Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Rings of Akhaten (7.8)

Here's the problem. If the Rings of Akhaten had been a Tom Baker four-parter, we would have quite liked it at the time and now think that it was about due for a thorough critical reappraisal. It would have been the weird, sentimental month of the six months of Doctor Who we were allowed each year — in between the funny month, the gothic month, the UNIT month and the genuinely not very good month. Some of the subordinate characters would have been better developed, and some of the more obvious wrinkles in the plot would have been straightened out. This would have militated against doing such a heavily symbolic story to begin with. 

But nowadays, when we are only allowed nine episodes of Doctor Who a year, every one of them has got to be sensational, particularly when Steve Moffat spends quite so much time telling us that every one of them is going to be sensational. And it's all over and done with too quickly to be sensational. It feels...there is no other way of saying this...slight. If you are doing a story about some Victorians on a lighthouse, you can afford to feel slight. If you are doing a big epic about gods and time and religion and the nature of memory and the soul and grief, you probably can't.

Yes, I know that we are all supposed to close our eyes and pretend very hard that we are still watching Season 7. You can say that the six stories we got in 2012 and the nine stories we're getting in 2013 are all part of the same season all you like, and it will remain true that the BBC is making less Who than it used to. It will also remain true that this block of stories, while not, definitely not, being a new season, does have a new theme tune, a new title sequence, a new TARDIS design, a new costume for the Doctor and introduce a new plot "arc.". (When Hislopp printed the story about the BBC cutting back on Who, Moffat went all flouncy. It turned out to be largely true.)

And here's the problem. There is the character Matt Smith is actually actually playing, the young old schoolboy, owing almost as much to Peter Davison as William Hartnell, thrilled by the universe, but out of his depth in it, who knows he is the Doctor and knows that he can't ever quite live up to being the Doctor, always thinking that the next threat is the one he can't actually cope with. Of course he can never really be out of his depth: it will always turn out that he has a thing and that thing is the exact thing he needs to save the day. In fairness, this was also true in the olden days when the world was black and white, but the writers used to take slightly more trouble to cover their tracks. Increasingly, the Doctor has not even needed to produce a canister of Antiplastic from his Doctor Utility Belt when he is fighting the Plastic Monster. Increasingly, what he pulls out of his pocket is himself: the very fact of his Doctorness defeats the enemy. (Like everything else in New Who, this can be traced back to Curse of Fatal Death: the Doctor is finally and irrevocably dead, but rises again because the universe itself can't bear to be without him.) The Doctor doesn't have a deus ex machina: the Doctor is a deus ex machina. But Matt Smith is so much more luminous and entertaining when he's being the bumbling uberboffin than when he's trying to be the messianic god-brat. 

And that's a shame, because otherwise I rather liked the story. 


Last week we had the the silly one where the Doctor tries on new clothes, meets a new companion and defeats an alien invasion by typing really, really quickly. This week we had the sensible one set in the not very well lit metaphor, where there is a huge monster-shaped plot device intended to reveal the Doctorness of the Doctor. (It all turns on compassion, especially compassion to children.) I wouldn't be surprised if next week we had the one that put an iconic monster in the middle of an historical war.

I think that this kind of metaphorical fantasy is very much the thing that Doctor Who should be doing because it is very much the kind of thing that only Doctor Who does. 

I think that Doctor Who started out as a costume drama and should go back to being a costume drama from time to time. 

I think that its nice that the Doctor is actually going to wondrous alien planets instead of just talking about them. 

I liked the final cut from the defeat of the big alien monster thing to Clara's front door, without any wrap up or exposition. 

I quite liked the use of music, although honestly an alien lullaby that's been going on for a million years ought to sound more like Gregorian chant or the Muslim call to prayer and less like something that that Andrew Lloyd Weber put in the shredder in 1986. 

I even quite liked the metaphysics although I do think that allowing someone called Cross to write about the Magical Power of Stories when the week after next you've got Neil Gaiman is a little like buying a humanoid alien dog creature called Doreen and then barking yourself. 

I did not like the pre-cred about the Leaf. The idea that this leaf is the most important leaf in the universe because it caused Clara's parents to meet is quite a nice one, and sort of kind of made sense at the denouement of the story, but the idea that Clara's father should actually say "This is the most important leaf in the universe" to Clara's Mum seemed a little bit completely impossible to swallow and not at all the kind of thing people actually say, ever. I wasn't completely convinced by the "every individual human being is unique and therefore miraculous and this refutes the idea that a purely materialistic world view is ultimately value-free" when it was put forward by a giant with a big blue willy; I wasn't any more convinced when we reprised it twice in one episode of Who.

