Sunday, September 18, 2011

Fawltless Towers

Pictured Above: Distant cousins.

Faith. You gotta have faith. For preference, mine comes in the form of Eliza Dushku, but whatever your personal brand, it pays with Doctor Who to always trust that, no matter how disappointing an episode – or even a run of episodes or a season - might have been, there will be better along soon enough.

This week’s, The God Complex, was my cup of tea. In many respects, everything that the preceding instalment, The Girl Who Waited, should have been. A strong emotive concept, this time brilliantly executed. For one thing, it doesn’t rely on people being stupid. In fairness, this one probably had as many inconsistencies of internal logic but it cleverly weighted all explanations towards the tail end so that I was properly hooked and engaged in the story from the get-go. The questions it raised were of the ‘Ooh, I wonder what the hell is going on?’ variety, rather than the ‘How utterly dumb and contrived is that?’ sort.

The Toby Whithouse experience has been a variable one. School Reunion was a tale of two halves – on the one hand a powerfully emotional exploration of the Doctor-Sarah Jane relationship and the impact on a companion’s life post-Doctor; on the other a fairly feeble story of aliens taking over a school, ultimately to be defeated by K9. The best of Who, the worst of Who, but ultimately still magical in the memory thanks to the Sarah Jane thread and a parting scene that tugs on the heartstrings in all the best ways. Vampires Of Venice, veering more towards ordinary, although definitely with merits (including but not limited to hot vampire babes). And now this, The God Complex, outstanding in every respect that counts.

Gorgeously creepy and ever so slightly insane, it opened with shots of empty corridors just waiting for people to run up and down them. The direction was superb throughout, painting this already bizarre scenario of the mock 1980s hotel in a singularly surreal light. Freaky montages, extreme eye close-ups, warped views of corridors stretching away forever, a consistently dark tone expertly interwoven with the chintzy decor,and a perfectly measured restraint in the reveal of the monster. Shadows, more ocular close-ups, ominous sounds and an exquisitely framed shot through glass when the Doctor first confronts it face to face. And it’s a monster which, quite frankly, you’d be seriously tempted to show off.

A beautifully realised creation. It must be said. Sure, yes, it’s ultimately ‘just’ a minotaur, but a fantastic bit of animatronic workmanship. Not quite Farscape's Pilot level, but fantastic all the same. When Amy says he’s beautiful, she’s not wrong. Kudos to the production team on that alone. The line about it being a ‘distant cousin of the Nimon’ is comedy gold.

Loved it, loved it, loved it.

And I understand now why The Girl Who Waited couldn’t have been set in a prison with lots of individually tailored nightmares. Unless these stories could have been combined somehow. Hmm.

Such speculative food for thought aside, this for me is the best standalone story of the season so far, up there with Neil Gaiman’s The Doctor’s Wife, with perhaps a few extra trimmings on top. There’s a deftness of touch ranging from the simple facet of set-dressing – the pictures of previous victims on the walls, for instance – to the characterisation of the lovely Rita (not a meter maid). Actress Amara Karan and script conspired to invest her with a similar ‘instant companion’ quality to the likes of Sally Sparrow (sigh) and I for one would have welcomed her recruitment as a regular at the end. Of course, it’s all engineered so that we properly feel for her in that horrible, wrenching scene of her demise. A true shame, but the engineering is pure craftsmanship.

Memory cheats, but I do recall wondering, back in ye olde times during (the somewhat overrated) Curse Of Fenric, whether the Russian captain was intended as companion material, before he met is fate. There’s other Fenric common ground here as the Doctor endeavours to break his companion’s faith in him, only this time the scene involves actors instead of Sylvester McCoy.

The initial hypothesis that the creature is feeding on fear is the stuff of bulk-standard DW monsters, preparing us for a foray into familiar Orwellian Room 101 territory, but thought has gone into the range of hot and cold running fears on offer in the hotel rooms. Clowns and ventriloquist dummies are obvious ones, of course, but you would need the more common fears in amongst the quirkier ones. The conspiracy-theorist geek’s fear of girls and that single shot of the huddle of girls all talking and laughing about him was again deftly done and told the character’s whole story in as few seconds as possible. Naturally there’s a burning desire to know the greatest fears of the regulars – the Doctor most particularly - and the episode frustrates us with its restraint in this regard, but it’s pitch perfect. Any more would have been wrong, as would any less. As the story progresses, we know there has to be more to this than just fears and when the question of faith then rears its head, further fascination is folded in with the suspense.

