Well, with this now available on shiny silver disc and shiny blu disc, it's way past time Daddy Richard got the last of his reviews of this year's Doctor Woo done.
It's DEFINITELY the best episode for ELEPHANTS.
Dr Woo says Amy's got all ELEPHANT-y; then he mentions an ELEPHANT in the room (it's Mr Rory's
I have to warn you, though, there's a HUGE twist, which Daddy is going to blow in about three paragraphs, so if you're at all SPOILERPHOBIC: look away now!
This has to be a candidate (up against "Vincent and the Doctor") for best story of the season, cleverly interweaving a two-for-the-price-of-one pair of adventures, one inside and one outside the TARDIS, one in the Doctor's world and one in Rory's. It's a thinking story, and as such it may not quite win the kids over immediately in the way that colourful Daleks can, but, as with stories like "Kinda", "Warrior's Gate" or most obviously "The Mind Robber", it may be one to come back to again later.
And of course, it's how to do "Fear Her" and do it right.
Toby Jones as our host the Dream Lord brings a delicious mix of bitterness, melancholy and whimsy to what is, let's say it, a dream of a part. Two parts god to two parts Mephistopheles to one part evil House Elf, he's the best of many, many brilliant things here.
Watched the first time, he's both a diabolical adversary with a witty line in repartee and an intriguing puzzle to figure out: the Doctor knows who he is, so who is he? The Master of the Land of Fiction? The Celestial Toymaker? One of the Guardians? Penry, the Mild-Mannered Janitor…? Something even more fanwanky? Actually, no.
Watched a second time, knowing that he's the Doctor, obviously he's the Doctor, of course he's the Doctor, then he's a devastating critique of our hero's insecurities and self-doubts.
His first appearance is in a dishevelled version of the Doctor's own get up, mocking the Time Lord for his quirks, mocking him for his bow tie as he stands there in a bow tie. It transforms the Doctor's repeated catchphrase that "bow ties are cool" from self-confident assertion of style to repeated self-justification in the face of worrying he looks like a tit.
Then look out for the way that the Dream Lord reveals some of the Doctor's other traits too. He appears as "lord of the manor", a sure sign of the Doctor's Time Lordly arrogance, and as a "butcher", hardly insignificant. And as for the brief glimpse he affords to Amy of himself in his louche dressing gown… well, let's just say that the Doctor's thoughts about her might not be quite so pure and innocent as we might otherwise suggest.
Alex points out how in Rory's dream world, Rory gets to be a proper doctor and the Doctor is relegated to his junior. Except then the Dream Lord enters and promotes himself to consultant, as something nasty in the Doctor's subconscious pulls rank on Rory once again.
He also gives himself away twice. Once in each dream. The Doctor only spots the second time.
In Upper Ledworth, in the butcher's shop the Doctor bolts the door to stop the possessed old-folks getting in. The Dream Lord cheerily unbolts it. He clearly, unambiguously affects the physical world, thus proving it to be a dream. Sadly the Doctor's too busy trying to stay awake to notice.
In the TARDIS, he physically affects the console, releasing them from the grip of the "cold star". Only this time the Doctor does realise the discrepancy and hence blows up the ship, ending the second dream too.
He's almost a metaphor for Brecht's "estrangement technique", constantly drawing attention to the unreality of the situation to try to teach the Doctor to think, to realise that "reality" is as much a "constructed object" and is a changeable as these dream world. Essentially, he's the living embodiment of "history can be rewritten". Mind you, if it is Brecht, it's Brecht staged for the TARDIS crew, with us watching them watching the Dream Lord. The fourth wall is alluded to but never actually broken. It's a play within a play that can have its postmodernism and eat it.
Is there any way that we can say that the Dream Lord isn't the Valeyard?
I mean obviously, putting them into a lethal dreamworld powered by their own darkest thoughts, he's clearly the "despair squid" from "Red Dwarf's" "Back to Reality". The Doctor even quotes the title of that episode the first time they "wake up" in the TARDIS. As Timothy Spall might say: "it's a clue, that; it's a blatant clue".
