The Glass Teat


Doctor Who: The God Complex

God complex, character simple

Managing Editor, True North Perspective
Originally published at Edifice Rex Online
Send in the (diversionary) clowns.

It's been clear for a long time now that there is an emotional and an intellectual void at the heart of Steven Moffat's Doctor Who.

Since The Eleventh Hour, we have seen story-boards in place of stories, Big Ideas and High Concepts instead of plot, fact-sheets for characters, and enough mis-direction and clues to make Agatha Christie blush. No one wonder long-suffering fans twist themselves in proverbial knots to convince themselves that, behind all that sound and fury, there has to be something to justify all this hype.

Last season ended with a climactic cheat, the re-booting of the entire universe to "resolve" a Gordian Knot of convoluted plot-lines. This season, the question of Amy Pond's mysterious pregnancy was not so much resolved as declared "Resolved!" by auctorial fiat in the risible mid-series premiere, Let's Kill Hitler.

And through both seasons, like a stripper disrobing (or maybe not) in the background behind a gauzy curtain, was the never-ending mystery of River Song. Who is she? Where does she come from? What is she, really, to the Doctor?

Yet always missing from the few answers we did get, was character.

We know that River Song is fast with a anachronistic quip and faster on the draw; that she has as much faith in herself as the Doctor has in himself; and that she and the Doctor have some sort of Passionate and Important Relationship. At least, the latter has been pretty heavily implied and I think it's safe to say most of us believe it.

Yet quick hands and tongue aside, we have never been shown anything that is particularly special about her. Indeed, nothing at all beyond her relationship with the Doctor. River Song is an designer suit hanging from a rack: all label, no model inside.

No matter that large segments of fandom "love" River Song or "hate" her, like auto-hypnotists, they are loving and hating fantasies of their own creation, not anything they have seen on-screen.

Similarly, we are told again and again and again, that Amy Pond is Special. Yet she is more a cypher even than River Song.

Other than a childhood spent pining for the Doctor, what do we know about her? What hopes did she or does she have for her life, what fears? What mattered or matters to her?

Who knows? Certainly not this viewer. I learned more about Rose Tyler in the first two minutes of Rose than I have learned over 25 episodes with Amy Pond.

She began, and remains, a Concept. She is The Beautiful, Sexually-Liberated Girl In a Mini-Skirt, and The Beautiful Girl in a Mini-Skirt (sexuality now safely tamed by marriage) she remains. She is the blankest of blank slates, upon which viewers are free to paint whatever portraits, of whatever complexity, they like, an Amy Pond from and for each and every one of us.

Some might call that a kind of post-modern collaboration between creator and audience. I call it pandering to one's audience or, to be very generous, extremely lazy writing.

In The God Complex, the Doctor, admiring the intelligence, imagination and courage of the woman of colour in the episode (who we therefore know is almost certainly doomed), tells Amy she's fired.

It's a joke (worse, it's another meta-joke that makes no in-story sense — there are almost no other kinds in Moffat's Who), but if it has a real point, it comes at the expense of those viewers who have bought into Moffat's dramatic ponzi scheme and so have invested themselves in the false faith that he would ultimately deliver on his promises.

Almost entirely passive for two years, Amy Pond should be fired. Even in the pre-consciously sexist 1960s, companions were usually imbued with character. They had agency.

And so it is with Rory as well. Though the character has come to throw a hint of a shadow, and it's possible an unconscious sexism on Moffat's part has given the actor more character to work with, I am inclined to credit that semblance of three-dimensionality to Arthur Darvill's superior thespian's chops.

In any case, all we know of Rory from scripts is that he has always loved Amy, even though she has given us no reason to understand why that might be.

For those that have eyes to see ....

Characters are cyphers in Moffat's Who, and it's become clear that the ludicrous revelation of Let's Kill Hitler, that Amy and Rory unknowingly grew up alongside their daughter, was the answer to the questions implied and otherwise in all that had gone before.

Because that episode was followed by three stand-alone adventures in which Amy's (and Rory's) missing years of parent-hood went unmentioned or (just barely) were noted in passing, fans (rightly) expecting some emotional repercussion have been left waiting, and waiting, and waiting.

And waiting some more in The God Complex, whose plot hinges on Amy's ultimate faith in the Doctor, despite his manifest failure with regards to her childhood, her motherhood and even to her old age.

To be fair, the first 30 or 35 minutes of the episode are reasonably entertaning, if ultimately forgettable, variants on a familiar, trapped-with-a-monster Doctor Who story. Toby Whithouse's script is derivative but solid and is very well-served by Nick Hurran's stylish direction.

Since it is, however, only a superior variant on a run-of-the-mill story, and especially since it is yet another — the fourth in a row! — stand-alone episode in a season we were led to believe would be a unified whole, I'm going to skip the synopsis.

There are only a few specifics that merit further comment.

First, and with all credit to TheOnComingHope for reminding me of the earlier version, the story of the Doctor having to destroy a companion's faith in him in order to save her has been done before, and to far better effect. (See the excerpt from the 7th Doctor adventure, The Curse of Fenric at right.)

To quote TheOnComingHope,

See that? The stakes are real. Ace's belief in the Doctor is built on the fact that he sees her for something more than what she sees in herself. He had to specifically challenge that. And most importantly? Even when she finds out he was lying, she's still angry.

Amy just wants to ... carry on doing exactly the same thing. If they're leaving anyway, she could have expressed an actual desire to leave, rather than being dropped off unceremoniously. The Doctor sees her as a child that needs to be tended to, and he's right.

People who actually experience a loss of faith don't tend to be smiley afterwards. Whithouse was clearly trying to make some statement about faith, but its exploration was utterly shallow.

I'll quibble and suggest that to call Amy "a child" gives Moffat too much credit, and Amy seems as happy to stay back on Earth as she would have been to keep travelling with the Doctor, but otherwise I think that sums up the problem with this "resolution" very nicely indeed.

Second, shallow or not, when the Doctor dumps Amy and Rory back on earth — bribing them with a house and a car, no less (whatever would Sarah Jane Smith have said about that)! — we are (apparently) meant to take the separation as moving, if not tragic. What we actually get, though, is the emotional jolt of a casual acquaintance heading off a couple of week's camping, hardly the stuff of epic poetry.

All in all, whatever story Moffat plans to tell after four episodes spent treading water, we seem to be getting there through a completely arbitrary bit of story-telling. Nothing arises from any characters' personality, or from an ongoing narrative whose plot forces the decision.

Moffat says the Doctor has to send Amy home, so the Doctor sends Amy home.

As I've said before, I understand that the puzzle-solvers are enjoying themselves, but they are only watching a puzzle-maker at work, they are not enjoying a drama which contains a puzzle as an important component.

Like a high-priced but mass-produced confectionery treat, Steven Moffat's Doctor Who is tasty to some, but its calories are empty, its nutritional value entirely illusory.

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