“The rooms have … THINGS in them.”
“Things? Hello! What kind of things? Interesting things? I like things. Ask anyone.”
“Well, that killed the mood.”
If modern DOCTOR WHO episodes were judged solely on the basis of how much they felt like classic DOCTOR WHO episodes, “The God Complex” would the king of the Eleventh Doctor stories. Certainly there are thoroughly modern elements to the story, most of all the deconstructionist climax and the heartstring-tugging ending, but the mystery, the setting, the use of a mythological story as a backbone, and the endless corridors are all very much in keeping with the formula of classic WHO. However, what puts it in the running for best of the season, to my mind, is the way the classic elements of the formula are executed, not just in a more modern way, but with such panache. And yes, while I’m coming to this a few weeks late, I will warn you on the off chance that you missed it, spoilers do follow.
11) The cold open, with policewoman Lucy Hayward finding her room, leaving her note, and breaking down to become the minotaur’s latest victim, sets the stage brilliantly in terms of mood and style, and the mystery of what she means by those last words, “Praise him,” is as effective a cliffhanger as anything in the classic series — hell, moreso in a lot of cases. I love a good cold open without the regular cast. Mind you, it does lead to the viewer knowing full well what the captions on the photos in the hotel lobby mean when the Doctor, Amy, and Rory are investigating — one of those moments where I found myself wanting to scream at the TV, especially given how the Doctor really should be smart enough to guess the common thread between all those things. As an aside, the reuse of stock photos for the alien victims of the minotaur’s prison was especially distracting, moreso than the use of the full body stock photos for the pre-Moffat BBC Wales series companions in “Let’s Kill Hitler.”
10) Good lord, the direction and editing on this one. Nick Hurran also directed the immediately previous story, “The Girl Who Waited,” and he uses some of the same tricks; the one that most jumped out at me was the way, during the Doctor’s conversation with the minotaur, Hurran used the reflection of the decorative waterfall to put the two characters, facing one another, in the same shot. But there are plenty of other storytelling tricks, techniques, and tools he uses to spice the story up: interesting camera angles, the use of the hotel’s surveillance camera between normal shots, and most notably the visualization of the words “Praise Him” to reflect the changing minds of our heroes’ fellow prisoners. It amps up the surreality of the story and setting, and helps keep the viewer guessing along with the Doctor.
9) Not only does it feel like a classic series episode, as I think every observer with a long memory has noted, “The God Complex” has two obvious callbacks to classic series stories. First of all, as the Doctor remarks at the end, the minotaur here is a relative of the Nimon, the titular monster in the Fourth Doctor story “The Horns of Nimon,” a creature who also resembles the minotaur and also was found in a labyrinth of sorts. Both creatures would go to underdeveloped worlds and set themselves up as local gods, and both creatures would drain the indigenous peoples of energy, though this story’s minotaur goes about it in a more complicated way.
8) Second of all, the climax recalls that of the Seventh Doctor story “The Curse of Fenric,” in which the Doctor was forced to break Ace’s faith in him for reasons too complicated to get into here — needless to say, without this shattering of her faith in him, the baddie wouldn’t have gotten what was coming to him. The Doctor may play mean and terrible games with people, but there’s always a reason. Funny thing, the Doctor’s shattering of Amy’s faith in him didn’t play all that well with me the first time, but upon second viewing it somehow clicked. I think part of that stems from the fact that, having watched the next two episodes since my initial viewing, the sense of finality in that scene between Amy and the Doctor really resonated. With the Seventh Doctor and Ace, he’s testing her; with the Eleventh Doctor and Amy, he’s trying to save her, not just in the here and now, but before he puts her in harm’s way again.
