Home / General / Foreshadowing and Genocide and Quite a Bit More, Actually, in “Amy’s Choice”

Foreshadowing and Genocide and Quite a Bit More, Actually, in “Amy’s Choice”


(Another one of those now-more-conveniently-located posts, only significantly longer than usual because I’m squeezing three episodes into one three hour course. So apologies for the length in advance.)

One of the core assumptions of the way I teach visual rhetoric is that directors often know more than they know (or are letting on). This is because shooting schedules often don’t track with air dates—for example, the episode I’m going to be discussing today, “Amy’s Choice,” was the seventh aired, but last one filmed in Series Five of Doctor Who, meaning that writer Gareth Roberts and director Catherine Morshead already knew what would happen in the four episodes that would follow it. The result is a kind of foreknowledge masquerading as foreshadowing: the audience experiences the latter because the writer and director possess the former.

Sound obvious? That’s because that’s how we think foreshadowing works. Only one problem: foreshadowing doesn’t require authorial intent to be visible in a work. The Jews didn’t sit around writing a book foreshadowing the eventual arrival of some guy named Jesus—they wrote a book that a bunch of Christians later interpreted to contain a number of moments when the coming of some guy named Jesus was foretold. Foreshadowing, in other words, often functions as an interpretation used to bolster the authority of a particular reader. (“What do you mean you didn’t see Jesus’s coming foretold in the Hebrew Bible? What are they teaching at the monastery these days?”) Whereas foreshadowing was once largely a matter of readerly interpretation, thanks to some technological innovations I haven’t the time nor the space to get into here—it starts with books and evolves into lending libraries and marches forward—foreshadowing is now considered to be more a matter of authorial (or directorial) intervention.

More succinctly, material that used to be wrenched from variably willing texts is now forcibly inserted into them. The classic example of the latter would be the medical drama in which someone suddenly feels a sharp pain in his or her head. The cause? Some writer forcibly inserted a tumor into it as a cheaps means of “foreshadowing” death. It’s about as subtle as:

Semaphore tumor

Because most viewers prefer their foreshadowing to be a little more subtle than semaphore, writers and directors must be careful how they pace the parceling out of information. This is generally true—but it is even more crucial when, as is the case with “Amy’s Choice,” the previous episodes have already been filmed. Sometimes showrunners have been known to withhold information from writers and directors to enforce subtlety, but even in such cases the actors and crew can’t unring those bells: a scene that would’ve been lit a certain way or a line that would’ve been delivered without a lilt will look and sound a little different after the chimes have sounded.

All of which is only to say that Roberts and Morshead needed to write and direct “Amy’s Choice” with a deft hand because they knew they were filming a fake version of a real death. Being that this is Doctor Who, that oversimplifies things slightly, but the scene that follows is a dry run for the death of Rory Williams. Because Roberts and Morshead already knew Rory would be erased from history in the next episode, their touch had to be deft here to avoid both the perils of semaphore and the possibility of overwhelming their audience. This death needed an emotional impact—but so too does the one that follows.

Before addressing this scene in particular, I need to mention one thing that I haven’t about my class: the Eleventh Doctor has been demonstrating a flare for the genocidal. In “Flesh and Stone,” the Doctor encounters the last Weeping Angel. Said Angel is trying to use the power of a crashed ship to reconstitute some dried Angels into an army. The Doctor’s response?

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He drops them through a crack in the universe and erases them from history. They’re not dead—they’ve never even existed. Hitler would’ve blushed with envy. In the next episode, “Vampires of Venice,” he encounters a race of interstellar refugees who have taken up residence in Sixteenth Century Venice. What are these refugees seeking refuge from?

The aforementioned crack in the universe.

Who’s responsible for the aforementioned crack in the universe?

The Doctor is.

How does the Doctor propose to save these refugees?

