Tony looks in a glass darkly.
Broadcast 15th May 2010
Doctor Who, over fifty-two years, has done a number of things extremely well. It’s been a moral standard-bearer, an invitation to open-mouthed wonder, a facing-up to the darkest fears of humanity and its darkest potential.
What it’s never really done in any detail is self-doubt.
Oh, there have been moments – famous moments, no less – when the Doctor has displayed his fear of what he might be, or what he might become. Tom Baker’s speech from Genesis of the Daleks where he fears he’ll become ‘no better than the Daleks’ if he wipes them out shows that sense of moral responsibility, and the creation of the Valeyard in the time of the Sixth Doctor is evidence of Robert Holmes saying ‘there’s a dark side to this person that he’s always running away from. It will catch him up, one day.’
It wasn’t really until the 21st century version of Doctor Who though that this notion of the Doctor as a fully-rounded character, with a dark side and even an element of self-hatred emerged. In the Eccleston incarnation it manifested as survivor-guilt. In the Tenth Doctor it emerged as rage, granite-hardness towards his enemies, and a sense of over-weened responsibility for everything, leading him to apologise for everyone he couldn’t save.
And then there’s Amy’s Choice. The Eleventh Doctor story by Simon Nye, most famous as the writer-creator of slob-sitcom Men Behaving Badly, is a treatise on self-doubt, weaving the emotions of all three of its leads – Matt Smith’s still young Doctor, Karen Gillan’s Amy Pond and Arthur Darvill’s Rory Williams – into an entertaining hour with a strong philosophical pulse. There’s nothing else quite like it in the history of Who, and when Peter Capaldi’s Doctor embarks on his first season, the scripts overegg the attempt to make that self-doubt a governing element of his nature with the whole ‘Am I a good man?’ angst.
So in a way, Amy’s Choice stands alone, a singular experiment into the psyche of our favourite Time Lord.
Smith begins the episode feeling very ‘cold’ in the role, very much as though he’s not quite sure what he’s doing on the set, and to be fair to him, very new to it all – there’s a certain overdone quality to some of his actions and mannerisms in the pre-credits sequence that makes it uncomfortable to watch. Meanwhile, it turns out that ‘five years after they’ve left the Tardis,’ Amy’s extremely pregnant, Rory’s a pony-tailed doctor and they live in the even-duller-than-the-original ‘Upper Leadworth.’
But – and this is the point – give the Eleventh Doctor a puzzle, and Smith begins to warm up, thaw out and get fluid in the role very quickly, and by the time the opening credits roll, he’s promising us, directly-to-camera, ‘a tricky one.’
The idea of flitting between different realities, connected through a psychic dream state, is an intriguing one, and it quickly becomes clear that what Nye has done is establish the two worlds as the perfect environments of both the males on the Tardis: Rory’s perfect sleepy village, full of old people he can be nice to and treat as a fully-qualified doctor, with his perfect cottage, perfect wife and very probably perfect baby; and the Doctor’s forty-minutes-to-death scenario with mad physics and only one man to save the day. Clearly, they’re versions of the reality harboured by both men, which puts Amy Pond squarely in the middle – her emotions and her affections have always been a little ambiguous: as Rory says, she’s run off with another man the night before their wedding, and they have to grow up some time. That’s a key line for Rory here – he’s come along on Amy’s travels simply to be by her side, rather than for his own sake, but he’s doing the patient thing, waiting for her to get bored of time, space and adventure and come home with him, all grown up and ready to be Mrs Rory, just as he’s ready to be Mr Amy.
All this psychoanalysis though is amped up to the max with the arrival of the Dream Lord. Toby Jones turns in a simply stellar performance as the arch-prosecutor of all three of the Tardis team’s comfortable delusions, but particularly, he goes after the Doctor, spearing him with lines that are, perhaps, a little too near the bone for many fans. He looks the Doctor dead in the eye and accuses him of having too many tawdry quirks. Floors him with the accusation of not having friends because his travelling companions never see him again once they’ve ‘grown up’ – a particularly telling accusation in the middle of what was supposed to be Doctor Who’s ‘fairy tale’ series. There’s even a slightly unsavoury note to the Dream Lord’s probing, when he claims that ‘the old man prefers the company of the young.
Does he not?’
The deadly dangers in each reality between which the Doctor and his friends flit are flirtations with the absurd: Ecnodenes – the eyeball-people, to most viewers – hiding in the bodies of the elderly in Upper Leadworth; and a star burning cold and a dead time machine drifting hopelessly towards it through space, but the absurdity in both instances merely serves to heighten the surrealism of the Dream Lord’s visions, staking him a claim alongside other great would-be game-players like Michael Gough’s Celestial Toymaker. Underneath all the madness, the choices that need to be faced are real. Are the Doctor and Rory really disagreeing, or are they merely competing because each of them feels a need for Amy in their lives to give them meaning? If there’s only one reality, which will Amy Pond really choose – the one where she runs away into time and space with an allegedly handsome enigmatic stranger, or the one where there’s an ordinary man who loves her, even if he never feels entirely in her league? The Dream Lord is merciless, showing up the weaknesses in both men, and when Rory is hit by the Ecnodene’s Halitosis of Death and dissolves into dust, Amy suddenly understands that the world without Rory in it is not a world she wants to live in. Amy’s choice is made for her by events, leaving us to wonder how her choice would have gone if it had been the Doctor who died? Would she have learned to live in a universe without her Raggedy Man, despite her obsession with him since she was a young girl?
To her credit, Karen Gillan acts her socks off once Rory dies to give Amy’s decision a kind of world-changing weight that makes it believable, and leads us forward to the kind of ‘growing up’ that Rory longs for – she chooses him, definitively, for life or death, and it leads not only to the slaying of his insecurity demons, freeing him to be on board the Tardis both in his own right and as part of something bigger than himself, but to their wedding, finally, at the end of Series 5, through to an eventual commitment to ‘Real Life’ in stories like The Power of Three, and ultimately, to two more life-or-death moments in The Angels Take Manhattan, each of which are made in a heartbeat and each of which underline the choice she makes in this episode. Whereas she admits late in the day in Amy’s Choice that despite her words of reassurance to Rory, she didn’t know which way her heart would go when push came to shove, after this episode it’s never especially up for question again – even when she forces Rory out of her life, she does it because she loves him and doesn’t want to shackle him to a life without children (again, tying back into his dream life fantasy at the start of Amy’s Choice).
There are fans who think Amy’s Choice is something of a comedy episode, a filler piece, or a failure. Really though, it presents not one life-threatening scenario but two, delivers, in Toby Jones’ Time Lord Subsconscious, The Dream Lord, one of the standout villains of the 21st century, and really digs deep into the psychologies of all three members of the Tardis team, while settling some unspoken questions that it would be easy, in Classic Who, to go along without resolving. To the credit of the Moffat Production Team, they resolutely stuck by the decisions that were made in Amy’s Choice, allowing it also to have an impact on the series story-arc and character development right to the end of the Ponds’ time on the show.
While Simon Nye has said it’s unlikely he’d ever do another episode, two things are certain – firstly, he hit a home run with his creation of the Dream Lord, and secondly, it would be intensely interesting to see other versions of the Doctor’s dark subconscious coming out in other stories. Remind yourself of all the heavyweight issues beneath the surface of Amy’s Choice today. Or grab a quick nap.