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Doctor Who: The God Complex

Empty Rooms

       Well, it's taken me two weeks to say it, but I can finally say it.

       The God Complex is empty. Empty halls, lined with doors that promise something but open onto empty rooms.

The thing is as impersonally welcoming as a hotel. It boasts some impressive guests, and they provide us with some magnificent moments, but they're already thinking about checkout time.

       The conversations, the contemplations, are the ones born in hotel lobbies and bars; conversations ending in promises — to connect again, sometime, somewhere, email me — that get lost in the rush to catch the shuttle to the airport. Contemplations born of drinks and boredom, turning on casual bromides and careless philosophizing that
fall apart like wet cocktail napkins.

       And the hotel itself is built on shifting sand, its existence as transient as its guests.

       Oh, Toby Whithouse, if you'd only had understanding the size of a mustard seed.

       It could have been a fascinating, memorable episode. Faith and friendship, where one strengthens the other and where it can weaken it; what faith can do for and against human hearts and souls; faith as sustenance and faith as poison — all of those are fodder for good drama and good speculative fiction at any time, and they slot into this season of Doctor Who beautifully.

    But you got it wrong.

"You're not religious or superstitious, so there's no faith for you to fall back on."

    That is,  I think, the most important line in The God Complex, because it is the singularly most foolish and, thus, a clue to why the episode didn't work for me.

       I've known since I watched TGC the first time what I didn't like about it. But it's been hard to write cogently or coherently about it. I've been a little afraid of coming off as angry rather than analytical.

       It's because The God Complex is all about faith. And, while I don't believe in god much, I believe in the power — the secular, practical power and reality — of the thing called "faith". That being the case, I think I've been afraid of having my comments interpreted as that of an injured and insulted believer.

       It isn't so, but you still probably deserve some of my particulars to understand where I get my definitions.

       I grew up in a house of religious faith. It was a good place; the lessons I learned were about a god of love, and were filled with light, not hell-fire.

       The house was also a place of books, and the people I loved assumed that god wanted us to use the minds with which we'd been gifted.

       I won't go on at length about why both were true. It has to do with the difference and historical divergence between Southern Baptists and Northern Baptists, and with growing up in the home of the oldest continuing Baptist university in Canada.

       The end result, however, is that I did not grow up thinking that loving god and loving learning were mutually exclusive or incompatible.

          I wasn't raised to think god set intellectual boundaries beyond which I couldn't go at the risk of my eternal soul. Just as god had no boundaries, neither did, nor should, the realm of thought; the only boundaries to either were those of love, and the boundaries constantly expanded rather than contracted.  

          Exploring god or the realms of thought in either ever-expanding reality was, necessarily, an active journey. Thinking of faith as a passive thing, a blind assumption of, or dependence on, a set of beliefs to the exclusion of logic, observed reality, or the evidence of my own eyes, was illogical.

         I eventually abandoned the specific religious faith of my family. But I didn't abandon my understanding of faith, one that was informed by a muscular and open-ended search for knowledge, rather than the parochially insular closed circle of dogmatic belief.

       Toby Whithouse thinks of faith as blind assumption, as passive certainty that something will take care of one, without one doing anything on one's own.

He equates it with dependence, either upon luck (Joe) or assumption (Howie) and most of all he equates it with something that is, at base, inherently wrong.

      That's why, looked at through the lens of my understanding of what faith is, The God Complex fails. Utterly.

       Whoah! She's just gone mental, she has! Everything she's said is just the opposite of what we know, we absolutely know, about faith! She's got to be wrong!

      Well, yes. It's true that dictionary definitions of faith seem to lean toward the "blind assumption" interpretation. The World English Dictionary's first definition is, "Strong or unshakeable belief in something, esp. without proof or evidence."  

        But that isn't the only definition. In some dictionaries, it's not even the first definition. At dictionary.com, which is based on the Random House Dictionary, the first of nine definitions of the word is "Confidence or trust in a person or thing." That doesn't sound very blind. In the same dictionary, you don't have to go down too much further to run into another definition: "Belief in anything, as a code of ethics ..." I believe in a code of ethics, and I'm pretty certain that is neither a superstition, nor wrong.

