It’s hard to think of something creepier than an abandoned hotel.
In fact, the only thing creepier than an abandoned hotel is an abandoned hotel full of clowns and ventriloquist dummies where a murderous minotaur stalks shape shifting corridors, waiting to drain people of their life force (just imagine the Tripadvisor reviews for that one).
The only thing creepier than that is Adrian Chiles’ face: although it’d be quite hard to set an episode of Doctor Who in it.
Yep, writer Toby Whithouse set the fear-o-meter to maximum when he planned this haunting episode. Yet again, the TARDIS ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time: drawn to a largely imaginary hotel in the depths of space containing a harried group of survivors trapped in what – for all intents and purposes – is a living nightmare.
The survivors in question are possibly the best non-companion characters (other than River) that we’ve encountered this series. Top of the pile was Rita: the witty, feisty and brave Muslim doctor. A real doctor, that is, as opposed to ‘Mr Who’. He doesn’t even have a PhD.
Bottom of the pile was Tibbis: a sort of alien rodent played by David Walliams. Walliams effectively played a cowardly, prosthetic-faced version of himself. He didn’t really push the boat out: it was like watching him go to a Halloween party dressed as a character from Wind in the Willows.
In the Hotel Orwell (as it really should have been called), everyone is assigned a room. This is great as it’s never overbooked; unfortunately the small print is that the rooms contain your worst nightmare. A bit like a Travelodge, really.
To clarify: by ‘worst nightmare’, we’re talking about the thing that most scares you rather than those bizarre, inexplicably terrifying, oddly mundane night terrors you get about a haunted pencil that’s also your mother and then suddenly you’re on a bus with someone from Strictly Come Dancing but there’s no cheese and you’ve got an exam the next day. They’re actual nightmares, as opposed to straightforward fears.
The fear forces people to fall back on faith to sustain them. Faith in a god, in the case of Rita. Faith in conspiracy theories, if you’re tousle-haired blogger Howard. Faith in the Doctor, if you’re Amy Pond. The alien minotaur… thing… at the centre of the hotel-shaped labyrinth then gradually diverts this faith to itself: the victims start to worship the monster, drawn inexorably to the very thing they’re most afraid of. It’s a technique also used by Simon Cowell.
Cue a lot of running around corridors, scary scenes of people starting to involuntarily burp out ‘praise him!’ like they have a form of religious Tourette’s, hiding in rooms containing sad-faced clowns, horrible teenage girls and people in gorilla suits (see: you’re not the only person who was terrified by that Cadbury advert) and generally failing to be saved by the Doctor. At one point, Rory jokes that ‘every time I see the Doctor getting pally with someone I get the urge to notify their next of kin’.
As jokes go, it’s one with a hard centre: the Doc does seem to fail more people than he saves. When – at the end of the episode – he tries to save Amy by persuading her that her faith in him is misplaced; it’s not a particularly difficult job. When you’ve been imprisoned in a box for 2,000 years; watched your husband die multiple times and lost your daughter to a strange cult who brought her up as an assassin, there really can’t be that much faith left.
For all that it was emotionally wrenching, there was a coal seam of wit running through the episode that lightened some of the harder scenes: Rita’s incredibly noble and tear-jerking death in particular. For all that Walliams was a bit of a spare part in his Roland Rat costume, the concept of Tibbis being part of a race who’ve been conquered so frequently their national anthem is ‘Glory To (Insert Name Here)’ is pretty amusing: although it would have been nice to be told why his biggest fear are the Weeping Angels. Presumably his planet was conquered by them: but if so, wouldn’t they have just killed all of the population?
One thing’s for sure: the Angels would make a worse governing body than a Lib Dem-Conservative coalition. Almost.
The only other gripe is the nature of the murderous labyrinth dweller: the ‘Him’ in the repeated chants of ‘Praise Him’. Anyone imagining it would be some kind of chilling, devilish, ancient force, a demonic spirit with glowing red eyes (or possibly Jedward) may have felt a bit let down when it was revealed to be a giant puppet goat. It was actually quite cute: the Beeb might want to think of marketing it as the must-have soft toy for Christmas.
It was so anticlimactic, in fact, that revealing the cuddly murderer made the preceding scenes lose their impact a little bit. It was more Jim Henson’s Labyrinth than Pan’s Labyrinth, with hairy, plodding Ludo in the lead role.
However, the real danger in this episode wasn’t the monster of the week: it was the Doctor’s addictive appeal combined with Amy’s inexplicably faithful trust in him. Each week she’s repeatedly endangered and almost killed but nevertheless she keeps coming back for more, like she’s a character on Trainspotting and the Doc is a bag of naughty drugs. Or something.
Despite the warning signs this week and the last, the Doc’s decision to leave Amy and Rory at the end of the episode was still a surprise. Although it’ll be even more of a surprise if it really is the last we’ll see of them: if it was their last hurrah then it was even more anticlimactic than the goat-thing. “Here, have a car. Bye!”
Fans of Amy – and Karen Gillan – will be even more dismayed by her absence next week when they realise that she’s been replaced as companion (if only for one episode) by James Corden. In the immortal, misquoted words of Obi Wan Kenobi: ‘these aren’t the boobs you’re looking for’.
But hey: at least we’ve still got River.