Doctor Who has always been about corridors. It’s partly a budgeting thing. If you have a TV programme in which the chase is a recurring motif, then enclosed spaces are the way to go, particularly when you can then use the same constructed length of space again, shot from a different angle, and pretend it’s another part of the building. A chair here, a wall sign there, and the illusion is more or less intact. And if it isn’t, who cares?
Corridors are a big part of The God Complex, although they don’t exist in a vacuum. They’re the conduit to dealing with your fears. This isn’t like any hotel, where the other rooms – and their occupants – are tantalisingly sealed. In this place, you’re actively encouraged to open up the doors until you find the one that happens to contain that childhood book with the horrible pictures, or the playground bully who abused you, or (if you’re a Time Lord) a large crack in the wall.
The first time we get wind of this, it’s because of a gorilla. The gorilla is large and roaring and sudden. The gorilla is enough to terrify a poor policewoman out of her wits and, in the process, unleash a fearsome (but unseen) adversary. The policewoman dies with a curious smile on her lips, and the psychological extent of this creature on the human mind is at least partially revealed, even if the creature itself is not. The gorilla vanishes.
It’s an electrifying moment, and rather than being one of those wonderful scenes in an average episode (see Listen) it sets the tone. There are many things to admire in The God Complex, but its biggest joy, as it turns out, is the direction. Nick Hurran has long since been a safe pair of hands, his ability to tease out a shot managing to enliven even Asylum of the Daleks, but his work here is frankly exemplary. The monster reveal shots in the hotel rooms are a jarring mixture of fast and slow. Jump cuts are abundant. The minotaur stalks the hotel accompanied by lurid lighting and grotesque, Hammond-driven muzak. Crucially, the first time we even come close to seeing it properly, it is through a glass darkly. It is a trick that would have dramatically improved Mummy on the Orient Express.
None of this would matter if the narrative didn’t go anywhere – even the best directors can’t polish a turd – but Toby Whithouse delivers. Whithouse has never been the most consistent of Who writers, but The God Complex is packed with ominous dread, cranking up the tension as the characters gradually succumb to the Minotaur, in the manner of a good Agatha Christie.
That’s as far as the murder mystery comparisons go, of course.
The story is a cross between Alien and the last three chapters of 1984, taking its stylistic cues from The Shining. There are only so many ways you can make that interesting, but Whithouse does this by introducing a smorgasbord of characters who all react in different ways – from David Walliams’ devious Gibbis (the physical resemblance to a rat cannot be a coincidence) to Amara Karan’s Rita, a strong contender for the greatest Doctor Who companion who never was. Rita is calm and logical without being soulless and it’s a shame, in a way, that her death sentence is sealed before it actually happens, when she agrees to go with the Doctor after the story is concluded – which, unless you’ve already been in all the publicity shoots, is the metaphorical equivalent of sleeping with Jack Bauer.
Curiously, The God Complex becomes – in its last ten minutes – something else entirely, by using one of the central relationship dynamics as a means to entrap the monster. There are no elephants within any of the hotel’s rooms, but there is one in the TARDIS – and the Doctor ultimately deals with it by forcibly breaking Amy’s faith in him so that she can concentrate on her marriage. It’s a gamble that doesn’t quite work, as Asylum of the Daleks proved, and it’s a shame that this later story leaves such a nasty taste in the mouth when The God Complex states so explicitly that Amy is relying too much upon the Doctor, and even more of a shame that in the end she can only make the choice when – at the end of The Angels Take Manhattan – her hand is forced.
Still, that’s all to come. Back in the hotel, the Doctor solves the riddle, confronts the Minotaur and gives it the release it so desperately desires. It’s an unexpectedly touching scene – the dissolution of the hotel’s walls, revealing the holodeck behind it, is a metaphor for the Doctor’s psychological digging, with the Minotaur’s request for death a direct parallel with the series arc. I’d normally find this painful, but in an episode in which deaths necessarily occur off camera, it’s something of a catharsis, irrespective of the wider ramifications. If the finale feels tacked on – a scene Whithouse was in all likelihood asked to insert in light of sequencing – then he gets away with it by keeping it relatively understated, at least by Nu Who standards.
In a way, part of the problem of the episode was its scheduling – existing, as it did, in a series where Things Are Happening seemingly every week. It’s an episode that deliberately doesn’t deal with the Doctor’s death or any of the mysteries behind it – at least on the surface – and I wonder if it’s never quite achieved the acclaim it deserves because everyone was so anxious to get on with the story and find out how the Doctor managed to get away from Lake Silencio.
Or perhaps we, like Agent Scully, had had enough of chasing monsters in the dark. And that’s a shame, really, because I love it. It’s an episode that’s almost as close to perfect as it’s possible to get, and for Doctor Who, that’s a fine accolade indeed.