Amy’s Choice (11th Doctor, episode 7)

[A revised and improved version of this essay appears in my book The Eleventh Doctor: a critical ramble through Matt Smith’s tenure in Doctor Who.]

A couple of nights ago,  I watched The Hungry Earth, episode 8 of the new Doctor Who.  Among other things, it reminded me that I’ve not yet written anything about episode 7.  So let’s fix that.  And then I’ll go on to talk about episode 8 next time.

I had more a more fundamental problem with Amy’s Choice than with any other episode in the season so far.  I’ve tried to think of a way to discuss it spoiler-free, but I’ve not come up with anything.  So we warned that THIS REVIEW IS VERY SPOILY.

It’s a shame that this episode didn’t really work, because the premise is replete with opportunity — two alternative realities running in parallel, with the heroes switching between them.  Recent Who has dealt with alternative realities a couple of times, both of them very effectively (Donna’s realisation that her children are fake in Forest of the Dead was the single spine-tingliest moment in all of Who for me, and Turn Left was genuinely chilling).

In contrast with those two episodes, this one was set up as a puzzle,very explicitly and pretty early on: The Mysterious Stranger (hereafter TMS) turns up out of nowhere and explains the plot to the Doctor, Amy and Rory: one of the realities is real and the other is fake: they have to choose which is real, knowing that if they die in the fake reality they will simply awake in the other, and TMS will make the danger go away.  Stated baldly, this sounds like a transparently contrived dilemma; that it works as well as it does is tribute to good acting on the part of the three principals.

In both realities, things go quickly wrong.  The first, set on the Earth a few years in the future, has Amy married to Rory, who is now a Doctor, and very pregnant; idyllic (though maybe more for Rory than for Amy), until the village’s aged population turn out to be hosting hostile aliens who eat all the children, and then come after our heroes.

The second, set on the TARDIS, shows us a malfunction and loss of power, with the result that the TARDIS is pulled towards a frozen star.  It gets progressively colder until the Doctor and co. are threatened with freezing to death.

If you can overlook the artificiality of it all, and TMS’s frequent reappearances to act as master of ceremonies and occasional expositor, it’s not a bad setup: how can the heroes figure out which reality is the real one?

And it here that not one, not two, but three profound problems undercut the episode’s effectiveness.

First, nothing actually happens in the cold-star scenario.  Nearly all the time is spent in the alien-oldies world, so we’re not given a fair chance to compare them for implausibility.  What time we do spend in the TARDIS is mostly taken up with TMS’s gnomic utterances — which, to be fair, are interesting enough, especially when watching for the second time, but they don’t deliver what the setup promised.

Second, no-one makes any actual progress towards figuring out which world is real.  There is a funny moment when the Doctor waves his hand back and forth in front of his face and says he’s looking for video compression artifacts, and he emphasises that Amy and Rory need to be on the lookout for anything unusual (which as Rory points out is difficult given how weird normal life is for them).  But none of this leads anywhere.  It’s a rare example in the Moffat era of a plot line being dropped on the floor and forgotten — and all the more perplexing for its being, at least nominally, the central plot thread.

Third, and most cripplingly (and look away now if you’ve not yet seen the episode but you read on despite the spoiler warning above, because I am now going to get super-spoily), the entire episode is rendered wholly futile when it is revealed that in fact both scenarios are fake.  There never was a cold star, there never were alien-infested pensioners — the whole of both scenarios were induced by some kind of alien dream pollen.  This means, of course, that it mattered not one jot what happened in either of the worlds: the Doctor and friends could have just sat snugly waiting to be disintegrated by aliens/frozen by the cold star, and stuck their fingers in their ears and sung LA LA LA whenever TMS turned up to emit a plot fragment.

I said when reviewing the dreadful Buffy movie that any interest I had in proceedings was destroyed by the characters’ failure to take their own situation seriously.  But Amy’s Choice turns out to suffer from an even more foundational defect: it’s not just that the characters don’t believe in their world — its that they shouldn’t believe in it.  Heck, even the writers don’t.

So despite all its fine moments (and I did laugh at times, and I found the final revelation of TMS’s identity suitably surprising and thought-provoking), Amy’s Choice represents a horrible fumbling of the ball.  It’s not without merit, but the faults lie too deep for any amount of sugar to save it.

Shame.  Philip K. Dick made an entire career out of stories in which notions of reality were stretched, twisted, inverted and otherwise played with; some of his short stories have left deep impressions on me (his novels, not so much), among which The Electric Ant, Chains of Air, Web of Aether, and especially Faith of Our Fathers loom large.  [Note to self: must write article about how Faith of Our Fathers both parallels and utterly contradicts G. K. Chesterton’s brilliant novel The Man Who Was Thursday.]  Given the huge realm of possibilities that this kind of story offers, I didn’t expect to see the opportunity fumbled so badly under Moffat’s watch.

16 responses to “Amy’s Choice (11th Doctor, episode 7)

  1. I was pretty disappointed with Amy’s Choice. We both suspected the identity of TMS pretty early on and it wasn’t much longer before we figured neither reality was real.

