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Doctor Who: The God Complex (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The God Complex originally aired in 2011.

It’s time we saw each other as we really are.

– The Doctor

It really is like the McCoy era all over again, isn’t it? The Impossible Astronaut gave us a scheming and manipulative Doctor. Night Terrors felt like it was drawn from the same cloth as Survival, with the faintest trace of Paradise Towers. Here, we get to revisit the ideas at the heart of The Curse of Fenric. Moffat’s second season has really been about the writer defining his own way of making Doctor Who, following a debut season that followed the same structure as the four years overseen by Russell T. Davies.

Here, Moffat is deconstructing the myth of the Doctor, in a way that draws on and contrasts with Davies’ “the Lonely God”, without going to the excess of “the Time Lord Victorious.” Indeed, with the whole dynamic between the Doctor and Amy drawing on one careless miscalculation the character made, changing a young girl’s life forever, one can’t help but wonder if there was more than a hint of truth in what the Doctor confessed to Amy to break her faith in him. “I took you with me because I was vain,” he tells her, “because I wanted to be adored.”

More than ever, it seems there’s a bit of truth in the Doctor’s admission that, “I’m not a hero.” Russell T. Davies has the Doctor follow a similar trajectory, albeit on a larger scale – episodes like Midnight and The Waters of Mars represented massive failings on the part of the Doctor. Moffat draws on the same sort of idea, but renders the Doctor’s failures much more intimate. It isn’t so much that the Eleventh Doctor fails to save the world or defeat the monster, it’s that he fails the people close to him so frequently and thoroughly.

You can check out any time you like, but you may never leave…

The God Complex is a tightly-constructed and clever little episode. It lacks the raw emotional power of The Girl Who Waited or the imaginative triumph of The Doctor’s Wife, but it’s a fascinating high concept and exploration of who the Doctor is. The God Complex might feature a minotaur and be set on an alien prison, but it’s a decidedly intimate horror story about a hotel clogged with the bad dreams of all who have passed through it. “The fears from the people before us weren’t tidied away,” the Doctor observes.

Like Night Terrors before it, The God Complex is about rooting some terrifying abstract fear inside a surprising grounded package. The God Complex owes a great deal to The Shining, or even George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, choosing a rather bland setting for a confrontation with one’s core fears. Director Nick Hurran plays up these similarities, framing various long corridor shots in a style that evokes Kubrick’s haunted hotel masterpiece.

Arresting drama?

(That said, the chopping does get a little too frantic at times, the lengthening lens shots feeling just a little too cheesy and the rapid cuts between worship and terror a little too obvious. On the other hand, the episode has some wonderful imagery. The dummy funeral for Joe is an inspired touch, and some of the fears look quite impressive – that wonderful sad clown is always a great image, particularly when stuck in the motel that goes on forever at the edge of the universe.)

The creature itself looked impressive – “a distant cousin of the Nimon”, as our continuity-hungry viewers are reminded. (Whoever thought that The Horns of Nimon would ever be referenced again?) The make-up was quite impressive. It’s nice when the show does practical effects, and bringing a minotaur to life is quite an impressive feat. The creature seemed monstrous, even though it was designed to remind us of one of the gaudier villains of the Tom Baker era.

Gagging for it...

Gagging for it…

In a way, The God Complex feels like a better attempt to capture the quirky metaphorical science-fiction social-commentary feel of the Cartmel era than the last attempt made during the Moffat era. A prison that converts faith into energy to feed a monster feels like a suitable companion to a tower block occupied by cannibalistic grannies or a circus controlled by the gods of ragnarok. It helps that it’s a catchy visual that can easily by managed on the show’s budget – a hotel built around people’s fears, with a different fear locked away in each room.

That said, more than the wonderfully quintessentially British “terror on a budget” setting brings to mind the Sylvester McCoy era of the show. The climax of The God Complex feels quite familiar. As the Doctor tries desperately to break his companion’s faith in order to win the day, it’s hard not to think of The Curse of Fenric. While Survival is a clear arrow pointing towards Rose, with the final story of the Cartmel era suggesting that Doctor Who might find its future on counsil estates rather than deep space, The Curse of Fenric is also a touchstone.

The be hall and end hall?

