Alex Moreland interviews William Shaw about Doctor Who, his new book about The Rings of Akhaten, and more…
I recently sat down with William Shaw – a writer and blogger originally from Sheffield, now based in London, whose work has appeared in Star*Line, Space & Time, The Martian Wave, The Oxford Culture Review, and Doctor Who Magazine – to discuss his upcoming book about The Rings of Akhaten. It’s the latest in the Black Archive series published by Obverse Books; each book takes an in-depth look at a different episode of Doctor Who.
What follows is a wide-ranging discussion, getting to grips with William’s love for the controversial Series 7 episode, how it engages with and critiques both New Atheism and imperialism, and what it’s like to write a book about Doctor Who.
So, let’s start with the obvious question. Why The Rings of Akhaten? What do you like about it?
I think it’s one of the boldest, most ambitious, and most radical episodes in all of Doctor Who. It’s a heartfelt story, lushly realised and beautifully performed. It’s a vital early step in the journey of Clara Oswald, the best companion (and arguably the best Doctor) the show has ever had. It’s an early commentary on the show’s fiftieth anniversary. And, as I talk about in the book, it’s a fascinating engagement with contemporary politics. I basically think it’s a critique of New Atheism (cf Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, etc) and its relationship to Doctor Who, but in doing that it necessarily touches on the legacy of colonialism, and Clara and Merry’s relationship in the story is an interesting way into some topics from feminist theory. Like Clara’s leaf, it looks simple, but it contains multitudes.
You’ve written forty thousand words about The Rings of Akhaten. Can you tell us a little about the different ideas/analysis you’ve touched on? Is there anything that might particularly surprise people? Or indeed that surprised you?
My starting point, as I say, was New Atheism, and talking about that necessarily meant bringing in some postcolonial theory, particularly Edward Said. It’s remarkable how unimpressive the arguments of, say, Sam Harris really are when you realise Said was already on top of them in 1978. I also brought in some feminist theory, and Chandra Talpade Mohanty’s book Feminism Without Borders was really helpful in structuring the second chapter.
Of course, there’s been plenty of good academic work about Doctor Who, and I was very impressed by Lindy Orthia’s work, although I didn’t quote much of it directly. Matt Hills’ writing about the media event of Doctor Who‘s fiftieth anniversary was really useful, especially in chapter four where I talk about how The Rings of Akhaten ties in with that anniversary. Then of course there’s the other Black Archives; Kate Orman’s on Pyramids of Mars and Alyssa Franke’s on Hell Bent were my favourites, and provided good models for what I wanted to do.
The most pleasant surprise in researching the book was when I was reading the contemporary reviews, and found out that Charlie Jane Anders had written about the episode. She’s one of my favourite authors working at the moment, so it was really nice to get her perspective.
Do you need to have an academic background at all to understand some of the ideas in the book?
I hope not! Having just name-dropped all that academic theory, I always aimed this book at the general reader (alright, maybe someone with more Doctor Who knowledge than the general reader, but still). I hope the book can be some people’s way into that academic theory; I think Doctor Who fandom would be in a much better place if more people had read Orientalism, for example. But you don’t need to have studied this stuff to follow the book. I took care to explain academic concepts whenever I introduced them, and I don’t think there’s anything in the bibliography beyond a first-year undergrad level. My main editor, Philip Purser-Hallard, was very good at pointing out when I needed to explain things further or correct mistakes.
So, for those who are unfamiliar, could you explain what New Atheism and Orientalism actually are? How are they relevant to Doctor Who?
New Atheism is quite a broad phenomenon, but basically it refers to an uptick in popular atheist writing and political activity in Europe and America in the mid-to-late 2000s. Being the mid-to-late 2000s, it bears a clear relationship to the War on Terror, and the reactionary Islamophobia of that time (and this one). The most famous New Atheists are the ‘Four Horsemen’: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett. In the book I mostly concentrate on their writing, but the movement was large, and Very Online, so its influence can still be felt today, especially on social media and sites like YouTube.
Orientalism is a concept originally created by the literary theorist Edward Said, in his 1978 book Orientalism, and it’s foundational to postcolonial theory. Very basically, it refers to the intellectual paradigm by which western imperial powers have historically understood ‘the East,’ or ‘the Orient,’ with little or no reference to those regions’ actual histories and cultures. ‘The Orient’ is simultaneously ancient and childlike, in need of protection and care from enlightened, mature westerners. Which is terribly convenient if you happen to be a colonial power. I highly recommend people read Orientalism, and the follow-up, Culture and Imperialism; they’re very rich but also very readable.
These two things interact with each other, of course; there’s quite a bit of Orientalist thinking in New Atheism, and Said was actually friends with Christopher Hitchens at one point. But they both also interact with Doctor Who. The New Atheist movement was roughly contemporary with Russell T Davies’ revival of the show; Davies has said he took ‘Bad Wolf’ from Dawkins’ idea of the meme. Pretty much any time religion comes up in the Davies era, there’s a clear New Atheist influence. Orientalism goes back even further; the whole show comes out of the Victorian tradition of adventure fiction, which is just soaked in the attitudes Said describes. How many times has the Doctor visited an alien world with an ancient, mystical past populated by ignorant, squabbling aliens? How many times has he stepped in as an enlightened outsider to fix another people’s culture? It’s not fair to single out Doctor Who in this, really, because it’s just endemic to so much science fiction.
