Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Greatest Story Ever Told, or One of Them Anyway: Doctor Who and the Rings of Akhenaten

            Right oh. . .


            Teenaged suicide, school shootings, conspiracy theories and Wagnerian Opera. No wonder nobody wants to read this blog!

           So, just this once, I’m going to write about something happy. In this post, I am not going to write about Rehteah Parsons (damnit, will we never learn??) and I’m not going to write about the Boston bomber. I’m not to write about Margaret Fucking Thatcher, and I’m not going to write about Climate Change, and I’m certainly not going to write about my bleedin’ Visa Bill.

            Nope, I’m going to write about something happy for a change. To make up for lost time, I’m going to write about the single happiest thing in the world, the one thing guaranteed to carve a smile on the most granite of grumpy faces. I’m going to write about the 100% effective, never been known to fail diamond-tipped happy drill, the best thing humanity’s ever come up with, the great compensation of dwelling on this merciless mud ball earth. . .

            That’s right: I’m going to write about Doctor Who.


            Doctor Who is the Greatest Story Ever Told. It is so much better than that other one, for reasons we shall see. Doctor Who is magic. Is joy. Is the repository of all that is great and wonderful in the human imagination. If you don’t like Doctor Who, then we’ve got nothing in common and you need to go away. Shoo.

            Now I’m not going to write about this week’s episode of Doctor Who, which I haven’t seen yet, and I’m not going to write about last week’s episode with the Ice Warrior (why bring back the bleedin’ Ice Warriors if you didn’t want an Ice Warrior style monster? Why bring back a big, hulking monster if you didn’t want a big hulking monster for the story?). I’m definitely not going to write about how next November’s 50 Year Anniversary story is apparently only going to celebrate the last eight years (No Baker, Davidson or McCoy??? Go fuck yourself Moffat. Go fuck yourself.) No no, I’m going to talk about the episode before that one, the “Rings of Akhaten”, by Neil Cross.


            I’m going to write about “Rings of Akhaten” because it made me happy, and that’s the theme for today. It made me righteously, uproariously happy. It made me sing, dance, laugh and cry (and every time they interrupted it with adverts for Tim Hortons Panini rolls, I did cry). I loved this story. It was the best story I’d seen all year, the best story I’d seen in many years, possibly the best story I’d ever seen.

           Yes you read that right: “The Rings of Akhaten” may very well be the greatest Doctor Who story I have ever seen.

            Is that enough hyperboyle for ya? Well too bad, I’ve got a whole lot more on the way. . .

             I may of course change my mind next time I watch Genesis of the Daleks, or Logopolis, or Earthshock or The Caves of Androzani. But here’s the thing:

            When a franchise has gone on for this long, when a story’s been told for this long, sometimes the only thing left to do is make the story about itself. Not in some stupid post-modernist sense – I don’t mean textual self consciousness, or self parody or winking at the audience or any of that nonsense. I mean just getting to the heart of the matter, finally recognizing what the story’s been about all this time.

            “The Rings of Akhaten” is a story about stories, what they are and why they matter. Basically, they’re two things: memories and hope. Memories “of love and loss and birth and death and joy and sorrow”, or in other words, all the things that make us human. And Hope, for the future, for what May Be.
            (I suppose Fear may be the other side of the same coin, but happiness is the theme for today, so I’ll stick with Hope).

            It’s an explanation I think would have made Bradbury proud (Peace be Upon Him). 
            That is was said here in the context of Doctor Who is all the more appropriate: after all, who is the Doctor but an eternal storyteller? What does he give us week after week after week but another story? And what is that makes us human if not stories?

            And what a story. . .

            “ All the elements in your body were forged many many millions of years ago in the heart of a faraway star that exploded and died. That explosion scattered those elements across the desolations of deep space. After so many millions of years those elements came together to form new stars and new planets and on and on it went. . .until eventually they came together to make you. . .

