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06 October 2011 @ 05:43 pm
The God Complex  
I have a feeling that I'm maybe going to have to stop comparing Doctor Who episodes to Sapphire and Steel since the comparison is rapidly going to become over-used. It is worth noting, I think, that we've had a run of stories that are deliberately working with an atmosphere of claustrophia and a fairly strong sense of place and that naturally invokes Sapphire and Steel whenever the atmosphere veers towards the surreal. It's possible that this is because of budgetry constraints, though I'm not a great counter of sets and locations so I don't really know.

I thought one of most interesting things about this story is the way it works (or doesn't) in comparison to other Doctor Who stories. I'm not sure if that was deliberate or not, an intentional evokation of the old or just the reality of a show that is now produced and written by people who grew up with it.

The most immediate comparison is to Night Terrors. We've got the claustrophic location, the exploration of a building full of "terrors" and the use of slightly surreal spookiness to generate atmosphere. Of the two stories I think The God Complex is a great deal more effective. That's probably partly because it isn't hampered by a child actor but also, I think, because the surreal spookiness, tied in much better with the story and the characters and so felt a lot less like random wierd stuff padding the story out to its full length.

The other strong comparison is to The Curse of Fenric, another story in which the Doctor must destroy his companion's faith in himself in order to save the day. At the time of watching I was surprised by the blatantness of the comparison but on reflection I think the differences between the two are quite illuminating. Ace was the show's first real attempt at a companion with "issues" and she was written and portrayed with all the earnestness of a teenager anxious to demonstrate how grown-up they are. Amy's issues are much more elegantly embedded in the format of Doctor Who and have been allowed to grow and manifest far more subtley compared to the late 80s' attempt to integrate gritty kitchen sink drama with science fantasy. Similarly the Doctor's own destruction of her faith treats Amy as a rational woman, rather than a petulant teenager who can only be shaken out of her adulation by someone riding rough-shod over her emotions. I'm not sure which I prefer to be honest, while The Curse of Fenric's rather hamfisted artiness is now somewhat comical the story itself carried the weight of what it was trying to do better and was far more clearly focused on both Ace and the issue of faith. While the resolution of The God Complex seemed a great deal less arbitrary than the resolution of Night Terrors, the current production team's fondness for puzzle storytelling still meant that it lacked much sense of connection to what had gone before even if I was nodding and thinking "that makes sense".

Obviously the final comparison is to The Horns of Nimon. Clearly much of the linkage, including the Doctor's specific reference to the Nimon, comes because both stories are riffing on the legend of the Minotaur in its labyrinth, but it is interesting that both stories do deal with the issue of faith (in so far as the camp glory that is The Horns of Nimon can be said to deal with any issue whatsoever), something absent from the original legend. I suspect that connection was entirely coincidental, tempting as it might be to compare Soldeed's cries of "Lord Nimon" to the repetition of the phrase "Praise Him".

Coming back to that comparison with Sapphire and Steel, I'm undecided about the extent to which the show is deliberately giving us stories reminiscent of P. J. Hammond's output. Clearly there is an ascetic (claustrophic, apparently mundane, locations and surreal images) that both episodes share with the 1970s show but, as I said when I reviewed Night Terrors, Doctor Who continues to maintain the fundamental conceit that there is an explanation for events that can be understood by mere humans which is rather different from the Sapphire and Steel approach. Doctor Who has its own history of slightly surreal story-telling and constrained sets, though it's fondness for the mundane setting really only arrived with Russell T. Davies. Possibly what I should really be surprised about is that we haven't been having at least a couple of episodes per season that cause me to hark back to the older show.

This entry was originally posted at http://purplecat.dreamwidth.org/54766.html.
daniel_saunders: Medaniel_saunders on October 17th, 2011 09:07 pm (UTC)
Only getting around to reading these reviews now...

I've also noticed the Sapphire and Steel parallels this season (I saw Sapphire and Steel for the first time a year or two ago, but this season has made me want to revisit it soon).

Doctor Who continues to maintain the fundamental conceit that there is an explanation for events that can be understood by mere humans which is rather different from the Sapphire and Steel approach

I think the difference is that, even though there's an argument to be made that Doctor Who is not always pure SF, it uses the trappings of SF and especially the idea that the universe is essentially rational and knowable ("To the rational mind nothing is inexplicable, merely unexplained" - The Robots of Death).

Sapphire and Steel stories, on the other hand, are basically ghost stories with occasional slight bits of SF window dressing; not knowing what is going on is the point. They just wouldn't work if Steel was giving technobabble explanations all the time like the Doctor.
louisedennis: Sapphire and Steellouisedennis on October 19th, 2011 07:46 am (UTC)
Sapphire and Steel certainly never felt the need to do more than hint at the possibility of an explanation. Even when Who dips it's toe in the Ghost story genre, it tends to be much more eager to tie the explanation up to something technological.