Saturday, September 17, 2011

The God Complex: You Can Check Out Anytime You Like, But You Can Never Leave

'There's a room here for everyone, Doctor.'

So, here's the deal. The Lord Thy God Steven Moffat (Thou Shalt Worship No Other Gods Before He) said unto Toby Whithouse, 'I'd like you to remake The Shining, please.' Forthwith. If not sooner. Or, something like that, anyway. Of course, that's not quite what happened but, on paper that's pretty much how it looked. What we actually ended up with though was, essentially, an investigation into the route of faith. True and - very - false. But, with bonuses. Like, a study of the shadows in the corridor which belong to the monsters of the imagination. Hell of a bonus, that. There was also a beautifully rational look at both the positives and negatives behind inherent cowardice and all of the grey and desperate spaces in between. A deeply theological passion play about 'belief' in all of its various forms ('you think this is Hell?') A creepy, sinister little menagerie of abuse monsters. And, posssibly most important of all, in an episode with so many elements battling for some prominence; there is - in one line (spoken by Rory as it happens) - a reminder of one of the most memorable, necessary truisms that Doctor Who has, occasionally, toyed with in the past and which, of late, has become one of its core values. That not all victories one can achieve necessarily have to involve saving the universe. The 'little' victories which the last two episodes in particular have also dealt with in abundance are the key to the latest mystery which concerns the worst place in the entire universe - an eighties hotel. And, as somebody who's stayed in more than a few toilets in his time, this blogger can empathise with that. What do you mean, 'room service went off at ten o'clock? This is costing me twenty eight quid a night, mate.'

'The gaps between my worship are getting shorter, like contractions. This is what happened to the others ... Praise him.' Conceptually, Whithouse (the creator of the epic Being Human and author of several previous - excellent - Doctor Who episodes) has devised something genuinely intriguing, here. A prison, created by aliens for a powerful quasi-God, which appears - on the surface - to deal with the worst fears of those who become trapped therein. But, it's not, of course. That would be far too simple, far too ordinary and stale for a writer as ambitious and unusual as Whithouse. So, what the episode actually deals with is a thoroughly satisfying kick, hard, in the sagging knackers to those all of who speak about the aridity of faith - on several levels. Ultimately, this is a story about the way in which only the destruction of faith, any faith, can bring about salvation. It's a really clever little twist on expected genre cliches and it works not just because Whithouse's script is, as you'd hope, witty and brave and just a tiny bit dangerous. But, also, and movingly, because of what it doesn't do. It doesn't try to ram obvious square peg moments of audience recognition into round holes of dramatic content. Or dramatic irony for that matter. The imagery ranges from pre-highlighted and beautifully realised non-sequitars - the sad clown with the red balloon which is, wonderfully, never explained and nor does it need to be - to far darker echoes of everyone's nightmares. The endless corridors. The half-hidden laughter behind closed doors (second time in three weeks for that one). The cheesy musak. The dreams. 'The rooms have things in them.' 'Hello. What sort of things? I like interesting things, ask anyone.' 'Bad dreams.' 'Well, that killed the mood!'

Of course, bad dreams, bad memories, general badness, comes in many shapes and forms depending on the context and the hurt attached to them. The sudden arrival of a bullying PE teacher who says 'Right, that's it. You're doing it in your pants,' being one of the most primal. And, from an ambiguous distance - a hugely safe ambiguous distance at that - very amusing. Though, not to a nine year old, one would wager. Just the same as the belief that 'external forces control the world.' When you find out that, actually, that's a load of nonsense and that the big bad world runs because billions of frighteningly ordinary, banal individuals - us, basically - bumble along doing our own thing and, in most cases, just try hard not to screw up too badly, that's a really scary moment. It happens to us all, usually around about the time that we first discover all of the people we've spent our lives trusting - politicians, the police, our parents, our teachers, our bosses - are just as terrified of failure as we are.
'Why's it up to you to save us? That's quite a God Complex you've got there.'

