|No, no, that’s fine. I’ll find a different table. Really. It’s OK.|
It’s September 17th, 2011. Pixie Lott has the number one slot with “All About Tonight,” with Olly Murs, Calvin Harris, and Ed Sheeran also charting. In news, a petrol pipeline explodes in Nairobi, killing 100, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act is passed, putting an end to the practice of Prime Ministers getting to call for an election at a time they find strategically satisfying, and, on the day this story aired, a protest organized by Adbusters brought a thousand people to Zucotti Park in New York under the banner of “Occupy Wall Street.”
This last event did not end up getting any media coverage at the time, however, leaving plenty of room for everyone to pay attention to Doctor Who instead. And Doctor Who obliged, serving up a fairly marvelous episode with The God Complex. Let’s start with the less interesting bits, and build up to the real point. First of all, an obligatory complaint: the “Amy Williams” line is absolutely awful. Even if you try to pack in redemptive readings like that the Doctor is trying anything to break Amy’s faith in him so he can save her, the truth is that the episode doesn’t actually refute the Doctor. Of the writers on Doctor Who, it’s Whithouse who is most likely to go for a relatively unreformed deconstruction of the Doctor as a hero. This is someone who nicked a bit of Miracleman for a key scene in Being Human, so, you know, his influences are at least clear and consistent. And so the idea that the Doctor might not be a hero or worth having faith in isn’t something he pushes beyond the most superficial level in the script. In this regard, much as I like Whithouse as a writer, he’s behind the rest of the season, where Moffat has long since taken the “dark” hero notion on board and then moved past it. But that’s not a problem for the season – The God Complex ends up stating a set of positions that stories like A Good Man Goes to War and The Wedding of River Song exist to surpass. It really does think it’s “I wasn’t talking about myself” line at the end is the height of thematic resonance. Which it isn’t, but it’s a useful stooge in that regard.
But within that, taking a character who had previously been defined in part by the fact that her marriage was “Mr. and Mrs. Pond” and not her husband’s name, because that’s just how it works for a character like Amy, and reverting her to her maiden name to put her in her proper place and disabuse her of these silly ideas she has is absolutely horrifying. And within this episode, that’s what happens. “Amy Williams” is treated as Amy’s “correct” identity, while Amelia Pond is a deviant little girl who’s too invested in fairy tales. It should never have seen transmission, and is, for my money, the single most misogynistic moment of the Moffat era, and possibly of the new series altogether.
Also of interest, the non-departure of the Ponds, or, at least, the moment where they stop being companions in the normative sense. In some ways what’s most surprising here is that it becomes the new normal. By all appearances, we’re going to make it through 2014 without having reverted to the model of a character who lives full-time on the TARDIS. In many ways this scene was easy to misread at the time, because it looked like it was going to be the departure of the Ponds. Yes, the Doctor had that line about seeing them again, but we all assumed that was just the season finale or something. The renegotiation of what it means to be a companion, and the change to characters who have lives outside the TARDIS is a big thing. It picks up on one of Davies’s central innovations, which was to give the show a standing supporting cast of the companion’s friends and family, and moves it further, giving the Companion a coherent life into which the Doctor continually intrudes. In hindsight, this is a change on the order of the Doctor’s exile at the end of The War Games – a fundamental reworking of the basic relationship between madman, box, companion, and world.
Which clears out the relatively uninteresting stuff and lets us get to the real heart of this story, which is, as suggested, Nick Hurran. Certainly his direction elevates a story that, as scripted, is a fairly straightforward “monster picks off the characters one by one with lots of corridor running” story. I don’t want to push that too far as criticism, since The God Complex is continually aware that it’s taking “running through corridors” dangerously literally, but I do want to note that the script could have been let down as easily as it was elevated. If Saul Metzstein (who’s not a bad director, to be clear, but who is a considerably more literal director) had directed this and Hurran had directed A Town Called Mercy, their reputations wouldn’t quite reverse, but they’d come a lot closer to equalizing.
Nevertheless, this story does have Nick Hurran. And while there’s no way to completely differentiate between Whithouse’s script, and revisions pushed by Moffat, and what Hurran added to it, it’s clear that whatever went into the peat from which this story emerged, the fruit that was the result of this creative putrefaction is astonishingly succulent.
Let us start with the sort of question that seems like it should be easy, just to show how much it’s not. What, precisely, is the camera in The God Complex? Normally in Doctor Who, this is a relatively simple question. Most of the time, Doctor Who follows what we might call the default cinematic convention, whereby the camera nominally shows what a camera positioned in a particular location within a fictional space would “see.” This does not preclude the idea of a narrator of Doctor Who – there’s still storytelling information conveyed by what locations are chosen at what moments of the story, and how these locations are sequenced – but the basic model is “there’s an imaginary place where a man named the Doctor is, and this is a series of camera shots pretending to be within that imaginary place.”
