Monday, February 3, 2014

Speaking For: The Rings of Akhaten

Very rarely has it been said of me that my tastes are expected, and obviously, there is never total agreement on quality. Still, in the hype leading up to the 50th anniversary of The Doctor, I was aghast to see the two part “The Impossible Planet” and “The Satan Pit” mentioned in a positive context. This culminated in a ranking of every single Doctor Who story that placed this bit of idiocy where the Doctor finds the Devil in a black hole and shouts at him at 27 of 241. Twenty-fucking-seven! He meets Satan! Twenty-fucking-seven! According to the list-makers, that was firmly among what were dubbed “Classics,” and above…well, just about every story I’ve seen, except for the girl who draws squiggles and the one with the ass monster—admittedly, it does introduce the Ood and does very little with them. Still, I can’t exactly judge—I really like “The Rings of Akhaten.”

“The Rings of Akhaten” is the second episode of the latter half of the split Series 7 of the revived show. While that infamous list ranked it at 147, the lower end of Decent, it’s not highly regarded by the fandom at large. And certainly, I don’t dispute many of the criticisms against it—the story is a little fuzzy and shuffles a bit too much, some of the effects are a bit sketchy (though, come on, really?), and the resolution is really touchy-feely—but at the same time, much of “Rings” has the qualities I consider quintessential to Doctor Who.

