This is a difficult episode to review without giving away the nature of the Dream Lord and his beef with the Doctor and seeing as how that is really the crutch of the story I’ll try my hardest to circumnavigate that particular spoiler.
The basic story is straightforward enough. Caught in the Dream Lord’s malicious machinations, the Doctor, Amy and Rory are given two realities – on the TARDIS which we all know, but a TARDIS without power, slowly tumbling into a freezing ice star, and one set five years in the future where Amy and Rory are married, Amy is pregnant and Rory is the local doctor. Rory’s dream, it seems. But the old folk in the village – described as Upper Leadworth – are not all they seem to be, and when the Doctor turns up things start getting a bit murderous. So, Amy’s choice is simple. Which is real? Choose the wrong dream, and everyone dies.
When the writers for this season were announced, both Simon Nye and Richard Curtis certainly raised some eyebrows. For my own personal taste, I was less concerned with Simon Nye’s commission, and, for what it’s worth, I’m pleased with what he’s come up with. Full of sparky and punchy dialogue, he really has got a handle on the characters and after the flash bang of Flesh and Stone and the romp of Vampires of Venice, this really is a character piece. The physical threat – zombie-esque old folks – sounds funny and is, but is also reasonably creepy, although the sight of an old timer limping over a field with a zimmer isn’t the greatest scene ever to have graced the series. In the other “reality” the slowly freezing TARDIS is as good as anything in the series, and the set slowly filling with frost and ice is wonderfully evocative. But for Nye, these are incidentals, because his script is specifically designed to magnify and concentrate on the three characters.
Toby Jones as the Dream Lord is very good, and effortlessly strolls through the episode like a pint sized Fred Kreuger, but with cutting reposts rather than cutting talons. His observations on the Doctor and his association with companions and just about everything else is a brave move as it highlights the frailities of the character and the concept, and it echoes both the Master and Davros’s criticisms of the character too. It’s safe to say that these words by his greatest enemies really do get under his skin.
Arthur Darvill as Rory again excels in a role which is slightly more Mickey than Vampires of Venice would have suggested the concept was going, but he is likeable, bumbling and brave. He also is a little desperate and defeated here, which is endearing. A big fan spoiler may have been negated in this episode too.
Amy takes centre stage to an extent here, but that’s fine after a few weeks of the Doctor being “da man” and Karen Gillan manages again to balance that feisty independence with an absolute need for the Doctor and to be the traditional companion. I still disagree that she is like no other companion ever before – I could see Rose, Martha and Donna all behaving the same in this story, and even characters like Jo or Tegan would have reacted similarly, but it doesn’t stop Amy being engaging and personable.
Matt again is a firecracker, and the first few moments, echoing Vampires of Venice, is a comedy tour de force. Whilst snippets of comedy are good in Who, it is nice to see the story, and maybe more importantly the Doctor, taking a darker turn and his own self doubts and inner turmoil, so keenly devoured by David Tennant, are again brought to the fore here. Matt is a much more introvert actor than David, who as a classically trained thesp is all about projection. Matt brings a subversion to the performance. It’s all about the eyes. In very Doctor style, he works out who the enemy is really quickly and keeps it to himself, but still has trouble figuring out how to deal with it. In the end, his leap of faith with Amy is poignant and very subtle. Matt goes from brave to gawky to awkward to heroic in this episode. There are some lovely turns. Discovering who the enemy is and the doubts that enemy has put in his mind will resonate in Whovian memory and we, as big time fans, will read a lot into his expression, considering that this could be a portent of the future as well as a ghost from the past. Something the Doctor’s been suppressing for a number of years. Matt doesn’t do menacing as well as David, but he does the rest with aplomb.
Catherine Morshead does a great job distinguishing the two realities with some nice sweeps and tints and the final scene really sparkles cinematography-wise. She also has a number of clever edits which in themselves create great comedy or drama. And, at last, we get to spend some time in the TARDIS – and it is shot beautifully. We’re still not really getting to see much more of it though. Not even the wardrobe, which could easily have featured. There is another mention of the swimming pool though.
Simon Nye has said he doesn’t think Steven Moffat will let him loose on the show again. Surprisingly, I think this would be a shame. He’s created an episode which is both fantastical and follows the fairytale elements of the series (no Arc references this week though) but also has a nice solid sci-fi idea. He also nails each character. At times the episode has the feel of a Doctor Who Magazine comic strip in its vibrancy. I’d definitely like to see Nye write again.