The Rings of Akhaten, and the importance of clarification in writing…

Major Spoilers below the cut for The Rings of Akhaten, as I complain about how people miss the stuff that is spelled out clearly, and talk about the importance of clarity with regards to a story’s finale, and how modern Doctor Who seems unconcerned with such things. No major spoilers for Citizen Kane, though there are a couple of minor thematic ones.

Let me start by stating one thing very, very clearly – I really liked The Rings of Akhaten.

People talk about Doctor Who having a sense of wonder, but seldom is that evoked as clearly and beautifully as it is in this story.  Forget the visuals, there are some conceptual ideas within this tale that are wonderful and lovely, and the main story does justice to them. I think this is another Dinosaurs on a Spaceship[1], where people get so caught up in one or two details, they cheat themselves out of appreciating just how beautiful the core of the story is.

Okay, so jumping directly to what is undoubtedly the biggest continuing complaint about Rings of Akhaten – it seems that a huge percentage of those who watched think that the planetary system’s sun blew up or died in the finale.

I can understand some of the confusion, but really it is made quite plain at the start that Akhaten is a planet, not the system’s sun. How so many reasonably intelligent science fiction fans can miss all the evidence of this that’s right in front of their own eyes boggles me, but even my wife made the error, and she’s pretty cluey. So…

When the Doctor and Clara leave the TARDIS, the Doctor specifically asks if Clara can feel the light on her eyes, then he says it’s from an alien sun. Now while the light on the scene does have a faint reddish hue, the light on their faces is mostly white. Then we see Akhaten – it has a reddish inner glow to it. I can understand the confusion. The red hue throws things a little. But it’s still made very clear that this is not a sun.

doctor_who_2005.7x07.the_rings_of_akhaten.hdtv_x264-fov[12-24-46]

“One of the odd things, Clara, is that some people mistake Akhaten for a sun, even though it’s obviously a planet…”

Visually, Akhaten is edge-lit. You can see the clear colour difference because while the planet itself glows, it is also illuminated by another source – the system’s actual sun. Also, all the asteroids in the scene are lit from the same sun. And the cap on the Pyramid of the Rings of Akhaten catches the light of that sun. While the various asteroids are lit by Akhaten’s inner glow, their main light source is the same sun that lights Akhaten itself. The lighting is consistent.

The Doctor then states, “Seven worlds, orbiting the same star, all of them believing that all life in the universe originated here. On that planet.” When he says, “On that planet,” he points to Akhaten. It’s made pretty clear. He’s not pointing at the asteroids because, hello, they’re obviously asteroids! There’s no other large spherical objects in the shot, so he’s pointing at Akhaten.

doctor_who_2005.7x07.the_rings_of_akhaten.hdtv_x264-fov[12-39-04]

That person thought it was a sun. And that one. And that one. And those two. And them. And her. And that guy, Linus van Pelt, he thought it was the Great Pumpkin.

As I commented at the beginning, I liked The Rings of Akhaten, despite a couple of big issues. But it’s really starting to annoy me that so many people are stuck on something that is made fairly clear from a story and visual standpoint right from the get-go. I thought it was obvious from the start, then I saw comment after comment about ‘hey that system just lost its sun!’ And what really annoys me is that they’re hung up on that, but not the actual problems with the finale!

Such as…

doctor_who_2005.7x07.the_rings_of_akhaten.hdtv_x264-fov[16-29-07]

Oh FFS…

I get that visually, giving the planet a great big face helps give it character, helps it to emote. However, that really is a crap idea. Come on people, it’s a huge alien parasite, why does it have to have a humanoid face? Apart from politicians, how many parasites are there on our own planet with humanoid features? None! It’s a great idea for an alien so why drag it down to the mundane and, it must be admitted, utterly naff in that way?

But that’s an aesthetic choice, not a story one. I don’t mind that Clara’s leaf is what kills Akhaten. The infinite potential it’s loaded with works for me as a concept, because I have no doubt that Clara herself has loaded the object with what-might-have-beens over the years, loaded it with sorrow and dreams of all the days of her mother that never were.

In a tale about stories, songs, and the power of an object’s emotional resonance, it works thematically, and it’s actually a really beautiful idea.  Plus it’s set up a couple of times over with the talk about isometry.  It’s just a shame they couldn’t have done something like send the leaf to the planet so the parasite couldn’t escape that potential, so there was a sensible reason why it’s able to kill Akhaten.

You see, and this is where the ending falls down for me because it uses an old trope that has always been pretty bloody stupid – Akhaten is killed because it over-eats. While I’ve seen post after post about ‘oh they lost their sun and no-one complained and that’s stupid,’ no-one is attacking this old standby that was stupid decades ago as being a problem. Akhaten is not forced to eat, it is either unable to stop itself from eating (and there’s no indication that it’s trying to resist), or it chooses to eat itself to death[2].

