Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor: Amy’s Choice

doctor who amys choice simon nye catherine morshead toby jones review

This is not an episode that would have worked at any other point in Doctor Who.

At its most basic level, yes, the science fiction conceit that frames the story could be applied anywhere. You could do a version of this with Clara and Danny – arguably it’s not a million miles away from Last Christmas, I suppose – and you could do a version of it with Rose and Mickey, and maybe you could even do a version of it with Bill and Nardole at a push. In and of itself, the tension between the dream and the reality is a familiar one, not especially unique to this episode on its own terms.

Immediately, though, Amy’s Choice is distinctly better placed to make it work than most alternatives would be. Imagine an equivalent in place of, say, Boom Town or The Girl in the Fireplace: any dichotomy between dream and reality would be quickly punctured by how obvious the charade would be. The same isn’t true of Amy’s Choice, though: there’s still an instinctive suspicion towards the world of Upper Leadworth, yes, but it’s a suspicion that’s much more easily shaken than it might’ve been otherwise. Memory of The Eleventh Hour lingers – by this point, the idea that Doctor Who might skip forward another five years, that Upper Leadworth might be the reality and the series will continue with Amy and Rory, married and with a child, is plausible in a way any hypothetical Rose’s Choice wouldn’t have managed.

The episode is genuinely invested in Upper Leadworth too (itself a nice little detail, both as a way to explain why the location is different and to make the world feel a little more real). Part of that is the visual language of the episode – director Catherine Morshead makes the perceptive decision to largely eschew any particularly surreal or dreamlike staging, treating both Upper Leadworth and the TARDIS with a degree of realism such as to position them as equivalent to one another. There’s also a certain integrity to the character writing: Amy’s insistent defence of Upper Leadworth (“This is my life now and it just turned you white as a sheet, so don’t you call it dull again, ever. Okay?”) lends that world a validity that makes it stand as a real possibility, while at the same time displaying a deft understanding of the character in that context.

In fact, there’s a deftness to the character writing throughout – Simon Nye has a really strong handle on Amy, Rory and the Doctor together (in part because his episode was amongst the last written and produced for Series 5, so he’d seen and been influenced by some of the stories filmed earlier). You get a sense of confidence from the cast, too, each clearly relishing the most complex material they’ve had all series.

One particularly nice detail – and I think it speaks to a strong understanding of the characters – is how understated Rory’s death is. There likely would’ve been a temptation (and I suspect probably an expectation on behalf of the audience), given the realisation the scene is meant to prompt, to position it as a grand sacrifice – Rory not just caught randomly by an Eknodine, but pushing Amy out of the way. Subverting that is admirable in its subtlety; it takes the focus off the death (there’s no melodrama there, no drawn-out last words) and keeps it firmly on the relationship, and in turn strengthens the actual realisation. The alternative would’ve felt contrived, I suspect, and undercut the moment – as it is it’s very squarely about Amy realising she can’t live without Rory, rather than being about Rory demonstrating his feelings for her.

That she then turns to suicide is striking – you could make the case, quite convincingly I think, that Amy’s Choice is one of the darkest episodes of Doctor Who ever? It’s a huge contrast to the euphemisms of Can You Hear Me?, which touches on a similar idea but in a much more implicit fashion – and may well have been correct to do so! I think the character work in Amy’s Choice is really well-done, and I think there’s a lot of nuance to it (albeit some that’s unintended, and a lot that’s necessarily left unexplored), and that quiet despondency and visibly repressed trauma is some of Karen Gillan’s best work in the part all series. It rings true for the character, I think, resonating with a stray line from The Eleventh Hour and Vincent and the Doctor, and in those final moments in Upper Leadworth you get a really deep portrait of Amy as an individual – but I do wonder if it takes it too far, if it steps outside the realm of what’s appropriate for Doctor Who. (Particularly given the reveal about the Dream Lord’s identity, and the implication that this was all staged by the Doctor, an extension of what he was doing in The Vampires of Venice. It’s not just manipulative, it’s monstrous.)

Nonetheless, the episode still works, and works well – caveated though the praise is, the episode is clearly one of the strongest of the series so far, my favourite I think since The Eleventh Hour.

It’s a nice counterpart to The Eleventh Hour, in fact, and not just for the return to Leadworth. Amy’s Choice shares that same sense of the Moffat era arriving fully formed (despite, in this case, not actually having been written by Moffat). This episode makes literal all the themes you can trace through this era – those ideas of identity, those ideas of the tension between the dream world (or rather the fairytale world) and the real world, and the ultimate idea that, if it’s all a story in the end, you can always tell a better one. The eponymous decision is, ultimately, a false choice – Amy doesn’t have to choose one world or the other, she can carve out her own, better one. (Eventually – in 2023! – it’ll be interesting to return to this in light of The Angels Take Manhattan, to see how consistent that ending eventually is. Not to get ahead of myself – spoilers, obviously – but I wasn’t particularly fond of that one on broadcast, and I don’t know that I’ve ever revisited it; be curious to see how much my opinion changes, if at all.)

