The Doctor: Hold on tight. This is gonna be a tricky one…
Production Code: 1.7.
Story Number: 208.
I would recommend watching any Doctor Who story before reading any review of it on this blog (as plot details are discussed), however, this especially applies to this story: don’t read more if you haven’t watched the story. So, to continue…
It’s a story which completely changes its meaning the second time around – it’s a gripping mystery for 40 minutes, then the last 5 minutes transforms it to an all time great Doctor Who story, one even more fascinating when rewatching.
As the story begins it’s seemingly 5 years since Amy and Rory last travelled in the TARDIS, as the spaceship lands in the flowers. There’s a joke about the Doctor never returning to meet his companions after they’ve left (which we as the audience “get”, though Amy seems to understand already that this means something’s wrong). A seemingly throwaway joke which ties into the theme that slowly unfolds.
It soon becomes that apparent to the audience something unusual is going on, that this is not a “regular” Doctor Who story (e.g. a “past”, a “future” or a “present” story). Rather it seems to be a type of story that was once more popular, in the Sixties, indeed when Doctor Who was invented it was thought by the original production team there could be three basic types of stories – past, future and “sideways”.
In fact, DW’s first three serials (A, B and C) follow this template, with Serial C Inside the Spaceship a serial that the current production team seem to have in mind considering some of the visuals of the story (more on this later in the review.)
So there is a “sideways” step from Leadworth: the trio are puzzled and as they “awake” for the second time “inside the spaceship”, darkness descends in the TARDIS. Shifting between the half-light of the TARDIS and the grey light of Leadworth.
The next scene in the console room – out of this darkness emerges the “Dream Lord” (a superb performance from Toby Jones), who has a ready store of withering and disparaging remarks for the Time Lord it seems. The mystery is revealed in increments like this, and on first watching it’s a fascinating mystery.
At the start we are as much in the dark as the TARDIS team – next is a Leadworth scene where the Doctor slumps, bamboozled, in a knitted jumper.
As the Dream Lord conducts the “plot” in the next console room scene, this is where the Serial C influence is most felt – the looming cold star on the scanner recalls the mysterious “space” images seen on the scanner in Inside the Spaceship.
Back in Leadworth, the Dream Lord really cranks up the putdowns.
“Do that again. I love it when he does that. Tall, dark hero.”
The Doctor retorts – “I know who you are. There’s only one person in the universe who hates me as much as you do.”
Watching the first time through, it’s at this point that the mystery deepens (“what Classic villain has returned?” speculates the audience) and at this point, when watching second time around, that the scenes which bristle with uncomfortable layers really begin. (By the way, this link is to a relevant Classic DW review on the blog, but, it does reveal some of that story’s plot if you were to read it.)
It’s not just the Dream Lord and his withering putdowns that are refracted through the knowledge of the “twist” ending though. That a 900-something year old Time Lord (who is conscious that he doesn’t fade with time as his companions do) would pit his companions against “old age” in Leadworth seems strangely appropriate.
The next scenes, knowing the end, are particularly uncomfortable viewing. The Dream Lord in robe and medallion leering over Amy has a whole other dimension to it. Though is this the Doctor being harsh on himself, this self-image as a lothario, more caricature than revelation of the Doctor’s subconscious?
The start of the season is referred to with this next exchange, which was also referred to in a vital scene in The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone:
“Poor Amy. Always leaves you, doesn’t he? Alone in the dark, never apologises…”
“He doesn’t have to.”
“That’s good, because he never will.”
It seems that this is something Doctor worries over too, as well as Amy.
As the Doctor races through the streets of Leadworth in the campervan, there’s the back-seat-driver Dream Lord, (the nagging doubts at the back of the Doctor’s mind as he goes about his adventures?) with a darker echo of the idea that the Doctor never returns to his companions as they age. Rather than a tall dashing youthful-looking hero of this and the most recent incarnations of the Doctor, the Doctor seems to have selected this older, smaller self-image.
Back in the cottage, as Rory “dies”, unsaved by the Doctor, it’s as if the Dream Lord/Time Lord is tormenting himself with echoes of previous companions who went unsaved to their doom. This is the Doctor’s nightmare just a much as it was Rory’s dream.
As Amy chooses what may be the way out of this dream, the look that the Time Lord gives the Dream Lord is ambiguous, it could mean “you utter bastard”. The first time, it’s great drama. The second time, it’s also another way the Doctor is critical of himself.
At the end, Rory and Amy are brought together. The Doc explains what happened. The Doc dusts off his hands as if to say “mission accomplished” (he is happy about this accidental pollen-and-Doctor’s-dark-side-created dreamscape managing what he planned to do last episode, to reunite Amy and Rory?)
Another element of the story refracted – considering the cold blue glow of the spheres of pollen – the jeopardy to the TARDIS, the cold blue star, seems a mirror of the pollen but with a reversal of scale. Just as the TARDIS appeared a speck beside the star, so these specks, these motes have caused the trouble in the TARDIS.
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand.
And Eternity in an hour – William Blake, 1803.
Some say the pollen is hardly a great “villain” for this great story, but surely that isn’t quite the point of this story? After all the turbulence of the preceding 40 minutes, that the “villain” of the story is just the Doctor with hayfever is all the more shocking.