Sorry about the delay, I went a while without an internet connection which messed up my plan to finish the top 5 list before Christmas Day, but hey-ho!
The penultimate episode of the top 5 entries is another episode which I feel has gone grossly underrated. There’s no doubt that is was the ‘low budget’ episode for Series 5, but Simon Nye made it work as a smaller, more quiet and contained episode but one that has a great measure of interesting concepts, top-notch performances, and an awful lot of character development.The basic premise of the episode is this: Five years have passed, the TARDIS crew have disbanded with Amy and Rory living together as a married couple about to have a baby in upper Leadworth. The Doctor comes to visit (by accident) and then things start to get weird. They start falling asleep and wake up in the TARDIS, convinced that they just jumped a time track which gave them all a strange psychic episode which made them share the same dream, the Doctor doesn’t appear worried until they hear birdsong in the TARDIS and they wake up in Leadworth again.
What I really like about this episode is how it sets you up with the expectation of it being a sort of run-of-the-mill ‘villain of the week’ episode where some evil villain is being mean to the Doctor and his companions because it’s a fun way for an evil villain to pass the time. But, as it turns out, there is no villain. There’s no bad guy who is out to do bad, or destroy the world, or steal your bus tickets. There’s just the Doctor… This whole episode is literally the Doctor not merely talking to himself but hating himself. Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS from Series 7 is similar in some respects to this, as both episodes focus greatly on that sliver of ice the Doctor has in his hearts and deconstructs that magical, legendary figure we all see him as.How exactly is this accomplished? Through the character of the Dream Lord who shows up in very similar attire to the Doctor after ‘killing’ the TARDIS and setting it on a collision course with a cold sun. He’s every bit the goblin, the phantom and the trickster which the Doctor’s enemies have come to fear as he coldly and casually mocks everything about the Doctor and the fantasies in which Amy has him embroiled in. He tells them that one of the worlds they’re in is real and the other is a fake, they have to figure out which is real and kill themselves in the fake one in order to return to reality.
“So here’s your challenge: two worlds. Here, in the time machine. And there, in the village that time forgot. One is real, the other’s fake. And just to make it more interesting, you’re going to face, in both worlds, a deadly danger, but only one of the dangers is real. Tweet tweet. Time to sleep. Oh… or are you waking up?”
There’s a bit of an Inception vibe with the episode as the TARDIS crew start slipping through different layers of the Dream Lord’s worlds. In one world, the dead TARDIS drifts through the void of space towards a cold sun which gradually freezes the control room. In the other, the elderly folks of Leadworth have been used as hosts for the Eknodines – an ancient race who were driven from their planet during a war and have settled on Earth, artificially lengthening the lifespan of their hosts and granting them inhuman strength.Admittedly, this is where the low budget really showed. With a greater budget, they could’ve had a more interesting villain (this would’ve made a pretty good Zygon story, I always thought), but to be completely honest we have seen weirder and less threatening monsters before this (Absorbaloff, anyone?)…
One of the things that has been quite an interesting matter of debate is how much each of the characters contribute to the dream. You’ve obviously got the Dream Lord who is a manifestation of the Doctor’s dark side, then you’ve got Rory’s contribution through Leadworth, being a doctor, the ponytail (“you hold him down, I’ll cut it off?”), and the quiet life settled down with Amy. And then you’ve got Amy who is pregnant which I think is one of the most interesting aspects here.
I think that the pregnancy means something different to Amy than it does to Rory. He’s obviously thrilled about it all, this is the life that he’s dreamt of having with Amy for years and it looks like he’s finally got all that he wants. But Amy doesn’t seem to be quite as enthusiastic about it, saying that this life just isn’t for her and she doesn’t think that it would make her happy. She’s wanted to run away for over 14 years, having been the Scottish girl stuck in an English village for most of her life. Her pregnancy appears to be a manifestation of her fear of settling down, committing to adulthood by marrying Rory, and taking up the housewife life which she thinks will reduce her, ridding her of her own dreams of aspirations and ultimately losing a part of her identity. It highlights her uncertainty towards the life she wants with Rory, an issue with which she manages to ultimately reconcile by the end of the episode when Rory dies and she is faced with the prospect of life without him.But what does the dream say about the Doctor? He calls it a nightmare when he wakes up and it’s quite easy to see why – Amy was away from him and she didn’t appear to be happy. He is relieved to wake up and find her still with him in the TARDIS, his immediate reaction is to hug her as if he’s reassuring himself that she’s real. He keeps assuring himself throughout the episode that the TARDIS hurtling towards the cold sun is real, he doesn’t want to accept that after waiting for him for so long she winds up unhappy in a place she doesn’t want to be. That really speaks volumes about the relationship between these two characters and how protective he is over Amy, it makes absolute sense that the Dream Lord would prey on those feelings and use it against the Doctor.
