reviews: Amy's Choice

Read more Doctor Who articles at Shadowlocked



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