More than most, this is a bit of a spoilery review. Beware.
Now read on. Dot… dot… dotdotdotdot…
A few months back I was having a spirited debate with my fiancé over the hows, whys and what-fors of Russell T Davies and his time on Doctor Who. We’re both olde worlde Who fans. I’ve been around since the late seventies (I was watching from my pram, naturally). For her – being a mere embryo – the obsession took a hold a couple of years later. We lived through the Eighties and watched the slow decline in public interest and eventual cancellation. Then we sat through The Wilderness Years. For Doctor Who it was a time of false hopes and broken promises. A brief flash of optimism when Paul McGann turned up. I have a lot to thank Philip The Seagull for. I met her on the night the McGann TV Movie aired in the UK. I was in a pub with the rest of the Doctor Who local group. So was she, although she didn’t know us then. We got talking. And here we are. Getting married shortly. Feel free to go “Aw”. If you like. If not, I’m sure you can find a bucket somewhere.
Eventually, Doctor Who became (in Russell’s own words) The Show That Comes Back. Not only did it become The Show That Comes Back, it became The Show That Sweeps Everything Before it. I’m still shaking my head in disbelief. Here it is, where it belongs. Sitting proudly in the popular heartland of Television Culture in the UK. Making inroads in the rest of the world, just like it was beginning to do in the Eighties before it all went terribly wrong.
Now, I’m profoundly grateful to Rusty for what he’s done for us. I love huge swathes of his version of Doctor Who. More than most previous incumbents, though, there were things about his vision of What Doctor Who Should Be that really got up my nose. As is a fan’s divine right, we were dissecting just what we don’t like about RTD Who, rather than focussing on the stuff we do like. It’s what fans seem to do. Most of the time. Our other divine right is to make sweeping judgements on other people, like I just have.
I pointed out that for me the time when Rusty got it completely right was when Eccles was at the helm. That first, golden-tinted era (I’m not joking. Look at “Season One”, and it’s lit completely different. All gentle soft browns, reds and golds. When Tennant takes over everything suddenly goes blue and metallic silver. Go look. You’ll notice it in the Tardis scenes in particular).
Where I really lost interest was in the change in dynamic between The Doctor and Rose. With Eccles, the relationship worked as a partnership of really close mates. From the first moments of New Earth it stopped working for me and began to grate. Despite Season 3 featuring a batch of episodes that not only equalled anything that the show had done in past but actually bettered them, it wasn’t until Donna reappeared that it regained the balance that it seemed to me to have lost.
“Yep, all that lovey-dovey stuff…” said my other half. Teasing gently, and quoting one of the many Doctor Who Confidential pronouncements on the subject, I said – “But it’s vital! It’s what makes New Who different! It’s emotionally resonant!”
She shouted back – “I’M A DOCTOR WHO FAN!!!! I DON’T LIKE EMOTIONAL RESONANCE! EMOTIONAL RESONANCE TERRIFIES ME!!!!”
At which point, we both collapsed laughing, listed off the top of our heads about fifty moments in old-money Who that had us wiping away a fanboy/fangirl tear, had another drink and stuck Trial of Time Lord Part 13 on again. How appropriate, given some of the things that happened in “Amy’s Choice” (Saturday, BBC1) . Better watch out, dear. Because for me, this was one of the most affecting episodes of Doctor Who ever.
If you’ve been following these reviews you’ll already know how I feel about this season of Who. It’s all just working for me in a way that makes me think that it could end up being the single most consistent season ever. Victory of the Daleks didn’t quite work for me, and last week’s was more of a romp than anything else (albeit one with added guilt-tripping for The Doctor). Apart from that, I’ve loved it. I’m not bucking the trend this week.
I have a little radar in my head where television is concerned. It seems to know from advance publicity whether I’m going to fall for something, or whether I’m going to think it’s rubbish. It’s rarely wrong, and I’ve been introduced to a lot of great television and avoided a lot of very bad stuff because of it. Last week the radar started going like the clappers, telling me “this is going to be superb”. And was it? What do you think?
It has been said – by wiser heads than I – that Doctor Who works wonderfully well when it wanders into quiet villages and finds something nasty lurking in the heart of the English countryside. The Daemons, the first half of The Stones Of Blood, The Awakening… I’m sure you’ll have your favourite. There’s something about the way Doctor Who blends with Avengersland that seems to make it work almost every single time it tries, The Android Invasion excepted. When Eleven reappears in Ledworth (Upper), we appear to be all set for another aliens-in-the-English-heartland adventure. Aren’t we? Of course not.
Simon Nye had endless fun playing with the nature of reality this week. Repeated scene switches, the uneasy, off-kilter atmosphere and the finest dialogue of the season all made for a marvellous mixture that left me not wanting it to end. By about halfway through I’d given up trying to work out which reality was which and settled back to enjoy the only series that gives you a life or death chase in a camper van. Only Doktor Who can do ziss.
