Saturday, April 06, 2013

The Rings Of Akhaten: A Leaf In A Forest

'No, we don't walk away. But, when we're holding onto something precious, we run. We run and run as fast as we can and we don't stop running until we're out from under the shadow.'

It's possibly not the greatest of coincidences that the previous episode of Doctor Who which most reminds one of this week's story, The Rings Of Akhaten, is The Beast Below. Actually, come to that, throw The End of the World into much the same category as well. All three are episodes which feature the first TARDIS trip for a new companion. All of them are set on strange, futuristic worlds. (Or, space stations that look a bit like strange, futuristic worlds. Or, just space stations in the case of the latter.) All have got the character of a queen in them of one sort of another. All three are rather old-fashioned, 'classic series'-style Doctor Who adventures set amid alien landscapes and featuring a plethora of non-human creatures and at least a bit of running up and down corridors. All are rather grandiloquent, sweeping and broadly stylish SF tales which take The Doctor and his new friend away from all this silly Earthbound drudgery and the coldest March in living memory and off into the sexy corners of the imagination. Far away from triple-dip recessions and council tax rises. A lifetime away from yer actual George Osborne and Iain Duncan-Smith his very self and the intricacies of the bedroom tax. And from Ed Milimolimandi, David Milimolimandi, Paulo Di Canio and Benito Mussolini. A, literal, universe distance run from North Korean nuclear aggression, horsemeat scandals, climate change doomsday scenarios and the sour-taste rhetoric of some louse of no importance in the Daily Scum Mail. And, if only for forty five minutes, the viewer is transported there with The Doctor and his companion. Second episodes have become, of late, in short a series of escapist fantasies which follow a threat to modern day Earth. An effective antidote to reality. The bespoke beef stroganoff which gets served after the big plate of fish and chips.
'You like to think you're a God. You're not a God, you're just a parasite, eating out on jealousy and envy and longing for the lives of others. You feed on them, on the memory of the love and loss and birth and death and joy and sorrow. So ... Come on, then. Take mine.' The plot of this one is somewhat Malcolm Hulke-esque, the sort of thing that wouldn't have been out of a place in a mid-period Jon Pertwee or Tom Baker series. Writer Neil Cross - the creator of the excellent Luther and a major scriptwriter on the equally excellent [spooks] - was (and still is, we presume) a long-term Doctor Who fan, but had never had the time to write a story for the show. Executive producer Caroline Skinner, who knew Neil well, offered to work his schedule around the writing of an episode. The Lord Thy God Steven Moffat (Thou Shalt Worship No Other Gods Before He) was also a fan of Cross's scripts and, in the event, Cross was able to write not just this episode, but also the forthcoming, and much anticipated, Hide too. The concept behind having the episode based around an alien planet allegedly occurred to Moffat, Skinner, and producer Marcus Wilson when realising that they had done two big location pieces in the first half of series seven with A Town Called Mercy and The Angels Take Manhattan, but had none for the second half. They decided to do a story according to Moffat set in 'a world created in our studios to make you really feel you're out there', rather than having The Doctor promise unearthly wonders to his companions, and then see them 'trapped in an underground tunnel.' Jenna-Louise Coleman quickly named the present episode as one of her favourites, particularly as it was the first adventure for Clara which allowed the audience to watch the story '[begin] again.'
'It's really big.' 'I've seen bigger!' What we have, in The Rings of Akhaten is a cunning variant on one of Doctor Who's great format staples, 'base under siege' writ large. Writ so large, in fact, that it's a bit like someone scrawling 'Hello Sweetie' all over a diamond cliff-face on Planet One. But first, there's a short detour, a whistle-stop ride through 'not-possible' Clara's early life and a precise little essay on causality in an abstract universe in which leaves threaten to become this series' leitmotif. Plus we get, as far as this blogger is aware, the first ever use of the word 'refulgent' in the history of Doctor Who. All that in the pre-title sequence, plus a mystery, a death and - conceptual - rebirth. Not bad for the first three minutes of an episode. What follows is an interesting, if not always entirely successful, mixture of elements. There's Alice in Wonderland riffs, continuity references for the fans (The Doctor's first, direct, acknowledgement that he has a granddaughter since, I think, 1983) and a - really rather cool - 'vampire mummy' (which, despite what you might have read in the Daily Scum Mail, had nothing whatsoever to do with Pyramids of Mars). There's a child in peril, a few caustic observations on religious sects, albeit this time tempered with a, for The Doctor, oddly charming laissez-faire attitude ('it's a good story'). And some singing. Lots of signing, actually. A thing of many parts, then. Not all of them successful, but most of them quite good in their own way.

