Series Six of Doctor Who has been the show’s most earnest effort yet to present a joined narrative across the length of a season through a series of (hopefully) self-contained vignettes. You can watch most of the episodes in the series without any preparation or prior knowledge and enjoy most of what you’re seeing, but if you watch everything from start to finish you see something developing, something building toward a conclusion. Themes and emotional threads run through every single episode, whether it’s a big picture kind of story full of character revelations, or a simple monster hunt. More than any other episode in this series so far, “The God Complex” is an episode that attempts to bring those disparate elements – self-containment and overarching mythology – together into a multi-purpose narrative. It doesn’t always work, but it is effective in its expression of what seems to be the most prominent concern of Series Six: that for all his joviality and manic hope, The Doctor remains a herald of doom for those he cares about.
Warning: Spoilers ahead. There’s really no way to review this one without them. You’ve been warned.
The Doctor, Amy and Rory are still adventuring after the emotional turmoil of “The Girl Who Waited,” and perhaps deeper turmoil lays ahead. “The God Complex” sees the TARDIS drop into the middle of a strange hotel that The Doctor immediately recognizes as some kind of elaborate construct to keep people trapped. As the trio begins exploring, they meet another trio, all of whom were sucked out of their daily lives and transported to this place. But it’s more than just a hotel. There are no working windows or doors, the floor plan is constantly shifting, and in every room something scary awaits, someone’s worst fear – a sad clown, a disapproving father, a monster. The Doctor and his fellows quickly realize that something is hunting them – a massive, Minotaur-like beast that doesn’t just chase. It gets in your head and forces you to surrender to its will, which victims indicate by uttering the phrase “Praise him.”
Most of the episode is about The Doctor and everyone else trying to kill the monster as the body count builds, but hints of something deeper begin to peek through from the very beginning. Fear has been a common thread running through Series Six. It’s a darker season than normal, but not in the way the many of the old Tom Baker gothic serials are dark. The monsters are creepy, sure, but it’s not about the monsters. It’s about what the characters are afraid of, and this episode addresses it directly, only to twist the fear into something more mysterious: faith.
What The Doctor first perceives as a creature that preys on fear turns out to be a creature that preys on people who hold to a deep and abiding faith in something. Characters are picked off because they’re religious or because they hold a lasting and steadfast belief in conspiracy theories. Then The Doctor realizes the creature is coming after Amy because she – always “The Girl Who Waited” – has an abiding and unshakeable faith in him. His only choice is to destroy that faith, or she’s history.
So what begins as a meditation on what the characters are most afraid of transforms into a meditation on what they believe in. But then it does something a bit more unexpected. We never see The Doctor’s great fear (though we can guess), but we do see his outright rage at something even his past incarnation couldn’t cope with: he can never save everyone. He’s capable of being flashy and dramatic and heroic and incredibly kind, but in the end everyone he takes under his wing is either psychologically damaged beyond repair, dead, or disconnected from any kind of normal life. He’s already damaged both Amy and Rory in some way. He feels it. He’s felt it for a long time, and we have too. He feels it more because he knows that Amy has always clung to what she sees as a fundamental truth: The Doctor always comes through. The Doctor has a god complex. He wants to make everything right, but in the end he’s just a madman in a blue box running around in a nest of monsters, looking for a way to get everyone out in time and always failing.
By the end, The Doctor and Amy’s relationship changes, because it has to, because it’s the only way to save her. There’s a new distance between these characters that will have to be resolved in some way, but they might never be the same. This might be a good thing. It might be a sign that the series is entering a new condition, one where its adventures are a little less rooted in its characters worries and emotional trials. Some (or many) fans would welcome that. As for me, I’d just welcome a resolution at the end of this series that doesn’t leave a thousand more questions dangling in the cosmic breeze for the next one.
“The God Complex” is an episode with big implications for the future of The Eleventh Doctor, and therefore it’s important, but it’s not Doctor Who at its best. Writer Toby Whithouse (who penned the fun Series Five episode “Vampires of Venice”) tries to fit a great deal of plot and characterization into 45 minutes, and he seems to say everything he sets out to say. The problem is the episode doesn’t always seem to know what it’s about. Moments of monstrous tension collide in a seemingly arbitrary way with quiet, contemplative scenes of The Doctor pontificating about how he always hurts the ones he loves. It’s a monster story one minute and the story of a grieving, frustrated man the next. The most successful element of the show is the humor, which dies out pretty quickly to make room for darker things. Whithouse built a solid episode, but there are still a few cracks showing.