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Wow. This is quite some episode.
It stands up brilliantly at a first pass. The setup is intriguing: it’s stunningly simple and works precisely because of that. This reality or that one? It’s edge of your seat stuff as they flip between two and their two different perils. And the complexities that open out at the end take it away from a simple resolution and into something else altogether.
The villain, too, is the best we’ve seen in a long time. No rubber exoskeleton. Just the superlative Toby Jones in a part that crackles with wit and menace.
And the script! Yes, as comedy writers we’re always biased in favour of a funny script, but this is beyond exceptional. Simon Nye is an interesting writer: he can churn out competent yet formulaic stuff like Men Behaving Badly without breaking a sweat, but he can also write killingly funny, quirky stuff like the criminally underrated Beast. As a result, this is a script groaning with great material. Our favourite is, of course, the speech that slides a stiletto into the Doctor’s heart at the same time it’s making the audience fall off its chair: “If you had any more tawdry quirks you could open up a tawdry quirk shop. The madcap vehicle, the cockamamie hair, the clothes designed by a first year fashion student…I’m surprised you don’t have a little purple space dog, just to ram home what an intergalactic wag you are.” That is definitely going to leave a mark. We laughed so much we couldn’t breathe.
‘”I’d say we have about forty minutes before we crash into it. But that’s not a problem.” “Because you know how to get us out of this.” “Because we’ll have frozen to death before then.”’
“Have I told you about Elizabeth the First? Well, she thought she was the first…”
“They’re not going to be peeping out of anywhere else, are they?”
“You’re probably a vegetarian, aren’t you, you big flop-haired wuss.”
Well played, Mr Nye. Well played.
And of course on top of all that there’s the emotional content. Torn between her two boys, Amy is forced to choose, and in scenes that make even hardbitten cynics like us get something in our eye, she does. It’s a triumph.
But the really, really fragrant, deliciously peachy thing about Amy’s Choice is that all of that stuff is just the surface. Sparkling, glittering, coruscating (look it up) - but just the surface. Where the episode starts to really get interesting is when you get a stick and start having a little prod underneath. Because there’s so much more to it than it seems at first glance.
Take the setup, for example. Simple, right? Like we said? A choice between two realities, except that turns out to be a lie? But wait a minute - what do those realities consist of? Because it’s nowhere near as straightforward as it looks.
For a start, the two realities are by no means evenly balanced. One the one hand, fun, adventure, an ever-changing panorama, a dangerously charismatic alien in a bow tie. On the other, Dullsville-on-the-water. Looks like a no-brainer for Amy, right? But there’s more to it than that - not only are the realities not equally attractive, they’re not even equally real. They drop hints the size of anvils about Leadworth. The Lark Rise To Gallifrey pastoral paradise, with the geese and the cupcakes and the bike with the wicker basket. (And was that Antiques Roadshow on Amy’s TV?) The eerie quiet. The unremarked weather that turns from sun to snow to sun again. Most of all, it’s a filter-o-rama: benign yellow light, soft focus, the works. It’s so unreal you could easily suspect a double bluff: there is one, of course, just not that one.
What about the TARDIS dream? Does that seem real? We boringly guessed that neither of them were real fairly early on, so we’d have to say no, not exactly. The cold star was a potential clue: as one of us sniffed, “Physics doesn’t work like that”. (Well, if you’re going to bring science into it…) However, despite the Doctor chiming in with us with “Star burning cold, do me a favour” he wasn’t any surer at the time than we were, because there might always turn out be a plausible explanation for something like that in Doctor Who. What really didn’t ring true to us was the effect it had on the TARDIS, because it just ain’t that easy to bring the old girl down. Nevertheless, the TARDIS dream is without a doubt a lot more convincing than the Leadworth one.
OK, then. So they make the TARDIS dream seem more real in order to steer us towards that one, right? Thus making it a more dramatic ending when Amy picks Rory over the Doctor? Ye-ess, that’s part of it. But the superspectacular part is that there’s even more to it than that. We’ll tell you why, but let’s take the scenic route, shall we? The hedgerows are awfully pretty at this time of year.
Amy’s Choice. We love that title: so deceptively simple. Couldn’t be more unequivocal, could it? It’s about Amy and the choice she has to make. But in actuality, Amy’s choice is, while beautifully done and a joy to watch, a long way from being the most important point of the episode. And that would be what it tells us about the Doctor.