I liked the idea that the soul is made of stories, but this only works if you equivocate shamefully about what you means by "soul" and, indeed, "story". "Soul" is a sort of a metaphor — a tool of thought — for whatever makes you "you". [*] When we talk about "souls" we mostly mean "how we think about human beings when we think of them holistically, rather than as collections of atoms and organs". So when the Doctor says that the soul is made of stories he is saying that what makes you you is the sum total of your memories and experiences. But the episode only makes sense because the word "soul" can also do service as meaning "a sort of invisible ghost that hides in your body somewhere but is separate from it". Golden glowy regeneratey stuff that vampire monsters can suck out of you and feed on, in other words. 

Nothing wrong with having a religious view of the soul hanging around in scientific universe. Nothing wrong with the Doctor respecting both ways of looking at things. But no-one had thought it through. At the start, he seems to be respectful of the aliens' religious beliefs: when Clara asks him whether all life in the universe really originated on Akhaten he replies "Well, it's a nice story." But five minutes later he is proposing wobbly scientific rationalism to the girl as a better story. Which it isn't. We don't value scientific rationalism because it's a more aesthetically pleasing narrative (which is what "good story" means) but because it is truer and more useful, for certain values of truth and usefulness. People without no imagination might say that the very quality of being true make it a better story by definition, but only because they don't understand what "story" means. And that doesn't fit in with the Doctor liking alien religions because of their aesthetic beauty and any way, I don't see how Merry being unique in a Dr Manhattan sense (unrepeatable specific arrangement of atoms and chemicals) confers on her the sort of glowy floaty soul that  aliens can eat. 

It's the same cop out as in Daemons where the Doctor debunks all kinds of faith — Jo's Aquarianism, Mrs Hawthorn's wiccanism, both the Satanism and the Anglicanism of the villagers — and then says at the end, when everyone starts Morris Dancing and drinking beer, that it's okay, there is still magic in the world after all. To which the answer is "only because you've decided to use 'magic' in two different senses, you over-dressed old phony". 

I think that this contradiction in the Doctor's personality — how the ultra-scientific, ultra-rationalist is combined with the ultra-romantic and ultra-moralistic is worth thinking about. But I am not sure that "each individual leaf, each individual little girl, each individual stereotyped welsh coal miner, each individual snow flake and presumably each individual cancer cell and each individual turd is unique, unrepeatable and infinitely valuable" actually gets us very far. 

The twists are clever, but they are arbitrarily clever. They sit there being clever twists. Clara meets a little girl who is afraid: we assume that she is afraid of baddies who want to hurt her but she is actually afraid of officials who want her to give a public performance. The Doctor says "we never walk away from trouble" but it turns out that he means that sometimes they have to run. We are led to believe that the alien mummy is the god; but it's actually the whole planet that they are in orbit around. I am told that anyone with a basic knowledge of musical theory can be taught how to write a catchy tune; I suspect that if you went to a creative writing course to learn how to write a TV script, this the kind of TV script they could teach you to write. 

The solution was rather clever, sort of, a little like one of those folk tales where the only thing bigger than the very big thing turns out to be the very small thing. (Like the one about the two cafes in the bidding war: the first one puts up a notice saying "Best coffee on this street" and the second one says "Best coffee in this town" and it escalates ... the best in the state, the best in the USA, the best on earth, the best in the galaxy, the best in the Universe. The first one thinks for a bit and realise he can still win by going back to "The best coffee on this street.") It was playing off our expectations of how Doctor Who stories work nowadays. The Doctor goes from being out of his depth, having no idea how to solve the problem, but thinking he'd better have a go because he's the Doctor, to suddenly going into one of his "I am the oncoming storm, I killed the time Lords, I have a big pointy hat and I'm not afraid to use it" speeches. I cannot help feeling we have seen this once too often. In the one with the weeing angels, and the one with the big metal cube and in the one where he first met Amy. More problematically, we've seen it parodied in the Lodger. ("No violence, not while I'm around, not today, not ever. I'm the Doctor, the oncoming storm... and you just meant beat them in a football match, didn't you?") When a series starts parodying its own cliches, it needs to find another set of cliches. Unless it can come out the other side and be post-modern about it, which it appears that it can't. 