That, anyway, is why this episode wouldn’t have worked at any other point in Doctor Who. It’s not just a quirk of the lingering storytelling choices of earlier episodes, it’s because Amy’s Choice is so completely of its era, of its characters, of its themes. (There’s a real investment in that, at every level – in a story on one level about a threat of maturity, the Eknodine hide in pensioners, and reduce children to ashes.) It’s emblematic of the Moffat era, of its idiosyncrasies and its innovations; the push and pull between real life and TARDIS life was a fixture of the Davies era too, yes, but approached from quite a different angle. Amy’s Choice is an episode perfectly tailored to the era it’s in and the characters it features, and a testament to how intricate and thoughtful Series 5 is in its construction.

Related:

Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor

Doctor Who Review: Series 12 Overview

You can find more of my writing about Doctor Who here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed reading this review – or if you didn’t – perhaps consider leaving a tip on ko-fi?

Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor: The Vampires of Venice

doctor who vampires of venice review toby whithouse arthur darvill saturnyne girls

Think of it as a wedding present because frankly, it’s either this or tokens.

What’s striking about The Vampires of Venice is quite how similar it is to School Reunion. Not just in terms of the parallels between Mickey and Rory, each episode serving to reposition a supporting character as something closer to a lead, but also on a much more basic level: The Vampires of Venice is about disguised aliens operating a mysterious school, replacing some students and eating others, and generally getting up to no good. (Oddly, one review of The Vampires of Venice described it as an episode “about the fear of knowing what your life will entail and the sacrifices you might make to be forever young”, which feels to me like one of few things you could say of School Reunion but not The Vampires of Venice.)

That makes sense, of course: both School Reunion and The Vampires of Venice were written by Toby Whithouse, in each case doing exactly what was asked of him by Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat respectively. Whithouse’s original Series 5 pitch was an early iteration of what eventually became The God Complex, pushed back a year because of fears the dilapidated hotel labyrinth might be too similar to the maze of the dead in The Time of Angels; when that script was postponed, Whithouse began to develop The Vampires of Venice, prompted by Moffat to write something “big, bold, [and] romantic”. Presumably, the version of The God Complex written for Series 5 would’ve done similar character work for Amy and Rory – it’s easy to imagine the wedding present trip leading to the space hotel, fitting a different premise around the same basic character arc. (The reuse of the school setting is more likely than not just a coincidence, though it’s an interesting repetition nonetheless, particularly given Whithouse’s original version of School Reunion was set in an army base.)

Taken together, they make for interesting points of comparison to one another – less in terms of Whithouse’s work, though, but in how Moffat continues to reinvent the structure Davies applied to Doctor Who. (A word on Whithouse briefly anyway, though: it’s a well-written episode, and had he eventually taken over from Moffat, the fact that he could write something solid and reliable like this would’ve been as much to his credit as his more high-concept episodes like School Reunion or The God Complex. Equally, though, you can start to see the narrow focus that would eventually prove limiting, those portentous references to the Time War sitting awkwardly here as the series is beginning to move on from the idea; you get the sense that Whithouse was probably the writer most interested in that angst after Davies, his take on the show always very grounded in that, even defined by that.)

Within the structure of Series 5, then, The Vampires of Venice is something of a Davies-era throwback. Or, at least, it’s where that influence feels most pointed: the whole of Moffat’s first series as showrunner is closely modelled on those of his predecessor, with the initial present/future/past trilogy, the celebrity historical, and the returning monster two-parter having already opened the series. But it’s more easily highlighted with The Vampires of Venice, which mimics Davies’ innovations in terms of character, rather than just structure – as already noted, it bears some obvious similarities to School Reunion, but there’s a resemblance to The Long Game as well, another episode that develops the Doctor/companion relationship by introducing a new character into an established dynamic.

(Incidentally, it’s also interesting to note that The Vampires of Venice was being positioned as a second jumping on point for the series, for anyone who’d missed the episodes already broadcast. How exactly that isn’t so clear – something like Dalek makes sense in that role, with the iconic returning monster, as might Mummy on the Orient Express, with the heavily promoted guest stars, but The Vampires of Venice is much less consciously attention grabbing as those counterparts.)

