Amy's Choice

Story No. 226 The Dream Lord
Production Code Series 5, Episode 7
Dates May 15 2010

With Matt Smith, Karen Gillan, Arthur Darvill
Written by Simon Nye Directed by Catherine Morshead
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat, Piers Wenger, Beth Willis.

Synopsis: The Doctor, Amy and Rory are caught between two realities and only Amy can decide which one leads to escape.


A Review by Paul Mackie 25/6/10

If there's one thing that really separates Doctor Who from most of its long-running sci-fi peers, it's the characterization. The TARDIS is a rather lightly populated box, all things considered, and over the course of even one season we can get to know its inhabitants very well. So far, season 5 has been taking this character emphasis to extremes, especially since Flesh and Stone. While in seasons 1 and 2 it sometimes seemed like Rose's Earthbound relationships were the most important thing in the universe, season 5 is escalating that notion to literal dimensions. At this point, there are a lot of question marks associated with that strategy, but if Amy's Choice is any indication, it might be a smart one.

The premise is knotty, not easily reduced to a sentence, and very difficult to discuss without spoilers. Fundamentally, it's a potentially deadly riddle, but the danger is really secondary to the character interactions. In fact, the dialogue itself seems to acknowledge this - in one brilliant line ("OK, credible enough") it deepens the plot's mystery while commenting on the rather generic monster. What does work is the main antagonist, the Dream Lord, who knows exactly how to push each character's buttons. How he knows them so well is the episode's cleverest conceit.

What really helps this one work - more so than, say, the bits with Rose's family in Aliens of London - is the equal time paid to all three characters. In one corner, the Doctor, doing what he always does. In another, Amy, far too clever and spirited for the future the Dream Lord suggests but still drawn to what she knows. Finally, Rory, whose love for Amy struggles to overcome the inertia of his life. The basic dynamic here was outlined in the otherwise-worthless Vampires of Venice, but it really reaches full blossom here.

If there's one thing that doesn't quite work, it's the titular choice. We've spent so much more time with Amy and the Doctor than we have with Amy and Rory that the choice seems plain to us. Rory has been outmatched by both of them at every turn. He doesn't have the cool head, wit or sense of humor to last long in the TARDIS. It's unclear, from the time we've spent with him, why Amy would fall for him in the first place; only a lack of options can explain it. Naturally, when he meets his fate in Kegworth, she would be quite distressed, but her response to that distress seems out of character for her. She's been incredibly tough and logical thus far, so having her accidentally make the "right" decision by completely breaking down doesn't seem right.

I did quite like the Dream Lord's identity; it was sufficiently foreshadowed throughout to really work when revealed. Without going into spoilers, I will say it adds a new level to the story, makes a fine thematic link with The Edge of Destruction (a clear influence), and stands a good chance of paying off throughout the season.

In the end, the rest of the season is really going to be what defines Amy's Choice. By itself, it's a clever and entertaining hour, but how it will play into the universal threat and general TARDIS relations is still unclear. Still, if this is how Moffat's Who will do character episodes, bring them on.

A Review by Kirk Coulsdon 26/7/10

What is the worst Doctor Who you have ever watched? Did you suffer while watching Time-Flight? Have you believed that The Twin Dilemma is really the worst Doctor Who ever? Well, all of this is nothing compared to the abomination that is Amy's Choice. Not only is it Matt Smith's worst Doctor Who episode at the moment, but this story also wins my vote for the worst Doctor Who of all time.

The idea behind this story is reasonable enough. An evil sinister guy called the Dream Lord gives the Doctor, Amy and Rory a choice of which of two worlds is real and which one of them is a dream. To get back to reality, the trio have to kill themselves in the dream world. However, the execution of this idea is absolutely horrible and not only are there some ludicrous design choices in this episode, but there is a lot of padding and the two worlds are very basic and uninteresting.

Let's start of with the Dream Lord himself. This guy does not act like the usual ranting, megalomaniac that you sometimes see in Doctor Who, but instead he is more of a hilarious guy than a sinister evildoer.

