“My name is Lucy Hayward, and I’m the last one left.”
Doctor Who does The Shining! And filtered through enough surreal images to make this episode stand far better comparison with Sapphire and Steel than Night Terrors a couple of weeks ago! It’s hardly surprising, as writer Toby Whithouse has a far more reliable track record writing Who than Mark Gatiss; his first episode was the fan-pleasing School Reunion back in 2006, and last year’s Vampires of Venice, while not quite in the same league, was still an excellent standalone episode that, like this one, didn’t ignore the fact that a larger arc was going on around it.
In between, of course, Whithouse created BBC3’s excellent Being Human, and what made The God Complex so enjoyable was the same blending of surrealism, dark humour and outright horror, with some genuine pathos thrown into the mix. And also like that show, it pitched a group of convincingly ordinary characters into an insanely weird situation, and believably showed how they might react.
The deserted hotel setting was so reminiscent of The Shining that this can’t have been a coincidence (it was noticeable that the room numbers shown in the early part of the episode kept dancing just around the novel’s iconic room number 217). But as I’ve often remarked, Doctor Who has never shied away from ‘borrowing’ well-known horror stories; The Brain of Morbius and The Pyramids of Mars show how well that can work. In keeping with the script’s debt to Kubrick, director Nick Hurran filled the episode with deliberately weird and off-kilter shots. There were reverse-zooms aplenty in the shots of the bland corridors, while the staircase was shot from above in a dizzyingly Escher like display of geometry. It has to be said, if this wasn’t shot in an actual hotel, then the studio recreation was eerily accurate in its sinister blandness. But then Kubrick’s movie too was shot in a studio recreation of a hotel so perfect that for many years I didn’t realise it wasn’t the real interior of the building shown at the movie’s opening.
The deliberately surreal things lurking in the hotel rooms, coupled with the hotel’s obviously not really being on Earth – “Look at the detail on these cheese plants!” – also called to mind the classic last Sapphire and Steel story in which the time agents are trapped in a deserted service station isolated from time. But homages aside, Whithouse has produced an excellent script that has its own distinct identity outside of its influences. Like last week’s The Girl Who Waited, the story explored some sophisticated philosophical concepts; in this case about the nature of faith, and our fears, and the difficulty of escaping from the role your own nature has provided you with.
The unnamed creature imprisoned in the hotel encapsulated all of these themes. A being whose very nature is to pose as a god and feed on faith, which also despairs of this existence but cannot escape its own nature without outside intervention, it ended up pulling off the same trick as all the best monsters from Frankenstein’s onwards – it was terrifying but also sympathetic. In classic Who style, Nick Hurran presented us mostly with glimpses of the creature in the early parts of the episode – a horn here, a claw there – before moving on to the stylish shots of it half obscured by frosted glass in the Doctor’s first meeting with it. When it was eventually revealed as being an ‘alien Minotaur’ (“I didn’t expect to be asking that question this morning”), it was great that Whithouse didn’t shy away from referencing its most obvious antecedent from an unfairly despised 1979 story – “they’re distant relatives of the Nimon”. Fitting, as the Nimon also posed as gods and lived in a building called the Power Complex.
But that weighty title cleverly referred not just to the creature, but also to the Doctor himself – “You’re trying to save us all? That’s a real god complex you’ve got there.” In a year which has seen the Eleventh Doctor’s character developing in some interesting and often sinister ways, this was a standalone episode that took the time to examine these themes in his character, acknowledging the arc that surrounded it. Obviously we were all crying out to see what lurked in the Doctor’s own personal room of fear (room 11, of course), and equally obviously nothing that could actually be shown could really live up to the concept. In the end, the story wisely didn’t show us exactly what it was; but Matt Smith’s sadly accepting smile – “Of course. What else could it be?” – together with the tolling of the Cloister Bell will almost certainly provoke a lot of fan theories. I wouldn’t be surprised if the idea was returned to later, but I actually think leaving it to the viewer’s imagination is by far the best approach.
In fact, it seemed that most of the episode was driven by this examination of who the Doctor was. It’s become a recurring trope of this incarnation that, despite his proclamations of how great he is, he’s very fallible. We saw that again here, in the well-acted awful moment of realisation when the Doctor realises the approach he’s been taking to try and protect his friends is actually placing them in even greater danger. That whole scene was a highlight of the episode, as it delved deep into all the characters left by that point; Rory has no faith to fed on, so the prison kept trying to show him ways out, but (obviously) Amy’s faith was in the Doctor himself, and the moment when she suddenly said “praise him” was a well-choreographed shock.