After all, The Curse of Fenric is the first story that really suggests a companion might eventually need to grow up. That they may want to be more than just a sidekick, that they may have shifting priorities, that they might begin to see things differently as they move towards adulthood. Ace was really the first companion who clearly grew as a result of her time with the Doctor, and she’s a clear ancestor of Rose and other new series companions – a character with her own agency and arc, rather than somebody to hold the Doctor’s test tube and scream at dodgy monsters.

In a way, The Curse of Fenric seems more of a touchstone for the Moffat era than Survival was. Russell T. Davies grounded Doctor Who in modern-day Britain, but Moffat has been fairly quick to disassociate the show from that. This string of late-season episodes that riff on the trappings of modern-day Britain feel strangely out of place in a season more preoccupied with time travel and space adventures. Davies engaged with the real world, with the Powell Estate feeling like a spiritual successor to Perivale.

The stairway to not-quite-heaven...

The stairway to not-quite-heaven…

In contrast, Moffat seems to enjoy playing with familiar British iconography. Winston Churchill is a recurring character in the Moffat era. The Doctor accrues his own supporting cast in Victorian London. Indeed, it’s telling that Moffat’s very first story for the series, The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances, was steeped in the imagery of the Second World War, possibly the proudest moment in the recent history of Great Britain. So it’s easy to chart a connection between Moffat’s work on the show and The Curse of Fenric, and Toby Whithouse’s script feels like a stronger tribute to the era than Moffat’s own The Beast Below.

However, while Andrew Cartmel might have imagined the Doctor as a more mysterious figure, Moffat seems to picture him as a very flawed character. Davies’ version of the Doctor was defined by his arrogance – the sheer unquestioning ego to challenge the laws of time itself and impose his own will on events. In contrast, Moffat’s Doctor’s failings are far more personal. It’s telling that A Good Man Goes to War featured the Eleventh Doctor’s proudest moment by defeating an army without firing a shot, but also his most significant failure in failing to save one person vitally important to his best friends.

A driving force in her life...

A driving force in her life…

Moffat’s Doctor seems to be prone to smaller scale miscalculations and errors than Davies’. Here, for instance, his decision to leave Howie in the care of Gibbis gets the young lad killed. He isn’t able to spot the signs of faith in Rita in time to save her. Perhaps as a result of Rory quite effectively calling him on his arrogance and recklessness in the last episode, the Doctor seems to be in a reflective mood. “Offer a child a suitcase full of sweets and they’ll take it,” he remarks, phrasing it as a guilty confession. “Offer someone the whole time and space, and they’ll take that too. Which is why you shouldn’t, which is why grown-ups were invented.”

Moffat has put Rory and Amy on the exact opposite emotional arc to most companions. As Rose and Martha and Donna demonstrated, travelling with the Doctor broadens your horizons, it teaches you about things you might never have dreamt of, it empowers you and it shows you a strength you never knew you had. It offers you, to quote Rose, “a better way of living your life.” In short, even for people who suffered like Martha and Donna, it made them better people.

Quit clowning around…

However, it’s hard to argue that Amy’s relationship with the Doctor has helped her at all. He gave her a psychological complex by rushing into her life and then brutally abandoning her. Her relationship with him led to the abduction of her child. It got her husband killed more than once. As we’ll discover in Asylum of the Daleks, it robs Rory and Amy of any chance to have children. In The Angels Take Manhattan, it winds up getting them consigned to an altogether different world, separated from anybody they ever knew.

“Not all victories are about saving the universe,” Rory advises the Doctor, making the argument that it’s possible for people to live rich and fulfilling lives that don’t involve thwarting Dalek invasions or confronting Weeping Angels. Amy’s association with the Doctor has thrown all that out of whack. It’s a fairly interesting inversion of the traditional dynamic, with the character narrowing his companion’s horizons and possibilities by his very presence.

In the frame...

In the frame…

As an aside, The God Complex really hammers home the idea that Amy’s decision to wait for the Doctor is a metaphor for the show’s cancellation. Amy wasn’t the only child who had the Doctor mysteriously disappear from her life only to return over a decade later. “The Doctor’s been part of my life for so long now, and he’s never let me down,” she explains. “Even when I thought he had, when I was a kid and he left me, he came back.”

