Image Description: A member of The Vigil
By William Shaw
I watch an unremarkable episode of Doctor Who. It has some singing, some ambitious special effects, the Doctor vanishes partway through, and it ends with his companion confronting him in the TARDIS. It’s kind of okay. A week later I read the IGN review, which states that “The Rings of Akhaten couldn’t match its lofty ambitions and sci-fi inspirations”. I agree, and move on to the AS Levels I am supposed to be revising for.
I watch a remarkable episode of Doctor Who. Kill the Moon airs the week before I leave home for university. It has some ambitious special effects, the Doctor vanishes partway through, and it ends with his companion confronting him in the TARDIS. There is no singing. It’s a game-changer. While I am more immediately engaged by the episodes before and after it, it kick-starts a period of Doctor Who which will keep me engaged once I actually get to university, and which I will eventually come to call my favourite.
I am coming to the end of the hardest two months of my life. I have, for reasons too convoluted to relate, spent the last eight weeks in a self-destructive loop, lurching from gruelling work to scarce, unsteady sleep. I am one week away from the end of term and sorting my fucking life out, but I still have six miserable days of obligations to fulfil. I watch Heaven Sent on my faithful old laptop, and nearly cry from the emotional release.
In a week’s time I will watch Hell Bent in my parents’ living room, and not quite get it. On a later watch, I will recognise it as the better half of the story, but Heaven Sent is the half I need right now.
February 2016 (or thereabouts)
I attend my first meeting of the Oxford Doctor Who Society; it’s great fun, and I think we watch School Reunion followed by The Caretaker. I bond with the only other guy in the room who likes Kill the Moon. In the pub afterwards I get to know a group of people I will one day count among my best friends.
I listen to a podcast criticising something called ‘New Atheism.’ It is apparently an ideology characterised by condescending and ignorant attitudes to other cultures, which is counter-productive in its attempts to address social problems. I also watch The Rings of Akhaten, since it has popped up on BBC iPlayer. In it, the Doctor condescends to a little girl, revealing his ignorance of her culture, and his attempts to help are so counter-productive he has to be bailed out by Clara using a leaf. In the back of my head, something begins to click.
I give a talk to assembled Shitposters and Oxford Doctor Who Society members, entitled ‘Why The Rings of Akhaten is Top Episode – Notes Towards a Larger Critique’. It has become a remarkable episode; my favourite, in fact. The talk goes down very well, leading to a lovely Q&A during which I make copious notes of things to incorporate when I submit this lecture as part of a proposal to Obverse Books, the aforementioned Larger Critique. We then proceed to a viewing of Earthshock which ranks among the most enjoyable (one is tempted to say excellent) Doctor Who viewing experiences of my life.
Obverse Books accept my proposal, and the writing process begins in earnest. OK, well, actually, I spend the next several months reading postcolonial theory and production arcana, but this is all Vital Research, or at least that’s what I tell myself. I also watch Hard Sun, Neil Cross’s new detective series about the end of the world. Its apocalyptic vision, which heavily features the heroes sitting around in their houses and cars looking miserable, seems impossibly far-fetched. The appearance of a giant evil sun at the end of Episode Six at least demonstrates Cross’s consistent themes.
I interview The Rings of Akhaten‘s director, Farren Blackburn. I feel nervous, and clutch a sheaf of scribbled notes as I prepare to interview him. But he puts me at ease, and is remarkably patient with this strange fanboy asking him how he directed Matt Smith, as well asking whether he thought about Cold War while he did it. He sends me a behind-the-scenes document which he later gives me permission to publish in the finished book. The document is pure joy; when I finish reading it, I am grinning from ear to ear.
I submit the first draft of my Rings of Akhaten book to my main editor, Philip Purser-Hallard. This begins a valuable correspondence as we work through drafts two and three, while fellow editor Paul Simpson and publisher Stuart Douglas weigh in. They all give excellent feedback, and coax me into producing some of my favourite parts of the finished manuscript. These include an extended section on cosmic horror and haunting in Cross’s wider work; a passage on the Long Song which I am finally confident actually works as music criticism; and a note on why Clara Oswald might be a Weeping Angel. Working with such thoughtful, rigorous, and patient editors is one of the many privileges of writing this book.
My Black Archive on The Rings of Akhaten is published a few weeks ahead of schedule, and the UK goes into lockdown. It feels like the apocalypse, but mainly consists of sitting at home, and in cars, feeling miserable. Having the book to promote is a very welcome distraction. The reviews are positive, and the messages from friends are an absolute joy in an unprecedented, uncertain, and unrelenting time. My girlfriend and I have started singing ‘rest nooooowwww, myyyyy warrrriiooooorrrrrr…’ to each other when we are feeling particularly stressed.
I have given multiple interviews about the Rings of Akhaten book; recorded a commentary track for the episode; a (very bad) vocal for a metal cover of the Long Song which will feature hundreds of fans; and join the swelling ranks of #LockdownWho. An entire new subgenre of Doctor Who, forming spontaneously in history’s wake. I have been asked to contribute a piece about the episode to The Tides of Time. I sit in my darkening bedroom, late on a Tuesday evening, and bang out a piece on the same laptop I first watched Heaven Sent on. This is my last time writing about The Rings of Akhaten. Until the next one.
The double issue of Tides 45/46 is, at time of publication, available to buy through this link