'What I would like to see is ... something awesome.' So, Clara's first trip in the TARDIS proper is to the Akhaten equivalent of Pancake Tuesday. Sort of. It's a place of wondrous sights, woofing space moped-hire creatures, scared little girls ('everyone's scared when they're little') and things that go wibble, apparently. It's a kind of extended Star Wars Cantina scene that goes on a shade too long even though it includes lots of lovely little moments and some terrific dialogue. 'I've never been anywhere like here before.' And, it includes, in The Doctor's 'elements' conversation with Merry, The Queen of Things, one of the finest thirty seconds of writing the show has done in years. Possibly decades. 'Do you mind if I tell you a story? One you might not have heard. All the elements in your body were forged many, many millions of years ago in the heart of a faraway star that exploded and died. That explosion scattered those elements across the desolations of deep space. After so, so many millions of years these elements came together to form new stars and new planets. And on and on it went. The elements came together and burst apart forming shoes and ship and ceiling wax and cabbages and kings. Until, eventually, they came together to make you. You are unique in the universe. There is only one Merry Gallell. And there will never be another.' Gosh. Tasty. Cross, a really good writer on intense character-based drama, proves himself to be a more than decent addition to the Doctor Who writing team. He manages to pull off a perfectly formed episode core - even if the structre around it is a bit haphazard - with a meaty (and soulful) central concept that even has room for a witty critique of religion running through it, but never overwhelming it. Yet Neil's script is unafraid to play at the viewer's heartstrings when it's necessary; Clara's final saving of the situation (and The Doctor), sacrificing all of her mother's 'days that never were' has echoes of The Doctor's emotional farewell to Little Amy in The Big Bang. Meanwhile, another of The Doctor's extraordinary soliloquies - about the terrible things he's seen and done which preceded Clara's intervention - was, likewise, the thing of genuine beauty. 'Take my memories. I hope you've got a good appetite.'

'Did you just lock us in with the soul-eating monster?' The episode is a dialogue-lover's dream. Genuinely. 'Ooo, that is interesting, a frequency-modulated acoustic lock. The key changes ten million, zillion squillion times a second.' 'Can you open it?' 'Technically, no. In reality, also no. Still, let's give it a stab.' And: 'I walked away from the last great time war. I marked the passing of the Time Lords. I saw the birth of the universe and I watched a time ran out. Moment by moment until nothing remained. No time. No space. Just me. I walked in universes where the laws of physics were devised by the mind of a mad man. I've watched universes freeze and creations burn. I have seen things you wouldn't believe. I have lost things you will never understand. And I know things, secrets, that must never be told. Knowledge that must never be spoken. Knowledge that will make parasite Gods blaze. So come on, take it all!' And: 'I say leg it.' 'To where?' 'The Lake District?' And: 'You're going to fight it, aren't you?' 'Regrettably, yes, I may be about to do that.' 'It's really big.' 'I've seen bigger!' 'Really?' 'Are you joking, it's massive!' And: 'It's full of stories, full of history. And full of a future that never got lived. Days that should have been but never were, passed on to me. This leaf isn't just the past, it's a whole future that never happened. There are millions and billions of unlived days for every day we live, an infinity. All the days that never came.' And much, much more in the same vein. If there's one thing this episode has in abundance, it's great dialogue. So, The Rings Of Akhaten in summary, then. An intriguing, lyrical, poetic new voice is added to the Doctor Who canon. An intriguing back story is added to the series' lore and there are answers still waiting to be given. Not perfect. Not even close. The structure's a bit all over the place and it all could've done with a bit of tweaking and a bit less singing. But, if only for its wonderful prose, this is an episode which is going to become a mini fan-favourite for today's eight year olds in years to come in the way that, say, The Ark In Space has for those of a certain age before cynicism and malcontentment took over. Of that, this blogger is certain. Fairly certain. Okay, not certain. But, it might be. 'The song is over.'
The BBC has denied tabloid reports that Christopher Eccleston has 'pulled out' of the fiftieth anniversary episode. That bastion of truth and accurate reportage Daily Lies claimed that Eccleston - who played The Doctor in 2005 - had 'agreed' to appeared in the special but pulled out as filming was about to start. Presumably, they got this gem from the same alleged 'source' who allegedly told them in 2003 that alleged Holly Valance was 'in discussions' to take over from alleged Sarah Michelle Gellar in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Allegedly. Or, perhaps it was the same alleged 'source' who allegedly told them in 2010 that Lady Gaga would be soon appearing in Doctor Who based on a throwaway line about Big Finish CDs from Gareth Roberts and including a series of entirely made-up quotes from an alleged 'BBC insider'. Or, possibly, it was the same alleged 'source' who allegedly told them, also in 2010, that Eric Cantona was being 'lined-up' for a role on the show. If the Daily Lies claimed that Doctor Who was a TV series made by the BBC, this blogger would be seeking a second opinion before he believed them. However, the BBC has suggested that Big Eccleston his very self was never 'attached' to the fiftieth anniversary story and that his decision has had no impact on production. 'Chris met with Steven Moffat a couple of times to talk about Steven's plans for the Doctor Who fiftieth anniversary episode,' an allegedly official - yet still, seemingly, anonymous and, therefore, almost certainly fictitious - 'source' allegedly said. 'After careful thought, Chris decided not to be in the episode. He wishes the team all the best.' Of course, that won't stop the whinging from a bunch of The Special People on Gallifrey Base and elsewhere with a curious malcontent sense of sickening entitlement. Because, there's a 'y' in the day, basically.

