Doctor Who: The Rings of Akhaten

Doctor: 'We don't walk away.'

For me, Doctor Who is at its best when it's traversing alien worlds, teaching us about humanity, and telling stories which, although ostensibly other-worldy, resonate with our human hearts. Tonight ticked all three of those boxes, although it wasn't without fault. There's a fine line between homage and derivative. Tonight, I think they occasionally overstepped that line.

There were a myriad of embedded film homages in tonight's episode, from the Star Wars Cantina, to the Doctor's Blade Runner speech, to his Indiana Jones style sonic screwdriver save, to the suggestive episode poster (see above). The was even a nifty reference to the marvellous Douglas Adams (The Hooloovoo being an alien from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.) The episode also had much in common, both visually and storywise, with the Russell T. Davies era episode 'The End of the World'—although, thankfully, we were spared the bitchy trampoline and watching the Doctor trying to get off with a tree. But, at times, the homages felt a little too on the nose. (Despite some of the aliens not even having noses.)

This was essentially Clara's episode, serving as our introduction proper, and I thought Jenna coped with it admirably. Those opening scenes of young Clara with her family were particularly moving (if a little smaltzy), portraying a family unit, tragically wounded by the death of Clara's mother. Which presumably explains where Clara gets her protective/nurturing instincts from. She even traded in her mother's ring, an irreplaceable heirloom, for a crappy, unrealistic looking space-moped, just so she could Flash Gordon in and rescue a girl she'd only just met from a cardboard pyramid. Clara's taking to this saving people lark like a Saturnyn to water.

I think the biggest problems with the episode came towards the end. The choral singing (although occasionally lovely), combined with a giant leaf saving the day, despite answering the question raised in last week's episode, didn't feel enormously fulfilling. How many times have we had variations on the 'emotions saving the world' theme now? And with the parasitic planet now imploded, what will its absence mean for the nearby celestial bodies? I mean, even evil gods have mass, right?

I did enjoy the mildly religious explorations throughout. The Doctor's perspective on the origins of life was somewhat unique, what with him having been there at the birth of the universe. (Take that, Book of Job.) Him calling the Sun Singers of Akhet's creation myth 'a nice story', was a gentle way of dealing with Merry's religious sensibilities without being overly militant. I liked the Doctor explaining Merry's origins—albeit in a way we've heard a dozen times before. He simply planted the seed of truth, whilst leaving her overall faith intact. He also made her random uniqueness sound infinitely more interesting than boring old special creation. That's not to say gods don't exist in the Whoniverse—they do—they're 'mighty ones' in the truest sense: fickle, demanding, requiring sacrifice... and the occasional song.

Unfortunately, the CGI/scenery was both a joy and a distraction. The CGI's rarely movie standard—there just isn't the budget—but I thought the planetary externals looked beautiful (if a little lacking in realism). The less said about the pyramid interior, however, the better. It looked like something out of an am-dram production of Cleopatra. The Vigils' sonic scream (or whatever it was) was also woeful—which is a shame because the Vigils themselves, looked excellent, with their skeletal masks, tilted heads, and synchronised movement. The rest of the Mos Eisley Cantina were a little hit and miss too, but you have to give the show props for attempting such a wide variety of alien types.

The Doctor's closing speech, although (again) ridiculously familiar, was laced with pathos, detail, and pain, and I thought Matt Smith delivered it magnificently, with tears in his eyes and anguish in his voice. Tremendous dialogue by Luther creator, Neil Cross. It's just a shame that it bore more than a passing similarity to Roy Batty's 'tears in rain' speech, and was almost blotted out by the booming soundtrack. But even a lifetime of misery, loss and death wasn't enough to sate a hungry god. It took an infinity of 'unlived days' and 'what could have beens' to finally cause the almighty Mr Creosote to implode.

How Clara knew what to do, I have no idea. Initially, I thought that her return was a response to the Doctor's 'We never run away' mantra, but she seemed to know instinctively what was required. She didn't just turn up and accidentally save the Doctor—she arrived with intent, book in hand, plan fully formed in her head. I can't help but wonder whether Ellie's 'I will always come and find you' speech, as well as providing the inspiration for Clara to save the Doctor, may in fact turn out to have some future significance. Will Clara get to see her mother again? Wouldn't that be something? Or will I simply grumble that it's all way too 'Father's Day', like the moaning old fart that I am?

The leaf felt like a metaphor for Clara. In the same way that the leaf which fell on her father's face followed a pattern of birth, growth, life and death—each sequence absolutely essential in bringing Ellie Ravenwood and Dave Oswald together—the Doctor tracking Clara's life from conception onward (a little creepily at times) was an attempt to locate the cosmic fork in the road. Clara is likewise an important link in human history, yet there's seemingly no historical connection between her and Oswin. Irrespective of the grief, she's lived a relatively normal human life. Which is clearly impossible. Something has to have happened somewhere. But what and where?

There was much to like about this episode, but I couldn't help feel it was hamstrung by its similarity to just about everything else. It lacked subtlety, somehow. But there was some great character development for Clara, some excellent scenes for the Doctor, and some delicious arc-development throughout. Here's hoping next week's episode shows a little more originality.