            The story: the Doctor takes Clara to the eponymous Rings, where the locals believe all life in the universe originates, to witness the Festival of Offerings, a religious celebration with singing and sacrificing objects of sentimental value, which the gathered people believe will keep a god asleep. After a visit to an interstellar marketplace where Clara fulfills her companion duties by getting into some light trouble with Merry, the little girl who is supposed to do the singing, major trouble arrives when it’s discovered the sleeping god is a malevolent memory-consuming alien parasite that will either devour Merry or rampage across the universe until it’s sated. Unwilling to allow either to transpire, the Doctor tries to fill the parasite with his own vast memories, but when they are not enough, it’s then up to Clara to fulfill her companion duties again by saving the day.
              The inciting action of “Rings” is quite simple—the Doctor asks what Clara would like to see, and the scope of what she’s being offered overwhelms her, so she says she wants to see “Something awesome.” And the sight he takes her to, overlooking a golden pyramid orbiting a fiery, alien planet, fits the bill pretty well. Themes of exploration and wonder are widespread in the science fiction genre, or at least they’re supposed to be. In the TV world, though, rare is the show that openly and flagrantly seeks to engage these ideas and themes, particularly in an outer space setting. It’s rare for sci-fi TV to go to space at all these days, most of them remain distressingly earth-bound. Even the most notable spacey shows of recent memory (specifically, Battlestar Galactica and Firefly) haven’t been particularly interested in the wonder and awe the genre offers (or, when I’m in a very generous mood, engage them poorly). But for its part, wonder, awe, exploration, and travel are the bread, butter, and jam of Doctor Who. “All of time and space. Everything that ever happened or ever will. Any where you want, any time you want, one condition, it has to be amazing,” is how the 11th Doctor put it to a previous companion, but the mission statement has been baked into the show from the beginning, when the 1st Doctor rather poetically posed to a skeptical companion “If you could touch the alien sand and hear the cries of strange birds, and watch them wheel in another sky, would that satisfy you?” Quite transparently, the show is for those who look into the night sky and ask what might be up there, and early on in “Rings,” when the Doctor tells Clara the light on her face is from “an alien sun,” the episode strongly aligns itself with that tradition (and, I have to think, deliberately invokes that earlier line).
            But exploring and travel mean more than seeing amazing things, and notably the Doctor didn’t just bring Clara out to see a pyramid in space, or a marketplace full of aliens—it’s awesome, but he apparently doesn’t think just those sights alone will really fit the bill. He’s brought her, specifically, to witness a religious observance, giving her the chance to engage with and observe another culture largely unnoticed and unremarked upon, to wander about and discover how these new people are different than her, and how she is very much like them, which something few, if any shows I can think of, could do as effortlessly as “Rings” does. And to boot, there is a lot of great alien design, prosthetics, and makeup work on display, which in the age of modern sci-fi miserable-ism, is practically a lost art.
            As is its wont, the memory-supping alien parasite rears its ugly head, and along with it, another favorite theme, which I’m going to vaguely call “personal significance.” Perhaps the most famous Who writer was Douglas Adams, who eventually dreamed up the ultimate torture, the Total Perspective Vortex, which graphically showed people’s significance in relation to the totality of the universe. But the one time it saw use in an actual Hitchhiker’s novel, deployed against Zaphod Beeblebrox, it utterly failed—he learned he was, in fact, the most important person in the universe. This is not to say Adams was an adherent, but rather to illustrate how long Who has considered these matters, and also because “Rings” makes reference to the Hitchhiker’s series, when the Doctor spots one of its more absurd species in the marketplace. Anyway, what I’d mean by personal significance is the recurring theme that everyone matters by simple virtue of their existence. My favorite exchange in the episode “A Christmas Carol” has the Doctor ask a cruel future industrialist who someone is, only to be told she is no one important. “Blimey, that’s amazing!” he exclaims while barely masking his contempt. “You know, in 900 years of time and space and I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important before.” In an age that eagerly embraces the notion of “acceptable loss,” it’s really refreshing to have a hero who focuses on the second word.
            The Doctor is a bit more cornball in “Rings,” but then again, he is talking to a little girl instead of Michael Gambon, so what he says is a bit more gentle and evocative. When the Old God wakes, it’s the job of Merry, the Queen of Ages, the aforementioned little girl, to let it devour her memories and her soul to placate it. She is terrified when it starts to wake, but still willing to be eaten. However, that’s not the sort of thing the Doctor lets happen (he even gives Clara a great maxim: “We don’t walk away”), and to convince her, he tells her a story. Specifically, the story of all the elements that make up her, and the seemingly-impossible epoch-spanning journey across the cosmos they undertook that resulted in her unique being. “Getting rid of that existence isn’t a sacrifice,” he says, “it’s a waste.” It’s a lovely speech, sentiment, and scene, but it also gives us a little insight into why the Doctor is as amazed by people as he is.
            To watch Doctor Who is to accept a bit of dopiness, a bit of sappiness, and some cornballness (the speech to Merry is a pretty good example). The show can and does prioritize fancifulness, emotionality, imagination, and dream logic more than a lot of other works in the genre, and some resolutions, such as the time the entire Earth Tinkerbelled the Doctor and he became a super-powered space Jesus (The Last of the Time Lords), would make Roman DeBeers’ head explode. “Rings” definitely falls into this category of resolution—it’s very fuzzy, nakedly earnest, and critics aren’t entirely wrong in saying it relies on the Power of Love. But then, they aren’t quite right either.
            With the Old God awake, eager to feast, and the size of a planet (which leads to yet another great exchange), the Doctor figures the only way he can stop the memory-devouring monstrosity is by giving in a proper feast until it bursts. He challenges the entity to try eating his memories, nearly a millennia and a half of experiences, adventures, sights, sounds, and people, from the birth of creation to the end and beyond, but it’s not enough to sate the creature’s appetite. That’s when Clara, as companions are wont to do, has the insight that saves the day. She can beat the god with a leaf.
            Some critics really got hung up on the leaf, but, to me at least, a leaf is no more absurd a means of defeating an alien memory vampire than a sonic screwdriver, or a lightsaber, or tossing a warp core at it. Clara is a rarity among companions in that she at least got to pack a messenger bag, so she brought an important memento along with her to Akhaten—a book that belonged to her mother, with the leaf contained within. Without getting too expository, Clara’s leaf is very much like Merry’s elements. Both are symbolic of the good fortune and happenstance that led to their very lives, but as Clara offers it up to the parasite, she makes it clear to her, the leaf represents her mother. Sort of. Her mother died when Clara was 16, and thus she informs the Old God, the leaf is “a future that never happened,” and holds an endless number of possible memories she should have had, but now can’t. Unable to consume that infinitude, the parasite burns out. It’s sappy, and dopey, and absurd. I rather love it.
            Power of Love, or the strength of a loss felt by an imaginative person, that’s a hair to split or not. For me, though, the foundational sadness of Clara’s loss prevents the scene from feeling as mawkish as it might otherwise—it definitely plays better than the Tinkerbelling, even though I really like those episodes, too.
            And before I forget, “Ghost Town” by The Specials, the legendary 2 Tone second-wave ska band, whose signatures adorn my wall. Doctor Who and The Specials, together. I have to love that at least a little.
            So where, hypothetically, if I were charged with ordering a hypothetical list of my own, would I place “The Rings of Akhaten,” assuming I somehow wrangled watching all 241 stories in the first place? I’ll commit to this much—it’ll be a damn sight higher than “The Satan Pit.”
            Once Merry is safe, as the Doctor marches out to face the Old God, she asks Clara if he is afraid. “I think he’s very frightened,” Clara says. So Merry decides to help the only way she can think to, and sings. The song is entitled “The Long Song,” and it prompts the Doctor’s idea. Episodes later, the instrumental version would appear again, as a vision of Amy Pond appears to the 11th Doctor just before he regenerates into the 12th. This is not, in my view, the random selection of a pretty good piece for a moving moment. Check out the lyrics:
Rest now, my warrior.
Rest now, hardship is over.
Live. Wake up. Wake up.
And let the cloak, of life cling to your bones. 
            Rest now, and wake up? Sounds a lot like a regeneration. Frightened at the end of his life, the song comes to him again. And it seems that the Doctor has two Queens of Ages, as a reminder of long lost Amy Pond, needing the Doctor no more, ushers him to lay down his hardships and finally rest (“Raggedy Man, good night.”) while Clara Oswald, still needing the Doctor, helps his bones cling (“Please don’t change.”), and brings 12 into the world. So, at least in a small way, “The Rings of Akhaten” already has a firm place in the show’s history.

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