It’s taken me nearly a week to get up the energy to write about this episode, because it was… it was just sort of there.

It definitely wasn’t anything like as terrible as the previous episode — there was a sense that everyone involved was trying their best to make a good TV programme — but at the same time it was hard to get enthused about it.

And the interesting thing is that almost universally, the people I know who most enjoy the new series were the ones who had the biggest problems with it, while those who tend to dislike the series had the fewest. And I suspect this is because the episode summed up two of the fundamental problems with new Who.

Firstly, and most obviously, there was the music.

Now, I’ve seen a lot of people complaining about the diegetic music in the programme as being some sort of heresy, as if the idea of a musical episode of Doctor Who is fundamentally wrong. That those people are the same people who claim (wrongly) that the brilliance of Doctor Who is that it can tell any kind of story hasn’t escaped me.

That’s a claim, incidentally, that gets made a *lot* — that Doctor Who is the best TV series ever, because it can encompass every kind of story. To which someone (I think either Phil Sandifer or Teatime Brutality) replied “What about that story where the Doctor is a serial rapist?” which pretty much settles the argument. Doctor Who can, in fact, only do the kind of story that involves an immortal time-travelling hero who is never cruel or cowardly. That’s a very, very limited set of stories.

(Those of you reading my Fifty Stories For Fifty Years series, though, will soon get to stories which aren’t quite Doctor Who, and if we expand the definition of Doctor Who a little then you *can* tell any story…)

But the same people who say that often then go on to talk about what is and isn’t something Doctor Who should do, and limit it far, far more than the format itself demands.

In particular, the claim that there should not be a musical episode of Doctor Who is an absurd one. Doctor Who And The Pirates, which came out ten years ago this month, is a musical, and may be the best Doctor Who story ever in any medium. It’s certainly in the top ten. The Gunfighters, despite its reputation among the humourless portion of fandom, is a minor masterpiece. The Ultimate Adventure, the stage play from the late 80s, was a musical, and Terrance Dicks wrote that. If you think you know better than Terrance Dicks what is and isn’t Doctor Who then you’re just *wrong*.

But there *is* a problem with a musical episode of Doctor Who where the music is by Murray Gold.

Gold is, without a doubt, the single least talented composer I’ve ever heard. I mean this in a very precise sense. He clearly has a great deal of *technical ability*, in that he is able to use the orchestra in a fairly precise, controlled manner, and get it to sound exactly how he wants. He is, in that narrow sense, a skilled composer — certainly far more skilled than I am.

But in the sense of basic aesthetics, my God… the man writes ugly, ugly, obvious, unimaginative dross, and overorchestrates it to the point that it makes Brahms sound like the Ramones. It attempts to bludgeon the listener into submission, and is the equivalent of the composer screaming “FEEL! YOU BASTARD FEEL! I’M TUGGING ON YOUR FUCKING HEARTSTRINGS HERE!!!”

When you compare it to the eerie wonder of Delia Derbyshire’s original realisation of the theme tune, or to the ‘special sound’ from Brian Hodgson, or to the lovely little pieces of music for small chamber groups that Dudley Simpson would come up with, it’s heartbreaking to consider that this is supposed to be the same series. That a programme that hired Tristram Cary in 1963 is now reduced to this is heartbreaking. In the 60s even when they used library music, it was likely to be Bartok. Comparing that music to Gold is like comparing Will Eisner and Ed Benes. (To be fair, Gold is no less talented than Keff McCulloch, who did some of the music in Sylvester McCoy’s time. But Keff at least had the decency just to use a cheap synth and not to make actual musicians suffer through playing his outpourings.)

But Gold’s music has been a perennial problem for the new series, and the fact that this time it was a *noticeable* problem suggests that this episode got a lot right that many other episodes didn’t.

And it *did* get a lot right. There was an actual plot. The plot wasn’t an especially wonderful one, but it did the job. The effects were excellent, and the aliens realised well, in a cantina-scene kind of way. The Doctor’s only major moral misstep in the episode was time-stalking his new companion and her family throughout all their most intimate moments, which when you compare it to the genocides, murders and tortures he’s committed in recent episodes is a pleasant change. Matt Smith did his usual fantastic job, and in general the whole thing came off quite competently.

