Picture the headlines. ‘Doctor Who Fan in “Not Worst Episode Ever” Shock!’ Because that was better than expected...
I may have initially been put off this episode by people continually claiming it would be “this season’s ’Father’s Day’”. Unlike the majority I didn’t care for that storyline, because whenever the show gets wrapped up in the mechanics of time meddling it pretty soon gets tangled up. But this seemed much more the episode that fans of ’Father’s Day’ claimed they had seen – where all the rulebending of reality was not some abstract philosophical query but very much a means to serving up something character-centred.
True, the psychic pollen was as empty a MacGuffin as the fast return switch in ’Edge of Destruction’. But that doesn’t really matter because this time it just was a MacGuffin – something to put the characters through so they can learn more about themselves.
In a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, the key line of the episode is precisely two words long. Sitting on the park bench, the Doctor asks derisorily what they do in such a dull village. “We live,” Rory replies.
Conversely the other reality, the cold star, represents life with the Doctor. What you might expect to be warming and dynamic is actually cold - a kind of un-life. The man who had travelled the universe for centuries and seen a thousand sights, who so ironically calls himself ‘the Doctor’, is completely thrown by Amy’s contractions. Real life is something that passes him by, a gap he covers by ceaseless adventuring.
The other plotline, where ’Night of the Living Dead’ was recast with old people, was actually pretty dull and routine. (And made scant sense. If the aliens were simply piggy-backing the old folks’ bodies where did their super-strength come from? And if they weren’t, why had they taken them over? Or stay inside them once uncovered?)
But if dull Leadworth was made no more exciting by their arrival, that wasn’t a major flaw. Unlike Prisoner Zero from the first episode, they weren’t central to the story. From the off it was fairly obvious which was the ‘real’ world (okay, primary dream world). It would even have been obvious had you not already seen the somewhat similar ’Forest of the Dead.’ Or without the hefty clue of the camper van numberplate. (ADW, presumably standing for A Dream World.)
I was, however, taken aback by the revelation that the dream world stemmed from the Doctor. Despite the clue of the matching bow ties, I had assumed it would be Amy. This didn’t come just from the title, but from the way she was forced into the deciding vote (the Doctor and Rory’s “competing” cancelling each other out) and her being isolated for the Dream Lord’s temptations.
By convention reviewers appear decisive, even when they’re not. But in all honesty I’m still mulling over whether this was a good move or not. As others have pointed out, creating a shadow self for the Doctor is hardly radical. What else was the Master? It’s not even news to make it explicit, what else was the Valeyard?
In one sense, it clearly does work. Secretly aware that Amy will choose Rory, the Doctor tries to perpetually defer this moment by extending the night before her wedding as long as he can. True, he doesn’t deliberately arrive at that time or even know of her big white dress, but it works in terms of an unconscious wish marinated in some fuzzy logic. The Dream Lord is simultaneously an expression of that desire and his guilt in indulging it.
But if we’re dealing with the Doctor’s shadow self, does it make much dramatic sense for Amy to be making the choices? Shouldn’t it be him volunteering to give her up for a life of Rory and Leadworth dullness? It’s like revealing this deeper level of psychology to the protagonist, showing us the self-doubt inside our hero, but then doing nothing with it. It’s wafted past us in a sophisticated sort of fashion, then life carries on as normal. (Assuming, of course, there’s no further ramifications in future episodes.)
And it also means the ending of ’Flesh and Stone’, when the Doctor realises the connection between Amy and the Great Big Crack, has now effectively been thrown away. ’Vampires In Venice’ nodded vaguely at it, though already reducing it to a soap opera response. Now it’s gone altogether. (Am I right in thinking this is the first episode not to feature the Crack at all?)
Also, it’s possible this episode may sap some of the energy from the finale. It’s been made abundantly clear that dream states play a large part in the overall story arc, with the Doctor cast as Amy’s imaginary childhood friend. The ‘Jacketed Doctor’ from ’Flesh and Stone’, which has set the net so abuzz, I imagine will turn out to be some kind of ‘dream Doctor’. (And not the ‘future Doctor’ popularly supposed.) But by making the dream logic explicit half-way through, will this mar the effect when it is done again? Isn’t this a bit like Davies foregrounding narrative conventions such as coincidence, then having to hide them again? As the saying goes, only time will tell.
Perhaps I’m subconsciously lowering my expectations to the point where they might be met, but I’m not expecting much from the next episode. The Silurians look cleaned up, much as I had to complain about the Sontarans before them. Plus, Chris Chibnal was responsible for the wearily derivative ’42.’ Perhaps what we have is a one-on-one-off pattern, in which case hope resides with no less a personage than Richard Curtis! Or perhaps this now is it till Moffat’s finale. But if so it’s one more than I expected...