14/04/13 “The Rings of Akhetan” & “Cold War”
“Mars will rise again, I promise you.”–The Doctor
Well, considering I watched “The Rings of Akhetan” the day after broadcast extremely sick with flu, you should be grateful you’re getting a review at all. Moreover, the fact that it managed to burst through my fog of snot and pain illustrates the point wonderfully: this was really good New Who, and I haven’t felt this assuredly behind an episode since probably 2010. I understand that it was a Marmite story, and I can somewhat sympathize with those from whom it would not have been their cup of tea. However, I cannot agree and found it a welcome breath of fresh air—something different, something that showed the wide range of what exactly Doctor Who can be, and not only was I grateful for it, it’s reinvigorated my excitement for catching the new program every Saturday. Well-done, Neil Cross.
Given that I didn’t take notes, however, you will have to deal with my exuberance rather than my exacting point-by-point plot analysis, but perhaps that will be a breath of fresh air for you, too. For some reason—perhaps the setting, perhaps the costumes, perhaps some superficial psychogeographic similarities to “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy”—for me this story had flavors of the Seventh Doctor, and perhaps not even TV Seventh Doctor, but edging toward the NAs. Granted, I’ve only read two of them so my opinion is by no means expert. Nevertheless, pacing, emphasis, presentation, visuals—all of it conspired to give a completely different tonality than anything we’ve seen on Doctor Who on TV for a long time. Perhaps that’s what annoyed some people. Large panoplies of colorful and magnificently costumed aliens are a rarity, but it’s no secret that they are involved in some of my favorite stories—“The Curse of Peladon” and “The End of the World,” that’s two.
The fully-enclosed market nature of the setting brought to mind “The Long Game” and more relevantly “The Beast Below,” but this is no bad thing. I’m appreciating the latter more and more as time passes. Nevertheless, I didn’t really want to do a whole new revamp of the structure for past seasons, so the fact that “The Rings of Akhetan” almost immediately stopped resembling “The Beast Below” pleased and surprised me. The CGI was beautiful and must have satisfied the young (and the CGI-mad) though I did feel the need to nitpick not only the Doctor and Clara standing outside the TARDIS and being able to breathe (yes, this was explained in “The Beast Below” coincidentally, but never to my satisfaction) but how Clara could ride her moped back and forth through atmosphere and not die. Oh well.
I’ve commented before on the increasing child-centrism of Vast Toffee Doctor Who, and while “The Rings of Akhetan” shares both this and a musical theme with “A Christmas Carol,” they achieve success in both areas in differing ways. The child lead for the Queen of Years had to be good to keep this story from overloading on the cheese factor, and in my opinion Emilia Jone succeeded brilliantly. She was utterly engaging and packed a set of pipes; in fact, though I have no problem with Katherine Jenkins, to me she was even more compelling. Pretty much everything with Merry Galel I loved. And the songs were utterly gorgeous, reminding me of the sweeping and yet somehow strange quality of things like Karl Jenkins’ “Adiemus.” I mean, we had ritualized chanting in “Death to the Daleks,” but what a load of crap compared to this. I love the idea of the Doctor as an observer in a ritual event; he doesn’t often get to be seen doing much of this on TV though he does talk about it a lot and we see it in other media. I love the idea of a culture with psychometry at the heart of its currency (though it does really set up the “don’t show the gun on the mantelpiece if you’re not going to use it” policy).
The Doctor was rather subdued throughout most of the story, serving as guide and commentator (again, a bit Seventh Doctor-y, I felt) though he did sum up the heart of Doctor Who by telling Clara that his job is not to stand by; I didn’t think of it at the time, but this must be further embroidery on his reform because of Clara in “The Snowmen.” Clara did well here. She had a different but similarly important function to Amy in “The Beast Below” here. She did all that a companion should do—empathize with the lost and fearful, take risks, and make sacrifices. It was a whirlwind ride. The Doctor, however, did not really come alive until he confronted the Old God. The Eleventh Doctor’s shouting contests have always had mixed results for me, but I very much liked this one because it reminded me of the Eighth Doctor confronting the creature in Phobos. The creature in Phobos, naturally enough, fed on adrenaline-fueled fear rather than genuine fear. Therefore, the Doctor was an ideal food source, for as the creature pointed out, a part of him revels in adventures and death-defying feats, to the point it is vanity and potentially harmful. Finding this out about the Doctor concerned Lucie, and it concerned the Doctor as well, who felt he had to deny it. He was able to defeat the creature in the end, just as the Doctor’s surfeit of life experience sates the beast. However, it’s Clara’s “never-was” that destroys the Old God. However mumbo-jumbo-y this sounds—though, to be fair, the Angels feeding on trapped people’s future existences cancelled out at Winter Quay made about as much sense—it feels right, and I can accept it.