BBC1 came out on top in the primetime ratings on Thursday evening, with MasterChef rising from Wednesday night's figure to five million punters at 8pm. Prisoners' Wives came to an end with a slight increase from the previous week, attracting an overnight figure of 3.97m at 9pm. BBC2's Horizon special about a Minority Report-style crime prediction system was watched by 1.09m at 9pm. Channel Four's latest episode of Secret Eaters brought in 1.46m at 8pm. The raunchy documentary Dogging Tales attracted 1.60m at 10pm. Dragons' Den star Hilary Devey's new show The Intern launched to a relatively piss-poor 1.11m at 9pm. Meanwhile, Jodie Marsh's latest documentary, Bullied, had an audience of four hundred and seventy one thousand punters at 10pm on Channel Five. Elsewhere, BBC4's new Andrew Graham-Dixon series, High Art of the Low Countries, began its three-part run on BBC4 with six hundred and twenty three thousand viewers, up twenty two per cent on the slot average.

TV comedy line of the week was a moment of pure satirical brilliance from Ian Hislop during the opening episode of the new series of Have I Got News For You. In relation to the recent raft of benefit changes, yer man Hizza noted: 'There's the supposed bedroom tax, that's quite interesting. The main thrust of [the benefit changes] is "we're all in it together. Except the people who aren't. They're not in it. They're not even in the spare bedroom!" It's very difficult for a Tory comprised of very rich people to deliver a punitive welfare budget. People think "it's all right for you." And, when you go to Morrisons and put on a fake accent ...' And there, he left it dangling, like a sock in the wind. Quoting odious, risible arrogant posh-boy slaphead Iain Duncan-Smith, guest-host Stephen Mangan noted that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions had claimed: 'I've worked hard all my life and nobody has given me a damned penny.' Mangan then added: '... Although he has been given the rent-free use of a large Sixteenth Century farmhouse on the ancestral estate of his father-in-law, the fifth Baron of Cottesloe. So, it hasn't been entirely a struggle.' 'Brought up on an estate,' added Hislop with perfect comedy timing. One of the other highlights of the episode actually, came from a member of the audience during a section on the new definitions for class revealed earlier in the week. When Mangan asked the audience if there was anyone out there who represented the traditional working class, a lone voice said 'rah-ther' in a very posh accent which got one of the biggest laughs all night. There is nothing wrong with British democracy whilst Have I Got News For You still exists. And, the round on 'Sunderland's new right-winger' Paulo Di Canio was pretty impressive too. 'For Newcastle fans, Christmas has come early,' noted Paul Merton with astounding accuracy. '[Sunderland have] shot themselves in the foot. Or, is it hung themselves from a lamp post?' Brilliant.
There was a surprise - but welcome - climax to the fourth quarter final of MasterChef on Friday evening as three of the four contestants (Dave the copper, Larkin the lawyer and Shivi the singer) were all put through. This blogger was impressed with all three who are clearly well-talented. But he is, especially, taken with young Larkin who, after presenting a couple of dishes of genuine beauty in the previous episode, decided to try and wow three former MasterChef winners (the good ones, an'all - James, Thomasina and Tim the Mad Professor) as well as Gregg and John with what was, essentially, duck curry, rice and chips! And he pulled it off. Yer actual Keith Telly Topping wants this chap cooking for him. Gregg and John seem to see him as something of a raw talent waiting to be polished. Sod the polishing if he can do curry, rice and chips and get away with it he's the finished article as far and this blogger is concerned.
And, finally ...