It’s hard to say why – call it a pessimistic belief that all good things come to an end or just a simple lowering of expectations to avoid disappointment – but we keep thinking that each episode of the second half of this year’s Doctor Who series is going to be either a letdown or perhaps merely good instead of unstintingly magnificent. ‘This will be the one that’ll be a bit rubbish,’ we keep thinking, ‘or the one that we like but not as much as the others.’ That episode may yet come before the end of the series – you can’t kill fatalism that easily – but it hasn’t yet. ‘The God Complex’ is amazing.
Combining elements from old and new Doctor Who stories with some of the finest writing the show has ever seen, Being Human creator Toby Whithouse has created a compact, concise tale in a carnivalesque hotel from the depth of a nightmare and a carnivorous creature who’s a cousin of the Nimon.
The Doctor, Amy and Rory arrive in a cross between Fawlty Towers and the Overlook from The Shining and immediately find themselves in mortal danger from a hairy, Minotaur-like beast that feasts on faith, using a variety of terrifying things in the guestrooms – including Weeping Angels, a P.E. teacher and a dining hall stuffed with ventriloquists’ dummies – to extract the belief and the life from the people unlucky enough to end up within the hotel walls.
The others trapped in this horrible hostelry are surprisingly well-rounded for a series that is so fast-paced it has a tendency to rely on tropes instead of developing the characters of the bit-part players more fully. Although slimy, gambling estate agent-type Joe (Daniel Pirrie) isn’t much more than a clichéd proto-yuppie – he has a massive mobile phone in one of his suit pockets, you can bet on that – the rest are as interesting as their half an hour or so on screen allows.
Geeky Howie (Dimitri Leonidas), who has just learned to cope with a crippling stutter, believes the hotel was built by the CIA and is petrified to find a roomful of pretty girls taking the Mickey out of him while Doctor Rita (Amara Karan) has to cope with her father’s disapproval and the belief that she’s in Jahannam, the Islamic equivalent of Hell. ‘You’re a Muslim,’ the Doctor realises. ‘Don’t be scared,’ she replies, smiling. Both characters are amiable and credible right up until the moment the monster kills them.
Even David Walliams as Gibbis, a moley goblin version of Lou from Little Britain (he even pushes Joe around in a wheelchair at one point, fussing as much as he ever did in a long curly wig and glasses) is believable – if not likeable. In fact, he’s pusillanimous to the point of punchable, but this gives Matt Smith the chance to drop in one of the many wonderful speeches in Whitehouse’s script: ‘Your cowardice isn’t quaint,’ the Doctor says curtly, ‘it’s sly. It’s how that gene of gutlessness has survived while so many others have perished.’
The shaggy fiend doing the killing – it doesn’t even know why it’s doing what it’s doing anymore; it’s working purely on instinct – isn’t much less disagreeable.
Eventually, the only person the creature is still after is The Girl Who Waited. (We see the Doctor look in a room – number eleven, of course – but other than hearing the TARDIS’s cloister bell ringing and him saying, ‘Of course – who else?’ we don’t see what he’s most afraid of, nor what he has faith in.) Amy’s faith is, of course, in the Doctor; and to beat the beast, he has to destroy that devotion – just as he did, aeons ago, with Ace in ‘The Curse of Fenric’. ‘I’m not a hero,’ he says. ‘I really am just a madman in a box. It’s time we saw each other as we really are, Amy Williams. It’s time to stop waiting.’
Amy’s belief in the Doctor is removed, the monster gets the merciful death it craves and the hotel collapses into a Tron grid floating in space. It’s the end – and it’s the end.
Instead of departing for further adventures in time and space, the Doctor takes Mr and Mrs Williams to a house with a vintage E-Type Jaguar parked outside – munificent gifts for the companions he’s unexpectedly saying goodbye to. ‘Why now?’ Amy asks. ‘Because you’re still breathing,’ the Doctor replies. ‘I think this is because of the washing-up, personally,’ she giggles.
It’s a brilliantly underplayed scene (it’s more likely to be à bientôt than farewell, but it’s almost certainly the beginning of the end of Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill as regulars in the show) with shades of Sarah Jane-Smith’s departure in ‘The Hand of Fear’ almost exactly 35 years earlier and her goodbye to David Tennant’s Doctor in Toby Whithouse’s earlier story, ‘School Reunion’ three decades later. Visibly but quietly emotional for both Time Lord and companion, it’s as moving a departure as Doctor Who has ever seen, in an episode that is as full and fulfilling as anything that has preceded it.
Aired at 7.10pm on Saturday 17th September 2011 on BBC One.