I loved the pseudo-Egyptian feel, giving us the promised-but-never-delivered ancient Egyptian goddess on the Orient Express (well, not quite, but it fulfilled my yen for it). The “alarm clock” for the Old God was undoubtedly inspired as much by The Mummy franchise as by “Pyramids of Mars,” but it was genuinely scary and created a weird sense of denial and dread, very much like waiting for an alarm clock to go off. I also loved the Vigil in the sense I loved the Slabs in “Smith and Jones,” though the former were far creepier and looked as though Mike Mignola had just drawn them from Hellboy. I really did like that, I have to confess.
I ALMOST forgot. Hated the prequel. Hated it. Could have doomed the otherwise terrific episode. Why did we need to see any of that? Couldn’t we “get” it from Clara’s explanation of the leaf when she offers it up as a “never-was”? Why not show Ace’s grandmother and mother in the teaser for “Curse of Fenric”?! I hated being manipulated like a bleating lamb and moreover, how creepy and lecherously stalker-ish for the Doctor to be seen hanging around like that. Perhaps the Seventh Doctor would have done it, but he would never have gotten caught and we would never have seen it.
And on to “Cold War.” I’m pleased to say that, though with multiple viewings I may not be as enamored with this piece, I have to say it’s one of Mark Gatiss’ better Doctor Who TV scripts and a pretty good follow-up. It’s the kind of story I think only an old skool Who fan could have written, but at the same time it doesn’t have the damning interference of someone like, oh, Ian Levine. So, by implication, taking place in 1983, “Cold War” encompasses “Warriors of the Deep”; the submarine setting “The Sea Devils”; and while the whole base-under-siege story is a proud inheritance of the Second and Third Doctor eras (with a mixed pedigree, to be sure), much of “Cold War” specifically reminded me of a Dracula spin off as adapted by radio, written by the very clever Robert Forrester, called Voyage of the Demeter. It’s possible, given Gatiss’ literary predilections, that he may have even written with this in mind, and the setting of the North Pole and constant references to a “monster” might conceivably suggest Frankenstein. So, it’s got a lot of backing (or baggage?) behind it. Nevertheless, I would say it takes the claustrophobic setting of Voyage of the Demeter and blasts out of the water (heh) any reminder of “Warriors of the Deep” by learning from its mistakes. It’s dimly lit. Shots are tight and never show anyone’s feet. Water, spray, lighting, and sound all try to convince you they’re on board a Russian sub. There are other lessons “Cold War” has taken from old Who, too.
Now, I know all about Russian stories on the BBC and what trouble the “do the accent, don’t do the accent” debates can cause. I accept the decision to give these characters Soviet names and personalities without any attempt to Russify them further (personally I thought Voyage of the Demeter got around this fantastically by giving the sailors northern (English) and Scottish accents). It was much more difficult to credit these were actual Soviets due to their behavior. I can accept the scientist, Grisenko, played by David Warner who was clearly having a good time, is into Western music and culture (heck, how can I complain when he comes on singing Ultravox’s “Vienna”?) but why does Captain Zhukov keep saying “OK”? And why does Grisenko ask Clara to sing Duran Duran rather than a rousing Soviet song? (Since her Russian is so good.) Only the militant Stephashin has anything like a historical Soviet perspective, whinging that “American aggression gets bolder by the day,” and I had to smile when he tried to form an alliance with the honor-minded Ice Warrior. (A time-honored Who tradition, n’est-ce pas?) It’s a shame we didn’t have time to get more character from Zhukov, Stephashin and Grisenko—I was, again, reminded of Captain Rapelsky, First Mate Rubaish, and Kanensky from Voyage of the Demeter whose diverse characters stuck on the claustrophobic Demeter eventually gave way to madness.