So why did it still leave an empty feeling? Why did it, fundamentally, still feel like it didn’t work to me?

Millennium says the problem is there’s no ‘episode three’ in the modern series, and I think he’s largely right. But the problem is actually that there’s no episode two or four either.

In the old series, the typical length of a Doctor Who story was four twenty-five minute episodes. This varied, of course — there were five two-episode stories, a lot of six-episode stories, a few three-parters towards the end, and the odd massive eight or thirteen parter, but in general the story length came to about ninety minutes, once you cut out theme music and cliffhanger recaps — so about the length of two post-2005 episodes.

That ninety minutes had a lot of work to do. Very roughly, each story had four ‘acts’ — a setup, in which the nature of the society the Doctor has landed in this week is shown (a necessity when you can go anywhere in space and time), the revelation of a threat to that society, an exploration of the consequences of that threat, and then a resolution of that threat.

The current series drops the exploration part, in order to get the story down to forty-five minutes, so we now just have arrival in a new place — threat — threat defeated, and the arrival is now often reduced to the pre-credits sequence. We don’t have enough time to understand the world into which we’re dropped before we’re worried that it’s being threatened (which possibly explains the new series’ fascination with early 21st century earth, a time and place that require no explanation to the viewers).

This would be just about acceptable, except that on top of this every episode has to do triple duty.

Doctor Who as originally conceived was essentially an anthology series with recurring characters — there was a certain amount of character growth, but that was fundamentally not the point. Ian and Barbara are little different when they leave in The Chase than when we first meet them in An Unearthly Child, Ian still the upright authority figure with a slight sense of youthful mischief, Barbara still the practical mumsy one. The closest thing the series came to examining the characters’ emotional lives would be, after events that would have induced Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in any normal human, for them to say in the next episode “Gosh, it was terribly scary being chased by the Daleks/shrunk to an inch high and poisoned/being sold into slavery/being sentenced to death during the French revolution, wasn’t it?”

But the new series has bought into the common consensus that stories ‘should’ be about character change and growth, and in particular that they ‘should’ be about the emotional state of the protagonist, so time has to be made for the Doctor and his companion to have emotional moments — these don’t usually come in any organic way from the story being told, but are just dropped in. As well as telling the story it’s trying to tell, the story has to fit into a ‘character arc’ and make time to advance that.

And on top of that, there is the idea that the series needs a ‘story arc’, rather than just telling stories, and so on top of everything else it then has to make some time to advance a series-long (or multi-series) plot.

The result is something that’s trying to get twice as much material as an old series story into half the space. While many of the old series stories did feel slightly over-extended (though often the extra space could be used for character moments that grew organically from the story rather than being imposed upon it), there’s simply not enough space in a forty-five minute story to do justice to all these aspects.

This may well be why the most acclaimed episodes of the post-2005 series so far are Blink (which barely features the Doctor or his companion and so can get on with telling a done-in-one story) and Human Nature (a two-parter which manages to *very* sneakily tie into the main season arc in a way that does triple duty for advancing its own plot and the character relationships).

I’m not suggesting that the post-2005 series should go back to the pre-1989 status quo — I happen to like that format, but that’s a preference on my part, rather than it being definitively better or worse. What I do suggest is that they should either get rid of the ongoing subplots and tell done-in-one stories, or expand all the stories into two-parters. Either one would, I think, solve half the storytelling problems that the series has, and allow an episode like this one, which actually had a lot of potential, to realise that potential.

Oh, and they should sack Murray Gold. Obviously.

12 Responses to “Doctor Who: The Rings Of Akhaten”

  1. New Doctor Who Post on Mindless Ones | Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! Says:

    [...] Where I (sort of) discuss last week’s episode Share this:PrintEmail [...]

  2. Phil Sandifer Says:

    The serial rapist claim was actually me quoting Anna Wiggins of stringofbits.net.

