Way back in Four to Doomsday, someone – Persuasion, I think – described love as the exchange of two fantasies. As it happens, it’s also an apt description of Amy’s Choice, a beguiling little story which imagines a scenario whereby the underlying tension within its TARDIS crew, now consisting of three spunky 20 somethings, can be exploited.
That crew and the faultline that runs through it centres on Amy (willowy Karen Gillan). Amy’s natural desire to have her cake and eat it too means she’s travelling with both her fiancé Rory (boy next door Arthur Darvill) and her new crush, the Doctor (boy next century Matt Smith). It’s a bizarre love triangle for sure and her choice between the two is symbolised by the two dream worlds she’s asked to choose between by sinister genie, the Dream Lord (Toby Jones).
One scenario is set in sleepy old Leadworth, where the Ponds have settled into domestic stultification. Rory has an unconvincing ponytail, Amy an unconvincing baby bump but in this rustic little village, they have made a home. (Incidentally, there’s a funny upwardly mobile progression in companion’s homes in 21st century Who. Rose lived in a council estate, Martha in a city flat, Donna in a suburban house and now, Amy, in a big house in the country) Leadworth represents everything Rory is: stable, reliable and a bit dull. The quiet life.
Then, of course, the quiet life is disturbed by a group of deadly aliens hiding inside a bunch of retirement home residents. Turns out the Rory option is an actually a Doctor Who story by Douglas Adams.
The other scenario is set inside the TARDIS and is an analogue for the Doctor. In this scenario, there’s travel, adventure and technology. As Leadworth is Rory’s home, so is the TARDIS the Doctor’s. It speaks of excitement and thrills. The danger in this story is external, pseudo-scientific and oblique: a cold star threatening to freeze the TARDIS solid, with our heroes trapped inside. A cold, high place above the universe. So this scenario is a Doctor Who story by Christopher H Bidmead.
As much as Amy’s Choice is about showing us two types of suitor Amy’s attracted to and the internal conflict she’s grappling with, it’s also showing us two different ways of Doctor Who. Like flicking channels between a madcap alien invasion in an English village or a race against time in a doomed ship.
It’s Sliding Doors, isn’t it? But with Gwyneth Paltrow pursuing one lifetime living on The Pirate Planet and another in Castrovalva. Actually, that sounds immeasurably better than Sliding Doors. I need a parallel universe where Sliding Doors was like that! Then you could skip between two universes, one with the original Sliding Doors and one with my new Whoish version… and so it goes on until the whole thing has disappeared up its own causal nexus.
The third story being told here, is that of the Dream Lord. He’s a mysterious supernatural being with power over the TARDIS who wants to inflict mayhem on the lives of the Doctor and his companions by submitting them to a series of playful but deadly games of make believe. I suppose that viewed from that standpoint, the success of Amy’s Choice depends on how eager you were to see an updated, less racist version of The Celestial Toymaker.
The Dream Lord turns out to be one of Doctor Who’s favourite villainous archetypes; the twisted version of the Doctor himself. There’s enough to form Family Feud team – the Monk, the Master, the Valeyard, and now little old Dreamy. (“We asked 100 people what’s the most commonly used template for a Doctor Who villain! Survey says…”) It’s the most obvious kind of villain you can do, so it has to be wheeled out carefully and sparingly. Luckily, the Dream Lord’s a bit different from the rest of that dark clothed, maniacally cackling lot.
The Dream Lord’s point of difference from all these other dark Doctors is taunting. He spends the whole episode verbally tormenting the Doctor and his Ponds, needling away at every insecurity. The way he suddenly pops into being, just when our heroes are busy trying to do something, to hector and undermine them, is very unnerving; almost a visual representation of schizophrenia.
He also has a line in quotable, biting wit, particularly aimed at the Doctor. “The madcap vehicle, the cockamamie hair, the clothes designed by a first-year fashion student…”, the impish snide says, “I’m surprised you haven’t got a little purple space dog just to ram home what an intergalactic wag you are.” We’ve never heard anyone talk to the Doctor like that. And it hurts because it’s so very, very true.
But it’s also the trait which tips the Doctor off as to his tormentor’s true identity. As the Doctor, says “there’s only one person in the universe who hates me as much as you do.” So the Dream Lord is a personification of the Doctor’s self-loathing, and that’s something really new. Self-doubt, we’ve seen. But never the very human insecurity of criticising everything about yourself. It’s a novel twist on that conga line of wannabe Doctors.
So it’s a shame when he turns out to be nothing more than a speck of cosmic pollen with ideas above its station. He could have been a great returning villain, but instead he’s a figment of everyone’s imagination. Wasn’t too long ago we were randoming Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, which has a similar, “it was all a dream” ending, and in both cases, the risk taken is that audience might think the whole affair inconsequential.
How Amy’s Choice manages to avoids the trap of seeming like a diverting but ultimately pointless fantasy, is that it has a real impact on our three heroes. The love triangle is resolved when Amy loses Rory thanks to the first of his many faux deaths. She decides she’ll do anything to have him back. She chooses home, not adventure. One fantasy has been exchanged for another.
LINK TO New Earth: nurses who would be doctors!
NEXT TIME… The Bells of Saint John are ringing.