“The God Complex” takes us to a surreal hotel where the corridors change lengths and rearrange themselves, and where every room holds nightmares. The Doctor, Amy, and Rory find themselves trapped in this hotel with a small group of other people, and must find a way out before the resident beast kills them all off one by one. This is writer Toby Whithouse’s third story for Doctor Who, and while it is definitely better than last year’s “Vampires of Venice”, it doesn’t reach the heights of his first script, “School Reunion”. Overall, I found “The God Complex” a bit of a mixed bag, although definitely more good than bad. It was very atmospheric with some great character work and fine performances, but there were also parts of it that just didn’t quite work for me. That said, I did enjoy it considerably more on second viewing.
The story is not particularly original, but this is not a criticism. It uses its borrowed material (from sources ranging from the myth of the Minotaur to The Shining to older Doctor Who stories like “The Horns of Nimon” and “The Curse of Fenric”; there’s even a specific reference to the Nimons) to weave a clever and original tale. Despite its horror-themed frame, it is very much a character story and focuses primarily on the Doctor and Amy, and their relationship, while also providing some great character moments for Rory, as well as a couple of the guest characters. Advance publicity focused a great deal on guest star David Walliams as the alien Gibbis, but I think the real prize for guest performance should go to Amara Karan who gives a stunning performance as Rita, the companion who could have been. SPOILERS FOLLOW
I really like the twist that it isn’t really about the characters’ greatest fears, but rather about their faiths, the things that keep them going even when faced with their greatest fears. Alas, one of my problems with the episode is that exactly what qualifies as a strong enough faith for the Minotaur to feed on is not very well defined. It’s good that it’s taking faith as more than just religious faith, but it needs parameters of some sort. Part of the problem is that the people we get the most in-depth look into, Rita and Amy, have faiths that are fairly straight-forward. Rita has her religion and Amy has her faith in the Doctor. Viewers can easily comprehend faith in a person or religion even if they don’t have such faith themselves. However, Howie’s faith in conspiracy theories and Joe’s faith in luck are much more esoteric. We get to see very little of Howie’s “faith”. He comes up with one conspiracy-based theory for what is happening in the hotel, but other than that we really don’t learn about this aspect of his character before he begins chanting, “Praise him,” and is killed. In Joe’s case, we have only the Doctor to tell us about his faith in luck since Joe is already under the Minotaur’s influence when we first meet him. In the end, we have to rely on the Doctor telling us that it’s their faiths in these things that get them killed rather than actually seeing their faith in their actions. As a result, it doesn’t quite ring true when the Doctor also tells us that Rory is safe because he doesn’t have any strong faiths. Compared to Amy and Rita, this is certainly true, but compared to Howie or Gibbis? What exactly is Gibbis’s faith? Faith that someone will invade his planet? The story never really makes it clear.
I was also not entirely convinced by how the Doctor destroyed Amy’s faith in him. First off, it was a situation where it should have been very obvious to Amy that he was doing it specifically to save her, and thus, it really ought to have increased her faith in him. All he actually does is tell her that he’s a bad person and that if she stays with him, she will eventually die because, in the end, he always loses everyone. But he never actually does anything to show Amy that this is the case. This moment is very similar to the climactic moment of the seventh Doctor story, “The Curse of Fenric”. Ace’s faith in the Doctor is holding back the haemovore from poisoning Fenric. The Doctor can’t tell Ace what’s really happening because Fenric would find out, so he’s forced to destroy her faith in him. However, in this case, the Doctor doesn’t tell Ace he’s a bad person. He shows her. When Fenric threatens to kill Ace if the Doctor doesn’t bow down before him, the Doctor refuses and actually tells Fenric to kill her. What he does tell Ace is that she’s the horrible person. He insults her and goes directly for her self-esteem issues. “She’s an emotional cripple. I wouldn’t waste my time with her unless I had to use her somehow.” He completely shreds Ace’s faith in him, so much so that it’s difficult for him to regain that trust later. In Amy’s case, he doesn’t do anything that ought to make her no longer trust him to save the day. More than that, we never really see her lose her faith. The Minotaur suddenly loses its powers, so we have to conclude that Amy lost her faith. Yet by the closing scene, Amy is telling Rory, “He’s saving us,” as the reason why the Doctor has left them. Her faith is apparently right back where it was as if she had never lost it to begin with.