Ultimately, the resolution to all of this just had to be that Amy had to lose her faith in the man she’d waited all those years for as a little girl. Underscored by a particularly beautiful rendition of Murray Gold’s theme for Amy, this was an unapologetically tear jerking scene that recreated a similar moment from the end of 1989’s The Curse of Fenric (another story which centred on faith). The difference here was that, unlike Sylvester McCoy’s apparent cruelty to Ace in that story, you got the impression that the Doctor was actually, finally, telling Amy the truth. Matt Smith, Karen Gillan (and Caitlin Blackwood) played it superbly, and it felt as though, despite his frequent declarations of his own brilliance, the Doctor was having an epiphany as to his need for some humility – “I’m not a hero. I really am just a mad man with a box”.
Like John Mitchell in the most recent series of Being Human, this was a Doctor thoroughly chastened by recent events, and forced to face up to some very unpalatable truths. The final epiphany came as he realised that the dying creature’s last words – “death would be a gift for such a creature” – were actually about him. We’ve had plenty of hints over the last two years about the Doctor’s guilt and self-loathing, but it was to the forefront here. Faced with this torrent of unpleasant self-knowledge, it made perfect sense that he’d offload Amy and Rory at the end of the episode – “I’m saving you… What’s the alternative, me standing over your grave?” It was another tearjerking scene (though I question Rory’s choice of the series 2 Jaguar E-type over the far superior series1), but it didn’t feel like it really was goodbye. The Doctor said they hadn’t seen the last of him, and I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of them. Still, it was nice to finally have some acknowledgement of the story that’s dominated this year so much – “If you see my daughter, tell her to visit her old mum some time.”
However, a good horror story has to have some real scares alongside the character stuff, and like the best horror stories, the fear sprang from the characters. It was utterly believable that conspiracy-mad geek Howie’s deepest fear was being mocked by beautiful girls; I loved Dimitri Leonidas in the part, and would have liked to have seen more of him – he’s just my type. Joe’s fear of ventriloquist dummies was unsettlingly realised as a room full of them cackling at him, and Rita’s fear of failure was perfectly credible given what we knew of her background. In keeping with other nightmare archetypes, it was scarcely a surprise to see a clown, and the PE teacher ordering you to “do it in your pants” is a familiar scare for many of us!
The return of the Weeping Angels turned out to be a red herring in all sorts of ways; not only were they not real, they were, surprisingly, not a fear intended for any of the regulars. Still, it was nice to see them again, and they looked just as scary as ever. Rather less successful was the visualisation of Lucy Hayward’s ‘terrifying’ brutal gorilla. It was so unconvincing that for a moment I actually thought her greatest phobia was of a man in an ill-fitting gorilla costume. Nick Hurran wisely kept the shots of it down to mere glimpses, but even those made it look rather ropey.
In terms of the guest characters, fun though Howie, Joe and Lucy were, the episode really belonged to just two: Rita and Gibbis. Rita’s sharp intelligence was well-played by Amara Karan, to the extent that she really did seem a bit of a loss as a regular companion (“Amy, with the greatest respect… You’re fired”). And the portrayal of her Muslim faith as being just another part of a real, complex person rather than her main character trait was refreshing. Indeed, her response to the Doctor asking her if she was a Muslim – “Don’t be frightened!” – was a wittier and more pertinent bit of social and political comment than anything Russell T Davies managed in Torchwood this year.
David Walliams as Gibbis was rather harder to ‘praise’. Initially, he seemed solely there to function as comic relief. Though given some very witty lines as a member of the oft-conquered Tivoli race (“Resistance is… exhausting.”) he seemed so over the top that for a while I made the assumption that he would turn out to be the real villain. However, it’s a testament to Toby Whithouse’s skill as a writer that he turned these traits on their head when the Doctor confronted him. The Doctor’s speech made you realise that far from being comic, the Tivoli’s approach of allowing themselves to be conquered by anyone and everyone was actually a ruthlessly shrewd strategy to ensure their own survival, motivated entirely by self-interest. It made Gibbis seem more hard-edged afterward, and made you realise how ruthless he was being in his treacherous sacrifice of Howie to save his own skin.
All in all, I really enjoyed this episode, and thought it a far more effective evocation of common nightmares than Night Terrors – I’ve never had nightmares about killer peg dolls, however sinister they may look, but some of the things lurking in those hotel rooms were definitely familiar. The direction was also more effective for a horror story, and the script showed that standalone episodes can work and still acknowledge and inform the bigger story going on around them. The character examination was every bit as good as The Girl Who Waited, with the focus this time on the Doctor rather than Amy.
The one criticism I do have – and it’s a significant one – is that the ultimate explanation for the events didn’t really live up to everything we’d seen. It’s a prison, fine, but the ‘computer glitches’ that kept all the fears lurking in the rooms felt a little contrived. And maybe I missed it, but there didn’t seem to be any explanation of why the prison for an alien God-imposter would resemble a 1980s hotel in the first place. Another ‘glitch’ I suppose; but the problem here is that, really, no explanation could possibly justify the bizarre series of images and happenings portrayed in this episode. Still, this is one case where it was all done with such brio that I actually found this fairly central flaw quite forgiveable. If nothing else, it shows how contrived explanations can matter less in an otherwise well-written, well-acted and well-directed story.