       And down just a little farther is the definition that most closely hews to the Latin and mid-13th century Old French origins of the word itself: "The obligation of loyalty or fidelity to a person, promise, engagement, etc."

      That is to say, that is a faith that one keeps, rather than has. In that sense, faith is the act of promising your fidelity to someone, or something. Not blindly accepting or excusing that thing — promising fidelity does not have anything to do with removing one's brain.    

         Which brings me back to that quote again, and why it made me realize Whithouse's basic lack of understanding.

      Rory is not only a man of faith, he is a man of faith in both senses that I recognize: in terms of confidence and in terms of fidelity.

       He has faith in himself, and his abilities — but that faith doesn't include blind assumption that he will get things right all the time, or that he always succeed on his own.

He has faith that there are answers to answers to mysteries and solutions to problems — he doesn't blindly assume that he, or the Doctor, or anyone, will always or ever find those answers or solutions. But he doesn't for a minute believe the answers aren't out there. (In fact, when we first met Rory, he had faith in his own observations — something weird was going down at the hospital, no matter what anyone else said  — but he took the trouble to document what he saw. Believe, and verify, that was Rory, and that's a thinking faith.)

       Rory has faith in Amy, in her goodness and her love for him, but it neither blinds him to her faults, nor allows him to assume anything about the woman he loves. And he keeps faith with her, as she keeps faith with him.  

      Perhaps what I'm talking about doesn't meet everyone's definition of faith. To some, faith may indeed equal superstition. But when I heard that sentence fall from the Doctor's lips, I knew that Whithouse's understanding of the concept he'd placed at the center of his story was superficial and imperfect as far as I was concerned.

     And because he misapprehended the nature of faith, he made faulty assumptions about the nature of the faith people had in each other.

       When it comes to the relationship between Amy and the Doctor, he mistook clear-eyed friendship, trust and fidelity for blind, assumption-ridden and superstitiously slavish servitude to an unrealistic vision. How could I believe, therefore, that a five-minute conversation with an obviously loving Doctor could make Amy fail to keep faith with her friend, when 12 years absence, unending lies, and a stolen child hadn't?  

          And if that scene fails, then the entire story fails; as full of hints of brilliance as it was, as graced with good characters and promising possibilities.

       If a story is going to be built around the idea of faith, the story-teller had best understand his building blocks. Otherwise, the building will be faulty. And that's the case here. It's more than the case — Whithouse subscribes to a concept of faith that misunderstands its subject so monumentally that, of necessity, his tale has no interior structural integrity, and no emotional believability.

   Ultimately, The God Complex is worse than empty halls and empty rooms; it's a premise based on a mistake. It's a promise with a lie at the center and the center not only fails to hold, it falls in on itself, dragging everything else down with it.


( 22 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 1st, 2011 02:43 am (UTC)
Oh, YES. I agree with almost everything you said here.

While I was watching the episode, I enjoyed many parts of it but I didn't even have to get to the "and now I'm going to reflect on it" stage after it was over to realize that what it was saying about faith bothered me a great deal.

And you've put the reasons why into words better than I had. Thank you.
Oct. 1st, 2011 03:03 am (UTC)
Thank you for taking the time to read it; as I said, I am not a person of religious faith, but I like to think I understand the concept of fidelity and trust a little bit better than the writer did in this case.
Oct. 1st, 2011 02:47 am (UTC)
Yes, and also yes.

The fact that Whithouse apparently only knows the "blind, thoughtless devotion" definition of faith makes me sad, in fact. (At least the Muslim's woman's faith seemed of a more genuine kind, which I liked, but it didn't outweigh my problems with the rest of the ep's portrayal of faith.)
Oct. 1st, 2011 03:06 am (UTC)
In fact, I think that Whithouse had difficulty with Rita's character, after having developed her as someone who was comfortable with logic and with her faith, someone for whom the two are not obviously antithetical. After having written someone like that into the story, he must have suspected that for her to succumb to the jury-rigged idea of "faith" upon which he based the story would be extremely unlikely. But he had nowhere to go, and that's why Rita's fate rings even more untrue than that of Joe or Howie.
Oct. 1st, 2011 03:08 am (UTC)
Yes, exactly. She started out as an intriguing and three-dimensional character, but then that just sort of... vanished. That did not ring true at all.
Oct. 1st, 2011 03:18 am (UTC)
I'm glad I wasn't the only person to feel that way!
Oct. 1st, 2011 03:08 am (UTC)
Ugh, sorry, this is a super long comment.