I’ve never seen “The Ice Warriors” but I have seen their later stories and my first NA, believe it or not, was Legacy by Gary Russell, of which I think I gave rather a harsh review. In hindsight, I think I appreciate it more, especially given what it does for the Ice Warriors (aw, and I ship Benny and Lord Savaar). Also, I absolutely love the Big Finish stories Deimos/Resurrection of Mars. This is all to say that I am glad that the Ice Warriors have been revived for the new show. I didn’t psyche myself up, however, because their 1960s costumes could easily look ridiculous by today’s standards, and I didn’t want another monster runaround—I wanted some depth, as I think was achieved in “The Monster of Peladon,” “The Curse of Peladon,” Legacy, and the two Big Finish stories mentioned (I don’t know about “Seeds of Death”; that would take some arguing over). I’m pleased to say that Gatiss mercifully and shrewdly kept the Ice Warrior out of shot and under wraps for an agonizingly long period of time. I was so overwhelmed with relief. “Life’s too short to wait,” mutters the impetuous Soviet sailor with a blow torch, melting Professor Grisenko’s “mammoth” from the ice.
The Doctor and Clara were on their way to Las Vegas, and Clara is unfortunately attired in a ball gown (she’s been very soberly costumed the last few stories). They find themselves on a “sinking Soviet submarine” after the Ice Warrior has revived and is blundering around trying to figure out what’s happened to it. In another nod to old Who, the Doctor and Clara’s sudden appearance in the middle of a crisis splits opinion on what to do with them. “Just listen to him, for God’s sake!” Clara shouts. The TARDIS, for an entertaining yet not really that well explained reason, dematerializes. As the Ice Warrior creeps around corridors, everyone is making an effort to make genuinely scary television, and it’s pretty good. The Doctor recognizes Skaldak as a great hero and names the Ice Warriors as bio-mechanoid Martians. Skaldak has been frozen for 5,000 years. I’m a bit confused, given that in previous Who the larger, lumbering Ice Warriors were like the “muscle” and their svelte comrades, like Lord Savaar for example, were the “brains.” Skaldak is certainly of the larger frame, though he succumbs to a cattle prod when electrified.
In logic that seemed to make sense at the time though I’m no longer sure it does, Clara takes a headset down to the chained Skaldak and tries to convince him to let the Doctor help him. “Do the salute like I told you,” says the Doctor. There are some tantalizing and enjoyable hints at previous Ice Warrior adventures and mythology as Clara speaks to Skaldak. Everyone (including me) is shocked when Skaldak forsakes his armor and goes walkabout. “I’ve never seen one do this before,” says the Doctor. There’s some delightful close-quarters action as the monster is never shown, which once again overwhelms me with relief. Clara tackles the TARDIS translation matrix, the world not ending n 1982, and finds herself feeling a bit Tegan-post-“Resurrection” all of a sudden (well, that was quick) as Skaldak starts picking off the crew one by one (not for malice like the Stranger in Voyage of the Demeter but with “forensic” precision). There’s a wonderful creepy sequence as Skaldak summons his armor, about to arm the nuclear missiles on the sub and end the Cold War. The Doctor attempts to talk him out of it, very Pertwee. “Show them another way. Show there is honor in mercy.” When this seems to fail, the Doctor threatens to blow up the submarine (and everyone on it) before Skaldak can detonate the missile. I do actually believe him. Which is rather incredible as the Eleventh Doctor has made a lot of threats that I didn’t believe.
Alas, the long run of not-showing-the-monster comes to the end with a rather disappointing fishy specimen, though I guess it is similar to an Eighth Doctor Ice Warrior comic. Then Skaldak is rescued by summoned Ice Warriors and does not remotely detonate the missiles. Hooray. The Doctor and Clara must then make their way by some method to the South Pole, where the TARDIS has re-materialized.
I must say I like the look of next week.
This concludes volume VII of View from the Panopticon.