The next point comes in the execution of the story itself. The same scenes often repeat itself, with the Doctor, Amy and Rory flicking between the two worlds constantly and it just repeats itself. And if you thought that all the padding in a lot of the old 6 parters was bad enough, this story contains more padding than any other Doctor Who story ever, for the reasons listed above.

This story also contains possibly the worst Doctor Who villains ever. And they are... a gang of pensioners. Not only is it silly, but it's morally offensive and despite the fact that they are seen to have alien organs inside their mouths, the whole execution of these pensioners attacking the Doctor and his companions is no less silly than it sounds on paper.

It might seem like I am ranting over a simple 45 minute TV episode, but as anyone who has watched this horror already knows, Amy's Choice is sheer pain to watch. The whole season itself hasn't been too great, but that doesn't mean that is any easier to stomach.

So there you have it. Amy's Choice is quite possibly the worst Doctor Who story ever written. In 45 minutes, you will suffer tremendous pain at the shockingly bad execution and design choices. If you missed this one on it's original broadcast, be glad you did and you are advised to steer well clear of this episode when it eventually comes out on DVD. Now I am going to shed a tear for everyone else who had the misfortune of watching this abomination and I'm going to watch something good. 1/10.

Same Old Dreams by Mike Morris 23/7/11

Amy's Choice is one of those Doctor Who stories that feels like it should be a whole lot better than it is. However, in spite of having plenty in the credit column, it emerges as being strangely unsatisfying. It's not terrible, I hasten to add, just curiously unmemorable, and it's difficult to see why.

Lightweight? Predictable? No, it's got a decent premise; two scenarios are pitched against each other, and the TARDIS crew have to decide which is real. There's room for some psychological insight there too, and the story delivers it. Badly-acted? Don't be silly; the mighty Toby Jones is in it, who has built up a career of Hollywood supporting characters by being consistently flawless in anything in which I've ever seen him. Adversary? Look, I just said, it's Toby Jones. Is it short on humour, or emotion, or good scenes? No to all three. There are good bits, and lots of 'em.

And yet, Amy's Choice isn't the humdinger you might imagine. A large part of the problem, I came to decide on a second viewing, is that the format is a bit too Star Trek for my liking. The TARDIS crew are - in the glorious tradition of Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes, or at least the early ones before it got kind of good - menaced aboard their spaceship... by a Thing. It's difficult to discuss Toby Jones' Dream Lord without spoilers, but - after much weight being given to the question of who exactly he is - the revelation is a disappointment, and not a million miles away from those Space-Time Anomalies to which Trek fans have so accustomed themselves. Plus, his teasing brand of menace - all pop-psychology insight and arch superiority - reminds me of Q. For me, that's not a good thing, but your mileage may vary; it's a question of taste really. I wouldn't mind seeing the Dream Lord back, I should add, if only for the skills of the actor alone.

The plot's a bit high-concept, but none the worse for that. The Doctor, Amy and Rory keep falling between two scenarios, both of which could be a dream, and are challenged by the Dream Lord to decide which is which. One takes place in the near future, back in Leadworth, with a pregnant Amy and a pony-tailed Rory; the other in the TARDIS, with the crew being frozen by a cold star. Which of the dreams is the reality?

Well, here's a central flaw; even after the previous week's trailer, I'd have staked my mortgage on Amy not really being pregnant. It's not quite as simple as that, admittedly, but the Leadworth-based scenes never really convince. It's not helped by the alien plot, which quickly degenerates into an extended chase sequence, and is never given any depth anyway. The script makes a joke about this - the Doctor asking about the aliens' motivations, then finishing their sentence for them - but it's not a funny one. There have been a few stories over the years which see themselves as being about 'more than just aliens invading the earth', which are about proper things like character and moral decisions and how time-travel affects your relationship with your boyfriend, and as a result overtly sketch in their plots in shorthand (Boom Town was the first story to do this). Thing is, and without wishing to come across as a strait-laced killjoy... oh, I do hate that. It's using a not-very-good joke to justify something not being up to scratch, and it cheapens the series.

Luckily, there are compensations; Rory's ponytail is genuinely funny, the scene where Amy fakes birth is a treat, and there's something glorious about the Doctor hurtling around in a Volkswagen Van to save people that he knows probably don't really exist anyway. The conclusion is - surprisingly - rather moving, and all three leads are terrific.

