Here’s fun (perhaps). Obviously, a blog like this is a wholly self-regarding project.
So, in that spirit, I’m reproducing here a couple of pages of notes I took while reviewing The God Complex. My routine, should you care, when writing about Doctor Who is to watch the episode once (usually in my lunchbreak, via the BBC’s preview site for journalists) without taking notes. Just to give me a chance to enjoy the thing. Then, I’ll watch again the following day – and take an insane amount of notes – in insane handwriting. Which brings us to figure 1…
Yes, it can get a bit befuddled.
With that in mind, I quite often – but not always – ‘rationalise’ my scribbles. This can help me get a clearer picture of what I want to say… but it’s a process I loathe. It feels, I guess, like having to write a plot outline. However, once done, it’s terribly helpful.
The thing on the left is what that stage looks like. Click it for a larger version.
And that, I guess, is that.
Well, kind of. I do keep a sporadic diary of sorts, and on September 14, I wrote, referring to this review: “I can’t remember the last one of these that took me so long to write. Even now, it isn’t there. I can’t see it through the fog”. The fog, probably, of too many notes.
Anyway, this is from DWM #440.
I’m feeling the rapture. That’s because The God Complex by Toby Whithouse is one of the best Doctor Who stories ever. What makes it so? Answering that is, obviously, the business of this review. But it’s going to be tough. I’ll be tempted to genuflect, to gush. It’s an exquisitely intricate adventure, I fear I might end up chasing it down a maze of telescoping rhetoric. But I’ll do my best.
This is a tale you all but imbibe. Director Nick Hurran mashes both literal and metaphorical visuals in a way we’ve never seen before in the programme. As a result, the episode has a tempo of its own, almost subliminally flitting between onscreen text, narration, CCTV footage, hazy dolly zooms and addresses to camera – it’s a complete collage. To contrast this, the cast give a measured, naturalistic performance that’s out of step with the situation. While the reality is heightened, their reactions are, if anything, dampened. It’s a brilliant mix, and I think Curran (who also did an extraordinary job on The Girl Who Waited) is this year’s big find.
Oh, I’m just going to say it: Praise him.
What I love about The God Complex is it’s an adventure that does things Doctor Who has done many times before, while also doing things Doctor Who should probably never do again. In the simplest terms, this is a base under siege story – albeit one that’s cut down to the third act, meaning the baddy is already inside. Like many episodes of late, it also culminates in the revelation an automated computer program is the culprit, rather than any singular monster.
In addition, there’s another, more subtle echo of the recent past. Of Whithouse’s own scripts, in fact. Both School Reunion and The Vampires of Venice gave us a showboat scene in which the Doctor meets his foe and they pace and they talk; whether that was with Mr Finch across the school swimming pool, or bartering with Rosanna Calvierri for the future of Venice. Here, that moment is replayed as Time Lord and Minotaur meet in the lobby… but this time the discussion plays out with the protagonists only ever glimpsed in mirrors or through water, and with the superb conceit of the Doctor having to paraphrase his counterpart’s responses. The clashing of two characters realised as a monologue is clever, audacious stuff.
However, what’s truly new and dangerous in The God Complex is the way it delves deeper than ever into the psyche of our lead character (who does he see inside room 11?) and leavens from him an admission of hubris that’s far more damning than any we’ve witnessed. Planet of the Spiders (1974) showed a Doctor willing to die for his sins, but here, Eleven confesses to Rita he’s been wrong to lure companions into danger with promises of the whole of time and space to play in – and then blithely proceeds to make exactly that offer to her.
Indeed, it’s through the junior doctor we see a very different side to our hero. “Why’s it up to you to save us?” she asks, positing what’s historically gone unsaid. When she then loses her life, her parting shot of, “Goodbye Doctor, thanks for trying,” is pretty much the most humbling remark anyone’s ever made to him. Thanks for trying? As though failure was always implicit? Rita’s someone who is never given any reason to have faith in the Time Lord. Yep, that’s new.
