“Hold on tight. This is going to be a tricky one.” With those words, the delightfully twisty “Amy’s Choice” kicks off a high-concept mindbender of an episode which also provides a crucial turning point in the journey our three regular characters—the Doctor (Matt Smith), Amy (Karen Gillan), and Rory (Arthur Darvill)—are taking over the course of this season. After the problems some earlier stories (e.g. “Victory of the Daleks” and “The Vampires of Venice”) have had with fitting into the 45-minute running time of a single episode, “Amy’s Choice” is an object lesson in how to get it right. Like a well crafted prose short story, it sets up a self-contained situation for our heroes, follows the logic of that situation through to its end, and leaves the characters definitely changed from where they were at the start.
One of the major threads running through this season has been Amy’s relationships with the Doctor and her fiancé Rory. Given that she spent most of her life fixated on her memory of meeting the Doctor when she was seven, and that when he finally turned up again she happily went away adventuring with him on the night before her wedding, Rory could be forgiven for wondering about just how deep her commitment to him is. In the last episode, they did seem to come together again when the Doctor took them to sixteenth-century Venice, and Rory had the opportunity to share in the weirdness of her life with the Doctor. But that only postponed, rather than resolved, the issue of Amy having to decide whether or not she is fully committed to a life together with Rory. As the episode title suggests, the emotional heart of “Amy’s Choice” is the final working out of that issue.
At the start, though, it seems that the matter has already been fully settled. We open with a pastoral shot of a country cottage, inside which a heavily pregnant Amy is happily at work making cupcakes. Rory, her husband of five years—and sporting a hideously tragic ponytail—arrives just in time to see the TARDIS materialize in their garden. The Doctor has dropped in for a visit to his old friends’ quiet existence in the village of Upper Leadworth. It’s all very relaxed and peaceful—but then loud, insistent birdsong is heard, as the three of them simultaneously drop off to sleep…
…and wake up inside the TARDIS, realizing that they have all just had the same experience. The Doctor dismisses it as some sort of freak “psychic episode,” but then the same birdsong is heard in the TARDIS control room, as the three of them simultaneously drop off to sleep…
…and wake up back in the village. Both worlds, the village and the TARDIS, feel absolutely real, but that’s clearly impossible. As the Doctor says, “Listen to me—trust nothing. From now on, trust nothing you see, hear or feel. … Are we flashing forwards, or backwards?” Which world is real?
This episode is one of only two this season to be the work of a writer new to the series. In this case, Simon Nye (best known as the creator of 90s sitcom Men Behaving Badly) has come up with an excellent script whose working out bears comparison with showrunner Steven Moffat’s time-twisting plotting, while at the same time having quite a different feel to it. Rather than playing tricks with time, we are rapidly hopping from one setting to another as the Doctor is increasingly desperate to work out exactly what’s going on, and it becomes imperative to make a choice as to which world to accept as real. And as with some of Moffat’s best episodes, the ending sheds a whole new light on what has gone before, showing that what was actually happening was quite different to what initially appeared to be the case.
Nye fills every scene with characterizing humorous detail for the regulars. A favorite of mine is the first TARDIS scene, where the Doctor and Amy both surreptitiously check the back of Rory’s head for a ponytail, while Amy is less than pleased that the “nightmare” the Doctor speaks of having turns out to be the tranquil scene they’ve all just shared. The Doctor is not at his best in a quiet English village with nothing to do—later, he yells that he can’t get his brain working to solve the problem because “this village is just SO DULL! I’m slowing down, just like you two…” Amy immediately trumps him by pretending to go into labor, leading to the hilarious sight of the Doctor with a look of clueless terror on his face, hands poised beneath her to catch a baby emerging at speed. When Amy reveals it was a hoax and snaps, “This is my life now, and it just turned you white as a sheet. So don’t you call it dull again, ever,” she has definitely scored a point over the Time Lord. Amy’s pregnant state is the source of quite a few nice gags (“Now we all know there’s an elephant in the room…” “I have to be this size, I’m having a baby!”), including her inability to keep up as the Doctor goes rushing around investigating (“Ohhh…can we not do the running thing?”).
