There’s no shame in borrowing if you borrow well. “The God Complex,” has one clear source of inspiration—Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining—but to my eyes pays homage to it with respect, ultimately using its source as a springboard to go places that movie didn’t. By the end of Kubrick’s film, the Overlook Hotel has become a sort of Hell on Earth, ensnaring Jack Nicholson’s character with a beguiling promise of privacy, irresponsibility, and all the heretofore-sworn-off booze he wants. When he gives in, he drags his family into an Overlook that’s served as the repository for the unspoken desires of decades of previous residents. The hotel here also doubles as Hell in miniature, but it’s a different sort of Hell. Your nightmares dog you in cozy little rooms but they have a more insidious agenda than mere fear. They’re a means to turn your most deeply cherished beliefs against you. Abandon all faith, ye who enter here.
Writer Toby Whithouse last contributed the creepy episode “Vampires Of Venic” last season and this one follows a similar pattern. The Doctor, Amy, Rory and their new allies at first seem to be up against a familiar monster—ghosts of a Kubrickian stripe—when they’re actually up against a different sort of antagonist: a belief-stealing Minotaur that feasts on their worship, the greater their faith the greater the feast until they surrender in a creepy moments of raptures. (Another Kubrick homage: they give in with eyes up, camera overhead, while sorting an eerie, Malcolm McDowell smile.)
I’m not sure if what this episode is trying to say something complex or muddled about faith. I lean complex. On the one hand, the faithless Arthur has the best tools to survive in this environment. That fact alone makes it feel almost like a Philip Pullman-inspired episode, pitting sensible skepticism against the destructive power of religion. The Minotaur’s victims are converted and destroyed in one fell swoop. On the other hand, it also depicts how faith helps and sustains characters under other circumstances. The Doctor’s new friend Rita (Amara Karan), a Muslim (“Don’t be frightened.”) leans on her beliefs and keeps her head because of it, at least for a time. And while the Doctor disabuses Amy/Amelia of her faith in him to save her life, he validates it at the same time. Madman in a box or no, he does save her. Again.
More than most episodes, “The God Complex” puts the question of who the Doctor is at the heart of things. The title has a couple of meanings. It refers, of course, to the villain’s godly aspirations but also, as Rita makes explicit, the Doctor’s own need to save others. And in the process, control them. What kind of person does that? And who can remain so blithe after pulling the strings of so many lives? Another question: What’s behind the Doctor’s own hotel door, a door marked, naturally, with the number 11? (On that last point, I almost hope we never find out. Almost.)
I liked Karan’s’s performance quite a lot, but she’s not the only notable guest star. Dimitri Leonidas is quite good as a stammery blogger with a deep belief in conspiracy theories. So is Little Britain’s David Walliams as a member of the most-conquered race in the universe. But there’s a strategy behind the surrender, passive aggression on a cosmic scale. It’s almost too good of an idea for a supporting character. They’re pretty much the antithesis of The Doctor. He’s the last member of his race, but ready to make the universe bend to his will. They’re a populous race who derive power for rolling over the universe, strategically. I wonder if we’ll see they’re kind again.
It feels like there’s an arc developing this season, one shaped directly around a changing perception of The Doctor’s character. In the first half of season six, the series showed The Doctor in ever-more heroic light. He began it as a martyr, however, briefly, in the season opener. By the mid-season finale he’d become almost a god, or at least a myth, spoken of in hushed tones throughout the universe. But since the hiatus the depictions of The Doctor have changed a bit, growing more critical and showcasing The Doctor’s fallibility and darker tendencies. He was in over his head in “Let’s Kill Hitler” and last week captured him at his coldest, banishing the older Amy to a never-was existence. (If the unabashedly heroic portrayal of “Night Terrors” had appeared, as planned, in the first half of the season, my observation would be even stronger.) This week is more critical still with first Rita then the Minotaur questioning his intentions and pointing to the blood on his Time Lord hands.
It’s enough to make him apparently swear off companions. Or at least these particular companions. The episode ends with the Doctor dumping Amy and Rory off to a cozy home (complete with Rory’s favorite car) then heading off to points unknown. Where is this heading? (Besides, most immediately, to next week’s sequel to “The Lodger”?) I’m not sure, but the two dramatic scenes that close the episode—the Minotaur’s death and the Doctor’s farewell—felt like a serious shift in gears. We’re two episodes out from the finale and it feels like something major’s about to happen even beyond The Doctor’s date with destiny. “The God Complex” could have merely set the table for that. Instead it raised some questions about our hero that may be too big even for the finale to answer. That may sound like a complaint, but it’s not. One thing I’ve loved about the Moffat run is the way it keeps The Doctor recognizable as the hero we’ve come to know but occasionally shows him from angles we’ve never seen him before, even if they’re not angles from which we’re always comfortable looking at him. I’m looking forward to seeing how he finishes out this latest season-long chapter.
• A nice touch: The first time we see the clown, he’s scary. The second time it’s kind of funny.
• “This could be the most exciting thing I’ve ever seen.” I don’t think he means that line hyperbolically, even if it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. He’s nothing if not enthusiastic.
• “Big day for a fans of walls.”
• One small quibble: The TARDIS lands here by accident. Again. Do they ever end up in the right place anymore? Alternately, a theory: The Doctor always knows where they’re going. He just doesn’t always let on.