The philosophy of the “dream argument” goes right back to Plato, but was really popularised by Descartes. It takes dreaming as evidence that we cannot trust our senses to show us the difference between reality and illusion. For centuries philosophers have tied themselves in knots trying to answer the question of how we know if our dreams are real or reality is real. So here’s my definitive answer to that question, once and for all: because we do. There you go. You’re welcome.
The idea has been extensively mined in fiction, film and television. We need to keep in mind here something that I have been harping on about with the Eleventh Doctor era: it is being written thematically as children’s fantasy fiction. It is fitting, then, that Alice in Wonderland provides one of the best-known examples of the use of dream argument in fiction, because Alice is actually one of the strongest influences on Doctor Who this series, with Amy being the child who metaphorically fell down the rabbit hole when she met the Doctor. And then she waited for her chance to return to that magical world, even reaching the point where, like Alice, she had convinced herself that it had all been a dream. And that’s where the parallels with Through the Looking-Glass come in, because the Doctor came back, and Amy went back to Wonderland by stepping through the TARDIS doors. In Through the Looking-Glass we find this:
‘It’s only the Red King snoring,’ said Tweedledee…
‘He’s dreaming now,’ said Tweedledee: ‘and what do you think he’s dreaming about?’
Alice said ‘Nobody can guess that.’
‘Why, about you!’ Tweedledee exclaimed, clapping his hands triumphantly. ‘And if he left off dreaming about you, where do you suppose you’d be?’
‘Where I am now, of course,’ said Alice.
‘Not you!’ Tweedledee retorted contemptuously. ‘You’d be nowhere. Why, you’re only a sort of thing in his dream!’
‘If that there King was to wake,’ added Tweedledum, ‘you’d go out— bang!—just like a candle!’
‘I shouldn’t!’ Alice exclaimed indignantly. ‘Besides, if I’m only a sort of thing in his dream, what are you, I should like to know?’
‘Ditto,’ said Tweedledum.
‘Ditto, ditto!’ cried Tweedledee.
He shouted this so loud that Alice couldn’t help saying ‘Hush! You’ll be waking him, I’m afraid, if you make so much noise.’
‘Well, it’s no use your talking about waking him,’ said Tweedledum, ‘when you’re only one of the things in his dream. You know very well you’re not real.’
‘I am real!’ said Alice, and began to cry.
‘You won’t make yourself a bit realer by crying,’ Tweedledee remarked: ‘there’s nothing to cry about.’
‘If I wasn’t real,’ Alice said—half laughing through her tears, it all seemed so ridiculous—’I shouldn’t be able to cry.’
‘I hope you don’t suppose those are real tears?’ Tweedledum interrupted in a tone of great contempt.
So a clear use of the dream argument, and subsequently genre television has done a lot to move the concept along. Both Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Buffy the Vampire Slayer have bravely shown versions of the dream argument that flit back and forth between the reality we are familiar with and something far more prosaic. So we have Sisko on DS9, and Sisko as a 1950s writer, writing stories about DS9. And we have Buffy as a superhero vampire slayer, and Buffy as a damaged young woman in a mental hospital, dreaming about being a vampire slayer. These are very brave things to do, because they verge on making the viewer think, “hold on a minute, this whole series really is ridiculous”, because, on the face of it, 50s America or the mental hospital seem the more realistic realities. Amy’s Choice solves this problem by making both realities fit within the world of Doctor Who, so the alternative reality has monsters. This is a clever move, and stops the episode from being a simple rip-off of those two big hitters, while borrowing from highly successful sci-fi/fantasy episodes that are at the peak of their respective series’ achievements.
At the heart of this whole approach to the dream argument is an insoluble problem. We can never be certain which reality was real. As soon as you introduce an alterative reality and have each possibility be a dream within the other, then there is never going to be an answer to that question. Because even when you give the answer it can still be given within the context of a dream. This is where the idea of lucid dreaming is also utilised, and it allows for a false ending and a twist in the tale. In fact, you can go further and have multiple false endings, but the more you do that, the more you break down the building blocks of the fiction you are trying to get your audience to believe in. Ultimately this kind of story has to end with the viewer left in some doubt, because once the White Rabbit is out of the hat he’s not going back in. Having had our whole concept of the reality of the fiction we have been shown shattered, it can’t be pieced back together. So the series has to simply move on from this point, and hope we can reinvest next week. Which is why in some ways this kind of thing is perhaps best saved for a final season of a genre series, or even a finale. That can’t happen with Doctor Who, because there will never be a “final season” (here’s hoping!)