The scenario on the TARDIS, on the other hand, is just... dull. The TARDIS is plummeting towards a Cold Star (and yes, that's still a more plausible scenario than the scenes in Leadworth). It's getting colder. That's, um, about it.

That said, there are some well-worked scenes. There's some nicely observed interplay - the Doctor is convinced the Leadworth scenes aren't real (because he's bored), Rory's convinced they are (because he's got what he wanted), and Amy likes both of them. It's all a bit sub-Buffy in terms of the clunking symbolism (the Doctor can't do ordinary life, Rory can't do the Doctor's life, Amy wants to have her cake and eat it) but it's nice to see them trying. Simon Nye is often thought of as the comedy hack who created Men Behaving Badly, but over the years he's produced some really good programmes, and there's plenty of indication that he's capable of more than Amy's Choice gives us. One feels he'd be happier with some darker subject matter than he's being allowed to play with here.

And yet, if anything, the interesting thing about Amy's Choice is how clearly it shows what Doctor Who stories aren't usually like, and what ordinary clunking stories from other science-fiction franchises so often are. Doctor Who stories build upon the worlds they create, they develop as they go on; this one doesn't, it starts off with Toby Jones taunting Matt Smith and happily continues to do showcase this for 45 minutes. Doctor Who stories have huge levels of jeopardy, but it's terribly obvious from the start that only the crew are ever really in danger. Doctor Who stories have clear villains with notable aims and well-realised backstories - well, the good ones do anyway - but this has a bloke who knowingly takes the piss out of the Doctor for no readily apparent reason. It isn't boring, because the basic concept is strong and the acting is good, but the story never really develops from the scenario we're given five minutes after the titles.

In other words, this is an unusual story in a bad way: because in the world of science fiction it's terribly generic, but it's the sort of generic that Doctor Who doesn't really do.

If this gives the impression that I hate it, I don't. It's perfectly fine and it has a lot of good bits. But given the talent involved, it feels surprisingly first-drafty, and it doesn't add anything more to the pot as the story progresses. It isn't dull and witless like a 42 or The Sontaran Stratagem, but neither does it do much of interest beyond the basic setup. Amiable, but forgettable, stuff, enlivened by a few excellent set-pieces.

"You Know the Doctor. He's Mr. Cool!" by Hugh Sturgess 4/4/12

I love this episode. Every season, there's an episode that's a little different to all the others. Boom Town, Love & Monsters, Blink, Midnight - and I love them all (except for Boom Town, which I still think fails, but it's enjoyable enough). They're late in the season and they're pushing boundaries. They don't have the money for razzle-dazzle, so they have no option but to do something special. Amy's Choice is earlier in Series 5 than those other episodes came in their seasons, but it's part of the same tradition that stretches back to the old series too, with stories like Inside the Spaceship right back in 1964.

This episode's written by Simon Nye, who's apparently a comedy writer of some note. It's interesting that all the writers on Series 5, apart from Chris Chibnall, are most famous for their comedies. That makes sense, I guess, since Moffat from his Press Gang and Coupling days must have lots of comedy-writer friends, or at least people who owe him lots of money. (I just realised I forgot Toby Whithouse there. Which says something, actually.) In my humble opinion, this is the only time in Series 5 that this approach has worked. Nye plays up to the comedy, making it a part of the story's tone rather than shoving it on top like a bad cook trying to disguise a terrible cake with lots of icing. (Or, in a perhaps more instructive comparison, the way Douglas Adams would throw in a few bad puns and dull comedy to liven up the dramatic cardboard of Season Seventeen.) I don't know if Nye is a Doctor Who fan or whether it was just an attempt at craziness, but his "attack of the old people" subplot works because it manages to be both ridiculous and something only Doctor Who could do.

Geriatric zombies murdering schoolchildren! That's surprising dark for the New Series, which has always put kids off limits. One half of the scenario is gruesome, the other is ludicrous, so you don't know whether to laugh or not. Kirk Coulsdon didn't seem to appreciate this. Personally I like it.