            Writer Neil Cross is basically paraphrasing astronomer Lawrence Krauss here, who once said "nevermind Jesus, the stars died so you could live!" The context here is that the Doctor is telling the story to the Mary Galhel, the "Queen of the Years", a little girl of no more than ten.  Young Mary has been raised from birth to sign lullabies to, and if necessary, give herself up to her planet's angry god. In a breathtaking display of cultural insensitivity, the Doctor imposes his values on her by basically insisting this is bollocks:

           " You are unique in the universe. There is only one Mary Galhel, and there will never be another. Getting rid of that existence isn’t a sacrifice: it is a waste!”
            In other words, no God is worth more than the life of a child.

            Or anyone for that matter.

            Let the Boston bombers suck on that!
            In a world where people are told to give their lives at the drop of a hat. For Gods and Ideologies and Causes. Either to throw away their lives or devote their whole lives to something else. Here we’ve got something different:

             You matter. Not those invisible men in the sky or their petty jealousies. You matter.  People matter, human beings matter. Nothing’s more precious. That, deep down, is the message of Doctor Who. It’s always been the message, since William Hartnell landed the TARDIS in a scrapyard on Totters Lane. But it’s never been put more beautifully than in “The Rings of Akhaten”.
           The STARS died so you could live!
            Now isn’t that a much better story than that OTHER one they always tell which goes on about how wretched and sinful you are?  

No Wonder Goebbels loved it: a take on Wagner's Parsifal

            Folks out there who’s exposure to Wagnerian opera extends no further than “The Flight of the Valkyries” may be forgiven for thinking that Wagnerian opera might kick ass.

            Those suffering said delusion may be forgiven for being lured to a production of Parsifal by buzz words like “Holy Grail”, “Knights”, “Holy Speer” and “Evil Magician”. Maybe it will be exciting! Maybe it will kick ass!  Such misguided folk could be forgiven for thinking so, and for actually seeking out a Met production of the Wagnerian opus  Parsifal at their local Silver City. 
What could go wrong?
                       Such folk will be punished all the same: Parsifal is the single most boring experience it is possible to have in a theatre. Watching Parsifal is like watching paint dry, like watching grass grow, like watching frozen treacle drip down a gently sloping hill. Parsifal is slower than continental drift, slower than evolution by natural selection, slower than fossilization, a dour, dreary, utterly joyless affair that slowly drains the audience of the will to live.

Neitzsche:"A work of perfidy, vindictiveness, of a
secret attempt to poison the presumptions of life."
            Worse than that, Parsifal is a manifesto of a repugnant philosophy, a repudiation of human feeling and earthly existence, a work Nietzsche called a work of perfidy, of vindictiveness, of a secret attempt to poison the presumptions of life.”

            Did I mention it was slow?

            So what’s Parsifal about then? Basically, it’s the story of one young man’s journey to find a magic stick. He leaves home one day, manages not to get laid, brings home the stick, and everyone lives happily ever after.   That’s it. I swear that’s all that happens. I am not leaving out pertinent details. Parsifal leaves. Parsifal does not get laid. Parsifal returns. That my friends is the first, second and third act, summed up in their entirety. There are no plot twists, no sub plots, no secondary characters, no red herrings, no comic relief, no action of any kind.  
             That is all that happens.
            So how does a plot so paper thin sustain itself over 340 agonizing minutes?


            It takes Parsifal a good forty minutes to take off his hood. It takes Amfortas the better part of two hours not to die. It takes Parsifal the better part of three not to get laid. There is not a single action, a single word, a single bloody thing isn’t slapped onto a torture rack and stretched to triple, quadruple, quintuple its natural length. It makes Peter Jackson look like a master of brevity, and Stephen King a model of self restraint. There’s not an idea that isn’t repeated, a statement that isn’t prolonged, a theme that isn’t pounded into the head and relentlessly stamped into the ground.


Give us a smile then!
            Hundreds of people stand on stage doing just about nothing. Most of the time, they don’t even sing; Wagner never let his puppets sing overtop one another (so much for harmonizing). The music never wavers from one long, slow, dour, indistinct dirge, not even during the supposedly triumphant moments, which here feel more exhausting than triumphant, like marathon runners crawling toward the finish line, just glad that it’s over.


            “Please Dickie, please! I’m beggin’ on my knees! Just once, just once, once in the almost six hours you’ve demanded of me ! Pick up the tempo, or give us a crescendo! Something, anything, to please the ear or awaken the soul.


