“Can you feel the light on your eyelids? That is the light of an alien sun.”
I was a bit tipsy yesterday afternoon.
As a result, I struggled to stay fully awake during Doctor Who, and rewatched it today to properly follow it. In the interim, unusually, I was able to digest what many of my online friends thought.
The reaction from many people I knew was pretty negative. “Slow, predictable, cheap tacky sets, no larger plot arc, no character developing, cheesy maudlin flashback (wtf??), and dull as fuck” opined one friend. “They’ve given Matt Smith his very own Fear Her,” said another (damning indeed!). “Utter pigshit,” was one more blunt opinion. The only voice I heard raised in its favour was my boyfriend Barry, who rather enjoyed it, comparing it to surreal 1965 serial The Web Planet, which similarly is not well-regarded.
Well, I actually love The Web Planet. And I may be tacking into the wind of disapproval here, but I rather enjoyed The Rings of Akhaten as well. True, it was unabashedly sentimental, which I can see would put some people off. It was also heavily dependent on Murray Gold’s admittedly OTT emotion-tugging music, which as usual frequently swamped the dialogue. And yes, the show might have bitten off more than it could chew with such an effects-heavy story (though I didn’t have any complaints on that score).
But it was also, more than ever, a sign that this era of Doctor Who is very much science fantasy rather than science fiction. I’ve heard some fans carping about the scientific impossibility of the Seven Worlds of Akhaten (from the perspective of gravity, atmosphere etc), or the ‘space moped’ which our heroes rode without the benefit of spacesuits or a roof.
Well, you could have dealt with that in the dialogue with some Star Trek-style technobabble. But why bother? Technology, in recent Who, is often a shorthand for ‘magic’ – it does whatever the plot demands. Sometimes that’s irritating, when it’s used to short circuit a proper conclusion by way of a deus ex machina. But when it’s just covering minor details, I don’t have a problem with that.
Speaking of deus ex machina, this was another story that, like a few recently, seemed to heark back to the style of Russell T Davies. It followed the established Nu-Who template for the introduction of a new companion – start with a story on contemporary Earth (where they’re always – disappointingly – from), then whisk them off to a weird future location full of a Star Wars-style menagerie of odd-looking aliens.
Kudos to the production team for not taking the ‘cheap’ option of reusing the many existing alien costumes – all the creatures on display here seemed entirely new. Indeed, the visuals seemed fairly sumptuous, from the costumes to the effects, evoking – for me – early efforts by French fantasists Jeunet and Caro, like City of Lost Children. True, the set design for the dusty streets was functional rather than inspired, but it seems harsh to criticise that when there was so much invention on display elsewhere.
And the concepts were, for me, as inventive as the look of the thing. True, Doctor Who has done ‘false gods’ any number of times before; they almost always turn out to be power-mad computers, or, as here, parasitic aliens. We even got one last year in Toby Whithouse’s enjoyable The God Complex.
But the god here, with its domination of an entire solar system who lived in fear of it and routinely sang it lullabies to keep it asleep, seemed genuinely terrifying – signposted by even the Doctor being terrified of it. Writer Neil Cross (creator of Luther and, less favourably, recent adapter of Day of the Triffids) came up with the fascinating concept of it feeding on treasured memories and stories, to the extent that they even formed the currency of its worshippers. That’s reminiscent of a recurring theme of the other Neil – Mr Gaiman himself.
Like Neil Gaiman’s similarly inventive script for The Doctor’s Wife, this gifted Matt Smith with some cracking dialogue to get his teeth into. “We don’t walk away”, summed up the show’s philosophy nicely, as well as providing a riposte to anyone wondering why they didn’t just get in the TARDIS and leg it. But the Doctor’s final speech to the ‘Grandfather’ was obviously a showcase moment, and Smith seized it with both hands to chew the scenery (but in a good way):
“I saw the birth of the universe and I watched as time ran out, moment by moment until nothing remained, no time, no space, just me. I walked in universes where the laws of physics were devised by the mind of a mad man.I watched universes freeze and creations burn,I have seen things you wouldn’t believe, I have lost things you will never understand – and I know things, secrets that must never be told, knowledge that must never be spoken…”
Hints of things to come, I wonder? Speaking of which, the ep also gave us more of an insight into Clara, with that prologue in which the Doctor, basically, stalked her parents through from their meeting to her mother’s death. That actually could seem more than a bit creepy, and Clara was probably right to be slightly weirded out when she ‘remembered’ it – the implication being that the memories were fresh, since the Doctor had only just taken that trip.
Clara’s apparent impossibility was the only ongoing plotline here, though. That may annoy those who are fans of the ‘arc’ episodes above the others, but I’ve personally found Steven Moffat’s arc-heavy approach hard going these last couple of years, and am glad that it’s taking the more background approach of the early RTD seasons.
Clara did get to show some real mettle here, as we continue to get to know her. I still bemoan the fact that she seems like ‘Moffat spunky young woman type #23’, but her morale-bolstering heart to heart with little Merry (Emilia Jones, excellent) was a magical moment that could only be resisted by the most hard-hearted and cynical. And her ultimate rescue of the Doctor, speeding to the Pyramid on the space moped then giving up her most treasured memory, was lovely; especially the Doctor’s remark about the monumental difference between “what was and what should have been”. Could Clara’s mum, and her apparently premature death, figure in why she’s such an impossibility?
There was some creepy stuff too, which was still in keeping with the imaginative visuals here. The Mummy in the Pyramid was pretty standard Who-fare, but the creepy looking Vigils will probably have given many a young child a few bad dreams. With their blank faces and Graf Orlok costumes, they were again reminiscent of the creations of Jeunet and Caro, not to mention David Lynch. Indeed, their apparently sound-based weaponry called to mind nothing so much as Dune.
I found The Rings of Akhaten to be a visually sumptuous, life-affirming piece of fantasy, very much in the style of the work of Neil Gaiman. I wouldn’t want Who to be like this every week, lest it turn into Farscape or Lexx, but that’s the beauty of the show – its flexibility. Next week, it looks like we’ve got a trad submarine thriller (albeit with aliens). That’s good too; but I’ve always got time for some out and out fantasy, if it’s done well, and I thought this was. Still, what do I know? I like The Web Planet