Structurally, I liked it: the soul-eating monster wakes up and wants to feed; the little girl, who knows all the stories and histories of the planet, wants to sacrifice herself, but the Doctor won't let her; he tries to sacrifice himself (with all his infinite knowledge of the whole universe) but this doesn't satiate the Monster, so instead Clara offers her mother's pressed leaf, which we have already established is the most important leaf in the universe. The trouble is that the leaf is only the most important leaf in the universe because he father once said so; and this being Doctor Who and at least nominally science fiction, we have to at least have a stab at a better explanation than that. So we claim that while the Doctor may have memories of practically everything which ever happened in the universe, which is vast, the leaf contains all the things which were lost when Clara's mother died, which is infinite. 

I get the idea that when people invest an object with significance, they somehow invest them with Psychic Energy. I get that people have Psychic Energy inside them, and people with more memories (the Doctor, the little girl) have more of the stuff than people who have led sheltered lived. I get that the leaf could be exceptionally potent because it is exceptionally important to Clara. But I don't buy that because it is of infinite importance to Clara it actually contains an infinite amount of energy. Obviously Clara's parents are the more important to her than the whole universe but only is so far as everybody's loved ones are more important to everybody than the whole universe, in which case there is so much psychic energy available that the big monster thing would have died of indigestion a long time ago. 

"But Andrew: if, as you say, the story is based on a metaphor, isn't it unfair to be complaining that it didn't make logical sense."

Well, yes and no. I would have been relatively happy if we had said that it was a magic leaf and left it at that. But the Matt Smith has to talk for several minutes on why the leaf is more powerful than his memories, or indeed the memories of an entire civilisation, and the more he talks, the more obvious it is that he is talking rubbish and the whole episode is predicated on a metaphysical cheat. 


Clara brings nothing to the table which Amy didn't also bring. She has a thing. You may remember that Captain Jack also had a thing. Captain Jack's thing was that he had been kicked out of the time police and lost his memory. We never found out the solution to this thing. But then he got a new thing. His new thing was being immortal. The solution to that thing was that he was immortal because he had been made immortal by an immortal-making-you-thing. Amy's thing was that she had a crack in wall. I don't think we ever heard the solution to that one, either. Clara's thing is that the Doctor keeps meeting people who look like her and have similar names. He wants very badly to find out why. It isn't quite clear whether this is a cosmic thing, because he thinks that she's important to the universe, or a personal thing, because he feels bad for not saving souffle lady and is looking for a stand-in. The solution will be plucked out of the air in the final episode of the season. That solution will be the plot of the big fiftieth anniversary story. There is no point in trying to guess it because it will be made up on the spot.

As well as a thing, Clara has a personality. Clara's personality is that she wants to see the universe but also feels that she has responsibilities on earth. This was also Amy's personality. She is spunky and wise-cracky and can do one-liners and stand up to the Doctor and give him silly nick names. This was also also Amy's personality. Clara has a book called 101 Things To See. I have a horrible terrible feeling that the solution to the book will be that a malicious fairy put a curse on it so that she cannot die before she sees all the things in her book, so the Doctor, by showing her the universe, is actually killing her, but that's okay because better is one day in the TARDIS than a thousand years elsewhere. 

In the olden days, when the companion was basically a confident for the Doctor, this would not have been that big a deal. There was the one who asked the Doctor questions and said "groovy" a lot, and the one who asked the Doctor questions and went on and on about women's lib, and the one who asked the Doctor questions and stabbed people. Now the programme is a proper serious human drama about the relationship between two equally important characters it would help if you could tell the difference between this season's supporting cast and next season's supporting cast. (Sorry,   between the first half of this season and the second half of this season.) Or maybe the format is now about the Doctor and the wisecracking spunky girl and we are intended to forget that Clara is not Amy in the same way that we were meant to forget that the second lady policemen in Juliet Bravo wasn't technically the same person as the first lady policemen in Juliet Bravo. 


The Doctor last visited Akhaten with his grand-daughter. The aliens call their soul sucking alien god-planet "Grandfather". Just saying.

[*] Some people don't think that there is anything which makes you "you" and pretend that when anyone says "soul" they always really mean "glowy ghosty thing that lives invisibly in you brain" even when they don't