Amy's Choice. Sounds like a brand new drink that you'd get down the pub – you know, the sort of glow-in-the-dark alcoholic fizzy pop that would turn your insides out after three bottles. Or maybe it's a slightly flat bitter with a potent but unpleasant aftertaste.
Two polar opposite choices, but which to choose?
Just like the halfway mark of Matt Smith's first season in which the Doctor, Amy and Dopey Clot, Rory face two diametrically disastrous scenarios: Either freeze to an ice cube in the TARDIS, which is en route to a Cold Star or be set upon by a horde of old codgers with serious oral hygiene problems.
This is all the work of the enigmatic Dream Lord, a sneering toad of a man, whose idea of fun and games is to force the time travellers to work out which of the two scenarios is real and which is fiction. If they choose the right one, then the Doctor and co. wake up to get themselves out of the trap. It sounds simple, but there's a bit more to it than that.
If there's one thing that I've learned about the worlds of Doctor Who, it's that nothing is as easy as it seems. Just like disentangling Amy's Choice itself. For me it's personally one of the better stories of the season. Which is something of a damning indictment, given that it still feels like a wee bit of a missed opportunity. Like The Vampires Of Venice, there's the feeling that this story could be so much more.
SO! MUCH! MORE!
There's something that smacks of first draft about Amy's Choice – the story's struggling with its own conflict in that it can't decide whether it's an out and out wacky oddball tale in the manner of The Mind Robber or The Celestial Toymaker or just your average weekly hi-jinks. Possibly this is due to the fact that the visuals aren't quite strong enough to give the impression of a weird, crazy, mixed-up dream. One of the two 'realities' is good old Leadworth, only some time in the future. Rory has now gone all Status Quo with a silly ponytail while Amy is now with baby.
If anything, Leadworth's even more dull than ever before – a vista of rickety houses, dull scenery and non-stop rain. It's like a Groundhog Day world where it's late October and there's torrential rain, wind and cold. That's about it though – maybe this is the whole point: to reinforce how drab Leadworth is, but it's not exactly the most inspiring of settings for a magnificent Doctor Who adventure.
Along with The Lodger, Amy's Choice was the last of the season to be filmed – a canny move, given that there had been overseas trips to Croatia, spectacular designs and royalty cheques ahoy for returning monsters in the season finale (which was filmed prior to this). Plus, don't forget, Britain was and still is in the middle of a dire economic climate, so Amy's Choice equates with that horrible end of the month feeling when you have about £3.07 in the bank and a quarter of a loaf of stale bread in the larder.
Mind you, in the past, finance hasn't been a problem in Doctor Who. Speaking of The Mind Robber, the then-production team faced the same sort of challenge, given that it was the last one to be filmed in the 1967/1968 production block. It turned out to be one of the most visually arresting stories of Doctor Who, so I guess that it's all about making do with what you have and making the best out of limited resources. Whereas director David Maloney produced a creepy, surreal tour-de-force, newcomer Catherine Morshead doesn't quite have that same edge. The direction is a bit too flat and doesn't deliver on what's quite a creepy premise in Simon Nye's script.
Take the Eknodine, the aliens who are passing themselves off as old fogies. There's no real attempt to make them a memorably creepy foe. Their method of execution is potentially quite horrible, reducing their victims to piles of dust, but these sequences seem rather 'over and done with'; even Rory's apparent demise is clumsily assembled and edited. While Amy's Choice stands on the edge of terrorising kids, it never goes the whole hog.
As a script though, Amy's Choice does throw up some interesting conundrums. Take the Dream Lord himself, a bloke whose modus operandi seems to be sneering people to death. On the one hand, he's a cosmic Mr Benn – in that he switches clothes in virtually every other scene. Take your pick from his variant on the Doctor's costume, a butcher's outfit or even an ageing lothario gown. On the other hand, he's clearly auditioning for the outer space version of Come Dine With Me, given that he's impersonating the sarky voiceover man on a non-stop basis. The Dream Lord could cut through solid rock with his withering put-downs, reducing his victims to self-loathing mush with one single sentence. He calls Rory the “gooseberry” (although this is probably being polite), accuses Amy of not having a “real face”, and as for the Doctor... Well, if words were weapons, then the Doctor would have died the death of a thousand cuts.
The Dream Lord's first salvo to The Doctor is filled to the brim with sneering, sarcastic insults: “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 haven't got a little purple space dog just to ram home what an intergalactic wag you are.” He's constantly on at his nemesis throughout, taking the mickey out of his hair and accusing him of being a vegetarian (“You big, flop-haired wuss”).
One of the nice things about Amy's Choice is that it strings out the mystery of the Dream Lord's identity. He's clearly clued up as to who the Doctor is, reminding him and Amy of his inadequacies, whether he has a penchant for betraying his friends or hanging around with young companions (The Dream Lord can't have seen The End Of Time, evidently).
