Wednesday, 12 October 2016

The Rings of Akhaten


Chapter The 33rd, Akhaters gonna Akhate.

Plot: 
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.

Context: 
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.

Reaction:
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.

Connectivity: 
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.

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