But there’s a lot more going on than just some clever comedy. After a couple more switches between realities, they find themselves in a dead TARDIS, growing ever colder, unable to even find out what’s outside. Suddenly a man appears in the control room—a short guy wearing an outfit very much like the Doctor’s. He calls himself the Dream Lord, and tells them he is setting them a test. “So here’s your challenge. Two worlds—here, in the time machine, and there, in the village that time forgot. One is real, the other’s fake.” What’s more, in each world they will face a deadly threat. In the village, the population of the old peoples’ rest home turn out to be infected with alien parasites, while in the TARDIS, the ever-increasing cold is caused by an impending impact with a “cold star.” Both threats—an army of zombie pensioners, and a star radiating cold—are outré enough that they could be dismissed as the stuff of dreams (or nightmares). But as the Doctor says, it’s a big universe, and he doesn’t know everything, so the mere presence of something as ridiculous as a bunch of old people with green eyestalks in their mouths, or a star “burning cold” doesn’t automatically indicate unreality. A more subtle approach is required.
Dream Lord: “If you die in the dream, you wake up in reality. Healthy recovery in next to no time. Ask me what happens if you die in reality.”
Rory: “What happens?”
Dream Lord: “You die, stupid. That’s why it’s called reality.”
The Dream Lord is played by Hollywood star Toby Jones (among many other credits, he provided the voice of Dobby in the Harry Potter films, and is in the forthcoming Tintin movie written by Steven Moffat and directed by Steven Spielberg). Given by far the best guest part so far this season, he puts in a mesmerizing performance. There’s never any doubt that he’s in control of the situation, and has the measure of the Doctor and his companions. Initially content to simply throw snarky quips, he becomes steadily more menacing throughout the episode, particularly after he separates Amy from the others. He takes a delight in prodding her about her conflicted feelings towards Rory and the Doctor:
Dream Lord: “Now, which one of these men would you really choose? 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 really interesting…is a ponytail?”
Amy: “Stop it.”
Dream Lord: “But maybe it’s better than loving and losing the Doctor. Pick a world, and this nightmare will all be over. They’ll listen to you; it’s you they’re waiting for. Amy’s men. Amy’s choice.”
As Rory perceptively pointed out earlier, the two worlds are effectively set up to highlight possible futures for Amy with either Rory or the Doctor. Rory’s world encompasses a quiet existence in a peaceful little village, with him having passed his exams and become a doctor, married his childhood sweetheart and started a family. The Doctor’s, by contrast, is a world of adventure and weird encounters out there in a huge universe of wonders. But as it turns out, neither Amy nor the others have to make a choice between the worlds at all—because neither world is real.
The Doctor: “The Dream Lord has no power over the real world. He was offering us a choice between two dreams.”
Amy: “How do you know that?”
The Doctor: “Because I know who he is.”
After it’s all over, the Doctor reveals some specks of “psychic pollen” which apparently caused all the trouble by falling into the time rotor. As an explanation, it ranks alongside the ending of the very early first Doctor story “The Edge of Destruction”, where the TARDIS crew are put through a similar hallucinatory experience as the result of a spring on the console getting stuck (yes, really). Fortunately, what would otherwise be a cheap “it was all just a dream” ending is just a stepping stone to the real revelation—that the Dream Lord was a manifestation of the Doctor himself.
The Doctor: “Psychic pollen, it’s a mind parasite. Feeds on everything dark in you, gives it a voice, turns it against you. I’m 907; it had a lot to go on.”
It’s well worth watching the episode again once you know the Dream Lord’s true nature. His taunts to all three of the characters take on a whole new meaning. In particular, of course, his sparring with his other self reveals a self-loathing which the Doctor usually keeps well hidden.
