I've been arguing all season that Steven Moffat has been working towards a substantial sea change for our 909-year-old Doctor and his 48-year-old show. It occurs to me now—oddly, for the first time—that Moffat foreshadowed his agenda in this season's opening story, in the largest and most obvious way possible: he killed the Doctor.
I don't mean that the Doctor will, at the end of this season, be literally, permanently dead: Heaven forbid. But it's becoming increasingly clear that Moffat has set himself the task of slaying the all-powerful, infallible Christ-figure of the Davies/Tennant era—the one borne aloft by angels in "Voyage of the Damned," and resurrected by prayer in "Last of the Time Lords."
How the story will play out in literal terms remains to be seen, but, metaphorically, Moffat and Co. have been killing the Doctor all season: breaking down our expectations of the show, shaking all our bedrock beliefs about our protagonist, and rolling Doctor Who back from the excesses of the past.
We assume, for example, that the Doctor will live forever. We assume that he will always travel with companions, and that those companions will find his influence empowering and edifying. We assume that the Doctor will do the right thing, right every wrong, solve every puzzle, and almost always win. We assume, as Amy does, that the Doctor is a hero.
Yet Moffat began this season by shooting our hero dead, announcing in the loudest possible way that we can take nothing for granted. Throughout the series, he has also shown us the darker side of the Doctor: the arrogance and recklessness of his behavior, the horrifying ripples of his reputation, and the terrible ramifications of his actions. Moffat has—as I discussed in my review of "A Good Man Goes to War"—continually reminded us that the Doctor is not really a God, or a trickster, or a demon. He's just a man: special, yes, smarter and better than most, but fallible, foolish, and often full of shit. We've seen him use terrible judgement, make heartless decisions and colossal blunders, and irreparably damage the lives of his loved ones. This is no god, saint, or angel: Moffat has been killing the myth to show us the man.
Now, as they are prone to do at times, Moffat and Co. have taken the sub-text and made it text: "The God Complex," a smart and emotionally powerful script by Toby Whithouse, tackles the subject of the Doctor's over-sized image head-on. The TARDIS lands in a "hotel" full of terrors, but those terrors turn out—thankfully—to be something of a red herring. (We've had plenty of stories about confronting fears, the last one just two episodes ago in "Night Terrors.") But here—as the Doctor realizes too late—fear is just the means the "complex" uses to tease out faith, for the monster in its maze feeds on the beliefs of its captives. Faith takes many forms, and we see a fair cross-section in the hotel's current inhabitants: Joe (Daniel Pirrie), who believes in luck; Howie (Dimitri Leonidas), who believes in conspiracies; Gibbis (David Walliams), who believes in submission; Rita (Amara Karan), who is a Muslim. (The hotel has no use for Rory [Arthur Darvill], who has no religious beliefs or superstitions: the bedrock principle of Rory's life is his love for Amy, which is real, and thus does not require faith.)
But the real prize for the hotel is Amy: it is her faith that has drawn the TARDIS to this place. Like all companions, Amy Pond is our surrogate, and so it is her faith in the Doctor—our faith in the Doctor—that is at the heart of this story. (It's no coincidence that the first victim we see—Lucy [Sarah Quintrell]—is wearing a police woman's uniform, just as Amy did in her first episode.)
When little Amelia Pond first meets the Doctor in "The Eleventh Hour," he is—literally—the answer to her prayers. Her belief in the Doctor has shaped her entire life, and even when she doubted him she has never lost her faith. "The Doctor's been part of my life for so long now, and he's never let me down," she tells Gibbis (David Walliams) here. "Even when I thought he had—when I was a kid, and he left me—he came back, and he saved me." Amy has built an entire belief system around her Raggedy Doctor, and it's really the only religion she has. (When, in "The Impossible Astronaut," the Doctor asks her to swear on "something that matters," Amy summons her most sacred belief and swears her oath on "fish fingers and custard." Fish fingers and custard represent her road to Damascus, her burning bush, the moment in her childhood when she began to build a mythology around a man.)
