Doctor Who has often seemed to me to be a fantasy series with a thin veil of technobabble to describe that. It rarely has any kind of strong scientific premise that would make logical sense to a scientist. This episode is perhaps the ultimate example of that, which is possibly why it divides opinions so much. Personally I love it when Doctor Who veers towards Pratchett’s Narrative Causality (read Wyrd Sisters for the origins of this line of thought) and don’t much mind Doctor Who annoying viewers who are looking for boring scientific realism. Other opinions are available.
So I find it perfectly acceptable for an episode to show the monster being defeated by a leaf, simply because of what it represents. You could fall into the trap of agonising over how this somehow undermines Doctor Who by showing the leaf as more powerful than the Doctor’s centuries of memories, but don’t get too bogged down in that because his memories might be vast but they are finite, whereas the unlived days of Clara’s mother represent infinite possibilities.
More interesting is how Clara is actually shown to be the hero rather than the Doctor. In fact, Clara is firmly placed in the traditional Doctor role here. This works perfectly because of the mystery surrounding her, which is never more forefronted than here, with the Doctor (slightly creepily) travelling along her timeline to try to get some answers. The Doctor therefore becomes aligned to the viewers, looking for answers to the mystery of Clara, and Clara becomes the magical, powerful, enigma.
This is reinforced by some parallels the episode offers us. Clara is clearly referenced in the character of Merry, who is a victim of Grandfather (the choice of name is not insignificant). Grandfather needs songs and stories, just like the Doctor is allowing his actions to be ruled by his need to satisfy his curiosity about Clara, even if that leads him down the path of wholly inappropriate behaviour (poking his nose into her mother’s funeral, etc). Note that Susan is mentioned in the episode. That’s not an accident: it is there to remind the attentive viewer that the Doctor is a grandfather himself, and therefore to reinforce the parallel. Not only does Clara help Merry, but she also calls the Doctor out on not valuing her for who she is, when she realises he has an ulterior motive for his interest in her (although this is a confused moment because she assumes it is a rebound thing, reminding him of an ex).
Clara is established as a part-time companion which was in many ways a failed model with Amy. It works better here because there is a reason for the Doctor to keep coming back other than simply because he likes her. He wants to solve the mystery. And that’s really the only way to make the part-time companion role work, because what we know about the Doctor is incompatible with the Doctor being shown to be somebody who can be bothered to keep going back to pick up somebody for adventures. He’s not that kind of adventurer. He will simply find somebody else.
So we have obvious references with Merry and Grandfather, but where the theme starts to unravel is with the sun thingy itself, which is clearly supposed to refer to religion. In many ways this is a “religion is bad” story, but critiquing religion by saying “sacrifice is bad” is an odd way to do that, because it doesn’t connect with anything contemporary to the viewer, at least not within the Western society that will watch this. However, in line with The God Complex, it does attempt to show us both sides of the coin with positive and negative aspects of religion, although this episode doesn’t do that nearly so well.
If all this fantasy/allegory stuff isn’t your cup of tea that’s fair enough, but a lot of criticism this episode received was pretty revolting and was all tied up with fans feeling aggrieved at the time, with it looking increasingly unlikely that the approaching 50th Anniversary special episode was going to turn out to be The Eleven Doctors. The one thing that was pretty hideous was any kind of commentary that poked fun at the singing, and there was a lot of that going around.
Writer Neil Cross mentioned in an interview in DWM that he had received letters from children who had been bullied, and had been inspired by the episode, one of whom had been saved from suicide by watching the episode. The episode functions as a subtle anti-bullying parable, and shows Merry finding the courage to give a performance when her fear of failure is consuming her. Whether or not writing nasty things about the music in this episode says something about cynicism or soullessness I wouldn’t want to judge, but it certainly places the writer firmly in the position of the kind of critic who generates the fears Merry experiences in the episode. If she can be shown to conquer her fears, then perhaps we should take inspiration from that and take a better approach to evaluation and criticism, one that does not rely on the click-bait of cheap shots.
