Doctor Who: The God Complex

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Spoiler Warning. You know the drill.

Jekyll is a very dark series. It possesses Moffat’s characteristic witty one-liners, and his characteristic brilliant building of dramatic tension. It even has a few moments that directly parallel some of the storytelling techniques Moffat has used in Doctor Who - in particular, the scene where Jekyll and Hyde talk to each other via video camera has echoes of the Doctor’s conversation with Sally Sparrow in Blink.

But it’s also very clearly not his best work - there are moments where the pacing lags significantly, and the story feels disjointed at times, especially in the early episodes. The latter portions of the series have their own problems, with enormous plot holes opening up beneath the narrative in a way that really gives it problems. For instance, Mrs. Utterson’s motivations are never really clear, especially in light of Jackman’s mother’s assertion that ‘Hyde is love’. And Tom’s children being able to ‘swap’ is never really explored in a meaningful way; I’m not normally an advocate for Chekhovian minimalism, but that just feels sloppy. However, by that point the pacing has picked up enough to gloss over a lot of the plot holes, and with characteristic Moffat lines (‘Trust me, I’m a psychopath’ was especially brilliant) to distract us, the story manages to just barely hold itself together.

The ending, though, and by that I mean the final frame before the show cuts to black, was utterly terrifying. It was a clever subversion of what we expect in narrative; after we thought we were safe in the denouement, we’re given a sudden jolt of adrenaline right as we cut to black. It takes away the feeling of satisfaction and leaves the audience with a slightly disappointed feeling. And it seems to do this very intentionally; I’m reminded of the similar subversive techniques I talked about in The Girl Who Waited. In fact,

Oh dear, I’ve reviewed the wrong series again, haven’t I? Terribly sorry about that.

The God Complex has a very interesting relationship with fear.

I didn’t expect Jekyll to be scary. So I urged my wife to watch it with me. And when it turned scary, I had to apologize to her, because she really dislikes scary television, and will be jumpy (and nightmare-prone) for days after a scary scene. It’s why she doesn’t watch Doctor Who. And she asked me why anyone would want to watch things that are meant to scare them.

And the answer to that question parallels some of the elements in this story. Basically: we watch scary things because it lets us master them. Television and film let us take our fears, reduce them to two dimensions - to a medium where we know they cannot touch us - and then face them. So what we’re left with (those of us who like scary stories, anyway) is the adrenaline rush without the real terror, and a sense of elation and power. We can practice being brave without any real danger. And when we’re done, we can leave the scary stuff behind, safe in the Land of Fiction. And we can laugh at it, and joke about it, and reduce it thereby. (Of course, it’s never really gone. The Dark is always scary, and always real, and stories are just a lie we tell ourselves to feel better)

In The God Complex, we have a creature that takes the thing we’re most afraid of, and confronts us with it. But unlike most stories that start out with that premise, this creature doesn’t feed on our fear, it feeds on our faith, on the things we fall back on to make ourselves feel brave. It takes the very reason we watch scary stories and perverts it, and devours us. This is what makes the jagged transitions between the linear narrative and scenes of the victims laughing and screaming so effective.

This link to television is echoed in the repeated use of black-and-white camera feeds throughout the story. This feels very much like the Second Doctor, with his penchant for staring out of cameras and right at the viewer. The feeling is especially strong in the scene where the Doctor is talking to Rita.

On the subject of past Doctors, this is very much another Seventh Doctor story. And it’s easy to see it coming, but it’s still played very well. Specifically, the climax of this story bears an uncanny, unmissable resemblance to the climax of The Curse of Fenric. Except, as a friend pointed out to me, it is crucial to note that in Fenric, the Doctor didn’t believe the things he said to Ace. But he very clearly does believe every word he tells Amy. It is one of the most emotionally powerful scenes in Moffat’s Doctor Who to date. (Well, obviously “I stole your childhood and now I’ve led you by the hand to your death” isn’t true in the present tense (since his goal was to destroy Amy’s faith in him), but it does reflect the fear that leads him to stop travelling with Amy and Rory.)

So, it is a shame that it is marred by an obvious flaw. And that flaw is the phrase “Amy Williams”. I have no idea how that line of dialogue got out of the gate. I mean, it is clear what Whithouse is trying to say here: that it is time, basically, for Amy to grow up and stop having adventures with the Madman in a Box. It is meant to contrast with Amelia Pond, the little girl who wasted her childhood waiting for the Doctor.

But that’s not how it comes across, for a couple of reasons. First, the changing of surnames for women is culturally loaded. What we get instead is a paternal figure performing the ancient ritual of ‘giving away’ his daughter. It reeks of a transfer of possession, and objectifies Amy in a very direct way.

On a more significant, personal level, it is a reversal of an established story device that seems to have been unceremoniously dropped at some point in series 6. Amy’s role as a fairly dominant force in her relationship with Rory (in a way that very nearly has D/s overtones) is well established in series 5, and there are even references to Rory taking Amy’s name (so, Rory Pond, not Amy Williams). It is, in fact, the Doctor who establishes Rory as Rory Pond in the first place:

The Doctor: Amelia, from now on, I shall be leaving the… kissing duties to the brand new… Mr. Pond!
Rory: No! I’m not Mr. Pond. That’s not how it works.
The Doctor: Yeah it is.
Rory: … Yeah, it is.

This is further referenced in the Christmas Special, with the Doctor’s missive ‘Come Along Ponds’. But, at some point, Rory started being Rory Williams again. I suspect this might be related to Amy becoming pregnant/captured/a mother, in which case it is doubly troubling, because it echoes a cultural narrative that tells us that motherhood is the defining line where women have to ‘grow up and settle down’, which is equated in this narrative to ‘stop being assertive’.

So, here the Doctor seems to invert an observation he himself made about Amy. I think the intent may have been to demonstrate that he is trying to undo (some of) the changes he made in her life, but it comes across as a statement that she should be less assertive. And why not? That’s what we expect of women who have grown up, after all.

In short, they really missed the mark they were trying to hit with that line, and subverted an established aspect of Amy’s role as a strong female character.

And while we’re talking about criticisms, at first I felt that the character development from The Girl Who Waited was completely dropped. It felt like everything from that episode was suddenly water under the bridge for the three companions. There are a couple of points where this is not true: certainly the Doctor’s anguish about not wanting to kill his companions was influenced by the death of old Amy. And, and a friend pointed out to me, Rory’s use of the past tense when talking about travelling with the Doctor makes it clear that he is done with the Doctor and is just waiting for Amy to agree. But Amy, whose ‘Where is she?’ was the last thing we heard in the previous episode, seems to be relatively unaffected by those events. It’s an unfortunate tonal mismatch with the previous episode, given how well this episode works otherwise.

And the episode really does work. The visual storytelling here is fantastic, playing with techniques that aren’t seen much (if at all) in Doctor Who. We have the psychological scenes that break from the narrative to cut-up clips of text and disjointed images of the victims. There’s the use of cameras and camera feeds to structure the narrative and emphasize the nature of the danger. Throughout the episode we get a distinct downplaying of the monsters in the rooms and even the Minotaur; instead, the fear is purely psychological, with the lingering shots focusing on the victims as they are driven mad. Whithouse really knows how to write a Doctor Who script, and Moffat’s production team is doing unparalleled work here.

Praise Them.