(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:
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?
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:
The Doctor’s non-response is telling:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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?
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:
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.