Written by Toby Whithouse
Doctor Who has always been good at scary. From the end of Episode one of The Dead Planet, with the sucker arm closing in on Barbara, the show has had ‘scare the bejeesus out of the audience’ as a fundamental part of its mission. While remaining for 51 years a family show, it’s also never been afraid to intellectualise and realise some heavyweight fears – The Daleks are a comment both on the horrors of nuclear war and on the attitudes of racial purity that countenance the extermination of lesser races. The Cybermen are both big stompy monsters, and comments about the fear of death and the dangers of replacing human frailty with mechanised convenience. The Autons are both shop window dummies gone mad and a comment on the sacrifice of an organic world to plastic uniformity and commercial culture. The Axons are what happens if you choose easy solutions over hard work. The Sontarans are the ultimate evolution of military – and more pedestrian, bureaucratic officiousness – and so on. And this was all before we even had the gift of Philip Hinchcliffe’s ‘gothic’ imagination.
Since the show’s rebirth in 2005, there’s been a dedicated resumption of the ‘scare them senseless’ mentality as an ingredient in Doctor Who, and it’s retained that sense of allegory – the scares mean something, or they’re a Roald Dahlian twist of something innocent and familiar. The gasmask people were a twist on the game of “Touch” but can also be watched as a metaphor for rumour, everybody becoming the same, even when the same has been “written by an idiot”, by the power of passing it on. The Weeping Angels were a twist on the game of “What’s The Time, Mr Wolf?” but they can also be watched as a metaphor for political brutality – they can only get you if you’re not watching. And so it goes.
The God Complex has at least a claim to being the best example of this heavyweight metaphor mixed with genuine visual and emotional scares so far in New Who. Unlike some other episodes (more subtle episodes? Maybe), it puts its agenda right there in the title. In fact, the title itself is an analogue of the central idea – a positive Rubik’s cube of meanings: it’s a complex, with a “god” in it, as well as being what drives both the villain of the piece and the Doctor in their motivations throughout the story. And indeed, The God Complex is pretty explicitly an anti-religious morality tale – fear is replaced by faith, which feeds a monster and ultimately leads you to your death, happy, changed from who you were, robbed of your self-determination and sacrificing yourself to the pleasure of the beast.
So much then for the sub-text. The God Complex is so much more than that – right from the get-go, the combination of performances, set-design and creepy, fresh direction from Nick Hurran wakes you up like a bad dream. The naff 80s-Crossroads hotel looks like Fawlty Towers in Hell, the open shots take their time to breathe you into the creepiness of the story, the flashes of written text and scrawl show you you’re in nightmare territory, and whoever it was who came up with the idea of having the victims of the minotaur do crazy, blissed-out smiley acting, followed in a jagged cut by shots of their fear or terror was on to a new way of Doctor Who storytelling. By the time the opening credits roll, it’s given you enough oddness and spider-down-the-back creepiness to get you on the edge of your seat.
Post-credits, let’s go out on a limb and say The God Complex delivers the most complete package of Eleventh Doctor characterisation you get in three years of Matt Smith. Amy and Rory are delicious immediately, Amy channelling classic companions from Tegan “I just wanna get back to Heathrow” Jovanka to Peri “Purposeful travel, not aimless wanderings” Brown in her opening speech about how they’re not where the Doctor has promised them they’d be. And there he is, the fully-rounded Eleventh Doctor, marvelling at the detail of the reconstruction of the hotel, and sniffing the leaves of a cheese plant.
The wall full of “guests” with their strange attributions – Defeat, Daleks, having his photo taken, Plymouth…that brutal gorilla… sends a shudder down the spine as we appreciate the scale of what’s going on here, and then, before we get the chance to dwell on it, the other guests arrive, all talking at once, and again, Smith is on top form as the alien investigator – he hears everything, deciphers everything, and takes each strand in turn: Gibbis must be from Tivoli because he wants to surrender, Howie explains the shifting architecture, and Rita, the clever clogs who the Doctor clearly wants to take away from all this. It’s the Eleventh Doctor in full flow, setting the banter-engines to max (the Twelfth Doctor would be so unimpressed) and doing his bandy-legged Chaplin strut about the place, but he’s still at that point treating it as larks – he gets involved because apart from anything else, the idea of a hotel that shifts its configuration and has “things” in the bedrooms is “just rude.”
