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May 16, 2010

Waking Wife

Stuart Ian Burns dreams about Doctor Who: Amy's Choice

I stopped eating cheese recently.  It was a health decision, but I quickly regretted it because I also stopped dreaming.  Well, ok, I'm probably still dreaming but my vivid memories of the land of the subconscious have disappeared.  I'm bereft.  My recurring nightmare of searching a fictional metropolis for the perfect film is gone and I’ll never discover if it is, as I suspect, directed by Cédric Klapisch and starring Jean Seberg.  Slowly, I’ve begun to ration some cream cheese back in but I know the more vivid images won’t return until I’m piling cheddar between two pieces of toast and microwaving for half a minute.

Seeking alternatives, I’ve been considering a trip into the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Waking Life, but have mostly made do with the couple of odd episodes in the (now) final season of Heroes in which the guilt of Hiro and Sylar trapped them into their own subconscious trials and prisons (budget permitting).  The problem is of course, like 80s horror Dreamscape, these are dramatic reconstructions of other people’s impressions of the dreamscape and require those things which our own subconscious aren’t very good at providing – a character arc, dramatic tension and a satisfying conclusion (ish, in the case of Heroes).  

ish, in the case of Heroes

And so it is with Amy’s Choice a fairly eccentric episode of modern Who which against what you might expect from Simon Nye (who you would think would be more comfortable with future episode The Lodger for reasons that will become apparent) harks back to the old days, a homage to the likes of The Mind Robber, The Celestial Toymaker and Inside the Spaceship/Beyond the Sun/The Brink of Disaster/The Edge of Destruction/or whatever you like to call it and also attempts to capture the kind of off-beat weirdness witnessed in children’s television programmes were shot on video and Kate Winslet was still young enough to appear in them and also an approach to plotting familiar to anyone who actually understands what Charlie Kauffman is going on about.

The initial hook of having the Doctor meeting a current companion and her own plus one five years after their travels is rather brilliantly extrapolated.  Given what we know about Amy’s connection to Ledworth, and Rory’s potential aspirations, their small idyll is entirely believable as is the Doctor’s reaction to her pregnancy with him bounding out the TARDIS as though minutes have just passed and then realising that he’s in the dullest part of the universe (quite something for him).  Played for laughs and with genuine chemistry between the three leads, it refreshingly lacks all of the recriminations of Sarah Jane in School Reunion (and a dozen Big Finish reunions) about being left behind, reminding me of the Eighth Doctor’s re-emergence to Bernice in The Dying Days.

a dozen Big Finish reunions

This opening section is crying out to unfold across twenty odd minutes with a cliffhanger ending in which the trio reappear on the floor of the TARDIS with the Dream Lord standing over them, in other words, with the classic four episode structure.  But as is the way with new Who, we’re all too quickly whisked back to the console room and the possibility that their new life is a dream, their version of human John Smith’s perhaps.  The confusing is nicely played here, taking full advantage of us having seen the Doctor skipping two years at the close of The Eleventh Hour to make the “future” reality entirely possible within the structure of the series (even if it does suggest that in future episodes that Amy will be chasing aliens between nappy changes).

Enter Toby Jones’s Dream Lord.  Look at that, Toby Jones in Doctor Who! His oddly round yet still angular face looks like William Hague pushing himself through a rubber band and a brilliant bit of casting because we could imagine in a different universe were the Doctor could still be played by an older man, Jones would be just the man to do it.  One of the best elements of the episode was in keeping the true nature of the Dream Lord hidden so that fans could spend much of the story assuming that he was somehow The Master, The Master or my guess, The Celestial Toymaker (it couldn’t be The Valeyard, of course, that would be silly, even though functionally they were doing much the same thing, expressing the Doctor’s id, and look at how I’m burying that in some brackets).  

