I’m a sucker for a minotaur. A guy with bull horns can make even an iffy story like “The Time Monster” just a little better, and I’m not gonna front like the hilarious “The Horns of Nimon” isn’t tied with “The Stones of Blood” as my second* favorite story of the Douglas Adams era of Doctor Who. So I’ve been looking forward to this one since I saw the trailer for the second half of this season. A minotaur whose labyrinth is an otherworldly hotel: sign me up.
The hotel in which the TARDIS lands (another vacation gone awry, this one a wrong turn in space rather than time) is probably supposed to evoke The Shining, though it also evokes The Budget. The hotel guests are kidnapped and their rooms furnished with their worst nightmares, essentially tenderizing them to be meat for the beast. This being the Steven Moffat era, however, it’s not so simple: the beast doesn’t feed on fear, but on the things people turn to when they’re most afraid, the forces in which they put their faith. And, luckily, the beast is old and tired of doing this, but it can’t stop on its own. Even more luckily, the Doctor is a qualified sponsor for Faitheaters Anonymous.
There’s a lot here that feels familiar. Thanks to the running-order switch, we had a story about people’s worst fears becoming solid just two episodes ago (“Night Terrors,” remember?). We had monsters that ostensibly echoed aspects of the Doctor himself at least twice last season (“The Beast Below” and “Amy’s Choice”). We’ve had treacherous corridors and mind games (“The Doctor’s Wife”). We’ve seen the Doctor kneel over a monster he’s essentially euthanized, who speaks to him in a language only he understands (“Vincent and the Doctor”), and seen him nearly euthanize another in a similar situation (“The Beast Below”). It’s thrilling to see a series that used to be derided for its rubber monsters and thin, superficial plots work so hard to be interior and meaningful, but when Amy jokes that their next visit will be to a house that isn’t really a house and contains “a goblin that feeds on indecision,” it’s an apt criticism. We’d be dangerously close to self-parody here if the story weren’t so satisfying.
It’s more satisfying if you’re already of the opinion that faith itself can be dangerous — that one form of strong belief can too easily be converted into another and made to serve sinister ends. I enjoyed the moment when the Doctor says offhandedly, as if it’s something they’ve discussed before, that Rory has “no religious or superstitious” beliefs and thus is of no use to the minotaur. If Rory has “faith” in Amy, it’s not the kind that means he expects her to save him from his worst nightmares, which is arguably an admirable, healthy, and mature perspective on love. It’s also clever that we see different kinds of faith (in luck, in authority, in wacky conspiracy theories) even if their potency seems a little exaggerated.
Of course, the theme we’re supposed to be most interested in is the one where the Doctor saves Amy by insisting that he can’t. (This is another moment that feels familiar, though I’m having trouble remembering why.) It doesn’t come across as a trick, though; it’s not a temporary lie to thwart the menace. He’s talking to fish-fingers-and-custard Amy as much as he is to now-Amy who’s about to worship a bull-headed creature; he’s saying true things, things I’ve always believed about this character that have seemed lost in recent years. He’s saying: “Look, I may have an amazing ship and two hearts and the ability to cheat death by changing my face, and I may have lived around a thousand years and saved the universe countless times, but when you get right down to it, I’m just a man, an eccentric curious clever lucky man with the best of intentions, but one who also can make the wrong choices and fail once in a while, and that’s a fine thing to be.” After “The Girl Who Waited,” some fans seemed really upset that the Doctor didn’t carry himself like a perfect golden hero. Here’s the perfect answer.
After last week, and Rory’s “past tense” comment this week, and the knowledge that the followup to the “guest companion” episode “The Lodger” is coming up next week, it didn’t come as a shock to see the Doctor leave Amy and Rory on Earth. It was still moving, though, and probably the most grownup companion farewell the show’s had since its revival — maybe ever. The Doctor doesn’t leave them in a parallel universe, or wipe their memory, or just lose them in an unlikely rebound situation; he says goodbye to them like a proper adult realizing he can’t interrupt their lives forever. Oh sure, he leaves Rory a bright red sports car, and he makes goofy shy faces at Amy as he leaves, but it just feels right in a way that this moment so often didn’t in the past. It’s all but guaranteed that we’ll see them again, even if it’s just to resolve the “Lake Silencio” plot in a couple episodes, but I almost wish we wouldn’t, if only to keep this perfect. It’s hard to imagine a new companion next season, unless it’s River Song, which would annoy a lot of people — perhaps including me, though it would mean a return to the Romana dynamic, which wouldn’t be so bad.
- This was a “bonkers prison” all right. If floating around the galaxy picking up innocent people for this minotaur to kill and eat is part of a just punishment, I’d hate to see the crime.
- That sound the Doctor hears when he opens his door is the TARDIS’s classic warning siren, the cloister bell. I guess we’re to assume that his own worst nightmare is of himself (perhaps in his Dream Lord guise), given the self-loathing this Doctor is supposed to have.
- I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the supporting actors in this episode, who were all pretty good. I didn’t enjoy the conspiracy geek as much, but since he was “blogging” when he was abducted I guess he was there to scare fans like me. I loved the moments where the Doctor flirts with the medical student and “fires” Amy so he can hire a new companion, even though those moments later come back to bite him.
- The Doctor talks to the minotaur, first through a mirror and then through a sort of waterfall, in “The Pasiphaë Spa.” Pasiphaë was the minotaur’s mother in the original Greek myth. These are presumably all meant to be symbolic, but I admit I haven’t worked them out yet.
- It’s a shame “Night Terrors” was moved, because it would have nicely bookended the season to have the Doctor toss a Rubik’s cube aside in frustration the third episode in, then pick it up again and solve it in this, the third episode from the end. It’s still a cool moment.
- Just like a fanboy, I flipped right out when the Doctor namechecked the Nimon late in the episode. And the minotaur really was beautiful, if you like minotaurs. And I really do.
*Postscript, 17 December 2011:
I just rewatched “The Horns of Nimon.” Let’s just say I think it’s fallen a bit in my esteem since I was a lad. Also, “The Stones of Blood” is my second favorite story of this era (meaning seasons 16 and 17 of classic Doctor Who). My first favorite is obviously and forever the fabulous “City of Death.” I was obviously drunk on minotaurs when I wrote the above.