    I’m also a big PKD fan. :-)

  2. … whereas I didn’t guess that both “realities” were unreal because — well, that would be cheating, wouldn’t it? I trusted the program more than that.

    It’s not that I object to the notion of a twist. If both realities had turned out to be real, that would have been good. But when neither is, then (as one of our poets has written), “Nothing really matters, anyone can see, nothing really matters to me”.

  3. I suppose I’ve seen too much Star Trek that while I didn’t suspect that neither reality was real at the time, it didn’t surprise or particularly bother me when they both turned out to be fake. ” Star Trek: The Next Generation” used this kind of setup and twist a few times; I think the point isn’t so much that neither was real so it didn’t matter, but the principles thought one was real and one was fake, so the drama was in how they reacted.

    I was actually a little sad that TMS turned out to be a figment of the Doctor’s imagination; I would have liked him as a recurring villain, much as I enjoyed TNG’s Q.

  4. I was actually a little sad that TMS turned out to be a figment of the Doctor’s imagination; I would have liked him as a recurring villain, much as I enjoyed TNG’s Q.

    There was a moment where the Doctor looks down into a reflective surface and sees TMG looking up at him for a moment, so I don’t think he’s so much a figment of the Doctor’s imagination as a fragment of the Doctor’s personality.

  5. @John Fiala

    I’d like to see him as a recurring villian too. I saw a theory on another website that he could be

    There was a character in one of the old series where a character that represented the “dark side” of the Doctor was used

    He was called Valeyard and was the prosecution in a trial against the Doctor

    Will be interesting to see if he reappears. Valeyard or not

  6. It broke the cardinal rule of never writing ‘…and they woke up and it was all a dream’ that I was always taught.

    I too was reminded of Star Trek TNG – the Dreamlord had echoes of Q.

  7. I thought of the Valeyard, too; but happily, I’ve never seen Trial of a Time Lord, so that didn’t spoil my enjoyment too much. (As it happens I saw my first Colin Baker story only a week ago — The Two Doctors — and it gives me no pleasure to say that it lived right down to my very low expectations.)

  8. Look, the important thing about this episode isn’t the dream structure, or the doctor having a dark side that might come out again. What matters is what didn’t go away when they woke up, which is this:

    Amy made a choice. She had a choice between the Doctor and Rory, and she chose that Rory was the important one, and the one that she really does love. The dreams let realize that choice, but even after she’s woken up, that choice is still there.

  9. Well said, John. Dream or not, there was a lasting result and change in our characters.

    Mike, and anybody reading this, oh man do NOT see Trial of a Time Lord. At least with The Two Doctors you got Troughton. It could have been worse: The Twin Dilemma, Colin’s first and worst.

  10. John, you make a good point which I am relieved to see, as I don’t want to dislike these new episodes. Yes, something non-dreamy does come out of the dream, and that does go some way towards mitigating the and-then-they-all-woke-up-and-it-had-all-been-a-dream ending.

    The Two Doctors has not left us keen to watch more Colin Baker. I watched with my three sons; they spent most of the story cheering on Shockeye in the hope that he would finally get around to eating Peri, who was universally disliked. Watching her, and listening to the endless “I don’t understand”s, emphasised just how far the Doctor’s companions have come in recent years.

    I’ve never seen any of Sylvester McCoy’s stories either. Can anyone recommend a good one to start with?

  11. Hmmm… did not actually think it was that bad. It did have its plot holes.
    But that both realities were “too weird to be real” occurred to me some time into the film, and that made me aware that the writer must have indicated that someone – which I thought could be seen as a sign of good story-telling :-)
    Did not guess who TMS was, though ;)

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  14. But didn’t you think the sub-plot was interesting? The episode was called “Amy’s Choice” for a reason. The relationship between the Doctor and Amy has hints of being something more than friendship (not just a one sided seduction).

    This episode shows that Amy is not like other companions (namely Rose), as in the Doctor is not yet her world. She chose fumbling Rory over the Doctor in the end.

    I think this episode was actually very important in the development of Amy’s character. She had to make a choice of who was more important to her, in the end.

    One last thing.. going back and watching again, knowing that the Dream Lord is the Doctor changes how you view the episode. And the Doctor’s perception of Amy.

    *I might not be speaking like I am completely informed of what’s going on, but I live in the US so this was the last episode that aired here.

  15. Ashton, you’re right that the choice Amy eventually makes does seem to be consciously made by real Amy, not just a part of the dream. In that sense, the dream-worlds are not really like dreams at all, more like role-play settings — they’re laid out as internally self-consistent worlds and the player-characters are dumped into them to respond as they would in real life. Which is why Amy’s choice, having been made in Upper Leadworth World, remains after the world it happened in has gone. So the game is not, quite, zero-stakes. But the choice still carries a lot less weight than it would have if it had been made in the real world — compare, for example, Zoe’s choice between Captain Mal and Wash in the Firefly episode War Games.

    Yes, knowing that the Dream Lord is the Doctor does change how you view the episode. I tried to hint at that spoilerlessly in the review when I wrote “TMS’s gnomic utterances — which, to be fair, are interesting enough, especially when watching for the second time”.

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