Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Night of the Nearly Dead

(Alternative title: You're the Doctor of my Dreams. But I worried that readers wouldn't get the reference to “Henry Kissinger”.)

I enjoyed Amy's Choice less than I was expecting to, based on reports from the UK. It's a concept with huge potential, but the execution felt too pat in places, particularly the ending, and the Dream Lord just ended up feeling corny.

I think it's in the delivery as much as anything. Written down in reviews and forum discussions, his bon mots seemed all right – even witty, some of them – but on the screen they sounded like the sort of smart-alecky barbs you'd expect a smug fanboy to have written. And this is surprising, because as far as I'm aware Simon Nye is a sitcom writer who happens to have scripted an episode of Who, and not a smug fanboy at all. It's one of life's mysteries. I'm inclined to blame Toby Jones' slightly affected performance.

This is an episode that wears its subtext on its sleeve – in fact, the text and subtext are damn near identical. Amy's choice is between daunting maturity, symbolised by family life with Rory in a cosy village where children are destroyed by evil old people, and a frozen childhood symbolised by the frozen TARDIS. She's the star burning cold, and the unchanging refuge for herself threatened by age. (It's tempting to make a connection between her inner child and the literal inner child she's on the verge of expelling in the Upper Leadworth reality.) By the end of the episode, she's chosen maturity – she's prepared to accept the reality of growing up as long as Rory's there, and the Doctor won't let her remain in stasis. Character development at last.

All of this is good, solid, back-of-a-cereal-packet-philosophy stuff, and it or the dark side of the Doctor's mind alone ought to have been able to support an episode. Together, they ought to be a phenomenon. I'm not sure why it doesn't quite work for me.

It's a little awkward watching an episode in which the Doctor cracks a joke about self-harm, our heroes encourage each other to beat up old ladies with lengths of wood, and a pregnant woman commits suicide. I don't think there was any outcry over any of this, and presumably “it was all a dream” is an acceptable get-out as far as any given viewer is concerned, but still. This may be part of my quarrel with this episode. It's also uncomfortable, if interesting, to re-read the Dream Lord's dialogue as a kind of confession on the Doctor's part. Although again, there's a get-out, that the Doctor believes no one could hate him as much as he hates himself, so really all of this is just abysmally low self-esteem. Still 'n' all, that's not the most inspirational line to take with the kiddies' hero. And the one-sentence summary of the episode would have to be “The dark side of the Doctor's mind forces Amy, through psychological manipulation, to choose between the Doctor and Rory”, which doesn't look too hot either.

“It was all a dream” even offers a get-out for the traditional narrative quirks like Rory taking ten times as long to die as any minor character, or the pensioner monsters failing to attack anyone convincingly after the initial threat is established. (Doctor in the minivan, picking up the terrorised citizens of Upper Leadworth: “Quick, while they're being rubbish!”)

As I write this, I'm starting to see this episode more and more as a dazzling post-modern masterwork that I personally just don't get – a sort of 21st century Carnival of Monsters. It's obvious on paper just how brilliant it is, I'm just not blown away by it on the screen. On the plus side, this was the week that Amy and Rory both finally clicked as characters for me. And Matt Smith, as ever, was tip-top.

I'm veering between 7 and 8 out of 10. I reason that it ought to be higher, but I feel that it ought not.


S said...

I wonder if the problem may have been knowing the lines before you heard them delivered - and indeed knowing what would happen in the end.

Its not always that a DW episode is the poorer for a bit of advance knowledge but personally I found the Dream Lord dialogue built up the tension fairly well (once you get past the fact that he is not tall and thin with black hair and eyes that have the stars reflected in them...)

SFX said it was let down by its direction and I have to agree with that as well. Though more dreamlike would have thrown off the premise so perhaps the pedestrian approach was deliberate?!

Still, I enjoyed it as a different type of episode and personally gave it a 7.

John Toon said...

Ha, so you still rated it no better than I did!

I don't think knowing the lines in advance is the problem. As I say, they looked fine written down, I just felt Toby Jones' delivery was off. A bit too forced or stilted. Like he was playing the part in an 80s episode or summat. Compare with the previous week - I knew most of the banter between Rory and the Doctor ahead of time, but I still enjoyed it when it came up.

In general I feel I'm pretty well immune to spoilers. It wouldn't matter to me if I'd seen the entire script beforehand, I can still be surprised by the way it's delivered, or directed, or edited. I still haven't seen the episode until I've actually seen it, if you catch my meaning. I don't find that knowing what comes next affects my enjoyment - if it did, I wouldn't be able to rewatch episodes I'd enjoyed. Or reread books, for that matter. And Rocky Horror Shows would be right out.

Re the direction, yes, I suspect they wanted it consistently one way or the other to keep viewers guessing. I also agree there were some duff moments. And oi, BBC - too cheap to show us a TARDIS prop exploding?! (Or would that be out of bounds as a non-POV scene?)

Christopher Pittard said...

Again, we agree (7 out of 10), but for different reasons. I thought Toby Jones was quite good, although the "That's why it's called reality" exchange seemed to be poorly directed. There are a couple of major problems with this one, though, and I'll start with the biggest - did you ever really believe that Leadworth was real? No, of course not, because what the hell is the series going to do with a pregnant Amy? What happened in the intervening time from the last episode (at least five years)? About halfway through, it only occurred to me that Leadworth might be reality as a kind of twist ending, and we really were that far in the future... but I dropped that idea again quite quickly.

And another thing; does Amy *really* decide between Rory and the Doctor? Really? I've read reviews that rather astutely point out that Amy only really chooses between 'Rory alive' and 'Rory dead', with the Doctor somewhat on the sidelines. And that ain't no choice at all. Mind you, I've also read reviews that found the marauding pensioners hilarious. They weren't.

S said...

Was only commenting that foreknowledge might have made a difference in this single case...going back to hide in my cupboard now...