The God Complex (Doctor Who series 6, episode 11)

[A revised and improved version of this essay appears in my book The Eleventh Doctor: a critical ramble through Matt Smith’s tenure in Doctor Who.]

… And there there are the times when Doctor Who just gets it all so perfectly right that you feel you never need to watch anything else ever again.

There’s so much that could be said about The God Complex — about the careful selection of one-shot companions; about the craftsmanship with which they’re given separate and interesting characters so that in the space of 45 minutes we come to care about who makes it and who doesn’t; about the nightmarish nature of the hotel’s corridors and staircases, before we even get into the individual rooms; and about how the nature of what the monster is doing turns out to be different from what we all assumed.  But that’s not the point.

The point is, as so often with Doctor Who, about three people who we’ve grown to love, and whose relationships are not quite straightforward; and about how those three people come through when they’re thrown into situations that are bizzarre, terrifying or puzzling.  Or, in this case, all three.  For most of the last three series, Doctor Who has been a programme about one person, the Doctor, who takes some friends along for the ride.  But now it’s very much about three people: the Doctor, Amy and Rory.

No, not these three.

Back in 2005, I think we were all taken by surprise by how central Rose made herself to the story, how indispensable she became, so that when the was stranded in another universe at the end of Doomsday, losing her felt like losing a Doctor.  Perhaps it was even a bigger upheaval than Doctor Chris’s regeneration into Doctor Dave.  (It didn’t help that her replacement, Martha, was so comparatively uniteresting.)  But now it feels crippling to imagine losing either Amy or Rory.  Let alone both, as suggested in the elegiac coda.  What we have here is a programme that’s always worked on the mind.  But now it works on the heart, too: not manipulatively, not in a tear-jerkey way as the appalling last act of The End Of Time tried so unsuccessfully to do; but by honesty.  By being, if we can say this about a group of time-travellers, realistic.

Yes, after the events of the early part of The Eleventh Hour, Amy would grow up a little bit crazy, and merely meeting the Doctor again twelve years later wouldn’t in itself fix that.  Yes, Rory would consistently feel threatened by having the Doctor around, however much the Doctor didn’t intend it.  And, yes, the kind of person who could cope with slightly-crazy Amy and her Dream Doctor would indeed be someone much like Rory: thoughtful, consistent; dependable, but not in a doormat kind of way.  He’s quietly made himself one of the more likeable and admirable characters in television.

And I still can’t shake the feeling that he is “The best man I ever knew”, that River Song is going to have been imprisoned for killing.

Don’t worry — it’s not a REAL weeing angel.

Much has been written, and rightly so, about how, since 2006 or so, the program has increasingly fetishised the Doctor himself.  When in the series 1 finale, The Parting of the Ways, he referred to himself as The Oncoming Storm, it was a shock because the Doctor we knew simply didn’t think of himself that way.  It was a perfect dramatic moment because the Doctor himself was in shock at the realisation that he was facing Daleks — just as he had been in the brilliant earlier episode Dalek, in which he also acted out of character (but in a way perfectly in keeping with the story).  The Daleks’ presence invoked that side of him and showed us a glimpse of a Doctor we’d not known.

But with a worrying frequency, that kind of showboating, that do-you-know-who-I-am vibe, started becoming the norm.  Russell T. Davies did it all the time: the Doctor solved problems by being The Doctor; and Moffat also fell into that trap a couple of times, notably when he faced down the Vashta Nerada in Silence in the Library.  The Doctor had become not just a traveller or a problem solver, but a warrior.  And he seemed pretty pleased about it.

So it’s been a particular pleasure over the last dozen or so episodes to watch Moffat and the other writers consistently cutting away this action-heroey aspect of the Doctor.  It’s been done subtly enough, and with enough variation, that it’s not hitting us over the head.  But it’s addressing the issue not just by turning its back on the way the Doctor had been developing, but by actively subverting it.