Once again, as just about every week with Doctor Who these days, The God Complex is a dialogue, lover's dream. 'I'm sorry, but I don't see any huge hats' for one. 'She threatened me with a chair leg,' for another. And, there are plenty more. 'Times like this I think of my old school motto: Resistance is exhausting.' Amy gets some corking lines, notably: 'Don't tell him [The Doctor] I said that because the smugness would be terrifying!' Rory gets even more: 'Somebody hit me. Was it Amy?' And: 'After all the time I spent with you in the TARDIS, what was there left to be scared of?' And then there's The Doctor saying 'Amy, with regret, you're fired!' And: 'Every time the Doctor gets pally with someone I get this overwhelming urge to notify their next of kin.' And, my own particular favourite: '... Because, assembled Ponds, this is not Earth!'

Of course, that's The God Complex at its most basic, its least challenging. A story of caged monsters reaching out for death. A story of nightmares and hidden fears. All of the stuff that's, frankly, been done to death on this show over the years. Remember, this is, after all, a Doctor Who episode - implausibly! - which is a sequel to The Horns of Nimon! But the Minotaur's story is also, forcefully, The Doctor's story. And, just when you think you've got the episode's raison d'être sorted out in your mind, just when you think it's about the hollowness of fleeting emotions, just when you believe that 'death would be a gift' is its coda and 'can I have a lift? Just to the nearest galaxy will do' is the punchline, the episode turns into something much deeper. Something more emotionally challenging and more fraught with problems of its own. The moral core of The God Complex - that we are all responsible for our own actions regardless of our faith in others - is also, in many ways, its the thing that will see it damned with a slight feeling of roads not taken. Which, despite the temptation, is not really justified by what we actually get on-screen. 'I'm not a hero. I really am just a mad man in a box,' is the vital line here. There is a definite impression that The God Complex owes its existence, at least in part, because it's a - perhaps necessary - fop to the idea that The Doctor is all powerful. All knowing and unstoppable. The 'goblin or trickster or warrior' that The Pandorica Opens spoke of who could just show up and change with universe with a click of his fingers. He can still do that, of course, and he often does. But there are times when he really shouldn't and this is one of them. And, you sense, he kind-of knows that. That word 'necessary' is important at this point, it's something which crops up again and again throughout the episode. Hence the final five minutes and the conversations - the necessary conversations - that need to take place are in the audiences mind possibly even before they've realised the fact. 'She'll say that we can't accept it because it's too extravagant and we'll always feel a crippling sense of obligation. It's a risk I'm willing to take!'

Ultimately, this wasn't an episode about The Weeping Angels - as beautiful as their MacGuffin-like cameo appearance was. Nor was it an episode about the contents of The Doctor's room (number eleven!) 'Who else?' he says in fatal recognition as the Cloister Bell tolls, mournfully in the background. We don't know 'who else' because we never get to see into the room - although perhaps Amy's Choice may have given us a few clues if we want to solve the final, unsolvable, mystery of just what is it that keeps the Doctor awake at night. The God Complex isn't, despite the aesthetics, about Gods and monsters, it's actually about small and beautifully ordinary decidedly human emotions. Human needs. It's about social observation. 'Who would mock up an Earth hotel?' 'Colonists, maybe. Recreating a bit of home like when ex-pats open English pubs in Majorca.' It's about - deliciously - stating the bleeding obvious. 'So, what have we got? People being snatched from the lives and dropped into an endless shifting maze that looks like a 1980s hotel with bad dreams in the bedrooms. Apart from anything else, that's just rude!' It's about confessions of the soul: 'I took you with me because I was vain. Because I wanted to be adored.' It's about confessions of the heart. 'Your faith in me. That's what brought us here.' It's about the inherent ludicrousness of conspiracy theories. 'It's amazing you've come up with a theory that's even more insane than what's actually happening.' It's about peer pressure. It's about spite and viciousness and making people feel small just because you can. It's about salvation through destroying false prophets. The God Complex jumps up and down on the idea that The Doctor has all the answers. But, it recognises that he has a few of them and an ability to articulate some universal truths. Necessary truths. 'This is a cup of tea.' 'Of course. I'm British. That's how we cope with trauma. That and tutting.' This is an episode in which The Doctor, admirably, satisfies Terrance Dicks' diktat that he should never be 'cruel or cowardly' by confessing to his own shortcomings and being ruthlessly ambivalent about those of others. Except in one case and even that's understandable. 'Your civilisation is one of the oldest in the galaxy. Now I see why. Your cowardice isn't quaint, it's sly. Aggressive. It's how that strain of gutlessness has survived when so many others have perished. Well, not today. No one else dies today, right?'
So what are we left with, then? Apart from great dialogue, of course - which, as noted, is a given these days. 'Look at the detail on that cheese plant!' And: 'Did you just say "It's okay, we're nice"?!' And: 'Have you tried the front door?' 'No, in two days it never occurred to us to try the front door. Thank God you're here!' And: 'Okay, this is bad. I don't know how bad but certainly we're three buses a long walk and eight quid in a taxi from good.' There's the series first reference to blogging since Rose. There's the 'he's tied up right now,' line. And: 'We're gonna catch ourselves a monster.' A script that deals with big concepts and small details, often simultaneously, well acted and ambitiously directed, with scope, depth and integrity, often almost despite itself. Specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time bound. 'Offer a child a suitcase full of sweets they'll take it. Offer someone all of time and space and they'll take that too. Which is why you shouldn't. Which is why grown-ups were invented.' The smart criteria. We're left with a Doctor Who that, in its last five minutes turns into something else entirely. A requiem for changes. 'I stole your childhood and now I've led you by your hand to your death. And the worst thing is, I knew this would happen.' The Doctor destroys Amy's faith in him (Rory, it seems, never had any in the first place!) to provide a solution. But, in doing so, realises what, perhaps, he's always known. And, certainly, what he should have if he has the sort of brain we believe he does. That he's a really dangerous man to be around.

The Amy and Rory leaving scene is gorgeous but it almost seems to belong in another episode. Not a criticism, in some ways the impact is even stronger to see it come out of left field here. (The fact that Karen and Arthur are in the series finale in two weeks time and that both have alluded to returning for at least part of next series notwithstanding, of course.) 'You haven't seen the last of me. Bad penny is my middle name.' Amy asks 'why now?' and The Doctor replies, with a dignity that the moment fully requires, 'because you're still breathing.' 'You can't just drop me off at my house and say goodbye like we shared a cab,' she argues. But why not, one has to wonder? He's done it so many times before. 'What's the alternative?' he asks, with admirable self-deprecation. 'Me standing over your grave? Over your broken body? Over Rory's body?' And so, that's it. Another one gone (or, actually, another two gone). 'If you bump into my daughter, tell her to visit her mum, sometime.' It's lump in the throat stuff, sure enough. Right up there with 'Sarah Jane, don't you forget me,' and 'Too many people have died today, Doctor,' and 'I'm burning up a sun just to say goodbye,' and 'I don't want to go.'
'What's he doing?' 'He's saving us.' He's The Doctor. He does that. One day, perhaps not too far into the future, it'll be the death of him. The God Complex. A story about the loneliness of the long-distance time traveller. He's alone with the TARDIS now. She, at least, can never be limited in the time she spends with him by the fragility of her existence.
Tragically, the one song that's remotely applicable for Keith Telly Topping's 45 of the Day is some Christforsaken dog-arsed hippie dirge made by drugged-up snowflaked rich clods who all needed a damned good haircut then, and now. Never trust a hippie, dear blog reader. They smell.
So, instead of any of that wretched arse-aching bollocks, let's have some real music instead. Tasty.

PS: Next week, James Corden. No, I'm not happy about it either but, hey, what can you do?!

2 comments:

David Alexander McDonald said...

Ehhhh, I'd have gone with one of the John Cale takes on "Heartbreak Hotel" -- such as this one with Cale, Shawn Colvin, and the utterly magnificent Richard Thompson: http://youtu.be/nDe-HcHJsX0

Zamfeer said...

Great piece! Very well thought out.