I loved the concept of this episode. The idea of a creature that feeds on people’s faith, luring them into this elaborate trap so that it can groom them and digest their faith was nothing short of engaging, and, indeed, made for a wonderfully entrancing story. True enough, this story was, literally, a runaround (most of the episode was spent running through corridors away from a monster), but it’s one of the most original and mesmerising runarounds I’ve ever seen. The adaptation of the mythological Minotaur in the Labyrinth for the purposes of the script was a brilliant idea, making for a distinctive feel of the episode, and perhaps makes for one of the few instances in which “runaround” can’t be applied as a critique: running around is kind of what one does in a labyrinth, is it not? In any case, the setting was perfect, I thought; there’s something about an empty ’80s hotel that’s strangely unsettling and makes for the perfect setting for a story like this. Additionally, the idea that the Minotaur feeds on faith was an intriguing narrative idea, allowing for the thoughtful exploration of the nature of faith, and the dangers of blind faith, that ensued.
This episode was creepy. Not ostentatiously creepy in the traditional style of Moffat, or, recently, of Mark Gatiss in Night Terrors, but in its own distinctive way: there’s no terrifying monster (the Minotaur was scary but not that scary), but the scares are created by the characters’ own fear and apprehension about what’s going to happen to them. They’re scared so you’re scared. It gets under your skin; it’s claustrophobic and genuinely unnerving. The imagery of the creepy abandoned hotel, as well as the unsettling direction and camerawork, also add to the feeling of panic and foreboding that exudes from this episode. Seeing what entering your room did to you was also a disturbing sight; the Doctor’s conversation with the deranged Joe at the beginning was quite unnerving. And the things some of the characters saw in their rooms were particularly twisted; never mind the gorilla or the clown or Rita’s disappointed father (that one was a bit stupid), I’m thinking of Howie finding a gaggle of pretty girls in his room taunting him cruelly, or the Doctor’s mysterious “who” (himself, I suspect).
The exploration of the Doctor’s character was also really compelling. The point being made was that the Doctor was no hero, and it was misguided, if not dangerous, to view him so. This episode was about inverting our perhaps starry-eyed perceptions of the Doctor. We saw the Doctor assuring Gibbis that “No one else dies today”. And what happened? Two more people died, after the Doctor had sworn to protect them. We saw the Doctor invite Rita to come with him, only for her to die minutes later. The Doctor was right later to say that, in his vanity and his desire to be adored, he leads people to their deaths. He’s not a hero or a god, and it’s wrong to think of him as one. That’s why, in that excruciating scene, the Doctor was forced to break Amy’s faith in him to save her. The Doctor was finally confronting what he does to his friends, out of his own selfishness. “I stole your childhood and now I’ve led you by the hand to your death. But the worst thing is, I knew. I knew this would happen. This is what always happens… Forget your faith in me. I took you with me because I was vain. Because I wanted to be adored.” It must have been painful for the Doctor to break Amy’s faith in him like that, and Amy, the scales fallen, looks shattered, as she should—the Doctor was never the hero of her fantasies. I think it’s good that the series owns up to this. The Doctor shouldn’t be portrayed as a hero. He does heroic things, a lot of them, but equally, as he himself acknowledges, he’s ultimately destroyed everyone he loves, and keeps on doing it, out of selfishness. He’s a profoundly flawed character, and that’s what makes him interesting.
Indeed, having confronted his own demons, and determined the break the vicious cycle, he makes the decision to leave Amy and Rory behind. Watching the Doctor forcing himself to say goodbye to his best friends was moving, as the Doctor was visibly in pain over having to leave them. He hates being alone. He knows being alone is dangerous for him, and he hates and fears his own company, but he knows what will inevitably happen if he travels with companions for too long. It wasn’t that long ago, after all, that he was leaving Donna on her parents’ doorstep with no memory of him, lest she burn and die, or leaving the fate of the world on Martha’s shoulders, or leaving Rose stuck in a parallel universe. All these memories were too painfully vivid for him to feel comfortable about keeping Amy and Rory with him for any longer. The Doctor’s anxieties in this respect were really well conveyed in the writing and by Matt Smith, who played well the tortured old Time Lord, tormented by guilt and self-loathing.
One final thought. I couldn’t fit this anywhere else, but I thought Rita was a brilliant character. She was clever, intuitive, brave and engaging — in short, all the attributes of a great companion. She was obviously being set up as a “would-have-been” companion, especially with all the “Amy, you’re fired” and “Come with me” stuff, and, indeed, from this episode alone I can see that she would have been a wonderful companion. That made her death, and the thwarted potential it represented, all the more heart-wrenching. Another name on the Doctor’s guilt list. All in all, I thought this episode was near enough close to perfection. It’s a unique, thoroughly memorable episode which is as profound as it is thrilling. I’ve little hesitation in awarding it top marks.