Since my glowing review of Day of the Moon, I’ve had much cause to wonder whether my gushing exclamation of ‘Doctor Who is brilliant right now’ could actually apply to subsequent episodes. And I’ve repressed these feelings, these dark opinions, because I don’t want to sound like Jan Vincent-Rudzki reviewing The Deadly Assassin or DWB in the 1980s. I’ve never been a ranty fan; I’ve always sought the positive in my favourite waste of time (and shelf space) when others have stuck the boot in and twisted the knife. I’ve loved Doctor Who (and always will) since 1973, but Series 6 has tested that love more than any other. But maybe long-term fans like me are just too old for this sort of thing now; maybe Doctor Who isn’t being made for us anymore.
If I’m not the licence fee paying audience for this show, then I don’t know who is. And there are others like me (you, probably) who’ll follow this wonderful idea across media and through long and changing years to cheer it on even when it’s not as thrilling or as focussed as it once was.
Now, I’m not saying Series 6 has been bad, far from it; it features perhaps the best Doctor bar none (the endlessly brilliant Matt Smith); it features one of the series’ greatest companions (Arthur Darvill’s delightful Rory Williams); and it’s the best-looking programme on TV (beautifully designed and gorgeously photographed). But after Day of the Moon things really slumped: that pirate story was one of the dullest in the series’ history; Neil Gaiman’s TARDIS love story was ambitious but stifled, nay, sterile; and don’t let’s dwell on the tedious ineptitude of that clone story.
Fortunately, things picked up mid-season with the ‘finale’ (great ideas, wonderful characters) and the re-launch (fast, furious and confident, if convoluted). OK, so Night Terrors was a little limp, no matter how sumptuous it looked, but The Two Amy’s took us in a bolder and more philosophically challenging direction, whilst showcasing Karen Gillan’s excellent acting abilities.
So I turned on The God Complex hoping it might retain the previous week’s ambition, but fearing it would offer the now worryingly usual ingredients: an annoying kid, an eerie mystery revealed to be a malfunctioning bit of mundane space-kit, a wise-cracking Amy, arch whispers about the Doctor’s fate, someone dying but not really (probably Rory), death being treated as something you can resolve with a glass of Berocca, and time and reality being bent and rewound all over the place until – you know what? – nothing actually matters any more.
And I’ve had to ask these questions quite a lot just lately. If none of this is ‘real’, then why are we still watching? If people can die but not be dead after all, then what value can stories have? If events happen but are then erased and so didn’t happen, then what are we investing in here?
The current production team can big-up these stories up all they want on Confidential, telling us this is the best one yet and asking us what’s not to love, but sooner or later worlds without internal logic will unravel and cease to have meaning for those who have invested in them. It’s not that the stories we’ve been given should never have made it to our screens, it’s just that some of them really needed to be much more specific about the story they were trying to tell.
This kind of criticism is frowned upon by the current team, I think. There is a general sense that if we don’t like a story, then we’re ungrateful or, if we’re not making TV shows of our own, we should shut up and get over our own inadequacy; which is a shame, because I’d love, just once, to hear RTD or The Grand Moff tell us not how great everything is, but how crap something might have turned out. Until they do, as one who loves Doctor Who, I’ll always feel nervous being critical of it out loud, on record.
So, there’s the context to my viewing of The God Complex, to which I came to with no prior knowledge, no ‘Next Week’ trailer, nothing. Apart from knowing David Walliams was in it. And I’m more than happy to say that it wrong-footed my jaded expectations more than once. For that I am extremely grateful.
For the first third, I worried about the forced surrealism (another mainstay of the Smith era). Some will say that the room full of ventriloquist dummies was scary, but although they presented a lovely image, they offered no real chills because, well, they didn’t actually do anything. If you want a truly scary ventriloquist dummy let me point you in the direction of Talons of Weng-Chiang; that one’s a swine and it’ll stab you in the heart. The presence of these dummies seems designed to suggest that we were in a kind of Celestial Toymaker / Mind Robber ‘sideways’ adventure where reality was bent and twisted to serve the whims of some ‘exterior’ being. To some extent this was, of course, true.
Soon though, with a small cast assembled in one closed location, I began to think ‘base under siege’, which was also partly true. But what a cast: Amara Karan (as Rita) and Dimitri Leonida (as Howie) proved to be brilliantly realised companions to the regular team, offering performances of such focus that it was both a shame and a shock to have them die (although you knew Rita’s fate was sealed as soon as the Doctor took a shine to her). And it would have been easy to cast David Walliams as a lead character, a villain perhaps; but instead of chewing up the scenery and filling the screen with his celebrity, Walliams came in as the perfect team player, as equal as the other cast members and as brilliantly believable (my favourite moment of his being the simple ‘port-hole’ moment: ‘See that green planet there…’).