"The obligation of loyalty or fidelity to a person, promise, engagement, etc." That is to say, that is a faith that one keeps, rather than has.

Oh, I like that very much. And it doesn't, I think, exclude the sense of faith as belief. You keep your faith because you believe it's worth it for some reason--you value your commitment, or you fear retaliation, or you trust in the person with whom you have covenanted, or whatever. But ultimately, your faith is not the belief--it's walking in accordance with the belief. Maybe? I'm just thinking out loud, I suppose.

When it comes to the relationship between Amy and the Doctor, he mistook clear-eyed friendship, trust and fidelity for blind, assumption-ridden and superstitiously slavish servitude to an unrealistic vision. How could I believe, therefore, that a five-minute conversation with an obviously loving Doctor could make Amy fail to keep faith with her friend, when 12 years absence, unending lies, and a stolen child hadn't?

I think this is where we get into the faith as fidelity vs. faith as blind belief. I don't think the Doctor was asking her to break with him, and I don't think she did, ultimately. I think he was asking her to put aside her idea of him as a magical, omnipotent protector. I don't think Amy's relationship with him was very clear-eyed--she was kidnapped and her baby was stolen from her, and neither of these things really made her so much as think twice. It wasn't that she saw his flaws and kept going--she pushed them aside by telling herself he could make everything better later.

Someone else (I forget who) said that it wasn't the Rory lacked faith--it was that his faith wasn't blind. He sees Amy's flaws--really sees them and is even sometimes hurt by them--and carries on loving her. I think maybe the episode was trying to be about blind faith specifically, and it did a poor job distinguishing that from faith as a whole? I don't know.
Oct. 1st, 2011 03:17 am (UTC)
I think maybe the episode was trying to be about blind faith specifically, and it did a poor job distinguishing that from faith as a whole? I don't know.

Oh, that's an excellent observation; I suspect, though, that it did a poor job of distinguishing blind faith from faith as a whole because Whithouse doesn't see any difference between the two.

As you mentioned, others have pointed out that it wasn't that Rory lacked faith, it was that it wasn't blind: but Whithouse didn't get that. The sentence that he put into the Doctor's mouth spoke volumes about that, but not about Rory. It was up to us observers to understand Rory. And a writer with a better grasp of what he was working with would never have written that sentence.

And that's what I mean about the dangers inherent in writing a story around a concept you don't understand yourself.

This, by the way, is a very thoughtful, and lovely, way to look at active faith: But ultimately, your faith is not the belief--it's walking in accordance with the belief.

(And never apologize for a long post, at least not here. I love talking with people!)

Edited at 2011-10-01 03:17 am (UTC)
Oct. 1st, 2011 04:22 am (UTC)
Yeah, it does play out like the writer wasn't exactly sure what he was doing. Which is sort of how I've felt about a lot of this season--not so much thematically, but in the way they've failed to integrate the season arc organically into the less arc-y episodes. I feel like they'v been leaving a lot for us to fill in, of late, and it's crossing the line from "fanfic sandbox" to "lazy writing."
Oct. 1st, 2011 04:50 am (UTC)
Although I'm not as bothered by the lack of integration, because it does seem fairly integrated to me, there is a messiness about the season that keeps me off balance. Part of the time it feels like its s reflection of the vitality of the ideas, and part of the time it's just ... messy. Like a brilliant skein of silk thread that someone allowed to drop off the table and get all tangled up.
Oct. 1st, 2011 04:35 am (UTC)
Yeah, that galled me -- no comment on having faith in the love of your wife. :(

Even a godless heathen like me has faith in the love of my husband. And couple that with neutering the Nimon's cousin there into (yet again) being misunderstood and not evil, I felt the last quarter of the episode really made it all fall apart.
Oct. 1st, 2011 04:58 am (UTC)
I actually liked the interpretation of evil as instinct; it didn't make the being very happy or fuzzy-puppy for me. For me, one aspect of evil is instinct, unbridled by reason, so it worked that way.

