The formula, at least, was simple enough – Orwell’s Room 101 from ‘1984’, the place which contains your most dread fear, given the setting of ’The Shining.’ Perhaps the cast of strangers, thrown and then trapped together, also owed something to Sartre’s existential classic ’No Way Out’. Though if so it might have been cooler to use Sartre’s labyrinthine concept of an endless hotel than the more perfunctory concreted doorway. (For that matter it might also have been cooler to show the morphing of the hotel corridors rather than just talk about it.)
But the setting’s a fitting one. It’s not just that such places are creepy. The hotel room is actually quite a good metaphor for the cellular self, at once like all the other rooms and private, the soullessness of the setting throwing your soul into relief. You could feel alone in a hotel room in a way you never would in a house. (It’s also set in the Eighties, which were pretty creepy in themselves.)
With this sort of thing, you probably need a certain amount of indulgence for images that don’t really fit into the overall picture – such as the dining hall of chattering dummies. The dialogue suggests these are Joe’s phobia, yet that wouldn’t explain what they’re doing out of ‘his’ room. But they’re enjoyably sinister, and perhaps that’s enough. Indeed the hotel setting may well have been chosen for that very reason; as a repository, a kind of advent calendar of horror, a bunch of doors which could be opened onto a series of creepy scenes.
That said, there needs to be an overall picture. We’re told that it’s visiting your room that precipitates the Minotaur’s arrival and your doom. Yet the alien Gibbis sees his fear (the Weeping Angels) and survives. We’re told it’s specifically Amy who’s been drawn to the hotel, and that Rory doesn’t have a room there – just an exit sign. Yet for some reason the Doctor does have a room, helpfully numbered ‘eleven.’ For that matter, why do they and the Tardis go with her at all, when everyone else just wakes up in the hotel alone?
But of course all this only leads us up to the big twist, where it’s revealed that it’s not fear that’s the trap, so much as faith. And the Doctor has to shock Amy out of her belief in him. It’s certainly a blind-side, something you don’t see coming but when you do (to quote the show) “you realise it couldn’t have been anything else.”
There’s the Doctor first spying the Minotaur through the room peephole, an echo of the scenes of its own eye opening when it senses dinner time. There’s the first confrontation, taking place in a virtual hall of mirrors, with the Doctor translating the Minotaur’s roaring out loud, echoing its words. We remember that the original Minotaur, the one of Greek legend, turned out to be an outcast relation.
If not overly indebted to ’No Way Out’, it is in it’s own way an existential tale. What you need to survive is self-reliance. Gibbis, the perpetual surrenderer who at first seems mere comic relief, personifies the lack of this – his life is spent just waiting for the next invader to tell him what to do.
But Amy does not become self-reliant, it’s a position she’s forced into by the Doctor abdicating from his God-protector role. I am not at all sure how I feel about this. When writing about ‘The Girl Who Waited’, I egotistically fancied I had gleaned the essence of it, and could get it down neatly on paper. I suspect I am writing this in the hope that, somewhere in the process, it might all become clear.
Traditionally disbelief in the Doctor was confined to closed-minded bureaucrats, it was a signifier of failure of imagination. At least since ’Midnight’, the show has been more critical of the messiah-like nature of its hero – in fact this has become an increasingly recurrent theme. Yet, as said over ‘A Good Man Goes To War’, there are innumerable signs that this is a corner the script-writers have painted themselves into, which they’re now trying to claim was a clever plan.
There are, for example, very many thematic similarities with the episode just gone. (And the hotel is, what, our third anti-Tardis?) But it’s not the repetition itself that’s the problem. It’s like they’re continually coming back to the same concept from different angles, not quite sure how to attack it, hoping to stumble upon a clear shot. When you big up your central character to a cosmic degree, where is there to go?
This was like the ’Beast Below’ episode, only upside-down. There comparison to the Doctor humanises the monster, here it monsterises him. But most crucially, there it was Amy who solved the problem. (Something we’ve seen her do in other episodes.) This time the Doctor has to tell her not to have a child-like faith in him. It’s like she’s been hypnotised all along, and he’s finally clicked his fingers.
This was also like Amy’s Choice upside-down, this time the choice is made for her and turns out to be Earth not the Tardis. If the show is serious about continuing to question it’s own underpinning assumptions, then eventually something will have to break. And with the Doctor and Amy separated something does break. It’s a well-played scene, the two laughing together like old friends. Yet will this stay undone, or will it be more in the manner of a superhero death? And even if it does stay, will anything happen other than a fresh Amy get recruited? I fear with this theme the show has started something it can’t finish.
For all the similarities to other episodes, perhaps the nearest match is ’The Rebel Flesh’. Both were by previously weak writers (Toby Whithouse and Matthew Graham respectively), suddenly punching above their weight. But both serve up a cake that’s not quite baked. There’s a wealth of excellent individual scenes and moments (including a compelling opening), but the whole never quite matches the sum of its parts.
In a weird sense the way it doesn’t quite work makes it more memorable. You find your mind continuing to tinker with it, like a jigsaw puzzle that was never solved. (And I certainly didn’t find myself musing over earlier effort ’Vampires of Venice’ all that much.) My brain keeps trying to resolve this by promising me all will be taken up again in the finale, in order to be tied up. Whether I should have faith in that is another question...