I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the nature of television shows. The term “procedural” is something of a dirty word these days, representing the sunglasses-removing-logic-defying brain-sucking dross pumped out by the CSI’s and NCIS’s of this world. It’s become this word that means that a show has ditched any sense of character development in favour of shiny cases-of-the-week (or, in the case of new show Unforgettable, a woman standing around furrowing her brow).
On the one hand, I understand. It’s unfortunate to see television go in that populous direction – but it’s not like “procedural” automatically means bad. The Good Wife, for instance, is almost pure procedural – but it has such a keen eye for unusual stories and character development, and a stellar cast (as evidenced by Julianna Marguiles’ second Emmy win for the show on Sunday), that it is one of my favourite shows to pick up and play with.
But the advance of the cable brand of pure serialization has sullied the previously under-the-radar style of procedurals. From Breaking Bad to Mad Men to Boardwalk Empire, these are shows entirely invested in the long game rather than solving their problems within the confines of an hour.
Which is fine, and great, and works really well. But it’s not like shows with a case-of-the-week element are inherently wrong – look at Buffy The Vampire Slayer, where a monster-of-the-week allowed us to explore our characters against different backdrops, while never losing sight of the over-arching theme of the season or series.
The reason this has been playing on my mind lately is, in fact, because of Doctor Who. Namely, can a show with only a dozen episodes per season sustain itself when it introduces more serialized elements? And I’m not talking arc words or the occasional nod to knocking four times, I’m talking entire episodes dedicated to the ongoing issues of the Doctor’s death, River Song, and Amy and Rory’s baby hilarity.
Traditionally Doctor Who has been the kind of show where we get a new foil and a new solution every week, and someone occasionally mentions the words “BAD WOLF” so we can all pat ourselves on the back when it comes up in the finale. But no longer!
There was an article in the Guardian about this particular fact, making up the complaint (as the Guardian likes to do) that the show had become too complex for its family format. Of course this isn’t the truth: children enjoy a degree of complexity and nuance in their entertainment, whereas most of their parents have flicked over to Eastenders to see which slag has to “gah my pab!” this time.
So let me make this clear: I love the complexity. I absolutely adored “Let’s Kill Hitler” (as evident from my review) and think the River Song storyline has, despite a few mis-steps, been the best the show has ever done. But I do worry that certain things have suffered – and not just the sometimes frustrating lack of development that Rory and Amy have gotten because of River-time. What has suffered is the frequency of completely stand-alone episodes.
Their quality, when they come, has generally been high – but I just want to see more of that sort of exploration. Standalone episodes don’t have to be devoid of emotion or thematic resonance; episodes like “Blink”, “Midnight” and last week’s “The Girl Who Waited” (more on that later) are entirely self-contained and yet speak to something deeper in the heart and the imagination, and are often perfectly reflective of the woes of our protagonists.
And that’s why I believe that the ideal Doctor Who season is at this level of quality, but with a more traditional 22-episode US-style format. It would give the breathing room to pump out more of these standalone episodes, and we wouldn’t feel (as I have this season) that we were constantly wedged between climax after climax like some unwilling participant at an orgy. Of course that’s never going to happen, but a girl can dream.
So where does “The God Complex” fall in this grand scheme? Amy, Rory and the Doctor land themselves in a recreation of a 1980s hotel, where each room contains someone’s greatest fear. It’s not the most novel idea in the world, and while it would seem to borrow from The Shining at first glance it really owes more of a debt to countless episodes of fiction where fear itself is the foe. So it’s more of a sub-genre than a cliche, and as in all these cases the strength of the episode is whether the presence of the fears has a profound effect or is just like being trapped in Sears Of The Damned.
I did thoroughly enjoy the presence of the company our crew stumbled upon during the episode, particularly Rita The Muslim (as she shall forever be known) and David Walliams in a refreshingly non-scene stealing role as a member of a race who’ve triumphed through deference. As the episode heated up, I was pleasantly surprised with the rate at which it was willing to toss out new turns – first the fears are what we have to deal with, but then it’s this mysterious being that’s causing victims to shout “praise him”, and then it’s the Minotaur-like creature that’s wandering the halls and dispatching those who’ve succumbed.
That the Doctor faces off with this creature about half-way through the episode was a bold move (and nicely shot through a series of mirrors in one hell of a fancy 80s hair salon), because it essentially threw up even more questions. Where “Night Terrors” was flogging one dead-eyed horse for most of its running time, “The God Complex” used some fairly traditional ideas in such quick succession that it added an artificial sense of pace that I found wholly enjoyable.
