This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK preview of the episode.
Doctor Who: Series Six - The God Complex
Written by Toby Whithouse
Directed by Nick Hurran
Broadcast on BBC1 - 17th September 2011
In an era of the show when so much leaks out ahead of broadcast, whether in spoiler tags or the Radio Times, it’s genuinely rare for a major, series-changing event to wallop you between the eyes. But that’s what The God Complex achieves, craftily tucked away in the episode eleven slot. Good old number eleven, it had to be this Doctor’s Room of Fear, of course. But for the eleventh episode in a run of thirteen to write out two lead characters? Own up, who saw that one coming? And in a story written by Toby Whithouse too, rather than one of the showrunner's episodes where you might expect such momentous events to fall. Steven Moffat, you sly devil.
As for those final few minutes, well, the moment has been prepared for. Both last week, with the Doctor’s final regretful glance – filled with remorse at what he’d put Amy through – and this week where it’s Amy’s faith in him which generates life-threatening events. “You’re fired”, the Doctor jokes to Pond upon meeting Rita (it’s a big day for fans of The Apprentice). But this is what he eventually does – Amy gets her marching orders, albeit for her own good. “He’s saving us”, she informs Rory. You wouldn’t think being presented with a house and a car could seem so bittersweet; in almost any other show they’d be the trappings of success, the big prize, the markers you’ve made it. Not here. Here they’re the melancholic second choice, the non-Doctor-ish ordinariness that even Rory’s dream car glee and clutched bottle of champagne can’t quite make good on.
But it’s cleverclogs Rita who says the most important thing in the whole story. It’s she who observes of the Doctor: “that’s quite a god complex you have”. Because the eleventh Doctor doesn’t seem to credit Amy with any agency at all – as far as he’s concerned, she never really had a choice to join him on his travels. And likewise she doesn’t get to decide when she leaves – both events are arranged by the Doctor, busy playing God. If her faith in him is reduced, or weakened for a moment, even that’s his doing too. Amy's choice? She seemingly doesn't have one. It’s all about the Doctor-God. After this it’s difficult to see him welcoming another full-time companion aboard the TARDIS in a hurry, although given his alleged middle name Amy and Rory may be back before too long. Perhaps the Moffat masterplan has been partly inspired by Time-Flight and Arc of Infinity (not a sentence I thought I'd be writing this morning).
The meat-and-potatoes of this story are again well handled by director Nick Hurran: the hotel complex is textbook creepy, and near-subliminal images of “Praise him”, whether presented in clean typeface or ransom-note print, boost what is already a highly kinetic piece of direction. Making the story's spooky catchphrase televisual in this way is an unusual approach, especially when it flickers on-screen immediately prior to the title sequence. It's a little ostentatious, but in a story as surreal as this, it fits right in.
The Minotaur creature is also effectively realised on the whole. Despite the episode name-checking a certain Nimon, David Walliams refrains from doing a Soldeed, instead turning in an almost restrained performance as Gibbis even if Joe the gambler compensates by dialling his menacing mania up to eleven. And on the subject of hotel/prison complex victims, Royston Luke Gold looks uncannily like producer Marcus Wilson. Hopefully no members of the production team were made to confront their greatest fears during the making of this episode.
Whithouse’s script is neatly structured, with its fear-to-faith switcheroo subverting that telefantasy staple where a monster feeds on fear and can be defeated by faith. This time, faith is part of the problem rather than the solution. But religion isn't simply the enemy; The God Complex thoughtfully distinguishes itself by offering up a resourceful, engaging Muslim character in the shape of Rita, briefly acknowledging and challenging prejudice via her line “don't be frightened”. And although Rory's lack of religion and superstition mean that he's repeatedly shown the exit, Whithouse adroitly avoids preaching 'secularism-good, religion-bad' by indicating that the “prison in space” has itself been built by an advanced, secular society. What the Doctor's up against isn't just a God Complex; there's also a Glitch Agenda. Technology's gone wrong again, leaving different fears and phobias in situ. This is an overly familiar trope, and if the devil's in the detail then greater variety in story details sometimes wouldn't hurt.
Certain other elements of The God Complex are also excessively familiar. For example, Howie the conspiracy theory blogger-nerd comes across as a lazy, retrograde stereotype that no amount of stylish retrograde zooms can quite make up for. “What’s loser in k-k-k-Klingon?”, one of the girls in Howie’s room taunts him, and you can’t help but feel that it’s a misjudged moment. Even though we're meant to be seeing Howie's fears, the fact that Rory sarcastically dismisses his theories (and that they're written so as to sound loopy) suggests the character should be viewed as a 'sad' fan-blogger-conspiracy nut. After challenging anti-Muslim feeling, it's a pity that prejudice against sections of fandom/Internet culture seems rather unreconstructed. Why not go the whole hog and just provoke your own online fan audience: “what’s loser in m-m-m-ming mong?” (The answer’s ming mong, obviously).
But it’s the ending that’s really provocative – rarely has the Doctor's god complex been so thoroughly exposed. This isn’t one-off Waters of Mars-style hubris; this is saying that all of Amy’s time with the Doctor – from being offered time and space to being offered a terraced house – was decided by him, and controlled by him every step of the way. “I’m not a hero”, he gently tells her while seeking to undermine her faith, but as the TARDIS interior fades to desolate darkness and ‘NEXT TIME’ slams in, you can’t help but wonder. Perhaps he was right. Is he straightforwardly saving Amy, or has she always been an object of His will? Because the more you ponder some of this episode's implications, the more it begins to test your faith in the Doctor himself. In short, The God Complex is satisfyingly complex storytelling.
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