So who is The Dream Lord then? A new incarnation of The Master? The Valeyard? Mr Sin in disguise? Well, if you'd have chosen Option B, you wouldn't be too far off the mark. The Dream Lord is in fact, a manifestation of the Doctor's darker side – how else would DL have such insight? The episode never dwells too heavily on The Dark Side Of The Doctor. Whether or not the Dream Lord could be the Valeyard is never explored – never does he change into the black skullcap and robe while laughing evilly. Although mind you, both the Dream Lord and the Valeyard do share that common ground of spreading more falsehoods than your average British tabloid, given that both so-called realities turn out to be false (much like the non-existent death of Peri). Given that at the end, we see the Dream Lord's reflection in the TARDIS console, there's still a potential return for this sartorially challenged put-down machine.
Good thing though, especially if Toby Jones decides to sign on the dotted line for a rematch. Jones is spot on as the Dream Lord, using his voice to great effect. In keeping with all good villains, Jones manages to flesh out the Dream Lord with equal measures of convincing darkness and laugh-out-loud humour. In lesser hands, the Dream Lord's insults could have come across as too wooden or too forced, but Jones pitches them at just the right level that sits on the fence of hilarity and genuine menace. The second Harry Potter actor (Dobby the House Elf) to grace Doctor Who this season, Toby Jones gives one of the best guest performances in Matt Smith's run.
It also helps that Simon Nye gives him plenty of good lines to relish. I must confess, I was a bit dubious about Nye's contribution, given the predictability of Men Behaving Badly (a sitcom in which the two male leads' haircuts are longer than the female leads, the flop-haired wusses), but in fact, his début script for Doctor Who is rather good, full of amusing lines (anything that the Dream Lord says) and also a neat interpretation of the current TARDIS crew.
The Leadworth sequences, in particular, offer some interesting insights into the minds of the three travellers. Rory wants Amy and a normal life. The Doctor wants out of a normal life. Amy wants the best of both worlds. The reactions of all three as to which world is which equate with their wants in that the Doctor's bored out of his mind while Rory's convinced that the Leadworth option is the genuine article. Amy's torn between the two choices, wanting both but unable to have them. The Dream Lord's already pointed out the flaws in both lines of reasoning: “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? But maybe it's better than loving and losing the Doctor...”
In the end, events are taken out of Amy's hands after a halitosis-affected codger blasts Rory into a pile of fading dust. It's an interesting sequence this, and intriguingly, Amy is quick to disregard the TARDIS life as the real McCoy. I say intriguingly, given that she still seems to spend most of her time hen-pecking Rory until the cows have come home and settled down to watch TV. Even after this adventure, she'll continue to nitpick and criticise the hapless scamp, and with that in mind, it's still not quite clear why Amy would settle for such a useless lump like Rory in the first place. At this point in time, he's still a crushingly inept presence – although the bit in which he cuts off his ponytail is rather affecting. It's also the first of about 165 deaths for Rory during his time on Doctor Who. Believe me, this is only the tip of the iceberg.
Back to Amy's reaction, and it's quite moving if not a little harrowing. “This is the dream,” she says to the Doctor. “Because if this is real life, I don't want it. I don't want it.” After which she gets into the vehicle to kill herself and her baby and stop this version of events from becoming a reality. The question is, would Amy do the same in reality? This poser does illustrate Amy's real feelings for Rory, and also tallies with her personality that we've seen so far this season. Amy never does things by halves. It's either all or nothing, whether she's making money by stripping, snogging her Raggedy Doctor or now committing suicide in the Leadworth 'reality'. Amy may not be the most likeable companion in the Whoniverse, but gradually we're starting to find a fully-formed character underneath the sarcastic shouts and wide eyed facial expressions. Karen Gillan is superb in this, pulling off a performance that combines great comic timing (her fake labour) and a strong talent for drama.
And you at the back with the notebook, scribbling: Please note – THE BABY. Might be something in that one day...
Amy's Choice is the mirror image of The Vampires Of Venice. It's less impressive to look at. The direction's nothing special to speak of. But the story itself contains a lot more substance than its predecessor, and contains some interesting insights into all three of the main characters, not to mention a memorably wacky villain who's just that bit more than your hungry vampire fish.
While it still isn't as fully formed, ethereal or scary as it could be, it still provides some good material for Arthur Darvill and Matt Smith (his awkward clapping at the end is another great comedy moment), and in particular this is the first great centre stage opportunity for Karen Gillan, who takes the character of Amy into more in-depth places than ever before.
* Take your choice from my Doctor Who ebook guides which are on sale at Amazon for £2.00 each.
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