An ancient creature, drenched in the blood of the innocent. Drifting in space through an endless shifting maze… For such a creature, death would be a gift.
One of the things I’ve loved about the Matt Smith/Steven Moffatt era is the willingness to take Doctor Who – the show and the character – into some very dark places. With “The God Complex” Toby Whitehouse has delivered an episode that stands on its own as a clever, creepy fairy tale, but achieves transcendence as a comment on the tragedy of The Doctor’s existence. I suspect it will be remembered as a classic.
We’ve got a pretty clever premise here – a mysterious hotel in space that seems to be composed of the fears of its inhabitants, who are randomly plucked from various points in the universe (as always, a good chunk of them inexplicably from Earth). They wander the hotel until they find the room that holds their special terror, and then give themselves over to worship of a mysterious being that consumes their minds and leaves their bodies a dead shell.
It’s into this environment that The Doctor and team arrive – drawn there because of Amy as it happens, though more on that in a minute. There are some very interesting and revealing scenes where each of the characters discovers their own fear (for The Doctor, it’s The Master) and we meet the motley crew of survivors currently trapped in the hotel. These include an alien whose planet specializes in surrender (the weakest link in the episode), a young conspiracy theorist, and most interestingly a bright young Muslim girl named Lucy (Sarah Quintrell) whose faith leads her to believe that this is Hell. As so often happens lately, The Doctor is unable to save most of them – but it’s when he realizes that it’s indeed faith and not fear that draws the killer than things really become special.
As is often the case with the best “Who” episodes, the events reflect back on the characters and reveal facets of their character previously obscured. With Rory, there is no special room. In fact, he’s not even wanted, because he has no special faith in anything. But the others do. The Doctor isn’t telling, but Amy’s faith is in the “Raggedy Doctor” that would come and take her away from her turgid existence. She’s the girl who waited, and he’s her hero. When the beast – revealed to be a relative of the Nimon, a nice throwback to the Tom Baker era, comes for her, The Doctor must convince the spectre of the young Amy that he’s no hero at all – just a selfish egomaniac who craves the adoration of the young people who follow him. And there’s the thing – he’s not just saying it. His words – and the episode title – cut frighteningly close to the truth.
What we see here isn’t pretty. The Doctor knows that he’s leading these children into harms way, and often death – yet even as he explains this to Lucy (who he’s taken quite a shine to) he can’t resist doing the same thing with her. “Offer them all of time and space, and they’ll never say no.” It paints the picture of The Doctor as a kind of drug dealer, offering something like ecstasy to his assistants even as he knows the true cost. As he managed to tamp down Amy’s fear long enough to allow the Nimon the opportunity to die of starvation, it’s fondest wish, he utters the lines that begin this review – among the most heartbreaking in the 32 season history of the series.
In that context it’s no surprise that when he returns Amy and Rory to Earth, there’s a lovely house and a red sports car waiting for them – The Doctor’s way of softening the blow he’s about to deliver. When Amy (whom the Doctor significantly calls “Amy Williams” at long last) asks why now, his answer – “Because you’re still breathing” – says all that needs to be said. This is the tragedy of The Doctor’s existence, that he’ll always end up alone. It should be said that the vast majority of his assistants have walked away just fine at the close of their time with him, but how many deaths is few enough to justify the need for companionship? There’s no denying that he leads his little lambs into peril, and though they generally seem to have fun, it’s only fun till somebody loses an eye. Or their life…
Next week we have “Closing Time” from Gareth Roberts, who’s written many – mostly mediocre – episodes of “Who” as well as numerous “Sarah Jane Adventures”. The Doctor, now alone, will be meeting up again with Craig (James Corden) from last season’s so-so “The Lodger”. I’m not expecting greatness, but we’ll see.