Sleep no more, says Tony.
Ever been bullied?
Ever felt the prod of fingers? The slam of fists? The drip of hawked-up mucus down your face? The cut-your-heart-open surgery of those who see a weakness, a nonconformity, a difference, and know precisely where to jab their scalpels to make it bleed?
There are fans who think Simon Nye’s Amy’s Choice is a lightweight episode, a comedy romp with deadly pensioners and stars burning cold and nothing underneath. There are those who think the Dream Lord is an inconsequential villain.
There are fans who are wrong.
The Dream Lord is probably the most insidious villain to have been written for Doctor Who in 52 years. His plans are not as egomaniacal as the Master’s, by any means – he has no use for a universe under his domination, because he has that already. The universe of the mind is his playground and his kingdom. And he’s also not, like the Valeyard, the distillation of everything evil in the Doctor’s hearts. Again, he has no ambition to take the Doctor’s lives and skip off to terrorise the universe, full of grandiose plans and language. He’s simpler, and harder, and crueller than any of those others who think they know the Doctor. He is essentially the Lord of Despair, knowing every dark and ignoble thought the Doctor has, absolutely, but more than that, knowing everything about which our usually-confident Time Lord feels privately insecure – the madcap vehicle, the dress sense, the fact that he chooses the young to travel with him to invigorate the way he sees the universe, like a time-travelling vampire – and he knows where and how to stab the Doctor’s sense of self. He’s both the ultimate bad trip and the ultimate bully, and there’s no real escape from him. Not ever.
Nye was certainly a prolific comedy writer when he came to write what is so far his only Doctor Who script, and Amy’s Choice had specific jobs to do in the arc of Series 5 – much like the musical episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Once More With Feeling, it had to bring all the things unsaid, all the simmering emotional tensions of the principal characters out, force them to a crisis point, and ensure that nothing would ever be the same on the other side of the episode. Both episodes suffer from misinterpretation because their plot elements are strong – spontaneous song-and-dance routines in Buffy, surreal dream sequences in Amy’s Choice. But you should never ask comedians or comic writers to deliver you a serious villain unless you’re prepared to get down in the darkness of the human psyche, because they know a thing or two. They know that a row of teeth and claws can go ‘Rawr’ and give you some shocks, but that true darkness, true terror comes from within. There’s not a comedian or comedy writer born who hasn’t, when the laughter’s died down, faced something like the Dream Lord. The very idea that you put yourself out there as having created something funny brings with it the undercutting voice of corresponding neurosis – You’re not funny. You’re a fraud. Nobody really likes you…and from there, they’ve dissected every stupid thing they’ve ever said, or written, or done, and built their own version of the Dream Lord in their head. It’s worth remembering that Terry Nation only created the Daleks because he’d been fired as a gag-writer for Tony Hancock, a comedian who himself took neurosis and the search for the fundamental truth of humanity to eventually suicidal lengths. Nation put the Nazis in personal tanks and imagined the darkness they would be capable of, their motives a psychological essay in what happens when you isolate yourself from others entirely and feed your own ego (again, not for nothing, two things which applied to the Nazis, absolutely, but also two things for which his former boss, Hancock, became famous).
Nye, with rather less time than Nation, goes straight for the dark looking-glass of neurosis and shows the Doctor his shortcomings, from the frivolous, like his appalling dress sense, to the more fundamental and hard-hitting – ‘The old man prefers the company of the young, does he not?’
The Dream Lord is the distillation of the Doctor’s sense of failure, and humiliation, and knowing deep down in the hearts of himself that he deserves to be punished for not being the things he professes himself to be. The Dream Lord is neurosis made if not flesh, then at least made powerful, governing the lives of those he controls. He’s an essay in what it’s like to live your life at the mercy of self-doubt.
In fact, it’s interesting to contrast the ways in which the Doctor’s subconscious has been portrayed on-screen. The Valeyard, that distillation of everything ‘evil’ in the Doctor, is essentially a Doctor unrestrained by doubt of any kind – from the dark impulse to the dark act, there is no hesitation in the Valeyard. The Dream Lord is the opposite – the Doctor’s every doubt about himself manifested, mirrored, spat back at him in the world of dreams to steal away his ‘power’ and keep him trapped forever at the thrall of his own neuroses.
The Dream Lord is defeated in Amy’s Choice by nothing but personal bravery – Amy facing up to the truth of her feelings, and the Doctor, in his remorse for Rory’s death, deciding to go with her to his own if that’s what she needs. In the frozen Tardis scenario, after the Dream Lord makes his (still mocking) speech about having been defeated, the Doctor beats him more as he would any other enemy – by being cleverer than the villain expects, and working out the truth of their nature. Again though, it’s a moment of personal bravery, and especially personal belief that allows the Doctor the strength to break finally free of the Dream Lord’s world. Naturally, it takes that self-belief to defeat the ultimate neurosis: even if the neurosis ‘says’ it’s gone, it will lay in wait for you until you have the self-belief to tackle it head-on.
But the point, as shown by the mocking reflection of the Dream Lord’s face in the console at the end of the story, is that it takes that same effort, day in, day out, to be permanently free of your Dream Lord. He’s not ‘gone’ when he’s defeated in Amy’s Choice, he’s just sleeping, safe beneath the Doctor’s daytime persona. The Doctor, like all of us, faces a daily battle to be the best version of himself, and to silence the neurosis of failure by being better and braver than they would make him be. The Eleventh Doctor’s Dream Lord focused on that incarnation’s ‘tawdry quirks,’ a fair rod with which to beat the Eleventh Doctor in his first series, but one that leaves us wondering what he would have focused on if encountered by other versions of our favourite Time Lord. Would the Tenth Doctor have faced a Dream Lord crying fake tears – ‘Waaargh! I lost my pretty little Earth Girl and now I’m all sad! Boo hoo for me, porr little ever-living me!’ Would the Ninth have faced a prancing Dream Lord making fun of his ‘hard man’ exterior? ‘Is that why you use the Northern accent? Because things are always “grimmer oop North?”’ Would the Seventh Doctor have faced an R-Rrrrrrrrrrrolling, spoon-playing, juggling Dream Lord making fun of his dour Calvinistic doom-mongering? The Sixth a pomposity-pricking Dream Lord? ‘I am the cat who walks by himself but ooh ooh, look at me in my coat of many nightmares. Notice me! Notice me!’ Would the Fifth have been wracked by self-disappointment? ‘I’m not as Bohemian as my last self was, and everyone ignores me – oh wait, maybe I can wear a vegetable! Now I’m cool!’
Come to that, what would yours say?
Everyone has a Dream Lord, and hardly anyone talks about them – that’s the genius of the character; it taps in to the most primal, fundamental everyday fears we have – not that we’re going to kill a thousand people and rule the universe, but that we’re not as ‘cool’ as we think we are, not as good, not as kind, that people are laughing at us, behind our backs.
If you were looking for a mirror-image of Matt Smith, you wouldn’t necessarily pick Toby Jones, but as an actor, Jones was superb, etching the nature of the Dream Lord as the ultimate bully, the ultimate manifested neurosis forever onto the history of Who. The Doctor of Despair, of Self-Doubt, of Self-Disappointment is a terrifying prospect, because unlike the Valeyard, the Dark Doctor, the result of his actions isn’t evil per se. If you invert a hero, you get a villain. If you simply neutralise a hero, as the Dream Lord does, you rob them of their reason to be, their reason for anyone to watch them be extraordinary – and that, for the Doctor, is a fate worse than death.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk