I didn’t review any of the 2009 Specials which marked David Tennant’s final appearances in the role, and Russell T. Davies’ final contributions as showrunner, as I’d been asked instead to write a huge overview of the whole of RTD’s tenure; you can now find that in Well At Least It’s Free. This was another episode that I specifically asked to be allocated, and you’ll find out exactly why in the review; sometimes, an episode just sounds too far up your street to miss out on. Although this is definitely one of the best reviews that I did, it was also the cause of some discord when it saw publication. Cutting a long story short, due to crossed wires on all sides, a designer was allowed to edit it themselves for print to fit in an admittedly incredibly good header, opting to omit material from the opening paragraphs that they considered losable; this might sound like a flouncy artistic strop but I wasn’t consulted and several points raised and gags made later in the review ended up making no sense and making me look like I was spouting florid gibberish for no good reason. You can write your own punchline there. As a result I publically distanced myself from the review, albeit in the usual comic terms and making myself the subject of the joke; while the editor saw the funny side, I’m not sure if the designer did and I really ought to take this opportunity to apologise for maybe being a bit too blunt in public. Again, it probably wouldn’t have played out quite that way in the pre-social media days but at least that was a lesson I learned early on and in relatively reasonable circumstances.
On top of that, as a subtle and arch comment on the fact that I hated how arbitrarily Rory was inserted into the storylines and how little he was ever given to do apart from occasional phatic feedlines and the interminable multi-handed sobbing, I deliberately left out any mention of him as a sort of ‘clever’ statement. To counter this, a couple of lines of praise for him were added without my agreement, but let’s be honest, there are no ‘winners’ in that situation. Just don’t get me started on the time I had so little to say about Ashes To Ashes that I reviewed a reissue of an album by early nineties indie band Moose instead. Anyway, this is Amy, Amy, Give Me Your Answer Do – a question that I still ask on a daily basis – in as close to its original written-that-same-evening form as possible…
Alternate realities – they’re all the rage at the moment, aren’t they? From Heroes and its obsession with ‘dark’ potential futures in which everyone has slightly different hair, to Lost‘s excursion into a parallel timeline where nothing happens, to Life On Mars/Ashes To Ashes in general – not to mention that episode of Futurama where Zoidberg met a blue Zoidberg – it seems that you just can’t move for What If?s and rifts in time. And now it’s Doctor Who‘s turn. No, not to meddle with its own past and try and create an alternate reality where Meglos didn’t happen, but to adapt this currently all-too-familiar plot device for its own purposes.
In a sense, this new series is in something of an alternate reality where everything’s the same but very slightly different itself. While the ever-tedious ‘RTD MUST GO!’ brigade promised all and sundry that a change of showrunner would lead to a new golden age of quality drama and pan-global Psychic Paper-derived sociocultural harmony, the uncomfortable truth that few seem to want to admit is that what we’ve ended up with is essentially more of the same, only with slightly less ‘must watch’ razzle-dazzle, slightly less punch-packing pre-credits sequences, and a somewhat more than slightly less tolerable theme music arrangement. Not that this is in any sense a bad thing, though – if you’re going to be similar to something in present day television, then you can’t get much higher a watermark than the revived Doctor Who, and even despite two episodes not actually appearing to have a storyline, a trend towards jarring sub-Sendhil Ramamurthy closing voiceovers, That Bloody Crack being signposted with all the subtlety of Who Hell He? from Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out, and the keenly unanticipated return of River Song, it’s been a mostly good run so far. And right in the middle came this episode that seemingly nobody was that bothered about.
For the benefit of those who had never heard of him before – which, judging by the amount of Doctor Who fans that tiresomely treat the show as some sort of career high for anyone involved and refuse to tolerate the idea of there having been any other television shows ever, will be a fair number – Simon Nye is a highly successful comedy writer who broke into television when his 1989 novel Men Behaving Badly was adapted into a sitcom by ITV. Nye became something of a legend within the industry when ITV cancelled the promising sitcom after two series despite it picking up a sizeable audience and several awards, causing him and Hartswood Films to perform an airlift over to the BBC, where it became one of the biggest successes of the nineties. Since then, he’s been responsible for a number of entertaining and well above average sitcoms, including Is It Legal?, Beast, Hardware, Wild West (starring a then-unknown Catherine Tate), Carrie And Barry, and a surprisingly not-as-bad-as-people-were-not-unreasonably-fearing sort-of revival of Reggie Perrin, and has become notorious for his shows almost always being inexplicably cancelled after the second series despite good viewing figures. Along the way he’s written the odd drama series too, most notably the particularly popular Frank Stubbs Promotes, but is much better known as a comedy writer which made it all the more surprising to see his name amongst Steven Moffat’s list of potential Doctor Who writers; although perhaps not quite so surprising when you consider that he and Nye were close contemporaries in sitcom writing, that Moffat has also been a frequent victim of ‘Second Series Syndrome’, and that Moffat’s wife and mother-in-law are both big cheeses at the aforementioned Hartswood Films.
