Witnessing the Doctor’s dark side is always confronting. That was the compelling conceit at the heart of this episode’s “monster”. Although it doesn’t become clear until the very end of the story that the sinister and unsettling Dream Lord is an animated manifestation of the Doctor’s inner darkness, this understated but startling revelation is an “Oh!” moment that suddenly casts the previous forty-five minutes in an entirely different, more chilling light. The writer Simon Nye cleverly had us wondering who the Dream Lord could possibly be, with the repeated references to the Doctor and the Dream Lord being known to each other; could it be the Valeyard? The Black Guardian? Some old nemesis of the Doctor?
The revelation that the Dream Lord was the Doctor himself was much more satisfying and compelling. We’ve seen before glimpses of the darkness that festers away inside the Doctor, but here it is in all its ugly glory (apologies to Toby Jones). The Dream Lord manifested all the Doctor’s centuries of self-loathing as well as his foulest thoughts and the worst of his character, as shown in the Dream Lord’s scathing contempt for the Doctor, the way he torments the Doctor about his every regret and insecurity, his relationships with his “friends”, and in his cruel taunting of Rory. This episode did a superb job in giving a captivating and distinctive insight into the Doctor’s dark side in the way it contrasted the Dream Lord with the Doctor as he normally is: it’s all the more compelling at that moment when you realise they were one and the same person.
The way the episode set at odds the two possible realities of Upper Leadworth and the TARDIS made for an engaging conflict for Amy to choose between an idyllic domestic life with Rory and her life of adventure and peril in the TARDIS. I said the series had sorted out the love triangle at the end of the last episode, but I spoke too soon (should’ve known better, honestly). There is still a conflict going on in Amy’s heart and mind over who she wants more: her fiancée or her Raggedy Doctor. And the Doctor and Rory were obviously competing for Amy’s attention. This all made for an engaging emotional sub-plot as the Doctor, Amy and Rory confronted their own insecurities about each other: Rory over whether Amy really wants to be with him or not; Amy over whether she really wants to be with Rory or the Doctor; the Doctor over the nature of Amy’s loyalties to him vis-à-vis Rory. It was emotionally riveting stuff that added layers to each of the three characters and developed (and resolved) the “love triangle” in a non-comical and decisive way, with Amy deciding, seemingly only upon having Rory cruelly taken from her, that it’s Rory she puts first. It’s times like these in a serialised drama that the characters would go forward in a much better place in their relationship, after having worked each other out and resolved any latent emotional conflicts between them. That seems to be what the series is doing here by sorting out the emotional triangle between the three leads, although (and I realise I’m contradicting what I said in previous reviews), I think there could have been potential for further development of this theme, providing it was resolved satisfactorily at the end of the series.
Some final thoughts. Although this episode was in general exceptional, one of the only things that let it down was the creatures inside the old people in the Leadworth dream, the Eknodine, which were more than a bit unconvincing. The “attack of the pensioners” was also a bit of a self-consciously ridiculous idea for what was supposed to be quite a dark and surreal episode, although, that said, the vicious, zombie-like old people were actually quite creepy. In addition, I thought the dialogue in this episode was just excellent; there were some laugh-out-loud funny lines in there, testament to Simon Nye’s background as a comedy writer. A pick of the best ones include: “I’m getting on a bit, you see. Don’t let the cool gear fool you.” “If you had any more tawdry quirks you could open up a tawdry quirk shop.” “If we’re going to die, let’s die looking like a Peruvian folk band.”