Sometimes the programmes we watch and the books we read have lessons for us. If a certain degree of narrative logic has to be abandoned to achieve the allegories, that’s not a problem. It opens our minds to different ways of telling stories. RP
The view from across the pond:
It took three attempts, but it looks like Clara Oswald is actually Clara Oswald. Only in Doctor Who could a sentence like that be said. After an ignominious 3rd start, the person we met in The Bells of St. John is still the same person we meet in The Rings of Akhaten. Great.
Except, not so great. Because she’s nowhere near as excited by what she’s seeing as a companion should be. Maybe she’s trying to play it cool, like Matt Smith’s Doctor. But it’s not a terrible problem, because she’s not overly nonchalant either. That said, Rings is a mixed bag; I love some things and really don’t like others. Things I don’t like…
- I wish the Doctor Who universe made at least a bit more sense cohesively. In other words, the Star Wars approach of planets teeming with all variety of sentients doesn’t really work. There’s got to be more races on Akhaten than there have been Doctor Who episodes. Is even one of them a known race? I just want to say “ah, there’s a Sensorite” or “was that an Ood?” Minor quibble, if not for the Doctor having to bark his dialog at one of the species which ends up sounding foolish, not funny. Then there’s…
- The Doctor saves the day by letting the star-vampire-thing feed on his memories. VICTORY… wait… no, this is the modern era of Doctor Who – the companion has to really save the day, so she comes along with a leaf representing all the possible days her mom didn’t get to have. What?? Every single adventure the Doctor had over 2000 years would have more possibilities than Clara, her mom and dad combined. We couldn’t even add up to 300 years’ worth of alternate possibilities for her family. The Doctor has 2000 years. Each adventure has possible outcomes. How did a leaf do the star-creature in, but the Doctor’s memories couldn’t? What about all the possible days the inhabitants of Akhaten wouldn’t have? Each of them had people die! Lord, the more you think about it, the less sense it makes! And that’s not good writing!
- In the scene where the Doctor is talking to the star-creature, he’s supposedly on another floating part of the planet. But it appears that Clara is hearing everything he says. He’s not shouting and there is no speaker…
- Furthermore, all the inhabitants, upon seeing the star-creature expand do exactly … nothing. Not one of them gets up to run away. Talk about Flat Affect personality disorder. On a grand scale!
Now as much as all of that bothers me, I can’t say I don’t get a little choked up over the idea of how much love Clara has for her mom and the wish that she could have had more time with her and that is what makes the victory palatable. On top of that, I utterly loved The Long Song! I don’t know if Emelia Jones (Merry) really did sing it. If she did, WOW. Kudos to that kid. (If she didn’t, that’s ok, she was still adorable.) But the song is amazing. If there’s a chance for an episode to be redeemed by one thing, this song is definitely that thing. Also, the Doctor talking about things in his past is wonderful and does pack a powerful punch. “I walked in universes where the laws of physics were devised by the mind of a mad man…”, The Mind Robber, perhaps? The Three Doctors? Universes freeze and creation burn… Inferno for the latter, not sure about the former. But the list is like a game for the fan but doesn’t play like fan service. It actually enhances the scene. The whole episode comes down to that scene for me, and I can live with that.
The mummy in the glass is ominous but ultimately forgettable. The story is a chance for Clara to get her first proper trip in the TARDIS and it gives her some back story. It is not perfect, but it does have hope, some great music and incredible visuals. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t have a lot of sense. Written by Neil Cross, it follow some of the same woolly thinking that marks many of Moffat’s later works. And that’s a bad sign.
Ultimately, I’m on the fence with this one. I like it because the music is deeply moving and the Doctor’s speech carries the music to soaring heights. I dislike it because that speech is then dashed against the rocks when it doesn’t bring about “the win” because Clara has to be established as the latest in an increasingly long line of companions who actually save the day.
Soon the show won’t have to be called Doctor Who, it can be called Companion, Why? ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Cold War