Which is the ‘Real’ Reality?: Doctor Who Part IV

Read all the posts in this series hereDoctor Who airs in the U.S. on BBC America on Saturdays at 9PM/8C (and though it’s by no means necessary, those interested in watching the first four seasons can find them streaming on Netflix) — ed.

Gabriel Mckee__________
“Amy’s Choice”

I have mixed feelings about spoiler warnings. In general, I think a quality piece of storytelling will work regardless of whether or not you know where it’s headed, and if the story’s no good, then it doesn’t really matter anyway. There is a definite twist at the end of “Amy’s Choice,” and custom dictates that I preface it with a caveat lector. Consider yourself warned.

As the episode begins, we seem to be in the future, or a parallel universe, or something, because the Doctor is traveling alone while Amy (who is 9 months pregnant) is living on Earth and now married to her bumbling boyfriend Rory (who now has a ludicrous ponytail). Did we miss something? Suddenly the three fall asleep and find themselves transported to the TARDIS, which is slowly being pulled into a “cold sun.” Before long the full mystery unfolds: The Doctor and his companions are being tested by an impish alien called the Dream Lord, who has presented them with two realities to choose between. Which is real—idyllic life in an earthbound village (itself menaced by hidden aliens) or the more clearly perilous life on the TARDIS (which, of course, offers a sort of family life of its own)?

Ah, but that twist—at the end of the episode we learn that neither of these situations is real. The Dream Lord has presented the TARDIS crew with a false dichotomy. The Doctor’s genius is in recognizing and cutting through these false dichotomies. This is the same sort of thing we saw in the scene back in “The Beast Below” when the Doctor opted, sight unseen, to protest the status quo of Starship Britain. He pushes the “protest” button, but does not simply accept the prescribed consequences of that action—he fights to find a third way. In that episode it was Amy who finally brought the complex solution to the simplified solution, but here—despite the episode’s title—it’s the Doctor himself. In either case, though, the core of the Doctor’s ethics is the utter rejection of black-and-white dichotomies and zero-sum games. He wins the Dream Lord’s game by refusing to play.

Of course, the title of this episode refers not just to Amy’s choice between dream and reality, but also to her choice between the Doctor and Rory as the object of her affections. At the episode’s end she seems to have made a decision (albeit somewhat halfheartedly)—but given the extent to which the episode preceding this decision, and the series in general, rejects either/or choices, can a third option for Amy be far behind? If Steven Moffat is anything like Russell T. Davies, he won’t be content to have Amy be defined simply by her relationship to one man or another.


James F. McGrath__________
Chuang Tzu’s Butterfly, and the Doctor’s Self-Loathing

There is a lot that is worth commenting on in the episode “Amy’s Choice” but I’ve chosen to focus on a couple of points. First, a puzzle that the episode introduces early on: a dream and a reality, and the dilemma of deciding which is real.

The Chinese Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu famously wrote about having a dream that he was a butterfly. He asked how he might be able to tell whether he was the human being Chuang Tzu who dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly now dreaming that he was Chuang Tzu.

The dilemma of distinguishing dreams and illusions from that which is “really real” is a key focus both in many religious traditions and in numerous works of science fiction. One famous and very explicit treatment of the topic in sci-fi is The Matrix trilogy. In the first movie, there is a scene where Neo pulls some illicit software out of a hollow book. If you freeze the scene and look carefully, the book is in fact Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulations, and one of the points made in the book is that, once it becomes possible to completely simulate reality, the very distinction between “real” and “unreal” becomes meaningless. By the time we reach the third movie in The Matrix series, we can no longer be certain that the supposed “real world” is in any sense more real than the simulation in which Neo had once lived, the matrix.

Common sense, it turns out, is not a helpful guide when it comes to such matters. This is illustrated repeatedly in the history of science as people resist new ideas which run counter to “common sense”—such as the idea that the Earth rotates, or that species change over time. In “Amy’s Choice,” the Doctor tells Amy and Rory to try to figure out which “reality” is the “real” one, to use their common sense. Both experiences feel real when they are in it, and as it turns out (SPOILER ALERT), neither is in fact real. Both are illusions.