Other Thoughts:

—The book '101 Places to See' once belonged to Clara's mum.

—Nice tip of the hat to the Doctor's granddaughter, Susan Foreman. Now there's a character I'd like to see back for the show's 50th anniversary.

—Why couldn't Clara understand Dor'een's barks? Isn't the TARDIS supposed to translate all languages apart from Gallifreyan? And why wouldn't the TARDIS let Clara back in? A simple case of the door being locked, or does it really not like her?

—They really need to tone down the sonic screwdriver saves. It's a fix for seemingly every situation these days.

—We now have a definitive pronunciation of scone.

—I'm not sure how the Doctor got his memories back after having them devoured. Acid reflux? Were they vomited back out and then re-ingested?

—Nice reference to 'The Celestial Toymaker'.


Clara: 'What I would like to see is... something awesome.'

Clara: 'Can you open it?'
Doctor: 'Technically, no. In reality, also no. But, still... let's give it a stab.'

Clara: 'It's really big.'
Doctor: 'I've seen bigger.'
Clara: 'Really?'
Doctor: 'Are you joking? It's massive!'

Doctor: 'I walked away from the Last Great Time War. I marked the passing of the Time Lords. I saw the birth of the universe and I watched as time ran out, moment by moment, until nothing remained. No time! No space! Just me. I walked in universes where the laws of physics were devised by the mind of a mad man. I watched universes freeze and creation burn, and I have seen things which you wouldn't believe. I have lost things you will never understand, and I know things, secrets which must never be told, knowledge which must never be spoken... knowledge which will make parasite gods blaze. So come on then... take it! Take it all, baby!'

Four moor peaces eye rote, sea hear.


Nick said...

Fantastic review, I think you hit on just about everything I liked (and disliked) about this episode. From the overuse of the sonic screwdriver, to the overly familiar story beats, it just felt like it could've been much better done.

And as much as I think Smith's acting is great (and that Moffat's usually had the writers give him great scripts and dialogue to work with) I just feel like it's becoming too much of the same. Too many "I'm the Doctor and I am awesome" speeches, a little bit more hammy overacting than I'm used to from him, etc. I'd like a more toned down, properly emotional, well-developed two-parter please. They need to bring back two-part stories.

Anonymous said...

I would love to love this episode, except that I could hardly hear it...tone down the music! I'm going to give it a second try today with subtitles on - hopefully I'll catch all that I missed last night.

Jenne said...

From the beginning of season 5 I had thought that I didn't like Matt Smith's Doctor. After three episodes with Clara, I realized that it actually wasn't the Doctor I was uncomfortable with, it was Amy. Nice to know :) I love Clara and can't wait to see more of her.

That said, today's episode was a mixed bag. The bazaar was wonderful and I liked the aliens well enough (even though Hooloovoos are supposed to be superintelligent shades of blue, while this one was grey and humanoid), but the story felt a bit uninspired to me. And I cringed through the whole speech at the end.

migmit said...

Dull and boring episode. Well, episodes with aliens usually tend to be dull and boring, but this was dull and boring beyond that. I really stopped watching at some point and made myself some coffee before watching the rest — usually I'm almost physically unable to do so.

Billie Doux said...

After what migmit said, I feel a bit better about confessing that I fell asleep and missed the last ten minutes.

Michal Dvorak said...

This episode bored me intensely. I agree with everything you said Paul, but it bothered me a lot more. I kept thinking that we already saw every single thing in this episode several times before, and it was usually a lot better. During the Doctor's final speech I had to doublecheck that it wasn't Rutger Hauer talking :-)

Also I'm not a big fan of choral singing, so that didn't help.

Anonymous said...

I actually liked this episode, it was nice to have a "classic" dr.who episode.
I know it's silly but I wasn't board, I wasn't board because I was afraid they were going to kill Clara *again* , it relay held me at the edge of my seat.
I'm glad she didn't die, also being some what new to the whoverse I was thinking the Doctor was implying that Clare might be his granddaughter, that kept me theorising through the dull quire parts (not a big fan of that, sorry).
All in all for a first episode I enjoyed the familiar grounds, nice ease into a new mysterious companion. from here on lets get the show going.. alonsi!

Juliette said...

I really liked the choir stuff, though I'm am as ever slightly tired of religions being made up to be knocked down. But otherwise, I agreed with most of what everyone else said I think - though weirdly, I feel like I'm enjoying the show more suddenly. I've no idea why - absence makes the heart grow fonder?!

neofish said...

I'm afraid I felt this episode had no content and no story worth telling. I enjoyed the first three minutes - the Doctor traces the course of Clara's life - and his speech at the end. All else was sound and fury, and signified very little indeed. Disappointed by 'the mummy', and even more so by the Vigil. As the review points out, they looked great and moved imaginatively, but again - like the episode as a whole - added up to nothing.

!3runo said...

I liked the episode (and the speech) very much, but the best were the final words from Clara:

"If you want to me sleep, I mean, travel, with you, that's fine, but I'll not be a step-wheel, I mean, not compete with a ghost".

If she only knows...

One question, though: what is that thing on the three at the right side of the screen at 3 minutes?