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Doctor Who: the God Complex

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During a recent conversation on the pros and cons of religion, a young relative of mine recommended a Doctor Who story, ‘The God Complex’, which she immediately produced for me on a USB stick to transfer onto my PC – I’m constantly blown away by all this immediacy and easiness.

a policewoman confronts her gorilla

I’m not a regular viewer of Doctor Who, but I catch enough of it to recognise the cleverness of much of its writing. ‘The God Complex’ is a one-episode tale, in which the Doctor and his companions, the couple Amy and Rory Pond, find themselves emerging from the Tardis into what the Doctor called an ‘eighties-style hotel’, though as an impoverished non-traveller I wouldn’t know about that – it just looked like any multi-roomed multi-corridored hotel to me. In fact, the story begins with blurred black and white images from CC-TV cameras showing the hotel’s reception area, a dining room and a corridor, before switching to colour, and a Hitchcockian view down a red-carpeted central stairwell, followed by identically carpeted corridors, and then a human figure, a female police officer, moving stealthily from room to room, checking out their strange occupants – a clown, an old-style photographer with gigantic flash – and telling us she’s the ‘last one left’. Oh and we glimpse, in close-up, something crocodilian containing a weary eye. The policewoman-turned-useful-narrator tells us ‘you don’t know what’s going to be in your room till you see it, then you realize it could never have been anything else’. After which she finds ‘her’ room, complete with real or fake chest-thumping gorilla, which brings flashes of childhood and birthday cakes [and the crocodilian thing], and she screams and rushes away. Crouched in the corridor, she scribbles her thoughts, again most conveniently, in a notebook. ‘The gaps between my worship are getting shorter,’ she writes. ‘This is what happened to the others. Praise him! Praise him! It’s all so clear now, I’m so happy. Praise him!’ The young woman does indeed look happy, in that entranced, grinful state of the saved. Meanwhile, someone or something is gruntingly approaching in the blurred distance, something to which the poor woman is clearly in thrall. The credits roll and the show begins.

From these opening scenes it doesn’t sound like we’re going to get any blinding insights into religious belief, and we don’t. In fact, the god complex of the title is all about the Doctor [is a Time Lord a supernatural being?], and his relationship with his would-be if not actual disciple Amy, in what turns out to be a simple human story at bottom.

After the credits we find the Doctor, with Amy and Rory, out of the Tardis and exploring the same ‘rubbish hotel’ [Amy’s words], which they seem to have dropped into by accident – no doubt a regular occurrence in these shows. Of course the Doctor is enthused and fascinated by the scenario – no doubt another regular occurrence. He recognises the place as an elaborate and marvellous fantasy, made to look like a hotel on Earth. ‘Look at the detail on that cheese plant!’ he says, or I think that’s what he says, as he sniffs what looks like a Monstera deliciosa [but I’ve just looked up the plant and discovered it is commonly known as a Swiss Cheese Plant, so I’m always learning something new…].

In the halls near the stairs are a series of large framed photos of individuals, including the aforementioned policewoman, which attract the Ponds’ attention. Attached to each image is a name, and a more or less cryptic reference to ‘wot done em in’ – in the policewoman’s case, ‘that brutal gorilla’. Some other references will be familiar to aficionados of the show [I’ve been reading other reviews]. ‘Daleks’ is the only one I recognise. While they all ponder these mysteries, the Doctor dings the reception bell and they’re immediately threatened [with chair-legs and other makeshift weapons] by an assortment of – hotel guests? Appearing from nowhere apparently. It seems the show uses fast pace, witty dialogue and sudden dramatic shifts, as here, not only to keep us entertained and guessing, but to cover plot holes and unlikelinesses, and it works quite well. It helps that the whole basis of the show is unlikely.

spot Joe among the dummies

In the flurry of dialogue that follows we learn that that one of these three characters [an attractive young woman, possibly of Indian extraction] is ‘the clever one’, another [whose weapon is a white hanky] is an alien from ‘the most invaded planet in the galaxy’, and the third is a confused-looking young man named Howie. We learn also that the hotel shifts and stretches and is inescapable, and that the rooms all contain bad dreams. These three are apparently survivors, and there’s a fourth, Joe, tied up in the dining room, surrounded by ventriloquists’ dummies for eerie effect. Presumably they’re his nightmare.

