‘The Black Archive #42: The Rings of Akhaten’

 Si Hart reviews the latest release from Obverse Books in their Black Archive range.

In 2013, Doctor Who returned for a half series of stories leading up to the anniversary special, The Day of the Doctor. These stories introduced the so-called Impossible Girl, Clara Oswald, as the Doctor’s new companion and saw the two of them embark on adventures pitting them against The Great Intelligence, the Cybermen, Ice Warriors among others. One of the stories that didn’t reference the past was her first trip to an alien world, The Rings of Akhaten, and the latest release from the Black Archive series takes an indepth look at this story.

The Rings of Akhaten is a story that’s not rated too highly by fans of the show, despite being written by one of TV’s top writers, Neil Cross. Cross devised and wrote the hit show Luther leading perhaps to some raised expectations for the first of his Doctor Who stories. William Shaw takes this as the starting point for his book, as this is an episode he has come to love, despite its reputation. Could there be more to it than everyone thought back in 2013?

Shaw takes a look at the question of how fan expectation can work against a story in his third chapter, which has an in-depth look at Neil Cross’s work for TV. The analysis of how The Rings of Akhaten relates to some of the wider themes of his other work is really strong, even if comparisons between Doctor Who and his other television work are difficult because he was writing for a very different audience. Shaw’s look at how the Doctor’s heroic speech plays out to different age groups is very interesting and the questions of why fans like the speech divorced from the episode itself is a really fascinating piece of writing.

Shaw’s main analysis of the story begins by looking at the episode as one that addresses New Atheism themes. This theory, originally postulated by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene, says that religion has no place in the modern world which really ought to be appreciated in a secular way. Much of the first part of the essay is devoted to an explanation of this theory before going on to discuss how the Doctor comes across both as New Atheist and also often as a patronising and arrogant orientalist scholar.

It’s hard to disagree with this assertion, especially as the Doctor is so dismissive of the tenements of the Akhaten religion and particularly of Merry and her potential sacrifice to Grandfather. Shaw’s argument here is persuasive and assured, and I particularly liked how he contrasted the Doctor’s treatment of Merry with other interactions with children, notably those in The Eleventh Hour and Night Terrors, throughout the Eleventh Doctor’s era.

I was somewhat less convinced by other arguments made in the rest of the book. Much is made of the misogynistic way that the end of the story is portrayed, particularly Clara as the hero given shorter shrift than the Doctor’s heroic speech. Shaw deals with this through a contemporary feminist prism, showing how Clara is written and portrayed and how the direction and music work against her. The fourth chapter looks at Clara’s character in some detail, again with a focus on the way the Doctor is written in as self-loathing and misogynistic in many ways. The Doctor as stalker theme is looked into thoroughly.

I did find the analysis of Clara as a Manic Pixie Girl or Mary Sue rather annoying. Shaw makes the argument for this reading in light of this particular episode well, but too often interesting strands were cut off as being beyond the remit of the book. The arguments made look weak when we look at Clara’s character arc as a whole and the ultimate conclusion seemed to me to only appear that I’d read pages of this only for it not to matter much really. It also felt like a jump to me that Shaw’s ultimate argument about that the way Clara is written paves the way for a female Doctor seemed a big leap of logic, trying to make the facts fit his point of view.

The interview with the show’s director, Farren Blackburn is more satisfying. It is quoted liberally throughout the essays and provides much context for how the episode was made and the thinking behind many of the creative decisions within it. It was good to have it reproduced in full and shows how thorough Shaw has been with his sources.

Overall, I came away from this Black Archive feeling a bit baffled by some of the analysis within it. That may be more a personal thing than anything else as its most definitely a thorough piece of analysis. It has made me keen to rewatch the episode though to see if William Shaw’s arguments hold up, so that’s a positive outcome.

 ‘The Black Archive: The Rings of Akhaten’ is out now from Obverse Books, RRP £3.99 – £8.99. Buy Black Archive books from the Obverse Books website!

Green-fingered librarian Simon Hart is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.

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