I miss “Episode Three”s.
In many ways this was exactly the sort of thing that the Doctor should be doing: travelling to exotic places to see astounding events.
And this was visually stunning, a triumph for the visual and physical effects people: from the first reveal of Akhaten to that really terrific “alien bazaar”, from the golden pyramid to the giant space pumpkin, it delivered on Clara’s request for something awesome. For thirty/thirty-five minutes the episode builds, mood darkening and tension growing, as events spiral out of control. And then, as happened last week, it falls off a cliff, resolving itself far too quickly (and with yet another variant of “love conquers all”), defeated by the forty-five minute movie-of-the-week format once again.
What I missed was the “episode three” bit where the mummy chases them up and down corridors in the pyramid for a while.
That’s not just padding; it’s breathing space so that your plot developments don’t collide, so that your viewers have time to take in the exposition.
It’s the era of montage. After last week’s remix of “The Idiot’s Lantern” by way of “Partners in Crime”, this week we were doing “The End of the World” meets “The Beast Below” with a touch of “The Satan Pit” at the end (and just a soupçon of “Pyramids of Mars”). It’s not like the original series never reworked an old plot (notoriously, “The Cave of Androzani” is “The Power of Kroll” done right) but twice in a fortnight – “zat is most embarrazzing” – suggests a dimming of the creative juices somewhere, which is a shame as this is only the second outing for Luther-scribe Neil Cross (his first is the yet-to-be-screened “Hide”).
(And on the same day that Ben Aaronovitch plumped for Luther himself, Idris Elba, as the Doctor and rowed with Terrance Dicks about it at their mutual books-relaunch, too.)
Ben Aaronovitch and Idris Elbaphant
The plot hangs around two fairly catastrophic misconceptions: Clara’s failure to realise what the young Queen of Years Merry’s role will entail – “don’t put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington,” Alex wanted to cry; the Doctor’s mistaken belief that the mummy in the pyramid and the old god everyone’s worried about are one and the same. Neither of these are well delivered, and would be so easy to fix.
After all her fears about getting her song wrong, it is far from clear that being snatched into space in order to get eaten is what happens to Merry because she got her song right. What fails to sell this is the lack of reaction from the crowd.
With all the aliens looking superior to… well frankly Lucasfilm’s efforts, never mind Russell’s on Platform One… it’s easy to overlook that they lacked interaction: excepting Doreen (and why were her barks not translated by the TARDIS?), this was a dumb show. The singing, at least initially, was entirely in keeping with the weird/fantastical vibe, but when Merry is taken, there are neither cheers nor alarm, so we are without cues to whether this is supposed to happen or a break with tradition. When Clara leaps up to try and save the little girl, no one helps, but no one tries to stop her either.
If only someone had done the Tlotoxl thing of warning her not to interfere with the sacrifice, we would have been much clearer that Clara – and then the Doctor – were interfering, not trying to save a situation that had gone awry.
This in turn has knock on effects. The song of a million years coming to an end ought to have been a much bigger deal. The Doctor should have deeply regretted the loss of another of the seven hundred wonders of the universe. Or made the point that it was about time, if the song requires the repeated sacrifice of girls. Instead it’s all a bit ho-hum that’s over.
(And while we’re at it, if the lullaby is so important to you, wouldn’t you have more than one chorister on hand? Just in case one gets a frog in his throat or a touch of stage fright?)
Next, the Vigil turn up, another great piece of design, nicely creepy, but totally wasted. They’ve not been given the chance to build up their sinister presence – they didn’t really do anything in Clara and Merry’s game of hide and seek at the start and now they just stand there and face off against the Doctor and his sonic lightsabre. Er.
At least Russell knew to throw in the odd death to keep raising the tension (and here, aside from the planet-god itself, once again nobody dies). An increased role for the Vigil, having them as the religious police of this society, giving them the “don’t interfere with the sacrifice” line, having them kill someone for a transgression, all this would have strengthened them and unified the episode.
Then there’s the way the mummy smashes its way out of the glass case only to collapse. Surely this should be played as a huge dramatic anti-climax; we’re expecting the big fight and we’re wrong-footed. (If you’re already quoting “Indiana Jones” in the way that the Doctor rescues his sonic from the falling pyramid door, then you must be familiar with the way Indy just shoots that big scimitar-wielding fellow.) But the director doesn’t seem to bother. It’s just cut the strings and have the Doctor go “oops, no the threat is somewhere else”. Now my preference, as above, would have been for the mummy to pursue them into the pyramid, the Doctor do something very clever and/or drop another door on it, only to realise that he’s actually released the soul of the planet and made everything so very much worse. But failing that, at least a heavy beat where everyone freezes and goes “huh?” as the mummy carks it.
