When writing reviews for DWM (and this one comes from #423, by the way) you have to bear in mind the sequencing of how they’re going to be published. Basically, the first one to appear in a certain issue is the ‘lead’, and is afforded about double the word count*. And so it was here. So I had to find a lot to say about Amy’s Choice. It led what I think is the biggest collection of my DW reviews in one issue. Even I was sick of me by the time I’d got to the DVD piece…
Then they woke up. And this viewer didn’t quite go for that bit. So let’s get the caveat out of the way, right up here at the beginning. Because it’s probably useful to know where we stand, before we tumble into dreams.
The end of Amy’s Choice was just a teeny bit of a disappointment. This was a wonderfully woven story, slackened by the reveal it was a rogue speck of psychic pollen wot done it. Sorry, maybe that didn’t bother you, but after the high concept ingenuity of the previous 40-odd (and weren’t they?) minutes it didn’t seem quite good enough. The thing which had brought the time travellers to the edge of destruction, it was as thuddingly prosaic as, say, a broken spring in the TARDIS console’s fast return switch
Well, hey, that was the ending. We all woke up. And it was dealt with fleetingly, frisbee-ed out of a story which then left us with the affecting image of the Dream Lord’s reflection and a haunted Doctor. Psychic pollen? Absolutely the least of it. To be sneezed at! Hush now. Close your eyes. Hear the birdies. Tweet, tweet, go to sleep.
It’s 45 minutes earlier and five years hence. The cock is crowing, geese are a-gaggling and in a gingham and lemon kitchen Amy Pond, with bun in the oven, is knocking up cup cakes. Such a sweet scene, even Murray Gold’s music is oozing syrup. But this tableau, could it really have been imagined by writer Simon Nye, the man who – at the behest of TV producer Beryl Vertue (Steven Moffat’s mother-in-law, fact fans) – brought new laddism, near-the-knuckle humour and, indeed, knuckle-shuffling to the telly in the über 1990s sitcom Men Behaving Badly? Well, yes. But forgive your DWM reviewer as he turns nasal-voiced television knowitall for a moment and directs your attention to a lesser known (I had to say that, it feeds the spod in me) Nye comedy, 1998’s How Do You Want Me?
The show told the story of a city boy (Dylan Moran) who relocates to the rural village of Snowle having married a country girl (Charlotte Coleman). Here there are big skies, Black Beauty meadows and her off of The Vicar of Dibley (Emma Chambers). But it’s also an oppressive place, with skeletal trees and thuggish welly-wearing border guards. Nothing happens in the countryside and no-one can hear you scream (incidentally, the name of the show’s first episode – thanks for that, Inner-Spod). The point I’m making? Upper Leadworth is familiar territory for Nye. The lives led within are similarly inward and sluggish, as if slowly succumbing to Leadworth poisoning. As soon as the Doctor arrives – “cracking” Amy’s flowers as he steps onto the scene – everything moves to repel this metropolitan interloper. A townie in the midst.
Tweet tweet tweet.
Mist clouds part momentarily on board the TARDIS and the story presents us with a more tangible threat than rural ennui. Toby Jones’ Dream Lord is a wonderfully malevolent creation. Laconic and low-energy, he appears in an array of guises making up his very own Greek chorus, each an awful prefab everyman – from the behatted and smug Rotarian (all that’s missing are the driving gloves), to the chirpy butcher (happy among his carcasses), to the gone-to-seed smoothie (nice medallion!), to a spot of Doctor Who ‘cosplay’ (with the details slightly wrong for that really authentic touch).
The Dream Lord is maybe the most tooled-up Doctor Who baddy ever, because he’s armed to the teeth with sarcasm. In the past we’ve seen our hero prostrate in pain at Sutekh’s feet (Pyramids of Mars, 1976), or forced by the Master to live as Tweetie Pie for 12 months (Last of the Time Lords, 2007), but no-one’s ever wounded him like this. “The madcap vehicle,” sneers the Dream Lord. “The cockamamie hair. The clothes designed by a first year fashion student.” In short – and he’s not tall, Toby Jones – the Dream Lord is the Doctor’s worst critic. He’s the first person in the programme’s history to point out the time traveller’s affectations. This guy’s a one-man Statler and Waldorf, your ‘non-fan friend’ who chimes in with hurtful remarks while you’re watching your favourite show.
