TV Earlier this evening, at about tea time, I visited our usual Fish and a Chip emporium. After ordering, I nipped out to the pillar box to post a dvd back to Lovefilm (Maaasshhhette!) and when I returned I leaned against the counter and must have looked a bit bedraggled. I’ve been growing my hair long again and it hasn’t quite reached the stage of sitting properly so the fringe sometimes falls forward across my face. The lady behind the counter asked what was wrong, and smelling the salt and vinegar and curry sauce in the air, I simply said “I’m just hungry.” I may have sounded like The Wire.
The lady stepped forward, pulled out of the foil trays in which their pies are usually served in, steps over to the chip warmer and shovels some into the tray. I’m embarrassed of course and tell she doesn’t have to, but all she says asks is “Salt and vinegar?” I reply in the affirmative, politely, and after shaking and spraying it with condiments, places the tray at my eye level, finally reaching for and skewering a small plastic fork vertically into the top. I thank her again and then begin munching and as is always the case with chips from this chip emporium they’re gorgeous.
Right now, that’s exactly the experience of watching Doctor Who each Saturday night with Moffat et al as the woman in the Chip shop, offering before us an always unexpected special treat. Never mind last week’s astonishing episode, here’s another one. By turns funny, creepy and exciting, Toby Whithouse’s The God Complex is the final instalment of what we can now see as a trilogy of surrealist fantasies of the kind which you can’t imagine any other broadcaster offering up on a Saturday night in this timeslot. #ilovethebbc
As with both of the previous episodes, it's possible to list the story’s influences. Whithouse himself has presented a hotel filled with nightmares in his own Being Human and having those nightmares feeding back into the consciousness is almost a running joke on Buffy The Vampire Slayer (like everything else). As was unexpectedly noted in closing dialogue of explanation they’re chased by Nimon redux (squee), sapping of belief was almost the reverse of the main central chapter in the “Repelling the curse of Fenric for Dummies” and the effects of the bliss pure Star Trek V.
Plus corridors, corridors, corridors. Shifting corridors. And stairs. Though not to the point of recursive occlusion. Whithouse is also tapping into our own fears of disorientation, of not being able to control our space or at least the spaces we’re existing in. Anyone who’s experienced Liverpool’s unending road improvement schedule with its ever changing traffic management can seriously relate. The hotel is clearly supposed to evoke the film version of The Shining, especially when said bliss envelops the victims and they find themselves in the spiral of repetition.
Whithouse’s script respects those sources but makes some significant choices which break away from potential cliché. For a start, the nightmares aren’t milked. They’re rarely scary in similar efforts, which is why the Elm Street film series so quickly turned to satire and King so often chooses universally creepy figures like clowns. So Whithouse largely uses them as a trigger for the horror of the “rapture”. Joe's is already in situ and the rest are barely glimpsed and deliberately chosen to only be significant to the victim and mostly stereotypical.
The master-stroke is not giving us the nightmare which most other series would be so pornographically desperate to show us they’d put it in the trailer. Quite rightly, the Doctor’s apparently unaffected by the brainwashing and opens the door just out of curiosity. The sound of the cloister bell, a sigh of resignation, then closed again. What did he see? What can scare a man who’s barbecued his own race in order to destroy something even scarier, who’s cheated death, so, so many times. My guess? Himself. But the contents of that room have to be returned to.
What does the Doctor believe in? When he’s asked directly by Ida whilst dangling in The Satan Pit he doesn’t answer the question, says that he hasn’t seen everything, that he doesn’t know, before plunging into the black. You may remember other examples. If he has any kind of faith, it’s probably in the humanoid spirit, which was what made Midnight a tragedy because he was only able to bring out the worst in those units. Perhaps the real answer is obscured like so much else by the question inherent in the title of the series.
Unless it’s faith in his subjects. In Fenric it was his companions, his list from Susan upwards warding them off. That seems simplistic, but the scene in which he shook Amy’s faith in him underscores of late the near religious fervour he can engender, never mind a lonely God, he’s David Koresh in a box, as Davros suggested his disciples willing to die for him. The intercutting between Karen and Caitlin underscores how he views Amy, that she’s still the little girl he met when he was still cooking and what we saw was her understand that was the still care.
Was it thematically critical of faith in general, that faith will get you killed if you're not careful? Not unless you modify that to faith will get you killed if you're trapped in a mad hotel etc. When Rita confirms to the Doctor that she's a Muslim he's genuinely excited by the prospect. As Gridlock and Last of the Time Lords demonstrate, this is a show that positively adores faith even if its just a machine for binding people together to create hope. Amy tells Gibbis that the Doctor will get him out alive. Despite the alien's ambiguous morals, he does. End of.
