...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Day 3912: DOCTOR WHO: Beware of the God

Saturday (again):

If this was really the last story for Amy and Rory Pond, it would be – rightly – remembered as a classic. But it isn't.

Instead, it's a standalone story relying heavily on the series' established continuity, but at the same time undermined by the continuing aspects of the plot.

Hinging on Amy's faith in the Doctor immediately after a story that showed an Amy who had lost her faith in the Doctor and in the middle of a season-long arc where Amy's faith in the Doctor is betrayed by his failure to rescue her baby seems… misplaced.

And our foreknowledge of the season conclusion – set up by the arc as early as "The Impossible Astronaut" – means that we can be certain that Amy and Rory will return for the climax whether it's the Doctor's death or their daughter's wedding. So the departure at the end here feels like another cheat, another "death" that doesn't count. We are asked to commit to the emotional payoff of the end of Amy's journey, but without that journey really being over.

There is a weird sense that this series is almost a time loop. "The God Complex" ends with the Doctor leaving Amy and Rory in the nice new house that he appears to have bought for them, one that almost seems like it must be the one we find them living in at the start of "The Impossible Astronaut". And if it wasn't for Amy's line about her daughter, we could quite happily have accepted that we were actually having an episodes-long flashback.

In fact, the biggest problem that people have been having with this series is that the Ponds (Williamses) haven't been emotionally wrecked by the events surrounding their daughter's birth, abduction and subsequent growing up to be River Song. All of which would be removed from the equation if these recent episodes were set before the earlier ones.

Separating out the standalone episodes from the arc you actually get a pretty decent half-season. Suppose that we had had a season six that opened with "The Doctor's Wife", followed by "Night Terrors", "Curse of the Black Spot", "The Girl Who Waited" and this. Add in next week's companion light "Closing Time" and only then going to America for "The Impossible Astronaut".

Wouldn't that actually make more sense? The way these stories cover the Doctor's growing ennui, his self-loathing and his fear that he destroys his companions' lives, leading to him going off alone. It's a great fool that Amy and Rory leave only to find themselves caught up in his life again, but it would play better if "leave before I really wreck your lives" came before he really did wreck their lives. By which I mean the whole losing their daughter thing. Plus these stories are all basically about fathers and sons, meaning the second half of the year could all be about mother and daughter.

As a bonus you get a cracking "half time" cliff-hanger and that "three months later" opening of "Day of the Moon" would be less of a cheat when it's almost three months later in real time.

Of course, the downside is that you get a second half that consists of the second half of a two-parter, "Day of the Moon"; another two-parter, "The Rebel Flesh" and "The Almost People"; and effectively a three-parter of "A Good Man Goes to War", "Let's Kill Hitler" and "The Wedding of Melody Pond", which serves to highlight that "A Good Man Goes to War" and "Let's Kill Hitler" only make any kind of sense as "series finale" or "series opener" episodes, all spectacle rather than story.

(Of course you'd have to do some serious editing to smooth the join between "A Good Man Goes to War" and "Let's Kill Hitler" – which again emphasises how unnatural they are in their storytelling – and it would probably mean losing the "crop circle" open for "Let's Kill Hitler", which is a shame as it's moderately cool. And you'd still need to have introduced "Mels" earlier; I'd suggest having her in the house at the start of "The Impossible Astronaut". But the editing of other stories would, on the whole, be minimal.)

But I'm getting distracted. The fact I've written seven hundred words already and barely touched on the actual content of a beautiful and moving episode, I think, illustrates just how the story arc just gets in the way. Bit of a shame!

(At least, that's my excuse!)

I'll just say that I'm glad I wrote this before listening to the Eleventh Hour podcast or reading Andrew's piece at the Mindless Ones. Joe and Chris point out how unaffected they feel about Amy and Rory "leaving"; while Andrew develops a sharper (but fair) critique of the problems of the intrusive story arc.