The TARDIS strand of the story is to all intents a bottle episode, something we’d normally consider anathema to present day Who, so geared up for getting the gang through the ship’s doors before the big shiny fonts are unleashed. But no, no one’s leaving yet. The Dream Lord is banging on like a boorish dinner party guest with a captive audience. Everyone’s been thinking it, however he’s the only one who’s got the exquisite bad manners to point out Rory is the gooseberry here.
They’re trapped and facing icy peril with a gatecrasher seeding dissent. Will the crew make it safely to the final reel?
Tweet tweet tweet.
Real or a dream? Our first reaction is to declare Upper Leadworth the fiction. The truth we know is the Doctor and his friends in the TARDIS. But, there’s enough going on to destabilise that assumption. Think about it – this is a series which has been happy to dump 12 years of Amy’s life before, almost as a passing gag, binning off another two. Then River Song shows up in episode four having already seen what happens in the season finale! Locking Amy and Rory into a scenario five years to come is, by comparison, a bit of a cinch.
It’s the details that help sell the reality. Rory moaning about leaf blowers, Amy’s ruddy expectant mum cheeks and the Doctor’s barely disguised horror at the mundanity of it all. You might expect the Upper Leadworth sequences to be more obviously trippy, but heightening the reality here would have only undermined it. Catherine Morshead’s direction doesn’t lead us one way or the other.
Doctor Who’s raison d’être is making safe scary. It has been, right from the beginning: Look, there’s a friendly old police box! Oh no, hang on… In this adventure Nye pulls an audacious scam, transforming a section of society we’ve been taught to cherish into something terrible. OAPs as WMDs. They advance, in true monster-style, very slowly indeed, one particular old dear hovering about for a spot of bovver, Flymo brandished as a weapon.
Help the aged? Belt the aged! There’s a cheeky thrill in seeing Rory whacking little old Mrs Hamill with a two-by-four. Then, later, Mrs Poggit – with her dear, sweet, storybook name – is literally lamped by the Doctor and takes a tumble off the roof. Will there be complaints about this near fatal lack of respect for our elders? I hope not, and would instead encourage any senior citizens looking in to surreptitiously pop a green gobstopper in your mouth next time the grandkids drop by. Show them how their favourite show is sometimes a little bit true. Old people really can be mean.
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Meantime, back on the TARDIS there’s a chill in the air. The Dream Lord’s slipped into something more comfortable and now he’s baiting Amy.
In retrospect, all of this becomes even more interesting when we discover who this nemesis actually is – a personification of the Time Lord’s darkest thoughts. But while he infers suppressed feelings of both lust and distrust when he’s talking to Amy, it’s the little chap’s chats with the Doctor which prove truly instructive. “The old man prefers the company of the young,” says the tormenter. And when you put it like that, a 907-year-old hanging out with twentysomethings does sound a bit wrong.
The clue had been laid earlier in the episode: “There’s only one person in the universe who hates me as much as you do,” reasons our hero. But the fact that not even the Master can match up to the Doctor’s own self-loathing is a huge statement. I’m glad, though, the tale doesn’t push on too far with the psychodrama. To know the Doctor doubts is enough. In fact, it increases his stature that he manages to swallow it all down. But it’s best to keep a lid on this. Too much angst and he would no longer be the children’s own hero that adults adore.
But still, the Doctor won’t tell anyone his name? There’s a serious trust issue here. Ultimately the person he confides in… is no-one.
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“Is no-one going to mention Rory’s ponytail?”
Good point. In an episode where we see Rory die – ashes to ashes, dust to dust – it’s great how the biggest beat the character hits is making a hairdressing decision. This is the typical Doctor Who scene of noble sacrifice writ small, as the scissors come out and the ponytail goes. No disrespect to the ever-excellent Arthur Darvill, but it’s Karen Gillan’s reaction that makes the moment: gulping, absolutely astonished Rory would do something so epic for her. Forget the bit about him dying; I reckon this is the point Amy really knows where her heart lies. That tweeting you hear? Ah, lovebirds!
So with that regrettable pollinated plot expo out of the way, our gang of three regroup and reconfigure. The Doctor himself is now the gooseberry, but he’s got plenty to occupy him. You sense there might be unfinished business in the things the Dream Lord stirred up. But not for Amy, she’s made her choice. In a way, the whole thing was her wake-up call.
* In a recent issue, I asked if I could buck the ‘lead’ review being the longest rule, because I didn’t have much nice to say about the episode in hand.