Nevertheless, Simon Nye isn’t the sort of name that your average Doctor Who fan gets excited by, and his episode was the least obsessed over pre-transmission by some considerable distance. Which made it all the more satisfying that it turned out to be the most obsessed over post-transmission by some considerable distance. After too many weeks of by-the-book roustabouts that had ‘THIS IS WHAT THEY WANT’ written across them in such large letters that you half-expected the Phantom Phlan Phlinger to turn up halfway through an episode, Amy’s Choice bluntly dispensed with any semblance of tried-and-tested audience pleasing and instead opted for something that seemed to hail from another show entirely. As mentioned not particularly in passing earlier, the puzzle of which of two realities is the genuine one is hardly an original plot device, but what sets it apart from a mere exercise in emulating Sliding Doors, Jacob’s Ladder and that episode of Frasier where Eddie was on opposing sides of the chair is that it uses said hardly original plot device to bring a flash of originality into a show where, by virtue of its sheer longevity alone, it’s very difficult to do something that feels ‘new’.
Right from the outset, Amy’s Choice marks itself out by thrusting The Doctor and Amy not into a superficially ‘perfect’ scenario that they decided to go snooping around, but into something they really have no control over, and no sense of even where to start getting a sneaking suspicion that something is not quite right. As confidently as The Doctor might claim “there’s something out of place, we poke it with a sharp stick”, the realities flash by too quickly for them even to find the stick, or even where they should be poking with it, let alone adjudge its sharpness. Once they do start to get a stick-handle on what’s happening to them, along comes the Dream Lord, who reveals the potential ramifications of choosing the wrong reality, and throws a further spanner in the works by splitting them up and leaving the choice entirely down to Amy, whose dilemma is not only over which is real but which of them she wants the most, especially as it involves choosing between having and not having a child. This is one big runaway train of a storyline, in which despite being more or less clued up about what is happening The Doctor is rendered as hapless as his most hapless companion ever (so, Adric then), so far removed from the series’ traditional narrative structure that it’s tempting to suggest that only a writer at a remove from the show’s history, mythology and fanbase would have even thought to take such a structural risk, and even then would probably not have considered it a risk anyway.
The cast – and we’re not just referring to the scene-stealing ‘Guest Goose’ here – rise to the challenge brilliantly. Toby Jones has rightly won praise for his creepy portrayal of The Dream Lord, pitched somewhere between Paranoia from Red Dwarf and Ben Linus from Lost, but it’s Karen Gillan who deserves the lion’s share of the plaudits. Despite having spent the majority of this series reduced to papering over an inconsistent and not always very involved character by flashing her thighs and doing that ‘surprised’ face, here she actually has something substantial to work with and it shows both in her increasingly anxious dialogue delivery and in some subtle physical touches, not least the bewildered pats of her stomach on returning to the ‘Not Pregnant’ reality. Meanwhile Matt Smith, on this evidence, appears to be well past the feet-finding stage, clearly relishing the snappy one-liners and the opportunity not to have to provide all of the story exposition himself. Yes, so maybe ‘psychic pollen’ wasn’t exactly the most inventive explanation they could have come up with, and doubtless some viewers were left dissatisfied by The Dream Lord’s unmasking as a bit of The Doctor’s subconscious rather than a new incarnation of The Celestial Toymaker or someone, but everything that came before it was so genuinely thrilling that a couple of basic reveals made no difference.