William Hague pushing himself through a rubber band

Then like the old Demi Moore film Passions of the Mind (oh yes), they’re left to investigate which of these “realities” is correct, a problem hampered by the need to also decide which of the menaces on offer, alien possessed pensioners or the TARDIS drifting into a cold star.  The Dream Lord must be a fan of the Doctor Who Adventures because both of these stories look like the kind of thing which might be knocked out by Steve Lyons or @theolismith across eight pages and a cornucopia of exclamation marks.  That’s not a criticism; both offer impressive imagery, of old people acting like yobs and breaking up the place and the frosted time machine drifting ever closer to its icy doom, like the splash pages that might appear opposite “Ten things you didn’t know about the Crespallions (“7: No one can remember which episode they appeared in”).

At this point, seasoned viewers of British sci-fi might expect director Catherine Moorshead to break out the wide angle lenses and gels and go to town with the off-kilter close-ups and unusual lighting.  This version of Ledworth is the kind of weirdly deserted township in which nothing is at it seems and the normal becomes unreal.  Doctor Who has had a few of these itself, in other words, The Android Invasion on telly, Eddie Robson’s Memory Lane on audio and Stockbridge in the comics.  Similarly fans could be hoping the TARDIS scenes tonally mimic The Edge of Destruction in which despite the hulking great cameras, through some clever lighting, the console room became an alien place rather than a comforting symbol of safety.  

She goes conventional.

There’s none of that here.  Instead, Moorshead does something really quite interesting with the photography.  She goes conventional.  Though now and then in the village scenes we visit upon the odd shot which apes zombie films, notably one in which four of the pensioners slowly approach our heroes from across a field, despite the blue and green rinse brigade, Moorshead spends most of her time evoking Dangerfield, especially in the camper-van chase which also looks the fake credits for Monkfish from The Fast Show.  That approach is repeated in the TARDIS scenes which aren’t much different to anything we’ve seen before; it’s just that there are more of them.

Along with a music track which with the exception of some brief snatches of a re-mumble of Jon Brion’s main theme for Eternal Sunshine is Murray Gold almost parodying himself, the effort is to make our heroes confusion about the dream worlds as understandable as possible by portraying those dream worlds as conservatively as possible in televisual terms, something this audience might be less likely to accept if they looked like they were directed by Bunuel or Spike Jonze.  That’s very risky since it leaves the episode open to criticism for being “unadventurous” or “flat” or not making the most of the script (as I’ve already seen in a couple of early reviews).  But if there’s anything I’ve learnt about this series, it’s that there are more “features” than “bugs” and everything is very carefully thought through (and should be at this late stage -- Amy's Choice was the last episode of the season to be shot and edited). 

Theres noffink letht for me 'ear

Like the title of the episode.  For all the fantastical elements of both scenarios, it’s Amy’s desires which are being investigated, who and who’s world does she really want, Rory or the Doctor?  It’s much the same choice offered to Rose but unlike her “Theres noffink letht for me 'ear” treatment of Mickey in The Parting of the Ways which has always seemed cruel and unusual to me, especially with Billie’s playing of the line, Karen’s understated tragedy as she watches Rory fade to dust and realising her love for him and the Doctor’s impotence is very powerful, more-so because it lacks the histrionics we might well have expected.  Still, it is fairly predictable that the series might want to go the other way and allow her to have both, Rory embracing the adventure (Moffat seems keen to return the timelord to his original rampant asexuality).

All of which said, by the climax I was left a bit nonplussed.  Sitting down to write this review I was all ready to suggest that despite all the hilarious jokes, and wonderful performances, Amy’s Choice isn’t bold enough, certainly not as bold as Buffy’s Normal Again in which by the conclusion we’re not entirely sure that the previous six season’s worth of episodes aren’t an extrapolation of a twenty-something girl’s feverish imagination and that the conventionality of some of the direction with its steadicams-a-gogo, had dragged the episode down too far in the other direction.  But then I remembered the armies of kid-petrifying pensioners, the spooky shots of the Doctor and Rory frozen to the floor, the funny way the Dream Lord, a demonic rendering of the Doctor's own psychoanalytical concerns for goodness sake and is worth emphasising outside of brackets, zapped about Q-like and the whisk generator and realised that I may need to have look at this one again.  In other words, I've talked myself into liking an episode whilst writing a review of it.  Well played Nye and Moffat.

Next Week: "I sometimes wonder why I like the people of this miserable planet so much."


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