The aforementioned points also relate to the romantic dilemma that Amy is confronted with. One of the “realities” is centered on her life of adventure with the Doctor. The other is a quiet domestic existence with Rory. The Doctor calls the latter a “nightmare.” But if Amy were not simply trying to figure out which is real, but which one she wants to be real, then the choice Amy has to make in the episode can be regarded as illustrative of the real-life choice many find themselves confronted with, between a life of adventure and insecurity on the one hand, and a life of stability and potential boredom on the other.

Ultimately, the Doctor realizes who the “dream master” is because “only one person hates me that much.” Based in particular on the detailed criticisms of the Doctor’s behavior towards his companions over the years, the Doctor realizes that the source of the illusions as well as the taunts and accusations is his own mind. In a pair of dream realities, the Doctor stands accused by his own psyche.

Presumably that is the danger of exploring questions about reality and dreams. Sometimes such explorations do not merely confront us with difficult choices about the future. Sometimes they reveal our own self-loathing. And here too we find the Doctor entering a realm intimately connected with religion, both in the sense that religion has often offered both accusation and forgiveness, but also in the sense that often we project onto God the condemnation we feel is appropriate—whether directed toward ourselves or towards others.

And so the latest episode of Doctor Who challenges us to reflect not only on the nature of reality and how to identify it, but on the question of what images we make of God (mentally more often than physically), and to recognize that the mask that constitutes our image of God usually bears a striking resemblance to ourselves.


Henry Jenkins__________

When The Doctor ‘wakes up’ in the cold opening he describes the Upper Leadworth dream as a “terrible nightmare,” “scary.” He seems thoroughly wound up, pacing and breathing heavily. But why is The Doctor’s nightmare that Amy will end up with Rory?

Is he jealous? Is he in love with Amy? Surely not. The Doctor has never explicitly expressed romantic feelings for one of his companions before. In fact, he has been notoriously unavailable. But the conclusion of “Amy’s Choice”—that the Dream Lord was a manifestation of The Doctor’s angsty subconscious—adds further ambiguity.

The Dream Lord refers to Rory as a gooseberry, British slang for a chaperone on a date, and later taunts Rory that he knows where Amy’s heart really lies. Apparently The Doctor minimally believes Rory should be threatened, and does come second in Rory’s heart. The Dream Lord further taunts that “He loves a redhead, our naughty Doctor. Has he told you about Elizabeth the First? Well, she thought she was the first,” implying that the Doctor does experience lust towards humans.

One could read The Dream Lord’s dialogue as a kind of embarrassingly revealing look at the things The Doctor doesn’t say, and therefore more unguardedly honest than his conversations with Rose. The Dream Lord’s comments could therefore be read through a moral prism as unburdening the Doctor of thoughts he would normally feel guilty about expressing. Does the Doctor have a guilt-ridden sexuality or romantic feelings he believes are inappropriate?

The Doctor’s lustful side towards humans has consistently played out in Stephen Moffat’s stories (and I include “Amy’s Choice” because he’s the executive producer.) Most notably, River Song has hinted from the beginning that she may be the Doctor’s wife, and River may or may not be human. But in “The Girl in the Fireplace” The Doctor had an apparent romance with Reinette. In “The Beast Below,” Queen Elizabeth X makes a second reference to The Doctor deflowering The Virgin Queen, Elizabeth the First. “The Empty Child” even played with an attraction between Captain Jack and the Doctor.

But why would the Doctor have an adult relationship with French and English historical figures, but not the people he knows best? Is that how he keeps score? Or is he just uncomfortable being intimate with people he has emotions for? Or is the episode almost non-canon, with such comments intended to be dismissed as the perverse self-recriminations of The Doctor’s alter ego?

Obviously an amorous reading would run contrary to the idealistic, platonic Doctor we have come to know and love since 1963, and horrify a large percentage of the audience. But perhaps the ultimate message of “Amy’s Choice” really is that everyone has a dark side like The Dream Lord. The Doctor just keeps his exceptionally well-buried.