  • In The Pandorica Opens, the Doctor grandstands at Stonehenge, and is allowed to think he’s frightened all the bad guys away with his I! Am! The! Doctor! schtick.  But that’s shown to be a ruse by enemies who have grown as used to this as we have.
  • At the end of the same episode, all his ideas of himself are inverted when it transpires that he is “a goblin, or a trickster or a warrior. A nameless, terrible thing, soaked in the blood of a billion galaxies. The most feared being in all the cosmos.”
  • In a more mundane way, one of the best elements of Curse of the Black Spot is the way the Doctor makes a whole sequence of completely wrong guesses about what’s going on (and is scientist enough to abandon each one in turn).
  • In the finale to the first half of this series, A Good Man Goes to War, the Doctor is shocked to find that whole cultures identify him as a warrior rather than a healer or a teacher.
  • In The Girl Who Waited, 36-years-older Amy hasn’t just lost her faith in the Doctor who couldn’t save her, but actively hates him.

And now in The God Complex, not only can he not save Amy, but his inability to do so, and her recognition of that, is exactly what does save her.

Oh, this is clever stuff.  The companion has traditionally been the viewpoint character in Doctor Who, the person that we identify with.  And so, just as we’d been drawn into the revised Doctor (the goblin, the warrier, the Man Who Thinks He’s It) so Amy was drawn into the same uncritical, close-to-worship perspective.  And now, as she is able to step out of that illusion, so we follow her.  She sees now that that’s never what the Doctor really was; and so do we.  It was how some other people saw him (notably the Daleks), and from time to time he was as seduced by that notion as any of us might have been.  But it was never true.

Killer or coward?  Coward, every time.

But those aren’t the only choices, are they?  Killer, Coward or Mad Man With A Box would be a fairer multiple choice question.  But it’s a mad man who expects the most of people, who retains a near-miraculous capacity for thinking the best of them despite having been disappointed thousands of times (and once more in The God Complex).  He’s a mad man with a box who knows how to think.  And observe, and draw conclusions.  And how to rethink when they’re proved wrong.  And to help others to do all those things.

In the end, Doctor Who — at least since 2010 — is a fantastically optimistic programme, because it shows us someone who we can realistically expect to become.  We can’t be The Oncoming Storm, the goblin, the trickster.  But we can think, observe, rethink, expect the best of others and ourselves, forgive when people fall short, help them to try again.  Those, really, are the qualities that distinguish the Doctor.  And they are what I want to be, too.  And I can.

So we approach the end of the series with a recalibrated perspective on the Doctor.  And it seems that we approach it without Amy and Rory (though we know from extratextual sources that they will be back for Series 7).

Tonight it’s Closing Time, and I am a bit worried by that.  I always avoid watching the previews, so that I know as little as possible about what I’m going to see, but I’ve not been able to avoid finding out that Closing Time is a sequel to The Lodger.  I loved that episode, but in part because it was so very self-contained, a sort of holiday from the main story; and because it wrapped up its whole rom-com subplot so neatly.  I don’t see how a sequel can really work, and I especially struggle to see how it can tie in to the arc, which it pretty much has to with only two episodes left.

We shall see.

18 responses to “The God Complex (Doctor Who series 6, episode 11)

  1. I have to say, I’d be scared about coming across a weeing angel.

  2. The “weeing angel” typo caused my brain to construct a whole imaginary episode based on such a monster. It wasn’t one of my favourites.

  3. I’m afraid I can’t claim “weeing angel” as one of my own. It’s a Rilstonism.

  4. Is it just my imagination, or has the Doctor been making some really strange decisions over the last few episodes?

  5. stevemoody73Steve Moody

    This was a very good episode, and it again shows that the doctor is not infallible. You’ve probably seen this weeks episode by now. It was a good follow up to the lodger, had some fun moments, i don’t recall the cybermen saying DELETE at all and a nice set up to next weeks episode at the end.

  6. John asked: “Is it just my imagination, or has the Doctor been making some really strange decisions over the last few episodes?”

    Such as?

  7. Theres a particualr faire here wher eI live where a few of the statues around the lot are reminiscent of the Weeing Angels, and it sort of freaks me out a little to walk or drive by them on my way to work, or at the event in the summer. You know, you’re there, walking about with your kid, cotton candy in hand and turn a corner and There. One. Is.!

