The little birds told me, there'll be spoilers!
When a new season of Doctor Who is announced, my first stop isn’t to check out which old enemies are returning, nor what guest stars will be studding the new episodes’ firmament. No, I instead I head directly to that quieter spot in the media fanfare and see who’s on the writers roster.
Now while the first series of new Who drew extensively from the pool of writers who had previous form in writing for the show while it was off the air. So we had Mark Gatiss and Paul Cornell who both had made several contributions to the Virgin and the BBC ranges of novels, Rob Shearman author of numerous audio dramas, first for BBV and later Big Finish, and of course, Steven Moffat who had penned the Comic Relief spoof/homage Curse of the Fatal Death.
However Series 2 heralded a change of policy, although all of the Who alumni bar Shearman would return for an episode or two, only Moffat secured a slot in each following series. And from the second series onwards, it seemed like Russell T Davies was keener to let his chums from the young and hip British mainstream drama have a crack at tackling the Doctor. And sometimes this worked reasonably well (as in Toby Whithouse's School Reunion) and at other times not so good (Matthew Graham's Fear Her. However the Moffat episode aside, very tellingly the best story that season was the satanic two parter (The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit) by Matt Jones, who although best known for working on big name dramas like Children's Ward, Coronation Street, Clocking off and Shameless first got started in the writing game with a Who novel Bad Therapy for the Virgin range... And similarly when Series Three drew to a close, the stand-out episodes were Blink from the Moff naturally and the two parter from Paul Cornell (Family of Blood/Human Nature). Can you spot the pattern here, children?
So then, while I applaud RTD for not letting the show become strangled by an old boys network of Whovians, throwing the doors open to new talent and trying to get other respected drama writers on board, I'm not so sure this approach has really paid off that well. In terms of the show as a media entity, inviting in talent from the world of mainstream drama rather than scifi fandom has definitely helped to shake off the perception that Doctor Who is a closed shop for nerds only. However in terms of the strength of the episodes, the results have been somewhat variable. And in making very public overtures to the likes of Neil Gaiman, Stephen Fry and JK Rowling, you can't help feeling there is a certain amount of stunt casting going on. Now don't get me wrong, a slice of Who penned by either of these three has a definite appeal, but you have to wonder whether there is also an element of getting the biggest author names possible on the script roster and reaping corresponding large media coverage as a result.
Hence I had somewhat mixed feelings when I noticed that we were to get an episode this series from Simon Nye, the man behind hit '90s comedy Men Behaving Badly. Now as much as I enjoyed that show, I wasn't entirely sure Nye was a good fit for Who and wondered whether this was Moffat indulging in a spot of stunt casting himself. But on the other hand, for all its crudity and new laddish swagger, Men Behaving Badly was very sharply written, and beneath the nob gags, there was a harder edged and more sophisticated humour rooted in sharply observed truths. And to do comedy well, you do need perfect timing and pacing – which is why so many comedians turn out to be astonishingly good straight actors as well. So then while I had some doubts about a man most famous for a sitcom revolving around lager and breasts turning in a script, I was also hoping that Mr Nye was going to bring some of that sharp insight into the human condition and the comedy writer's meticulous construction skills to the episode.
And as it turned out my cautious optimism was justified; Nye indeed did bring both elements mentioned above but he also brought a whole lot more. Amy's Choice was fresh, different and original; blending a sense of fun with real threat and at the same time delivering a fascinating character based episode. Yet it also harked back to classic Who too; its deadly dreams and reality bending echoing vintage stories such as The Deadly Assassin (1973), The Mind Robber (1968) and The Celestial Toymaker (1966).
And in the Dream Lord we have a villain destined to join the ranks of classic adversaries. Written razor sharp by Nye, and brilliantly brought to life by Toby Jones. While some may be complaining that he is just a Q rip off, it should be noted that Who was there far earlier than Star Trek: TNG with the Master of the Land of Fiction in Troughton’s run (The Mind Robber) and the afore mentioned Toymaker who was gaming with the Doctor’s life a full year before even Q’s ancestor the Squire of Gothos (1968) put in an appearance.
But equally Doctor Who didn’t invent the concept of the omnipotent trickster who plays games with the fates of men – now that’s a very old archetype, centuries older than any of our media and stretching way back into the mists of legend and fable. And one of the reasons why the Trickster has been popping up in our stories since when the time of myth is that he reveals the true inner nature of our heroes by making their usual contexts plastic and treacherous.
In terms of Doctor Who, the Dream Lord presents a challenge that cannot be solved with the usual heroics – unlike so many of new Who stories, the threat posed by this version of the trickster archetype cannot be resolved with the old standbys of running down some corridors and waving the sonic screwdriver. Instead it is self knowledge and logical thinking that save the day and vanquish the Dream Lord.
