|I am a leaf on the wind.|
It’s April 6th, 2013. PJ and Duncan are at number one with “Let’s Get Ready to Rhumble,” which, on the face of it, looks like one of those inexplicable things that happens to the UK charts occasionally. I’m sure Tom Ewing will have fun with it when the time comes. Also charting are Justin Timberlake, Bruno Mars, Nelly, Pink, and Macklemore. In news, and recalling that we haven’t actually covered a lot of that recently given the approach taken for The Bells of Saint John, the world visibly failed to end in 2012, although there was an impressive meteor strike over Chelyabinsk in February. Benedict XVI resigned as pope, and was replaced by Francis. Chris Huhne resigned from the House of Commons after pleading guilty to perverting the course of justice over a speeding ticket, same-sex marriage was legalized in England and Wales, and, apparently, Illinois banned the sale of shark fins.
Television, meanwhile, brings the much-maligned The Rings of Akhaten. As with The Bells of Saint John before it, this is an episode where it is slightly surprising how, after less than two years, it already feels like a part of history. Certainly the bizarre ninth-from-bottom finish in the Doctor Who Magazine 50th anniversary poll feels like as much of a historical aberration as the first place finish for Day of the Doctor. Certainly one imagines this story will always have its detractors, as it belongs to the tradition of Doctor Who as children’s science fantasy that houses such “silly” stories as Kill the Moon and The Space Museum, which is, really, a better comparison than anyone gives this credit for being. Put another way, it’s unabashedly The Sensorites for a more sentimental age, and there are some people for whom that’s always going to be the same sort of challenge “children’s panto J.G. Ballard” is.
More than any other Moffat-era story, more even than his puzzle boxes and narrative substitutions, more than the disjointed and at times dysfunctional River Song arc, this is the episode where the original experience of watching it cannot be recaptured. Everything about this episode is stuff that vanishes into the Impossible Girl arc. This is the one most obscured by it. In hindsight, we know its solution: everything prior to The Name of the Doctor is in fact the origin story of a companion who does something particularly impressive one day to save the Doctor. What we see is actually what we get.
In that regard, it’s significant how much The Rings of Akhaten is Clara-centric. This isn’t a Doctor-lite story, but it might as well be. Almost all of the big moments go to Clara – the Doctor’s only real victory in the entire thing is his convincing Mary Gejelh, although he kind of steps on Clara’s victory in the end (in a way that serves as a metonym for the entire story, really). Instead the focus remains on Clara, who spends just as much of this “being the Doctor” as she does in Flatline. There, as here, the Doctor’s mostly around to explain the plot and wave the sonic screwdriver at things. This is a story that, in a very classical sense, involves learning the rules of a world and then figuring out a clever trick within the rules, and it’s Clara who figures out the trick, employing her own origin story to savvy effect.
It’s a story, in other words, that hinges entirely on who Clara is, hence its culmination in her, quite reasonably and appropriately, demanding the Doctor treat her as a person in her own right instead of as the Impossible Girl mystery. He lies and says he will, and the audience is mostly expected to fall for it. But as with The Bells of Saint John, this is really a disguise for the actual central cleverness of Clara, which is that she picks up on the idea developed in late Pond-era Doctor Who, which is to say, earlier this season, of companions who don’t live on the TARDIS.
What’s weird about Clara, though, is that she’s not so much defined by her life outside the TARDIS as she is defined by the fact that she is the sort of person who would insist on maintaining a life outside the TARDIS. The actual details of her outside life are sketchy and largely fungible. The family she’s staying with in Season Seven vanishes without further mention after The Name of the Doctor, and she has a completely new job and new life come The Day of the Doctor. They casually recast her father the next story, and come Into the Dalek her entire personal life has suddenly shifted to be about her job, until finally her grandmother from The Time of the Doctor pops up again in Dark Water. This is almost as weirdly convoluted an outside life as Tegan Jovanka’s.
So what we have is an episode that mostly hinges on Jenna Coleman’s performance. Notably, she’s had the opportunity to evolve it substantially before having to do these episodes that define her character: not only were Asylum of the Daleks and The Snowmen shot prior to this and The Bells of Saint John, so were Cold War, Hide, Journey to the Center of the TARDIS, and The Crimson Horror. It’s worth noting that three of those four don’t really require her to play anything about her plot arc at all, and that ultimately, neither do Asylum of the Daleks or The Snowmen, since she’s playing distinct characters in each of them. The result is that she gets a lot of leeway to simply define her performance in terms of how she chooses to approach doing Doctor Who Companion stuff, and she uses that to build a very flexible character, then goes back and starts to explore what makes Clara that flexible.