But this entire series has been a challenge to Amy's faith. The season opened with the Doctor having left Amy and Rory behind, and then coming back just to die in front of their eyes. He let her get kidnapped by the Silence, he didn't tell her she was a Ganger, and he let her get captured and taken to Demon's Run. Most importantly, and most unforgivably, she has lost her baby girl because of the Doctor, and he failed to get her back. Inside she is still little Amelia Pond, still waiting for the all-powerful Doctor to save her, but he's let her down time and again.
She has also seen him fail others time and again. Lorna Bucket in "A Good Man Goes to War" was another girl-who-waited, a young woman who encountered the Doctor as a child and never got over it: her reward was to die in a battle the Doctor didn't even join. Last episode, we saw a parallel Amy who had learned to hate the Doctor, a bitter, hardened warrior who the Doctor had to betray and leave behind.
Rita, here, is another tailor-made companion, clever, curious, and brave: "Amy, with regret, you're fired," the Doctor jokes on meeting her. Rory—who never had Amy's faith in the Doctor, and has already begun to speak of his time in the TARDIS in the past tense—recognizes the signs of imminent companion-status, and knows the dangers they pose. "Every time the Doctor gets pally with someone," he says, "I have this overwhelming urge to notify their next of kin."
The Doctor recognizes the dangers as well. In "Let's Kill Hitler," he was confronted by visions of his previous companions, and every one of them threatened to cripple him with guilt. Here, he once again acknowledges the selfishness and recklessness of drawing humans into his world:
"I brought them here. I'd say it was their choice, but offer a child a suitcase full of sweets, and they'll take it. Offer someone all of time and space, and they'll take that too. Which is why you shouldn't. Which is why grown-ups were invented."
But even in giving this speech he can't help himself: a moment later he tells Rita that he'll show her all of time and space as well. "I don't know what you're talking about," the clever Rita says. "But, whatever it was, I have a feeling you just did it again."
Rita, of course, goes the way of so many would-be companions: the Doctor has misread the situation, given the wrong advice, and clever Rita becomes just another human the Doctor failed to save.
It's no wonder that Amy's greatest fear is a vision of herself, as a little girl, still waiting for the all-powerful Doctor who never showed up. As Lucy says in the start of the episode, no one's fear comes as a surprise to them, and Amy has already been living with this fear; she's already begun to lose her faith, and so it's no wonder either that the Doctor can destroy it so easily. This heartbreaking conversation will remind classic viewers of a similar scene in the 7th Doctor story "The Curse of Fenric," where the Doctor had to cruelly break Ace's faith in him. The difference, however, is that the 7th Doctor said things to Ace that he didn't mean, while every word the 11th Doctor says is true, and Amy already knows it:
"I stole your childhood, and now I've led you by the hand to your death. And the worst thing is, I knew. I knew this would happen. This is what always happens. 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, and it's time we saw each other as we really are. Amy Williams, it's time to stop waiting."
He calls her "Amy Williams," metaphorically putting to rest the little girl who waited: it's time to grow up, he is telling her, time to recognize him for what he really is. It's a tragic scene—not least of all because of the sacrifice he is making in destroying her faith in him. We never see what fears are in the Doctor's room, but it would not surprise me if their rooms were identical; her belief in him is what summoned him back into existence in "The Big Bang," after all, and it may be the thing that sustains him still. "It didn't want just me," Amy points out. "So you must believe in some god, or someone…So what do Time Lords pray to?" As we learned in "Let's Kill Hitler," at his lowest moment, approaching death, the Doctor invoked the very same prayer that Amy did: "fish fingers and custard."
We never see behind the door to the Doctor's room, but we do see his fears made manifest. This is what he's afraid of: the people he likes that he cannot save; the people he loves but can't protect; the confrontation with his own limitations; the reminder that he is better off alone.
As has been clear all season, the Doctor has kept Amy and Rory with him too long, and now he must say goodbye. For, the Doctor asks Amy, what's the alternative? "Me standing over your grave? Over your broken body? Over Rory's body?" He has done enough damage, and the only thing he can do now is leave them alone to pursue their own adventures.
