|This happens more often than you’d think. Trust me, I know.|
My wife’s a hospice nurse.
It’s May 15th, 2010. Roll Deep are at number one with “Good Times,” a song that sounds from the title very much like it is about sober and responsible behavior. Plan B, Aggro Santos, and Professor Green also chart. I’m going to go ahead and admit I’ve not heard of any of these. News I remember – BP continues to do a very bad job of stopping the Deepwater Horizon spill. Gordon Brown announces that he will resign as head of the Labour Party, which precedes David Cameron forming a coalition government with Nick Clegg. The Queen approves of this, apparently. Oh, and Eyjafjallajökull’s ash cloud started wandering by again.
While on television, the midpoint of the season, Amy’s Choice. Let’s start with the end, since its implications are easy to overlook. In amidst the revelation that the Dream Lord was just a twisted reflection of the Doctor (which is to say, literally what he appeared to be all episode, as opposed to merely figuratively), it is easy to overlook the larger point, which is that Amy’s choice was always a false one. The episode spends most of its runtime positioning Amy to make a choice as to which of the two worlds is real, with this choice symbolically standing in for her choice between Rory and the Doctor. The final revelation is that this choice was illusory.
This is not a small thing. The conventional wisdom, after all, would hold that Amy and Rory getting married would bring about the exact result it seems to in this story: they’d settle down in Leadworth and stop having adventures. Because growing up is antithetical to adventures. That’s the entire point of the Amy/Amelia dichotomy and the whole “run off with the Doctor the night before her wedding” idea. Instead of your Mickey-esque terrestrial partner you fall in love with a madman with a magical box. Of course for Amy, for whom sexual confidence is one of the first traits given, this was always going to be somewhat less chaste than the Rose Tyler era. Especially once she’s met River, and thus been tacitly invited to view the Doctor as a sexual being.
And this logic is hardly unique to Doctor Who. Just over two years prior to this story Marvel Comics went to great lengths to undo the marriage between Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson in the Spider-Man comics, saying that “When people get married, they tend to settle down — life slows down and you gain different responsibilities, grown-up responsibilities, boring responsibilities. You go out to dinner less, see fewer movies, your social life is curtailed and revolves, as it should, around your significant other. In short, life hands you a mini van. While marriage makes for an okay story, there is less drama in a (healthy) marriage than in a single relationship.” Just over two years after it, DC did a big reboot of its universe and, in the process, undid the Clark Kent/Lois Lane marriage before, eventually, clarifying that they were simply opposed to the idea of any superheroes being married, saying, “heroes shouldn’t have happy personal lives.” And these are just a handful of examples of the general maxim that putting characters in any sort of stable relationship is a bad thing for adventure stories.
All of which is to say that the iconography and message underlying Amy’s situation at this point in the series is screaming that this is a story about choosing between adulthood/marriage and childhood/adventures. So when it turns out that this is not even remotely what the story is about, it’s non-trivial, and a development with some real and significant points and consequences. For one thing, it forces a reevaluation of what it means that Amy is no longer a little girl. The Eleventh Hour calmly let us fall into the trap of thinking that the substantive part of Amy’s maturity was that she’s a sex worker (albeit a strangely antiquated kind – an attempt to search for “kissogram” in fact gets mostly Doctor Who results and results related to the musical act, the role being essentially obsolete now). And, of course, this is at the heart of why marriage and childhood adventure are instinctively opposed. A married person is sexually active, and thus no longer allowed to have childish adventures.
But this is Steven Moffat, who wrote his first Doctor Who story as a rousing defense of sexual freedom. The idea that he was ever going to declare, to any extent, that being sexually active meant you were no longer worthy of adventures, thereby pulling some good old-fashioned Problem of Susan bullshit, was always ridiculous. That’s just not the way that Moffat works. And that is absolutely a part of what’s going on in Amy’s Choice – hence the decision to have the Leadworth dream include Amy’s pregnancy, a detail that is significant only because it makes the “choice” unambiguously between Amelia Pond, the girl who waited and who now has fairy tale adventures, and Amy Pond, the woman who has had sex.
But, of course, the story is about more than just sexuality. It’s about the notion of adulthood, and while sexuality is certainly a part of adulthood that Moffat has a career-long interest in, it’s not the only part. The real issue here is that Amy is led to try to choose between a normal adult life and life on the TARDIS, with the clear implication and point being that a normal life where you get married and have kids is incompatible with going on adventures. By rejecting the existence of that choice, Moffat is flying in the face of an entire logic that growing up in a practical sense means that you can no longer tell a certain type of story. This returns to one of the basic moral themes of the Moffat era – that the solution to being trapped in a bad story is to tell a different one. Life with Rory and having grand adventures aren’t incompatible at all – the only thing necessary to have both is to decide to do just that – that is, to recognize that the choice offered is a false one.
This point works in two different ways. On one level, it’s a valuable and genuinely liberating bit of social commentary. The truism that people get more conservative as they get older is an oft-declared one, and more broadly, the idea that growing up is akin to growing banal and boring is a fundamental part of the culture. Indeed, this is part and parcel of reproductive futurism. The act of valuing “the children” in the abstract is fundamentally to argue that there is something vital that is lost between childhood and adulthood. Growing up and being a responsible citizen, in other words, means abandoning childhood and consciously becoming a less valuable person. The message that growing up in a practical sense of falling in love and getting married does not mean the abandonment of the fairy tale is a real and important one. Being adults doesn’t mean we don’t still get to be extraordinary. And thus, more importantly, being adults doesn’t serve as an excuse for not being.