He doesn’t. He leaves them no choice but to commit a species-level ritualistic suicide:

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Doctor who amy's choice2012-02-08-12h03m42s178
Doctor who amy's choice2012-02-08-12h03m42s178

The Doctor’s non-response is telling:

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He could be brooding over his complicity in the second genocide in as many episodes, but there’s also something deeply impersonal about his argument. Species he deems malevolent or invade his adopted planet (or its colonies in “Time of Angels” and “Flesh and Stone”) don’t seem to weigh to heavily on his conscience. He even attempts to console Rosanna here with some hypocritical wisdom of the foreshadowing sort:

Doctor who amy's choice2012-02-08-12h11m53s234
Doctor who amy's choice2012-02-08-12h11m53s234

The unacknowledged exception here being, of course, “Unless the Doctor’s fond of you, in which case, time can and will be rewritten.” Point being—and it’s been a long time coming—by the moment of foreshadowing in “Amy’s Choice” the audience has twice witnessed the Doctor wipe out a species without suffering too visibly from any moral misgivings. Without going into too much detail, the titular choice Amy must make in this episode is between two possible dream worlds: one in which her husband, Rory, certainly dies and another in which she, the Doctor and Rory will all most likely die. She could choose to save herself and the Doctor and live in one dream world, except for the fact—which she just seems to have learned herself—that she doesn’t want to live in a world without Rory. Like Rosanna, she begins by pleading with the Doctor:

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Note the framing of the shot: it’s either a long shot of a distraught Amy or an extreme close-up of the Doctor’s sleeve. In either case, it’s yet another example of a Moffat-era director using framing to reinforce the connection between Pond and the Doctor. Consider this shot from “The Eleventh Hour” in which Rory, Amy and the Doctor stare down the Atraxi:

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The shot’s in shallow focus and Amy’s little more than a ginger blur—and Rory does actually appear alongside Amy after a few jump cuts—but that doesn’t belie the fact that there seem to be standing orders to include Amy and the Doctor within as many frames as possible. To wit:

Doctor who amy's choice2012-02-08-12h33m21s50

This ginger blur’s from “Time of Angels,” but you no doubt remembered that. The point seems to be remind the provide a visual reminder of the Doctor’s special connection to Pond, and the effective is designed to be cumulative. If one reverse-shot sequence included the both of them in frame it could be chalked up to directorial prerogative. But because so many otherwise insignificant shots are framed in this manner, it’s difficult to conclude that the effect isn’t intended. But back to “Amy’s Choice.”

After the Doctor responds to her request to save Rory by claiming that he can’t, Amy asks the one question the previous three episodes have been asking:

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The evidence from the previous episodes suggests the answer is along the lines of “being a one-man extinction-level event for things which make him cross.” But notice the framing again: the pattern of including the both of them in reverse shot sequences doesn’t hold here. Amy’s pain belongs to her alone, and so too does the frame. What about the Doctor?

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Also alone, only instead of a close-up, Morshead employs a medium long shot with an ironically low angle of framing. He should look powerful, but as in “The Pandorica Opens,” the low angle’s used to indicate the power he doesn’t currently possess. He can’t save Rory now and he won’t be able to save Rory when shares the fate of the Weeping Angels in “Cold Blood.” He can condemn one species to extinction or erase another from history because, at this particular moment, that’s the point of him. That’s the significance of the foreshadowing: he vicariously experiences Rory’s death in this dream world which, I should’ve mentioned, is of his own unwitting creation. There’s some botanical phlebotnum about mind pollen creating dream manifestations of unconscious fears and desires and turning them against the dreamer, but the point had already been made earlier in the episode:

Doctor who amy's choice2012-02-08-12h52m25s227

That’s the Doctor talking to the manifestation of his unconscious fears and desires, and that’s what the season up to this point has been centrally concerned with: he regrets the casualness (and scale) of his cruelty because he’s developed a (heretofore unbeknownst to himself) self-loathing proportional to the crimes he believes he’s committed. Amy and Rory (not to mention the whole of space and time) are going to play an active role in his redemption narrative.

So why does Rory’s second death retain the power of the first? In addition to it being a partially unmourned erasure—Amy can’t mourn a man who never existed and the Doctor can’t explain to her the circumstances of her grief—but the second death works as effectively as the first because it’s the first time in some time that the Doctor experiences a death on a personal level. (That he fishes a chunk of TARDIS from the crack Rory fell in only compounds his guilt.) What’s foreshadowed then in “Amy’s Choice”? Rory’s death? The Doctor’s redemption?

“Either” or “Both” are acceptable answers, but it’s the manner in which they intermingle that prevents these episodes from becoming tumors in a tawdry soap opera.


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  • Malaclypse

    The Jews didn’t sit around writing a book foreshadowing the eventual arrival of some guy named Jesus—they wrote a book that a bunch of Christians later interpreted to contain a number of moments when the coming of some guy named Jesus was foretold.