Perhaps the most shocking moment in the episode is the rawness of Rory's joke about wondering if when the Doctor talks to someone, he should advise the next of kin. Perhaps an indication of the slight fracture in their relationship after The Girl Who Waited, it references back to a similar moment in Whithouse's The Vampires of Venice. The process is to underscore Rory's disturbing lack of faith, the thing which is keeping him alive, but it tempers the resonances noted above.
If you want my real guess for how his story this season will resolve itself, never mind Miracle Day, the Doctor will somehow make the universe forget him. Moffat’s already hinted towards a shift away from his god-like status, if the Silence don’t know who he is, why would they attack him so how could he die? Unless that’s how “silence will fall”. Everyone he knows, all the lives he’s touched in his history will forget the name Doctor and he’ll be really all alone without his reputation to assist him, a stranger to River, to UNIT, to all his friends. QED.
The script is also a textbook demonstration of how to create characters we care about and more significantly that we care about when they die (downwards glance). If Howie is bit too Whizz Kid for my tastes, Rita is beautifully realised clearly meant to evoke all of the nuWho Doctor’s previous companions with her sharp wit and willingness to speak to the Doctor as an equal. The tea references make me chuckle now that I'm researching this paragraph because Amara Karan is I think the first actor in the Whoniverse to have worked with Wes Anderson. In The Darjeeling Limited. Playing a character called Rita.
Making his third appearance in the Whoniverse, after turning up in Mark Gattis’s audio Phantasmagoria and the Doctor Who Night skits also with Mark Gattis is David Walliams, almost unrecognisable as Mark Gattis, sorry Gibbis, making the most of a character which could just as well have been created by Douglas Adams. An alien who wants to be oppressed is just the sort of twisted logic he would have loved (see the Dish of the Day) my favourite line being the row of trees being put in so that the invading army can keep in the shade as they’re marching to the capital.
And again, another beautifully directed episode. Nick Hurran’s had an interesting career. According to the imdb, his first work was on Telly Addicts, before moving into sitcom with a dozen episodes of Never The Twain, then Big Break, Boon before oscillating between tv drama and film, the auteur behind some of my guilty pleasures like Virtual Sexuality. He was last on The Prisoner mini-series and now here he is creating visually stunning Doctor Who that as it transpires was the source for much of the preview trailer for this half of the series.
The most striking element is that he and the DP aren’t afraid to rest on close-ups. That was a feature last week too, even in action sequences we’re right up in actor’s faces, risking a lack of narrative clarity in favour of seeking a character's thought processes. The shots of the Doctor in particular seem like some of the closest, his strange congregation of features both enigmatic and reassuring, demonstrating how carefully thought through Matt’s performance actually is, now and then revealing the flashes of fear which provide the Time Lord’s motivation.
But as the night continues and the episode recedes into my memory (until the blu-ray release) we can’t complete our acquaintance without reference to the conclusion. Imagine for a moment if this was Amy and Rory’s final moment in the series. External forces like interviewers with microphones at conventions and twitter chatter have put paid to that, but how beautiful would it be if, just once, the Doctor chose to leave his companions behind. Not out of failure, not like Adam. Or obligation like Sarah Jane. But because he knows that eventually something will happen to them and he can’t stand by and let it.
To an extent it is an empty gesture because we know Amy and Rory will be back, they’re just taking a week off because of the Cardiff double banking quandary. Plus the Doctor’s faced worse things than the hotel of doom with its horny Minatour and not thought it prudent to drop his plus ones and twos off just in case, y’know. However well written and acted this scene, this can’t be the end for them unless the referencing of the 60s episode drifts backwards from The Mind Robber to Dodo’s exit in The War Machines.
The ambiguity is what’s compelling here. The words not spoken. Like the best drama, we’re asked to fill in the gaps. He knows now that he’ll be travelling to his death and somehow that these versions of his friends won’t be there. Amy understands that she’s already met this future Doctor; she knows that at some point he’s going to have some wild adventures with her daughter, perhaps with everyone finally on the same page. Worse episodes, worse series would have barrelled towards melodrama. But he doesn’t mention it to her, she to him or indeed she to Rory.
Now we’re in the end game, a cyber-Cordon episode representing part of the two hundred years traffic, the old creature trapped in the maze of the universe and time, with a thousand pieces of spin-off fiction to fill in the rest of the gaps. Then presumably a return to the beach in Utah and the final showdown with the Silence. Treat, after treat, after treat. Generally unexpected, always welcome and in a week when another corner of the Whoniverse made some us feel very tired and a bit tetchy, a reminder that there is still a reason to keep the faith and praise him like we should.