"What's he doing," Rory asks, as the TARDIS disappears.
"He's saving us," Amy replies.
And all of this leads me back to the questions with which I started: where do we go from here? I am a big fan of what we must now call the Moffat Masterplan: his gradual process of returning the show to its roots and de-mythologizing the Doctor. I suspect that, at the end of Moffat's reign, he will leave behind a Doctor more like the one in the classic series: not a universal legend who can "turn armies around at the mention of his name," but a galactic hobo once again, an unassuming wanderer with no reputation whatsoever. "Doctor who?" must always be a question, and during the Davies era everyone in the universe seemed to know who the Doctor was. (Is it possible, perhaps, that the Doctor's "death" at Lake Silencio is a ruse? Does he fake his own death to put his own dangerous myth to rest? A Doctor traveling incognito is a lovely thought.) The Doctor will always be a hero—he saves the day here, even as he tells Amy he can't—but he will be a smaller, humbler hero, the kind he was before, solving problems with brains and wit instead of bravado and threats.
But I am less certain how Moffat will resolve the Companion Conundrum. The Doctor has spent this entire season learning that it is selfish and irresponsible to travel with humans: how can he ever invite anyone else to travel in the TARDIS? And yet, at the same time, we know that the Doctor needs his companions as much as—or more than—they need him. Their faith sustains him, and their humanity keeps him from becoming the vengeful god the universe thinks he is. Sometimes he needs to see—as he did last episode—through their eyes.
And let's face it: we can talk all we want about how dangerous and irresponsible he is, and how devastating his influence has been on his companions, but is there any one of them who would go back and do it differently? Would anyone—even knowing the dangers—wish they'd never traveled with him, or turn down the chance to do it all over again?
They wouldn't, and neither would we. Fallible, feckless, and reckless, he's still our hero.
Loose Observations, Random Speculations, and Favorite Bits
- Once again, the story of this episode serves its themes, not the other way around. Once again, the science-fiction set-up works metaphorically, but doesn't really work logically. (Why would anyone imprison this beast, and then make sure he was fed with a constant supply of innocent people to eat?) I don't really mind—not when the themes are as worthy as these—but I also wouldn't mind not having to gloss over the logistical gaps in a story for once.
- That quibble aside, this was an excellent episode, beautifully directed (for the second week in a row) by Nick Hurran, and with a layered script by Toby Whithouse that is clever, incredibly moving, and—in the lighter first half, at least—very funny.
- "Because, Assembled Ponds, this is not Earth."
- "Did you just say, 'It's okay, we're nice?'"
- "Right. Big day for a fan of walls."
- "Ooooh-kay, this is bad. At the moment, I don't know how bad, but certainly we're three buses, a long walk, and eight quid in a taxi from good."
- "Don't talk to the clown."
- Early in Moffat's reign I heard grumbles in the fan community to the effect of, "Moffat may be a better writer than Davies, but he might not be as good a show-runner and script-editor." This season should have put paid to any such criticisms: the way Moffat has integrated the "stand-alone" stories by other writers seamlessly into this season's arc is remarkable. (Once I would have assumed that nothing really important would happen in an episode Moffat didn't write, but that is demonstrably and wonderfully not the case.)
- It seems redundant and unnecessary to praise them at this point, but Smith and Gillan are just heartbreakingly good here, particularly in their last scene together: without a lot of dialogue hammering home the emotions, they both convey so much love and regret, making devastatingly clear both the terrible sadness and the absolute rightness of this decision.
- "Maybe there's a bigger, scarier adventure waiting for you in there," the Doctor says to Amy, of normal life. It's a theme nicely echoed earlier in the episode by Rory, who comments that the late Howie had just overcome a stuttering problem. "What an achievement. I mean, can you imagine? I'd forgotten that not all victories are about saving the universe."
- I know Amy and Rory will be back for the finale—I don't see how they could not be—but I still can't believe they will be regulars next season. Could we be looking at a companionless Doctor in Series 7, like the one in the 2009 specials? Or could we see River Song in the TARDIS full-time, having all those adventures we know they are destined to have together?