“The God Complex” is an episode which gives the initial impression that it will be nothing more than a creepy “monster of the week” adventure for the Doctor and his friends, but by the end it has turned inward, held a mirror up to the Doctor and forced him to face some troubling aspects of his relationship with his companions which he normally keeps buried. Writer Toby Whithouse, in his third episode for the series, once again delves into the Doctor/companion connection (as he had previously done successfully with “School Reunion” back in 2006) to produce a story that packs a considerable punch, and triggers an unexpected, major shake-up in our regular cast.
The teaser immediately establishes an uncanny atmosphere, as the camera follows a lone policewoman, Lucy Hayward (Sarah Quintrell), wandering through the empty corridors of a rather bland, chintzy 1980s hotel. Interspersed with quick close-ups of some lurking alien presence, her voiceover tells us that she is “the last one left” and how “you don’t know what’s going to be in your room until you see it—then you realize it could never have been anything else.” She looks into various guestrooms, revealing a string of surreal occupants—a sad-faced clown sitting silently on a bed, an old-time photographer, a gorilla emerging from the bathroom and roaring at her… This last encounter sends her screaming back into the corridor, and we get another close-up of the alien eye opening, alerted to its latest victim.
The concept of this very ordinary-looking hotel with rooms full of personalized nightmares (we learn later that the gorilla image came from a story that terrified her as a child) would be a great one by itself to anchor an episode, but things turn much more sinister as Lucy’s voiceover continues, and it becomes apparent that she is writing a sort of last testament in her notebook. She is in the grip of some kind of ecstasy (“The gaps between my worship are getting shorter… It’s all so clear now… Praise him…”). At last, unable to think anything else but “Praise him,” she stands with a smile on her face (but screaming internally) as some unseen creature attacks and kills her. With her scream blending seamlessly into the start of the titles, it’s one of the most effective teasers the show has ever had.
When the Doctor (Matt Smith), Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill) arrive, with the TARDIS having somehow been drawn to this place, Amy can’t understand why the Doctor is so excited about “a rubbish hotel, on a rubbish bit of Earth,” but he quickly explains that this definitely isn’t Earth—it’s just been made to look like it, in painstaking detail. In the reception area, his enthusiasm diminishes a bit when they encounter a group of people who initially threaten to attack them, before realizing that the Doctor and co. are stranded visitors to the hotel like themselves. They explain that they’ve been stuck in this hotel for two days since being pulled out of their own lives and deposited here, that there is no way out (the windows and the front door are dummies, with brick walls behind them), and that the place is an active maze, where the corridors and rooms move around—although this aspect is used less than I had expected it to be; really, its only effect on the plot is to cut off the Doctor’s quick-escape option by putting the TARDIS out of reach.
The Doctor: “So what have we got? People being snatched from their lives and dropped into an endless shifting maze that looks like a 1980s hotel with bad dreams in the bedrooms… Well, apart from anything else, that’s just rude.”
One of this new group of characters, Joe (Daniel Pirrie), has already succumbed to the “rapture,” and is tied up (for his own safety) in the hotel dining room, which (in another striking image) is full of his particular fear, ventriloquist dummies. The Doctor is unable to prevent his death, but does at least manage to get a look at the creature that kills him—entirely appropriate for this maze-like environment, it’s a huge minotaur.
Then there’s Howie (Dimitri Leonidas) - a stereotypical internet nerd full of C.I.A. conspiracy theories to explain what’s happening. It’s an unsettling moment when Howie suddenly starts blurting out “Praise him” as if vomiting something out of his throat—and even more so when the Doctor questions him while he’s under the influence, and he starts laughing about what’s going to happen (“He’s going to kill us all, how cool is that?”). The Doctor explains how the creature seems to feed on fear, and they set out to capture it. This involves setting up a labyrinth of mirrors, into which they lure the creature using Howie’s voice. The Doctor uses the mirrors to confuse the creature so he can talk to it.
Also in the group is Gibbis, a mole-faced alien played by this episode’s high-profile guest star: David Walliams (Little Britain). Appropriately, Gibbis starts off seeming like he’s strayed in from a comedy sketch show; a representative of the most cowardly race in the galaxy, who have been invaded and conquered more times than any other (“Our anthem is called Glory to Insert Name Here”). But once he understands that the force behind the hotel actually wants to kill them all, he displays a fitting rodent-like cunning to ensure his own survival. He advocates giving Howie to the creature, and in fact deliberately sets him free to be caught. Ironically, cowardice turns out to pay off, as Gibbis is the only one of the guest characters to survive the episode.
The direction by Nick Hurran is up to the same high standard as last week’s “The Girl Who Waited”. He makes the mundane setting effortlessly creepy via fast zooms down the long, claustrophobic corridors and using distortions and strange angles to disorient the viewer. Rapid flash-cuts between several expressions compressed into a couple of seconds show the emotional turmoil of the creature’s victims as they experience the “rapture.” I particularly admired the way the direction emphasized that the words “Praise him” were being involuntarily uttered by the victims by making them appear on screen like ransom notes—or script pages.