This also has the effect of making her the most mercurial companion since Josephine Grant. Like Jo, she in many ways ends up being the Manic Pixie Dream Doctor, which is a concept that works surprisingly well. Coleman’s basic way into Clara is always to play her as the storybook heroine. She is the sort of character who seems to spend most of her life listlessly waiting for a Joseph Campbell plot structure to happen along. This could also be said of Amy Pond, but the Ponds were always built the other way around. Amy was a particular twist on the storybook heroine, defined by the twelve year gap caused by the Doctor’s failure to come back for her properly. Clara is never so defined by her origin story, however – instead she’s generally defined by where she’s going, a point emphasized in her 101 Places to See book.
(It’s worth inserting a comment about the Impossible Girl arc, which is that the one regret I have about the disordered posting of River Song stories is that The Name of the Doctor post does not say what I will wish it did when I get there. The use of Clara in subsequent stories, and the way in which her friendship with the Doctor develops highlights in hindsight the way in which that story is a passing of the torch from River to Clara. It’s the story that really completes the conceptual transformation of the show from what it was in Season Seven to what it turns out to have been, and by writing that post prior even to Time and the Doctor I really missed the opportunity to talk about that. For these things we have book versions.)
And so when considering this story’s poor reception, it’s perhaps also worth recalling that The Power of the Daleks got a middling reception with a lot of skepticism over this new Patrick Troughton fellow. Relatedly, in the lead-up to Season Eight, Moffat compared the Coleman/Smith pairing to Sarah Jane Smith being paired with the Third Doctor, saying that she didn’t really come into her own until Tom Baker arrived, which is true enough. But it’s also worth noting that, for all the faults of Season Eleven, Lis Sladen is never one of them. In both cases, however, it’s fair to say that it took more than one season for an actor’s deftness to become apparent. Watched after Season Eight, even before Last Christmas, which, especially if it does turn out to be Clara’s departure story, has a significant chance of forcing us to reevaluate her character, this looks much subtler and more interesting than it did at the time.
Nevertheless, the backbone of this story is and always will be a certain aesthetic of sentiment. It is as close as Doctor Who ever comes to being overt fantasy. Its central metaphor involves using handwavy stuff about psychic energy to explain what is blatantly magic. There’s something a bit Star Wars about it, particularly in its (genuinely impressive) excess of alien costumes, although it is a real bit of fun to figure out what old alien costumes they redressed. (The Hath are all particularly obvious.) But it’s not the Star Wars that people romanticize – it’s the Star Wars that has Ewoks and the Christmas Special. One has to be willing to accept the “this is what we’re doing this week” approach of this episode, and, to a larger extent, this “movie poster” season. That said, if one accepts this episode’s terms, it accomplishes what it sets out to do.
But if we accept that basic logic, there’s another aspect of this story that we have to consider the deliberateness of – one we’ve already alluded to. The Doctor’s behavior towards Clara in this episode starts to tip over into being properly disturbing. It’s not that it’s unjustifiable – he has numerous sound reasons to be suspicious of Clara and to think that she might be some sort of nefarious trap laid for him, and, to be fair, in point of fact she turns out to be, albeit unwittingly and not for any reasons having to do with Asylum of the Daleks or The Snowmen. But there becomes something slightly mean about him as he chooses to lie to her at the end of the episode, declining to reveal why he stalked her past and showed up at her mother’s funeral. Which is indeed creepy, in a kind of Twilight way.
This really does seem deliberate, not least because of the way the final shot of Smith closing the TARDIS door is played, which really does give a sense of slight nefariousness to it. As does the invocation of Susan, and the quiet parallel of the Doctor and the sun that this implicitly makes. (A fitting theme, given the Problem of Susan. One almost would think Neil Cross reads my blog.) And this gets paid off later – indeed, in terms of the shooting schedule it’s already been paid off. One can fairly accuse the Impossible Girl arc of being something created to work better on DVD than on transmission, but equally, it does work on DVD. Well, on Netflix. Who uses DVD anymore?
But this makes two stories in a row that have had an eye toward history’s retrospective. And as with The Bells of Saint John, I envy my circa-2054 successor who gets to look at this story with the lens of history that it so clearly deserves. The story cries for some clever cracked mirror reinterpretation that links the evil sun, the patriarchy, and the Doctor’s fifty year history, preferably in light of some 30s story that finally brings back Susan with a new regeneration. Already there’s been too much history to pretend that it’s April 6th, 2013. At least in terms of The Rings of Akhaten, that seems unquestionably a good thing.