The positives and negatives of the ‘Moffat era’ will doubtless start being analysed in great sweary caps lock deluded self-important detail as soon as the series is over; in fact, if Doctor Who fans stay true to their legacy, it’s probably started already, and those ‘MOFFAT MUST GO!’ campaigns will in all likelihood be up and running before this review sees print. If you’re one those looking for positives, though, you can’t get much more of a positive than a writer who was completely new to Doctor Who – much like Moffat himself way back in series one – showing up all of the competition with a witty, original and fast-paced script. And there are so many other similar writers out there who have proved themselves just as capable in other genres as Simon Nye has, who could do something equally impressive and unpredictable with Doctor Who if given the chance. If there are two alternate realities facing the show now, let’s hope that they opt for the one in which the scriptwriting net is cast even wider. And where, of course, Steven Moffat has slightly different hair.
Some things that may need explaining…
Zoidberg met a Blue Zoidberg in Series Four’s The Farnsworth Parabox. I actually still used to like Futurama at the point that episode aired.
Sendhil Ramamurthy played Mohinder Suresh in Heroes, a young scientist trying to track down evolved humans to learn why his father was telekinetically assassinated while doing likewise. He was often given to dreamy, elliptical monologues about the nature of nature and whether an ant knows the purpose of its purpose or something which went on for about eighteen years at the start of episodes. He does actually mention Doctor Who in one of the Heroes commentaries, when his old mate Christopher Eccleston shows up as invisible man Claude Rains and his fellow American cast members ask who this guy is and why everyone was so excited about having him on board. Sendhil explains that “he did a show called Doctor Who, and he was Doctor Who, and now he can’t walk down the street”.
“This is what they want!” was a sarcastic chant on ITV’s famously anarchic Saturday Morning show Tiswas, shouted whenever the cast were reduced to simply flinging buckets of water and variously-incarnated ‘gunge’ around, The Phantom Phlan Phlinger – sometimes Fantom Flan Flinger, probably because nobody really cared – was a masked figure who would randomly enter the set and attack people with custard pies. One of the earliest things I can remember howling laughing at is a Weekend World parody where Chris Tarrant asks The Phantom what he thinks Britain has done to alleviate the situation in Afghanistan, with predictable consequences: “it’s an aggressive response, much as I expected”.
Fraiser Craine and company explored parallel universes in Sliding Frasiers from Series Eight. It was in fact directly inspired by Sliding Doors; for some reason, they didn’t see fit to do an episode inspired by Jacob’s Ladder.
Only ever seen in the Series One Red Dwarf episode Confidence And Paranoia, the weaselly Paranoia – brilliantly played by Lee Cornes – was a physical manifestation of Lister’s poor self-image, brought about when he ventured into an undecontaminated area of Red Dwarf and caught a mutated disease that caused his hallucinations to become solid. Even more brilliantly portrayed by Michael Emerson, Benjamin Linus was quite simply one of the best screen villains ever. Or at least that’s what you were supposed to think. As Lost progressed, it became clear that no matter how much Ben might have wanted to think of himself as a Machiavellian supervillain, he was actually being directed by forces way beyond his control or knowledge to protect The Island and by association the entire world, and was therefore the actual ultimate good guy of the series. Stitch that, ‘Sawyer’!
I suspect I was less bothered by Karen Gillan’s skirt in Curse Of The Black Spot than I am indirectly implying here. As for the ‘MOFFAT MUST GO!’ campaigns being up and running before this review was even published… oh lordy, they were.
I still enjoyed Amy’s Choice immensely on rewatching it, not least on account of two details that hadn’t really struck me at the time. First of all, almost all of the Dream Lord’s dialogue is predicated on mocking and belittling the high-flown and often nonsensical mythology that was in abundance in Doctor Who at the time, which was probably simply a good bit of characterisation rather than tongue-in-cheek self-aware self-reference but it did feel somewhat satisfying to hear your ‘voice’ represented if you’d never quite bought into all that. Secondly, it explores Amy and Rory’s ongoing obsession with speculative parenthood at the expense of whatever is normally supposed to happen in Doctor Who, but in a subtle, likeable and even at points witty manner; no doubt this is due in no small part to Simon Nye’s long experience of couching messages and issues behind the all-important barrage of gags. It’s everything you’d hope for from someone bringing an entirely fresh and new perspective to Doctor Who, and it’s hardly surprising that many of the better episodes that have come since have been written by people from similarly unlikely disciplines.
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Not On Your Telly is a collection of columns and features with a slant towards ‘forgotten’ television, including plenty of pieces related to Doctor Who. Not On Your Telly is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
You can hear me talking to Emma Burnell and Steve Fielding about politics and Doctor Who in The Zeitgeist Tapes – the show where politics and pop culture collide – here.
© Tim Worthington.
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