    Somewhat off-topic, but this is one of the things that makes reading the Book of Mormon so very painful – Joseph Smith lacked any sense that foreshadowing should be subtle. Chekhov’s rule about a gun does not begin to come close – for Joseph, every chapter should contain the word “foretold” at least once, and every sentence with the word “foretold” must also contain the word “Jesus.”

    • SEK

      He also wrote in an affected Early Modern English so mangled that people’ve written dissertations about its grammatical and syntactical shortcomings.

    • rea

      Well, but Jesus foretold that Joseph Smith, his chosen prophet, wouuld be bad at rhetoric.

    • Retief

      Wait, so the Jews weren’t/aren’t waiting for a Messiah? Surely my Hollywood provided knowledge of Jewish culture can’t be that wrong. Wouldn’t that be better constructed as a bunch of Jews who became Christians because of that interpretation? Even putting aside the Jewish nature of the first Christians who did the interpreting, don’t today’s Jews interpret some messianic foretelling into their books?

  • Scott de B.

    The question is: was the Doctor telling the truth about the botanical seeds causing temporary psychosis, or is he lying to Amy and Rory? The glimpse of the Dream Lord at the end of the episode suggests the latter.

    • SEK

      He doesn’t really appear, the Doctor sees him in his own reflection. That seems to work with my thesis: this is the Doctor fighting with his doubts about himself and what his point is. Sort of like a drunk who can’t stand the look of himself in the mirror the morning after a bender.

      • Scott de B.

        Well, we just saw in the previous episode that a reflection is not necessarily a reflection, so it might not be wise to take it literally. It could easily be another projection.

  • Spud

    Rory truly was the “Kenny” of Doctor Who.

    If any character epitomized how dangerous it could be to be associating with the Doctor, it was him.

    Sure the show was always filled with “red shirts” who would befriend the Doctor and die horribly in the same episode, and at least 2 companions died (4 if you count two who were entirely within of a season long serial).

    We aren’t even counting the ones mind-wiped (at least 3), or left on some strange planet/time with surrounded by company (10 of them), or just plain abandoned (2+).

    But Rory was the first to show some consternation about what it was like to be around the guy.

    • SEK

      If any character epitomized how dangerous it could be to be associating with the Doctor, it was him.

      It was as if no one’d told the Doctor that once in his 907 years, and he seemed genuinely surprised and moved by the consequences his centuries of gallivanting have had on his companions’ quality of life.

  • partisan

    I don’t see how you can accuse the Doctor of genocide against the Weeping Angels. The Doctor, the Angels, and the great glowing Silence are all in a crashed spaceship. The spaceship is at a 90 degree angle, but because its artificial gravity people are still able to walk up it as if it were actually parallel to the ground. The Angels are draining power from the ship to rebuild themselves. When their draining turns off the artificial gravity, the Doctor and his friends hold on to dear life, while the Angels all fall into the time crack behind and now under them.

    • Karla

      True, and the angels were intending to throw the Doctor into the crack (they suggested he save them the trouble and throw himself into the crack, but that was just their sense of humor). It seems to be more a narrow escape than a genocide.

      • mds

        Eh, I’m still not buying SEK’s spin on VofV, but I’m perfectly willing to let the Angels go in the genocide column, if only because it provides a good bookend for River’s worried “They’re trying to make him angry,” which presumably is based in the thoughts she will have already expressed (wibbly-wobbley timey-wimey) at the end of “A Good Man Goes to War.”

  • Ursula

    I feel like it’s worth mentioning that the 11th Doctor isn’t alone in his genocidal zeal; the 9th Doctor spends a lot of time reflecting on the Time War and (when faced with the last Dalek) thinking about what it means to be a genocidaire.

    • wengler

      Eccleston as a typecast villain was great at pushing into darker territory. Tennant’s Doctor was better at appearing as though he had actually learned from his past and gone through some sort of catharsis. Smith’s Doctor is almost a sort of loopy ‘I’ve seen crazy and horrible things’ character that has a penchant for revenge.

      • mds

        Tennant’s Doctor was better at appearing as though he had actually learned from his past and gone through some sort of catharsis.

        “I used to have so much mercy. You get one warning. That was it.” So much for the Krillitanes in “School Reunion.” I’d suggest that “appearing” is the operative word. He still needs someone to stop him, as Donna put it.

        • Malaclypse

          He still needs someone to stop him, as Donna put it.

          Donna was a whole universe of awesome. Best Companion ever.

    • Njorl

      The 4th doctor killed off the last of several intelligent species.

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