Spoilt For Choice
Review by Paul Kirkley
We Doctor Who fans come pre-programmed with a litany of stock words and phrases so ingrained in our bones we sometimes forget that ordinary people don’t also pepper their sentences with terms like cosmic hobo, Edwardian roadster and pseudo-historical. I mean, what the hell is a roundel anyway?
And so it was that, when anyone dared to take the piss by invoking wobbly sets and squeezy bottle special effects, we would draw ourselves up to our full height and declaim, with an air of smug self-satisfaction: “Ah yes, but the lack of budget actually works to the show’s advantage, because it means the writing has to be better.”
Which was true – up to a point. Of the class of ’77, I’d take The Talons of Weng Chiang over Star Wars any day and, fast forwarding a few years, even Tom Baker dressed as a giant cactus offered more food for thought than the empty pyrotechnics of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century Disco. But, as I mentioned last week, if money really is too tight to mention, as in the hyper-inflationary Williams era (name of producer+era: there’s another classic fan idiom for you), you actually end up undermining whatever qualities the script had to start with. And, let’s face it, the quality writing argument was never really going to fly in the days of Terror of the Vervoids and Silver Nemesis anyway.
Ironically, though, it’s only now that Doctor Who has the budget (or, at least, the technology has become sufficiently affordable) to bust a few blocks of its own, that we start to see how right we were all along. And as evidence I give you Amy’s Choice – a bottle episode clearly made with whatever loose change was found down the back of the Upper Boat sofas after they'd spent all the cash on the season finale, but which, at the midway point, is seriously challenging those Weeping Angels for the best story of the season so far.
Seriously, compare how much money they must have spent on this compared to, say, Voyage of the Damned of Journey’s End. And now consider their relative entertainment values. Maybe I’m just too old and curmudgeonly and out of step with today’s breed of young Who fans, many of whom, I’m willing to bet, will have found this something of a patience-testing irritation, but this is the Doctor Who I have always loved: quirky, funny, mysterious, inventive and, above all, character-led. Starship Titanic plummets towards Earth? Booooring. Daleks versus Cybermen at Canary Wharf? Meh. Doctor bashes old lady off a roof with a lampshade? Now you’re talking.
Random violence perpetrated by and against old people was just one of the highlights of this little gem (I loved Amy’s gleefully enthusiastic “Whack ’er!” while Rory was hesitating to beat a granny about the brains with a chunk of wood). Of course, there’s nothing funny about granny-bashing, but… okay, there is something quite funny about granny-bashing in the right context, the context being when they’re not actual grannies but homicidal aliens with eyes where their dentures should be.
Infinitely flexible format
As a comedy zombie romp, I actually found this a lot funnier than the oddly overrated Shaun of the Dead. As we might have expected from Simon Nye, this had a relentless gag rate to match The Moff himself. I won’t waste your time reeling off the many, many killer lines – you might as well just check out the quotes thread on Gallifrey Base; suffice to say if anyone in old-skool Who had come out with a gem like “If we’re going to die, let’s die looking like a Peruvian folk band” I’d have choked on my Space Raiders.
If all if this had just amounted to a bit of knockabout fun – a sort of Old Men Behaving Badly - it would have been more than entertaining enough. In the event, though, the comedy turned out to have a bit of a razor-blade inside it, with the sly reveal that all that bile and hatred flung at the Doctor, all those tawdry quirks and forgotten friends, was a product of the man himself. This rare insight into the doubt and jealousy and self-loathing (“Nobody else in the universe hates me as much as you do” – blimey) in the hearts of the Time Lord was all the better for being done with such a light touch; it was certainly a lot more subtle than all that “Time Lord Victorious” bollocks. It also means we effectively get two episodes for the price of one: like The Sixth Sense, Amy’s Choice proves to be a very different animal when viewed second time around.
The other ace up the sleeve was Toby Jones as the Doctor's puckish Zelig of a nemesis. By turns playful, sinister and waspish, The Dream Lord proved to be one of the most memorable villains in years, with Jones even threatening to upstage Matt Smith, and there was nothing shabby about his performance, for sure.
Niggles? I have to admit I didn’t pick up on Amy’s rather casual sacrifice of her unborn child until I read the various comments on this forum, and it’s a point well made. But the show’s famous mix of the (idiom alert) fantastic and the domestic is always going to make it a hostage to fortune to this sort of thing. (The worst example I can recall is in Rose, when our eponymous heroine runs across Westminster Bridge grinning her head off at the sheer excitement of it all – ‘exhilarated’ is the word Russell uses in his script – literally minutes after she’s learned her boyfriend has been murdered.)
Catherine Morshead’s direction also seemed a bit lifeless in places, with some pedestrian camera choices and a lack of urgency in the action scenes, though neither can have been helped by the clearly atrocious weather. She directed her cast well, though and, let’s face it, it’s hard to do too much damage with a script as lovingly polished as this.
So here we are, past the half-way mark and, on my score card at least, there's only one duff dayglo Dalek debacle spoiling the boy Moffat and the lad Smith’s clean sheet. That’s a healthier ratio than at the same point in any of the previous four series (bolstered by the only early season two-parter so far not to stink the place out) and, if the past trend for changing up a gear in the race to the finish continues, we might need to rip up the fan phrasebook and find a whole new set of cliches worthy of a new golden age.