Friday, October 7, 2011

The God Complex

Amy and Rory are among the best Doctor Who companions ever.  The best of the New Series, without question, and worthy of the likes of Sarah Jane, Ace, and Romana.  And I'm not just saying that because I'm hypnotized by Karen Gillan's beauty.

I mean, I am, but that's beside the point.

Amy is curious and clever, fantastic at noticing things and putting stuff together - like figuring out how the Sonic Screwdriver works (more or less).  Gillan has that rare but crucial gift to be both brave and scared, both tough and vulnerable.  And she projects a charming, engaging personality in everything she does.

Rory, meanwhile, is more grounded than his often-fanciful wife.  In both her life and, to some extent, the Doctor's, he's a quiet force of solidity, a faithful and trustworthy companion, able to stand his ground against anything or anyone - including either one of them when absolutely necessary.  Arthur Darvill projects Rory's somewhat dorky surface credibly, but makes his moments of bravery incredibly forceful.

Together, the Doctor, Amy, and Rory make a superb team, complementing each other beautifully.  They're also an absolute delight to watch; Moffat and the other writers fashioned three incredibly funny personalities, and Smith, Gillan, and Darvill play off each other masterfully.

What Toby Whithouse has recognized, both here and in the previous season's Vampires of Venice, is the weakest point of this otherwise incredibly solid relationship: the tenuous nature of the bond between Amy and the Doctor.  Still, she looks toward him with the wonder of the little girl who waited for him, and never fully got past that.  Which strokes the hell out of the Doctor's ego, who loves more than anything impressing people he respects.  The inherent weaknesses here - that Amy would follow the Doctor down paths she shouldn't tread, and wouldn't recognize that the Doctor himself perhaps shouldn't be treading - was something Rory picked up on almost immediately in Vampires.  Both Amy and the Doctor tend to smile in the face of danger and dive right in; Rory can take all kinds of horror and damage, but he's pragmatic and reacts more cautiously.  He sees exactly what's wrong with the Doctor/Amy relationship, but when he's around, things tend to stay stable, and it makes Amy happy, so he lets it be.

But there's another problem: her attachment tends to make her follow the Doctor's Peter Pan complex.  The Doctor, despite his millennial life, refuses to grow up.  And Amy will do exactly the same as long as she's attached to him.  Which makes it ever more likely that one day she'd end up on the wrong end of a Dalek death ray.

So, in The God Complex, Toby Whithouse forces the Doctor to face down this problem.  One day, he could very well lead Amy straight into her death.  And he's in exactly that situation: her bright-eyed wonder at her Raggedy Man is leading directly to a vicious, horrific tragedy.  All he can do is break her faith in him.

Whithouse's vision and understanding of these characters and their relationships are astounding.  As in School Reunion and Vampires In Venice, he understands how these people work, and how to push the relationships to the edge.

I just wish he had done all that in a better episode.

The climactic moment where the Doctor shatters Amy's faith utterly fails to deliver.  To begin with, true faith is very difficult to break down; the Doctor just says, "Forget your faith in me.  I took you with me because I was vain.  Because I wanted to be adored.  Look at you.  Glorious Pond, the girl who waited for me.  I'm not a hero.  I really am just a madman in a box.  Now it's time we saw each other as we were."  And that's it.

The thing is, Amy's faith in the Doctor is clearly, heavy-handedly made into a deeply held religious belief.  And you can't break that sort of faith so easily.  That wouldn't shatter anyone's faith.
(Also, the starving monster is standing right next to them the entire time he's giving that speech, patiently waiting for them to talk rather than feast on his meal.)

This stands out especially egregiously because Doctor Who has done this before to a vastly more powerful impact.  The Curse of Fenric also required the Doctor to break Ace's faith in him.  But Fenric understands that true faith, the kind so carefully emphasized in The God Complex, isn't something that can be destroyed easily... and if it is destroyed, it destroys the person.  True faith defines you, drives you.  Your faith truly is who you are.  Destroy that, and you destroy the person.

The Doctor destroyed Ace's faith in him by preying on all her insecurities, tearing away at her every weak point.  It was a vicious, difficult scene, but it was absolutely credible.  Having the Doctor say, "Don't put your faith in me," would never work.  But turning on and attacking her greatest vulnerabilities?  Absolutely.  In that moment, he shows (or pretends to show) that he is nothing more than a manipulative puppet master, using Ace for his own purposes.  Of course, that isn't true, but it's only by convincing her that he isn't a force for good can he hope to break her belief.

Once the villain is defeated, the Doctor finds Ace brought to her lowest point.  Which is exactly where she is - the longest, darkest tea-time night her soul has ever endured.  And so he builds her back up by telling her of his faith in her.  But he does more than that - he uses that to make her stronger and more complete than she was before.  He had no choice but to tear her down to save her, but in his rebuilding of her strength and psyche, he shores up many of her weaknesses and insecurities.  Of course, her faith in him turned out to be entirely worthwhile.

Whithouse definitely swings for that same concept here.  But the Doctor does little more than say "Don't believe in me anymore," and she accepts it pretty quickly.  And then, the problem is solved.  Suddenly, she's grown up and adult. (by the way, the script doesn't pull this off, but Gillan does it superbly.  Her performance of a truly grown up Amy in the finale scene is sublime.) It's abrupt and unsatisfying.  And it seems like a fundamental misunderstanding of faith.

