Wednesday, 12 October 2016

The Rings of Akhaten

Chapter The 33rd, Akhaters gonna Akhate.

The Doctor continues trying to impress his new companion Clara with flash dates; a jet flight and a coffee in London last week, and this week a musical. The venue for which is the Cantina Band scene from Star Wars being played on a continuous loop. Clara meets the star of the show, a little girl called Merry, and gives her a pep talk to get her up on stage. What's the worst that can happen? Well, turns out the worst that can happen is Merry will get eaten by a Sun god (as in a Sun that's a god) for hitting a bum note. Audiences are getting tougher and tougher these days. The Doctor tries to talk the Sun to death, but Clara saves Merry, and the day, by showing the Sun a leaf. (I'm not making this shit up, that's actually the plot.) Everyone has a lovely old sing-song. The End.

A school night. The Better Half is out, the kids are abed, and I fancy watching a Who on my own. The random number generator I use to pick, though, might fall upon a real crowd-pleaser that everyone will want to watch with me, and it would be selfish to keep to myself, what then? ... But no, it's chosen The Rings of Akhaten. No one's in any hurry to watch that one again! But I'll try to keep an open mind - perhaps it's not as bad as I remember.

I watched the episode on Netflix as my daughter is midway through her zillionth rewatch of Frozen and I don't want to eject her disc. I noticed in doing so that the whole of 21st Century Doctor Who is available on Netflix except for The Day of the Doctor and The Time of the Doctor. That must make it tricky for anyone for whom this is the sole source of episodes to follow the ongoing narrative, as some quite significant stuff happens in those two. It didn't bode well for The Rings of Akhaten that I was quite so distractible even before I started. But, I did try to keep an open mind.

First-time round:
I watched it, time-shifted to the evening, on the day of its original BBC1 broadcast in 2013. At this point, my every Saturday was like a football fan's whose team is languishing at the bottom of their division in a losing streak. I'd start off full of hope that there would be a win, but end up disappointed yet again. I hadn't minded the season opener the previous week, and my hopes were low for this one anyway because of its name (more on that later), but it still underwhelmed. As did every other episode, alas, in the 50th anniversary year except the big one in November.

Positives first: the music is good. The Long Song, Murray Gold's folk lullaby, sung by successive generations to the greedy god, is perfect. When presented at the Proms as a stand-alone piece, it really shone. And it's not even the best song in it (Ghost Town by The Specials is heard in the 1981 pre-credits sequence). The creature effects can't be sneezed at either. So: good tunes, good masks. That's the end of the positives.

It may be that the intention was to tell a story more about exploration and wonder at an alien world than about a big exciting adventure; if so, the script chickens out halfway through, and tries to start up and resolve an adventure story in far too little time. Or it might be that the aim always was to do the adventure story, but because this is the new companion's first trip to an alien environment, they felt they needed to dwell more on her reaction and background; but, if so, why did they dwell for over half the running time? There's almost as much material about haggling for a vehicle rental as there is about defeating the big bad guy. Though it would certainly have been a refreshing change of pace to have a story where the most dramatic thing is a child getting over her stage fright, I doubt seasoned TV professionals like writer Neil Cross or The Moff would have entertained that beyond an initial brainstorm. So, likely it was always intended to be somewhere between those two poles - they were trying to have their Akhaten and eat it too - and the result is unsatisfactory by either measure.

They were on to a hiding to nothing, anyway. The 'exploration and wonder' approach works with Rose - when she gets a sudden panic attack on Platform One because she's surrounded by aliens, or when she puts her footprint in the snow of 1869 - because she's a real person and is written and played as such. Despite having possibly the best companion actress since Billie Piper playing Clara, she is set up as an unplayable sci-fi enigma, and - just as he did with Amy - Matt Smith's Doctor has an ulterior motive in asking her aboard the TARDIS, which damages our trust in him, and makes the relationship seem a bit creepy. He is seen literally stalking her family through time in the early sequences of this story. I am keeping everything crossed that soon-to-arrive new Capaldi companion Bill is just an ordinary person with guts and a sense of adventure, because that's all you need.

