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New Who 5.7: Amy's Choice

I'm not doing a very good job of watching Doctor Who at the time of broadcast this season. Looking back over my posts about it, it seems that I've only seen three of the seven episodes of the season so far live at the point of transmission. It comes of zipping around the country doing exciting things like weddings, conferences and house-warming parties. And of course then, once you've done that, you have other things to write up which end up pushing Doctor Who reviews down the schedule, and meaning that they don't get done until the following weekend. Oh well, I expect I'll learn to live with the trauma....

Anyway, I did watch Amy's Choice during the week. I suppose it isn't technically the first time that New Who has presented us with a story set in an explicitly illusory alternate reality, since that is also what happens to Donna in Turn Left (as well as being an element in Father's Day, Human Nature and the whole parallel universe thing of the RTD era). But it's the first time since Steven Moffat took over, and I'm glad that it remains part of the landscape of the show. The Doctor Who format allows plenty of room for this after all (as indeed it does for almost any genre of story-telling), and it's great to see that room being used. I've noted before with reference to other TV shows that episodes which explicitly adopt a surreal or entirely un-real setting can often do a lot more than ordinary episodes can to push forward plot and characterisation, as well as offering opportunities for internal self-critique - and both those opportunities are taken up here.

Internal self-critique crops up partly through the Dream Lord's sneering at the Doctor - "I'm surprised you haven't got a little purple space-dog," for example. (Of course this turns out to be very literal self-critique when we eventually learn that this comes from the Doctor's own subconscious.) It also comes from Rory, who is fundamentally unimpressed with the TARDIS life-style and the Doctor's ease with his own heroic role in it. And it comes from Amy, when Rory's death makes her realise that for all his glamour and cleverness the Doctor cannot always protect the tranquillity of the ordinary life which she also values. I thought her anguished demand at this point was very powerful: "Then what is the point of you?".

These are all attitudes and questions which arise naturally from what Doctor Who is and what it does, but which normally have to be glossed over in order to maintain the dramatic illusion of the story-lines. An alternate reality episode gives them the chance to be aired and addressed without threatening the regular structure of the show. And this includes the most fundamental question of all - which out of the TARDIS lifestyle and real life is actually better or harder or more fulfilling to live in? Most ordinary episodes can't push too hard at this, because the format of Doctor Who rather relies on an unresolved tension between the two. Normally, companions can't really choose one over the other, because the accepted format of the show demands that they leave the TARDIS at some point, but also that they don't spend their whole time on board whining about how much they'd rather be at home. An alternate reality episode allows the issue to be addressed without imposing any restrictive plot consequences afterwards.

It felt to me, too, as though all this was being set into the context of an explicit meta-referential awareness of the show's past. References to past stories, including Classic ones, have been fairly regular so far this season, so maybe it is just a characteristic of the Moffat era. But the ones I noted here included:
  • The Doctor's initial explanation for what is happening to them is "Probably just jumped a time track or something" --> as seen in One's The Space Museum
  • The Doctor says that he threw the TARDIS manual into a supernova because he disagreed with it --> recalls scenes in which he and Romana I consult it in The Pirate Planet (and perhaps also River Song's textbook flying style in The Time of Angels)
  • From the Dream Lord, "You're probably a vegetarian, aren't you, you big flop-haired wuss?" --> conversation between Six and Peri at the start of The Two Doctors, where he tells her, "From now on, it's a healthy vegetarian diet for both of us"
Is that a higher than usual level of Classic Who references for a Moffat-era story? Perhaps we don't know this era quite well enough to judge yet, but if it is then it suggests that the self-critique and questioning of the formula offered in this story is to be taken to apply to the show's entire history, and not just the Moffat era or even the whole post-2005 era.

In the end, Amy doesn't really choose - at least in the terms that the Dream Lord (and thus the dark side of the Doctor) is asking her to. She selects the world that she can live with, rather than the one she thinks is most real - "If this is real life, I don't want it". That happens to be the TARDIS, not for its own sake but because it is by then the only world in which Rory is still alive. The result is that the tension between the two worlds is resolved, at least for the moment. She gets to have the adventuring lifestyle but also the man she loves - i.e. what matters most to her from each world. Meanwhile, Rory seems to have undergone some character development of his own along the way. He started off by viewing the TARDIS lifestyle very negatively, but by the end of the story he seems to have concluded a) that perhaps rose-cottage-land can never really be the tranquil perfection that he dreams of and b) that in fact being with Amy matters to him more anyway, wherever they are.

As for the role of the Doctor, if both scenarios come from his subconscious, and particularly its darker reaches, then this must mean that trying to force Amy to choose between the two worlds is something that he knows deep down will be harmful to him. Perhaps he knows that Amy will ultimately choose Rory over him, no matter which lifestyle she has to accept as a result? I don't think the Doctor (in whatever state of mind) wants her to choose him romantically, because even when all the hallucinations are over and they are back to the real TARDIS, he still physically pushes her towards Rory and her relationship with him. But he clearly does want and value her companionship on the TARDIS. This means that the eventual resolution is beneficial to him, since he still retains that, while she gets her happiness with Rory at the same time.

Maybe the Dream Lord wasn't such a dark reflection of him after all, then? By killing off Rory in the Upper Leadworth scenario, the Dream Lord essentially forced this resolution, thus ensuring the Doctor's happiness in reality. But the Doctor's dark side does not encourage that resolution. At the point where Amy decides to kill off herself and the Doctor in the Upper Leadworth reality, the Eknodine stop attacking, so that it is no longer easy for Amy and the Doctor to die in that world and bring it to an end. So even if the Dream Lord's action in killing Rory prompts her decision, it seems to be entirely Amy's agency in the end that kills off Upper Leadworth, ensuring a happy resolution for her, Rory and the Doctor. As the Doctor says at the end, he chooses his companions very carefully - and I think here Amy's choice has justified his.