The monster itself, the minotaur, is an impressively designed creature, towering over the other cast members. It scores over most other large monsters to have appeared in Doctor Who by being able to actually run instead of lurch—the sight of this huge creature pounding down the corridor toward the camera is a particularly memorable image. The episode makes the wise choice to not attempt to have the prosthetic mask be capable of articulate speech—the creature speaks in grunts and growls which only the Doctor understands. To his surprise, the Doctor learns that the creature is not in control of the hotel—it is imprisoned here. He realizes that the minotaur wants this to stop, but it is a creature of uncontrollable instinct—when a new food source appears, it can’t stop itself from taking it.
The most interesting of the guest characters is Rita (Amara Karan), the young doctor whose fear is disappointing her father by failing to get high marks in her studies. The Doctor takes something of a shine to her, praising her cleverness and level-headed approach to their predicament (“Amy—with regret, you’re fired…just kidding”). She also provides a positive depiction of faith that is in stark contrast to the negative, unquestioning, robotic faith imposed by the hotel. She believes that she is in Jahannum (the Arabic equivalent of hell), but her conviction that she has tried to lead a good life keeps her sane and able to accept the situation. When the Doctor tells her that he’s working on getting them all out of here, her response gives him pause for thought:
Rita: “Why’s it up to you to save us? That’s quite a god complex you have there.”
The Doctor: (looks over at Amy) “I brought them here. They’d say it was their choice, but offer a child a suitcase full of sweets and they’ll take it. Offer someone all of time and space, and they’ll take that too. Which is why you shouldn’t. Which is why grown-ups were invented.”
The wry twist of the last sentence is emphasized when the Doctor can’t stop himself from immediately making the same offer to Rita (“When we get out of this, I’ll show you too.” “I don’t know what you’re talking about, but whatever it was, I have a feeling you just did it again”). It sets up a nicely subtle resonance between the Doctor and the minotaur, which becomes important at the end of the episode.
It’s quite affecting when Rita realizes her turn has come to experience the “rapture,” and she reacts without fuss, simply walking away and trying to get as far away from the others as possible to keep them safe. The Doctor tracks her down using the hotel security cameras, but she tells him: “Please, let me be robbed of my faith in private.” He can only obey her wishes (“Goodbye, Doctor. Thank you for trying”) by turning off the cameras as she too is taken.
Gibbis berates the Doctor for not protecting them, and Amy tells him to leave the Doctor alone (“Look, he’ll work it out, he always does”). It’s only then that the Doctor realizes he made a fundamental mistake in encouraging the others to fight the fears shown in their rooms by taking refuge in their various faiths—Rita had her religion, Howie his conspiracy theories, Joe was a gambler who had faith in the power of luck, and Gibbis will accept anyone who tells him what to do. “They all believe there’s something guiding them, about to save them. That’s what it replaces.” Once the nature of a person’s particular faith is exposed, the creature can switch it for unquestioning faith in itself—the “emotional energy” of which it then consumes. Their strong faith, rather than their fears, is what made them vulnerable to the forces of this hotel. And so it finally becomes apparent that the TARDIS was drawn here because of Amy’s faith in the Doctor.
Unfortunately, this brings to the foreground what I think is the greatest flaw in this episode—its poor treatment of Rory. We’ve seen Rory grow and mature enormously over the last year, becoming an equal partner with Amy and getting many opportunities to show his own courage and intelligence. But this episode isn’t interested in exploring Rory’s relationship with the Doctor—his faith in the Doctor’s ability to save his friends (or lack of it, which would be understandable after last week’s events). It’s as if all the character development for Rory since Toby Whithouse’s last episode (“The Vampires of Venice”) never happened. Rather than being the capable husband, Rory is once again the hapless boyfriend being dragged along for the ride—the butt of jokes, as the Doctor calls him “Beaky,” or he gets pushed to the ground by the minotaur only to get up with “What hit me—was it Amy?” Arthur Darvill, as always, makes the most of what the script gives him (he gets a few moments of empathy with Howie, for instance), but there are many scenes where Rory is just sitting passively while Amy gets all the dialogue. Possibly the best moment for him in the episode is one that unwittingly foreshadows the ending:
The Doctor: “Have you found your room yet?”
Rory: “No…Is that good or bad?”
The Doctor: “Maybe you’re not scared of anything.”
Rory: “Well, after all the time I spent with you in the TARDIS, what was left to be scared of?”
The Doctor: “You said that in the past tense.”