But on a second level, it’s a comment and a condemnation of the entire set of tropes that creates the false choice in the first place. One might fairly ask why anyone would assume that marrying Rory precludes going on adventures. “He doesn’t want to” is certainly one answer, and one that Amy’s Choice gestures at, but equally, Rory was enthused just last story about traveling on the TARDIS. Indeed, this quickly becomes one of the most fundamental aspects of Rory as a character: while on the one hand it’s clear that traveling on the TARDIS is not, in fact, his first choice in life, he is not by and large hesitant about it. While he’d never have accepted the Doctor’s offer, the fact that his fiancee and then wife does and therefore has an entire fairy tale second life is not actually something that phases him. Indeed, he’s so accepting of it that he doesn’t even stumble over the TARDIS being bigger on the inside. His wife has a weird second life as an adventure heroine, and he embraces that because he loves her.
And, of course, there are the ideological answers we’ve already dealt with – the Marvel and DC arguments that suggest that adulthood is necessarily boring or that the ethos of adventure is necessarily opposed to reality. But, of course, Moffat rejects those logics actively and consciously. Which leaves a bunch of arguments about how the stories just don’t work as well if the protagonists are in stable relationships – that the tropes and rules of the genre mean that Amy has to choose the TARDIS over Rory. That, in other words, the choice exists in the first place. But from a storytelling perspective, not falling into that choice really is as simple as just writing something else. The suggestion that marriage marks the end of being able to be the subject of interesting stories is morally abhorrent, yes. But the way to combat it is to simply tell a different sort of story.
And notably, over the course of Amy’s Choice, that is exactly what happens. At the start the audience assumes that the TARDIS dream must be real, as it follows with seeming continuity from the end of The Vampires of Venice, whereas the Leadworth dream puts all of the characters in wildly different places in a way that would be narratively jarring. The revelation that the TARDIS scenes have been dreams as well is, in other words, significant because it amounts to a sudden refusal to tell the story that the episode has been pretending to tell. And it’s notable that the Doctor’s decision to blow up the TARDIS really is sudden, and comes after the story’s seeming resolution. The Doctor sees the apparent story through to its end and then concludes that this is not an adequate story and that he will need to tell another one.
Except, actually, he’s clearly worked it out long before that point in the narrative. We even see it happen on screen, when he tells the Dream Lord that he knows who he is. (Although this is telegraphed carefully in advance, most notably with the Dream Lord’s initial outfit.) And the resolution makes clear that knowing who the Dream Lord is in turn means he knows neither world can possibly be real. (If it even takes that long – he suggests he never bought the freezing sun bit, which would make all his claims that the TARDIS was the real world a lie.) Which means that everything the Doctor does surrounding Rory’s death and after is, in point of fact, him manipulating Amy.
As with much of the Moffat era, it’s a case of hiding an answer in plain sight. Just last episode we saw the Doctor actively attempting to repair Amy and Rory’s relationship. Here, for much of the episode, he seems to be trying to tear it apart by forcing Amy to make the false choice. But at some point in the narrative it becomes clear that he is trying to do something different, as he knows that the choice is false. In fact, it seems as though he’s trying to push Amy to realize that the choice is false in the first place and that she can in fact have an adult relationship and a life of adventure at the same time. He allows Amy to realize that she would choose Rory over adventure if she had to choose, then removes the need to choose so that she can carry on having both.
But the detail that the Dream Lord is in fact the Doctor pushes this observation even further. After all, the resolution of the episode has the odd effect of clarifying that absolutely nothing that happened in the episode was actually a danger. Since there was no “real world” in which to die, nobody was ever actually threatened. Which ever world they died first in, they’d wake up in the other one. Perhaps the goal was simply to ensnare them in a dream, but this seems an inferior interpretation that is clearly not what’s suggested by that final appearance of the Dream Lord’s reflection in the TARDIS console. No, if the Dream Lord is in fact the Doctor then the most sensible assumption is that the Dream Lord’s entire scheme in this episode was simply a sadistic and manipulative effort to fix Amy and Rory’s relationship. The rejection of the false choice was always the goal. And whenever the Doctor figures it out, all he’s doing is, in effect, simply figuring out his own subconscious plan.
Given The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone and the turn towards making components of narrative itself into foes, this has significant implications. Haunting this entire story is the possibility that the Doctor, even if he does good things, does them by being a bit of a bastard. He admits this point himself at the end, saying, “I choose my friends with great care. Otherwise, I’m stuck with my own company, and you know how that works out.” This is an important point in its own right: for all that our ordinary lives are made better if we decide to be stories, so are our stories made better if allowed contact with ordinary lives. The presence of Amy and Rory in the Doctor’s narrative is what keeps the darkness implied by the Dream Lord at bay. What keeps a narrative threat at bay is people, and what makes people extraordinary is their stories. The only villain the story ever had was the idea that there might be some sort of choice between people and stories in the first place.