So Amy’s Choice is tackling a big idea, and tackles it very well. The only problem is with the reveal of what is causing the whole thing, because the explanation of who the Dream Lord is falls flat. It is saying something when the Valeyard is a more convincing idea for the Doctor-gone-bad. This is no reflection on Toby Jones – he does a faultless job (if you haven’t seen him in Detectorists then you need to – he is one of Britain’s greatest talents at the moment). It’s just that as an explanation its a bit on the silly side. I was expecting the Dream Lord to be the Celestial Toymaker, which would have been a better fit for the story, but he is possibly not a character that can be reused, for reasons we will probably not be able to avoid when we get to that story.
So there’s only one thing left to say, and this is the most important point of all. In fact, I would say it is the key to understanding the whole 54 years of Doctor Who’s history, and here it is… hold on a minute… I think I’m waking up… RP
Scroll below the video for another review…
The view from across the pond:
Row, row, row your boat,
Gently down the stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily , merrily…
In Mummy on the Orient Express, the Doctor tells Clara that sometimes the only choices you have are bad ones, but you still have to make a choice. Perhaps this is a lesson learned during his time with Amy and Rory. In Amy’s Choice, Amy has to make a decision between two worlds. Both offer a chance for happiness: in one, Amy and her husband are living happily in Leadworth, and Amy is very pregnant. In the other, she’s still traveling with Rory and her best friend, the Doctor. But the one she chooses could reflect between which life she values more: the one with her husband or the one with her best friend… oh, and if they guess wrong and die in what they think is a dream, well… “Ask me what happens if you die in reality?”
Once again, Doctor Who does something special. If this episode feels strangely out of place, it is. It’s the only part of the 5th season that does not feature or reference the Crack that’s been plaguing the Doctor and Amy. In its place, do we get a throwback? Or a “throw forward”? If it’s a throwback, could this villain, played by Toby Jones, the Dream Lord, be an incarnation of The Valeyard? He does teleport around much like the Valeyard did and he is supposedly the dark side of the Doctor’s personality! Assuming the Valeyard is one possible outcome of the Doctor, does that mean that if the 6th Doctor regenerated, he would have looked like Michael Jayston, but if the 11th regenerated, he might look like Tony Jones? Speaking of regeneration, being the Doctor means he could regenerate too, so is Toby just an earlier or later incarnation of Michael Jayson’s character? Like how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop, the world may never know…
If we consider a “throw-forward”, could it have something to do with the fact that Neil Gaiman would be writing for season 6 with his marvelous story The Doctor’s Wife? Gaiman is also known as the creator of the Sandman series of graphic novels (which are excellent). Sandman is the Dream Lord as well. Did we just see a possible link between these two giants of science fiction? Ok, of the latter: probably not. Of the former: possibly. But if it were the Valeyard, how did the Doctor get rid of him simply by removing the “psychic pollen”?
The episode itself, yet again, offers a good look at the relationship between the Doctor, Amy and Rory. I’d get into all the sweetness of Amy and Rory or even Amy and the Doctor, but the truth is, the episode offers something more that really needs to be the focus of our piece. (Suffice to say that the regulars are utterly great in this story… as usual.)
But more than the acting talents of the cast, Amy’s Choice offers us something bigger: a bit of Ontology. In a nutshell, ontology is the nature of being; a branch of philosophy that asks “how do you know that you exist?” The life in Leadworth is certainly more real than that of the life in the TARDIS, but in the universe in which Doctor Who takes place, both are equally “real”. In fact, Leadworth is populated by old people with eyes in their mouths, (a race called the Eknodine) so now we are on equally unreal footing. In both alternate worlds, Amy, Rory and the Doctor all believe that what they are seeing is real. And that truly is something to ponder: how do we know what’s real? Sight? Everything looked real in both places. Sound? The birdsong alone proved how false that was. Touch? Rory’s disintegration might find that untrustworthy. What they knew? But old people don’t have creatures living in them… equally, stars also don’t burn cold. And would Rory really opt to have a pony tail? Surely not! So which was the real world?
To compound matters, it’s not until the Doctor goes all Captain Christopher Pike (Star Trek: The Cage – watch it if you don’t get the reference) and threatens to blow them all up that we discover the truth and it’s even stranger than what we’ve been lead to believe. This further drives home the question: how do we know what’s real and what isn’t? I ask again: are you, my dear reader, actually reading this?
Amy’s Choice is both weird and wonderful. It’s another instance of Doctor Who taking ideas from other sources and making it into something that fits our “Whoniverse”. So I end by borrowing a question from Edgar Allen Poe, to give context to the episode: Are all that we see or seem, but a dream within a dream?
The answer, of course, is: that’s your choice… ML
…life is but a dream…