These things aside, the rest of the story worked extremely well for me. The rooms were suitably creepy with a good mixture of rooms that were “leftovers” from previous people trapped in the hotel and rooms that were meant for the current characters. As much as I often criticize Amy’s character development (or lack of it), I felt that her room containing her younger self waiting for the Doctor was the perfect greatest fear for her character. Indeed, I wish the Doctor’s solution for making her lose her faith was to leave at the moment the Minotaur came for her, to just walk out of the room and not look back. Howie’s room was fun. Rita’s room made perfect sense for her character. I think it’s a shame there wasn’t a room for Rory, but it makes a certain sense. I’m not sure we ever really saw Gibbis’s room. The characters theorize that the room with the Weeping Angels was his, but since he doesn’t start praising the Minotaur after that, my guess is that was simply another leftover room and that Gibbis never found his room.
Then there’s the Doctor’s room: something that will likely cause debate amongst fans for generations. Not showing us what the Doctor saw was the perfect choice to make, and I hope no future episode ever reveals it. The TARDIS cloister bell ringing in the background and the Doctor’s words of, “Of course, who else?” should be all the clues we ever get. My own personal theory is that he saw himself, but it’s only a theory and one that should never be proven or disproved.
“The God Complex” is an aptly named episode in a number of ways. The Minotaur plays god by setting itself up on a planet where it claims to be a god. The people of that planet eventually rebel and play gods themselves by putting the Minotaur in a prison and snatching people from other worlds to keep it fed. More specifically though, the title refers to the Doctor, who plays god every day of his life as he interferes and changes things in the way he thinks they should be changed. “Why is it up to you to save us?” Rita asks him. “That’s quite a god complex you have there.” The Doctor makes choices for other people a lot, and gives them very little say. His choices are always for good reasons, but even the Doctor makes mistakes, and while he might save the day, the long-term effects are not always apparent or beneficent. The series has been playing with this idea for several years now, drawing attention to the way the Doctor hides from this side of himself, from how he always departs as soon as he can to avoid seeing the long-term effects of his actions, to his arrogance in stories like “The Waters of Mars”, to this year’s arc plot where an entire organization is dedicated to eradicating him because they believe him to be the most evil being in the universe. The story takes a look at this idea on a very personal level: no Daleks wiping out the entire universe, no Davros mocking his refusal to use weapons by pointing out that he turns his companions into weapons, no alliance of evil alien beings trying to trap him in the Pandorica. Just a suggestion from someone he’s just met: “Why is it up to you to save us?”
Rita is by far my favourite part of the episode. She truly could have been a companion—and I dare say a much better one than Amy—and I loved the Doctor’s little reference to that fact: “With respect, Amy, you’re fired.” I was very sorry to see her die, but her death plays to the Doctor’s god complex. His frustration and feeling of powerlessness when she dies is yet another way the Doctor must face up to himself. And it’s not because he can’t save her; it’s because she won’t let him save her. She refuses to let him choose her destiny. It’s all the more reason why I believe the Doctor saw himself in his room. He knows the effect he has on people, and he knows he has to face up to it, no matter how much he wants to keep on running. I think this is the best we’ve seen this aspect of the Doctor handled since “The Waters of Mars”, which handled it in a very different way. There have been other attempts since, but this one drives it home through its sheer simplicity and intimacy. Matt Smith plays the Doctor’s anger at his own powerlessness perfectly.
The final scene of the episode came as a bit of a surprise for me, mainly because publicity pictures for the final episode of the season have been posted everywhere online, and Amy and Rory are there with the Doctor and River Song. Knowing that they’ll be back lessens the impact of this scene, which is actually a very strong scene between the Doctor and Amy (and I’m not saying that because I’ve been looking forward to Amy’s finally leaving the Doctor). Karen Gillan does an excellent job showing Amy holding back her emotions and facing a situation she doesn’t want but knows she can’t avoid. The Doctor is truly leaving her. She is no longer the Girl Who Waited. The scene is also a perfect coda to the god-complex theme of the episode. Once again, the Doctor has seen who he truly is, but he still hasn’t really learned. He is again making people’s decisions for them. His companions don’t get to choose when they leave. He chooses for them.
Overall, “The God Complex” is a good episode. It comes very close to being an amazing episode. There is a lot of pure brilliance in it, but the way the Doctor breaks Amy’s faith in him just doesn’t ring true, and so the episode as a whole falls short of the heights it almost reaches. Nonetheless, in a season that I have felt is lacking overall, it stands out extremely well.