Doctor Who And The Amy's Choice

As I didn't review any of the final set of David Tennant 'specials' - preferring instead to do a giant overview of the revived series so far, which you can find in my earlier book Well At Least It's Free - we're jumping ahead to Matt Smith's first series, when I suddenly found myself not quite so keen on the show, but as luck would have it wound up with the single best episode of the series to review. Well, actually, I pretty much insisted on getting that one once I found out Simon Nye was writing it. This also meant that I was able to write it as much from the perspective of a Simon Nye fan as a Doctor Who fan, which at least gave me something fairly original to say. This is the first time the review - originally titled Amy, Amy, Give Me Your Answer Do - has appeared in full, as it was originally trimmed without my input to accomodate a giant header, rendering some jokes that appeared later on in it completely unintelligible, and also making it look uncomfortably as though a tongue-in-cheek point was being presented entirely seriously. On top of that, some praise for Rory that I certainly didn't write was shoved in under the radar. Anyway, look on that version as the 'alternate reality' Amy, while this is the bona fide real deal genuine article Karen Gillan...

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 producer 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 novel Men Behaving Badly was adapted into a sitcom by ITV. Nye became something of a legend within the industry when ITV cancelled the fledgeling sitcom 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 & 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 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 scribes; 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 - at least not in comparison to some of the other scribes lines up for this new run - 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 indicated 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, let alone 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 (but at least logical for once) 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 (though let’s leave Richard Curtis out of the equation in future please). 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.

You can find my huge piece on the entire Russell T. Davies era of Doctor Who in my book Well At Least It's Free, available as a paperback here or as an eBook here.