Come on... it's only wafer thin...

Come on… it’s only wafer thin…

What the hell sort of survival strategy is that? What sort of creature eats itself to death at the first opportunity? If its appetite is that voracious, why did it ever stop with what it was given to eat in the first place? A creature with so little self control would have laid waste to the system a long time ago. A single sacrifice, no matter how much knowledge and experience they have, would never have been enough.  It’s inconsistent.

The other big issue is the planet appears to vanish at the end. Now, while it’s not a sun, if it does actually vanish, then the system is in trouble. The best case scenario is that the rings will disperse throughout the system and become a hazard to navigation, not to mention regularly hitting the other planets and moons orbiting the star. That said, it does appear that these people have the technology to create an air bubble between the market asteroid and the Pyramid, so maybe they can stabilise things without an issue.

It would be a huge job, however, and that’s ignoring the fact the loss of a fairly major planet could potentially destabilise the orbits of the other worlds. Or maybe it just shrank down under its own weight to something too small to see on screen, therefore maintaining its mass, in which case there probably isn’t a problem.

So bloody say that in the story!

There’s a reason Orson Welles shows you what Rosebud refers to at the end of Citizen Kane – the audience needs to understand that aspect without confusion. If one of the best film-makers in the history of Western cinema thinks clarification is important enough to cut to a close-up of what has already been made clear on screen, he’s probably on to something about the importance of basic clarity to tying up a story’s threads.

Welles

So, they wave a magic screwdriver at the problem and it vanishes? Hahahahaha… What? And then they explain away the inconsistencies by saying it’s ‘timey-wimey?’ HAHAHAHAHAHAHA! Oh God! HAahaha! Stopstopstop…. heh… Oh, man, you had me going there… So no, really, how do they end it?

What Rosebud actually is is magnificently irrelevant to most of Citizen Kane. Rosebud is just the hook, the character stuff is the real story, but the director still needed to make Rosebud as clear as possible because otherwise he knew a sizeable chunk of the audience would have been ignoring the fabulous story they’ve just been told as they milled around distractedly saying, “But what was Rosebud?”

Make it clear that, in killing the Akhaten parasite, the Doctor and Clara haven’t just laid waste to a system with seven inhabited planets!

Here I’ll do it for you…

Clara – “Wait, what’s going to happen to the Rings now the planet is gone?”

Doctor – “Oh no, Akhaten’s not gone. When the parasite died its body collapsed in on itself. Became so small we couldn’t see it. It’s body is still there, with the same gravitational mass. The Rings will be fine.”

Clara – “And Merry will have a lifetime of new songs and stories to remember…”

Doctor – “Yes… Want to pop forward fifty years and hear some of them?”

Clara – “Nah, I wanna go home and tell Artie and Angie[3] a new bedtime story I just lived through.”

Details are important, as are explanations.  You don’t need to spell everything out, because most people will pick up on the internal consistency if it’s there.  It’s when things are inconsistent there’s a problem.

So I certainly hope that the fact that the leaf we see in The Bells of St. John that is obviously a completely different size and shape to the one in The Rings of Akhaten is not just a production error.  Because given that it was a clearly seen and important on screen prop for two consecutive episodes, that would be pretty bloody slack. Especially in a TV show that, these days, prizes itself more on being about puzzles and Easter Eggs than telling a good story.

If missing numbers in Clara’s book are important, then a completely different leaf better be as well!

Boy, it this leaf suddenly turns out to be from a completely different sort of tree, the universe could be in trouble...

Boy, if this leaf suddenly turns out to be from a different sort of tree, the universe could unravel…

This is what really annoys me about the story-telling of Doctor Who from 2005 onwards. Too often basic but important story stuff is left unexplained as if the details don’t matter. In modern Who the stories are there to service the ridiculously complex character arcs, which is an arse-about way to do things. Several good stories have been gutted by the totally inappropriate arc elements glued onto them.

The original series had its fair share of dodgy writing, bad science, deus ex machina endings, inconsistencies  and lack of proper explanations too, but I expect better from a modern day production team.

After all, it’s not as if the new series hasn’t been able to tell satisfying stories that were internally consistent and had a beginning, a middle, and an end. There are a few of them, but they are too often the exception.

Look at the list below. These are the reason I judge stories from new Who so critically – it’s not because I’m tied to the show’s past, but because the show can be this good.  It can tell stories that make sense and aren’t solved with a wave of the sonic screwdriver or a hand wavey ‘timey wimey’ explanation, can take us on a character’s emotional journey, or make us experience our own wonders, despairs, and joys.