And obviously the references are not just limited to the current series. A big shout out to "The Horns of Nimon", of course. A nice borrow of the "Horror of Fang Rock" moment where the Doctor realises he's made a terrible mistake. And everyone will spot that the ending is a direct lift from "The Curse of Fenric" (though I have to thank Jon Blum for spotting that where "Fenric" features the Doctor breaking Ace's faith with a lie, "God Complex" sees the Doctor break Amy's faith with the truth Or does he? Or does he? It's just a real shame that he has to do so by, once again, taking away Amy's agency: reducing her to a little girl, or to Amy Williams). And, personally, I can see in the "ancient mythological creature as guardian of the abandoned complex in space" a good slice of "Terminus" in here too.

But if you want to talk about a dark "science fairy tale", then a minotaur that eats your faith is about as Moffaty as you could hope to get.

It's a great twist on the clichéd "fear eater", which Doctor Who has done plenty of times, and another spin – after "The Curse of the Black Spot" – of the Doctor improvising a theory and getting it wrong. And that's good. Well, not for the three people who die as a result, but good to show the Doctor as an explorer again, and not a cosmic know-it-all who ends stories merely by "knowing the answer" (yes, "Night Terrors", I'm looking at you!).

Let me briefly mention the "secular agenda". The minotaur was somebodies god until they shucked off their faith and turned him into the active ingredient in their bizarro prison. What's obvious, but unstressed, is that they have weaponised the whole affair. The prison has been set floating in space with a mission to pick up anyone with "faith" and feed them to the minotaur.

I have to say, when it comes to "aggressive atheists" that's a wee bit beyond "The God Delusion".

Gibbis' line at the end about "that's my planet" seems to suggest that it is his homeworld of Tivoli that the prison is now orbiting. (If it were anywhere but the Tivoli system, Rory wouldn't be able to see the planet, although there may be some imaging technology involved.) Though given that most of the people recently taken are human, it would be more sensible for it to be near to Earth. Perhaps it has recently swept past.

It does, however, seem a bit odd that if it is attracted to "faith", that it has chosen to pick up a modern Western Muslim woman, a blogger and a guy with a gambling addiction. Rather than, say, al Qaeda and the Tea Party.

Perhaps it's not after people who are strong in their faith, but rather those who are weak and questioning – because they are "convertible". That might actually be more in keeping with it going after Amy. And to stretch a point it might actually be why Gibbis survives: he finds his room with the Weeping Angels before Amy looks into hers so logically he ought to start "praising him" first; but his faith in "being invaded" is actually quite strong.

It was refreshing to see each character have their own individual story. Even the police officer, Lucy Hayward, had a story, even if we couldn't quite see it. I suppose that showing us their deepest fear and their strongest belief was a good shortcut to that, but it really worked. Howie, in particular, was given most to do in the dual role of first paranoid geek – or as Rory rightly saw him, hero over the stutter – and then devoted cultist. Where gambler Joe had been decidedly creepy, with his wide-eyed faith, Howie made us feel for him as the person under the possession. Which in turn forced us to reappraise creepy Joe and see the Doctor's point of view in wanting to save him. And reappraise Gibbis the mole-man's attitude to Joe, which was ever so similar to the way we were prompted to respond to the "madman".

And we were, of course, supposed to fall in love with Rita. Smart, clever, witty. A Muslim – don't be scared. One of the more brilliant lines, that, both as a moment of foreshadowing, a clue if the Doctor had only spotted it, and in a broader context of modern Britain. Rita files "Gibbis is an alien" under "to freak out about later"; how many of the audience would file "Rita is a Muslim" similarly?

Conversely, we are supposed to find Gibbis (guest turn David Walliams under the latex – mostly fine, but occasionally a bit too "Little Britain") morally repugnant. His "sly cowardice" provoking the Doctor into one of those rash promises that the tenth always used to throw around: "no one else dies". And yet he is the one to survive.

