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.