But as a distillation of every dark thought that the Doctor ever had, he's definitely got the Valeyard's job description.
Notice how the Dream Lord takes the Doctor's characteristics and twists them while remaining essentially true to his nature: the "student chic" becomes decidedly un-chic chic; the cleverness becomes the condescension of a know-it-all; charisma becomes weaseliness and improvisation becomes manipulation; the Doctor's wit, humour, desire to explain become sniping that is positively snide…
"Ask me what happens if you die in reality… you die, idiot, that's why it's called reality."
…And then remember that the Valeyard, tall, gaunt, pale, dressed in unrelieved black and yet still a one for the grandiloquent turn of phrase – "sagacity" – stands as an imperfect mirror to the flamboyant, bombastic, larger- not to mention louder-than-life and altogether alliterative sixth Doctor.
Alex suggests that unlike the Valeyard, the Dream Lord doesn't have "agency", essentially he's just a symptom of the magic fairy dust, not a being in his own right.
Yet he seems perfectly sentient. He's capable of being surprised by the Doctor, which suggests a degree of independence. If his objective is to keep the Doctor and companions trapped in their dreams, does that not leave him taking over the Doctor for the remainder of his lives? And, without getting too much into "The Trial of a Time Lord", the existence of the Valeyard as a separate entity required "special conditions" too, not least access to the "dreamscape" of the Time Lords' Matrix. In the sand dunes, where the Valayard makes his big speech (oh you know the one; it's the "Catharsis of Spurious Morality"), he flits from point to point, his presence discontinuous but his speech carries on without missing a beat. Just as the Dream Lord does around the console room. The Trial, with its visions of past, present and future, is modelled on "A Christmas Carol" where the visitations of the Spirits pass in a single night, again suggestive of dreams.
And, while I do realise that it's a visual metaphor, the brief moment at the end of the Dream Lord reflected in the console presents the possibility that he persists, at least if no more than in the Doctor's mind.
The disturbing possibility occurs that the Doctor may, in fact, have engineered the entire scenario, set this all up in order to "sort Amy out". The appearance of the Dream Lord's face there not as a reminder that he must still exist, suppressed, within the Doctor's psyche, but as a glimpse of guilt for having done it all deliberately. Then the much-derided magic space pollen may have been as much his excuse for all that just happened as it is the writer's.
It's not beyond the eleventh Doctor to be that manipulative, as we have seen at the end of "The Eleventh Hour" and will see again at the end of "The Big Bang".
Because really this story is really about the Doctor's choice, how his subconscious (or conscious?) is given an opportunity to make Amy pick Rory or rather to make her realise that she has already picked Rory.
So the title is a bit of a cheat. To suggest Amy has an actual choice – between the Doctor and Rory – was only ever going to be true if they both loved her back. In which case, Jennie would be perfectly correct when she says: "well why can't Amy choose both?"
But the Doctor doesn't love Amy. The Doctor loves Rose.
He loved Rose for the best part of two lifetimes and we've no particular reason to think he's stopped. It's almost been a bit shocking – if you take away the all-change attitude in the producer's chair – that he hasn't mentioned her, hasn't even alluded to her all this season. And it's not like she wasn't the last person her saw before crashing his TARDIS into Amy's garden shed, so she's hardly out of his mind, unless the regeneration "healed" those particular synapses too…
He sees Amy as a "companion". It's rather lovely at the end to see that he picks companions who are bright and shining people to compensate for the sense of darkness in his own soul. That's such a good and obvious explanation, so much better than ones we've had before: it's not just about him enjoying the Universe by sharing their wonder at the newness, it's not just about him needing someone to stop him, it's about him wanting to be around people who will make him a better person. It may also help to explain, if not excuse, his behaviour towards Martha.
But it does mean that for him there's a jarring mismatch between the way he sees his friends-who-share-the-TARDIS and the sort of people he might flirt with (see Todd in "Kinda" or Jabe in "The End of the World" if you think he's above flirting!). This may in fact be the biggest character flaw revealed in an episode that is all about the Doctor's character flaws.
