Sunday, November 17, 2013

Rewatching Doctor Who

OK so I have been rewatching the later half of season 7 of Doctor Who with Clara in the lead up to the 50th Anniversary and I’ve been skipping a few episodes because they’re actually really terrible. It’s sad just how terrible a lot of things are. Even the Neil Gaiman episode was disappointing (probably because either the script or the director was under the misunderstanding just how old the kids were meant to be and thus Angie seems oddly old for her behaviour) and even worse: two whole episodes were written by Mark Gatiss! Ugh. Normally he only writes one terrible episode per season at the most.

But the thing is I have unpopular opinion  regarding the episode The Rings of Akhaten and that is that it is actually really good. People go “oh ugh it’s so stupid, they sing to appease the star and it eats a leaf and the day is saved” but that’s really just an over simplified misinterpretation. The thing is it works with pre-established canon about how magic in the Doctor Who universe works. Spells are emotional energy which are induced through words, chants, songs, etc. This is classic era stuff, back in the 3rd doctor with The Daemons or 7th doctor with the pseudo-vampires repelled by the psychic energy of faith in the cross not the actual cross itself in The Curse of Fenric. If you want a solely new-Who example of this then this is present in The Shakespeare Code. Admittedly that episode wasn't that great but the idea isn't necessarily what makes it bad, especially when in The Rings of Akhaten it is done so much better.

Then there’s the idea of eating the energy of a potential story. Clara manages to "defeat" the God-Sun, Akhaten, by over satiating it with her leaf, the leaf that led to her creation, and holds the potential of her entire life which is seemingly infinite. "Oh that's silly too!" Well we've already established that this is a completely legitimate idea within Doctor Who canon with the weeping angels. The weeping angels were an invention of Moffat back when everyone adored him and thought him amazing thanks to his creep-tastic and quite solid episodes like The Empty Child and Blink. Remember how everyone loves Blink? Yeah. A BAFTA and Hugo award went to that and no one complained that the premise of an Angel was complete nonsense.

See, this episode doesn't want to make up something new to justify itself, it already is present in an already established framework that dates back over 40 years. It actually tells you all the ways it works and explains itself all the way throughout. That by itself means the entire episode is quite solid as far as plot goes, unlike a lot of the other episodes which rapidly resolve themselves in the last few minutes through poorly explained reasons and care more about the drama of the premise than the actual logical resolution of the conflict. This episode actually takes time to introduce the conflict, make you interested, give you a protagonist to care about, a world with nuance and charm to get to know, and builds towards its climax and resolution in an actually structured and ordered way instead of BAM! Buiild build build oh wait we’re running out of time RESOLUTION SOMEHOW! Which I hate about a bunch of other recent episodes. 

It also has a stellar performance from Matt Smith whose speech against Akhaten as he encourages them to take everything is so emotionally charged. He manages to express deep emotion even when the shot shows a near silhouette from behind him, not showing any facial features at all, simply his body language alone can convey the emotions of the scene. He’s telling Akhaten to take his life. Not his physical breathing and hearts beating but the experience of life, the very essence of being, the things that make him the sentient being he is now and that’s powerful. It is one of the most dramatic and emotionally powerful speeches of that season (part 1 and 2). He's facing off with a God and combating it with the sorrows of his life.

"I 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..."

Just ooooh. Shivers. That's but a section of the speech and it is so powerful. It is summing up the darker part of the Doctor's existence: sad, destructive, shrouded in mystery, empathetic and a survivor of endless disasters. It's effectively the 11th Doctor's version of the "he's like fire and ice and rage. He's like the night and the storm in the heart of the sun" speech, delivered with all the weight and eloquence that proves why Matt Smith is playing The Doctor to begin with.

Then comes in the leaf. Now the leaf seems stupid because oh, just a leaf, but it works because of the pre-established canon of potential energy. There’s the potential existence of a whole person placed within that leaf and that by itself was awesome but when you go back and watch it with the fact of who Clara is in mind you understand that leaf isn’t just potentially massive but potentially infinite. She isn’t just a singular person but spread out through time and space over and over, different incarnations all over the place, living different lives over and over to save the Doctor throughout time and space. She is almost infinite and thus the leaf is more than just the infinite potential of a single person but the infinite potential of a whole myriad of beings with potentials all the way through time and space. By itself it is a pretty solid and cool episode but working within the grander scheme of the overall series arc it serves as  a pretty epic reminder that the idea of Clara is more powerful than it seems. It is not just a leaf, it the catalyst for a massive cosmic event. Clara is so much more than just one person and the potential of a life not lived can satiate even a God.

Cool, huh?

So the episode gets a lot of hate for being silly but I think it's actually one of the cooler episodes in that debacle of weak episodes strewn together for series 7b. It just has a bit of an unconventional mythology to its central conflict which people didn't want to accept but once you realise it is completely legitimate within the working canon of the show then it vastly improves. So I encourage everyone to rewatch it with that in mind and hopefully you'll think more positively of it.

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