This post has been edited, tidied up and expanded to form part of my new ebook, TEN THINGS ABOUT WHO, available on Kindle. Buy it now for £1.99. More details
1. Romanticism lives
For the second week in a row, the pre-credits sequence stands almost alone from the main story in presentational style, but which introduces the theme of the story. This week, it’s the value of memory. When Clara’s dad proposes to her mum, the story he tells of the leaf is of the miracle that small actions compounded to produce the one action that brought them together. And that’s mirrored in the pep talk that the Doctor gives to Merry, of how planet systems were born and died, ultimately producing the unique circumstance that created her.
2. It’s what they believe. It’s a nice story.
That story of the Doctor’s is, as he says, one Merry will not have heard, even though she has been imbued with her culture’s entire literary history – because it runs completely counter to their beliefs that all life in the universe started in Akhaten.
You could, if you concentrated very hard, find some sort of allegorical statement about the nobility, or futility, of faith in this story. If the never-ending lullaby has no effect on whether the vampire wakes or not, does it have any purpose? Or does it imbue the community with a sense of bonding that has no regard for the efficacy of their ceremonies?
Or maybe it does have purpose, after all. The ‘parasite god’ is clearly fed by the same psychometry that the rings’ residents treat as currency. As long as there is belief behind their actions, that presumably would provide sustenance for the parasite.
Ultimately, I think the world creation in Neil Cross’s script is so slight and sketchy that you could choose whatever allegory you wanted. For me, I would have preferred a stronger sense of what the writer intended.
3. A wretched hive of scum and villainy?
The initial scenes of myriad aliens draw immediate comparisons with the Mos Eisley Cantina sequence from Star Wars, with huge numbers of aliens wandering about. I’d also suggest that the comparison is based upon how several of the alien species appear to be little more than full-face masks. We’re so used to Neill Gorton’s monster designs being beautifully articulated creations, that when so many different species are introduced at once the budgetary shortcuts involved become visible.
There’s an obvious comparison to be had, I suppose, with Rose’s introduction to alien cultures in The End of the World. That story featured fewer races, but they were coupled with exotic names that added to their alienness. The Adherents of the Repeated Meme, Trees from the Forest of Cheem, Lady Cassandra O’Brien Dot Delta Seventeen – descriptors that purvey a sense of the different that builds upon the visual.
In contrast, I found the alien names that the Doctor reeled off to sound rather pedestrian. Panbabylonians? Please. And at least one, Hooloovoo, was cribbed from (or an homage to, if you prefer) Douglas Adams’ Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where the Hooloovoo were hyper-intelligent shades of the colour blue.
Having an alien called Dor’een was quite fun, though.
4. Translation circuits
And speaking of Dor’een, why is it that the TARDIS’ telepathic translation circuits – or Star Trek’s universal translators – ignore some languages?
5. “I don’t think it likes me”
When you get back to your car after a bit of shopping, but can’t open the door straight away, do you automatically assume it doesn’t like you? Or, like normal people, do you think that it’s simply locked?
Maybe it was intended as a clue that something is not quite right with Clara. But it did come across as a little uncharacteristically self-centred in a character which is anything but.
6. The gravity of the situation
“They wanted you to have this. Everyone you saved.”
Unfortunately, the destruction of the star at the heart of the Akhaten system is more likely to have condemned the rings’ residents to their deaths. Orbits – whether of planets, moons, satellites, asteroids, rings of rock and ice – are dependent upon the gravitational force between the object and the body around which it is orbiting. Take that centre of gravity away, remove the Jack’O Lantern at the heart of the system, and the Rings of Akhaten would surely slowly disperse.
7. Something precious
The Doctor claimed a couple of times that the only thing he carried that was of sentimental value was his sonic screwdriver. And yet, throughout the episode – more often than previously – he was wearing Amy’s reading glasses. They appeared so often that I thought there must be a point to them – but no, instead Clara was called upon to give up her mother’s ring. While that underlined the bond between mother and daughter, the pre-credits sequence – and Clara’s speech when offering up the leaf – did that just as well.
I do like the idea that emotion has notional – even, in the case of the parasite, nutritional – value, though. In my 2006 Doctor Who short story for Big Finish, Tell Me You Love Me, the emotional nutrition was more direct, but it’s a similar concept.
8. The Vigil
Our first glimpse of the masked, whispering trio of figures, cocking their heads to one side in unison, is wonderfully creepy. Unfortunately, it seems that there is little more to them than that initially arresting image.
9. So, this Festival of Offerings
There’s obviously something weird about Akhaten that allows the whole system to have breathable air. I mean, the singing between asteroids could have been something heard psychically, as in practicality the distance between Merry and the Chorister would be too far fro them to practically hear each other. But multiple moped trips between asteroids suggests that there is atmosphere between the two for the Doctor, Clara and Merry to be able to breathe.
Quite how Clara, Merry and the others watch the Doctor’s ‘conversation’ with the parasite in the star, though, is a mystery. He must have his back to them in order to face the sun – but that would mean that high wall behind him would obscure him from view from the other asteroid. I suspect that’s more of a practical consideration, minimising the amount of green screen work required. I would have thought that originally written, the Doctor would have been in much plainer sight, but that would require CGI backdrops in every shot, which would be phenomenally expensive.
Also, at the start of the episode the Doctor tells Clara that the Festival of Offerings takes place “every thousand years or so”. And yet both the rituals around the festival, and the apparent tourist trade, suggest that it’s more frequent than that. A little thing, maybe, but it just adds to the impression that the whole setup of the episode doesn’t seem particularly well thought through.
10. We don’t walk away
No, we don’t walk away. But when we’re holding on to something precious, we run. We run and run as fast as we can and we don’t stop running until we’re out from under the shadow.
The more you think about that, it doesn’t make much sense. And that’s the problem with this whole episode for me, I think. It wants to be about how sentiment and memory have power over us, but of how promise of the future is infinitely more effective. But for all its talk of heart and sentiment, it has precious little itself.
Still, next week: Nuclear submarines! Dive, dive, dive! And an Ice Warrior!