Monday, May 17, 2010

Amy's Choice

Doctor-lite stories have a curious track record. Love and Monsters remains the most divisive story of the new series, Blink the most popular, and Turn Left the triumphant last gasp of the Davies era before a bad finale brought it to its knees. Amy's Choice isn't Doctor-lite, but it may as well be, strutting with the same determination to ignore the rules and throw something bizarre at us, only this time with the Doctor getting his usual screen time. It's by far the weirdest story of the new series, and in a good way, as if David Lynch had been commissioned to write under the name of Simon Nye. Needless to say, if Lynchian dreamscapes don't work for you, neither will Amy's Choice, and judging from nasty reviews circling the web at the moment, that seems to be the case for many Doctor Who fans.

I adore Amy's Choice. I'm confident that posterity will judge it a classic. The story finds the Doctor, Amy, and Rory flicking back and forth between two scenarios, one of which is a dream they are sharing, the other reality. They are told, by a mysterious figure called the Dream Lord, that to die in the dream will cause them to wake up in reality for good. To die in the real scenario will cause them to, well, really die. One takes place inside the TARDIS which has gone dark and freezing as it hurtles towards a cold sun. The other takes place five years later in the village of Ledworth, with Rory and Amy happily married and pregnant; the Doctor is visiting them, and they are confronted by a group of zombie-like elderly people who can barely walk but are hell-bent on murder. Our three heroes must agree which scenario is the dream, and allow themselves to be killed in it, in order to escape the Dream Lord's puzzle.

The tricky ground where dreams and reality blur is difficult to tame without waxing cliche, and make no mistake, Amy's Choice treads over familiar pastiches. On top of that, the "arena" situation has been worked over in plenty of science fiction dramas, in which protagonists are forced by an omnipotent power to solve puzzles and fight for their lives. But Nye makes it all work by subordinating the material to the love triangle between the Doctor, Amy, and Rory, and to the final revelation of the Dream Lord's identity. This climax is crucial to the story's success, but for reasons that escape me has upset many viewers. The Dream Lord isn't a rival or enemy of the Doctor (like the Master or Celestial Toymaker), but rather the personification of his darkest feelings and doubts, even his self-loathing (sort of like The Valeyard). His insults paint the Doctor as woefully insecure about being abandoned by Amy, call into question his motives for taking on a young companion (part of him evidently wanted to raped by her after all), and skewer him for the callous manner in which he treats his friends. It doesn't take the Doctor long to recognize his inner demon and hurl the contemptuous self-indictment: "I know who you are -- there's only one person in the universe who hates me as much as you do." Brilliant. I don't understand the clamor for a more traditionally Manichean foe; going that route would have trivialized if not killed the story.

Nor do I understand the complaints about the psychic pollen, described by the Doctor as "a mind parasite which feeds on everything dark inside you, gives it a voice, and turns it against you". (I love his flip answer to Amy, who demands to know why the pollen didn't also feed on her and Rory. "Oh, the darkness inside you pair, it would have starved to death in an instant; I choose my friends with great care.") Though of course, one follows the other: if one objects to the Boethian nature of the Dream Lord, the pollen must be condemned as well. But again, the fact that the true villain of the story is the Doctor's shadow-self is what makes the story work.

As for the secondary villains, the old pensioners work extremely well. That they are aliens underneath is classic Doctor Who, but they are quite menacing apart from this, even without the tongue-like protrusions which blast people to ash. Watching the Doctor and Rory take on these decrepit old ladies is hilariously grand -- surely only a viewer with a dull imagination (or, admittedly, a less perverse sense of humor than mine) could fail to be amused by the sight of feeble grandmas getting whacked by crowbars and thrown off the roofs of houses. That's solid entertainment.

The visuals are superb and work dynamically in contrast, as we shuffle back and forth between an idyllic countryside and a darkened TARDIS. The former exudes a wrong tone from the start, precisely because everything seems "too right", and the latter becomes increasingly horrifying as our three heroes become covered in frost and barely able to speak or move -- and is there even such thing as a "cold star"? Both scenarios are disturbing and off-kilter, and it's hard to decide which could be real.

Amy's choice is, of course, ultimately a choice between two men: the fantasy hero from her childhood, and her less than impressive fiancee, who turns out to be the more impressive one after all. She sees the truth of this only when Rory is killed (in the Ledworth scenario), and, lashing out at the Doctor who is unable to save him, decides to kill herself in turn irrespective of whether or not she is dreaming. That the TARDIS scenario turns out to be a dream too is a nice twist that I didn't see coming, and makes sense given that a Dream Lord wouldn't logically have power over any reality. But it also suggests there was a never a "right" choice Amy had to make. Her preference for Rory is based entirely on how she feels in a certain moment. She confronts her devotion to two very different men in a particular now just as the Doctor must face his own demons. The story is ingeniously introspective, a welcome rarity in Doctor Who, and in my opinion a work of art.

Rating: 5 stars out of 5.


Anonymous Doug Chaplin said...

This is very worrying, but I largely agree with you. The bit I don't agree with is the comparison to the Doctor-lite stories.

I can't see the point in equating different with lite. Remember Midnight.

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Midnight actually is a lite story -- though it's companion-lite, rather than Doctor-lite. The reason I'm making the parallel between "different" and "lite" is simply because that's what the pattern in the new series has been up until now.

But yes, it is disconcerting that we're largely in agreement. A sign of the apocalypse?

Anonymous Doug Chaplin said...

Hmm … you see, I would have said that "Girl in the Fireplace" and "Human Nature/Family of Blood" were also significantly different episodes (as well as among the best).

It may be that anything that disrupts the normal dynamic of Doctor, helper, opponent will strengthen an episode, or it may be the writer has such a strong idea that s/he pushes the normal script envelope. I'm inclined to think the latter.

"Love and Monsters" very nearly worked, but I think it was a mistake to try to play it for humour. It could have been far more dark and sinister.

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

"Love and Monsters" very nearly worked, but I think it was a mistake to try to play it for humour. It could have been far more dark and sinister.

Although I usually lean in this direction (much prefer the dark and tragic to the comedic), unfortunately I think Davies was boxed into a corner with this story. Forced to write an episode revolving around a green fat man in a thong, he did just about the only sensible thing he could, and played it for laughs.

I love the idea behind Love and Monsters -- the Doctor as a mythical figure leaving chaos in his wake, and the playful swipe at nerdy Doctor Who fans like ourselves. But the slapstick humor gets too heavy, as you note; and yet I honestly don't see how else the story could have come close to working given the premise.

Blogger Mark Goodacre said...

I really loved Amy's Choice and suspect it will become known as a real classic.

Actually, I loved Love and Monsters. Kind of stupid, but great fun, and a nice idea to develop the material already hinted at in one of the best scenes from Rose ("Dad, it's one of your nutters!").


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