Saturday, 17 September 2011

You're Fired: Doctor Who review


TELEVISION REVIEW

DOCTOR WHO: 'The God Complex'

Faith is a big and deep thing, beyond love or belief. It is an absolute, unshakeable conviction that whatever it is you have faith in will always be there, ready to do the right thing. From a different perspective, it is also imprisonment. Faith can become overwhelming, trapping the adherent into an endless cycle of dependence. For all the strength it can give in moments of doubt or need, it can also reduce a person to nothing but an instrument. Whether it is a God or science or something else entirely, the concept of faith has been one of the driving forces of human history, often for good, sometimes for bad.

'The God Complex' had a few neat metaphors for portraying that duality on-screen, but didn't have sufficient faith in its own idea to follow it through as well as it needed to. It felt overfamiliar, with this being the third episode in a row where the Doctor and friends had to run away down corridors from a threat which could defeat with little more than a touch (okay, so the design of the corridors has been mixed and the minotaur dragged people away before killing them, but the similarities were still far too strong), only this time with a rather pedestrian monster and uninspired interpretations of fear.
 
The concept of a labyrinthine hotel isn't particularly new, as I'm pretty sure that at least one series of Star Trek - I think The Next Generation, but possibly Deep Space Nine - has already covered the same ground, not to mention Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey, whose concept of hell was almost identical, but delivered with more flair. The directorial flourishes here, such as the use of fast forward and slow motion, were just irritatingly unnecessary.

It is admittedly an effective idea, as anyone who has walked down identikit hotel corridors will know how weirdly distant they can feel. Unfortunately, the fears behind each of the doors were of the most generic variety: an internet geek who is terrified of girls, or an asian daughter whose fear is a pushy father. Amy's will have been obvious to anyone who saw last week's episode, although it was another excuse to bring in the adorable Caitlin Blackwood, and though the audience were clearly expected to speculate about what was behind The Doctor's door, the invitation was made far too bluntly to be inviting or suggest that the writer had any idea of what was in there. The numbers may have been more important, but I'll get to that a little later.

Pulling in the minotaur from Greek mythology - which was actually called a minotaur in the episode, so I'm assuming that's the official name - vaguely tied into the theme, as the stories of Daedalus (the architect who built the labyrinth in the myth) and Icarus (his son) are deeply bound up in concepts like faith and idolatry. Unfortunately, the episode made little apparent use of the stories or themes surrounding the minotaur and the labyrinth, sticking with little but the iconography of a bull-headed man in a maze-like environment.

The idea of faith was instead used as a plot device introduced as a means for resolving the situation all too easily, with The Doctor stumbling across the correct answer based on some loose conjecture, when all the hard evidence pointed to fear being the real driving force, as had been suspected up until that point. Perhaps that is why so little of it came across as genuine: whether or not the answer to getting out of the hotel had been faith or fear, not much would have needed to change. Amy might have had to understand that The Doctor would always be there for her instead of the opposite (thereby conquering her fear rather than losing her faith, which happened ridiculously easily for someone who has pretty up given up her whole life to follow him), but the switch only seemed to exist to facilitate The Doctor feeling that he needed to leave his companions behind in order to 'save them'.

That revelation didn't convince, either: The Doctor has been well aware of what his presence has a tendency to do to those around him and it has been a cornerstone of several important episodes in the modern run, including 'School Reunion' (the first episode to feature the late, wonderful Lis Sladen back as Sarah-Jane Smith) and 'Journey's End', the fourth season finale. He has been leading companions into danger and occasionally death, as was the case for Adric, who assisted the Fifth Doctor. Those who have been accusing Amy Pond of being Mary Sue-ish must have been relieved to see Rita pass away, as she was written so blatantly as a perfect companion that something nasty was always bound to happen to her, just to get The Doctor riled. The minotaur's dying message, meanwhile, recycled the same sort of language as was used in 'The Pandorica Opens', thus making the 'twist' - that it was The Doctor he was talking about - obvious from the start.

Besides that, surely only the youngest members of Who's audience will be convinced that Amy and Rory might have been left behind for good. For everyone else, that final scene outside the house where The Doctor dropped them - interesting that the house number appeared to be eleven, though, the same number as the room holding The Doctor's greatest fear - felt it was trying to convince us of something that was never going to be a possibility, just as with Rory 'dying' at the end of Curse Of The Black Spot. Even in the worst case scenario, The Doctor has to meet them at least once more, ahead of his own death at Lake Silencio. It looks like they'll be missing for the next episode, replacing them with Craig from last season's enjoyable 'The Lodger', but if they're not back for the finale, I'll buy a hat shop and eat every stetson contained therein.

Even the meat of the episode didn't go down all that well. It wasn't bad, but never added up to the sum of its parts. The rushed introduction, from the most generic of cold opens (redshirt gets offed and the title sequence fades in from their scream) to the TARDIS crew starting off in the hotel with nothing but scant exposition to give us an impression of their arrival, summed up an episode that always felt like it was leaning too heavily on gimmicks without filling in the gaps. Why did seeing their worst fears make the characters suddenly worship the minotaur, for example? If they fell back onto their deepest faiths, how did that faith (which would presumably be at its strongest) get replaced? The issue was raised quickly, but dismissed with a nothing of an explanation. Same goes for why the setting was a hotel to start with. Again, the characters speculated, but no satisfying answers were forthcoming.

'God Complex' turned out to be the kind of filler which Night Terrors and The Girl Who Waited both managed to avoid becoming, which attempted to disguise its generic formula behind an interesting concept, rather than being deepened by it. Both of the two previous episodes had a lot of corridors and running from monsters, but also a clarity about what they wanted to say (Gatiss' episode being about loneliness; Tom McRae's focusing on Amy's abandonment issues) where 'God Complex' could only offer some muddled notions about faith and fear that were either unsubstantiated or had been done better before. It was an episode which left far too much that needed to be said and not nearly enough of what could have been said.

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