The Rings of Akhaten.

TV Do you buy much Doctor Who merchandise? It’s a serious question, because I don’t. My definition of merchandise are the figures, the radio controlled Daleks, the innumerable board games, underwear, stationary, the kinds of things which turn up in Home Bargains about six months after they’re relevant to the series.  Which isn’t to say I haven’t given the Drashig hand puppet some serious attention, but I just can't get that excited about these things because most it is tat. Boring, repetative tate (and because events like the Drashig hand puppet aren’t the kinds of things which turn up in Home Bargains).  At a certain point I decided the thing which attracts me to Doctor Who is the stories and with limited wealth, that is what I’ve concentrated on through the dvds, books and audios.

That tension was one of the more surprising elements of Neil Cross’s The Rings of Akhaten. On the one hand this was an episode seemingly designed with official figurine licensee Character Options in mind, make-up and prosthetics designer Neill Gorton finally able to utilise the many dozens of sketches he’s apparently been doodling across the years for aliens and monsters finally allowing Character to have their Kenner moment and flood the market with several thousand collectables with names like Stoatface (because they weren't given a proper one in the script). On the other, for all that, the episode’s most compelling moments were when all of that receded to the background, literally in some shots, and the script concentrated on stories, the myths of a society, our own memories and the fictions we create for ourselves when reality is denied to us.

Which is why I’m willing to give it a cautious welcome. After the episode, fans on Twitter are having their usually mass existential crisis, predictably divided between those who are either non-plussed by the space choir (the Crouch End’s words emanating in some cases from orifices which simply didn’t look capable) and or swept away by its generally majestic special effects and poetry. I giggled towards the end because, as is so often the case, I couldn’t quite believe this was being broadcast on Saturday night BBC television between the news and The Voice. But yes, I liked it. It’s one of those episode which stays in the memory, where individual images and words and bits of performance bubble to the surface and for those of us who have watched, read and listened to more Who than most there has to be something relatively special about it to do that.

Functionally it’s another narrative mountain. As with The Bells of Saint John it finds itself in the conflicted place of having to essentially repeat all the elements of a companion introduction whilst simultaneously doing something else. So it’s Clara’s first TARDIS hop but it’s about her life before that. It’s about the audience falling for her and has many of the moments which are supposed to make us adore her, but it's filled with a tension that there’s something not right with her, that doesn’t make sense but again in a different way to Amy. Plus it still has to function as a pretty standard Doctor Who adventure even though for the most part it doesn’t want to so that in the end there’s not an awful lot to it. I’m listening to The Macra Terror at the moment and adventure content wise, more happens in the first episode of that.

If on reflection The Bells of St John offers a faint echo of Rose, The Rings of Akhaten is its The End of the World. As in 2005, when tasked with taking his new friend somewhere awesome, he offers her an overload of aliens, relishing the chance to introduce her to all of them with just the same glee two incarnations later and throwing the companion in at the deep end. This was also a story pinioned around planetary destruction, which was also about creating a convincing bond between Doctor and companion (something which I now noticed didn’t happen for Martha until Gridlock), holding hands against a view of that world at the beginning and end or in this case a renewal, silhouetted against its glorious light. The Beast Below has a similar resonance.

There are plenty of points of difference. Whereas the destruction of Earth occurred in a world without hope and science was running its course to such an extent religion was banned from Platform One, faith is all that’s apparently holding this celestial body together, the power of song keeping this God-like grandfather (as opposed to the one visiting in his blue box) from sucking the life out of all and sundry. Notice the Doctor doesn’t deny that faith out of hand. “It’s what they believe,” he says which tends to be my attitude too. Unlike the mysterious Ninth, Eleventh is quite happy to admit to having been here before, with his granddaughter, opening up to Clara in a way we’ve not seen much with any of his other friends, at least not lately and certainly not without the situation forcing his hand.

On top of that, there’s the teaser and the introduction of this Clara’s back story, disproving somewhat that she’s adopted even if the whole element of fate and chance and the reason why that leaf exists seems to be open for cross examination. Having already met the younger version of her in the prelogue, now he’s consciously visiting the points of her life. This also seems to be the Doctor’s thing now, having previously visited even Rose when she was twelve years old, not to mention Reinette and Amy. Some have already sought to find an ambiguity, but on this occasion it's part of the central tension of their friendship; she’s wrong, he knows it, and more powerfully the TARDIS knows it in a way not seen since the Wilderness Years when she suffered indigestion over almost all of the Eighth Doctor’s companions.

All of which shows that I must have enjoyed the episode because I’m buying into the fiction, I’m interested in how all of this is working out. That’s some kind of triumph for Moffat and the production team, now towards the bottom end of their third season, the seventh since the show came back, the grind of producing somewhat weekly television Doctor Who and create something which is interesting and not repetitive unless it's meant to be really begins to hit. That’s perhaps why I’ve become more sympathetic over time. Only otherwise in soap opera and comics has a production staff to deal with all of those years worth of previous stories and have to face up to still surprising the audience. I mean look at the previous few paragraphs for goodness sake. I’ve assumed we’re meant to see the similarities, but what if we’re not?

Back to what I was saying about Orwell For Kids, sorry The Macra Terror, or rather what actually occurs in The Rings of Akhaten. Once the TARDIS has landed, Clara’s met Merry and convinced her to sing, we’re not that far away from the final battle in the temple. It’s almost as though the middle two episodes of the story have been wiped, the Doctor telling us about the world rather than showing it to us. Which sounds like a criticism, but it’s not meant to be. Some of the best Doctor Who stories don’t feature that much incident, are all about character and conversations, hell, that’s all that happens in Rob Shearman’s audio Scherzo. Speaking of which, doesn’t The Rings of Akhaten sound like a Big Finish story? Actually, the TARDIS Datacore says that it literally does. There’s a Companion Chronicle called The Rings of Ikiria.