    A buddy of mine got a jump at a book reading event (one of his books being on sale, he was a proud man that day!) A few people had dressed up, cosplay like, and one person had a _spectacular_ Weeing Angel costume. I mean, she had the pose down, and the face makeup, the everything. She totally unsettled my buddy.

    The Silence are pretty freaky, but we’ve only seen them once (I think?), but the Weeping Angels, they’re timeless. We’re all terrified.


    And the Stones of Blood, and Cybermats (the snake from … Ark in Space? Made my cry when I was a kid…)

  8. Glad to see you got another post up so quick; you almost need to put a placeholder post up for each episode right away, for us peanut gallery to make comments on, even when you’ve not had time to write anything up. I mean, your blog here, is a fine place for a DW forum ;)

  9. mmm.. it was good. I just don’t know if I believe that Rory would have been so totally safe. I think everyone has a faith in something-or-other. Maybe Rory’s faith was more diffuse–not a faith in a particular real or imagined person or government conspiracies, but in some sort general faith in the goodness of humans at large (like humanism).
    I liked the inclusion of the not evil, modern, female Muslim person. We could stand to see that portrayed a lot more often.

    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  10. I really liked the fact that Rory didn’t have a room. Like WyrdestGeek says, I think he had faith. I just think that Rory’s faith was something the alien couldn’t do anything with.

    He just goes on. He just deals with it. He is strong. He doesn’t require faith in anyone else to prove it. He know’s he can do it. He’s almost literally been to hell and back.

    I can really believe that nothing scares him. Rory’s character is truly fantastic.

  11. Hi.

    I’m a Christian and programmer from Barcelona (Spain). Congratulations on your blog, I really enjoy it (I hope to have mine soon).

    I don’t remember when I started watching Doctor Who (from the Ninth Doctor) but I finally got up to date! All these days reading your reviews and comments and I finally got here! Let me start by apologising in case this comment gets too long.There are things about this episode and I’ll try to be brief but I’d like to share my general take on the show.

    I really liked nearly all of the companions, each one had their thing. Although it’s true that the development of Amy and Rory has given lot more to play with and the acting is really great.

    Regarding The Doctor, my favourite is David Tennant. I loved everything about him and specially how well he portrayed his dark side, that inevitably had to come as a consequence of his loneliness as The Last of The Time Lords and his acts. It’s amazing how scary (or overwhelming, not sure what word to use) was such a not corpulent man when he got serious, like for example with the Vashta Nerada. I don’t see Matt Smith there, but after this episode and as I’m writing this, I’m realizing that maybe that’s ok. Maybe it’s time to overcome his dark side and become a better Doctor (not sure if that’s possible with those great Moffat’s scripts). Anyway, that Minotaur (or whatever) really set things up for him to wanting to be killed. Can’t wait to see what happens in only 2 more episodes! (by the way, I wrote all this BEFORE reading your post and I really liked the coward my-planet-is-always-invaded guy, great lines!).

    About the different series, I really enjoyed them all. I really appreciate the stories, the humour and the increasing depth of the show (amazing when Davros shows The Doctor how his friends choose the path of the violence that he hates so much).

    But thiis being truly remarkable, because of the really creepy and frightening episodes (let alone the creatures themselves) and all the wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey that gets you hooked, hunger to see what will happen next. I will have to have my brain checked because there are some things about time travel that I really dislike. It certainly can get too messy but I can live with all the Blinovitch stuff (time travel has consequences), but I can’t stand the “impossible” stuff. Like in the end of series 5 when the fez-future-Doctor gives the screwdriver to plastic-Rory to get him out of the Pandorica. How could he if he is trapped inside? I’d like an explanation given for that (and I’d like it didn’t involve a parallel universe). So please, correct me if I’m wrong cause this really pisses me off. And I know it’s pointed as a miracle, but I’m just partly ok with that. Maybe I would better if this stuff had been developed more in this chapter, with The Doctor’s door and Amy asking about it and about his faith. Could this be related to The Impossible Astronaut? Ok, I’ll stop here but it is an interesting subject to be developed… maybe in the next series?