And it's always a joy to see Caitlin as little Amy again, for what would have been a perfect bookending with "The Eleventh Hour" as the Doctor finally sorts out Amy's hang ups before she leave… if only he had sorted them out and if only she had left!

One thing I nearly said about "The Girl Who Waited" was how I felt it was a massive rebuke to the "Star Trek: The Next Generation" episode "The Inner Light". There Picard gets to experience a whole life compressed into thirty minutes and afterwards he is a wiser and better man; in "The Girl Who Waited" Amy gets an entire lifetime of experiences… and they are wiped away. It's a much crueller and yet more poignant story.

I mention that here because of course this was a "Star Trek" holodeck story. And it is the only holodeck story ever where the holodeck actually does exactly what it's supposed to.

(Though, in fact, even here, they toss in the "glitches in the system" to explain why there are random clowns and PE teachers a-haunting the hotel, but fundamentally this simulation is doing what it's supposed to be doing, however barking the programme might be.)

If I'm going to mention glitches, then: "That's why it kept showing you the exit," the Doctor says to Rory. Well, except, it showed him a way one once, leading us to suspect that there have been scenes cut for time.

I didn't quite get where that was leading – or the moment where Rory discusses his time in the TARDIS in the past tense – unless it was as simple foreshadowing for the end.

Do watch out for the fantastic Rory moment in the scene in Amy's room: he's trying to hold the door closed and the minotaur bursts in, flattening him against the wall. Where he stays for the rest of the scene. Easy to miss, but once you've seen it you can't not notice. Poor Rory.

There was also a rather noticeable amount of reused music. Particularly "Amy's Theme" which makes a lot of sense in context, but also "I am the Doctor", Murray's hero theme which – although I love it – was a bit out of place. And it wasn't as though there was not original music in the piece either, like a strikingly modern theme for the minotaur. But it was the "old faves" that saw the dial turned up to, as it were, eleven.

I hardly need to say that the hotel from hell was once again a design triumph for Michael Pickwoad, and for my money the minimalist, Tron-esque God Complex revealed at the end was too. The direction by Nick Hurran – with some assistance from Stanley Kubrick – was also excellent: the rapid intercutting of the terrified/blissed out victims as they were driven to "praise him", and the near-subliminal printed words all on the right side of baffling; and the close-up on the minotaur's eye as it was summoned, like the Kraken being awakened, all helped to set the mood that was screwed up psycho-terror. Nor, it should be said, did the episode outstay its welcome, revealing its answers at just the right pace to keep us impressed with the Doctor's intelligence, even when he's pointing out his own failures.

Which leave us only with the question: will they do the right thing and leave well alone the question of what the Doctor saw in Room 11?

Next Time… We answer the questions: is "partner" better than "companion"; does James Corden deserve another go in Doctor Who; what would the Doctor spend his last hours doing; and what do the Cybermen get up to after hours? And as a bonus, just who is the Impossible Astronaut? All this, and Stormageddon, Dark Lord of All in "Closing Time".


Tat said...

I was impressed by the CGI effect that turned Rani and Clyde into Amy and Rory and added a bow-tie and tweed jacket to Luke's studenty clobber.
I'm not looking forward to sorting out what the original running-order would have been before the production cock-ups forced the mid-season split. And I'm disinclined to trust anything about the Pond-life soap, given that Leadworth keeps growing every time we see it (assuming that WAS leadworth and not Cardiff or London - a bit of a commute for Rory even with a sports-car). I strongly suspect a scam.
(Just as an aside: why do people in Who or Who-derivatives always have postcards from the Isle of Man on their fridges?)

Millennium Dome said...

Well, Mr Tat, since "The Sarah Jane Adventures" is a much better & more truthful continuation of "Doctor Who 1963-1989" (some would say) then that's verging on the complimentary ;)

And an interesting Isle of Man question!

(I'll leave the research into the running order to you, though!)