Thursday, 20 May 2010

Reaction: AMY'S CHOICE

Written by Simon Nye, directed by Catherine Morshead, 2010

Rather disparagingly, The Guardian have effectively dismissed Amy’s Choice as ‘the cheap episode’ of the season, and a “Simon Nye-penned curio”. Well, get a grip. This is what I’ve been waiting for from this series; admittedly, I didn’t expect it to come from the writer of Men Behaving Badly, but… who cares?

Off-beat, small-scale, and relatively experimental (given how much the series generally adheres to a formula): these are things I particularly prize in Doctor Who, which is often at its strongest when forced to push in new directions, rather than relying on CGI flying saucers and ever-escalating season finales. It’s hard to not see this as Inside the Spaceship redux (down to the perfunctory justification for the events of the story), and an equivalent to that story’s limited setting is the perfect format through which to explore this sort of less-is-more potential.

Amy’s Choice marks a return to an infrequent milieu for Doctor Who: fantasy worlds, or borderline-surreal domains; previously done in, what, The Celestial Toymaker, Mind Robber, Deadly Assassin, and the last couple of episodes of Trial of a Time Lord. Although I imagine this sort of thing – something conceived as ‘sideways’ digressions when the series was in the planning stages – is unlikely to become a regular fixture, it’s the polar opposite of the urban realism, and, more broadly, literality that underpinned the last few years’ output. Even the basic sci-fi staple of a metaphysical entity like the Dream Lord is something of a relief after five years of rhinos with ray guns.

Everything about this story is simple – obvious, even – yet nevertheless feels unprecedented. The TARDIS becoming a major setting; a ‘Bad Doctor’; even the idea of evil pensioners – simple concepts, but all the more effective for that. The character of the Dream Lord undoubtedly benefits from the corresponding lightness of touch brought to it by Toby Jones (Truman Capote in Infamous – the Antz to Capote’s A Bug’s Life). Jones not only manages to convey the maliciousness of the part (rather than out and out evil), but actually make an entirely believable Doctor figure.

Inevitably, there have been fans (presumably the ones convinced that every female character is going to turn out to be the Rani…?) trying to overstate the connection to the aforementioned Trial’s evil-future-Doctor, the Valeyard, as if the merest mention of the V-word would cause spontaneous orgasms across the country. Well, obviously there’s a connection: it’s the same idea. And if one is so inclined it’s easy enough to suggest that the Valeyard will come from the same dark corner of the Doctor’s subconscious as the Dream Lord, sometime in the future. Case closed. (The Dream Lord even flits about in the same way as the Valeyard does.)

The difference between the Valeyard and the Dream Lord is that the latter makes so much more sense; it’s a more convincing take on (when you think about it) an achingly obvious idea, because he’s still recognisably the Doctor, albeit one with a streak of malevolence. That he's playing malevolent little games actually makes him seem far more twisted. The Valeyard, on the other hand, might as well have no connection to the Doctor, being an unremarkably slimy black-clad villain. In this case, the revelation of the villain’s identity makes sense, without feeling pointlessly gimmicky or overplayed. (The reflection in the TARDIS console is a nice touch though, recalling the Second Doctor seeing the First’s face in a mirror after his regeneration.)

I also found it quite pleasing how much Toby Jones’ casting relates to a classic series idiom, rather than a Matt Smith equivalent (in the way John Simm was a Bad Tennant - in every sense...). He also has a touch of Being Human’s villain, Herrick, about him; a sort of innocuous, banal evil. Actually, Jones’ is an unflashy performance, but it’s quite masterful, and I think almost without doubt the most memorable villain since the series returned. (Son of Mine is effective, but that’s a series of quirks rather than a well-characterised performance.) It might lessen the character’s ambiguities, but I would be genuinely pleased to see the Dream Lord return, in some form (especially given his various guises).

As much a glaringly obvious concept as the Bad Doctor, marauding OAPs is triple-distilled Doctor Who, a perfect example of the oft-cited ‘twist on the familiar’, with the advantage of being absurd (think Father Ted), but simultaneously threatening. The icy TARDIS is a similarly low-key but memorable visual conceit, which is far more interesting than any number of fatuously overblown CGI orgies. From a purely visual perspective, it’s as gorgeous an image as Liz Ten sitting in her room of water-filled glasses. The playground outside the castle ruins is memorably (and appropriately) odd, too.

That this story also manages to include some arguably overdue character-based development of Amy Pond, deconstruct the Doctor, and still manage to be very funny are all reasons to be extremely cheerful. (“You know the Doctor – he’s Mr Cool”. Cut to the Doctor reeling down the street.) There’s never going to be a massive amount of space for substantially developed guest characters in a 45 minute format, so it’s not unwelcome for a story to dispense with them entirely. (And perhaps because of this, for once, it also felt like the series was capable of really using the 45 minute format, with the story feeling full but not rushed.) The main guest in The Vampires of Venice is a case in point of a character who becomes entirely two-dimensional at the expense of the regulars.

My problem with that story, that - though very funny - there wasn’t any substance to counterbalance the humour is nicely corrected here. While still laugh-out-loud funny in places, there was also a certain amount of dramatic weight and a far more original plot at work.

Deconstruction of the Doctor is always welcome (“Friends – is that the right word for the people you acquire?”), and I like the acknowledgment, as in Boom Town (another ‘cheap one’), that not only is the Doctor flawed but that he recognises this himself. Perhaps more importantly, it is good to finally have some substantial focus on Amy, as it does feel like the character’s been taken for granted, with a story based round her feeling overdue. I also can’t help seeing this story as yet another renunciation of the Davies years (something that’s become habitual in this series, and makes me wonder precisely what Moffat thought of Davies’ run); a whole story based around the companion choosing her boyfriend over the Doctor.

What else? Lazy bullet points:

• Jumping a time track – more points for referencing a story from a full FORTY-FIVE YEARS ago. Especially The Space Museum, of all possibilities…

• Rory hitting a old lady with a lump of wood and the Doctor knocking one off a porch with a bedside lamp… Ah, inappropriate violence – always guarantees a belly laugh.

• On the basis of Confidential, it’s quite charming that the three mains are apparently exactly the same as their characters in real life. Bless, etc.

Behind the Sofa has an annoyingly insightful review/analysis, here. The observation that the story benefits from the dreamworlds being presented without recourse to flashy techniques is interesting, but it also makes me sort of wish we could’ve had some Gondry/Jonze-style visual invention.

Amy's Choice may not be an instant stone-cold classic, but it’s pretty close. Though I’m loving the sensibility of this series, its regulars, etc, this is one of the best episodes for me so far. The Eleventh Hour may be the best expression of Moffat’s vision, but I do wonder whether the shine’ll rub off when all the things it introduced have become ordinary.

In a way, I suppose this is as emotionally asinine as the show’s ever been… but that just goes to show how much difference a variation in tone and approach can make, because suddenly I give a shit about these sort of emotional moments. After only seven episodes I care more about these regulars than I did any of the previous five years’.

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