    Just one more thing. The only thing I don’t like about the last episodes, apart from not being much related to the main story arc, is that Amy and Rory are like “we just had a daughter who is being trained to kill The Doctor instead of being raised by us, but hey, who cares about looking for her, let’s go for adventures!”. That’s just unbelievable. Even after the “Let’s Kill Hitler” events and knowing that things will turn all right (somehow, cause could be better), I’m sure I would want to raise my child instead of an army (evil from our current point of view). You can come up with lots of reasons to keep the episodes as they have been but you have to make them explicit in the show. Or “hey, we’re trying, but you know the TARDIS takes us where we need to be”. Or at least just show Amy and Rory just a little bit concerned about that instead of leaving the TARDIS dancing for a new adventure (like Amy in fact does). I just don’t buy the Doctor’s “she’ll be ok”. But she isn’t, she is being turned into a weapon, she’s my daughter and I am not doing anything, for God’s sake!

    Well, sorry again for the lengthy comment. I’m going to watch the next episode soon, so I’ll be waiting for your review! Oh, and if you ever come to Barcelona, ping me and I’ll buy you a beer!

  12. Thanks, Xavier, lots of interesting stuff there! Welcome aboard, and now that you’re up to speed I hope you’ll be commenting a lot more. I do agree that in a series that mostly hits very believable emotional notes, Amy and Rory’s lack of apparent concern over Melody is jarring.

  13. Re Amy and Rory and child:
    In “Let’s Kill Hitler” when Amy and Rory find out that their childhood friend Mels is actually Melody Pond, Mels says something to Amy and Rory like: so you see you did raise me after all.

    I think that’s about as good as we’re going to get, although I agree that, that way of handling it leaves something to be desired.

    Re: fez Doctor gives the sonic to Rory:
    Yeah. Those things don’t tend to bother me, but I can see how they could be bothering. [EDIT] At this point, I was going to go into an explanation (but not a defense) of the timey-wimey ball and how it’s just one of those sci-fi things, but this humorous picture and the article it goes to do a much better job than I ever could. Please go there for edification. :-)

    [ Note: if you don’t see an image, it means the HTML I tried to use didn’t work.]

    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  14. Pingback: Closing Time (Doctor Who series 6, episode 12) | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  15. Re Amy and Rory and child: still don’t buy it (as much time as they could spent together, it’s not the same), but I agree that’s about as good as we’re going to get…

    Re: fez Doctor gives the sonic to Rory: wow, what a page! So much time in there… I’ll buy this one, as I’m not going to let things like that spoil a good show for me anyway. So I subscribe to
    the Timey Wimey Ball
    the Bellisario’s Maxim and
    the MST3K Mantra

    Going to next review now!

  16. Yeah, I love the tvtropes site. :-) And it’s so much in my head–those various tropes–that I already know the MST3K Mantra without even having to look it up.

    Now Bellisario’s Maxim, that one I had to look up. I watched a lot of the Quantum Leap series when it was on, but I didn’t memorize the name of its producer. I guess I was too young for that at the time.

    About Quantum Leap and the Maxim: Although I was not explicitly acquainted with the Maxim, I sort of got it in an implied way–it’s all right there plain in the fact that we have Sam who’s mind is conveniently “swiss cheesed”, Al who’s not dumb but also very, very not tech savvy, and somewhere amorphously far away is Ziggy the brilliant computer who we can only know of via a goofy gadget that has funny lights on it and makes funny noises. Oh and Al is always having to whack it to get it to read correctly. I love that thing. It makes for a great show.
    Actually, yesterday it occurred to me that the 11th Doctor’s sonic now has a lot in common with the hand held device Al used to use. It allows the Doctor to know important pieces of plot information that he could not otherwise know by just pressing a few buttons, gesturing with it, then staring at it and telling us the result. Every magician should have one. :-)

    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  17. “The Silence are pretty freaky, but we’ve only seen them once (I think?)”

    Or maybe we’ve seen them many times, but forgotten?

  18. Pingback: Fugitive of the Judoon: that’s how it’s done! | The Reinvigorated Programmer

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