            But don't just take my word for it:

Twain: didn't like it either
"I was not able to detect in the vocal parts of Parsifal anything that might with confidence be called rhythm or tune or melody... Singing! It does seem the wrong name to apply to it... In Parsifal there is a hermit named Gurnemanz who stands on the stage in one spot and practices by the hour, while first one and then another of the cast endures what he can of it and then retires to die."


            Everyone on stage looks like they’re waiting to die. Amfortas is the one with the gaping spear wound, but everyone here exudes pain and exhaustion. Even when the king is healed by the magic stick, and the grail is revealed and the cast sing of meadows and flowers and “highest joy of miracles”, nobody smiles. Nobody looks remotely pleased by the events which have transpired. This is an opera bereft of feeling, bereft of joy, bereft of life. It’s a purgatory of muted death. It’s the kind of stage production a Dalek would enjoy.   

          The funny thing is my friends, none of this is the fault of the director, or the choreographers or the set designers or the costume designers, or any of the good folk down at the MET. No, all the other stuff looks quite extraordinary. The plain stage and the spectacular recorded backdrops and the pools of blood are all most impressive. The interpretation is as vivid as it’s possible to be. No, it is the source material itself, as set down in the score by Dickie Wagner himself that will allow for nothing but suicidal boredom.  See, Dickie would never allow such trivial things as suspense, or humour, or melody or genuine human feeling to sully his work. He wanted to transcend all that, and in so doing help the audience transcend any desire to ever return to the opera.
            We are introduced to the wounded  king in the first act, but it is difficult to care about his fate, since we never really see what difference his death will make: his world is so dreary to begin with.

The King, Amfortas (Peter Mattei) is finally saved by the holy grail; by this point it's impossible to care.

               The entirety of the second act is given over to Wagner’s hatred of humanity. As Parsifal struggles to free himself from Kundry’s embrace, we get the idea that in Wagner’s world there is no sin more heinous than sexual love, and no sinner worse than the sexualized woman. Kundry, the only character in the entire opera capable of any warmth, of any life at all, is constantly told how wretched she is, “The devil’s whore!” suffering from “desire sent from hell!”, and finally dies at the end for no reason at all. In Wagner’s world, a whore is any woman who enjoys human contact apparently, and in Wagner’s world, the only good whore is a dead whore apparently.  Parsifal rejects the human touch and throws his life away in search of some magic stick. In Wagner’s world, this is a good thing. In Wagner’s world, earthly things are full of sin, and only in cutting ourselves off from our earthly existences can we achieve spiritual transcendence. That being the case, it becomes impossible to care about this opera.

Paragon of virtue: it takes Parsifal (Jonas Kaufmann) takes three hours not to get laid.

            How can one care, with the story so thoroughly drained of life?

             I honestly didn’t give a damn about Parsifal or his magic stick. I couldn’t care less whether Amfortas lived or died. I didn’t give two flying. . .farts about the knights of the round table or their lousy grail. The only character I cared about was Kundry. Who died.  With a story so drained of human content, so too is drained any reason to care. Any character to sympathize with, any want or need or desire to identify with, anything at all to cling to.  There are no people on stage; only religious ciphers. Personally, I don’t give a damn about ciphers, which renders the entire story pretty much worthless to me.
The temptress Kundry, here played by Katarina Dalayman. The only character in the whole opera of any vitality (to even display a pulse really), mercylously condemned and killed off to satisfy Wagner's masochistic vision of virtue.

            I walked out of Parsifal feeling my time had been wasted and my afternoon ruined. My cold was also worse from sitting for six hours in a drafty cinema. I had a pounding throbbing headache, a nose like a leaky faucet, and a throat that felt it had just been cut with a rusty razor. Furthermore, my brain and my soul felt like they’d just been stuffed with cigarette ashes. What a grey, dry and dusty world this is. . . I had to counteract the effect with something, anything. Some Bizet, some Tchaikovsky, some Beatles, even some Sharon Lois and Fucking Bram.  Anything to remind myself that music could still reflect life and that life could still be beautiful and warm.

           No wonder Goebbels loved the experience. 

"My greatest experience at the opera. . .by the end, I was completely overwhelmed."