(Between the demise of the old Starburst and the birth of its new incarnation, there were fourteen Doctor Who stories broadcast that the magazine never got around to reviewing. This is one of them.)
There’s a germ of an idea here that could have made for an absolutely magnificent episode of Doctor Who. The ingredients are all there and plain to see; but somehow in the mixing they’ve conspired to create a somewhat less-than-appetising dish.
Imagine if this episode had begun simply with the Doctor and company fetching up in Leadworth, no sign of a belly bump in sight. And everything was not quite right. Wherever the three intrepid travellers went, they kept encountering the same man but in different guises, and he didn’t offer them an early explanation of who he was or what he was doing. The mystery could have been carried across half an episode, with the regulars putting together clues along the way before working it out for themselves. (Indeed, something similar was very successfully attempted in The Android Invasion.) The latter half of the episode might have worked in a similar fashion with the TARDIS-set scenes. And the result might have been as well-remembered as The Mind Robber or The Dalek Invasion of Earth’s opening instalments.
Instead, we’re furnished with quite enough clues to come to the correct conclusion before Amy’s Choice even gets going. The sight of a pregnant Amy Pond and a pony-tailed Rory Williams (fantastic and hilarious choice, by the way) instantly makes us aware that we’re not looking at reality, but instead are somehow experiencing a dream or fantasy sequence. And when the Dream Lord lets us in on the puzzle – that the Doctor, Amy and Rory are caught between two realities, one actual and one fictional, and that they themselves must decide which is which in order to survive – the very fact that the first encountered reality is the false one also tips the nod that the other must be false too, otherwise there wouldn’t be any dramatic tension to the reveal at all. So far so so, and it’s only the mystery of who the Dream Lord really is that is in any way a mystery at all.
A fatally missed opportunity.
Having said that, this is another case of Series Five throwing up a story whereby if you can ignore its inconsistencies and its crucial lack of ambition, then there’s an awful lot of fun to be had with what remains.
Toby Jones, for instance, playing the Dream Lord himself, is a fantastic actor, and relishes the chance to play the part with a dryness and a knowingness that immediately gives him one over on the regulars. It’s an unsettling and perfectly pitched performance (and could have been even more effective in an alternative version of the episode), and it puts Jones at centre stage for the entire story, his presence looming large over the action even during some fairly long spells in which he doesn’t appear. Any other choice of actor might have unbalanced this, and it’s to Jones’ credit that he underplays which therefore emphasises the peril – if Amy’s Choice works at all, then it’s because of him.
That’s two stories in a row with strong villains. Let’s hope it’s a development that continues.
An odder choice is that of Simon Nye as the writer for this latest episode. Nye is best known as a writer of situation and other comedy (Men Behaving Badly is, of course, his most infamous achievement). While that might have proven an ideal background for Doctor Who writers in the past (both Terry Nation and Stephen Moffat himself were both far better known for comedy when they got their first Doctor Who commissions), in this instance there’s a certain tipping of the balance towards the surreal and the amusing that only serves to undermine the drama. If your premise is one of surreality – as it must surely be here – then it’s an imperative that you treat it with seriousness and allow your situations to conform to their own internal logic. Rampaging pensioners might be a thoroughly amusing and unnerving sight (although bashing one over the head might be a spectacle too far, but that’s perhaps to be expected from the ‘laddist’ creator of Men Behaving Badly), but the image they conjure up does tend to undermine the question of which reality is which – less so than the redundant question of Amy Pond’s pregnancy, admittedly (but then there’s maybe a reason of propheticism for including that).
When Rory ‘dies’, it’s all we can do to care. We know, before it even happens, that it doesn’t take. And sadly Karen Gillan’s reaction is as removed from reality as is the rest of this fake storyline – all of which will undercut any subsequent similar threats to the character that future episodes might throw his way. Amy’s Choice (and why Amy’s ‘choice’ after all? Surely it is all of the TARDIS crew who are included in the choosing?) is here doing more damage than it is proving itself a beneficial addition to the series’ canon.
It’s a shame, really. Because if Amy’s Choice had taken itself either a little more seriously or a little less seriously (and if it hadn’t made the solution to the ‘choice’ quite so apparent from the outset), then it might have been a thrilling drama or a classy comedy. But it’s in the inconsistency of tone (an inconsistency of tone that the weather on location appears to have taken up sympathy with!) – as with so much of this fifth series so far – that the magic has failed to emerge.
Amy’s Choice might still be one of the outstanding episodes of the run (in terms of how different it is, in terms of plot, to the rest of what’s on offer), but it has badly squandered the opportunity to make of itself one of the outstanding stories of the show’s entire catalogue.
(If you’d like to go further into the programme’s past, I’ve collected together various reviews and articles that I’ve posted online over the years here: http://watchingdoctorwho.weebly.com/)