I also confess that I saw an undoubtedly completely accidental mirroring of concepts between The Girl Who Waited and the being in the God Complex: The maintainers of the Two Streams facility did everything "as a kindness" - but death was the end, especially for Amy, who the kindness threatened directly. And as I thought about the creature in TGC, I realized that it was a predator that killed with kindness. It altered its prey's minds so that, while they died, they died in ecstasy ... a kindness. It tickled my sense of making connections where none exist, I suppose.
Oct. 1st, 2011 06:21 am (UTC)
Comment of DOOM (1/2)
I love reading your reaction posts. Moffat's takeover of the show has infused it with so much to unpack, even when the episodes themselves are kind of faily, that I often find myself struggling to find the right end to unravel. I know there are things there to pick at and unwind, but I often have trouble finding the head of the knot. You help me think, and for that, I thank you.

Now. The God Complex.

I feel like I should rewatch it, just to get my analysis hat on, but I'll make do with the viewing I've had and the analysis I've read. You are absolutely and 100% on point with Whithouse's colossal misunderstanding in terms of faith. The line you mentioned is the one that sent me to a screeching halt mid-episode, hands up, saying, "Woah. What now?"

As you mentioned, faith is a rich subject for drama because it is complicated. Blind assumption doesn't cover it. Religion doesn't cover it. Even kept promises and covenants (brilliant points of yours, by the way) don't cover it. Not completely. Faith is a multifaceted, ever-changing, living part of humanity. And here, it was done entirely wrong.

I think a major hang-up the episode had was, in fact, religious. The use of "praise him" as the catchphrase of the week and the equation of faith with religion or superstition seem to support this. As we saw with the Revealing Sentence of the Week, Whithouse obviously defines faith as mindless (and ultimately useless) trust in rituals, ceremonies, and perceived higher powers. The catchphrase, the walk-on characters, and even the villain* all pantomime a hollow religious ritual, and it appears Whithouse is denouncing that aspect of faith in particular. Whether or not he actually defines faith this way, I cannot say; you've certainly shown there are nuances of the word to be considered, and perhaps in his everyday life, he does. In this episode, though, "faith" meant "religion" and "religion" meant "wrong."

Whithouse is pretty specific in the characters he chooses to illustrate his concept of faith. We have a Muslim character who is overtly religious, and keeps to the practice of her faith. Joe is very overtly superstitious, and practices superstition in a religious sort of way, with symbols and rituals. Even Howie's conspiracy theories can be equated with religion: they require active and regular participation, and are used to "save" Howie from the misery of his own life. All of the "faiths" Whithouse presents are ritualistic, dogmatic, and ultimately fail to do the job Whithouse seems to think religion is designed for, which is to rescue the practitioner from the evil they see or experience in the world.
Oct. 1st, 2011 06:21 am (UTC)
Comment of DOOM (2/2)
Which leads us to Rory and Amy. If we take Whithouse's setup as an attack on religion in particular, the contrast between Rory and Amy begins to make more sense. (I didn't say I liked it, just that it made more sense.) Whithouse's setup condemns religion, which Whithouse apparently defines as ritualistic faith that defies real-world evidence. I, like you, am of the mind that Rory has faith and to spare; he believes in the goodness of people, in what he shares with Amy, in the covenant he has with her, in his own abilities, even in the Doctor (though, as several people have pointed out, that faith is anything but blind). That faith has evidence, that faith has some kind of proof behind it, and, this is important, it doesn't come with a set of rules or rituals. Amy's faith, by contrast, is something that we've seen built up from the time she was a child. She created shrines for the Doctor, she calls on him in times of trouble, she very clearly views him as someone with a power beyond hers. (Which, I feel compelled to point out, is true.) Amy's faith in the Doctor is of a kind that can be interpreted as religious. (Again, not agreeing with this interpretation, but pointing it out as a possibility.) I was more than a little peeved at the thirty seconds it took for Amy's faith to be "broken"; everyone cultivates beliefs and ideals from childhood, and those beliefs and ideals are hard as hell to break. If we assume the episode is one big protest against religion, though, Amy's triumph over her childhood "faith" is a triumph over what Whithouse views as religious nonsense. It's a break from the ritual, from the mindless and ultimately destructive belief that counters the evidence surrounding it. It's that break that makes Amy and Rory's departure meaningful. Their separation…Amy's in particular…negates the image Amy has of the Doctor as a kind of god, one that drops them into inexplicable situations but never fails to fish them out again.