If your perfect idyll is to live a boring existence in a tiny village where the only escape from repeated performances of “Oklahoma” is to get pregnant, what the hell happened on board the Tardis to make you give it all up? What could possibly make you forsake a life of adventure with your best mate, draw your horns in and retreat from everything you’ve ever wanted? That’s one of the questions at the heart of “Amy’s Choice”.
Some might say that the main question of the episode is – “Oh, Rory. Why the ponytail?” but since it’s already been justly lauded (and abused), not least in the episode itself, I’ll skip past it and only mention the great moment when we first switch back to the Tardis where Eleven looks quizzically at the back of Rory’s head. That, and the ultimate sacrifice involving zombie pensioners, a nursery and a pair of scissors. How like Doctor Who to make the cutting off of a ponytail an expression of the truest, deepest love imaginable.
For about forty minutes I was convinced that this whole episode was about love. About Amy’s Choice – not only between her two boys, but between a life of madcap adventure or silly, cosy old domesticity. I should have known better. It’s not about that at all. That’s merely the biggest McGuffin of them all, because much to my delight, it’s about The Doctor. About the choices he has to make, the agonising levels of self-doubt and loathing that he must carry around with him. If you call yourself The Doctor, if you dedicate your life to trying to save the innocent, every wasted life – every single light in the dark that goes out despite your efforts – must slaughter you inside.
While two of those innocents are sloshing around inside a dream-state coming to decisions of their own, learning to live with their own choices, The Dream Lord is having an absolute ball ripping the Doctor apart. Toby Jones completely and utterly walks off with this week’s episode in his pocket, despite some extremely strong competition from the estimable firm of Smith, Darvill and Gillan. Short, stocky and with a voice that’s a ringer for Charlie Higson, he gets under everyone’s skin and tears their self-delusions to pieces. It’s a natural progression of what Margaret Blaine started with the restaurant conversation in Boom Town, and something which has been ticking away at the heart of Doctor Who since it came back. How can you save everyone from the monsters without becoming one yourself? And if you refuse to descend to your level, What. Good. Are. You?
Rory dies, trying to save the life of a woman who’s never even said she loves him. Amy finally decides just who she cares about and what she wants. On realising that her life is intolerable without Rory, she kills herself. Most horribly of all The Doctor – the most proactive, energetically involved person in all of fiction – becomes a pawn, swept along with the decision of his companion. He puts the final say as to whether they live or die into her hands, which if nothing else is a touching reaffirmation of the theme that Ian Briggs and Andrew Cartmel put into The Curse of Fenric back in 1989.
The Doctor has to believe in his companions and they have to believe in him. Otherwise, the whole conceit doesn’t work. The dream falls apart. In having Amy choose to kill them both, he abdicates total responibility. Given this is his dream in the end, that, more than any of the more overt expository scenes later on, gets to the root of what the Doctor is about. Even the most stoic amongst us need to lay down our burden once in a while. Thankfully it would appear that Eleven’s now found someone who’ll carry the weight.
Despite any number of empty affirmations in the past, he’s definitely found his best mates again. Which makes Amy and Rory absolutely essential to Doctor Who as it is now, and which makes me terribly glad that the reality we eventually end up in is one with all three still hale and (relatively) hearty.
It’s only this afternoon that I realised that things only begin to fall to pieces once The Dream Lord has had his one-on-one with Eleven. The distressing scene in the nursery happens because The Doctor’s levels of self-examination have painted the worst-case scenario for everybody. Not only does Rory die in the most horrible way possible, Amy’s will to live is destroyed in the process and then to cap it all, Eleven arrives too late and has to stand there helplessly while the innocent grieve, like he must have done all too often in the past.
Right from the moment where Eleven says “there’s only one person in the Universe who hates me as much as you do”, I was hopping up and down shouting “Valeyard!!!! It’s The Valeyard!!!” and it is, you know. Without overtly stating it, without swamping the viewer with acres of continuity they don’t want to know about, there he is, peeking out of a tiny little unassuming frame. The darker side of The Doctor, revealed again.
Six’s incredible aggression and skewed priorities. Seven’s devious, amoral will to set things up just-so, in order to achieve the results he wants. The sacrifice Eight (or Nine?) must have made in wiping out his entire race. Ten and Donna’s inadvertant creation of Doctor 10.5 (or Handy, as he’s known round here). They’re all staging posts on the way to “an amalagamation of the darker sides of your nature, somewhere between your twelfth and final incarnations”. Look. There he is, peeking back at Eleven in that final Tardis scene. Steven Moffat’s hinted that the whole “Thirteen lives” thing might – just might – be addressed by the time this season ends. If he’s letting The Valeyard out for a trot around the paddock while he’s at it, more power to his elbow.
Of course, if you don’t want to believe that’s who The Dream Lord is, the story works perfectly well anyway. I just love the idea that all of a sudden the seeds planted back in 1986, in the most confused, uncertain time that Doctor Who ever went through, might be about to sprout at a point where it’s stronger than it’s ever been. How wonderful. And how wonderful that a story which turns out to be about the Doctor’s horror at himself and insecurities about his place in the universe… ends up with the team stronger than ever, ready to take on anything that same universe might throw at them. Just let it try. It doesn’t stand a chance.