One would think that the plot of Rings, once it gets underway at around the 20 minute mark, doesn't have time to drag thereafter. But one would think wrong. There's some kinetic movement hopping or mopedding from place to place, but dramatically, emotionally, everything is static. The Doctor stands up to a scary nasty, delivering a big speech while it just stays still, not looking very threatening. Then, he realises the Mummy thing isn't the big nasty, and so stands up to another scary nasty, delivering a big speech while it just stays still, not looking very threatening. To have this happen twice over is unforgivable and should have been picked up in rewrites. But perhaps Rings didn't get any of those - it was a rapid commission after Cross's first script for the series, Hide (shown later but filmed first), went down so well with the production team, and it shows every sign of being rushed half-formed to the screen.

Ooh, quite a lot: both stories have more musical numbers than is usual for a Doctor Who story, both involve intergalactic tourists, both feature an alien girl, and both include a trip in a slightly unusual space vehicle (space-bus in Delta and The Bannermen, space-moped in The Rings of Ahkaten). Plus, they both have stupid titles (more on that soon).

Deeper Thoughts: 
'Rose' by any other name... 'The Rings of Akhaten' is just the kind of 'King Thrash-wobbler of the Biddly Bong' name that repels a certain section of the audience, and prevents a mass appreciation of a fantasy product even if deserved, consigning it to the cult ghetto. Now, you might think - and if the mood's right, I might agree with you - screw 'em. If those people are going to switch off just because they can't cope with an odd sounding name here and there, they're not worth keeping. That would be fine for any other show, but not Doctor Who. It shouldn't ever be a cult; it should always aim to appeal to the widest possible family audience - that's what it was made for, from the very beginning.

Avoiding outlandish language that might be off-putting is therefore wise, especially when part of the title. Since its return to screens in 2005, Doctor Who has taken care for the most part to use the episode titles as Big Tent marketing opportunities. It's dropped the ball a couple of times, yes: I still think 'The Father of the Daleks' would have brought in more punters than 'The Magician's Apprentice'; but, generally, it's done okay. The Rings of Akhaten was broadcast during the era of what Steven Moffat dubbed slutty titles, which started with Let's Kill Hitler - big Cinemascope ideas for each story encapsulated in a snappy and obvious title which would invariably appear weekly on a movie poster style image.

In the old days, Doctor Who stories had some pulpy titles, for sure, and many included made-up proper nouns; but, they usually had a sense of excitement about them. 'The Power of Kroll', to take a representative example, is more dramatic a title than perhaps deserved by the somewhat soggy story to which it is attached, and it too would qualify for the centrepiece of a passable movie hoarding. There were also some gnomic beauties too, like the spate of single word titles in the early 1980s, e.g. 'Meglos' (a story that was crying out instead for an 'Attack of the Cactus Man' moniker).

From 2005 onwards, though, all that is banished. Doctor Who didn't blaze back onto TV screens with 'The Return of the Autons'; its opener was instead, very deliberately, called 'Rose'. Something sounding innocuous, maybe even a little dull, because it was the story of someone with an ordinary life to whom extraordinary things then start to happen. Every title in that 2005 batch uses only normal English words ('Dalek' is in the OED). With the exception of occasional uses of the names of established Doctor Who baddies that haven't yet got into the dictionary - Sontarans, Ood, Zygons - that's how it has stayed. (There's only one real exception before Rings, 'The Pandorica Opens'; yes, there's no word Pandorica in the English language, but it's only two extra letters different from its famous mythological inspiration, and it was also mentioned previously in the series before it's titular usage.)

'The Rings of Akhaten' could never be described as a slutty title, not even in the rarefied environs of one's local comic store or Games workshop. The movie poster image seemed to suggest some kind of King Solomon's Mines adventure pastiche, but the story and the title didn't relate to that. Ultimately if it did any good it was to expedite the end of the slutty era - it was limiting to concentrate on only large high-concept ideas, week in week out. And it does seem to have been a one-off; since Rings, it's been back to reasonable titles not written in any alien language. Some might see all this as a lack of confidence, but I disagree for the reasons given above: Doctor Who should never be excluding or elitist in its approach. And it should certainly never again put made-up words in an episode title that sound like someone clearing their throat. Ahem.