Which, let's face it, is more than a bit rubbish.

You've pointed out the multiplicity of the word faith, you've talked about the kind of faith that was blatantly ignored, and the fact that if the conversation the Doctor and Amy have in regard to her faith falls down, the whole episode collapses. Whithouse clearly mistook what he was dealing with. And while I appreciate the issues we've seen the Doctor face with his limits, limits than include, you know, not being an actual god, this was a really poor way to try to enforce that point. Not only does Whithouse not understand faith or religion well, he doesn't seem to understand how the characters work together. Mixing up all that ignorance does not an understanding cocktail make.

*We're obviously dealing with a Minotaur here, the unholy offspring of a queen and a bull intended for religious sacrifice. The Minotaur only exists as a failure to complete a religious ritual, and survives on a ritual human sacrifice. In mythology, the Minotaur is defeated by Theseus, a hero one step below godhood in the hierarchy. Theseus' establishment of Athens (and all the things he kills on his merry way) literarily represents the establishment of a new cultural, social, and religious order. There are so many ways to unpack the implications of choosing a bloody Minotaur as your villain with your heroes in a modern labyrinth, but we'll save them all for another time.
Oct. 1st, 2011 06:55 pm (UTC)
Re: Comment of DOOM (2/2)
First off, this is a wonderful commentary, full and well thought out. I'm delighted that it appears in my comments, and I think you should put it up on your LJ because it's fully the equal of any commentary on The God Complex that I've seen, and better than a truckload of 'em.

Second, thank you for pointing out the aspect of ritual and rule to me. It was there, staring me in the face, and I didn't twig to it. With that in mind, what you say about Amy's faith in the Doctor becomes an extremely valid reading.

Finally, thank you so much for the information about the minotaur (my Best Beloved cottoned to that immediately, and I don't know where the hell my head was, that I didn't.) Your reading of it, looking at the minotaur's context, and its relationship to Theseus, mighty founder of a doomed line, just opened up a whole rich new vein of interpretive gold.

So, yeah. Thank you!
Oct. 1st, 2011 02:16 pm (UTC)

Here's a line I use sometimes: Does a loving God grant mind for any reason but that it be used? Is not then, therefore, the concept of "blasphemy" itself the only blasphemy?

I can only say, the author's misperception of faith didn't ruin the episode for me. If I should figure out why not, in light of what you've written here, which is a great point, I'll come back and tell you.

Oct. 1st, 2011 06:59 pm (UTC)
Thanks for reading this, and thank you, too, for that line. How true that is, and how uncomfortable it can make some people!

There were parts of TGC that I found remarkably effective, either in terms of cinematography, or mood, or, occasionally, inter-character communication, so it wasn't a complete failure as entertainment for me. And it made my brain think thinky thoughts, which is good mental exercise. So I think I'd ultimately give it a reluctant pass on the obviously risible kaffyr approval scale.
Oct. 1st, 2011 04:03 pm (UTC)
Thank you. You have clarified for me a number of things that were bothering me about the episode, but which I couldn't articulate.

"You're not religious or superstitious, so there's no faith for you to fall back on."

That line bothered me from the get-go, but I hadn't realized that it signalled a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of faith; I simply thought it signalled a misunderstanding of the nature of Rory. Because of course Rory has faith, keeps faith and is faithful.

Though what bothered me more -- and I'm still not sure I can articulate it properly -- was that all the people with faith had their faith corrupted and subverted and there was no defence against it apart from annihilating that faith instead. Which seems to be saying that faith == death.
Which is an abhorrent assertion.