So ‘sideways’ and ‘base under siege’: two classic Doctor Who story types eliding to give us something claustrophobic and mysterious, and even though I thought I had the measure of it, I could never have expected it to have been so tightly directed. The vision-mixes during the ‘Praise him’ sequences were new and frantic, as were the eerie juxtapositions when characters faced the camera showing terror that quickly made a jump-cut to laughter. Also particularly effective were the full-screen sequences taken from the black and white monitors, which provided fractured sense of voyeurism.
So far, so very efficient and technically precise, but the real turning point in Toby Whithouse’s story came when we realised that the whole scenario had been created by a ‘false god’, a simple but effective idea kicked heartily up the backside by Doctor Who’s long-running secular philosophy. Here, I was taken fully by surprise and found myself once again thrilled by the series’ forward-thinking empiricist approach to the numinous. The most delightful moment of this story strand had to be the Doctor’s ‘that’s enough of that’ / pull the plug approach to Howie’s blindly rapturous paean to an unseen deity whose sole aim was to prey upon his lack of ‘advancement’.
Oh, and once it was clear that everyone ‘had a room’, all we really wanted to know was ‘What’s in the Doctor’s?’ That this answer held the key to the story’s resolution was made all the more intriguing because we were never shown what it was. Sure, we heard the tolling of the TARDIS cloister bell, which had me quite unconsciously imagining the Master, but on reflection I’m not sure that he didn’t see Adric here.
It seems like an odd thing to suggest, but having glimpsed his nightmare, the Doctor goes to great lengths to destroy Amy’s faith in him (there’s a similar scene in The Curse of Fenric). The Doctor must surely have glimpsed some failure that resulted in the death of a companion? But I could be wrong. It’s quite possible he simply saw himself, and the cloister bell was what he heard as he drew upon his own faith. The ambiguity of this is what makes it all the more tantalising. And this, perversely, is where The God Complex restored my own faith in Doctor Who’s ability to truly surprise me.
The death of Rita was a powerful and difficult moment for the Doctor, who had to suddenly come to terms with the very new notion that there might be others willing to do the saving, others who do not wish for his interference in their affairs and those who do not desire to be saved.
This alone would have been enough to give us one of Doctor Who’s best-ever moments, but then the fear / faith revelation and its climactic enactment in Amy’s room was one of the most tender and heart-rending in this series or any other. That the whole thing led to the sudden and painful departure of Amy and Rory Williams was something that came right out of left field…
Now, I’m assuming Amy and Rory have really left? This could be like Martha’s departure at the end of Series 2, and the Williams’ could well return next year – or even the week after next… I’d heard Amy would be back next year – and maybe she will – or was that just sleight of hand? It was a sudden and, consequently, shocking way to have them go (think Ben and Polly or Jamie and Zoe), but the more it appeared to be really happening, the more sense it seemed to make. The Doctor chose well here; refusing to stand over their dead bodies. Not that he hasn’t done so already; most recently with poor Old Amy last week.
What had she done to warrant having her life erased just so Rory and the Doc could have a more nubile version to hang out with? In the light of this week’s sudden (properly) ‘game-changing’ climax, the choice not to leave with Old Amy seems odd now. Maybe something that daring and brilliant would be too icky for some viewers? I really don’t know any more. But even though the Doctor opted to ‘save’ Amy and Rory by sending them off on a new and bigger adventure, it seemed that such a moving decision came at an odd place in the overall narrative arc.
Sure, Gillan got a corker of an episode to herself last week, but is the Amy story really over? Is one of the best TARDIS teams in the series’ history now gone, before we’ve even had the chance to take it all in? Although I’ve not been the biggest fan of Amy, I don’t feel entirely satisfied that her story went anywhere after the mid-season break. But part of me likes that (even if she still doesn’t seem that fussed about losing her baby).
And then part of me wonders if the production team wants part of me to like that, and then that part of me doubts it and another, more jaded, part of me thinks there’s no plan here at all and the production team are still failing to find any specificity with what this meandering season might be trying to achieve. But I just don’t know, do I? How could I? And who am I to second-guess them, when they’re able to surprise me with something as beautifully affecting as The God Complex?
After all, Series 6 isn’t over yet. To quote the first Doctor’s last (-ish) words: ‘It’s far from being over…’ And given our Nimon-cousin’s final elegiac words to the Eleventh Doctor – which seem to place us in the kind of territory the Tenth Doctor found himself in with a single ghostly Ood – will there be yet bigger, even more shocking, surprises before this season draws to a close?
Elton Townend Jones blogs as 1980s Doctor Who fan Ritcherd Winterfood at:
and writes about film at: