Doctor Who: The God Complex (2011) Review

Doctor Who The God Complex Eleven's Plan

“The God Complex” is written by Toby Whithouse, who returns to pen his third story for Doctor Who. In the same vein as Neil Gaiman’s “The Doctor’s Wife“, “The God Complex” was originally intended to be an adventure in Series 5, but it wound up being pushed back until Series 6, when Steven Moffat and Toby Whithouse both agreed that the premise was too similar to several other episodes the show was handling that year. Toby wound up writing “The Vampires Of Venice” instead, and in retrospect, saving “The God Complex” for Matt Smith’s second season was definitely the right choice, since the basic premise of this episode works a lot better now that the Eleventh Doctor’s character has been firmly established.

If there’s anything that really makes Toby’s episodes stand out, any special signature of his, it’s the fact that almost all of them scrutinize the Doctor’s character and critique his way of doing things. “School Reunion” pointed out how he rarely ever keeps contact with his friends once they leave the TARDIS. “The Vampires Of Venice” asked the question of whether or not he’s too careless with the safety of the people he brings along with him in the TARDIS. In “A Town Called Mercy“, the Doctor himself starts to wonder if he’s too merciful with the way he treats his enemies, and nearly swings too far to the opposite extreme in an attempt to do things differently. In “Before The Flood”, the Doctor is quite rightly called out for seeming to prioritize Clara’s safety over the group of one-off characters he’s supposed to be helping (and the same can be said about Clara, in regards to the Doctor). Like “A Good Man Goes To War” earlier this season, “The God Complex” is a pretty important episode when it comes to the Eleventh Doctor’s character development, and a wake up call that he’s needed for quite a while. The events of this episode also have lasting ramifications for the show, that stretch beyond the Eleventh Doctor’s era.

Doctor Who The God Complex The Trio 5

In “The God Complex”, the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) and his friends are unexpectedly trapped inside an endlessly shifting labyrinth made to look like a 1980’s hotel, with a bunch of other strangers, so he quickly puts his detective hat on. Something evil is lurking inside the building, hunting them all down as its prey, so he takes it upon himself to save everyone from it; but despite his best efforts, their numbers rapidly dwindle as more and more people get killed off.

Throughout the Eleventh Doctor’s tenure, it’s frequently left ambiguous how much of his happy-go-lucky manchild personality is genuine, and how much of it is an affectation that he keeps up to amuse himself and his friends. According to Steven Moffat and Matt Smith, it’s a bit of both, and that really shows from just how quickly Eleven’s mood can change from being perky and optimistic, to being an ice cold bitch. For instance, there’s one scene where the Doctor feels absolutely disgusted by Gibbis’s suggestion that everyone leave Howie behind to be killed by the minotaur, so he proceeds to not only verbally eviscerate him but his entire species as being cowardly and pathetic. Hot damn. I never get tired of those moments where Eleven lets his mask of unflappable positivity drop. The Eleventh Doctor’s sleuthing method is explored in detail once again in this episode: how he works through a bunch of different theories with each new, vital piece of information he gets. He makes several costly mistakes along the way, and unlike his slip-ups in “The Curse Of The Black Spot“, the consequences are permanent this time. Because he made an error in judgment, mistaking faith for fear, he not only failed to help the guest characters in this episode, he actually made things worse by speeding up their demises, which is a pretty devastating revelation.

Toby Whithouse’s main critique of the Doctor in this episode is about why he takes on companions: he invites them along with him to see the world when he knows from his past track record that something bad will happen to them eventually, that their luck will eventually run out. At one point, he acknowledges to Rita that it’s probably selfish for him to keep putting his friends in that kind of danger, but he keeps on doing it, to stave off his loneliness. It’s a very harsh look at the Doctor’s character, but it’s also true: he’s cycled through so many companions since the franchise started in the 1960’s, and in NuWho, they rarely ever leave the TARDIS under good conditions. During the climax, the Doctor has to save Amy’s life by breaking her faith in him, by removing every last illusion she might have about him. He says so many hurtful things about himself to do so, and as far as he’s concerned, all of them are true.

After the Ponds have had several close shaves with death this season and suffered terrible losses, he decides to break the cycle of tragic companion departures and take them home. He understands the importance now of his friends having a life outside of him, so they won’t lose touch with their roots. In his eyes, he’s doing the responsible thing and keeping them safe, but it’s also easy to read this decision as him punishing himself. With Amy and Rory gone, he’s alone with his own depression and self-loathing now, and for the Doctor, that’s one of the worst things in the world. As sad as the coda of this episode is, it’s even sadder in hindsight, because the Doctor’s greatest fears about what could happen to Amy and Rory do eventually come true, because he couldn’t fully commit to the decision he made to leave them behind – because he kept coming back to them in the name of friendship, and as such, the cycle of tragic companion departures continued anyway in “The Angels Take Manhattan“.

Doctor Who The God Complex Lucy's Letter 2

In “The God Complex”, Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill) spend much of this episode trying to help out the Doctor with his plans, and they’re increasingly horrified as all of their fellow ‘guests’ in the hotel get murdered. As we established in “The Doctor’s Wife”, every death Rory can’t prevent hits him pretty hard as a nurse, so he’s very saddened by Howie’s demise, and a bit regretful too, since he didn’t respect him much while the man was still around. Throughout this episode, Amy does her part to keep everyone’s spirits up when things get bleak. She encourages her fellow survivors to have faith in the Doctor to work his magic and come through for them, because he’ll surely do something incredibly clever that will save all their lives at the last minute.

And as it turns out, Amy’s faith is exactly the reason why our heroes were drawn to this cursed building in the first place. Rory doesn’t have that kind of faith in the Doctor, and even if he did, it would have evaporated by now, after the way the Doctor stabbed them both in the backs in the last episode. During the climax, the Doctor has to break Amy’s faith in him to save her life from the minotaur, and it’s worth noting that it really doesn’t take much for him to tear down her rosy image of him. In truth, despite what Amy says, her hero worship of the Doctor has been waning for quite some time now. The Doctor let her and Rory down in Demons’ Run, with massive consequences for their daughter, Melody. Then he apparently left an older version of her to die in Two-Streams in the last episode, stabbing her and Rory in the back. Over the course of Series 6, Amy has started to get a much clearer picture of the Doctor’s flaws and the uglier sides of his personality, beyond just being a madcap hero who can pull off miracles.

Throughout “The God Complex”, Amy and Rory both seem very tired, jaded and burnt out, especially Rory. Traveling in the TARDIS isn’t really fun or healthy for them anymore. They’ve missed out on a chance to have a normal relationship with their daughter, Rory has nearly died several times, Amy has experienced all sorts of trauma, and they’re both carrying around the burden of knowing something terrible is going to happen to their best friend in his future. At this point, they’re both just going through the motions, and a break from time-traveling is just what they need. When the Doctor drops them off at their home at the end of this episode, Amy knows him well enough to guess what’s happening, and she’s pretty heartbroken that things have come to this. She’s worried she might never see him again, especially with his ‘death’ still waiting for him in Utah, but in light of everything else that’s happened this season, she reluctantly agrees that going their separate ways is for the best. The future is pretty uncertain right now, for the Doctor and the Ponds.

While their departure from the series at the end of Series 7A draws near, “The God Complex” isn’t quite the end for Amy and Rory. The Doctor’s big takeaway from this episode is that his friends should have a life outside of him: so they can stay safe, but also so they won’t miss out on big, important milestones that every human should have. As such, Amy and Rory travel on-and-off in the TARDIS at their own leisure for the remaining episodes of their tenure. Clara and Bill are given the same deal when they become the Doctor’s companions. In fact, it’s not until we’re introduced to the Thirteenth Doctor and her friends at the start of the Chibnall era that the companions start traveling full-time in the TARDIS again, so the events of this episode clearly had a lasting impact on the Doctor for the rest of the Moffat era.

Doctor Who The God Complex Eleven And Rita 2

The main hook of “The God Complex” is the spooky idea that small groups of people from all around the world are randomly transported to a floating prison in space, where they become food for a hungry minotaur. When it comes to their backgrounds, these people all have nothing in common with each other (one of them is even from a different planet than the others), but when it comes to their personalities, they do share one common link: they all lean very heavily on their personal faiths, whether they’re religious, or superstitious, or simply skeptical of the world around them.

The hotel prison is designed to show people their deepest fears so they’ll fall back on their most fundamental faiths, making their minds malleable and more vulnerable than ever, to the point where the minotaur can easily brainwash them. Once they’re stripped of their faiths and their fears, they basically lose their personalities and become mindless drones. They start to worship the minotaur as a divine being, and they not only accept their deaths as something that’s inevitable, they start to see it as a blessing – a rapture and a reward for the faithful. It’s an extremely messed-up process. Every death of a supporting character is more painful than the last, as we start to lose people we’ve grown attached to, and Rita’s death scene is by far the hardest one to watch. It’s rather chilling to think that this cycle of death that’s been forced upon innocent people has been going on for years before this episode even started, and it would have persisted for many more years if our heroes hadn’t been drawn into it one day (to say nothing of how the makers of this prison have gotten off scot free for callously abducting people and turning them into human sacrifices on a daily basis for centuries).

Among the supporting cast of this episode, you have Rita, a humble but outspoken Muslim woman who quickly proves herself to be clever, sensible and brave. The Doctor quickly takes a shine to her: in fact, he even invites her onboard the TARDIS as a potential companion – and if you recall what happened to Astrid, Jenny and Lynda With A Y, then you know that kind of proposal is practically a death sentence for a guest character on this show. There’s also Howie, a socially awkward, nerdy guy who’s a big believer in conspiracy theories; Joe, a bigtime gambler who hedges all on his bets on luck; and Gibbis, the only alien ‘guest’ in the hotel besides the Doctor.

Gibbis comes from a planet that’s regularly invaded by hostile forces, and passiveness is regularly praised in his culture. As such, he’s handed over complete control and autonomy over his life to tyrants, in the hopes that the next group of oppressors will at least be kind. His character is pretty much the antithesis of everything the Doctor believes in: he’s portrayed as a complete, shameless coward who’s determined to survive at all costs – so when the minotaur is hunting Howie down as his next victim, Gibbis is all onboard with tossing Howie to the wolves to save his own skin. In the end, Gibbis is actually one of the only ones who’s spared the fate of being killed by the minotaur, because he lost his most deeply held faith early on, which unknowingly took him off the minotaur’s menu. Similar to the way things turned out in “Voyage Of The Damned“, it’s ironic and more than a bit unjust that a lot of good people lost their lives in this episode, while a two-faced snake like Gibbis manages to slip by unscathed. But sometimes, Doctor Who likes to acknowledge that the outcome who lives and who dies in a crisis probably won’t be decided by karma.

Doctor Who The God Complex Farewell 5

The main antagonist of this episode, the minotaur, is a great, big, lumbering brute of a monster, and certainly one of the more impressive creations that the costume department has meticulously crafted in recent seasons, but there is a bit more to him beyond being a mindless, ravenous beast. The minotaur possesses a fair amount of intelligence, and rather remarkably, Toby Whithouse manages to get the audience to feel a bit of sympathy for him because of his circumstances. The Doctor gets a chance to interrogate him in one scene and he discovers he’s a prisoner – a former world-conquering tyrant who who was overthrown and imprisoned by his old subjects. The minotaur is ancient, a creature who’s well past his prime, but he’s been kept alive for centuries as a cruel sort of mercy – and he longs for the sweet release of death, a chance for him to finally rest.

Toby Whithouse draws a very deliberate and unsettling parallel between the Doctor and the villain of this episode: by this point in his life, the minotaur is a hollowed out shell of a man who’s basically running on instinct. He destroys everyone he comes in contact with to fulfil his own needs: even if he doesn’t want to, he can’t stop himself, and nothing else can stop him either. At the journey’s end, the Doctor and his friends finally manage to defeat him, which is basically a mercy kill, and he’s granted his wish to die in peace. But before he goes, he recognizes the Doctor as a kindred spirit and gives him some advice, alien to alien, that shakes him to his core. The Doctor sees a bit of himself in the minotaur, his own pattern of behavior that’s been hurting himself and his friends for years, which certainly succeeds in making him feel like a monster and is undoubtedly what gives him his final push towards parting ways with the Ponds for the time being.

“The God Complex” is helmed by Nick Hurran, who also worked on the previous episode, “The Girl Who Waited“, and his direction is a lot more gripping and dynamic in this time around. Throughout this episode, we’re treated to plenty of Dutch angle shots, dolly zoom shots, overhead shots, point-of-view shots, low angle shots, sped-up montages. Almost every decision Nick makes in the director’s chair to designed to make this story as visually bizarre and disorienting as possible, and he definitely manages to pull it off – the haunted hotel certainly comes off as the sort of place you would never want to find yourself in, let alone get lost in. “The God Complex” is not an episode that demands a lot of hard work and effort from the Mill: most of the visual effects in this episode are achieved through prosthetics, practical effects, or simple camera trickery – though there are some lovely shots of the phony hotel disintegrating in the climax, once the virtual reality illusion is broken.

Compared to his usual style of music that he writes for the series, Murray Gold’s electronic score is a lot more downbeat and reserved in this episode, letting the mood and tension of this episode quietly simmer in pieces like “The Hotel Prison“, “Fear Enough“, “What’s Left To Be Scared Of?” and “Rita Praises” (“The Hotel Prison” is particular is designed to resemble your typical elevator muzak, that purposely clashes with the tense mood of this story). Just like his selection of reused tracks in “The Girl Who Waited”, Murray brings back a few noteworthy piece from previous episodes like “Can I Come With You?“, “The Life And Death Of Amy Pond” and “The Impossible Astronaut” that are associated with Amy and her friendship with the Doctor, to really underscore the fact that things between the Doctor and the Ponds will never quite be the same again.

“The God Complex” is pretty comfortably the strongest episode Toby Whithouse has written for Doctor Who so far, taking the series into some pretty grim and contemplative territory; and Series 6 once again knocks it out of the park when it comes to developing the Eleventh Doctor’s relationship with the Ponds, as we enter the home stretch of this season.

Rating: 10/10.

Side-Notes:

Doctor Who The God Complex Don't Blink 2

* “My name is Lucy Hayward, and I’m the last one left. It’s funny. You don’t know what’s going to be in your room until you see it, then you realize it could have never been anything else. The gaps between my worship are getting shorter. This is what happened to the others. It’s all so clear now. I’m so happy. Praise him. Praise him“.

* “Oh, you’re good. Oh, she’s good. Amy, with regret, you’re fired” “What?!” Typical time lords, always trading in their sidekicks for newer models.

* “The rooms have things in them” “Things? Hello! What kind of things? Interesting things? I love things, ask anyone” “Bad dreams” “…Well, that killed the mood”.

* “There’s a room here for everyone, Doctor. Even you”.

* “Here comes a candle to light you to bed. Here comes a chopper to chop off your head. Chop, chop, chop, chop“.

* “Personally, I think you’ve got the right idea. Times like this, I think of my old school motto: resistance is exhausting”.

* “That’s amazing” “It’s all there on the internet” “No, it’s amazing you’ve come up with a theory even more insane than what’s actually happening”.

* “Every time the Doctor gets pally with someone, I have this overwhelming urge to notify their next of kin” Oof. So do we, Rory. So do we.

* “What exactly happened to him?” “He died” “…You are a medical doctor, aren’t you? You haven’t just got a degree in cheese-making or something?” “No! Well, yes, both, actually”.

* “This is a cup of tea” “Of course, I’m British, it’s how we cope with trauma. That and tutting” Amy and Rory are gonna need a lot of tea then.

* “Ha! You think this is hell?” “The whole 80’s hotel thing took me by surprise, though” Don’t you know, Rita? The devil was very fond of that decade.

* “Your civilization 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 gene of gutlessness has survived while so many others have perished. Well, not today. No one else dies today”.

* “Okay, but what are we actually going to do?” “We’re going to catch ourselves a monster”.

* There’s a quick and easy to miss hint that Rita’s possession is already starting to kick in. When our heroes discover Howie’s lifeless body, Amy and Rory are suitably horrified, while Rita is smiling. Most people wouldn’t be grinning at a corpse unless there was something wrong with them.

* “You know, Howie had been in speech therapy. He’d just got over this massive stammer. What an achievement. I mean, can you imagine? I’d forgotten not all victories are about saving the universe”.

* “I brought them here. They’d say it was their choice, but offer a child a suitcase full of sweets and 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”.

* “Amy, forget your faith in me. I took you with me because I was vain. Because I wanted to be adored. Look at you, the glorious Pond, the girl who waited for me. I’m not a hero. I really am just a madman in a box. And it’s time we saw each other as we really are. Amy Williams, it’s time to stop waiting”.

* “An ancient creature, drenched in the blood of the innocent, drifting in space through an endless, shifting maze. For such a creature, death would be a gift. Then accept it, and sleep well…. I wasn’t talking about myself“.

* “Amy, what happened? What’s he doing?” “He’s saving us”.

Further Reading:

Doctor Who The God Complex Farewell 2

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