In Summary:
The Long Wrong.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Delta and the Bannermen

Chapter The 32nd, where Doddy gets deaded.

The Doctor and Mel win a time-travel holiday to Disneyland in 1959 provided by an unreliable tour operator with a reputation for dangerous disasters. Despite having their own time machine which they could use to go to Disneyland in 1959 whenever they feel like it, they agree to go on this trip, and – who would have thunk it?! – it turns out to be a dangerous disaster. Only for Mel, though, as the Doctor decided to travel in the safety of the TARDIS and left her to face the peril alone, the gallant chap. The trouble is twofold: a collision with a prototype US satellite, and a stowaway refugee, Delta, being pursued by a genocidal gang, the Bannermen. Instead of Disneyland, they land in an episode of Hi-De-Hi set in Wales. The locals help defeat the bad guys by lending our heroes spanners and jars of honey and the like; one of the locals falls in love with Delta and they go off into space to propagate her species; it’s probably best not to dwell on how exactly. An entire space bus full of innocent tourists is slaughtered in the middle of things, but no one really cares.

Watched the episodes on DVD one episode per night mid-week on one of the first weeks the children had gone back to school. This is apt, as the Slyvester McCoy stories have that ‘Back to School’ feel for me; each of his seasons started more or less in line with the start of the academic year when I was an older teenager. As well as the three kids - boy of 10, boy of 7, girl of 4 - who enjoyed it but were particularly taxed by how Don Henderson was managing to fake eating that raw pork joint (seriously, that was the key talking point for them), the Better Half also joined us. This was the first time she had seen this particular story since transmission. Second time round, she thought it was shit.

First-time round:
I must have been in my final year of secondary school, as I remember clearly rushing back from some careers or further education fair in the local Masonic Hall that all the fifth year had been taken to, just to catch an early episode of Slyvester’s first season. I was full of optimism for the new guy, and unlike many cynics I heard from at the time, and those I’ve come across since, I didn’t think the show was in that bad a shape. Not perfect, but with the potential to develop interestingly. That's also a pretty good description of me as a fifth year. Sadly, I didn't regenerate into the young Paul McGann.

Just before transmission, my schoolfriend Alex, who's previously been mentioned in these pages, breathlessly asked me whether I'd seen the trailer for the new Doctor Who story (I hadn't) because it looked absolutely awful: the space bus, which was a silly idea in the first place to Alex's mind, had a crude square box round it where it had been badly superimposed, and Ken Dodd was in it overacting, and it just looked like it was going to be terrible. When I watched it, perhaps because he'd prepared me for the worst, I didn't think it was that bad.

Oh, it’s a mess, though. Like the Slyv three-parter Silver Nemesis, which I viewed for the blog last year, it suffers from a car-crash of numerous characters and subplots. Unlike Silver Nemesis, there’s the added frustration that some of the subplots and characters show real potential. It can't be realised, though, as there’s too much going on for the running time, and too many threads to develop any one of them in sufficient depth. Hugh Lloyd's Beekeeper Goronwy for example is enigmatically played with moments of sparkle, but he adds nothing to the plot whatsoever. It might be passable if it was directed so all the elements cohere, but - alas - as a director, Chris Clough makes a very good producer. Every actor is attacking the material in their own way with no sense that everyone is integrated into a single cast working to one end in one overall tone. Ken Dodd and Don Henderson share a scene, but their performances belong in completely different shows, probably on different channels.
Delta and the Bannermen is nonetheless revolutionary in its quiet way. It is the first story to visit a period of time proximate to the transmission era of real-world Doctor Who, but treat it as history, opening up a whole new arena for the show. Delta is set just four years before Doctor who began in 1963; but, just as the music of John Smith and The Common Men (actually library music) heard in An Unearthly Child is nowhere near as exciting as The Shadows, let alone The Beatles, similarly Delta and the Bannermen doesn’t have any real rock n’ roll in it, nothing like Little Richard or Eddie Cochran, just a slushy Frankie Lymon number.

