Friday, May 21, 2010

Judging Amy

Star Trek: The Next Generation. DS9. Star Trek: Voyager. Stargate SG1. Heck, probably Andromeda for all I know. Name one of my least favourite sci-fi shows ever and they've probably done a scenario similar to Amy's Choice. Whether it's down to a holodeck malfunction, the empathic emissions of some overly amorous space cloud attempting to hump the Enterprise or a Gou'ahoohahould mussing with your head, you can rely on these is-it-real-or-is-it-a-dream situations being largely pointless at best. For one thing it's usually obvious which is which, so you're left waiting for the characters to wake up and snap out of it – assuming you haven't fallen asleep yourself.

In that regard, it's the same here. Amy's living in a quiet English village with a pony-tailed Rory and she's heavily preggers. And I mean not just a bun in the oven, but an entire Mr Kipling delivery truck. This is such a bizarre set of circumstances and such a big jump from last week, while the alternative situation – on board the TARDIS – slots comfortably in as a continuation, that there's never any doubt that the village setup is a dream. The only guessing game left for the viewer to play concerns the identity of the Dream Lord. For fans that means lots of potential for excited speculation: could it be the Master, an impish Omega, the Celestial Toymaker, a more twisted incarnation of Romana than we encountered in The Ancestor Cell, or Adric taking out his abandonment issues on the current TARDIS crew?

For my part, I only considered one of those possibilities seriously. Despite the absence of a chess set or Monopoly board (although I suppose these days most of his recreational entertainments would come in the form of apps on a Celestial iPhone) something about the Dream Lord's apparent nature and the rules of the game suggested the Toymaker to me. The notion seemed a bit of a random out-of-the-blue return, but even a relatively modest experience of Doctor Who will teach you there's no real telling what might strike a given showrunner as a good idea. Regardless, it soon became clear from the little clues (e.g. “There's only one person in the universe who hates me as much as you do.” and the focus on Amy) that there was something more personal about this – more personal than any of the possible enemies from the Doctor's past could account for. And I'm glad to say, I twigged to the twist a nice few minutes ahead of the reveal. I don't know about you, but I like it when that happens. That way the viewer gets the satisfaction of a story that kept them guessing and the satisfaction of being right. Always a good combination.

It's brilliantly judged, in fact. Simon Nye's script appears to be consciously playing on all that fan speculation and ultimately delivers an adversary who is 'none of the above' – no matter where our imaginations have run. And yet he gave us the big clue right up front, with the mysterious intruder dressed as the Doctor. If it had turned out to be any of the usual suspects I'd have been disappointed. As it is, it's entirely right for the story and it lends a fascinating insight into a darker and highly self-judgmental side of the Doctor's character. (Without it having to be the Valeyard putting him on trial.)

Next to that, the story's other big twist is, sadly, Star Trek-level poor. One aspect of it not being the Toymaker or whoever is that you need a root cause for the schism. No holodeck malfunctions here. No, in this one it's all down to a hansful of space pollen getting into the multiphasic plot generator. It's so weak that it's very rightly treated as a throwaway – literally, as the Doctor tosses it out the TARDIS doorway – and that saves it really. It's almost as if the script is saying, what does the cause matter when the effect has been this much fun? And I have to say, it makes a good case.

Although I'm not completely letting the episode off the hook for that, there's so much more to the story that leaves an enduring impression.

The comedy is priceless. Like The Vampires Of Venice this is laced with hilarious gags, but for my money it has something greater going for it in the darkness and substance department. The frantic and frequently funny scenes in zombie-pensioner land contrast beautifully with the dying TARDIS drifting in icy silence. More than that, the goings-on in the village are as sinister as you'd expect from Doctor Who, with eyestalks sprouting out of mouths making for seriously gross monster material and kids, no less, being reduced to piles of sand. And it all culminates in a powerfully emotional decision – the eponymous choice – that might be counted among the grimmest moments in the series.

This damaged young woman who grew up with Rory as a friend and has grown too accustomed to having him around, finally wakes up to her true feelings for him and realises, dream or no, she doesn't want to go on living without him. Cripes, that's heavy. If it wasn't couched in the midst of all the scenes of zimmer-frame chases and old grannies being whacked off of rooftops, it'd be too heavy for Saturday teatime viewing. As it is, it strikes a perfect counterpoint to the sinister-seniors slapstick.

Space pollen aside then, there's bold, deft writing here conspiring with some top-notch performances and great direction to breathe plenty of new life into this familiar scenario. (They even manage to get Murray Gold to keep quiet where it counts.) Toby Jones' coldly comic portrayal makes you wish he was a recurring villain. Matt Smith continues to be a delight to watch as the Doctor, from the subtler touches to the out-and-out clowning (on which, highlights have to include his drunken stagger as he tries to stay awake and cupping his hands ready to catch Amy's baby). Likewise, Gillan does it all, giving us a quirky, quippy Amy who's both gutsy and vulnerable, sensitive and fiery-tempered. You can believe the bitterness she aims at the Doctor cuts him deep. Meanwhile Arthur Darvill sells Rory as a genuinely sympathetic likeable character as well as a grade-A buffoon – he's the Roy Castle of New Who.

Arguably, there's one other weak point in the way the Doctor blows up the TARDIS, convinced that too is a dream based on the idea of a cold star being nonsense. The concept is not at all un-Who and one can imagine an alternative ending to Planet Of The Daleks, to name one example, where the scientific improbability of a tropical jungle planet with a core of molten ice prompts the Doctor to end it all for himself and Jo Grant. I'm guessing now the series will have to exercise caution when incorporating some of the more fantastical concepts.

But the tongue is firmly in the cheek at that point. When you enjoy something this much, it's impossible to pick serious holes. I think this fits that old rule of thumb of mine about the recipe for good Doctor Who: old, new, borrowed, blue. Which, I guess, goes double for pre-wedding adventures in time and space.


Greg McElhatton said...

"Arguably, there's one other weak point in the way the Doctor blows up the TARDIS, convinced that too is a dream based on the idea of a cold star being nonsense."

That's not really the reason why he blows it up, though, it's because the Dream Lord affected "reality" which he's not supposed to be able to do. After all, even the Doctor admits earlier that the cold star could quite possibly be real. I don't think the show has to worry about outlandish concepts because the Doctor scoffs the cold star once he realizes that the Dream Lord made a continuity error in what was supposed to be reality.

SAF said...

That's all true. I was just being funny. (Or trying to anyway :-) )