Dear Steven Moffat: The Rings of Akhaten

the-rings-of-akhaten

Dear Steven,

Though I’ve never written an episode of Doctor Who, unless you count the rejected scripts for The Passive Aggressive-o-tron, The Steep Incline at Aswad, Who Killed Rose Tyler’s Brood?, The Buttered Undercarriage of Trevor Nunn and Terror at Two Thirty, were I to compose a guide for new writers my introduction would tell them to avoid sentimentality and pathos, in fact any one of the four musketeers.

I say avoid them, perhaps better advice would be to think carefully about trying to manufacture the same. For me all TV works best when scribes concentrate on telling the best story they can. With luck their efforts will induce the kind of feelings I’ve alluded to in a way that will fool the audience into thinking these are their own emotions, not the end result of a grand act of manipulation. When the writer’s efforts to pour these emotions into us feel similar to a man having booze poured down his neck by two hired thugs who later plan to place him, unconscious, in the driver’s seat of his car and push said vehicle over a cliff in an attempt to make it look like an inebriate’s folly, we know the story’s failed to connect. At the risk of sounding like an Akhater, this was the fate of Neil Cross’s episode.

Before we turn the corpse over and start drilling down to the spine, let’s get all the obvious jokes out of the way. Who stole the Star Wars sound effects library? Is anyone in Cardiff expecting a writ from Disney? Why doesn’t the TARDIS like Clara, isn’t she into girls like the rest of us? If a sonic doorstop needs a man to stand under it, what good is it really? Songs don’t open doors, Steven, if they did the winner from last year’s The Voice would be on this season’s judging panel instead of Danny from The Script. Assuming the line about fleeing to the Lake District was a piece of aural misdirection aimed at the listening planet-sized soul vampire, would that be the gambit known as Steve Coogan’s bluff? A Vuldarian Horse walks into a Space Bar. The cursor shifts to the right.

Okay, now we’ve worked our way through that crap, let’s talk about what happened in this episode. The Doctor, who continues to act like the worst kind of stalker there is – namely one with a time machine, spied on the circumstances of Clara’s conception, trying to find out more about her origins. We infer he was standing at the end of the bed at the right moment, though this scene was clearly cut for time. Consequently the episode begins in what we’re instantly alerted to as THE EIGHTIES, on account of a time stamped Beano annual and The Specials; apparently the two cultural artefacts most likely to connect a modern audience with the year 1981. I suppose 3 million unemployed would have been hard to show.

Clara’s Dad, an idiot, is hit in the face by a leaf and saved from an oncoming death wagon by Clara’s mother, who finds the circumstances of their interface endearing, rather than evidence that the man so nearly squished was a cockend, as most of us would. So romance blooms, with this drippy klutz giving his fresh-faced love a lot of bullshit about pre-destiny, symbolised, we’re told, in the autumnal leaf that was blown into his puss. Said tree refugee becomes “the most important leaf in human history”, though it isn’t clear it’s had much competition, so later, when Clara gives up this family heirloom to the God of Akhaten, we’re inclined to feel a tug on the left ventricle. Yet we don’t. Why? Because its horsemeat, Steven: tear gas for tits.

I don’t think Neil Cross believed that a dead mother and family valuable backstory would work unless he showed it, but this was a mistake. Watching the mawkish scene play out only made me hate the device all the more. How much better, thought I, would the same ruse have been if Clara had spent a moment talking about her parents with solemn contemplation, perhaps to the diminutive Queen of Years, also down a few family members. It would have given the new companion a scene, Steven; a chance to show she was more than an excited face. With her character deepened and the parents imagined, the audience free to project onto them any precious relative they’d lost, the payoff would have been many times more powerful. As it was, we were left to get choked up about the centrepiece of the Canadian flag, having been told what to feel instead of having the opportunity to enjoy those feelings of our own accord. Why don’t your writers trust us, Steven? Do they think we’re dead inside – that we need to deep throat the sentiment? Is there any possibility of Clara deep throating some sentiment in a future episode?

If that part of the story failed to onion the eyes, The Doctor and Clara’s closing speeches to the Lord Planetoid, conceived as moments of high drama and poignancy, bombed. It didn’t help that both, though the Doc’s in particular, sounded like flabby versions of Rutger Hauer’s sign off in Blade Runner. That scene was famously filleted by the head replicant and replaced with a few succinct lines of moving, poetic dialogue. Unfortunately Mr Cross thought we’d much prefer a piece of epic grandstanding that seemed to go on forever. At one point I thought The Doctor was going to take us through his experiences season by season, starting with the moment he stole his TARDIS. It wasn’t clear to me whether the monster was weakened by the burden of all those memories or from sheer fatigue. His skull-like, computer generated face seemed to say, much as you’re saying now, “is he ever going to stop talking?” When Clara jumped in, unfolding her own piece of paper and clearing her throat, I noticed that my entire mug load of tea had evaporated.