So the Doctor visits Joe, who, like the policewoman, has now embraced his fate, and his faith. ‘I’ve lived a blasphemous life but He has forgiven my inconstancy, and soon He shall feast.’ We wonder if happy Joe is going to be the plat du jour. After listening to ominous remarks about His impending arrival, the Doctor decides to rescue Joe. The whole group returns with him to the hotel lobby and try to nut out the situation, much to Joe’s smug religious delight. He’s gagged with duct tape and taken along for the ride as they all set out to explore the building. Howie gives vent to his wild conspiracy-theory mentality [they’re actually in Norway, where entire cities are hidden in the mountains, and the CIA, etc etc], to show his credulity, his propensity to faith. Meanwhile the investigation of the rooms begins. One ‘bad dream’ even steps into the corridor, but apparently isn’t owned by anyone, unless it’s the Doctor. Howie opens another door before the Doctor, and the dream room, full of pretty teenage girls, seems to be for him, as one of them mentions his name, and he also screams, a sure sign apparently. Oh and there’s also a glimpse of the croco-monster. However the Doctor leads him away, presumably before any damage is done.

They explore further, noting various ‘clues’, including scrapes on the ceiling, made by the monster’s horns [okay, it’s a Minotaur], and scraps from the policewoman’s notebook. Rory notices a fire exit, but it disappears when he tries to tell the others. Then we hear’s the monster’s rumbles, and everyone runs and hides. The clever girl, with Joe in tow, finds that she’s entered her bad dream room, where her father rages at her for getting only a B at school. the others enter a room with statues of weeping/raging angels/gargoyles, a reference to another story it seems. It’s someone’s bad dream, but as there are four of them together, it doesn’t have the power to ‘convert’ them.

Meanwhile, Joe, apparently abandoned by the clever girl, becomes the next victim of the Minotaur, praising him all the while. The Doctor finds him slumped in the corridor, blissed and dead. He takes him back to the dining-room, where all the others are holed up, and performs a post-mortem with his sonic screwdriver or whatever. While Rory and Howie barricade the doors, Amy and the twitchy alien have a key conversation. Amy’s words are revealing [just replace ‘The Doctor’ with ‘God’] – ‘The Doctor has been part of my life for so long now, and he’s never let me down. Even when I thought he had, when I was a kid, and he left me – but he came back. He – saved me. And now he’s going to save you.’ These words are followed by some light Doctor-mockery, but the message is clear, The Doctor is superhuman, and he saves.

saviour talk

In another part of the dining room The Doctor and the clever Indian woman are getting chatty. She presents him with her theory, that this place is the Moslem jahannam, or hell, but she isn’t too worried because she feels she’s led a good life. Amy hands The Doctor the notebook scraps she has found. The Doctor reads the policewoman’s words out, and when he says ‘Praise him,’ Howie echoes the words, with conviction. It seems he hasn’t escaped possession after all. We get another glimpse of the Minotaur, and everyone gets panicked, led on by the scared little alien. The Doctor calms them down and starts questioning Howie. ‘Why isn’t he possessing all of us?’ Howie, now showing clear signs of bliss, explains ‘You guys have got all these distractions, all these obstacles. It’d be so much easier if you just let it go, you know? Clear path.’ ‘You want it to find you even thought you know what it’s going to do?’ asks Amy. I wonder why she says ‘it’ instead of ‘him’? ‘Are you kidding?’ responds Howie. ‘He’s going to kill us all, how cool is that?’

