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"How could he be excited about a rubbish hotel on a rubbish bit of Earth?"....And Amy's line sums up my own feeling about Moffat's assignment idea. In fact, the last three stories have all been offering dialogue that apologizes for the story's setting, most often while verbally describing better places. This is dangerous, calling attention to the difference between what the producers know would be ideal, and what they believe they can afford to put on screen.
The concept also jumps into the candy-horror subgenre with both feet, while giving every indication that it is going to go through all the formula motions of a bottle story that remains stuck in this lousy setting for the whole episode. Well, I was immediately turned off once more. Perhaps what is lacking most here is a sense that there will be achievable goals for the characters to work towards, even something simple like a room that they want to get to, or better yet a whole new location. Instead there's a sense that they will spend the episode lost and confused, waiting for something to chase them to a place they don't want to go.
Is all this easier to endure knowing from the start that it isn't really Earth? Or does knowing simply make the endurance more frustrating? I don't know. I suppose we should be thankful that one of our characters is an alien from Tivoli named Gibbis, and we know from the photo memorial that he isn't the only alien to have got caught here. But if this truly is an interstellar trap, why the massive over-representation of 21st century Earth people?
Well, I do like Gibbis. It is refreshing to meet nice aliens, which we should be doing much more of on this show, and it is good that we learn as much as we do about his culture and belief systems, although two Tivolians might have better shed light on the differences between the culture and each individual's personal beliefs. In another sense, sci-fi is making a smart move by inventing a fictitious culture to represent all of those who want to take their cue of faith from oppressive controlling forces. This possibly hints at problems we have here today without being too on-the-nose about any specific Earth group or faith.
Too bad other forms of faith are so literally attached to Earthly representations in the other characters - but in that sense, if there is something to be explored here regarding faith, the episode only touches very lightly on the surface of such ideas, holding it back for mystery while boring us with the nuts and bolts of today's formula candy-horror problem.
On the plus side, director Nick Hurran is quite creative here, both visually and with his sense of pace, space, and timing, all of which makes the story quite artful and surreal. If candy-horror is your cup of tea, you might very well enjoy what has been done here.
The main theme that emerges is not bad, but I don't think this was really the best episode to bring it out. The story doesn't really do anything for me until the hotel disappears at the end, and we get a bit of a cool interstellar reveal.
Double-Edged RevealThe long-awaited reveal of the actual setting satisfies on many levels, and was the point at which the story truly got me interested. This tale probably left this a bit too late though, because the A-plot is all but past its climax at that point. "The Curse of the Black Spot" (story no. 220) was a bit smarter in moving to its surprise setting while there was still a lot to be discovered and done to resolve its external conflicts. The reveal is visually spectacular, and a bit of an homage to Star Trek's holodeck. Here, the episode attempts an explanation for its candy-horror style that is a bit more real than the usual mental-dimension, and this generally works better than most of the Sylvester McCoy era stories that abandoned the mental-dimension crutch. The mechanics of the creature's needs are still a bit too vague and bizarre to truly hold weight though.
I do like that this episode contains an alien related to Nimons. The Nimons are actually a really good fit to this story, in terms of both themes and all the things we saw them up to in their previous story.
What is perhaps not working so well is the recurring problem of an unnamed/offscreen society going to unbelievable lengths to create a prison for the monster of the week that is almost worse than whatever the monster actually did. Sure, something glitched in the program here, but how was this place supposed to work? Why are we being more kind to the creature than to his "food supply" victims? As usual, enter the Doctor, who then substitutes capitol punishment instead and puts the prison/trap out of business. Somehow, this old dynamic doesn't quite make him look so good either.
Clumsy questions remain, including one about where the heck this wandering space prison is. And what kind of wandering path is it on, where it can pick up people from Earth and Tivoli in the same batch, while pretty much always grabbing more Earth people than aliens anyway? A later request from Gibbis to be dropped off "in the nearest galaxy" seems to be ridiculously undereducated as well. How is it that he thinks he isn't already IN the nearest galaxy? (And I'd have to guess it's our own Milky Way considering the prolific recurring presence of 21st-century Earth Humans.) If his planet is actually in sight, that does automatically become the best place to drop him off, no question.
Breaking the FaithThere is a worthy point to a lot of the horror/terror stories out there, in that they often become all about overcoming fear at their best and most thematic point. In the most ideal stories, not only is fear vanquished, but some sort of faith, either spiritual or philosophical, is seen to emerge and be victorious. Knowing this, Whithouse plays on the fact that both the Doctor and the audience have probably recognized the pattern also, and it becomes a source for the biggest trick question for the climax of the tale. Well, haha, wasn't that clever? But was it worth it?
I will give the story credit for dramatizing the idea as well as it did. It may be bizarre that so much of this was left so late in the story, with half of it coming post-climax, but even then, it gets a nice share of screen time.
The theme first hits home for the Doctor in his dealings with Rita. One supposes that he cares for most of the guest character in a somewhat superficial and detached way (something that they bizarrely forgot to aim for in "Horror of Fang Rock" [story no. 92] ). He'll do his best to save everyone, but won't be too surprised or shocked if some of them buy the farm before this particular adventure is over. However, Rita is different, the kind of person he'd take with him as a companion, and/or the one person he'd like to leave in charge of this place when he leaves. It's very late in the day when Rita's elevated position in his affection pays off, but when it does, the drama starts to gain an originality it hadn't had before.
And of course it changes the way he looks at Amy. Interestingly, Caitlin Blackwood is brought back once again, and although she doesn't get much to do here, her presence is very good for effect. The dynamics here are very reminiscent of "The Curse of Fenric" (story no. 158). Fenric seemed a bit more exciting and clever in its way of integrating this kind of final fix into its plot, but "The God Complex" goes a bit deeper towards satisfying drama simply by allowing real events to build up to this moment, and allowing consequences to exist and fuel several more dramatic scenes.
There's good pathos in the fall of the Nimon, brought about by little more than physical acting, but it's a nice touch that I really like here.
The best parts of the episode are all in the coda, where the regulars take the emergent theme and trigger an early departure of Amy and Rory from the TARDIS. In one sense, this is a brilliant way to separate them for the double-banked episode to follow and to give them the independence they will enjoy in the finale. It also breaks the template, and goes back to the unpredictability of the classic show, in that you never really knew when a new companion would join the team, or when an old companion would leave. I like this departure.... ultimately my favourite part of the story. It is a bit bizarre still in that it looks as if the Doctor has bought them a house and car... begging questions of when and how. Despite the allusions in "A Christmas Carol" (story no. 218), he isn't Santa Claus, and this exit has probably gone a bit too far. Well, the details here could use some work, but at least the events had risen to a level that could hold my attention.
But we have to return to the most basic question - is it a good idea to break our faith in the Doctor and his adventurous lifestyle? Is it a better victory to play it safe and keep our philosophical, spiritual sides from overpowering our fears? I think the closing moments of "Survival" (story no. 159) that ended the long run of the classic show were far better at achieving a similar melancholic feeling while strengthening our faith in the Doctor and his lifestyle and whatever other fear-conquering beliefs one may have - ultimately my preferred way to go. Though this story's theme got very good dramatic realization in the final parts of this show, the theme itself is a bummer and a really sad way to look at life. For that reason, I'm not convinced that the more poignant parts of the drama were truly worth the long wait.
This story has become available on DVD and Blu-ray.
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Note: The full season sets contain commentaries, behind-the-scenes featurettes, and other extras. The smaller volumes feature little more than the plain episodes.
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