And the range of faiths is as creative as the range of fears. Faith in conspiracy theories, faith in luck. And how fantastic to have a practising Muslim in the mix. In passing I did wonder whether the Doctor’s reference to pointless superstitions and faith was ill-judged, in the light of Rita’s religious beliefs, but it’s clear that he respects and admires her. It’s fitting that a Time Lord with a God Complex, eponymous or otherwise, would be something of an atheist, but I couldn’t imagine him being so glibly dismissive of the deeply held beliefs of a person so clearly valued and recently lost.

As dark and potentially heavy stuff as all this is, there is comedy aplenty. All that was missing in this hotel from hell was a guest appearance from John Cleese. We had David Walliams – not in the same league, all due respect – but he puts in a good turn as the cowardly alien from the most-invaded planet in the universe. The fact that this snivelling spineless Orc survives when better people have lost their lives is simultaneously galling and inspired.

Like all good things it comes to an end. But we have to hope that at least part of the end is temporary. When the illusion of the hotel is stripped away and all that’s left is a Tron-like virtuascape, bringing into sharp focus the isolation and loneliness of the minotaur’s death. His line about one so drenched in blood embracing the end was, for me, so clearly referring to the Doctor it didn’t necessarily need spelling out, but it’s at least not as bluntly hammered home as, say, the end note in Moffat’s The Beast Below. But that’s ultimately the extent of my quibbles with it, really, because as I said it managed to sell me on the scenario and fully hook me in, before any triggering of the internal critic could occur. Damn it, it even managed to have me feeling sorry for the beast, without any sense that anyone was ham-fistedly trying to push my buttons. Even the music was – gasp!! – understated for a (blimmin welcome) change.

So in the end not quite entirely faultless, but perhaps as close to it as Doctor Who ever comes.

Still, with all that praise heaped upon it, I must balance it out by adding that Toby Whithouse is a bastard. Sure, he can claim he was only following orders but that doesn’t alter the facts that responsibility lies with him – for being the man who wrote Amy and Rory out. You utter git, sir. Shame on you!

Of course, if this had occurred at season’s end, I would be more convinced – and horrified – at the prospect that this was indeed their actual final departure. But I can’t buy that this is really the last we’ll see of them. Maybe it’s wishful thinking, maybe it’s because I’ve been fed on a diet of more recent companions who always return no matter how final their departure seems. Mostly though it’s because Matt Smith, Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill have been for me the best Doctor-companion combo since Tom Baker, Lis Sladen and Ian Marter and that’s something real special. I have faith that they will be back.

In grudging deference to Mr Whithouse, he delivers a beautiful departure scene which does the relationships justice. The bastard writes terrific tear-jerking farewells. So, in case there’s any misunderstanding or in the remotest case Mr Whithouse is paying attention, ‘bastard’ is in this instance a term of respect and admiration. With the blame, sir, comes due credit.

That final closing scene of the Doctor’s isolation and loneliness inside the TARDIS is as perfectly judged as most of this episode and this is the first time in a few weeks now that the episode itself has honestly outdone anything in the NEXT TIME... trailer at the end.

NEXT TIME has a lot to live up to now and unfortunately it features Cybermen – and the modern clunky, trudge-dread ones - which puts it at a disadvantage before it’s begun. Let’s hope we finally get a story that realises their potential.

Looking further forward, I’ll be hoping for more Amy and Rory soon. And more from Toby Whithouse next year. He’s definitely earned his place as a regular guest at the Doctor Who hotel.



iCowboy said...

Quick question.

Was the polcewoman's nightmare meant to be of a toilet trained gorilla, or (as it looked), that of a man in a really bad gorilla costume coming out of the bathroom?

I hope it's the latter, because that costume was a shocker.

I'm not sure what I'll do now without a weekly dose of Amy until the BBC gets round to launching BBC Pond 24 ('All Amy. All Day').

But I guess the vague hope that James Cordon will be turned into a Cyberman will keep me happy for the next seven days.

SAF said...

Ooh Cybercorden - now there's something to look forward to. Will it be a brutal and gory conversion process?

Re: WPC Lucy's Gorilla nightmare, I think it was intentionally a man in a gorilla suit, something out of a story that terrified her, IIRC. It's mentioned anyway. But to be fair, I don't recall if the toilet factored into that fear at all.

Love the idea of BBC Pond 24. Gets my vote and I pay my licence, damnit.