7) The guest cast is uniformly brilliant, a well sketched-out group of characters acted magnificently, with maybe the exception of the gambler, Joe — and it’s neither the character nor the actor’s fault. I recall one reviewer during the week of broadcast making the note that he didn’t much care for poor Joe, but I’d argue that we never really get to know him; by the time we meet him, he’s been converted into food for the minotaur, and thus is left to grin like a madman and spout off worshipful dialog that moves the plot along. Rita is one of the two standouts, the clever one that, consequently, the Doctor likes; she’s actually awfully reminiscent of Martha Jones in her first story, “Smith and Jones,” clever enough to be piecing bits of the situation together, but also skeptical of the Doctor and the things he’s saying. She’s brave and selfless, and watching the minotaur get her really stings. On second viewing, I think the Doctor was serious about bringing Rita along as the new designated companion, given that he already had a house and a car set up for Amy and Rory, a sign that he’d already been thinking about letting them go and have a life without him. He jokes about it at first, but seems to seriously dangle it right in front of her before she begins to utter the deadly words. Bespectacled Howie is extremely well sketched out for someone who has maybe fifteen minutes of screen time; a conspiracy theorist who was clearly picked on a lot as a child and, worse, as a young man, the revelation of his room in the hotel, filled with mean girls, and the return of his stammer make him extremely sympathetic. Less sympathetic, though is …
6) Gibbis, a shifty-eyed and slightly sinister coward hailing from the planet Tivoli, the most conquered planed in the galaxy. Remember how in “Voyage of the Damned” the sympathetic characters were picked off, one by one, and the only passenger who survived was the rich bastard? “The God Complex” is kind of like that, except moreso; Gibbis, who keeps advocating letting others hang to save his own skin and even jeopardizes the Doctor’s least flying-by-the-seat-of-his-pants gambit this episode in an attempt to do so, is the only character not in the regular cast to survive the ordeal. The interesting thing about him, though, is that via the Doctor’s quiet but stern condemnation of Gibbis we are given the impression that most of his species is like this; he’s not an especially bad guy, this is just how his people are raised, or maybe cowardly survival instincts are in their genes. In either case, he sort of can’t help it. He’s interesting, and given the way races are used and reused in Moffat-era DOCTOR WHO, I can’t imagine we’ve seen the last of the inhabitants of Tivoli.
5) Rory’s lack of faith is interesting. It brings to mind a few questions, the first being, if he’d taken that fire escape, where would it have led to? Would he find himself on the other side of the walls, in a blue grid room, next to the TARDIS? Would he have had access to the control panel? Could Howie and Rita’s deaths have been prevented if he’d just pop through that door? Next, what exactly does that mean, that he has no faith to cling to when the chips are down? The Doctor mentions he’s not religious, and especially after “The Girl Who Waited” he’s got no faith in the Doctor. But doesn’t he have something, anything he clings to when all hope seems to be lost — his wife’s love for him, maybe? For crying out loud, she spelled it out for him pretty plainly in “Day of the Moon.” I guess not; when death comes knocking, I guess he just shrugs, grumbles, “Here we go again,” and prepares to meet his end. Again. I suppose that is reflected in his blase attitude towards possibly being dead again in “Night Terrors.”
4) The Doctor’s reaction to what’s in his own room, down to the way he puts the “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door, is pitch-perfect. The fact that we don’t see it is also perfect — the more mystery, the better — and leads me to wonder if Toby Whithouse or Steven Moffat know what’s in there or if it’s something only the character of the Doctor knows. (The arrogant “Waters of Mars” Tenth Doctor, perhaps?)
3) Another nice touch is the way that when the Doctor defeats the minotaur by destroying Amy’s faith in him, he calls her by her married name, Amy Williams. It symbolizes so much. Bear in mind, up ’til now he’s been calling them BOTH by Amy’s last name, as a dig at Rory as to who (figuratively) wears the pants in that relationship. But now the games are over and it’s time to grow up and leave the fairy tale behind; Amelia Pond has to make way for Amy Williams, which doesn’t sound like a name out of a fairy tale at all. Just as it was clear in the last episode that the Doctor’s relationship with Rory would have to change, it should have been obvious what was going to happen next after the Doctor called her by that name.
2) The Doctor imitating Rory with a funny voice seemed a bit out of character to me; it sounded more like something Matt Smith might do to Arthur Darvill. Regardless, the rest of the final sequence hit just the right bittersweet note. Funny how rare it is for the Doctor to drop his friends off for their own good before something terrible happens; in fact, the only cases I can think of where it was his decision to leave his companions behind were those of Donna (to save her life, complete with a memory wipe), Sarah Jane (because he decided to answer the summon to Gallifrey), and Susan (so that she can stay behind with the man she fell in love with), and really only Susan’s case really compares to what he does here with Rory and Amy: the Doctor decides that it’s time for them to grow up and leave this childish, dangerous lifestyle behind.
1) While the Doctor was on the verge of picking up another stray and taking her by the hand on a tour of all of time and space, his deep, dark awareness of just how dangerous his lifestyle makes this a bit of a poisoned chalice. It’s another problem suffered by the modern show, the fact that over Moffat’s two seasons so far, starting with “Amy’s Choice,” it’s been hammered home time and again that any one of them could be killed at any time — and, moreover, it’s actually happened that our leads have been killed. Hell, Amy was killed in the previous episode! I don’t think it’s a problem that the show is dark, but I think it IS a problem that while the Doctor knows he needs a companion (see “The Runaway Bride,” “The Waters of Mars”), he also seems to regard having a companion as entirely too hazardous for that person’s health. This is kind of the point of the next episode, but I’m not sure it entirely works on that level. More on that tomorrow …