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BBC1. 6.15 pm. 06.04.2013.
Written by Neil Cross
Directed by Farren Blackburn
One of the distinguishing features of new Doctor Who, in contrast to the classic series, is that at last the show has been afforded the level of budget and production values to match its intellectual ambition. Doctor Who was always ambitious, and classic series stories as different in their ways as ‘The Keys of Marinus’, ‘Inferno’, ‘The Daemons’ and ‘The Ark in Space’ showed what was possible when writers and directors were prepared to stretch the monster/invasion/time travel formula. But there was always a sense that the series rarely matched the ambition of its scripts with the sort of production design and visual effects necessary to visualise a convincing non-human world and culture. Hence we rarely met more than a handful of alien creatures, while futuristic cities would often be represented by an unconvincing model exterior and a few antiseptic corridors.
For fans of classic Doctor Who (and I should make clear that I consider myself a fan of both classic and new Who in equal measure), the budgetary limitations are seen as a good thing, obliging writers to focus on imaginative concepts and ideas rather than on spectacle and pyrotechnics. For the writers, however, it was often frustrating that the series’ technical resources were not always up to realising those ideas. This was an issue that came up time and time again in the production documents held by the BBC Written Archives Centre. There are exceptions of course – ‘Planet of Evil’ and ‘The Robots of Death’, for example – but classic Doctor Who would tend to fall back on the story types its producers knew they could do well on a limited budget, including historical adventures (for which they had an extensive BBC Costume Department at their disposal), contemporary invasion narratives (no futuristic sets required and the big pitched battles often occurring off screen) and that favourite of the Innes Lloyd/Patrick Troughton ‘era’, the base under siege story. But more of that next week, I expect.
‘The Rings of Akhaten’ is the sort of episode that classic Doctor Who probably could not have pulled off, certainly not so effectively as it did here. This was a rare excursion for Doctor Who (either classic or new) into the more imaginative realms of science fiction and fantasy inspired as much by literary fiction as by previous Doctor Who stories. The new Who story it most closely resembles is ‘The End of the World’ from Series 1. It serves much the same narrative purpose: to give the Doctor’s new companion her first experience of an entirely alien culture. Clara asks to see ‘something awesome’ so the Doctor takes her to the asteroid rings of the planet Akhaten to witness a thousand-year festival of song. Some incidents more or less repeat similar moments in ‘The End of the World’, notably the parade of weird and wonderful alien races and the Doctor’s amusing (to the companion) demonstration of different modes of communication. The alien street scene near the beginning of ‘The Rings of Akhaten’ has already been likened within fandom to the cantina sequence of Star Wars (Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope for the pedants). Except in the Peladon stories, with their casts of alien Federation delegates, classic Doctor Who rarely managed to suggest the sheer diversity of life in the universe in this way.
Yet this was an incidental pleasure in what, by any standards, was one of the most intellectually and visually ambitious Doctor Who stories for some time – perhaps since Neil Gaiman’s ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ in 2011. Here we had an imaginative science fiction idea, superbly realised by the visual effects which on this occasion were not there just for spectacle but were necessary to the success of the story. And, within the space of a 45-minute episode, we also had a largely successful attempt to create an entirely alien society with its own values, belief systems and currency (objects that carry a psychic imprint of their sentimental value). The central concept – that a mummified god is kept asleep by the singing of a perpetual lullaby – was both unusual and poetic. It is the sort of idea that one would expect to find in science fiction or fantasy literature, rather than in an episodic television adventure series. Of course, this is Doctor Who, and inevitably the mummy awakes, only for it to be revealed that an even more powerful creature lives inside the sun. But, for once, the solution to the crisis was not to be found in the Doctor waving his sonic screwdriver around, pressing a Big Red Button or reciting a bit of techno-babble. Instead the creature, a parasite which feeds off people’s memories, is fed an overdose of memories, including not only memories of what has been but memories of what might-have-been: ‘There’s an awful lot of one, but there is an infinity of the other. And infinity’s too much – even for your appetite!’
‘The Rings of Akhaten’ demonstrates many of the qualities I associate with Doctor Who at its best. It’s an imaginative idea, well realised. It has a message of sorts – understanding different cultures and beliefs on their own terms (something that extends back to ‘The Aztecs’ in 1964) – but without being too preachy about it. It asserts the need to stand up for what is right, no matter what the personal risk. It works through a motif that we’ve seen elsewhere in Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who in that the Doctor and his companion are seen through the eyes of a child. (Other examples of this motif can be found in ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’, ‘The Eleventh Hour’, ‘The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood’ and ‘Night Terrors’.) It gives Matt Smith’s Doctor a big heroic moment (at last he gets the sort of Big Speech that Russell T. Davies had written for Christopher Eccleston’s and David Tennant’s Doctors). And we get to see the companion demonstrating not just courage and empathy but intelligence and agency, taking a decisive role in the defeat of the creature and therefore freeing these worlds from their false god.
Elsewhere there was some characteristic Moffatry going on. We have learned something of Clara’s background, how her parents met, and that her mother has died. (I’m not sure yet if there is any significance to the dates on her mother’s gravestone, 11 September 1960-5 March 2005. They don’t, for example, coincide with air dates of Doctor Who episodes. The latter would be three weeks before the Ninth Doctor met Rose Tyler, so he can avoid crossing his own time line, but there again this whole universe was rebooted at the end of Series 5 so this shouldn’t matter. But with Steven Moffat such things are rarely arbitrarily chosen, so perhaps some significance will be revealed in due course.) We also have further hints about the mystery of who Clara is, albeit that these are somewhat oblique: ‘She’s just a girl – she can’t be – she is! – she’s not possible!’ No doubt this is setting up a big revelation towards the end of the current series, but for the time being the enigma remains.
In my review last week I explained why I was somewhat underwhelmed by ‘The Bells of Saint John’. But ‘The Rings of Akhaten’ sees this ‘new’ series of Doctor Who bounce right back onto top form. And it was a splendid Who debut for writer Neil Cross. It’s the sort of story that is bound by the extent of its difference from the usual story templates to be something of a one-off – the once-per-series excursion into more conceptually imaginative terrain. Next week we will be on more familiar territory with an Ice Warrior on a submarine. But for 45 minutes on Saturday night, Doctor Who was once again the most marvellous thing on television. ■
James Chapman is Professor of Film Studies at the University of Leicester and author of Inside the Tardis: The Worlds of ‘Doctor Who’ – A Cultural History, a second edition of which will be published by I. B. Tauris in September 2013.