So The Doctor, taking the others aside, tells them that the ‘thing’ feeds on fear and must be resisted. He’s going to somehow try and capture it. They tie up Howie behind the reception test and let him spruik his self-absorbed bliss into an intercom, while the others spread out through the place and listen for the Minotaur’s comings and goings. We now see the beast in full, see his horns scrape against the ceiling, though you’d think that since he has the power to shape-shift the hotel he could easily make the ceilings high enough to accommodate himself. Is that a theological question? Anyway, the Minotaur is tricked into following Howie’s projected ‘voice’ into an empty room, where The Doctor is able to trap and question him. The monster grunts and roars and The Doctor tries to translate it into English. So we learn that this is a prison and a lure, especially for those ‘ripe’ to be possessed, but – and now we see the Minotaur as pitiable [it’s the blue eyes that do it] – this monster is also a prisoner, of his own tiresome instincts. He wants it all to be over. The Doctor asks how he can be fought, or helped to finish, but then Howie’s voice is heard [he’s escaped from the foyer], and the Minotaur smashes through a glass door to be at him. In the ensuing confusion, Amy appears to find her ‘bad dream’ room, for only a glimpse, and Howard meets his end. He’s laid out in the dining room next to Joe. Two down, plenty to go.

clever Rita scores a bullseye

Rita [the clever Indian woman] and The Doctor have another key conversation. The Doctor assures her that he’s ‘literally an ox’s toenail from getting us out of here’, whereupon Rita asks ‘Why is it up to you to save us? That’s quite a god complex you have there.’ The Doctor tellingly looks over to Amy who’s fiddling with a fishbowl. ‘I brought them here’, he tells Rita. ‘They’d say it’s 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’. This is of course the central homily of the story, something like Einstein’s observation that belief in personal gods is a form of childishness – though as spoken here by a personal god of sorts, it has a rather different resonance.

Anyway, the next thing we know, poor Rita has become the next victim, but the end draws nigh for the Minotaur. The Doctor rethinks his strategy – maybe the monster doesn’t prey on fear, since Rita was generally brave and calm. Then, when Amy reiterates her faith in the Doctor’s rescuing powers, it dawns on him. The Minotaur feeds on faith, not fear. He notes that Howie believed in conspiracy theories [is that really faith?], and Joe believed in gamblers’ luck. The alien has faith that his next conqueror or colonizer will come. The idea of the bad dream room is to frighten people into falling back on their own personal faiths., the Minotaur’s own personal fuel. This brings us to the real theme of this episode, The Doctor’s relationship with Amy. It’s this faith that pulled them to the Minotaur. The rest of the episode is an attempt, by The Doctor, to break the faith bond between himself and Amy [oh and the Minotaur, deprived of Amy and the rest, embraces a merciful death]. There is a jarring line, though, for me, in which The Doctor explains this faith-consuming beast. He’s ‘a distant cousin of the Nimon, they descend on planets and set themselves up as gods to be worshipped, which is fine until the inhabitants get all secular and advanced enough to build bombs and prisons…’. It’s a cheap shot, linking secularity to destruction and inhumanity, something I’m far from prepared to take, especially as I’m currently reading Brian Kiernan’s Blood and Soil, a history of genocide, and my mind is full of, inter alia, the Spanish conquistadores, Catholic to a man, and their extirpation of the native inhabitants of Mexico and Peru and the islands, in a holocaust more bloody and thorough than the Nazi holocaust of more recent vintage – all without a single bomb being thrown. Presumably the author of this episode [of Doctor Who I mean], felt guilty about treating faith as a life-sucking instrument and had to ‘balance the books’. Never mind.

another god bites the dust

So that’s it. This is, I assume, Amy’s last episode, and I felt quite emotional about it, though I barely knew her. God complexes, this largely secular show clearly agues, are a bad thing, even when there is evidence of a person’s supernatural [or at least highly impressive] powers. How much more so when there’s no evidence, and a history, even if mythical, of cruelty, capricious favouritism and indifference to the suffering of innocents. There were no doubt many clever references and in-jokes I missed, not being part of the inner circle, but the principal theme was congenial, apart from the odd sop to the religious. I can’t expect too much more.

 

Written by stewart henderson

December 21, 2011 at 10:07 pm

Posted in religion, skepticism

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