“Which of these men would you really choose? You ran away with a handsome hero, would you really give him up for a bumbling country doctor who thinks the only thing he needs to be interesting is a ponytail? But maybe it’s better than loving and losing the Doctor… Pick a world and this nightmare will all be over. They’ll listen to you, it’s you they’re waiting for. Amy’s men. Amy’s choice…”
It’s further worth noting that the Doctor outwits the Dream Lord because when Amy does make her choice and decide to die, he doesn’t even try to second-guess her about it. All he asks is if she’s sure that this is what she wants and puts his complete trust in her. He puts his love for Amy, his need for her to be happy and safe, above everything else, and believes that if there’s even a slight chance that she can be with Rory again then he’d rather die than not give her that chance.At this point, I really have to commend Toby Jones (who you may have known as the voice actor for Dobby in Harry Potter) on his performance in this episode, indeed it’s a far cry from the lovable house elf millions of people love him for. The Dream Lord is a pretty terrifying villain on a psychological level – his cynical outlook and sardonic wit combine with his intimate knowledge of the Doctor and his companions to cut deeply into the Doctor’s self-assuredness and ego. He knows everything about them and they know nothing about him, which he uses to full advantage in his emotional manipulations, combining all their fears and desires and turning them against the Doctor, Amy and Rory. He had so many fantastic lines throughout the episode, all of which were substantiated as they fed off the insecurities of each of the characters. Everything in the episode had a purpose, everything had a goal to achieve.
To me, the Dream Lord is the perfect antagonist to the Doctor because the Dream Lord is a man who talks, a man who reasons – just like the Doctor. He is not concerned with killing or attaining power, but with interfering with events and causing change. But where the Doctor strives to make things right, the Dream Lord turns it around, makes things wrong. It’s a subtle, yet also not-so-subtle nod to the Valeyard – a dark incarnation of the Doctor formed between his twelfth and thirteenth regenerations who put the Sixth Doctor on trial during the Trial of a Time Lord serial back in 1986.One of the highlights of the episode are his interactions with Amy because it’s not just some villain talking to Amy about the Doctor, it’s the Doctor talking to Amy about himself. He makes her doubt her connection with the Doctor and Rory, tries to push her to choose between them by choosing whether she wants a life of travel and adventure in the time machine or the quiet, unfulfilling life in the country with nothing to do.
He’s constantly pressing her to make a choice, he’s trying to set the Doctor and Rory against each other so that she has to choose one over the other. Karen and Toby were given some great material to work with and had very powerful chemistry throughout the episode, the constant psychological assault on the TARDIS trio is much more entertaining to watch than just seeing monsters cut down hundreds of people to show off how big of a threat they are. This is what I love about Series 5 so much and why it’s still my favourite series, the psychological is always at the forefront of the story, there’s such an emphasis on the trauma people go through, live with, and sometimes overcome (much more on that with the final top 5 entry, though).In the final shot of the episode, the Doctor sees the Dream Lord’s reflection in the TARDIS console. He knows that he is coming face to face with what will one day be beyond his control. He has tried for so long to avoid that darkness, yet before him stands proof of how futile his attempt has been. He looks up to see if the Dream Lord is standing beside him, but sees nothing and looks back at the console to see nothing but the worried expression on his own face. What a way to end an episode!
“No idea how you can be here, but there’s only one person in the universe who hates me as much as you do…”
The contrast between the Doctor and the Dream Lord is so beautifully effective because, once both the Doctor and the viewer knows who he is, the realisation hits that the Dream Lord embodies the role of the hypocritical inner-voice that most people know exists in the back of their minds for their entire lives. There is something both heartbreaking and uplifting about seeing the Doctor fall victim to his inner demons which is why I love episodes like Amy’s Choice. On the one hand, it really is awful to see our hero’s turmoil and the threat that he’s going up against, but at the same time is it not also quite heartening to know that our hero also suffers from the same agonising self-doubt which we all (at some point) face and he finds the strength to overcome it?
This is one of those immortal episodes for me, despite the low budget and the Eknodines being a bit naff, that’s not what the episode is about. It’s a wonderful character study for the Doctor and the Ponds, and serves as an ominous precursor for the events yet to come for them.