Crucially, the comedy doesn't undermine this story. It's just as intrusive as in most of the episodes of the season, but here it serves a purpose rather than just tarting up a dull script. If Series 5 is Season Seventeen, then this is City of Death. They've had their humour worked into them from the beginning. Both the Dream Lord and Scaroth enjoy a laugh once and a while. The Dream Lord goes further than Scaroth, of course, because he doesn't care about anything beyond humiliating and degrading the Doctor. That's the point, he's the Anti-Doctor. Where the Doctor cares about others to an almost suicidally selfless degree, the Dream Lord cares only about gratifying himself. And of course he'd have a sense of humour! Just whereas the Doctor laughs in the face of fear, the Dream Lord laughs at fear in the faces of others.

That's why I think the humour works. The Dream Lord is putting Our Heroes in ludicrous situations that could still kill them. The Doctor flits between two worlds in the most undramatic and embarrassing way, one world in which he's freezing his knob off and the other he's being hunted down by ravenous old people in a dump of a village. "Ah, Leadworth. Vibrant as ever." There's a cracking one- or two-liner every few minutes, but it doesn't ever come across as just a sitcom lacking a laugh-track. Well, except for maybe the Doctor's line: "Did I say nightmare? No... more a really good... mare..." Murray Gold also plays against type and avoids being obvious. He could have farted out his usual plinkety-plink-plonk "comedic" music and killed the story on its arse. Instead, the Doctor-Rory exchange at the beginning - "It was similar, in some respects." "What respects?" "Well, all of them." - gets a sinister "things-are-not-what-they-seem" bass note of worry.

Now, there's obviously more to good writing than snappy one-liners. I'm profoundly irritated by "witty repartee" when it reaches a critical mass - as in any sitcom you could name or in parts of Series 5 - but Amy's Choice manages to avoid that by keeping its feet in the plot and isn't using the humour to fill the dead air of the script with little puffs of humour because the author's churned out some second-rate "sci-fi" pap as a favour for Steven Moffat. I think Moffat-Era Who might have a problem with tone, and an inability to handle lighter stories. There's too much seriousness and an obsession with telling stories in muted tones or in near-total darkness. That seriousness works to this episode's advantage, but look at The Curse of the Black Spot and see how it could have ended up. That was meant to be a light-hearted, fluffy bit o' fun with pirates between the "darker" episodes - but they set it at night and it went over like a lead balloon.

I'm going to talk a little bit about Matt Smith. I like him. A lot. A lot of people don't seem to like him, and I think I can see why; sometimes it's a conscious effort to pretend he delivered this or that line a different way. His work as the Doctor can be stilted, strange and/or unnatural, but you never know how he's going to tackle any given line, let alone any given story. He can be heartfelt when he wants to - his goodbye to Amy (twice) in The Big Bang, or his talk with Jo in Death of the Doctor - but given exactly the same line next week and he'll deliver it as nothing more than a verbal shrug. He will deliberately play against the line 90% of the time. That's a dangerous thing to do and it often doesn't come off (often in the poorer episodes all round, as though his heart wasn't in it), but I admire a lot of his choices as an actor and he's doing a lot more than either of his companions.

The old people's Shuffle of Death across the playground towards the Doctor and chums is more Whoish than most of the stuff in Series 5. It's a Doctor Who version of Shaun of the Dead. The sight of cardigan'd and petticoated monsters lurching across a field with walking frames, or of an old man scratching at a man in a camper-van like a wild animal (I began getting flashbacks to Night of the Living Dead then)... the world has never been threatened like this before. And they also work as a meta-textual parody of Moffat-style Who, by which something mundane is made sinister. I imagine Joe Ford loved this episode, given his well-documented distrust of the aged (see his review of the Sarah Jane Smith audio Test of Nerve).

It's even a parody of the folk memory of Doctor Who, in which evil likes the country life. The Daemons started it and you see the most serious treatments of it in novels like Casualties of War and Rags, but this is the concept done as comedy. Here, the clients of an old folks' home go on a murderous rampage and the Doctor hides from them in a fridge, which I think we can agree sets the bar fairly low, but that's necessary. As the Doctor stumbles along a country lane, evil pensioners on his heels, and hides inside a butcher's meat locker, Murray Gold is hammering away at his orchestra, which makes the sequence a) exciting and b) funny.