There are, of course, other shots. Tat Wood has heavily theorized the scopophilic shot of the monsters looking at people, which is a Doctor Who mainstay typically done with some visual effects that flag “this is not a camera, this is an alien eye.” And ever since Graham Harper accidentally did it ostentatiously in The Caves of Androzani, the decision to foreground the directorial narrator and to allow Doctor Who to look not like “a series of glimpses of an imaginary world” but rather like “a television series produced about an imaginary world,” with decisions of framing and editing being conscious and explicit has been one of Doctor Who’s tricks.
But it’s not until the Moffat era that another approach to what the camera is emerges. This starts with Blink, a story where the monsters are defined not just in terms of the fictional space they inhabit, but in terms of the camera that is filming them, but it really takes off in The Eleventh Hour, where numerous sequences are presented non-realistically. And there’s a philosophical shift here – instead of the camera looking at an imaginary space, the camera instead looks at the world as understood by a particular character. Because most of the characters in Doctor Who are relatively well-grounded in reality as filtered by their sensory inputs, this often looks indistinguishable from the camera looking at an imaginary space, but not always – things like the way the camera reveals perception filters, or the Doctor’s “filter through a series of images to find what he overlooked” scene are clearly not instances of “what a camera placed in Leadworth would see” but rather “how Amy understands the world in that moment.”
But with The God Complex, this is taken to a new level. Consider what the sequences of cuts and shots that mark a character succumbing to the Minotaur – the various pieces of paper reading “praise him,” and the cuts among shots of the character’s face with varying expressions. What are these? One can, I suppose, if one is unambitious, read them as representations of the process of possession, but even there the tendency to look at the character succumbing to possession mitigates against reading it as being the process from their perspective.
In many ways the key clue comes from the first couple of shots, which are clearly flagged as shots from the perspective of the hotel’s own surveillance cameras – a perspective that is reiterated throughout the episode, with those shots being interspersed with the regular storytelling at times. There’s a coy literalism to this: in this story, the shots that are just “what a camera placed at a particular location in the world would see” are explicitly flagged as such, to the point of there actually being cameras placed at those locations. Everything else, therefore, has to be taken as something else.
Of course, the idea of a “location” is complicated by the story as well, since the hotel is in fact a continually updated illusion of twisting corridors and infinite rooms such that no place within the hotel can accurately be described as a “place” to begin with. Which means that, within the context of this story, the possibility of reading things according to normative conventions of televisual narrative is simply taken off the table. Instead we have a story where, up until the hotel falls away in the closing minutes of the story, every shot is subjective. But the subjectivity is not that of any individual character or that of the assumed viewer (as it had been in essentially all pre-Hurran Doctor Who), but rather the subjectivity of the story itself. What we get is the prison/hotel’s own framing of its narrative.
This is a powerful idea within Doctor Who, a television show whose basic narrative trick is to set up a new collection of narrative conventions every week, explore them, and then dismantle them. And that’s always included an element of visual style. Episodes look different from each other, are shot differently, have different casts, et cetera. But Hurran has just created a very big tool such that the narrative conventions of a given genre become inseparable from the supposed location in which the story takes place. It’s the distinction between “the TARDIS lands in a hotel and the Doctor has an adventure that riffs on The Shining” and “the TARDIS lands in The Shining and the Doctor has an adventure.” And while I’ve argued that this approach is implicit in the show since day one, it’s not until The God Complex that it becomes fully explicit (save, perhaps, for The Gunfighters).
At the time, it felt like a very well-directed episode, although the fairly rapid succession of the odd-feeling A Good Man Goes to War, Let’s Kill Hitler, The Girl Who Waited, and The God Complex gave some sense that the show was trying new things. In hindsight, however, this turns out to be a major creative shift. Come Season Seven, the approach Hurran pioneers here is hugely influential, with Moffat writing two episodes that are tailored to it, and then, in the second half of Season Seven, the Hurran style becoming the default house style of Doctor Who. And then for good measure it moves over to Sherlock (which is, to be fair, also an influence on Hurran here, with its careful thought about how to represent information on screen) such that it becomes an integral part of Steven Moffat’s style.
So while The God Complex itself is a fairly standard base under siege derivative, it also marks the full debut of the great Moffat/Hurran creative partnership, one that is going to steadily develop an innovative and disruptive way of telling stories. This will be a rough process, in which not every attempt quite works. For instance, one of the big things that’s immediately going to be tricky to figure out is exactly where plot information goes. Hurran’s style means that the places the TARDIS lands are no longer governed by logical rules but entirely by narrative conventions. This means that the question of why things happen becomes unusually complex, to the point where there’s an active ambiguity at times whether a scene is being shot the way it is because of what happens in it, or whether things are happening because of how a scene is being shot. In effect, any convention of narrative causality is up for renegotiation in light of this. And I’m not entirely sold on the argument that the implications of this are even close to being worked out at the point where TARDIS Eruditorum sunsets. It’s a risky business, defining the present in terms of history, but all the same, I’ll hazard this hypothesis: the era of Doctor Who that we are in as of August 11th, 2014 began on September 17th, 2011.