It is never a comfortable moment in Star Trek when Uhura starts vigorously strumming her space harp and crooning about the green, glowing skies or Spock’s pointy anatomical idiosyncrasies.
Neither are the noblest bits of Survivors the episodes when Greg Preston, otherwise an exemplar of post-catastrophe competence, picks up his guitar in the manner of a party-twat and actually brings the mood of a shattered planet down even further. God knows, I love Greg as played by Ian McCulloch. He is a man so manly that he is able to wrestle even male pattern baldness into submission by sheer force of will, but this guitar stuff is unacceptable.
There is a musical episode of Buffy, I gather: Once More, With Feeling. People also tell me that Xena and Fringe have done them. I’m not going to dignify this with too much research because, basically, when characters are making a musical noise in a drama with the intention of amusing me I deeply and desperately want them to stop.
These musical films: West Side Story, Singin’ In the Rain, My Fair Lady, Calamity Jane, The Sound Of Music, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I love them. They are brilliant. They are proper musicals. But see if Blake and Avon started a duet, There Is Nothing Like An Auron or something like that, in an episode of Blake’s Seven I would not consider myself to be chuffed.
It’s context dependent, I think.
And yet there is still a rumbling insistence from some quarters that Doctor Who should totally do a musical episode.
No need, say I. Because we already have an abundance of them. There’s the uneasy Abide With Me climax of Gridlock. The Christmas Carol one with the nice opera lady singer. That was one too. Then there was a spell when the musical Oods had a level of ubiquity not seen since the 1977-era Bee Gees. And now finally we have The Rings Of Akhaten in which there is a purgatorial amount of singsong to get through between the opening and closing credits.
The orchestral assault of Murray Gold was a wondrous thing in 2005. A great deal of his subsequent work has been thrilling too. I am particularly a fan of his piece I Am The Doctor which is the de facto theme for Matt Smith’s incumbency. It’s a really insistent, galvanising composition.
Enough is plenty, though. It’s been eight years, and that’s quite a high proportion of the show’s fifty-year span. Nearly a fifth of the time the show has actually been on air.
There already exists a splendid documentary about the evolution of Doctor Who soundtracks called Dance Of The Daleks. It was originally transmitted on BBC Radio 3 in 2010 and was recently reissued as part of the bonus material in the third Lost TV Episodes collection. Narrated by Matthew Sweet it takes us swiftly and educationally through the avant-garde early years, Dudley Simpson’s tenure, the unsurpassable work of the Radiophonic Workshop under Paddy Kingsland and the Art Of Noise-inflected bombast of Keff McCulloch’s incidental music. It’s fascinating.
My point is that the music of Doctor Who has always previously evolved and that doesn’t feel as if it’s happening any more. And the more keening contralto hymns I hear with the composer nudging me heavily and saying “This is the bit where you have some feels” the more arsey and non-compliant I get with the whole business.
Sentimental, manipulative music cues aside I thought there was a lot to take out The Rings Of Akhaten.
The 1981 prelude is, I think, significant. What a great year that was. One of its cultural highlights was the sui generis single Ghost Town by The Specials, though I remember it as the aggrieved instigator of, and soundtrack to, some astonishing summer rioting, rather than the melancholy Autumn scene-setter it is sequestered as here. Another 1981 milestone was the UK cinema release of Raiders Of The Lost Ark or, as the grim re-writers of history would have it Indiana Jones And The Raiders Of The Lost Ark.
Here is the touchstone. This is manifestly what show runner Steven Moffat and writer Neil Cross are aiming at. It is clear in the BBC poster art. It is clear in Clara’s mother’s maiden name of Ravenwood, in Clara’s marketplace fruit pilfering (“It’s a date. You eat ’em.”) and in the shooty-light, God-bothering climax. Ultimately, whilst hitting the character beats really well, The Rings Of Akhaten lacks Raiders’ kinetic energy and openness of place. This is nothing to do with lack of ambition and everything to do with failures of execution. In a few places the spatial aspects of the story are quite confusing. After two viewings I am still fundamentally puzzled as to how far away from things other things are, and I am surprised at the low level of cinematic literacy on display in some of the transitions. It is hard to believe director Farren Blackburn is to blame for any of this. His work on The Fades was tremendous. It looks more like borked editing.
The pre-credits montage provides a startling callback to the 2005 episode Father’s Day in which Pete Tyler is variously run over and not run over causing a diverging of different realities. I actually though it was the same car used again but, from memory, Pete Tyler was menaced by a Vauxhall Chevette whereas Dave Oswald’s vehicular nemesis appears to be a Morris Marina. Is it? Over to you, car nerds.
