When, as a viewer, you’re told from the outset of the story that it is taking place in “dreams” you know that you’re in for something fairly consequence free. And that’s the primary problem with this story. Once the notion of anything we see not being “real” for the characters, we know that they’re safe. Nothing’s really at stake.
The attempt to get around this problem by suggesting that one of the “realities” presented to the characters is the really real one fails to be convincing, as an astute viewer will have noted that the antagonist is styling himself “the Dream Lord” and he’s able to manipulate both realities. That it takes the characters forty-five minutes to clue into the fact that this means that both realities are false suggests that episode writer Simon Nye doesn’t think much of Amy or Rory’s intelligence.
It’s safe to say that I didn’t think much of this episode. At least on the plot level, it’s a bit of a cheat, falling into the same traps that all dream menace stories tend to fall into. But apart from that, there are a few things here to like, or to at least find interesting. The ongoing efforts by the production team to scare the living hell out of British children with mundane things are well represented here, with a horde of evil grand-parents who disintegrate people with their breath. And the suggestion that the Dream Lord is a representation of the Doctor’s own dark side, particularly his self-loathing and anti-social personality traits is enough of a call-back to the idea of the Valeyard, the potential future evil version of the Doctor, that I’m going to go ahead and presume that this was the intent all along. It may not actually be fan service, it’s probably not, but at the very least it will keep people arguing on message boards and in blog comments, and the entertainment value of that alone is worthwhile to me.
The real crux of the story turns out to be development for Amy, then. Her relationship with Rory has frequently come across as one-sided, with Rory showing far more devotion to her than she has to him. Her treatment of Rory, her casual approach to their relationship, the way she appears to take him for granted, has been her most notable personality flaw. Establishing that Amy doesn’t consider life worth living without Rory goes some way towards fixing this problem. It makes Amy less flighty, and strengthens the interpretation of her last-minute departure with the Doctor in “The Eleventh Hour” as a sign of her fulfillment of her childhood dreams.
Whether or not devoting an entire episode to clarifying a characterization problem that only existed because of imprecise motivations in previous episodes was a good use of resources is another issue entirely.