‘The God Complex’, by Toby Whitehouse, is Doctor Who at its purist. We have a mystery, an isolated location, a monster hunting a selection of quirky characters, lots of running up and down corridors and a commentary on the human condition.
The brilliant thing about this story is that it takes something which seems nightmarish and eventually gives us a semi-rational explanation for it. The unreality of the ever-shifting 1980s hotel, its rooms filled with peoples worst fears, is so strange that we can’t help but be drawn in.
Usually the TARDIS crew have an advantage compared to the people they meet in their adventure. They’ve got experience, they’ve got a Time Machine which will allow them to leave if they want, they’ve got the Doctor.
Here they are in the same situation as the four survivors they encounter in the hotel. They don’t know why they’re there, they don’t know what is happening and they can’t escape. Here the Doctor tries to save people and fails, realising there is nothing to protect his companions.
This works in this story because the people they encounter; Rita, Howie, Joe and Gibbis, are written and performed so well. Howie and Joe are the minor characters of the bunch but at least have strong characterisation that make them easily identifiable.
Rita (played by Amara Karan) is marked out early on as the star, so much so the Doctor is immediately grooming her as a potential companion. Smart, charismatic and brave it is easy to imagine her in other adventures, where her medical training would surely have been useful.
David Walliams’ talent for comedy brings likeability to what otherwise could have been a despicable character, the cowardly man-mole Gibbis. The idea of a race that routinely surrenders, with all the amusing cultural details that bring, was like something out of ‘Hitchhikers Guide to the Universe’, which is no bad thing.
The Doctor’s ability to find the positive allows him to even see the good points of being a coward. That it isn’t weakness but slyness, a fierce determination to survive. This allows us to see Gibbis as something more than an untrustworthy alien.
In a hotel with many maze-like qualities it is appropriate that it should be inhabited by a minotaur. The design of the monster was triumph, showing the clear superiority of physical effects compared to CGI.
The minotaur was a real character, rather than just a threat. Unable to speak we had to rely on the Doctor to translate, forcing us to hear his words over the beasts guttural roars. Like the Time Lord we had to understand what was being communicated.
The connection to the Nimon was a nice call back for fans of the classic series and it was interesting how his death was handled. The moment is filled with sadness, much as the death of the monster in ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ was.
The fact that the hotel was a prison for it, that whoever made it felt that death was too kind of fate for what the minotaur had done, the Doctor still wanted to give it the gift of releasing it from its suffering.
A touching insight into the Doctor’s own view of justice and punishment. This is interesting to contrast with the punishments placed on the Family in ‘The Family of Blood’. There the 10th Doctor makes them suffer for all eternity. Here the 11th Doctor reveals that nothing deserves that.
It is unfortunate that this story does occur in the same season as ‘Night Terrors’, as both concern fears come to life. This doesn’t diminish the effectiveness of the tale, communicating the terror of losing control and giving yourself over to a higher power.
The sad fate of Rita was truly heart breaking to watch. She knew that her faith, something that was deeply important to her, was going to be taken away from her and she couldn’t bear to let someone see that. The Doctor using his sonic screwdriver to shut off the surveillance monitors in that moment communicated his respect for her as a person and the enormity of his failure.
In a neat twist being confronted with their own fear wasn’t what doomed the characters, it was their faith. The very thing that keeps us strong, the very thing that the Doctor was urging them to use, turned out to be their downfall.
Bringing to mind ‘The Curse of Fenric’ faith is represented as a tangible thing. This led to a similar scene from that story, where the Doctor needs to remove his companions faith in him, although it was done in a much kinder way here.
Both the Doctor and Amy have had an almost mythological status in the series, the Doctor as the Oncoming Storm and Amy as The Girl Who Waited. Here the Doctor emphasises they are just ordinary people, a mad man in a box and Amy Williams.
An acknowledgement of reality and an acceptance of it. It was a refreshing expression of honesty and intimacy from the Doctor. Just one of many scenes that shows how good Matt Smith is in the role.
This was an important story for the Doctor. Here he is faced with the consequences of his actions and the risk to his companions. This was touched upon in ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’, where he searches for an image of a companion whose life he didn’t ruin, but in this episode we see him take steps to address it.
Realising that an offer to explore time and space is really no choice at all he admits that his need for a companion is vanity, that he wants to be adored. This leads to his parting of the ways with Rory and Amy, gifting them a TARDIS themed house.
If this is the end of the Rory and Amy crew I think this was a fitting episode to do it in. The revelation that Amy’s room contains Amelia forever waiting brings her arc full circle, allowing her to move forward into a life that contains just Rory.
Having their departure occur before the final episode brings greater uncertainty to the Dr Who universe. We no longer feel like everything has to happen on a schedule. Indeed it brings back memories of a time when the Doctor would suddenly regenerate before the season had finished.
Director Nick Hurran gave this episode great visual flair, as he did in last weeks episode. The use of quick edits to show the transformation of those corrupted by the hotel, warping corridors and the use of shadows made this something special.
The repeated shot of the stage, lined with dummies, with an ever increasing number of dead bodies, just added to the increasingly bleak situation the time travellers found themselves in. That these people had been reduced to things, everything that made them who they were stripped away.
Doctor Who feels fresh again and I’m looking forward to seeing if we see any lasting changes to the Doctor’s characterisation.