And as well as staying true to the mythological dynamics that give Trickster figures their narrative powers, Amy’s Choice is also a direct descendant of many classic era Who stories. From The Aztecs to Genesis of the Daleks, time and time again the classic series we are present with scenarios that require the resolution of a thorny personal dilemma rather than the usual sci-fi MacGuffins.
However at the same time, Nye has spun an excellent tale that unites these two Who motifs as this episode also fits perfectly with the more emotional, touchy feely character fireworks of new Who. And furthermore, he’s brought us one of the better explorations of the interior lives of the characters. Quite often in the past, when the show has ventured into these waters, too often the real world emotional content seem like soap elements bolted on to the usual space monster shenanigans. For example, you need only compare this episode with last week’s Vampires in Venice.
Now after penning the review of that episode, I did wonder whether I was giving poor old Toby Whithouse a bit of grilling. However after seeing Amy’s Choice, I felt somewhat vindicated in giving him a rough ride as Nye’s script deals with the Doctor-Amy-Rory triangle so much more deftly and convincingly. I’ve not watched both episodes back to back yet, but I suspect they aren’t going to match up as smoothly as perhaps they should. Really these two stories should be reinforcing each other; making up an unofficial two parter in a way, but as it stands it’s going to feel more like a game of two halves.
However, in fairness to Mr Whithouse, Amy’s Choice has also highlighted a weakness in Vampires of Venice that was beyond his control as it’s a weakness that Nye’s episode share too. And that is the lack of chemistry between Amy and Rory. Now as far as I can tell there’s nothing in the performances of either Karen Gillan or Arthur Darvill to flag up as the problem, and as Nye had more dramatic depth in his script, the absence of sparks between the two isn’t a script issue either.
And I’m honestly a bit perplexed on this one. I don’t know why but I just don’t buy that this pair would have the relationship they do. I could believe that Rory was Amy’s cherished childhood friend, or that she didn’t requite his feelings for her, but I just don’t see the whole really deeply in love actually thing. At least not yet – I’m hoping that maybe this will start to shine through in the next episode when surely this triangle business is out of the way. And if not, well we’ll just have to chalk it up as one of those odd relationships that do occur in real life, where as soon as the pair leave a room everyone else is asking ‘what do they see in each other?’ and ‘why the hell are they together?’
Now from scanning various reviews here and there, it would appear I’m not alone in just not seeing the emotional bond between Amy and Rory. However I do wonder whether perhaps the real reason I don’t see it is that there is a hidden Lust Lord lurking in my subconscious, whispering “A bird like her, with a twonk like him? ‘Es punching well above ‘is weight sunshine…”. But dubious claims about infections contracted from psychic pollen from the planet Loaded aside, this is a weak spot in an otherwise excellent episode, and in the series as a whole.
But other than the Rory/Amy business, I didn’t really have any other real problems with this episode. The concept of turning OAPS into monsters could well have back-fired in less capable hands and come off like a rewrite of the Father Ted episode Night of the Nearly Dead. However in the context of story where we are being asked to decide which reality is real, the Ecnodeen were perfect monsters; absurd and threatening at the same time.
Yes, the CGI eyestalks were blatantly fake looking, but this was a design issue rather than the actual rendering I think. Furthermore, I suspect it was a deliberate choice on the part of the production team – I reckon they went for a slightly cartoon look as going fully realistic would have been just too horrific for the time slot and the younger viewers. And again, considering the narrative context, it does make sense they weren’t portrayed in all-out realism.
(Quick aside – I’m also willing to bet that knowing Nye’s brand of comedy, the original script had Rory belting the old dear across the head with that plank but the mandarins in the upper echelons of the Beeb had it scaled down to a lesser shocking body shot.)
All in all, Amy’s Choice was a cracking episode. An intriguing set up, a mesmerizing new villain and a neat twist end that I must confess did take me by surprise. Although I suspected both realities might be false, I totally didn’t twig that the Dream Lord was an aspect of the Doctor. The line “there’s only one person in the universe that hates me so much” totally had me haring off down false paths, thinking, is this the Toymaker? The Black Guardian? Fenric or one of the other Old Ones?
That said though, I’m still not entirely sure I actually believe the Doctor’s explanation. Certainly I think we’ll be seeing the Dream Lord again sooner or later on way or another…
And I certainly hope it’s not the last we see of Simon Nye, who has turned in an episode destined to be remembered as a highlight of this series. And that’s no mean feat in the strongest batch of Who we’ve had in quite a while. His background in comedy writing ensured that he structured his story beautifully and built it put to a satisfying pay off. However story construction aside, he has succeeded where other writers new to Who have floundered because he really seems to understand what makes the show tick. He’s grasped the key dynamics of both its new and classic flavours and balanced both wonderfully while still hitting the right blend of wit and scares.
Considering that this episode was intended as a modest affair, a story not requiring the biggest of budgets Nye has transformed what could have easily been merely filler into a minor classic. Let’s hope when he returns, Moffat and co let him loose with a two parter!
JIM MOON, 17th May 2010