Thursday, June 17, 2010

Fish Custard (9)

So, in the one with Toby Jones, the Red Kryptonite – sorry, the Psychic Pollen – is pure plot machinery. And the two different worlds which Amy has to choose between – they are plot machinery as well. Toby Jones himself -- the Dream Lord, the Doctor's dark side – is probably best seen as a plot device. In fact, once you've taken all the plot machinery away, it's quite hard to track down the actual plot. At times, it feels an lot like The Edge of Beyond the Inside of the Sun or whatever we're supposed to call it nowadays – the third William Hartnell story, where the TARDIS goes mad and everyone starts having hallucinations and wearing dressing gowns and attacking each other with scissors. Not really a story: more a sort of crucible to force the first story arc to come to some sort of conclusion. The "solution", if you remember, was that everything had gone weird because a button on the TARDIS console had got stuck. The First Doctor spent about five minutes playing around with a torch to make sure that everybody knew exactly what he meant by "button" and "stuck". But it was fairly clear that the point of the story was to bring Barbara to the point where she'd tell the Doctor to stop being such an old git, and to bring the Doctor to the point where he can apologize and agree to be the main character in the series from now on.

So what exactly was the point of Amy's Choice?

When I saw the pre-cred – or at any rate, when I read the summary in Radio Times – I thought that something really interesting was being set up. We'd seen Amy as a child, and as a grown up – it would have been so cool if, without telling us, the story had skipped another 5 years and picked up the action after she'd stopped travelling with the Doctor. So when we flashed forward / backwards to the TARDIS, I was rather disappointed. "Oh", I said "It's just another dream sequence virtual reality alternate time line thang, like Turn Left and Silence in the Library and every damn episode of Sarah Jane."

Actually, that's not quite fair. I like Sarah Jane an awful lot. There's a character called the Trickster who periodically pops up and plays, well, tricks on the main characters. They often involve mucking about with Sarah's time lines, showing her what would have happened if she'd made a different choice. (Who was it who said that "what would have happened" was only ever a vivid rhetorical tool for describing what actually did happen?) In Season 2, the Trickster tricks her into going back in time and (stop me if you've heard this before) preventing her parents from being killed. At the time I said it was the single best thing to have been done with the franchise since the relaunch. The Trickster is really just so much psychic pollen, and Amy's Choice is a very, very good episode of the Sarah Jane Adventures.

So. The Dream Lord sets the TARDIS crew a Puzzle. Are you, he asks them, the crew of the TARDIS dreaming that you are in Leadworth, or three people from Leadworth dreaming that you are on the TARDIS. Chuang Tse asked a similar question, but he didn't expect anybody to answer it. The point of the problem is that it's insoluble: every time Amy says "This is real, definitely real" we feel that she hasn't understood it properly.

Some people claim that they have become aware that they are dreaming without waking up, because they have noticed something in their dream which is silly, illogical, or contradictory. Freud himself says that he once thought, or dreamt that he thought "How can I possibly have arrived late for my first year medical exams, when I am an eminent professor who has been practising medicine for many years?" [*] So all our heroes have to do to identify the dream is to look for elements which are silly, illogical or contradictory.

In an episode of Doctor Who? How could they tell?

Every episode contains things which are silly, unbelievable, or surreal. Shop window dummies, anyone? Gas masks? Statues? Robot replicas of Anne Robinson? In the surreal stakes, evil child eating zombie grannies with eyeballs on stalks that pop out of their mouths would hardly make it into the top ten. And the Doctor can't open his mouth without scientific gobbledegook popping out. The idea of a cold star (and one which freezes the inside of the TARDIS, which is presumably capable of a withstanding the absolute zero of space) is not obviously sillier than sonic paper or fluid links or evil time lords living in black holes or any of the stuff he's been asking us to believe in for decades. Stuff in Doctor Who is "believable" or "unbelievable" purely on the Doctor's say-so. He's the fixed point in an often absurdist narrative. Remove his authority and all bets are off.

Jeremy Bentham (the Doctor Who historian, not the philosopher) once remarked that there were very few successful parodies of Doctor Who. The series undercuts itself so shamelessly that there's no point in a comedian doing so. As early as 1964 Crackerjack had done a sketch featuring Peter Glaze as a dotty old man called Doctor What who lived in a post-box. The substitution of the word "What" for the word "Who" and a post-box for a phone box produced something that was no sillier, and arguably less silly, than the programme that was being sent up.

Doctor Who is already the kind of story where funny men turn up in your garden and demand fish custard; where naughty school children are fed to giant whales who live under London; where statues, and pictures of statues, and memories of pictures of statues, only move when you aren't looking at them. It is already dream like. It already works according to dream logic. In something like Star Trek, a dream sequence is a surreal break with established narrative conventions. In Doctor Who it's business as usual.

Unless – perchance – that is the point? Unless something very clever and story-arcy is going on, and Steven has spent a whole episode drawing our attention to the dream-like-ness of New New Who to soften us up for the moment when Little Amelia wakes up and realises that all her adventures with the Raggedy Doctor were only a dream. Or perhaps a little game that she's been playing with her home made action figures?

Is all that we see or seem....

[*] In my experience, it more often works the other way around: I have occasionally actually been awake and eating breakfast before saying "Since I am 44, I can probably stop worrying about whether or not I left my
homework on the bus."


If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider buying a copy of The Viewers Tale or Fish Custard which collects all my writings about Doctor Who to date.

Alternatively, please consider making a donation of £1 for each essay you have enjoyed.


Anton said...

I've been thinking this for a while too. The whole 'and it was all a dream' trope is such an obvious McGuffin that it's just the sort of thing that Moffat would 'hide in plain sight' (sorry I've been watching a lot of Hitchcock recently). The Crackin Time and Space being a cosmic red herring. But somehow I don't think he'll dare. besides if this was all Amy's or the Doctor's dream where does that take us for Maffat's season Two? No, he wouldn't dare...would he?

Gavin Burrows said...

Funnily enough, this episode stopped that train of thought in me! Up till then I’d been fairly convinced everything was going to be some kind of dream Amy was having. (The crack first appears above her bed, after all.) I was also vaguely toying with Leadworth as some kind of imagined consensus reality with the monsters outside of it, which was breaking down around Amy and her raggedy Doctor fixation, but... some kind of dream reality!

But after this I figured that they wouldn’t be so audacious as to put a dream scene within a dream scene.

Besides, up to here all the emphasis was upon Amy and the crack, but things later seemed to shift to the Doctor. (Bits of the Tardis being found in it and all.) And we know a motley array of his old adversaries turn up for the finale, about which Amy is presumably amnesiac.

Gavin Burrows said...

there were very few successful parodies of Doctor Who. The series undercuts itself so shamelessly that there's no point in a comedian doing so. As early as 1964 Crackerjack had done a sketch featuring Peter Glaze as a dotty old man called Doctor What who lived in a post-box.

if only Crackerjack had survived long enough to do a take on the Crack

This one's a bit better.