“But this feels real!”
Doctor Who does Nightmare on Elm St. Via the acerbically witty pen of Simon Nye, most recently responsible for a similarly caustic style in the remake of Reggie Perrin.
Quite honestly, I didn’t know what to make of that. It was certainly an entertaining and thrilling piece of drama, it’s just that it didn’t – quite – feel like Doctor Who. It’s great that Steve Moffat has managed to attract big name writers like Nye and Richard Curtis to the show; but from this at least, I got the impression that Nye was a latecomer to the series, unfamiliar with the 47 years of backstory that can be both a blessing and a burden to fan writers. While it was enjoyable, Amy’s Choice had the feel of a newcomer’s impression of what the show should be like.
Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. Episodes like Love and Monsters that challenge the accepted format are a lot of fun and help to keep the show fresh. My boyfriend commented that it felt more like a Sarah Jane Adventures story, and one of my friends thought it highly reminiscent of surreal 60s experiments in Who, like The Celestial Toymaker or The Mind Robber. For me, what it felt like was a good Doctor Who Magazine comic strip – a sideways glance at a universe that was almost, but not quite, like the show on the telly.
All that aside, though, it still had the emotional heart of all the recent character-driven episodes. There was a lot going on here, from the seemingly deliberate pastiches of typical Who plots, to the differing levels of reality, and the self-conscious gentle mockery of the conventions of the show. Ultimately though, this was a story about the complicated emotional relationship between the three main characters.
There’s apparently a school of thought that Rory is too similar to the early, comedy version of Mickey Smith, and that his addition to the TARDIS crew is an echo of the Doctor/Rose/Mickey love triangle of the first two series. There’s some truth in the latter of those two assumptions, though it’s a tribute to Steve Moffat’s clever writing that it’s being played out far more subtly.
But Rory certainly has more substance than the comic bumbler Mickey initially was. As I said last week, I think in some ways he’s the most realistic character in the show; most of us would, in such a situation, be as out of our depth as he is. And this week, with a glimpse into his (fictional) future, we saw a genuinely affecting portrayal of an ordinary bloke trying to do the best he could, and always feeling that it wasn’t enough. I love Arthur Darvill in the part, and it helps that he really looks ordinary – not that I want to be unflattering! It’s just that, let’s face it, Noel Clarke was a bit of a looker, wasn’t he?
Of course, the other two characters were just as good. As the title bore her name (and was it meant to be so reminiscent of the title of Holocaust angst-fest Sophie’s Choice?), Amy was the key to the whole story. Karen Gillan really rose to the challenge, giving us a performance that was by turns comic (her pregnancy cravings), brave (facing down the Dream Lord), and heartbreaking (her tears when dream-Rory died).
As to the Doctor, it’s telling that I’ve started to take Matt smith’s affectedly eccentric performance so much for granted that I almost don’t notice how good he is! The excellent dialogue helped; I love that he’s back to having that alien, not-quite-getting-human emotions quality. Peering intently at Mrs Poggett, he had the terrific – and ultimately significant – line, “you’re very old, aren’t you?”, and he seemingly didn’t initially grasp the idea that Amy was pregnant – “you’ve swallowed a planet!” He also got the best lines when deconstructing the almost post-modern parodies of traditional Who plots. As the aliens possessing the OAPs of Upper Leadworth explained who they were and what they were up to, he finished all their sentences with a hilariously weary, seen-it-all-before air.
The main deconstruction of the show was done by the episode’s only other major character – the enigmatic Dream Lord. Toby Jones was fantastic in the part, all his lines delivered with the same acid wit he brought to his performance as Truman Capote. Early on, we got a few clever clues as to who the Dream Lord actually was. The fact that he first appeared wearing what was basically the Doctor’s costume should have given it away, but there were some nicely placed red herrings, such as the Doctor’s comment, “only one person in the universe hates me that much”. He seemed too sane to be the Master (the recent one, anyway), so I immediately thought of the aforementioned Celestial Toymaker. In the event, though, he actually turned out to be a version of the Valeyard! Like that character, he was an amalgam of the dark aspects of the Doctor himself, and also like that character he managed to get off the most barbed insults to the Doctor, steeped in self-knowledge – “you’ve got so many tawdry quirks, you could open a tawdry quirk shop”.
Matt Smith reacted to the revelation well, showing us a Doctor who, despite his age and heroics, has plenty of self-doubt and self-hatred. It was the sort of critical look at the Doctor’s failings that we’ve rarely seen since the Sylvester McCoy era.
So, while parodying trad Who plots, this was far from a trad Who episode. It was heartfelt, funny and thrilling, but still felt like an intruder from a sort of sideways Who universe. But it was highly entertaining, and did well to advance – but not resolve – the ongoing Doctor/Amy/Rory thread. I certainly enjoyed it, and have a feeling that its’ one of those episodes that would benefit from a couple of repeat viewings to take it all in. And as to the dark side of the Doctor – what with that reappearance of the Dream Lord reflected in the console, I don’t think we’ve seen the last of that…