The Rings of Akhaten
The Doctor: Okay, then. That’s what I’ll do. I’ll tell you a story.
Production Code: 3.7.
Doctor Who Season: S33 (Ep7).
Story Number: 233.
A new sort of Doctor Who…
There have been other Doctor Who stories in which music and singing have been an integral part of the story – think A Christmas Carol, which included a sequence to close the story that was an opportunity for the guest star to shine, or Love & Monsters – but none in which the music has been so woven into the fabric of the story, and used to tell the story, to build the emotion so strongly.
Another way this could be said to be a new sort of Doctor Who is the completely alien atmosphere of the tale – other stories such as The End of the World have featured a parade of aliens, but there was the anchor of the Earth, its pop music, Cassandra a satire of current trends.
The alien atmosphere was partly built by how the story was told – we simply did not know what was going on, as the story began. Contrast this to the previous week’s The Bells of Saint John – what that episode has is the tone of an urban action movie, with some spooky goings-on, a celebration of London: it begins with a sequence to get the audience up to speed with the plot.
This was “lean-in television” as the audience couldn’t be half-watching and still fully understand. The slow accretion of understanding, it was actually reminiscent of a much longer Science Fiction tale, Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun. In that there is a “shadow story” of what is actually going on that the audience must attend to carefully – it’s part of the atmosphere.
The actual what of the “what was going on” in this Doctor Who story, an every-thousand-years Festival of Offerings that is part of the keep-god-asleep tradition of millions of years of the “Long Song”, in which small mementos – and one central thing – are sacrificed to the slumbering god that eats them, the actual horror of it: the central sacrifice is the Queen, a person as offering, and there have been thousands, it’s suggested – then perhaps it’s just as well this wasn’t to the forefront of the story.
Stories of almost never-ending human sacrifice were deemed an acceptable part of Saturday teatime entertainment in the Sixties – The Aztecs – though the whole story this time is understood by carefully listening and thinking. Unlike the Sixties we don’t see any moment of the traditional sacrifice of the person.
The Book of the New Sun has it roots in the same Science Fiction traditions that this Doctor Who story has – the genres of “Sword and Planet” (swashbucklers, sorcerers, monks transplanted onto an alien world) and “Planetary Romance” (the nature of the alien planet is the crux of the story) – though those genres could be said to precede Science Fiction proper, existing as they did in the pulps of the early 20th Century.
This long tradition would also encompass Flash Gordon and Dune, and its the 1980s film versions of these that would seem to have the strongest influence on the look of this story, the production design of which is superb. (This scale of ambition for depicting a Doctor Who star-system has only previously been seen in the pages of The Tides of Time.) The space-moped sequences are very Flash Gordon, (and why use a motorbike rather than the TARDIS question cleverly explained by last week). David Lynch’s Dune (the film of Frank Herbert’s book) has perhaps the most influence – the sonic swashbuckling between the Doctor and the Vigil seeming like a version of the Weirding Module, and each culture (of that film, and this story) has its own “church” which plays a guiding role.
For “the Spice” think instead the centrality of mementos – saturated with stories and soul.
There are actually two different long musical sequences – that of the end of the “Long Song”; the “Wake Up” song which Merry intends to sustain the Doctor in his battle with the planet. The earlier sequence is transformed, almost, into opera by the performance of the Chorister – his expressions and singing style conveying the tension of the story.
As Merry – and the crowd – sing to help the Doctor, then Clara, throughout their speeches, that the music is part of the story makes it all even more emotional, and there are two magnificent performances from the two leads. The whole story is building to this sequence, and it’s why this is now one of the greatest Doctor Who stories.
“Souls made of stories” – the Doctor is pouring out his soul to the god-planet, hoping the entire story of Doctor Who – 50 years! – is too much for even its appetite.
The leaf that began the story resolves the story. The leaf is a story. As the flashbacks just before her leaping on the space-moped to save the Doctor show, Clara is inspired by both her mother and the Doctor (“We don’t walk away”) and the story of the Doctor Who companion continues.
Footnotes (and links)