There are two key character conversations and I think you know what they already are. Pausing briefly to wonder where exactly where the Doctor sods off to leaving Clara to get lost so she can meet Merry, there’s the scene behind the TARDIS. Jenna-Louise is remarkable here, effectively becoming the Doctor in that way companions do when he has sodded off somewhere else and the kind of two hander which I don’t really remember Amy having after The Beast Below. There are Proustian Father’s Day undercurrents to her story, of course there are, she’s another companion whose lost a parent. But it feels fresh because for all the tragedy she’s turned it into a strength and a strength she can pass on. If Cross’s Luthor is half as well written as this scene then I should probably get around to watching it.

Then there’s the grandfather to grandfather. Radio Times didn’t like this and attempted to guess Matt Smith’s feelings about it from his performance. I thought he looked like he was enjoying every minute of it (and that Sylv will too at the next Gallifrey One convention when its thrust into his face at a panel discussion). It’s the Doctor using his history as a weapon again, but this time without datacores to hand he actually has to annunciate what that means, the magnificent suffering of a millennium long life. But it’s the infinite stories not written inherent in the leaf which finally sate the God’s appetite (cf, yes, the bird scene in The Scarlett Empress) which probably means we’re all that big, glowy globe, even after fifty years (or however long we’ve been fans) waiting for all the stories still yet to be told.

Yes, well, that’s all hyperbole, but it’s that kind of episode, the kind which drags us along with its big orchestral score and epic scenes. Which isn’t to say this is an episode which didn’t have some thwarted ambition. If the crew had in their heads the crowd scenes from The Phantom Menace when considering the audience to the ceremony, that they’d only really built the bottom tear was all too obvious. It’s rare that I’d even mention this stuff, but it’s also rare that when faced with a budgetary challenge they haven’t simply pulled back and done something else and gone ahead anyway with the abandon of classic Who, knowing full well that there’s little chance that an exploding miniature filled with toy Daleks is going to look like anything other than an exploding miniature filled with toy Daleks.

It doesn’t matter. I don’t care. I’d much rather the show did this sort of thing rather than timidly stunt its storytelling because of what it thinks it can afford. The space scooter scene (an echo of the sleigh ride in The Snowmen) was never going to look entirely realistic on this budget so we have the HD equivalent of the air car scene from The Pirate Planet. The digital camera shudder which on SD tv momentarily made the shots look like the digital video they really are. The walls of the temple at the end were pretty ropily painted too, the lighting doing few favours for the airbrush splatter in a way not seen on television since Classic Star Trek, or indeed 80s Who. The nuWho equivalent of Mat Irvine will have much to say about this on future dataspike rereleases.

But in the end your appreciation of the episode probably falls onto the shoulders of Emilia Jones and that choir. Well and indeed then. As I intimated earlier, it’s all so bloody ludicrous. You have all of these rubber and robotic creatures who as has been established speak in languages even the TARDIS can’t decipher and here they all are singing with the voices of Crouch End backed by a philharmonic orchestra. It’s been established that it’s definitely supposed to be them, this is all diagetic and its gut-wrenching and epic and then just as the big emotional climax in The Pandorica Opens is undercut by the ludicrous side on shot of the Sontaran at his most small man menacing, we cut to the android bloke. That’s when I giggled, I remember now, that exact moment, because really …

… and yet, oh god don’t you just love that? It might not be some people’s version of what Doctor Who should be about, but as we’ve discussed before no version of Doctor Who will be completely like what some people’s version of Doctor Who should be about. It’s the Doctor Who of Gridlock and Journey’s End, big choral musical statements about stuff and more stuff, Doctor Who attempting to stay within genre whilst simultaneous allowing Murray Gold to pretend he’s presenting a new work at Glyndebourne. Sometimes it succeeds in being Radio 3, usually it ends up on Classic FM, literally in some cases, but I’m willing to give it that latitude especially since there has to be something new to play on the concert tours when the Spoonheads and Stoatfaces are marching on stage.

The debate’s still ranging incidentally as I type, on Twitter and Gallifrey Base which has the spreadiest spread of votes on its rating thread I think I’ve ever seen, with one commenter prattling that it’s the “worst one since The Girl in the Fireplace.” Have I simply convinced myself that I like it simply to be the contrarian I aspire to be? I don’t think so. Like I said three hours ago, individual images and words and bits of performance are bubbling to the surface and when I just looked at the Doctor’s speech again, I couldn’t take my eyes off it. It’s beautiful. The flashbacks are atmospherically shot too, and note the confidence of the show that it can mix those two so seamlessly now in a way which feels natural, when the contemporary scene that closed The End of the World seemed so groundbreaking for its time.

Who is Clara? What is she? As we’ve seen the TARDIS doesn’t like her, which would suggest that she has a Turlough like malevolence however inadvertent, some kind of cosmic sleeper agent. But it could simply her existence as a time/space event which it’s unhappy with. It could equally just be jealous, because she and the Doctor when he’s not trying to hide an aspect of his interest in her, do get along very well indeed. Which leads to my other theory, dredging up the old Paul Abbot story idea which was eventually replaced with Boom Town in that first year for someone designed to be the perfect companion which in some respects Clara is, seeded by someone across time on the assumption the Doctor has to save one of them. But why won’t the Doctor tell her about her other selves? Afraid of the existential crisis?

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