A character piece like this, without any big effects or action set pieces, stands or falls on the performances of the cast, and they are on top form here. I’ve already heaped praise on Matt Smith throughout this season, but here he was even better than in previous episodes; perfectly in control of his performance at every moment. His ability to play against his youth and embody the age and wisdom of the Doctor is continually amazing. It’s worth noting that this episode was almost at the end of the production schedule—the second-last filmed for the season. If the maturity and confidence of Smith’s performance here is any indication, Doctor Who’s future is looking extremely good.
Karen Gillan is naturally the focus of the episode, and she gives a superb performance. Apart from handling the comedy expertly, in the second half she is given a whole range of emotional material to work with. She portrays very well the making of Amy’s real choice in this episode—the choice between the Doctor and Rory. At the start, in the face of the Dream Lord’s taunts, Amy breezily reassures Rory that she has chosen him, but she doesn’t yet believe that Rory is her soul mate (note the clever way the direction at that moment has her positioned closer to the Doctor than to Rory). But in the village, Rory is shockingly, suddenly killed by one of the zombies, and Amy is brought to the stricken realization of how much she really loved him. Gillan is brilliant as she bitterly says, “Then what is the point of you?” when the Doctor tells Amy he can’t bring Rory back. From that moment she drives the action—literally in fact, as the Doctor steps back to allow her to end the dream by deliberately crashing a van into a wall. When she later confesses to Rory that she didn’t know whether it was a dream—and didn’t care—her obvious sincerity finally cements the two of them together as a couple.
The direction from newcomer Catherine Morshead is mostly straightforward—the nature of the episode doesn’t really allow for directorial showing off, although the scenes in the darkened, icy TARDIS were suitably atmospheric, and there’s a notable shot at the end of the teaser with the camera circling several times around the characters as the Doctor realizes the situation. The main thing I noticed about the production is that they must have had lots of trouble with terrible weather on location. Normally rain is hard to see on film or video, but there were several scenes here where the cast had to pretend that they weren’t standing outside in a downpour—in particular, the scene of the Doctor, Amy and Rory watching the children playing looked completely ridiculous.
As we head into the home stretch of the season, I suspect it will become increasingly difficult to discuss the episodes as entities in themselves, without referring to the overarching plot elements of the season. There was no appearance of the “crack in the universe” this episode, but since everything up until the last scene was not real, that’s not surprising. However, the final shots provide a twist of their own, as the Doctor momentarily sees the Dream Lord’s reflection instead of his own in the console. Is this just a directorial flourish, or a hint that the Dream Lord may play a further role in later episodes?
Looking back, it’s curious how many times dreams have been referenced this season. In “The Eleventh Hour”, Prisoner Zero refers to “poor Amy Pond, still such a child inside—dreaming of the magic Doctor she knows will return to save her.” In “The Beast Below”, Amy’s final voiceover (and just what was that beginning and ending narration about, anyway?) contained the phrase, “This dream must end, this world must know…” Then in “The Time of Angels”, River Song reads from a book about the Weeping Angels: “What if we had ideas that could think for themselves? What if one day our dreams no longer needed us?” Finally, and perhaps most pertinently, Rosanna in “The Vampires of Venice” tells the Doctor to “remember us. Dream of us,” to keep the memory of her race alive. Knowing how much Steven Moffat enjoys building up intricate plot structures that suddenly take on whole new meanings once some crucial fact is revealed, I’m wondering whether “Amy’s Choice” will in the end turn out to be even more central to the whole season than it currently appears.
Hold on tight. This is going to be a tricky one.
NEXT WEEK: A drilling operation in a remote Welsh village results in the return of an old enemy of the Doctor’s, in “The Hungry Earth.”
Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: There were a couple of occasions when the classic series had stories that employed dreamscape or otherwise surreal elements, and probably the best of them is “The Mind Robber,” starring Patrick Troughton, Frazer Hines and Wendy Padbury.
Steven Cooper is a software developer and long-time Doctor Who fan, living in Melbourne, Australia.