It’s not the sort of thing you ever see Steven Moffat do again, not really: there’s no The Vampires of Venice style episode devoted to Danny Pink in Series 8 (arguably the closest is probably In the Forest of the Night, but that’s a fairly strained comparison). Even Series 10, which opens with an episode clearly written in the same style as Davies’ Doctor Who contributions, largely eschews this with its relationship plotline – Heather appears briefly in the opening and closing episodes, but there’s no effort to make her stand as a character in her own right exactly. Meanwhile, in one of the more surprising moves from Chris Chibnall, there’s been no particular attempts at any developing romantic relationships between the characters (or, if you’re feeling less than charitable, relationships full stop) – which makes The Vampires of Venice not just a throwback, but essentially the last hurrah, not just reinventing a Davies-era innovation, but putting it to rest instead.

Which brings us neatly, ish, to Rory. What makes The Vampires of Venice so distinct from its predecessors, ultimately, is that it’s far more invested in Rory than The Long Game ever was in Adam, or School Reunion was in Mickey – where those episodes were, on some level, demonstrating the inadequacies of their focal character even as they developed them further, The Vampires of Venice is a much more straightforward, and much more earnest, showcase for Rory as a character. (You can make the point, reasonably, that School Reunion is fairly invested in Mickey – he gets that vote of confidence from Sarah Jane, after all – but it’s as much about what the episode is leading into as it is anything else, and Series 2 is not making a case for Mickey Smith in the same way Series 5 is for Rory Williams.)

This as much as anything else is how The Vampires of Venice is disrupting the Davies era structure – because it’s invested in a different approach to character, both in the abstract and in terms of these characters, Moffat’s perspective on the Doctor and romance markedly different to that of Davies. Positioning the episode specifically as the Doctor trying to repair Amy and Rory’s relationship is a genuinely clever conceit, affording Matt Smith space to continue redefining the role and giving Gillan and Darvill something more distinct to play too (for all that there are similarities to something like School Reunion, it’s difficult to imagine the Tenth Doctor, Rose, and Mickey appearing in this script verbatim – that’s not even remotely what that dynamic was like). They both impress – Gillan is clearly confident and comfortable in the part by now, and Darvill has this very immediate control over the role, settling into his character faster than his co-stars did theirs.

On the whole, then, it’s another strong instalment in Series 5. There are moments that feel a little rote, maybe, details that hew a little close to familiar archetypes – but with the remove of over a decade, it’s easier to notice what this episode is doing, and how it’s subtly progressing the show. Even the more traditional aspects work – Helen McCrory is fantastic casting, her laugh is one of the more memorable acting choices from any of the year’s guest stars – and in the end it’s clear that while The Vampires of Venice might not be an obvious highlight, Series 5 would be appreciably weaker without it.

Related:

Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor

Doctor Who Review: Series 12 Overview

You can find more of my writing about Doctor Who here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed reading this review – or if you didn’t – perhaps consider leaving a tip on ko-fi?

Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor: Flesh and Stone

doctor who flesh and stone review moffat matt smith alex kingston weeping angels forest amy pond

We stare at them to stop them getting closer. We don’t even blink, and that is exactly what they want. Because as long as our eyes are open, they can climb inside. There’s an Angel in her mind.

It suffers somewhat from the same flaws we discussed last week, of course. There’s that same imprecision to the script, the same roughness to Smith’s performance, the same struggle in the direction to balance the two. The imperfections to Flesh and Stone are easily highlighted and difficult to miss; the first-production-block inexperience is as obvious here as it is in The Beast Below or Victory of the Daleks, if not even moreso.

Equally, though, there’s a lot that really works. It’s full of really nice little details, from the Angels’ screeching laughter to the casual sadism of Angel Bob, and where the performances are strong, they’re really strong. Father Octavian’s death scene is a particularly nice moment, in fact: Iain Glen gives a very affecting performance, balancing the pathos of the scene well, to the point that it’s surprising he’s not cited more often as one of Doctor Who’s better guest stars. It helps centre Matt Smith, too, and this scene – his first, I think, attempt at a Doctor Who staple – is probably amongst his best of the two-parter as well. You get the sense of him marking out his approach, marking out what makes his Doctor distinct, lending the scene a much quieter sorrow than Tennant’s more mournful “I’m so sorry” apologies.

You can see the beginning of Moffat working through some ideas about how two-parters work, too, making real steps to differentiate Flesh and Stone from The Time of Angels in a way he didn’t quite do with The Doctor Dances and Forest of the Dead when compared to their counterparts. There’s this real emphasis on making Flesh and Stone feel like something with its own identity, a distinct whole on its own terms – it’s not exactly that you could watch one without the other (they’d each be poorly served by that, I suspect) but rather than they very pointedly don’t blur together. That new, forest setting is a really clever idea, disrupting what we’d become familiar with already while also adding a neat little sci-fi quirk to the wider story: Flesh and Stone is really densely packed with different ideas and concepts, lending it an appreciable energy that obscures the roughness. (It also follows on, somewhat, from what we discussed last week about reinventing the Angels as recurring monsters – it’s as much about translating them to a new iconography as it is expanding the concept, taking them out of the Wester Drumlins haunted house and demonstrating how well, and how easily, they can work in other contexts too.)