We’ve long known that The Doctor’s grandstanding kills episodes stone dead, so why allow it? Don’t you think we suffered enough during Russell Dust’s era? Couldn’t our hero have said “Jack Harkness” and inflicted the same damage on his enemy? Two words, five minutes saved – meaning more room for Clara’s character scenes.

So what worked, you may ask? Well, the episode looked good – it ate most of the FX budget, and it was certainly awash with colour, not to mention ear-pleasing choons born of alien choristers. Oh, and I liked the cameo from Flash Gordon’s rocket cycle, but overall it, well, wasn’t subtle enough, nor long enough for us to care about any of the supporting characters. We were left to chalk up another example of a promising idea that was denied the chance to breathe having been compressed into modern Who’s 45 minute mini-movie format. Would it have worked better had it been a two parter? Would there have been a greater sense of jeopardy if The Doctor had looked genuinely threatened at any point? Damned if I know, chief, I’m just a madman with a blog.

Yours in time and cyberspace,

Ed

P.S: If I could travel back in time and give our young Queen some advice, I’d tell her to take her family abroad and stay there. Is there any chance of The Doctor doing this in a future episode?

Correction: Steven, my original letter mis-remembered the opening scene, imagining Clara’s mother to be at the wheel of the Ford Fate that nearly ran over Mr Oswald’s life-giving ovoids. I think I must have been thrown by The Doctor reading The Beano. I’ve corrected the passage, though begrudgingly, as I preferred my memory’s version of the scene. 

The Past:

The Distant Past:

Deep Time:

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7 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Your one of those people who wants everything explained to them in broad detail. You let cynicism damage the “suspension of disbelief” that is so important in Sci-fi and fantasy. If you question everything then you lose the enjoyment. Doctor Who has long used scientific principles in strange ways that don’t make logical sense but it’s so entertaining to see it done. For God’s sake, we don’t even know if time-travel is even possible yet that is the crux of the show (and no one questions that aspect).

    • I’m not sure how you made those conclusions from what I wrote but I don’t want you to explain it – I like the ambiguity. I feel if I knew what you were talking about I’d enjoy it less.

  2. YOU ARE DEAD ON!!! Keep speaking the truth or we may lose DW to the Telly Tubby writers of the world ! Yes get rid of sentimentality and let it build up to ONE 5 min end of the years series. Here’s what I wrote of the episode:”One of the worst Doctor Who’s I’ve seen in the modern era.”
    You are correct sir. I pray we do not see this writer of a Telly – Tubby grade of script. The very human teeth on the monster “under glass”. 5 secs of a set of vampire teeth would have done it as the doctor called it a vampire.
    The very childish singing in English and swaying back and forth was eye wincing. I felt like I was watching a hundred Jar Jar Binks trying their best to be annoying.
    “Indeed, the vast amounts of aliens with silly-sounding names gave more than a hint of trying too hard and did not get things off to the best of starts. ” res ipsa loquitor.
    Even the Doctors speech to the “Great Pumpkin” felt cheap.
    A craft that looked something from a vintage kiddie ride in a cheap carnival ride. Hey there’s no air in space! Remeber last weeks motorcycle running up the side of “the shard”?

    Wither scripts like Blink and the Family of Blood????
    Scripts and final directorial trash heaps like this episode embarrass us all. Didn’t any producer see this before airing it?
    Call me I’d be glad to help.

  3. Bang on Ed – both in the article and your reply above.

  4. “nearly killed by Clara’s mother” / “man she nearly squished”

    Do you always stop paying attention 30 seconds into the programmes you review?

    • Review? I think you’ll find this is private correspondance and I thank you to mind your own business.

  5. I actually really liked this episode until my wife pointed out that the monster of the week was defeated by a leaf.

    ME: “But no, see the leaf worked with the sentimentality theme, meaningful to the character while also representing the idea of the future as a powerful thing- all stuff that Doctor Who likes to play around with. That those futures didn’t come to fruition only made the gesture all the more-”

    WIFE: “No it was just a stupid leaf. She said ‘die from this leaf’ and that killed it. Plus the music was stupid.”

    Those realizations petty much ruined this episode for me.


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