    I find the question of Doctor Who’s current narrative velocity increasingly fascinating. On the one hand, I find it offputting as well, and I think it’s telling that the best episode of the season, The Snowmen, was the one where the story got an extra fifteen minutes to breathe. On the other, ratings and AI remain fine, leaving me wondering if I’m just the modern day equivalent of someone scoffing at glam rock and saying everybody looks like they should be on Doctor Who. The empirical fact that this structure does work for a lot of people continues to give me real pause. I’ve found almost all of Series 7 to be decidedly average, but I constantly suspect I’m doing it wrong.

  3. Chris T Says:

    Yeah… Murray Gold has pretty much ruined most of the Nu Who shows for me with his syrupy heavy handed emoting.

    To be fair though it’s not entirely his fault though; the person who has put his music so high in the mix should also take a large slice of the blame too.

  4. Andrew Hickey Says:

    “On the other, ratings and AI remain fine, leaving me wondering if I’m just the modern day equivalent of someone scoffing at glam rock and saying everybody looks like they should be on Doctor Who.”

    This is a very real problem for me, too. I don’t actually own a TV, and pretty much the only new TV I’ve seen for the last eight years or so has been the first three series of QI, The Thick Of It, Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle and Doctor Who. I suspect this doesn’t give me much of a baseline by which to judge.

    At the same time, though, my tastes are my tastes, and if they’re the tastes of a grumpy old man, so be it, I can’t judge by any criteria other than the ones I have…

  5. Mattyoung Says:

    Additionally, there’s the issue that, for the most part, I feel that most of the post-2005 Doctor Who two-parters are pretty bad: Daleks in Manhattan, Sontaram Stratagem, The Rebel Flesh… they almost always feel like they’re struggling for something to do with the extra space.

  6. Dave Page Says:

    But some of the post-2005 two-parters have been great – The Family of Blood, The Empty Child, even Army of Ghosts is above average for Tennant’s era. Silence in the Library was good at the time, though jaded in hindsight by River Song fatigue.

    The two-parter format can work. I think it fails when the writer doesn’t trust the audience to hold more information in their heads than is generally presented in a one-part series. Or when they’re a crap writer, of course ;)

  7. Ricardo Baptista Says:

    I’m rather curious about what you have to say about today’s episode (Cold War).

  8. Ben Jones Says:

    If Gold’s music harmed this episode, it may be because too much weight was put on it. The little girl singing, her partner, the whole populace belting it out at the climax: all were supposed to be expressions of the Sublime. The last of these made me think of the “say it loud, say it clear” chorus of Mike and the Mechanics’ “Living Years.” Not the worst thing in the world, but not something that gives me a sense of transcendence. (Jenna Louise Coleman was excellent, though.)

    As for two-parters, I’d point to The Impossible Astronaut as being another good use of the form, which shows that Moffat can do it well. Maybe when he’s gotten this “blockbuster” thing out of his system…

  9. Tim O'Neil Says:

    I am also interested as to what we have to say about this week’s episode. I had a strange, unfamiliar sensation watching COLD WAR – and after a while I figured out that this sensation was that of enjoying an episode of NuWho with no reservations or qualifications.

    It’s set in 1983, and damned if it wasn’t trying it’s damnedest to work like a 1983 episode, enough so that I found myself wondering halfway through if we were going to get another shot of Tegan whining about trying to get back to Heathrow. Sure, the episode nicks a lot from ALIEN, and the ending is a classic cop-out, but all in the grand Who tradition.

  10. Desmond Says:

    “Final Crisis,” much?

  11. Kit Says:

    A++ on the Murray Gold takedown. It’s fascinating the way Moffatt deliberately played a variation of RTD’s model of Who, rather than reinventing as much as one would have expected, but retaining Gold is the most painful and inexplicable aspect of this. At least he got turned down slightly in Seasons 5 and 6.

  12. The reason Doctor Who is the best thing on TV | The Reinvigorated Programmer Says:

    [...] Rings of Akhaten can provoke such different reviews as (in chronological order) Millennium’s, Andrew Whickey’s, mine and Andrew [...]

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