“I really am just a madman in a box.”
So here it is, and two episodes earlier than I thought it would be. At last, the thesis of Moffat’s run, delivered bluntly and with terrible heartbreak.
Does he mean it? I don’t know. The Doctor is an inscrutable creature, after all, capable of saying almost anything as long as it accomplishes the right end. But I think Moffat means it. Not reductively, of course: a madman in a box is still a wonderful thing and well worth watching on television. But he’s not the Messiah; he’s a very naughty boy.
How did it come to this? The first half of season six was about the Doctor as a resurrected, unmistakably Messianic figure. Except, of course, that it wasn’t. It’s never so simple with Moffat, who again seems single-mindedly devoted to deconstructing all of the easy comforts that Davies served up for our delectation. Oh, how we feasted on it; I even loved when little Yoda Doctor turned into big powerful Doctor because everyone believes in fairies. Hell, I swallowed the unmitigated guff of the season four finale because I wanted to believe.
This is an entire episode devoted to tearing that faith down. It doesn’t come on like that, naturally. Writer Toby Whithouse (who gave us the enjoyable but nowhere near as complex Vampires of Venice) has brought us what can reasonably be called The Shining in Space. In a surreally old-fashioned hotel, residents are called to face what seem to be their deepest fears before falling prey to a devouring God figure. The Tardis, which apparently has the worst GPS in the galaxy, plunks down in the middle of the place and the Doctor, as is his way, decides to solve the mystery. Monster of the Week, right?
Yes. And the Monster is the Doctor.
As a title, The God Complex is a vicious fake-out. Most obviously, the minotaur inhabiting the maze is a God figure who demands worship before snuffing out his subjects. Is the Doctor so different? In a sense, he demands submission, obeisance. He tends to defy and humiliate those unimpressed with his genius. Companions can challenge him, but at the end of the day, the Doctor wins on the Doctor’s own terms. Still, even his towering, Aspergers-inflected narcissism has its limits. The “happy” ending here depends on the Doctor convincing Amy Pond that her adventures only have two possible endings: discontinuation or death. And so Whitman and Moffat do the unthinkable: two episodes before a season finale, they dump the Companion.
Seriously. The Doctor dumps Amy Pond. And poor, sweet Rory (though he does get a bitching car).
Of course, he’s still saving them. By demythologizing himself. Which only makes him more mythic and impressive.
It’s a hell of an episode, styled and shot in a manner that suggests Guillermo del Toro and Tim Burton had sex with Tron. Director Nick Hurran deserves much credit for keeping in continuity and yet layering in some deliciously baroque touches; it’s often hard to tell if the episode’s wide angles are factors of architecture or cinematography. The pace is deliberate but unrelenting, the scares wonderfully effective, and the gallows humor far more gallowsy than usual.
What really deserves examination here is that it’s an episode about the perils of religion. The obvious explanation (this monster feeds on our fears) is finally upended by the realization that the monster is REALLY feeding on faith. The last thing its victims do before dying is embrace the minotaur’s awesome divinity without question. Rory, an atheist, is safe from harm, and the Doctor remains as difficult to categorize as ever (but who or what exactly did he see behind that door…?), but everyone else has a larger philosophy to be preyed on. Paranoia, God, surrender, and in Amy’s case, the infallibility of the Doctor. They aren’t seen as weaknesses per se, but each of these worldviews is red meat for the minotaur. It cannot be a happy chance that the monster preying on these hopes and dreams is a classic false idol. Whitman’s telling us that blind devotion is a trap. It’s a pretty radical thing for a weekly family fantasy series to drop on its viewers, and more proof that Doctor Who is endlessly thematically malleable.
Terrific cast, as it happens. After last week’s 3 character tragedy, this is a proper ensemble piece. Smith is as mischievous and captivatingly intelligent as ever, with able support by the canny, haunted Gillan and the increasingly empowered Darvill. The other captives are played by Amara Karan, Dimitri Leonidas, Daniel Pirrie and comedy star David Walliams. All are good (and Walliams is particularly sharp as a ratty creature from a race of preturnatural cowards), but Karan takes the gold. She’s delightful and a natural match for our hero. The Doctor’s affections are so prized that when he takes an interest in Karan’s Muslim doctor, even the viewer feels jealous. He’s ours, after all.
Except he isn’t. He cannot belong to anyone.
Seriously, did we just lose Amy Pond? The Girl Who Waited? One of the greatest Companions the franchise has ever seen? The “NEXT TIME” teaser indicates that while the Cybermen may return, Amy Pond doesn’t. James Corden, cuddly sidekick of The Tenant, appears to be the big supporting character next week. Are we about to get a male Companion? It wouldn’t be unwelcome given Corden’s chemistry with Smith, but…
This began as a project to just start reviewing Who for fun, but as chance would have it, the series is just starting what appears to be some of its most mature, ambitious movements to date. It’s still dynamite Saturday night entertainment, of course. But Who matters, now more than ever. It’s escapism with a conscience, adventure with consequences.
Best fucking thing ever.