Which is true throughout the story.  Whithouse doesn't seem to have a coherent point about faith, and it's frustrating to watch it flail about trying to find some purpose in its lofty, complex theme.  Religion is a sensitive topic to bring up, particularly when your story is about people losing their faith and transfering it to someone else, and Whithouse doesn't handle it well.

That might be slightly more forgivable if the story itself worked, but it's an absolute mess.  So, there's this creature that feeds on the "specific energy" created by true faith.  This creature was locked in a prison where it seems to have been the only prisoner.  He was then giving a holographic reality.  And, to feed him, the prison would teleport random people with strong faith into the hologram.  And, in fact, the prison's system is so strong it actually captures the TARDIS herself.  It's a concept built on ideas that even in the Whoniverse don't begin to make sense.

But Doctor Who has survived a set-up that doesn't really work.  But the ride getting to this solution isn't successful, either.  Director Nick Hurran fails to make an inherently eerie setting of an abandoned hotel creepy.  He botches the various fears the characters have - even an appearance by the Weeping Angels is thrown away.  Worst of all, the monster itself isn't frightening despite elaborate makeup.  Hurran does have a way with cool shots - lots of canted angles, roving cameras, and effective closeups.  But the overall effect of his work is uninspired - no sense of fear or even threat.

It doesn't help that Whithouse hands him a script filled with one-note characters.  Whithouse has tremendous insight into the main trio, even if he doesn't use that insight effectively, but his supporting characters here fall totally flat.  There's the Muslim girl, who only exhibits positive traits - brave, nice, good-hearted.  The costume designer missed a perfect opportunity by not decking her in a red shirt.  Overall, she's not obnoxious or terrible, but the complete lack of shading keeps her from really working. (although, points for making the one character intended to be sympathetic Islamic without coming across as condescending either to her beliefs or any others.)  There's the alien from a planet of cowards, an amusing Douglas Adams-ish idea that doesn't fit in a dark, serious story like this and gets old really fast.  Nor does he contribute anything substantial to the story in the end. The blogger is simply awful, an unwatchably obnoxious caricature.

Whithouse does give the regulars good material, and it's this that keeps the episode watchable.  The Doctor must confront his own greatest fear (wisely unseen by the audience) and forces himself to face the consequences of his own ego before they can't be undone.  Matt Smith is absolutely fantastic, as always.  Every character moment for Rory is solid gold.  Karen Gillan gives her second exceptional performance in a row, adding real depth and aching emotion to her Amy's appealingly whimsical persona.  In the final scene, Gillan does something quite remarkable: she makes Amy grow up.  It's a subtle but deeply moving transformation which she manages with only a few facial expressions.

But the Doctor and companions are all that hold the story together.  Which makes the closing moments even more frustrating.  The finale is an abrupt, out-of-nowhere farewell that all-too-obviously isn't supposed to stick.  Whithouse tries to make it an organic part of the story, but the story is so poor it comes to nothing.  It doesn't feel sincere or real, despite lovely performances and good dialogue.  It's a good thing it isn't supposed to be Amy and Rory's actual farewell.

I'm struggling to reconcile my genuine dislike for this episode with the muted but undeniable praise the story has generally received.  Its strong points - the three central characterizations and performances, the concept of a hotel with shifting rooms holding people's fears, and Nick Hurran's camerawork - certainly can't be discounted.  Neither can its essential flaws - its muddled religious themes, incoherent plotting, flat supporting characters, and a climax that misses its target considerably.  The entire thing put me off and left a bad aftertaste that wasn't cleansed until The Wedding of River Song.

But there's definitely good stuff there, and despite its failure, I'm still looking forward to Whithouse's next Who script.  After all, School Reunion is still one of my favorite New Who episodes, and Vampires In Venice flirted with greatness until the climax.  And Small Worlds was the only episode of Torchwood's first season that actually understood the almost-always unrealized potential of that show.  He's a good writer.  Hopefully his next one will show that.



  •  During the climax, the Doctor says of Amy's impending doom, "I knew this would happen, this always happens."  Which is to say, out of the literally 40 or so companions (depending on whom you count), 5.  At most, if you're taking the most liberal interpretation of what he says.  And while it's true that one of those was his previous regular companion, Donna, it's actually pretty rare that the companions don't end up safely on earth.  Yes, those who did die usually died horribly (sucked into the vacuum of space, aged to death in a matter of minutes, face-planting the Yucatan, having yourself removed from your own body as it's taken over by someone else [maybe, if the Master is lying in The Ultimate Foe {which he totally is |gratuitous parenthetical|}]), but that doesn't excuse that line.
  • Despite my problems with Nick Hurran's work, I just want to re-emphasize that his storyboarding is phenomenal.  His close-ups, handheld shots, wide angles, and imagery are terrific.  I don't like how he handles the monster overall, but there's a shot where its horn scrapes against the ceilling and another where it peers through a broken window that are searingly iconic.  Dude seriously knows how to use a camera.  And he certainly gets great work out of the cast; between this and Girl Who Waited, he's gotten Gillan's two finest performances as Amy.  Even with my reservations, I'm really looking forward to any future work he does on the show.

1 comment:

  1. This is great review. Keep it up.