Now, maybe this is intended as historical accuracy. A holiday camp in Wales would likely not have been a venue for anything too raucous, after all. But what an opportunity wasted! Imagine a story, whether chiller or romp, in the real 50s; imagine a real (and menacing) Ted instead of a Flying Picket. The period, though, was not chosen for drama or realism, was it? It’s just an excuse to make as near as they can to a Hi-De-Hi crossover. It’s like setting a story in occupied France, but eschewing any of the excitement and danger of the Resistance and staging it instead like an episode of ‘Allo ‘Allo.

The production values bear out these priorities: the camp scenes are filled with extras, but Gavrok's mighty Bannerman force consists of just six Welsh guys. The Chimeron race they've destroyed fares even worse - it's just two green blokes and a dummy lying in a quarry. Script Editor Andrew Cartmel famously flew off the handle when he visited the quarry filming to find that not enough effort was being put into the big opening scene, but it was his job to realise that a big intergalactic space battle in a story that's going to then have to do three episodes of expensive period setting, is not going to be possible on Doctor Who's 1980s budget. This was his inexperience showing, and we should applaud the reach exceeding the grasp.  But he still goes on about it now. Let it go, Andrew.

Both stories involve a holiday for the Doctor in Summery sunshine; both contain a female royal family member in mortal danger; both contain at least one person waving a sword about.

Deeper Thoughts: 
Some people can take or leave Marmite. It was an inventive marketing idea, making a virtue out of a lot of people disliking a product, but it isn’t true. It’s easy to find people who don’t have a strong opinion either way on Marmite, just as it is for any supposed love/hate thing. Even party politics: viewed from within, it feels like nothing could be as inflammably polar as party politics, but there are always floating voters. In the time we're in of Brexit and Trump/Clinton and Jeremy Corbyn it's hard to believe, but an even split of strong reactions for and against is just as rare as critical consensus. And this goes for the Slyvester McCoy era, too, no matter how it might seem to the contrary if one gets in the middle of an online flame war on the subject.

I like both seasons 23 and 24, the two years of twentieth century Doctor Who that come in for most flak about their quality level; I like a lot of the work of both Eric Saward and Andrew Cartmel, the script editors of the same; I like Colin Baker and Slyvester McCoy, the lead actors who were the face of the show at those times. Even after all these years, though, with the show back on TV and very successful, there are still fierce debates happening in dark corners online about which year / backroom boy / actor was more to blame. The truth as ever lies somewhere in the middle, or somewhere to one side: in all likelihood, no matter who was in charge in front or behind the camera, Doctor Who would have been cancelled in 1989. It's nobody's fault.

I’ve been as guilty as anyone of getting into an entrenched partisan position in the past. I remember not liking it when I heard Alex’s fairly gentle criticisms of Delta’s trailer, as mentioned above; and, as he was speaking, I was mentally putting on my rosette, grabbing my clipboard, and preparing my defence of the Slyvester McCoy party. Maybe to the wider public he looks unelectable, but you have to understand he is very popular and has been given a mandate to save planets by a large number of the members, sorry, fans. Even my Better Half is keen to put in on record that her pithy summary of Delta and the Bannermen given above is not really fair, and it was only out of a shock of disappointment that she reacted that way.  McCoy is one of the Doctors she grew up with, and that sort of tribal loyalty is hard to shift.

No one can agree about anything. No can even agree about how to disagree about things. Sometimes we defend a position without properly interrogating it, and sometimes we assume people are either for us or against us when that isn't remotely true. Life is like a Slyvester McCoy three parter - filled with many, varied characters milling about, going off in different directions, generally being nice but not adding much to proceedings. And it doesn't really make sense.

In Summary:
It's only not rock n' roll, and I don't like it.