I can't understand the people who hate this plot element on "moral" grounds, as this "demonises" old people. Whoa, nelly. On this argument, Steven Moffat had - up until this story - "demonised" children, chemical protection gear, clocks, statues, shadows, libraries, cracks in the wall and fairground attractions. Why the big deal over evil pensioners? I wonder whether it's because it's seen to be treating old people as a separate category to the rest of society by depicting them being possessed by monsters; in which case, it's still a double-standard, as Moffat became famous in Doctor Who for a story in which the villain is a child. This is exactly the same thing, but with a wink and at the other end of human life.

The story's only real flaw of note is, perhaps ironically, what's supposed to be its whole point. The choice Amy has to make never seems like a real one. Will she pick a life in the TARDIS with the Doctor and Rory, or one in a village she describes as a dump? No one is going to think the placid, boring life in Upper Leadworth is going to be the real one; Doctor Who just isn't brave enough (or, to be fair, able as a weekly TV show) to jump forward five years and make a main character heavily pregnant without consequences. Take a look at Series 6, in which something similar happens, and then observe the difference in tone between Amy's Choice and A Good Man Goes to War.

Really, it isn't about Amy choosing which life to live at all, is it? Only one world can be real (supposedly), so the thrust of the plot isn't Amy choosing which one she wants, but which one is real. We're also left to conclude that Amy's choice was between the two men in her life: live with Rory or the Doctor. Again, this is a false dichotomy, since either world would have both and ultimately the "real" world does too. The Dream Lord tells Amy that both the Doctor and Rory have decided which world is real long ago and are waiting for her, but it's not as though they're standing back keeping mum and letting her make up her own mind. Then again, the Doctor knows who the Dream Lord is, and this gives him the ability to force a twist on the audience at the end, so it seems the entire exercise was prolonged by the Doctor as an extreme form of marriage counseling. What a dick.

Yeah, so the weakest part's the plot. Not the script, but just the storyline itself. Whoops. Sure, it's lightweight in comparison to some other efforts, but for my money it's worth twenty macho gun-fests and thousands more pieces of generic hackwork from uninterested writers. It's out of control in the best ways. If I had to pick one moment, it would be the cut between Rory comforting Amy with the quote used as the title of this review and the Doctor stumbling drunkenly on his tiptoes down the street. Amy's Choice is the marker of a comedy writer who knows what he's good at, rather than a comedy writer who writes a serious piece of "sci-fi" and then tries to cover its annihilating dullness with a clever one-liner or two.

Did I say nightmare? No. More of a really good...mare. by Evan Weston 2/9/17

The Moffat era continues its remarkably strong start with a Doctor Who take on the psychological dream thriller, aired just a couple months before the release of Inception. And there's a good deal of dream-within-a-dream wonkery going on here, but first-time writer Simon Nye - a close second behind Matt Jones in the "why didn't they give him another script?" category - keeps everything together by not escalating or overcomplicating things, instead setting up his premise in the first 15 minutes and allowing it to build the thematic conclusion naturally. This gives Karen Gillan room to deliver her best performance yet in the role of Amy Pond, and the episode as a whole rides its female lead to terrific success.

The titular choice, Rory or the Doctor, has been the focal point of Amy's character since her introduction, and it's nice to see Moffat's team spend an entire episode resolving that. Amy has arguably the strongest character arc in the show's revived history, really only competing with Martha's Series 3 storyline, and this is possibly her strongest episode. In retrospect, the choice seems obvious - Rory is the love her life, why wouldn't she choose him? - but for the first time viewer, you've seen Amy run away with the Doctor on the night before her wedding, try to have sex with him and generally spurn Rory in his company. The decision seems genuinely in doubt. The way Nye manages to layer that with her choice between realities is brilliant, and Amy's final decision is perfectly written, without any doubt in her mind. The only reason this is believable is Gillan's subtle, vulnerable performance that allows us, in a dream within a dream, to see the real Amy for the very first time. Gillan is generally solid on Doctor Who, but there are a handful of episodes where she absolutely stuns, and this is the first.

