This review contains spoilers. Our spoiler-free review is here.
The Rings Of Akhaten
It’s not hanging around, this latest batch of Doctor Who episodes. Back when Clara talked about the leaf in her book last week, it can’t just have been us that wondered if it was one of those things that tended to get dropped into Doctor Who, only not to take on massive importance until many weeks down the line.
The answer? No it wasn’t. It’s something that took on importance just one episode later. The mystery of the leaf barely lasted a few minutes of The Rings Of Akhaten, as Luther writer Neil Cross’ maiden Doctor Who adventure (at least the first to be screened!) started off by filling in some more of Clara’s backstory, tree foliage included. It also began with the Doctor reading the Beano Summer Special, an inspired way of relating to us that the year, initially, was 1981. It was a good year for The Beano, that. Dennis The Menace hadn’t gone soft at that point.
The aforementioned leaf then had significance to Clara, and significance to the (literal) currency of the episode as well. We met Clara’s 101 Places To See book as well, and the background of that has now been made partly clear (although we suspect more secrets). We’re still not quite sure how she’s died twice, but then there are still things being kept in the series’ back pocket for later.
For here and now though, The Rings Of Akhaten felt like a deliberately Clara-centric episode, as we continued to get to know the Doctor’s latest travelling companion. It was to the point where Matt Smith had a good few minutes off in the early stages, while the excellent Jenna-Louise Coleman did the heavy lifting, befriending a young girl who was living, not without good reason, in fear.
All modern (and some not so modern) Who companions get to do what she did here, of course. Getting a new companion emotionally involved in what’s happening with an alien race early in their time with the Doctor is a must, pretty much next on the list after the bit where they work out that the TARDIS appears more roomy than it looked in the brochure
It’s surely no coincidence then that, just as happened with Rose Tyler (are these parallels deliberate?), Clara’s been whisked deep into the universe (and just as with Amy Pond, we’ve had a glimpse at her childhood). For the show, too, it feels a while since this such an alien adventure has happened quite like this. Last week, Doctor Who firmly planted its feet in modern day London for the first time in recent memory. This time, we got a contained story taking place on a fabulously-realised alien world. Granted, we’ve had alien worlds over the past year or two, but not too many driven so much, visually at least, by such strong exterior shots.
Step forward then one of the undoubted highlights of this episode: the visuals. Putting the moped through space moment aside (it didn’t quite hit the same standard, although was hardly shabby), the visual and special effects work was top notch here. In particular, the shot where Clara saw The Rings Of Akhaten for the first time was excellent, as was the one where the Doctor stood in silhouette right near the end. Doctor Who has done alien worlds before, but there aren’t too many that have ever looked so convincing, inside and out.
The clearly huge effort to put across the sense of a different world carried right the way through the episode too, not least with a bustling marketplace segment that was chock-full of aliens. Eminently freeze-frameable, there was a cracking community of creatures from the costume cupboard here, and it was a lot of fun just spotting them all milling around.
If there was a slight disappointment here though, it’s that the story that glued all this together was the weakest part of the mixture.
The subtext of Neil Cross’ script was, for us, ultimately more interesting than what was going on in the foreground. On the surface, here was a story about a young girl being forced by the community behind her to satiate the god they all live in fear of. Along the way, we got to see the compassionate side of Clara (unsurprising, given the character’s background, and range of nanny and housekeeper roles – again, a deliberate theme?). And it ended with a prolonged, ultimately slightly underwhelming denouement as the one of the biggest foes the Doctor had ever faced was beaten seemingly comfortably enough.
Matt Smith’s “she should be scared” speech was extremely good mind, and the three guard-like creatures, who seemed to have dropped in from a game of Doom, were really creepy. And all said, there remains something wonderfully Doctor Who about such a deadly force being defeated by a leaf, a bit of ranting (again) and the belting out of a good tune. At this rate, the show might call on The Bash Street Kids and Dame Vera Lynn as well in weeks to come.
Let’s take a moment for the music though, as this is as good a time as any to touch on the sing-a-long side of the episode. Some people don’t like Doctor Who to go quite this far musically, and the last time it did was with A Christmas Carol a year or two back, when Katherine Jenkins was recruited to fire out a plot-relevant number. We thought it worked really well here though, and while some may shrug, a standalone audio CD release for The Rings Of Akhaten would be very welcome. A big, big round of applause for Murray Gold is surely in order.
Back to the story and that subtext, though. It came as a surprise to some when it was revealed a few years back that Doctor Who in the late 80s was threading in political commentary. Here, Neil Cross’ script was tackling, with varying degrees of subtlety, issues of faith, religion and how communities live in fear of the threat of something bigger (to the point where they’ll put a young girl in mortal danger to save themselves). Furthermore, it does question the fairness of anointing someone at birth for such a massively important task. And heck, why not: if we’re still looking for recurring themes, too, we had a religious order of sorts this week, and the Doctor dressed as a monk last time. Just saying.
One more thing before we wrap up: young Emilia Jones as Merry, the Queen of Years, puts in a performance too that you can really root for. She’s got a bright future ahead of her, and full credit to her. She was terrific here.
So then. Inevitably more of an emotive episode than an action-fuelled one, which is no bad thing in a series run that needs to mix things up, what stopped The Rings Of Akhaten for us fully living up to the promise it set itself was the way it closed off its business, and the fact that the main story never fully ignited if the way you’d hope. It had things to say, but it didn’t all seem to fit into a complete whole, and by the time the big planet turned out to have a mouth and eyes, it felt as if things had sprung a bit of a leak.
A bad episode? Not at all, however grumpy that last paragraph may sound (there’s certainly plenty of reason to look forward to Cross’ next Who story, Hide). It wasn’t bad, it wasn’t great. Instead, The Rings Of Akhaten was a satisfying, bumpy, technically and musically brilliant, quite cerebral follow-up to last week’s blistering opener, and if anyone needed any convincing that the mix of Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman would work, then the evidence was here.
What’s more, already, the standard of this block of episodes feels more consistent than the last. And next week should be fun too, as some familiar foes re-emerge in Cold War. We can’t wait to see them again…
Our review of last week’s episode is here.
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