Forty-seven years. That’s a long time. And in all that time, how often have we gone inside the Doctor’s mind? That’s arguable, especially in the new series where they’ve shown us the Doctor quivering on the edge of expressing his feelings to Rose (sorry to reactivate anyone’s trauma), but we’d settle for “virtually never”. Even when we see the Valeyard, he’s all about the goal-focused evil plans, not about doing a PowerPoint presentation on exactly what the Doctor’s dark side consists of. But here, in contrast, we get to peer, courtesy of the Dream Lord, right inside the Doctor’s head. And that, you guys, is mega. Actual thoughts. Of the actual Doctor.
So what’s going on in the Doctor’s head? Well, as it turns out it’s nothing we didn’t already either know or very very strongly suspect, so it’s not quite as revolutionary a step as it first seems. (Still strikingly bold, though.) Basically, we get three things. The first is the Doctor’s self-loathing. This doesn’t come as any surprise after the Eleventh Doctor’s emo predecessor, but it’s interesting to see the confirmation. The guy’s absolutely soaked in guilt, particularly about the way he treats, and affects, his companions. Again, the Peter Pan message is clearly laid out: “Your friends never see you again once they’re grown up”. And although Amy repudiates the idea that this is necessary (‘“We have to grow up eventually.” “Says who?”'), we see the other side of this in the Leadworth dream when she says “We haven’t seen him for years, and somehow, we don’t really connect any more”.
The second is the way the Doctor feels about settling down. No prizes for guessing that he wouldn’t be lining up for this. Moving on has been his raison d’etre from the beginning, even when he has an emotional attachment to a companion: the Tenth Doctor’s silence when Rose proposes moving in together speaks volumes.
And the Doctor has an emotional attachment in this case, too: the fact that he returned Amy’s kiss, even if briefly, was a strong hint of this, but here it’s spelled out in letters of fire: the third thing confirmed is that he fancies Amy. “And now he’s left you with me. Spooky old, not-to-be-trusted me. Anything could happen.” Of the three of them in the TARDIS, he sees Rory as the gooseberry. And he genuinely can’t see why Amy would ever choose Rory and a life of stability over him: “You ran away with a handsome hero. Would you really give him up for a bumbling country doctor who thinks the only thing he needs to be interesting is a ponytail?”.
So this is why Leadworth is so unreal: the Doctor’s dark side, in projecting the kind of saminess he would hate and thinks Amy would hate too, is trying to load the dice in his favour. It’s much more than a bit of sleight of hand calculated to lead the audience astray.
And that still isn’t all of it. It may seem like an uneven contest, so that you could read Amy’s eventual decision as a bit of a cheat as it looks as if it’s based entirely on her reaction to Rory’s death and ignores the rest of it. However, in fact it’s perfectly fair: if you look for them, the clues are all there. Amy doesn’t realise it herself: she says “I didn’t know, I honestly didn’t, till right now” but the pointers are there whether she understands that or not. She never responds to the Dream Lord’s trying to provoke her to declare for the Doctor. In Leadworth, she fakes labour, then says to the Doctor: “This is my life now, and it just turned you white as a sheet, so don’t you call it dull again. Ever. OK?”. In the TARDIS, she looks at frozen Rory and the Doctor, but tucks the blanket only around Rory. Her face as she registers Rory’s carried her up the stairs, and her “I was starting to like it!” when he cuts off his ponytail, clearly show her love for him. This is exceptional writing, nudging you in one direction, but giving you enough so that when the answer comes from the other direction it’s satisfyingly justified.
The performances in this are absolutely stonking. Toby Jones takes some already killer lines and makes them even funnier while at the same time giving them a dark and steely edge. Arthur Darvill is wonderful as Rory: yes, he does the comedy hapless stuff very well, but he also gives the emotional scenes some real welly. The way he looks at the cot, his death scene, his realisation Amy has chosen him: they all get you right there, and it never gets mawkish.
Karen Gillan, too, does a fantastic job with Amy, particularly in the scene where Rory dies. The concentrated venom of her “Then what is the point of you?”, followed by her leaning forward and gently touching the sand, gets her emotions across a thousand times more effectively than if she had been in floods of tears. In Russell T Davies’s time, there were far too often great slabs of emotion piled up, squashing the story flat, with some extra melodrama shovelled on the top just to make sure: Amy’s Choice, in contrast, is an object lesson in how much more impact you can make by holding back. Yes, they could have done impassioned speeches when they woke in the TARDIS. But instead, they simply reach out and take each other’s hands, and it hits you like a sledgehammer.