Speaking as someone who got his driving licence in the eighties I feel it necessary to point out that in fact we drove carefully in those days and very rarely ran over fictional characters’ dads.
There follows a series of vignettes from young Clara’s life, each featuring the Doctor observing cautiously in the background, and once in the foreground as he is clobbered on the head by a ball kicked by infant Oswald. As funny as it was to see Matt’s Kato-esque response (the Venusian Aikido skills never leave you it seems) the incident asked a question that was left unanswered: In the course of his snooping did the eleventh Doctor cross his own timeline from the Bells Of Saint John Prequel?
We at last learn why present-day Clara was first glimpsed in a graveyard, though no explanation yet as to who her friend was. The cemetery is the resting place of Clara’s mother Ellie who died, aged 44, exactly three weeks before the incidents in Rose, the first episode of the new Doctor Who era. Interesting, but not very interesting.
Jenna-Louise Coleman turns in some beautiful character acting swinging from an angsty wait on her staircase (will the Doctor show up, or not?) to full on over-excitement in the TARDIS. I loved the writing and the playing of the scene where her mind goes blank presented with the whole of time and space, and she can’t decide where she wants to go. Her subsequent querulous indignation at the Doctor’s mention of his grand-daughter (presumably, but by no means certainly, Susan) was a delight to behold too.
The Doctor, at her eventual request, takes her to see something awesome. And whilst I very much enjoyed the ambition of the Disneyland Mos Eisley souk sequence it ultimately felt quite stilted and constricted in the manner of the crowd scenes in The Long Game and several other RTD episodes. This wasn’t helped by the context-jarring appropriation of Douglas Adams’ Hooloovoo (hyper intelligent shades of the colour blue in the Hitch Hiker books), and the TARDIS’s apparent inability to be uniquely unable to translate the speech of Hawkman Rocket Cycle vendor Dor’een.
Once past the minuscule quibbles though this was a fun re-run of The Beast below. New companion averts massive tragedy by displaying a capacity for compassion and self-sacrifice. It’s hard to criticise that in these days of self-will run riot.
For the third episode running the Doctor was not marginalised in his own programme, a tendency that I was beginning to weary of. It was nice to see him get stuck in to actually trying to save the day, though his over-reliance on his sonic screwdriver was a bit pestilential. It’s like Gandalf’s staff or Harry Potter’s wand these days. The unbeatable Top Trumps weapon of mass convenience.
There was a reason the sonic screwdriver got written out of the lore in The Visitation thirty-one years ago, trodden on by a Terileptil I seem to recall. It’s too lazy a plot contrivance. There is a lovely scene in the recent audio release Babblesphere (part of the Destiny Of the Doctor series, warmly recommended) in which neither the fourth Doctor nor Romana have theirs with them, each having left them recharging in the TARDIS on the assumption that the other would have theirs with them.
The only upside to the sonic screwdriver’s inclusion in The Rings Of Akhaten is that it facilitated a bit more Indiana Jones action as the Doctor retrieved it from under a rapidly descending door.
I appreciated the story’s denouement which, despite superficial resemblances to the end of every Christmas episode of recent years, nevertheless had its own character. There is something quite powerful in the notion that the infinity of possibilities ahead of us will trump the finite reservoir of collapsed wave functions behind us. I applaud the quick resolution of the leaf’s significance too.
The relationship between Clara and the Doctor is a warmer, more adult, mutually appreciative one than we have come to expect latterly. This is a good thing. Jenna-Louise has astonishing levels of self-possession, and I continue to be in awe of Matt Smith’s interpretation of the Doctor: half Merlin, half Stan Laurel.I was especially affected by his “Cross my hearts” moment which had Pertwee levels of reassuring conviction.
The Rings Of Akhaten has some extremely vocal and articulate detractors already (The bloody Radio Times, for heaven’s sake) and I can understand why. I am not totally blind to the deficiencies of the episode but I think that the good in it far outweighs the bad. It is easy to mythologise what has gone before, but to the critics I would say this. Go and have another look at Partners In Crime, Planet Of The Ood, Midnight or Curse Of The Black Spot then have another honest look at this. Is it really that much of an affront?
I was surprised that Clara was dropped off back at home at the episode’s conclusion. “Home again, home again, jiggity jig,” says the Doctor, invoking the fairytale/Mother Goose atmosphere once more. Clara feels that something has changed, but this may just be that she has evolved. The Doctor still looks stern, concerned and confused.
I like this.
Next: Ice Warriorssssss.