I understand that the first time you watched the episode, it left you a little cold – what was it that clicked for you the second time around?
That’s right, and this is something I talk about in the book. The key was making that connection with New Atheism. I remember watching it on broadcast and just going ‘Yeah, that was OK,’ but a few years later I happened to listen to a podcast criticising the history of New Atheism around the time Series 7 was being repeated (or was showing up on iPlayer, anyway). It was like fitting together pieces of a jigsaw. Realising that the Doctor wasn’t necessarily in the right, that the episode was about him making a crucial mistake, was what really cracked it for me; it became a whole new episode. Which is the story of that whole series, really.
The Rings of Akhaten is a little controversial, as an episode of Doctor Who. What would you say to the people who aren’t so fond?
Give it a watch with fresh eyes. Once you have the context of the rest of the series, and especially of Clara’s development through the Capaldi era, it’s much easier to see what the episode is going for, and largely succeeding at. I’d also say, keep an open mind to the setting; one of my favourite things about Doctor Who is that it can show us such strange and captivating worlds, things like The Web Planet or The End of the World. If you can groove on that sense of exploration, and are willing to be surprised, I think the quality of the film-making really shines through.
It’s also situated in a run of episodes which are themselves looked on a little less than fondly – there’s a school of thought that says Series 7 is the weakest of the Steven Moffat era. You’re an ardent defender of that series – what is it you like about them?
Series 7 is my favourite of the Matt Smith era. There are lots of reasons for this, but foremost is the sheer quality of the individual stories. It has a rich variety of settings and styles, and a fantastic sense of forward momentum; it has the best ‘series opener/companion introduction’ of the entire Moffat era in The Bells of St John, it has some of the best episodes Chris Chibnall and Mark Gatiss ever wrote, and it’s topped off by the two best specials Doctor Who has ever done. It’s also, I think, the best Doctor Who has ever looked; Saul Metzstein, Nick Hurran, Colm McCarthy, Farren Blackburn, and Jamie Payne are among the show’s best directors, and the cinematography is consistently beautiful.
It’s also a fascinating celebration of the show’s fiftieth anniversary. It’s joyful and triumphant, yes, but there’s real thought, and at times a slight anxiety, about the show and its history. It’s a celebration, but it’s not uncritical. There’s a sense of ‘hooray, we made it fifty years! But how can we keep moving forward?’ And its answer to that question is ‘The Capaldi/Coleman era’, which, as answers go, is pretty great. It’s this fascinating bridge between the two halves of the Moffat era, past and present and future all jumbled together, like some sort of hybrid or something.
Do you think The Rings of Akhaten, and Series 7 more broadly, are due a critical reappraisal soon?
Absolutely. If there’s one thing I want to achieve with this book (other than, hopefully, being interesting to read), it’s to try and shift fandom’s view of this episode. There are plenty of fans who love the episode, of course, and that’s great, but I think if fandom in general can see even part of what I see in it, then my work is done.
As for series 7, I think it is due a reappraisal pretty soon. Now that the Chibnall era is in full swing, now Moffat and Smith aren’t such an active concern, and the buzz of media hype and fan discussions has died down a bit, I think there’s space for people to go back to that series with the benefit of hindsight.
Let’s talk about actually writing the book. Where did that begin for you? What was the process like?
I have a few friends from university who are Doctor Who fans, and we occasionally meet up to have lunch and watch old episodes together. We were having a gathering in October 2017, and I thought this might be an opportunity to road-test my opinions on Akhaten. They very kindly agreed to watch The Rings of Akhaten and let me give a half-hour lecture, so I wrote about 6,000 words and delivered them there. The reception was really great, and my friends gave me lots of helpful feedback; they’re all included in the book’s acknowledgements. I took this initial lecture and their feedback, and refined that into my pitch to Obverse Books, which they very kindly accepted at the start of 2018. After that, as you can imagine, I was off to the races.
Excitingly, you’ve got an exclusive interview with Farren Blackburn, the director of the episode. How did you go about setting that up? Can you tell us anything about what Farren told you?
The credit for that goes to one of my editors, Paul Simpson. He edits Sci-Fi Bulletin, and they interviewed Farren Blackburn about The Innocents around the time I was writing the first draft. So Paul put us in touch, and Farren very kindly agreed to an interview. I don’t want to spoil too much, but he gave some really nice insights, particularly around his direction of actors. It’s an underappreciated aspect of directing, I think, especially on Doctor Who, but he got a great set of performances out of his cast, and it was fascinating to hear some of the thought process behind that. He also very kindly gave me permission to publish a behind-the-scenes document he wrote early in production. I remember grinning when I first read it, his enthusiasm just jumps off the page. Farren has been very generous with his time, and very patient with this strange fanboy talking incessantly about the episode he worked on seven years ago. I’m very grateful to him for that.
Check back this Saturday for the second part of our interview with William, as we ask him what he thinks Neil Cross might’ve been like as Doctor Who showrunner, what he thinks of depictions of faith in the Jodie Whittaker era, and more!
Photo Credit: Lweendo Emmanuel Ndawana