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May 22, 2010

Beggars Can't be Choosers

Doctor Who: Amy’s Choice
Review by Tom Dickinson

Amy’s Choice isn’t a bad Doctor Who story, in fact it’s quite a good one. But that’s the problem: it’s not great, merely good. Normally, as with last week’s (The) Vampires (in/of) Venice, I’m content to enjoy the ride it for what it is, but here I can’t because this story could have been so much better than it ended up. It aims for excellence and misses the mark. The “which world is real?” premise is poorly realized, and the character development that’s meant to have occurred fails to materialize in quite the way it should.

Did anyone really believe for even a moment that “five years later” was the reality of the situation, and would be the new status quo of the series going forward? The way the story presents the dilemma, it’s either the TARDIS or Leadworth, and despite the twist where they’re both dreams, the fact that the story will end with them standing in the TARDIS is obvious from the beginning. Amy and Rory’s life not only fails to ring true, but doesn’t even make an honest attempt, and this severely undermines the story.

Even this isn’t a problem when it’s done in other situations; a similar premise has been employed in dozens of other shows, and although the protagonist has always been thrown into doubt about the reality of things, the audience never is. No Buffy fan really thinks that “Normal Again” will end with Buffy rejecting Sunnydale, after all, there wouldn't be much of a show left if she did. And Lost fans, though we may joke, fully realize that the Island isn’t Hurley’s dream (and if it were, would we really learn that in the middle of the show’s second season?). But that’s fine, and we as the audience are willing to indulge the premise and observe the drama for what it is without going so far to buy into the dilemma.

But Doctor Who (and this series in particular) has the opportunity to do us one better. We can actually be made to believe that the show will jump five years, but this episode refuses engage us on that level. Going into this episode, I was entirely willing to accept the possibility that the five-year gap was real and would define the status quo of the remaining five episodes. Because of The Eleventh Hour, we as an audience are uniquely positioned in such a way that we’re capable not only of suspending our disbelief, but of actually believing. Amy’s Choice completely misses that opportunity by making the Leadworth scenes too dreamlike to believe, through fault of both writing and direction, and failing to set them up in such a way that they seem even remotely connected to what we’ve seen so far.

The show basically tells us that Amy has grown emotionally, when it’s really not at all clear that that’s happened.

The other problem with this episode is the “character development”. It’s always annoying when a television episode ends with the characters actually discussing their own development, because it either means the writer is talking down to the audience (something that must never happen in Doctor Who) or else they lack faith in their own abilities to show character development in the traditional manner: by... well, having us witness the character as they develop. Here, the show basically tells us that Amy has grown emotionally, by making this huge choice, when it’s really not at all clear that that’s even happened.

We’re supposed to believe that Amy’s “Choice” was a choice between Rory and the Doctor, and that the Dream Lord was the Doctor trying to force her to make a choice once and for all. Apparently, she chose Rory over the Doctor in the end, but that’s not really the case, is it? She chose Rory alive over Rory dead. Are we supposed to accept that, had the Doctor died in one reality, she would not have chosen the same way? The only real way to frame a choice between Rory and the Doctor would be to have Rory die in one world and the Doctor die in the other. Now that would have been an interesting dilemma, but for whatever reason (possibly because it would be too horrifying for 6:25 PM on a Saturday, or possibly because it would be too similar to Turn Left), the story isn’t willing to go there.

So in the end, Amy chooses to live in the reality where zero of her boys is dead, rather than one (how difficult that must have been for her). Also, she erases her five-year marriage to Rory in Leadworth, complete with unborn child, to wind up with the Doctor and Rory in the TARDIS. The issue of whether Amy could really be happily married to Rory, which certainly seemed to be on the table in this story, is never really addressed at all. In fact, her rejection of Leadworth, which is clearly what Rory wants, is still a problem for the couple. All that we really learn is that Amy prefers Rory to be alive. Even so, the episode leaves off with Amy, Rory, and the Doctor in the TARDIS, Amy and Rory’s relationship reaffirmed and the two of them along for adventure...

Wait, isn’t that exactly where The Vampires of Venice left off? Then what’s supposed to have happened in this episode?

I didn’t hate the episode, I just found it disappointing that a story which promised to go above and beyond the usual was merely a solid Doctor Who story. A lot in this episode worked, including the menacing pensioners and a lot of great dialogue moments. Matt Smith continues to impress, as does Arthur Davrill as Rory (can we keep him?). I still find Karen Gillan incredibly charming and likable, although since Flesh and Stone I’ve had doubts about her character’s emotional arc and what we see in this episode does little to reassure me. But I’ll hold back on that until I’ve seen a bit more.

The best thing about this episode by far is the character of the Dream Lord, for reasons that have been discussed in other reviews. Whether this is an attempt to gradually introduce the Valeyard to modern audiences or simply to inject a bit of McCoy darkness into the current Doctor, or some combination of both, I approve of it. Toby Jones does quite well with the role and he’s well-served by most of the material he’s given. I would love to see the Dream Lord again, and if this is the first part of a grander plan then perhaps someday I’ll look with more kindness on this episode. For now, though, I’ll just remember it as a decent story which was well served by its cast and made great use of a limited budget, but failed to live up to its own high aspirations.

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