Despite the fact that Moffat has moved away from the kitchen sink drama approach to the show, his version of Doctor Who is decidedly more intimate than that of Davies. Davies used a great big honkin’ Time War as a metaphor for the show’s cancellation, a devastating war that changed everything ever. In contrast, Moffat uses the Doctor’s involvement in the life of one child as a metaphor for how the character went away and came back as good as new.

Grabbing the bull by the horns...

Grabbing the bull by the horns…

Indeed, Whithouse seems to take a bit of time in The God Complex to address the show’s cancellation in the same way that The Greatest Show in the Galaxy did – by condemning survival at the cost of one’s principles. An overlooked classic of the McCoy era, The Greatest Show in the Galaxy seemed to condemn the series for selling out on its idealism in order to stay afloat, to appease the middle-class viewers seeking comfort food, or the executives calling the shots. Better, The Greatest Show in the Galaxy suggested, to die on its own terms.

Given that Whithouse is clearly writing The God Complex as a condemnation of organised religion in the style of the Cartmel era, it feels rather pointed that the Doctor finds himself defending taking a stand to Gibbis, the appeaser who would rather not ruffle any feathers or stir any trouble. Better to be provocative and brave and doomed, rather than bland and safe and boring. “Your civilisation is one of the oldest in the galaxy,” the Doctor remarks. “Now I see why. Your cowardice isn’t quaint, it’s sly, aggressive. It’s how that gene of gutlessness has survived while so many others have perished.” It’s a statement very much in keeping with the McCoy era.

Still waiting...

Still waiting…

Back to the Doctor and Amy. Their dynamic is a rather brutal subversion of the relationship we’ve come to expect from the show. Rory is a fascinating companion because he’s a relatively objective outsider not distracted by the bells and whistles. In The Vampires of Venice, he calls the Doctor out on the danger he poses to people. He did the same in The Girl Who Waited. Rory is presented as something of a quiet ideal, a more dignified masculinity than the Doctor’s loud and bombastic presence.

He serves to balance the giddy and reckless enthusiasm of the Doctor and Amy, but without being a kill-joy. It’s interesting that The God Complex suggests that Rory is entirely devoid of faith. “It doesn’t want you,” the Doctor asserts. “That’s why it kept showing you a way out. You’re not religious or superstitious, so there’s no faith for you to fall back on.” It feels a bit weird. Surely Rory has faith in Amy? (Aside from that, was I the only person who thought the P.E. Teacher was the same one Rory mentioned in The Doctor’s Wife?)

He’s no dummy…

So it’s nice that the Doctor is acknowledging his flaws and limitations – it’s brave and fitting that The God Complex in the title refers to the Time Lord himself as much as to the prison holding a fallen deity. “An ancient creature, drenched in the blood of the innocent, drifting in space through an endless, shifting maze,” the Doctor muses. “For such a creature, death would be a gift. Then accept it, and sleep well. I wasn’t talking about myself.”

In a strange way, The God Complex serves as a mirror to Davies’ Midnight. Both stories explore how the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors are flawed individuals, building off themes hinted at in earlier episodes. Naturally, both Moffat and Davies eventually vindicate the Doctor. In Turn Left, Davies reveals that the world without the Doctor doesn’t bear thinking about. Similarly, The Wedding of River Song reveals that the entire cosmos is willing to rush to the Doctor’s aid in his hour of need.

Stars their destination...

Stars their destination…

Still, being willing to engage in this sort of self-criticism is endearing. After all, the previous season gave us a glimpse of the Doctor’s dark side in Amy’s Choice. It’s no coincidence that the Doctor’s greatest fear is kept in “Room 11”, where the sound of the Cloister Bell can be heard and the Doctor can only hope whatever lurks within is not disturbed. It seems quite clear that the Doctor’s own worst fear is himself, without seeming impossibly angsty or too introspective.

With that self-criticism comes self-awareness. After all these years, it genuinely seems like only now the Doctor is seeing that the relationships with his companions rarely end well. Inevitably, either they outgrow him or he kicks them out of the TARDIS and back into the real world. “I knew this would happen,” he admits at one point. “This is what alway happens.” And here the show throws us a bit of a surprise. The Doctor recognises a flawed pattern of behaviour, and tries to correct it.