End of the World
Dalek
Empty Child/Doctor Dances
Christmas Invasion
School Reunion
Girl in the Fireplace
Impossible Planet/Satan Pit
Human Nature/Family of Blood
Blink
Voyage of the Damned
Partners in Crime
Fires of Pompeii
Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead
Midnight
Turn Left
Waters of Mars (but have to turn off before that bloody Ood appears)
Eleventh Hour
Vincent and the Doctor
The Lodger
Christmas Carol
The Doctor’s Wife
The God Complex
Dinosaurs on a Spaceship
A Town Called Mercy
The Bells of St. John

I don’t expect perfection, I don’t expect there to be no dud stories or poor resolutions from time to time, but I feel the overall quality of story telling to be low, relying too much on big moments and cool ideas, and too little on making sure it all works.  If you love something, you love it in spite of the flaws, and that’s how I am with Doctor Who.  I love this show, but that doesn’t mean I will let that love blind me to it’s faults, or let those faults stop me from celebrating its triumphs.

I honestly think new Doctor Who has always needed a proper script editor, one who is not afraid to remind the show-runner that the ending of a story should hold up to basic scrutiny.  They don’t need to be a modern big name writer, they don’t need to want to write stupidly complex ideas, they just need to know how to tell a proper, engaging story.

But sadly, I think Moffat would be too intimidated to hire Terrance Dicks.[4]

Cheers,
Danny

1. Dinosaurs on a Spaceship has problems, don’t get me wrong. But the emotional core of the story, for me, overcomes them. Forget Egyptian Queens and big game hunters, forget the Doctor murdering the bad guy, forget yet another story in which companions pick up guns…

This is a story about the awakening of Brian Williams to a bigger world and richer existence.  It’s a story by a writer whose work I normally detest, so I tend to approach anything he writes skeptically, and this story made me cry at a couple of points the first time out, and on every subsequent viewing, because it is such a stunning character piece.

And it happens to have one of the best, most gut-wrenchingly nasty villains the series has ever seen.   BACK TO POST

2. How many creatures can you point to that will eat themselves to death?  It’s such a stupid idea, and so over-used.

Given Akhaten was nearly destroyed by the Doctor’s experience, it may have been that Clara’s whole ‘infinity leaf’ idea was wrong.  The parasite was already at death point, and the perfectly normal emotions imprinted on the leaf were enough to push it over the edge – hence mentioning the Wafer Thin Mint trope.

Otherwise it’s Death By Gluttony, or just overloading it, and that really is utterly stupid – a friggin’ baby will turn its head away or clamp its mouth shut when it doesn’t want any more to eat, but this god-like, planet-sized parasite that eats the memories and life experiences of other creatures isn’t even that smart?  Please!

It’s why I mentioned the idea of sending the leaf down to the planet and effectively force feeding it that last little bit that kills it.  That makes sense as it can’t avoid continuing to swallow any more – a bit like a Black Swallower trying to digest a fish that’s just that bit too big.

Yes, the Black Swallower. Yes, I managed to find an actual creature that not only eats things much, much bigger than itself, but sometimes dies doing it.

Dalekboy.com – educational, as well as entertaining!  BACK TO POST

3. Artie and Angie Maitland are the kids of George Maitland.  Remember them?  It’s the family Clara has been living with for the last year.

I’ve seen a few complaints about Clara walking out of the TARDIS at the end, but she actually has some real responsibilities, and it’s made very clear that she will not leave people who need her or are counting on her – so her going back is completely in character.  BACK TO POST

4. Yes, I have a thing about Terrance Dicks.

Look, I used to knock the guy and his writing, but as I’ve aged I’ve come to realise something – Terrance really knows how to tell a story.  He may not dazzle you with flashy bulldust, but by the end you will have been told an engaging tale that holds together in a satisfactory way, and has some great moments and solid characterisation.

Bloody hell, in his novelisation of An Unearthly Child, he managed to give a bloody tiger realistic motivation for attacking the cavemen and not the Doctor and his friends.  He didn’t need to do that, he could have just written the action as it happened within the story, but he decided to explain it, and it works.  It takes a moment of the story and brings it to life in unexpected and satisfying ways.

With the Five Doctors he was given a shopping list of characters and things to fit in.  It was a list that sometimes literally changed several times a day, as actors became available and others had to pull out.  He not only managed to tell a story, but it was coherent and entertaining and fun and managed to do a fair job of celebrating the show’s 20th Anniversary.

He’s even written a couple of new Who books.  Why he hasn’t been asked to write for the TV series proper I’ll never know.

Unless they’re all scared he’ll show them up.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s