More interesting than that sense of an inexperienced production, though, is a little quirk that never reappears – a clever little trick that doesn’t compare to anything before or since.

What was ostensibly a production mistake – the Doctor’s conversation with Amy, wearing his jacket even though he’d just lost it – was actually a tie-in to The Big Bang, an appearance from a future version of the Doctor. It’s a result of more forward planning than Russell T Davies had ever been able to undertake, or that Steven Moffat would ever really be able to do again; as the (brilliant) Shannon Sullivan archive notes, Moffat finished writing The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone towards the end of 2008, roughly a full year ahead of completing his scripts for The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang (which themselves had to be written ahead of schedule anyway). He’d never have that amount of time again – indeed, several of his scripts for Series 6, most notably The Wedding of River Song, were functionally filmed as first drafts – and it’s interesting to see Moffat’s inclination towards that sort of structural playfulness fits around a full series, rather than individual episodes, manifests itself on the one chance he gets to attempt it. (The Time of Angels and Flesh and Stone are also significant in a wider sense, as Christa Mactíre notes, for being at once a sequel and a prequel to the events of Series 6, the first episode filmed at the same time sitting right at the heart of the Moffat era as it stretches outwards in both directions.)

There’s this oft-repeated truism that Steven Moffat is a good writer of individual episodes, but a poor showrunner. It’s a suggestion that, perhaps, has a kernel of truth to it, but not strictly in the sense that it’s meant: the argument is about the creative obligations of his showrunner role, and not the production responsibilities it entails. Which is to say, if there’s any insight to that now-banal comment, it’s one that’s being approached from the wrong angle: Moffat-as-showrunner is a much more interesting figure, I think, to consider as a producer than a writer. (Or, at least, it’s a vastly underexamined area of discussion.) We’ll consider this again over the next few years – particularly, as aforementioned, with those hastily-written Series 6 scripts – but it seemed worth raising here with an episode that’s almost their inverse. It’s interesting to wonder what Moffat might’ve done with Series 6 – or indeed Smith’s tenure as a whole – if a similar sort of lead-in had been possible (either by result of different producing partners alongside him, a different broadcast schedule, or indeed no Sherlock).

It’s also worth spending a little time talking about Amy, if only because I’ve not really done that enough of late. We’ve spoken a few times now about how she’s a character that exists in two worlds, an almost Doctor-like figure in her own right; there’s also, implicit in the subtext at least, this idea that she’s been grappling with abandonment and trauma. (Vincent and the Doctor, as we’ll see, is a big part of this.)

How that manifests here, though, with that last scene, doesn’t work. It’s a deeply uncomfortable way to present what perhaps could’ve been… well, it’s hard to imagine it straightforwardly working in a programme like Doctor Who, to the point that the whole concept feels like a mistake, but in theory there’s a version of this scene that’s much more thoughtful, that casts the kiss much more obviously as a response to trauma. Moffat has since said much the same, commenting “I don’t like Amy coming on to the Doctor at the end of Flesh and Stone. I mean the idea is good and sound – young girl reaches out after hours of deranging terror. But I played it for Coupling-style sitcom laughs. And it doesn’t work. Brilliant episode up till that point […] and then I screw it up with sniggering sex comedy. Bah! [Script editor] Lindsey Alford (as she was then) called me out on it, and I disagreed and stuck to my guns. And I was wrong, damn it.”

The scene sits awkwardly here, as much for what it could’ve been as for what it is – again, my instinct is that it’s better removed entirely (or, perhaps, played much more subtly as well as less comically, but I wonder how in-character subtlety would be) but it’s a shame to miss out on the potential it offers. It’s rare to have a relatively quiet moment of something resembling reflection for these characters, simply because of the momentum the show often demands – the better version of this scene, if it could’ve existed, would’ve been a genuine triumph. (Perhaps tying into that real/fairytale dichotomy through spending time on the consequences of the adventures?) As it is, though, while it doesn’t quite ruin the episode, it comes far closer than any individual scene ever should.

Still. We’re now almost at the halfway mark of Series 5; Vampires in Venice will be the first episode we’ve seen filmed after The Eleventh Hour. It should, in theory, be the start of a show that’s much more confident in itself, lacking the roughness and imprecision we’ve seen this week.

Related:

Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor

Doctor Who Review: Series 12 Overview

You can find more of my writing about Doctor Who here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed reading this review – or if you didn’t – perhaps consider leaving a tip on ko-fi?