While the central plotline works terrifically, the rest of the story refuses to sit quietly. Again, the resolution is obvious, but Nye and first-time director Catherine Morshead disguise it by choosing to make both worlds seem both real and fake simultaneously. The TARDIS is the more clear-cut of the two, with the familiar interior contrasted against the pointedly ridiculous cold star. Leadworth is set five years in the future - a tell to the viewers that it isn't reality - but everything else is perfectly normal within the realm of Doctor Who. This wonderful set-up creates a guessing game in which you're constantly questioning what's going to happen both on a plot and character level. It both helps and hurts Amy's Choice that the actual happenings turn into an extended chase sequence about halfway through - it simplifies the questions so that Amy's development is brought to the forefront, but it also causes the episode to slip into a bit of a repetitive lull. This is the only somewhat major flaw here. While the story keeps you locked in, I did find myself retreating from the edge of my seat as the climax drew near. The fact that it ends up being a fairly predictable resolution, as well-cloaked as it is, doesn't help.

However, there's plenty to keep us occupied along the way. Matt Smith's Doctor appears to know what's happening the entire time, but where Tennant might smirk and laugh his way through this type of episode, Smith plays it straight, which amplifies the level of danger for the audience. Arthur Darvill manages to outshine Smith for the second consecutive episode though, and his moments alone with Gillan in their nursery are touching as all get out. We learn more about Rory as well, though it wasn't difficult to guess that all he wants out of life is a nice home with Amy and a distinguishing haircut. But Gillan's real competition for best in show comes from Toby Jones as hands-down the best villain of Series 5, the sinister, wise-cracking Dream Lord. Jones chews over every line like it's Christmas dinner, happily skewering the principal characters. His deconstructions of the Doctor (intergalactic wag, hah!) are tremendously funny, but he also manages to maintain an air of control over everything, simply by how calm he is in the midst of the mass freak-out. It's a shame we won't see him again, as he's revealed to be a powerless illusion by the end. I'll admit, the resolution does let the air out of the bag a little with the revelation that it was all just a nasty nightmare.

During the story, however, the stakes appear to be quite high, which is Nye's greatest triumph. While the setting and the acting plays a huge part, both "deadly dangers" convince enormously well. The freezing TARDIS is tragically creepy, as the characters' faces fill with chips of ice and their spirits gradually weaken. This slow, unstoppable death is starkly juxtaposed against the old-people monsters in Leadworth, from whom the main cast spends a lot of time running. While the concept of senior citizens killing people is quite silly on its face, the script does them justice by treating them as a legitimate threat. Not once do the characters remark with snark on the situation. This is actually a theme throughout Amy's Choice. Nye puts together quite the balancing act by using a premise that, in the reality of the show at least, doesn't exist, but everything that needs to be played at face value is, so that the audience treats the material with respect. This allows the episode to grip the viewer from start to finish, even on the second time around, when you're busy pointing out how well-constructed the script is.

The production values didn't need to be all that high for this one, since the two primary sets are both staples of Series 5. The frozen TARDIS is wonderful, though, with the console completely covered in snow and the dimmed lights giving it a cold, bluish tint. Leadworth manages to be even better, with its depressing dullness permeating every inch of the screen. Even with this, when the episode leans to Rory's (and near the end, Amy's) point of view, it seems oddly idyllic at the same time. The best effect is the way the Dream Lord zips about from one area to another, a triumph of mise-en-scene from Morshead, a veteran of the British TV circuit. She generally stages everything nicely, and the final showdown at the house is set up perfectly.

While not quite as mind-bending as you'd think, Amy's Choice keeps the psychological tension high while bringing out a transformational performance from Karen Gillan. Amy and Rory's relationship gets a heaping load of development, and the foundation of the three-way TARDIS crew is settled in this story. The brilliantly balanced plot and excellent villain help ease us into the madness, and, while it may be a bit repetitive and predictable at points, Amy's Choice is still extraordinarily smart television and another more-than-solid entry into what's shaping up to be an extremely strong run for the show.