It’s only when they meet the tied-up Joe, perfectly rational, but spouting self-destructive dogma of praise to “him” that the situation they’re in becomes clearer to the Doctor, and it’s a subtle sub-arc that he acts on standard Doctor instinct, taking Joe with them, telling them all to stay together and the like – instantly assuming it’s his role in the situation to save them. As his successor was to say – “It’s my special power.”
Except here, it quickly, gruesomely becomes clear that it isn’t. Joe dies, welcoming the breath of the minotaur, and the Doctor gives one of his “no more people die today” speeches. It’s a difficult listen coming out of this young Doctor’s mouth – When the Ninth or Tenth Doctor said it, it sounded like they were coming to kick causality’s teeth in, but when the Eleventh says it, it’s tinged with a kind of desperation that seems on the verge of weeping. And so it should be – Howie, the conspiracy theorist with the stammer and the fear of ridicule by girls is next to ‘Praise him’, and the Doctor and Amy join forces to egg on his sudden enthusiasm for death, using him to find out more about the mindset of the minotaur’s victims, and then to capture it.
Here’s another key Eleventh Doctor scene – the odd stand-off discussion with a creature whose language even the Tardis can’t translate for us. There are resonances of the Grafayis discussion from Vincent and the Doctor, the weary creature wanting an end, but here the minotaur is more expansive, explaining Howie’s contention that the people who end up in the hotel are ‘raw,’ and that the point of the rooms is to ‘cook’ them. Still though, the Doctor doesn’t get it.
Not until Rita – brave, clever clogs, rational religionist Rita – has succumbed to her room and the stripping of her faith and her human dignity in the face of the minotaur’s influence, and is added to the body pile, does it start to make sense. We see the Doctor starting to unravel here: as Amy demanded of him in Amy’s Choice, if he doesn’t save everyone, then what is the point of him? Clearly it’s a point he tries to stave off by saving everyone, and when he can’t, his rage means you should remove anything valuable from the room he’s in. This is a Doctor potentially out of power, out of control. And then, as Amy explains to Gibbis, (who’s more than a little stroppy for a man who untied one of the victims and let them go to their death) about the Doctor and how he never lets her down, there’s a slow, sick lurch of understanding for us all, right at the moment the Doctor has the same sensation, and those of us of an age are young again, remembering The Curse of Fenric, where Ace’s faith in the Doctor stopped The Ancient One from moving, and he spat words of disdain of her to the world, to the shocked viewer, to his heartbroken companion. That was one of the Seventh Doctor’s most hard-edged and cruel scenes, and perhaps it’s a thing the Twelfth Doctor could do – but not Eleven. Eleven is fundamentally kinder than that, and his bursting of Amy’s bubble of faith is softly done, collaborative, almost 3AM-party talk from friends who’ve thought of becoming more, but realise how foolish that would be. It’s underplayed as he tells her of his vanity, his need to be adored. As he tells her he is not her hero, not the man she’s always thought he is, and that, in essence, the fairy tale ends when the princess gets her prince, when she stops being “Amelia Pond.” and begins to really live as “Amy Williams.”
For reasons that are never entirely made clear, the dismantling of Amy’s faith dissolves the hotel’s structure, and brings the minotaur to its knees; it appears, from this, to be a creature always one meal away from death. Having dropped Gibbis home, the Doctor’s new understanding of himself and his reality continues. He drops Amy and Rory at a new home, with a new car – a palace and coach, in fairy tale parlance, and tells Amy that the fairy tale ends with the fairy godfather flying away, because that’s the only way everyone lives happily ever after. He’ll pop in from time to time (except of course he knows he won’t – the secret he thinks he’s keeping is his date with death), but their time as Tardis regulars is done, because the alternative is him standing over their graves.
Looking back of course, we know he’s right. So very, chillingly right.
The God Complex is a high point – arguably the highest point – of storytelling, characterisation and emotional and intellectual issue-tackling in the Eleventh Doctor’s time in the Tardis. With the exception of the sudden disintegration of the hotel structure and the death of the minotaur, there’s not a flawed note throughout the piece, and it adds new directional strength and fresh air to the telling of Who stories, making it feel like one of the best things to happen to the show in series six. If you haven’t seen it before, or even if you haven’t seen it lately, take a look at the God Complex and prepare to be blown away.