Matt Smith is, needless to say, stellar. We love the way he twangs his braces and examines the gravel in Leadworth. We love “Don’t let the cool gear fool you” and “Did I say a nightmare? No, more of a really good… mare”. His delivery of “Bowties are cool” is to die for. TO. DIE. FOR. We love the moment when Rory says “This is so you” and the Doctor works out who the Dream Lord is and we see that without him saying a word. But really, every single scene, every single gesture, every single expression is flawless.
Oh yeah, we suppose we have to ask: so who is the Dream Lord? Is he the Valeyard? Doctor’s dark side: tick. Zipping about like a hyperactive meerkat: tick. The Doctor, on the other hand, is clear that he’s been brought about by the psychic pollen: “It’s a mind parasite, feeds on everything dark in you. Gives it a voice, turns it against you.” We suppose it’s possible that this is the Valeyard’s genesis, although how he’d hang on in the absence of the pollen mystifies us. We can’t find it in us to care much either way. It works. End of.
What doesn’t work? Not much, really. We’re not thrilled by the elderly aliens story: it seems a bit perfunctory and a lot retreaded. (Although Sarah Gillig Sunu from Boston writes to put a rather nice spin on this: her theory is that old people, especially ones stuck in a home after a lifetime in Leadworth, are a manifestation of the Peter Pan-alike Doctor's fear of growing up/aging. We like it.) It’s disappointing to see the story yet again of aliens stuck on earth, although we suppose if you insist on setting so many stories on Earth (and really. Must we?) a barrowload of “aliens stuck on earth” stories is less than surprising. Seems to us like there’s a simple fix for that. And call us po-faced, but we’re also not fans of the “whack the old lady with a stick” scenes. Yes, very transgressive and that, but not only is it a cheap shot, those really are still old people around the aliens and that’s who they’re hitting. Lovely.
The piles of dust are rather too Red Dwarf (we kept hearing Holly’s “She won’t be any use to you…now. Not unless you want something to grit the path with”) and the death of the children is so out of left field it has no emotional impact. And speaking of the death of children and emotional impact, shouldn’t somebody have mentioned Amy’s baby? She wasn’t sure the baby wasn’t real, after all, and she elects to kill it along with herself without giving it a moment’s consideration: it’s not that she actively chooses to kill it but that she doesn’t even notice it. Um, likely.
There’s far too much stomach-patting (not a reliable sign of a real pregnancy, but an infallible sign of a TV one). And we would have liked the line about the Peruvian folk band more if the Fast Show hadn’t got there first.
Yeah, like we care. This is sheer brilliance.
MORAL: Psychic pollen: it’s nothing to sneeze at.
KISS MY ASTER
It’s nice the way the Doctor crushes Amy’s flowerbed with the TARDIS: it’s another clue that he’s trying to rain on her Leadworthy parade.
In the end, is it that amazing that Amy might choose Leadworth over the TARDIS anyway? Humans aren’t built for constant stress and change, and let’s face it, there aren’t many companions who haven’t left of their own accord.
The deep-frozen TARDIS may be unlikely, but it sure is pretty.
HE JUST SMILED AND GAVE ME A VEGEMITE SANDWICH
How we cheered to see the VW van. After all, as Antipodeans Kombis, fried-out and otherwise, are in our blood.
GETTIN’ WIGGY WITH IT
It’s an illusion, so there’s no such thing as a mistake, right? Dream on. Rory cuts off his ponytail below the elastic, then in the next shot his (presumably real) hair is free without Rory ever yanking off the elastic.
THE SAND WHICH IS THERE
Why doesn’t Rory remember dying? It wasn’t all that quick, after all, and he knew it was coming.
ISSUES. WE HAS DEM
So, Coupling, right? Steven Moffat's sitcom? Based on his own relationship? Check out the strangely familiar theme of the episode "The End Of The Line", in which heading-for-serious-commitment "Steve" gives his number to a woman in a bar, threatening his relationship. (Thanks to Chris Smowton for pointing this out.)
Buy this Doctor Who DVD: UK
Buy this Doctor Who DVD on Blu-ray: UK