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( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
May. 22nd, 2010 06:42 pm (UTC)
I still think it's pretty good. It's certainly different from previous seasons, but I don't think I'll be able to judge whether it's overall better or worse until we get to the end of this one. This season does have its 'meh' moments - but so have all the previous ones, to be honest.
May. 22nd, 2010 06:37 pm (UTC)
This is a really interesting analysis, especially as regards the Old Skool references. I was disappointed, in that interview I heard just prior to the new season beginning, to hear Moffat say that he didn't think it was good to dwell on the past, and that there wouldn't be a lot of that [sic]. Especially with the current week's episode, I've been pleased to see that that's not been entirely true.

I missed 2 out of 3 of your bulleted references. On the veggie thing: I'm pretty sure New Who has shown the Doctor easting meat several times, which confused and irritated me about that line, but it's good to know that there was somethign it was referring to. I can't believe I missed the The Space Museum reference.
May. 22nd, 2010 06:45 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I think he was deluding himself about not dwelling on the past, especially after the episode we've just seen!

As for vegetarianism, I don't really expect that sort of thing to be consistent from incarnation to incarnation. The Tenth Doctor has definitely eaten meat, e.g. on the Titanic in Voyage of the Damned. But yes, he has sometimes been a vegetarian, if only temporarily!
May. 22nd, 2010 06:58 pm (UTC)
I don't know, I sort of think there should be some consistency, or explanation of change, but I take your point. Certainly, it sounds like Six's attitude was prompted in a bit of a faddy way.
May. 23rd, 2010 01:10 pm (UTC)
Regeneration is a pretty good explanation! The Eleventh Hour shows very clearly that it changes his taste in food, even if that weren't already established in canon.
May. 24th, 2010 09:03 am (UTC)
Maybe there was a difference in his meaning behind dwelling on the past and referencing the past. He might have meant that he wasn't goign to try to keep the tennant feel, etc. and that he was goign to go in new directions. Not that the past was ever goign to impinge... Just my thinking that I don't think he is dwelling on the past really. Dwelling always has negative connotations of stagnation in my head, etc.
May. 24th, 2010 10:08 am (UTC)
Yes, I think he must indeed have meant something like that. Next week's episode may perhaps be a test-case for exactly what his approach is - will he slavishly follow the Pertwee-era model which has been laid down so far in the first episode (which I think would amount to dwelling), or serve it up with a new and unexpected twist (which is more like referencing)? Will be interesting to see.
May. 22nd, 2010 06:58 pm (UTC)
It reminded me of those episodes of the later Star Trek where IIRC a character called Q used to appear and offer alternate outcomes and choices.

I'm enjoying bits of this series - I really like Matt Smith as the Doctor and not just because he reminds me of Chris Morris a bit but the Amy lady is really beginning to get on my threepenny bits.

Tonight's episode was really good in places - the shadowy almost predator type creature chasing the child in the graveyard was really creepy but then the creep factor was ruined by revealing the creature as a green scaly thing that looked like the more crap monsters of the 70's.
May. 22nd, 2010 07:17 pm (UTC)
Yes, I've heard others draw that same comparison with Star Trek. I've seen very little Star Trek, though, so I can't really judge.

And I definitely like Matt Smith, but thought the Silurian was a lot better than they ever managed in the '70s!
May. 22nd, 2010 07:45 pm (UTC)
I may have said this before, but I am thoroughly enjoying this series. It reminds me of what Dr Who felt like when I was 10, but looking at it as an adult. It's actually fun. Small, contained events rather than flash-bang there-goes-the-universe again. Dialogue and wit. Of course there are bits that make me wince, but there always have been.

I think this episode may have cultural critics in the future debating society's attitude to the old, but there you go.
May. 22nd, 2010 08:06 pm (UTC)
Yes, I like its small-scale feel, which I think applies to the emotional register as well as the events. It's not that the things the characters go through aren't affecting - but the emotions are underplayed, rather than exaggerated to epic proportions as tended to happen under RTD. In some ways, it makes them more effective.

And yes, there's definitely potential for identifying a non-too-subtle message there about the old being parasitic on the young. I wondered if that was slightly meta-referential too, since the Doctor emphasises his own age at the end of the story when he says how much more darkness there is to draw on in someone who is 907 years old than in someone like Amy. Is he saying that in a way he too needs to feed on the emotional energy and purity of his younger companions?
May. 23rd, 2010 09:06 am (UTC)
I watched this last night and I found it actually pretty hard going. Like the episode with the Daleks in it just seemed too short a time to do justice to the idea, e.g. virtually no characterisation of the old people, not much really went on when they were in the cold TARDIS apart from running around. Plus if the TARDIS was freezing why wasn't their blood....

I too thought the dream lord was very much like Q from Star Trek (but not as funny or charismatic as Q) and the worst bit was when Amy committed suicide in the Leadworth world. I realise there were good reasons for doing it but I think it was the fact she was pregnant there - I just found that bit quite distressing :(

Will still persevere with the series though, as some of the episodes have been good.
May. 23rd, 2010 10:18 am (UTC)
You make a good point about Amy's pregnancy in Upper Leadworth. It doesn't seem to have played a role in her decision-making at all. I guess we are supposed to understand that she had realised it wasn't real by that point - but it would have been nice to take time to address that in the script.

Anyway, I think you will like The Hungry Earth - it will press a lot of your Old School buttons, and is also a two-parter so has a bit more room for characterisation.
May. 23rd, 2010 01:19 pm (UTC)
Think I will watch it tomorrow on catch up :)
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )

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