And then the resolution. The Doctor’s big speech appears to have divided opinion. A wonderful example of those “big” Doctor Who moments from “some corners of the universe” to “he burns in the centre of time”. Or a five-minute soliloquy for Matt Smith to prove he can “do a David Tennant”? (And hadn’t we all had enough of La Tennant wallowing in the acting by the end?)
Or did Neil just leave them a five minute gap in the script and Moffat said “oh, Murray and Matt can just busk it”…
I would have minded less if it had been clear that the Doctor was going to kill Akhaten at the expense of killing himself. Yes, that’s been done before but at least it’s in character. Having the Doctor’s sacrifice not be enough – but Clara’s does it because she’s oh so special – just undermines the character. Because you’re saying the loss of Gallifrey and everyone he’s ever loved is outweighed by Clara’s merely human grief for her mum. I know how much that grief weighs and I don’t believe this.
(And of course the planet should have imploded under the Doctor’s grief, but exploded under the infinity of Clara’s lost hopes.)
The bigger flaw, as in “The Satan Pit” from which the ending borrowed, is that Akhaten doesn’t get any lines. You’ve set up an epic confrontation there, between gods, between grandfathers, and you kind of miss it by just having the Doctor emote at it for a bit.
There are so many unanswered questions here: why do the people call this god grandfather? Was the (lovely) reference to the Doctor visiting with Susan significant? Or just a suggestion that the Doctor also gets through a lot of young girls? Is there any truth to the story that all life originated here? Who imprisoned the god in the first place? Are the rings actually the bars on Akhaten’s prison? This federation that seems to have brought together so many diverse alien races seems like a good thing, was that just a – “Genesis of the Daleks”-like – fear of a bigger bad? Or was Akhaten a god that did good as well as the eating little girls bad? Giving the planet-god voice would have helped add shading to these questions. (The simplest touch might have been to show Akhaten giving life to the Vigil – or turning a humanoid into one, depending on preference.)
There’s been a certain amount of grumbling about “Dawkins-esque” religion-as-parasite bashing. There may be a taste of that, but more because fake gods are a part of Doctor Who’s DNA than out of any atheist agenda inspired by Mr Lalla Ward. Nevertheless, giving Akhaten a voice would – ironically – help distance the show from that. It’s easier to believe a god is a phoney if they can talk to you like any other conman.
Built around all this (almost literally, as it’s mostly in the pre-titles and at the end of the story) we have the more Moffat-y parts of the story – which at least fold into the main plot reasonably, by use of the loss and hope motif. Clara’s mum passed away in March 2005, so just before Doctor Who returned (though I think it was March 5th rather than 26th, the actual broadcast date of “Rose”) in keeping with the metatextual referencing that keeps going on. And we meet her dad who seems much nicer than the man who went on at length about the government (apparently) in “The Bells of St John”. We do have the rather odd point that if the Doctor is now retroactively inserting himself into Clara’s earlier life, is he changing her memories – e.g. she now remembers that he was there at her mother’s funeral. Equally, there’s some mystery as to whether the TARDIS likes Clara – why does she expect to be able to get in? Surely the Doctor has just – entirely sensibly – locked the doors. You can’t just have any old alien wandering in. But it seems to be played more significantly than that. That would seem to suggest that it’s not, as I had previously suspected, the TARDIS who is responsible for Clara’s “perfect companion” status, which in turn makes things more sinister.
(Nice that Clara’s nanny/governess/child-minder status was played into her instant rapport with the child Merry.)
By rights, this should have been a magnificent success. It certainly has so much going for it visually and imaginatively. Where it doesn’t work are again down to pace, structure, editing and a reliance on the crutch of artificial emotion instead of a proper ending. If anything, it shows once again, as if it were in doubt, what a genius Russell Davies is, because when he takes these elements he somehow alchemically makes them work. So far Neil Cross – nor yet Steven Moffat – is no Russell Davies. And that might just be the problem if you’re going to try and recreate a Russell story.
Next Time… Cold Warriors meet really cold warriors, and never mind base under siege, we’ve got a submarine. Under water! With Game of Thrones’ worthy ex-smuggler Ser Davos Seaworth in command, no less. Mark Gatiss pitches us into a “Cold War”.