This was, of course, before we got to why this episode was called “The God Complex” at all. You see, poor Amy unfortunately glanced into her room at one point, and was soon shouting “praise him” like ’twere Sunday at an inner city Gospel church. It’s at this point that the Doctor nails what’s really going on: this beast isn’t attracted to fear, it’s attracted to faith. And how do you inspire faith in people? By making them reach for it. By making them fear.
And who would Amy have faith in? Well the Doctor, of course. This all dove-tailed beautifully with our team chased into Amy’s room, where a young Amelia Pond (her second appearance this half-season) is sitting on her suitcase, staring out the window and waiting for the Doctor to return for her. I’d forgotten just how well the show presented Amelia at the beginning of last season, and how well Gillan played a girl who’d spent her whole life waiting for someone to come back for her.
So the only thing to do was to break Amy’s confidence and faith in the Doctor, by making her face up to some harsh truths (and they were true, despite the intent in saying them) – the Doctor is a gambler and a charlatan, a man who picks up people on his journey because he doesn’t like being alone and enjoys showing off. And most often these people get lost along the way, and he never learns. He is arrogant, and he left her waiting because he could. And with that, Amy’s faith cracks, and the hotel breaks down. It turns out that it’s a simulation designed by an alien race to feed on faith-based worlds, but that’s not important. What’s important is that Amy was forced to face up to the fact that the Doctor is not good for her.
This all leads us to the startling final scene of “The God Complex”, which I was most definitely not expecting. The Doctor drops Amy and Rory at a new house and a new car, and tells them that he’s done travelling with them. Because they’re still alive, and that is better than he’s left a lot of companions. Amy accepts, and there he stands, alone in the TARDIS again.
I don’t believe “The God Complex” to be the greatest episode of Who there’s ever been (or even the best this fortnight), but it was consistently entertaining, took some really neat turns, and made perfect thematic sense in the context of the season. This is especially true when you take it in tandem with last week’s “The Girl Who Waited”. In that we got a perfect introduction to the pay-off seen here. Amy is left behind, this time for far too long, and it essentially breaks her. Rory is forced to make a heart-breaking decision, essentially to kill his wife in order to save her. And the Doctor sees how his littlest mistakes can destroy people’s lives.
In “The God Complex” Amy had not experienced the events of that episode per se, but she was primed for an understanding that the Doctor is not good for her. And Rory, as evidenced by his use of the past tense when talking about the TARDIS (though I have theories about that below), had already checked out. It really was up to the Doctor to realise that, early as it may seem, this was the right time to let them go.
What is glaring about this decision and this denoument is not that it comes without bombast or shouting – it’s that it comes two episodes before the season’s end. This is not the end for Rory and Amy for this year, but this curious and logical resolution has me whetted for what exactly Moffatt has in store for the pair in the future. Dragged back into the story, or unable to resist the TARDIS’ temptations?
Whatever it is, it’s clear their daughter will be taking centre stage. The season finale is called, as revealed this week, “The Wedding Of River Song” – sure to be a formal affair with no risk of laser burns or jodhpurs.
I wear jodhpurs now. Jodhpurs are cool.
– I mentioned above about Rory speaking of his time in the TARDIS in the past tense – meant to be an indication that he’d already let go. But something about this whole episode unsettled me. This, coupled with Amy’s odd reaction to Rory’s being knocked over and the Doctor’s look when she said she’d “forgotten” about the paper she’d picked up, lead me to believe that perhaps Rory and the Doctor know more about Amy than she does. Completing the “let’s keep secrets from each other” theme of this season’s TARDIS crew.
– I feel comfortable that Amy is letting go of baby Melody, but I’m sure fans are still up in arms that she signed off with a simple “tell my daughter to visit”. It’s not that I think it’s unrealistic, I just think it might be okay that a twenty-something year old who accidentally got pregnant may have been willing to surrender the joys of parenthood if she knows how awesome her daughter is going to turn out to be.
– Speaking of which, was it ever clarified that Amy and Rory know the details of River’s death?
– Damn but those ventriloquist dummies were creepy.
– I feel this episode nicely approached the idea of faith and religious belief, by making it about the belief itself rather than the rightness of same said belief. A difficult balancing act, and one rarely handled well by science fiction.
– Lovely details here and there, such as the scraping on the ceiling, the portraits on the wall, and the mirrors in the Salon Of Doom.
– Rita dodged the Muslim stereotype only to fall into the “academically pressured by her Eastern parents” one. Poor lass.
– Next week, it’s back to visit our old friend Craig from “The Lodger”. Will it flesh out (har har) why he had the Impossible Astronaut TARDIS in his attic last season, and more importantly will the Doctor play football again?