Putting the problems with Rory to one side, there’s an effective horror moment as Amy says “Praise him,” and the others think it’s part of her conversation with the Doctor until the realization strikes—the creature is starting to affect her too. They take her to her room (number 7), and we see that (as might be expected from the room number) it contains the scene of her seven-year-old self (an unexpected cameo from Caitlin Blackwood) on the most significant night of Amy’s life—the night she waited in vain for the Doctor to return (”The Eleventh Hour”).
The Doctor: “I can’t save you from this; there’s nothing I can do to stop this.”
Amy: (stunned) “What?”
The Doctor: “I stole your childhood and now I’ve led you by the hand to your death. But the worst thing is I knew. I knew this would happen, this is what always happens.”
The minotaur bursts into the room, and in order to save Amy, the Doctor has to destroy her faith in him. For classic series fans, this is reminiscent of the seventh Doctor’s rather cold-blooded treatment of his companion Ace in “The Curse of Fenric”, but with more positive implications. Even though Amy has already grown and changed a great deal since her first trip in the TARDIS (especially this year), she still has a child-like belief in her magical friend who can fix anything—a point the direction cleverly emphasizes by switching between the child and adult versions of Amy as the Doctor gently tells her:
The Doctor: “Forget your faith in me. I took you with me because I was vain. Because I wanted to be adored. Look at you. Glorious Pond. The girl who waited for me. I’m not a hero. I really am just a mad man in a box. And it’s time we saw each other as we really are. Amy Williams. It’s time to stop waiting.”
This emotional climax is a triumph for both Matt Smith and Karen Gillan. Smith’s Doctor confesses his fault with a heartfelt sincerity, while Gillan beautifully shows Amy’s initial reaction of betrayal slowly changing to understanding and acceptance. The moment is topped off by Murray Gold, reusing his music from the climax of last year’s “The Pandorica Opens”—but the different context brilliantly changes a moment of total defeat for the Doctor into something more hopeful.
Deprived of its emotional sustenance, the minotaur staggers back out of the room, and falls to the floor in the corridor. The hotel reality breaks up via some effective Tron-like CGI effects to reveal their true location: a futuristic holodeck on a space vessel. It’s sci-fi explanation time, and the Doctor quickly deduces the vessel is a prison wandering through space, snatching up random victims with strong belief systems and converting their faith into food for the creature—a member of a species which set themselves up as gods to be worshipped (“which is fine, until the inhabitants get all secular and advanced enough to build bonkers prisons”). Due to “glitches in the program,” the previous victims’ fears were not tidied away and were left to manifest as the hotel and its rooms. But the dying minotaur has one last surprise, as the Doctor translates its final words:
The Doctor: “An ancient creature, drenched in the blood of the innocents. Drifting in space through an endless shifting maze. To such a creature…death would be a gift. It accepted… Then sleep well… I wasn’t talking about myself…”
The shock of recognition this speech engenders in the Doctor is the catalyst for the really unexpected ending of the episode. The TARDIS arrives back on Earth, outside Amy and Rory’s house, and the Doctor is suddenly breaking off his travels with them. Of course, they can still see him again (in fact, the Doctor promises they will), but their days as permanent residents on the TARDIS would appear to be over.
Amy: “Why now?”
The Doctor: “Because you’re still…breathing.”
Amy demonstrates her new-found maturity as she understands the Doctor’s reasons for cutting them off, even as she protests. (“And what’s the alternative—me standing over your grave? Over your broken body? Over Rory’s body?”) Smith and Gillan are once again excellent, as the Doctor and Amy make light banter to dance around the significance of the moment and prevent the emotion from spilling over. Unfortunately the script once again short-changes Rory here; he gets distracted by a shiny new car that’s been somehow arranged by the Doctor, before being sent inside the house so Amy and the Doctor can have their talk. (And I’d also note that “Maybe there’s a bigger, scarier adventure waiting for you in there” is a clunker of a line that even Matt Smith can’t make work.) Eventually, Rory emerges with a bottle of champagne and three glasses—just in time to see the TARDIS depart.
Rory: “What happened? What’s he doing?”
Amy: “He’s saving us.”
“The God Complex” is a very good, thought-provoking episode. It falls short of greatness thanks to its mishandling of Rory and the sidelining of his own relationship with the Doctor, but it makes quite an impact nevertheless, breaking up the regular cast and raising the uncomfortable possibility that the Doctor cannot help but ruin the lives of those he brings into the TARDIS. The powerful final shot shows him alone in the TARDIS, brooding on what he’s just experienced. This can’t go on, he seems to be thinking. Something has to change.
Next Week: The Cybermen are back, and the Doctor is reunited with Craig Owens (James Corden) from last year’s “The Lodger” as Gareth Roberts presents “Closing Time.”
Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: As name-dropped by the Doctor late in this episode, some rather less convincing relatives of the minotaur shown here feature in “The Horns of Nimon,” starring Tom Baker and Lalla Ward.
Steven Cooper is a software developer and long-time Doctor Who fan, living in Melbourne, Australia.