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Sunday, April 7, 2013

Review: Doctor Who, The Rings of Akhaten

Series 7, Episode 8
Grade: A-
Verdict: Neil Cross' series debut is a wonderful mix of world building, mythology, arc advancement and emotional content without one threatening to derail the other. It also gives some great moments for its two stars to shine. Arguably the best episode of Series 7 thus far.

I've struggled so far this year and last with Doctor Who, I've been a big supporter of the Moffat era in general and found it a massive improvement over the saccharine and generally poorly planned Davies run on the show. Yet, the first half of Series 7 did not connect with me whatsoever, beyond the two episodes that featured Clara/Oswin and focused on the overall arc. I can only attribute this to the writers that were assigned to that half, as honestly, any set of episodes that include contributions from Toby Whithouse and Chris Chibnall are likely to be less than stellar. This second half has a much more accomplished crew with two contributions from Mark Gatiss, one from Neil Gaiman, one from Stephen Thompson (who previous "Curse of the Black Spot" is an episode that I think gets unfairly maligned) a Steven Moffat finale, and two from Neil Cross: the showrunner of Luther, and possibly the episodes I was most excited for as he is an unknown quantity to me.

"The Rings of Akhaten" opens with a lovely montage of how Clara's parents met, her father being saved from an oncoming car by her future mother after a big leaf blows into his face, obscuring his view. He later calls this leaf, "the most important leaf in human history", and its kept as a keepsake in their family, highlighting the semi-story book quality life Clara has led so far. We see that the Doctor has observed her from afar since she was a child, likely inspired by his continued encounters with her both in the past and future, resulting in her death. There's a sense here that something just doesn't seem right, and the Doctor needs to take her in for closer observation, making her a full-time companion. It's a lovely little sequence that gives us more background on Clara that we've gotten so far in the Series. I am a little concerned that the "Doctor visits companion as child" trope might start to seem overused, it does fit in well with this conception of the Doctor as basically a space version of "The Cat in the Hat".

The remainder of the episode relays Clara's first off-world adventure with The Doctor. In a way it's a bit reminiscent of episodes like "The End of the World" and "The Beast Below", where the companion gets their first experience of alien life-forms. I would argue "The Rings of Akhaten" is probably the most successful of those three as the sheer spectacle of alien life on display within the marketplace showcases an area of creativity that we don't normally get in Doctor Who. This is a show where you'd maybe get two or three different alien life-forms in one shot but it never really goes further than that, with this episode I counted what had to be at least ten to twelve different races, if not more. I also noticed that none of them were repeats of races from other episodes either. Someone was clearly doing some hard-work in the costume department over the break.

There's also a sense of well-realized culture and mythology here. When Clara is interested in purchasing a hover-craft, The Doctor tells her that is isn't money the merchants trade on but rather personal objects of high sentimental value. This is a civilization that thrives on memory, and it would make sense that they worship a "god" that does the very same thing. We learn about the latter when Clara encounters a young girl named Merry who is the planet's "Queen of Years", who is used to sing to keep the "god" that they refer to as "Grandfather" from awakening. The interaction between Clara and Merry, gives a nice spotlight to Jenna Louise Coleman and basically continues to show just what a meteoric leap in acting this show has taken when it dispatched with Karen Gillan and slotted Coleman in her place.

We get a lovely scene where the Doctor and Clara observe the singing ritual that is intended to keep "Grandfather" asleep, but as always something goes wrong. As the the interstellar singing on one planet failed to keep what they thought was "Grandfather" asleep, the Doctor and Clara shoot over on the hovercraft to the temple to prevent the creature from awakening and save to Merry from being sacrificed. In a way the story here, beyond the somewhat Egyptian sounding name, also resemble elements of something you might see in a "Mummy" film. With the exotic bizarre, the ritualistic elements, the temple with the immoveable stone door, and the pseudo-vampiric creature, the tropes of this classic genre excursion are well on display. What I loved most about the temple scene though, is just how wrong the Doctor turned out to be, when he realizes that the monster they feared was just the alarm clock for an even BIGGER monster, that was living in the planet itself. In his words, "I may have made a tactical boo-boo". I enjoy when I feel like a writer can keep me on my toes, and Cross definitely surprised me with that twist.

We get a heck of a monologue from Matt Smith when he faces down "Grandfather", as he sacrifices all his memories of which the creature feeds upon, to protect the people on the planet. Tears roll down The Doctor's eyes as he recounts the tragedies that he's faced, including observing (and possibly causing) the death of his people. It may have been Smith's finest moment within his tenure, as his quirky Doctor is typically devoid of this emotional context via his more alien approach to the role. It's not something I'd want to see often, but when it does occur, this sort of emotional bloodletting works well. We even get a nod to "The Celestial Toymaker" of all things, from all the way back to the First Doctor era! I was a little less enthused with the final solution to the whole problem, which revolved around said important leaf from the beginning of the episode. This resolution felt ever so slightly like another "love conquers all" type ending, but it was clever enough in that the story's heels were firmly planted in this object's significance from the very beginning, so I can give the slight sappiness a pass as it fits far better than it has in preceding episodes.

The episode ends almost where it began, with The Doctor still concerned about just who Clara is or rather what her significance to the universe might be. Clara basically states to the Doctor, "I'm not whoever you think I am, I'm just me", but we all know, it's probably not going to be that simple. Did anyone else catch that the Tardis didn't want to open it's doors for her? Something deeper is going on here, and the hints are being laid out quite beautifully. There's some significance to the recurring memory Clara had of her mother as well, I'll be interested to see where that goes. 

In all, it's a well constructed episode, some dodgy green-screening aside, that was a wonderful showcase of a program at the height of its powers. With this success, I can't wait for Cross' next episode. Plus, any mention of the fact that The Doctor is a grandfather warrants additional kudos from me.

Oh, quick aside, who else is excited for this? The 50th anniversary can't come soon enough!

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