On the other hand, I did actually like the bit where Eleven "destroys" Amy's faith in him, because, unlike in "The Curse of Fenric" (which is the obvious episode to compare this with) he isn't being hurtful to her, he is baring his soul instead; it is his pride which takes the hurt, not her agency. No, I don't interpret the "Amy Williams" bit as "go home and be a good wife"; I took it as "this is the adventure you've been running away from, it's time to go home". I also like the interpretation that the Doctor himself has to let go of his own desire for Amy not to grow up, for her to stay little Amelia Pond forever, the girl who adores him, and accept that she is a grown woman, the other half of Rory, who has other things she needs to be doing. Peter Pan and Wendy, and it's time for Wendy to go home now.
So, despite the misunderstanding about the nature of faith in this episode, that part of it did work for me.
Oct. 1st, 2011 07:06 pm (UTC)
Which seems to be saying that faith == death. Which is an abhorrent assertion.

That does seem to sit at the center of Whithouse's story, which is why I think it fails. Faith can be problematic, faith - as one aspect of the human soul's longing for the numinous - can be fraught with pitfalls and challenges. But faith is, or should be, a search and a journey. Like all searches and all journeys, the end is unknown. But sitting in one place and letting one's mind stagnate (which is what Whithouse seems to believe) isn't a search.

I was one of those people bothered by the "Amy Williams" comment. I believe you're correct, that he was trying to use that as dramatic shorthand to tell Amy and the audience that what was being talked about was her readiness for the next part of her journey. However the shorthand he chose to use is fraught (wow, used that word twice in a post!) with cultural implications and connotations. In using it - rather than, say, an equally short-handish comment like "Amy ... Rory's waiting." or something of the sort - he did, I think, reflect a societal view that I found unpalatable.

Your interpretation is kind, and perhaps the one I should choose to take, to minimize my ulcers. Heh.

Edited at 2011-10-01 07:07 pm (UTC)
Oct. 2nd, 2011 01:19 am (UTC)
Here from
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Here from <lj-user="the_arc5"> (whom I agree had a wonderful commentary on the episode.

There is an inherent lameness in many shows that try to forward the notion that faith=religion=false. Doctor Who is not the first to tread those waters; much as I love ST, it's filled with episodes that try to show that humans must somehow "grow out" of faith in order to evolve, that faith is something along the lines of an emotional appendix, a little useless organ that can fester; best take it out.

I've always thought of "the monster that feeds on emotion" is a lame plot device anyway. What makes it even lamer in this context is that it seems to say that faith is an emotion.

No. Faith is not an emotion. Faith is a belief. Belief is a function of the mind. Certainly faith can generate other emotions such as joy or love, but it's not dependent on those emotions to exist. Persons of true faith are faithful even in pain or sorrow or grief. They have the faith that those conditions will pass, and that even if they don't the object of their faith is worthwhile. And they know that their faith or lack of it has nothing to do with the validity of what they believe in.

The "Faith-eating monster" did not eat faith, so far as I can tell. It ate the emotions generated from troubling or shaking someone's faith. The lamest part of it all was that the mere saying of the words "praise him" would trigger all that reaction. Very silly.

Edited at 2011-10-02 01:20 am (UTC)
Oct. 4th, 2011 03:19 am (UTC)
Faith is not an emotion. Faith is a belief. That's something the writer didn't think of, which, sadly, seems to be more proof of careless writing.
Oct. 4th, 2011 04:31 am (UTC)
It's also, as you said before, a fundamental misunderstanding of what faith IS.

A person of faith accepts a certain set of beliefs as unproven facts. It's a mistake to think that something has to be proven to be true. Gravity was true long before a name was found for it, and a theory to explain it. Gravity is true even for the person who never has heard of it.

A person of faith accepts as true that there are certain things which exist outside a form of reference to prove it. This belief remains independent of proof-- in fact, once it's proven, it ceases to be a matter of faith.

The feelings generated by the security that faith gives a person are simply feelings: joy, love, serenity, peace, contentment, not the faith itself. We see this when people maintain their faith even when difficult circumstances cause them to have feelings of sorrow or grief.

( 22 comments — Leave a comment )

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