It’s easy, however, to keep confidence with Whithouse’s story, even when it treads near to the cloven prints of the wonderfully rubbishy The Horns of Nimon (1979). It also follows a thread laid down by another predecessor, but this time, I’m guessing, is less conscious in doing so… In The Curse of Fenric (1989), the Doctor manipulated Ace’s feelings so she would lose faith in him, branding her – in the show’s first real attempt at the kind of heart-wrenching drama that’s now its stock in trade – “an emotional cripple”. Devastating stuff, but quickly nullified when the Time Lord subsequently confessed he didn’t mean a word of it. A trite epilogue, in which Ace then took a dip in Deep Waters, dealt with any remaining unresolved angst. But more than two decades on, in the here and now, the series has the maturity to realise that once wrenched out of the closet, you can never really tidy away those kind of feelings. Particularly when what the Doctor tells Amy is true. He only brought her along because he wanted to be adored – at last, we get to his guilty secret.
This exploration of the Doctor’s increasingly toxic relationship with his current travelling companions has been surreptitiously simmering since The Eleventh Hour, but Whithouse’s story also taps into some of this year’s other unfolding themes. That same scene between the Doctor and Amy subtly calls back to our hero’s battles against his own reputation. In A Good Man Goes To War we saw civilisations divide in the Time Lord’s name, but here, it’s just one girl who’s caught up in the myth. Earlier in the adventure, Amy assured Gibbis the Doctor is “gonna save you”, but all that’s got to stop. In fact, the legend of Amy Pond also needs to be spiked. “Amy Williams,” says the Doctor, underscoring the reality of the situation, “it’s time to stop waiting.”
And so Amy and Rory leave the TARDIS.
Well… kind of. At the time of writing, I haven’t seen the following episodes (to discover what happens when I do, turn the page!). But I’m certain this isn’t the last of the Ponds. However, it’s unlikely they’ll merit a finer exit than this. Rory’s growing disquiet over the last couple of weeks with the Doctor’s conduct is coupled with an ultimate realisation that our mad man in a box is rather like another sort of man with a box – a pallbearer. “Every time the Doctor gets pally with someone,” quips that beaky nurse from Leadworth, “I have an overwhelming urge to notify their next of kin”. It’s a good line, and one that hints Rory’s finally lost his faith in the time traveller. It’s also well suited to a story in which the corpses – the accepted collateral damage of the Time Lord’s adventures – are actually laid out for us all to see.
Clearly, there’s only one way Amy and Rory can get out of here alive and this, indeed, is where everything’s been heading. When the moment does come, the weight of what’s gone before finally exerts itself. There’s no other option – for any of them.
I loved how that was made implicit in what the characters didn’t say. Amy joshing that they’re being turfed off the timeship due to a disagreement over the dishes; it’s precisely the kind of diverting, silly banter people revert to in extremis. We rarely talk about the big stuff, particularly with friends. We talk around it. Similarly, the last lonely shots of the Doctor, almost too scared to fix his eyes away from the console and take in his now lonely TARDIS presents another low-key pay-off. It’s quiet and all the more affecting for it.
But, steady! I have a gripe! And it’s something that’s been concerning me over the last few episodes – the uneasy fudging of Amy and Rory’s missing baby. This is a huge, huge issue, something that should always be at the forefront of the Ponds’ thoughts. But it’s never really been convincingly addressed over the run, and Amy’s flippant comment here that Melody should “visit her old mum sometime” doesn’t cut it. It’s the one truly dud note, and forces me to conclude that a storyline of this nature has proved too big and raw a kind of a drama to successfully cut in between the jeopardy and jokes of Doctor Who.
Well, there it is. For me, it’s the only shadow that falls across The God Complex. I can sing the praises of every other aspect of the production, from Murray Gold’s amazing satanic muzak score, to Michael Pickwoad’s travelsick Crossroads motel set, and Amara Karan’s show-stopping performance as the spirited and freethinking Rita. That’s quite a feat on her part, by the way, particularly when she’s competing not just with our regulars, but David Walliams got up as Mole from The Wind in the Willows. Gibbis is fascinating, though, isn’t he? Beginning the story as its comedy quotient, before turning into its most malevolent force (the Doctor remarks that the creature’s cowardice is “sly, aggressive”) and then, most unfairly, becoming its sole survivor from the guest cast.
Wow. What an amazing 45 minutes. I think, unlike the guests in this creepy establishment, my critical faculties have now pretty much checked out. Doctor Who is always good, but it’s not always truly great… Alright, it mostly is. But, nonetheless stories like this, marshalled along by Steven Moffat, Toby Whithouse and Nick Curran, still serve to remind me, that here in 2011 I really, really, really believe in Doctor Who.