Nobody ever asks me this, but if anyone ever did care to ask, “Dustin, is there anything about Classic Doctor Who (the series as it existed from 1952-1989) that you prefer to Current Who (the series from 2005-now and beyond)?” I would tell them, “Yes. Current Who isn’t alien enough for me.”
Classic Who has a reputation for being too low-budget, corny, boring, silly, and a bunch of other negative adjectives. When I get people into Doctor Who they very quickly say, “I’ll watch the new stuff but keep that goofy old junk away!” Wat people who avoid Classic Who are missing is how bold, imaginative, expansive, detailed, and alien the show was.
Much like my other favorite sci-fi series, The Twilight Zone, Classic Who had to do extraordinary things with a budget less than my rent payment. Those responsible for creating the universe The Doctor explores put their all into it and committed themselves into showing the audience something it has never seen before. Like the planet Thoros Beta from one of Doctor Who’s most despised era, The Trial of a Time Lord. People accuse that series as being all those terrible adjectives alluded to above. But, honestly, I love it because of worlds like this:
I read from a lot of newly converted sci-fi fans that really colorful and out-there costumes, sets, creatures, and worlds are just too phony for them. They want their science-FICTION grounded in reality. A 1,000 year old alien with two hearts that travels around all of time and space in a reto police box that’s bigger on the inside is fine. But a planet with pink water and a green sky is bullshit!
It’s shallow of me, I know, but this is precisely what I love about the latest episode of Doctor Who, The Rings of Akhaten. The Doctor constantly promises all of time and space. Only we get mostly quick glimpses of these wondrous places. More of them were seen and explored in Classic Who than were even mentioned in Current Who.
The previews for this one both excited and worried me. The alien world and creepy creatures looked fun, but I was worried that it might turn into an episode like The Beast Below. A lot of neat stuff that doesn’t add up to anything. While watching it, I let out a deep breath of thanks. This was the episode I’d been waiting for.
There will be many more viewings of this adventure before I have satisfied my hunger for cool aliens. Not only that, but practical makeup aliens. If there is one thing that televised sci-fi gets right over cinematic sci-fi, it is the use of practical effects in creating impossible things. Foam, latex, and paint don’t make the aliens any more possible, or even real, than manipulated code, but it does give it a presence. The actors are clearly occupying the same space as these fantastic beings.
Seeing The Doctor and Clara mingle through the festival on the Day of Offering reminded me of the legendary Star Wars Cantina scene and the orgasmically creative and weird Troll Market from Hellboy 2. Scenes like that send my imagination soaring. I begin to fantasize about who they are, where they came from, what brought them there, where will they go next? It elevates the story to a point where it lives beyond itself.
Beyond tickling my nerd bone (I should really call it something else) this episode finally gave me a reason to invest in Clara. Until now she has been nothing special. Many others have ponited out (and I totlly agree) that without the mystery surrounding her The Doctor wouldn’t care all that much. Learning about her past, seeing her mourn at a grave in the rain, knowing the significance of her leaf (or page one), watching her natural instinct to protect children, and the origin of that, made me see that maybe she is something other than just a mystery.
That is another thing I really enjoyed about The Rings of Akhaten. When the Queen of Years (such a neat title) hides behind the Tardis, she and Clara just talk. They bond. In the middle of all this wonderment, two people sit behind a blue box and have a conversation. I’ve said it already, but Doctor Who is in desperate need of character moments like this. Quiet scenes that give everyone a chance to breathe and ease more into what they’re watching.
There is also a lot said in the episode about the nature of life, family, stories, and the cosmos. When the Doctor explained the origin of all life in the universe and how it all stems from the same place and said that ending Mary’s life would be not a sacrifice but a waste, I actually cried a little. And then when he attempted to sacrifice his story, all that he’d seen and experienced, and screamed at the parasite Old God with a tear in his eye:
I trembled. That was powerful. If that does not demonstrate to you the greatness that is Matt Smith and the 11th Doctor then nothing ever will. He is a Doctor for the ages. In that moment I could see each and every incarnation of the Time Lord, Hartnell, Troughton, Pertwee, Baker, Davison, Baker (Colin), McCoy, McGann, Eccleston, and Tennant, screaming with him. Those are the Doctor moments that I live for. When the scope, power, and vastness of him is put out there to be viewed with utter awe. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, as it did here, I am properly inspired.
Series 7, so far, has not been a particularly impressive one. The first half felt misguided and uneven. The Bells of Saint John was an improvement, and The Rings Of Akhaten was a giant leap forward.
Next week we see the return of a foe that has not been seen since the time of John Pertwee (the third Doctor). Their appearance is being handled by (for me anyway) Doctor Who’s biggest hit-and-miss writer, Mark Gatiss. I really hope that The Doctor on a sub can hold up to The Doctor and Clara destroying a planet God with a leaf.