I’m really enjoying reviewing a full (ish) season of Doctor Who – series 7/7b/33/3 being the first to air since I began the blog in November. The second episode of the series’ 2013 run is written by newcomer to the series, Neil Cross, and directed by Farren Blackburn, who previously directed The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe (one of my least favourite ever episodes). So I was quite curious to see how this episode would do.
The story begins with a montage of the Doctor watching Clara’s life develop, from the meeting of her parents to her progression through childhood. Despite head writer Steven Moffat’s claims that each episode in series 7 will be like an individual ‘movie in 45 minutes’, we do seem to be seeing the plot arc of Clara continuing to play a role. This opening sequence has been described as creepy, or of ‘crossing a line’, but I didn’t have a problem with it. The Doctor is intrigued by Clara, a girl who he has met three times and watched die twice. Of course he’s going to want to explore her origins, and to see whether she had a normal upbringing.
The story proceeds to one of the moons of Akhaten, where the Doctor and Clara take a look at the beautiful rings around the enormous gas giant. They then travel to a market populated entirely by aliens. I’m struggling to remember the last time a TV story of Doctor Who was set on a world with no connections to the human race – perhaps even not since the 80s. Consequently, then episode strikes a tone rarely seen in the post 2005 series. The pace is also slowed due to the introduction of various aspects of this alien culture – which are extensive, and very well written. So in that respect alone, this was a very enjoyable episode. The plot consists of a parasitic creature within Akhaten, or perhaps was itself Akhaten – I didn’t quite understand that – which is kept asleep by the continued chanting of the inhabitants of the Rings. However it awakes and the Doctor and Clara must use their memories of the past, and the infinite memories of the future, to defeat it – er – somehow. This is a really interesting concept, although quite confusing and under explained at times.
There are also, unfortunately, quite a few plot holes which leapt out at me. Why did the Doctor wander off in the market? Why didn’t they take the TARDIS to the temple, rather than using the ‘space moped’? And on that matter, how were they breathing in space? Why did the God parasite wake up in the first place? How did the Doctor keep his memories after feeding it to Akhaten? When the gas giant vanishes, how do the rings stay in orbit? Shouldn’t they fall into the Sun? I mean, none of these questions really largely detracted from my enjoyment of the episode, but I did feel the script could have been tighter at places. There were times when the plot felt rather protracted and drawn out, and the dialogue rather wordy. Although I can forgive the Doctor’s incredible speech (“I’ve walked in universes where the laws of physics were devised by the mind of a madman!), even if this too falls foul of being overly wordy.
I’m probably sounding too negative. This was, essentially, a great story. Matt Smith, as ever, is utterly fantastic as the Doctor. One of his best performances – though I say that every week. He brings life to the character, a soul, an ageless wisdom and ancient tiredness all at once, through every expression and mannerism. Jenna-Louise Coleman is continuing to impress as Clara, who is so far passing the test of not being irritating as well as acting a fairly developed and realistic character. Child actor Emilia Jones also acted the role of Merry very well, bringing sincerity to the role of a scared child with a mountain of responsibilities placed upon her.
Despite my intense dislike of The Doctor, the Window and the Wardrobe, Farren Blackburn’s direction in this episode was close to flawless. The use of music, composed by Murray Gold was wonderful, and I particularly enjoyed the choral ensemble from the various singers during many parts of the episode. However, there were times when I felt the music was simply too bombastic and loud – a common criticism for Doctor Who – though this is a fault of editing and direction, rather than of the composers. Though the script established it, the vibrancy of this alien world is mostly due to the skill in direction – even if most aliens do undeniably look like rubber suits, but this is unavoidable on their low budget. The episode, on the whole, felt very expensive and polished indeed. The cinematography at times, including the silhouettes of the Doctor facing down Akhaten, was truly inspired.
Overall, The Rings of Akhaten was a surprisingly entertaining episode. Perhaps my enjoyment didn’t quite correlate with the quality of the episode and of the script, though this suggests something must have been done right. I think, most importantly, this episode felt fresh and new. Nothing like it has been seen in Doctor Who for quite some time – which, really, is all a Doctor Who episode needs to be a success. It’s just fortunate that this success happened to be enjoyable.
Final rating: 8.5/10