Angels wept…

When the Doctor does his absolute best to do right by Amy and Rory, it’s actually really sweet. This is the same character who dumped Sarah Jane Smith in a field nowhere near where she wanted to go, and who did absolutely nothing to help Martha piece a fractured family back together, and who locked his own grand-daughter out of the TARDIS. It’s a stunning piece of character work that feels earned and justified over the course of the past two years, and it’s nice to see that the Doctor has grown a little bit as well. He knows that there’s no way for it to really end well unless it ends here.

“What’s the alternative?” he asks. “Me standing over your grave?” For all that Moffat attracts criticism for his handling of gender issues, with some of it well-earned, he doesn’t get enough credit for shaking up the dynamic between the Doctor and his companions. Between Amy and Clara, companions no longer see their lives revolve around the Doctor. They no longer give up everything just to be close to him. Whithouse wrote School Reunion, the episode where Sarah Jane accused the Doctor of being her “life.” For the first time, it seems like the Doctor isn’t Amy’s life; or Clara’s life.

No bull...

No bull…

There are problems, of course. The season’s thread about River Song feels a little over-looked. We know that Amy’s child grows into River Song, but we also know that the child is weaponised and mind-warped by those trying to turn her against the Doctor. You’d think the cast would be more concerned about that. Sure, they know she grows up, but – when “history can be rewritten” – surely they’d hope to stop all that from happening? Amy seems to just accept that. And what the hell about the Doctor’s death? Amy seems to just accept that too.

I think this is the problem with season-long arcs that involve more than a few in-joke-y arc words or recurring themes. Doctor Who is not an arc-based show. There are limits for Saturday evening family viewing, and it feels like Moffat might be reaching those. There’s a sense that each of the thirteen episodes should probably stand alone in order to catch the widest audience – so it’s hard to work in an over-arching adventure into a full season.

Grabbing the bull by the horns…

This was even true in the classic show, which would carry over cliffhangers and the occasionally continuity reference, but never really felt like one long story told over an extended period. The thematic resonance of Tom Baker’s final season was much more effective than the supposedly connected plots of The Trial of a Time Lord. Even The Key To Time never really felt like a single unified story. It’s impossible for Doctor Who to turn into “Amy and the Doctor and Rory look for a baby, part one of thirteen.”

It’s a valid experiment, but Moffat seems to have trouble balancing the need to tell that story with the over-arching narrative. The thematic elements building towards the departure of Amy and Rory over the past season are arguably much stronger than the central mystery surrounding River Song. There’s a sense that Moffat’s over-arching plot may have been too ambitious. But, on the other hand, that’s an easy fault to forgive.

The tears of a rather creepy clown...

The tears of a rather creepy clown…

The God Complex is a well-constructed little episode which offers a lot of self-awareness for the show. Oh, and a minotaur.

Check out our reviews of the current season of Doctor Who:

4 Responses

  1. I enjoyed it. I think the show’s suffered this series from falling between two stools. It either needed to be entirely dedicated to the story arc or be entirely made up of stand-alone episodes. The fact that it’s mixed and matched the two hasn’t sat easily with it. We’ve now had three consecutive weeks of non-story-arc, and the show’s benefited hugely from it.

    • Yep. I’ve always argued the show works much better with a connecting theme than with an over-arching plot, because it needs to be stand-alone and accessible as family entertainment. The second run of episodes hs been much better, but I think it’s more to do with the done-in-ones. After The rebel flesh, we knew what was coming next week, and there was no chance that – if we didn’t like it – it would be infinitely better the following week.

  2. Great review!

    I don’t think I was as positive about the episode as you though. I think the biggest problem in the episode was that it was too easy for the Doctor to take Amy’s faith away from her.

    But so many of the problems in the narrative of this episode stem directly from the writers having no idea of Amy as a character, as I discuss in more detail here:

    http://theoncominghope.blogspot.com/2011/09/doctor-who-god-complex-aka-characters.html

    • Thanks. My suspension of disbelief allows for such things, if only because it makes sense – like it has been building to that crowning moment of the Doctor destroying Amy’s image of him, with his failure to save her baby, his mistake at the two-streams facility and even the night he met her.

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