Or to put it another way: how can you expect anything other than a great big "fail" from the Doctor in an episode where his idea of sorting out relationship issues is to come up with a warped version of himself to inflict hell on all concerned? Isn't the whole point of this story that the Doctor is so screwed up he can't even talk to his best friends without rendering them all unconscious first?
And of course, it's worth remembering that the TARDIS crew are saved by rejecting both choices, rejecting the false idea of choice altogether.
The episode manages to contrive the impression of a "bottle show", one all made on standing sets and with few more than the regular cast, which is of course only half true: specifically the half set aboard the TARDIS. Well, all right, it's all really set in the TARDIS, but I mean the half in the TARDIS-dream. And yet, there's actually quite a lot of location footage and quite a lot of stunt work and quite a large cast of extras in the Ledworth scenes: not just a regular army of old people possessed by the Eknodine – a superbly spooky effect, by the way, the eye, another eye like the Atraxi and after the significance of eyes in the Angels' story, emerging from the mouth making them seem much more "hollowed out" than any Slitheen skinsuit – but also quite a lot of people who the Doctor rescues in the minibus before dropping them off to take shelter in the church, and a good few children, last seen playing in the castle grounds.
It may be off-screen, but how many Doctor Who stories get away with slaughtering a dozen children? Oh yes they do – just count the piles of ashes. And they say Torchwood's "Children of Earth" is grim.
The "Day of the (nearly) Dead" sequences, as zombie OAPs attack with various unlikely garden tools, are both disturbing and hilarious. Rory shows his special charm as he can't quite bring himself to club an old lady until Amy orders him to do it. (Add to that his sweet apologies when he repeatedly bumps her sleeping body up the stairs. And then he goes and drops her head!)
It was a shame that we didn't see Annette Crosby or Arthur "Cully" Cox from "The Eleventh Hour" again, which would have added a touch of verisimilitude to the dream-Ledworth's continuity – but Alex was particularly pleased to see once-upon-a-time Aggedor Nick Hobbs as elderly Mr Nainby. "Aggedor's the one who growls when he's thrown off the dormobile!" he says delightedly.
It's possible that the name of the home where the unnaturally-long-lived oldies reside, "Sarn", is another clue, being as it's also the name of the planet in "Planet of Fire" where you can find a longevity-inducing volcanic gas.
The twittering of birds as the Dream Lord shunts them from one version to the other seems to be a misdirect to make the Ledworth world seem the more real one – after all, they hear the birdsong in the TARDIS too. But then, almost magically, the rain in Ledworth turns to snow, as though the cold from the "cold star" is bleeding through from the TARDIS-dream to the Ledworth reality too.
Of course, it's not a "cold star at all; it's an accidental bit of precience, as it's the CGI sun from "The Big Bang" with the yellow taken out.
This blending of dreams and reality is, of course, where the episode perfectly captures the essence of "fairy story" where Stephen Moffat has said he sees the series as being. The inherent warning to "be careful what you wish for", the way that things which seem too good to be true really are, the way the "bad fairy" is vanquished by trusting to what you believe, slaughtering the cute kiddies: these are all very Grimm tropes.
And yet, ironically, this is also the story that has the harshest words to say about believing life is like a fairy tale.
"What's the good of you, then?" Amy protests when the Doctor admits that he doesn't save everybody every time.
It's the cry of the little Amy who still keeps all of her childhood dolls and drawing of the raggedy Doctor, who still plays dressing up games, who could never bring herself to grow up, because growing up means leaving the fairy tale world and facing the harsh world of no happily ever afters.
In a sense she accepts marrying the man she loves, but still rejects the fairy tale ending of the wedding dress. In a way, that leaves Amy's Choice unresolved, and quite right too. In traditional drama, the midpoint – as this is – of the "dramatic W" should see events build to an anti-climax, which leaves tension unresolved until the true climax at the end. And Amy's Choice will remain unresolved until the end of the season, which this episode strongly foreshadows.
Final thought: In one dream, Rory dies. In another dream, the TARDIS explodes. And then they all wake up. I'm just saying.
Next time… You can thank your lucky (cold) stars that I've already done Master Chibnall's festival of all things Pertwee, and we can move straight along to a review of the whole season.