jason stives is the lord of the rings …
One of the things that has made Steven Moffat’s tenure on Doctor Who a unique one is his pension for experimenting with new writers, often ones with an already strong pedigree as a series writer or even a show runner. We have seen this work for and against the show depending but if any show is going to test the waters with this its Doctor Who. This season has mostly consisted of familiar hands dipping their pen in the ink of the show but one new writer was able to sneak in not one but two scripts in the show’s 50th year. This week’s space centric adventure, “The Rings of Akhaten,” was penned by Neil Cross, creator of the critically acclaimed drama Luther, and while as a long time fan of the show Cross gets the atmosphere and overall feels right, “Akhaten” suffers from pacing issues and an overall inconsistent plot that is never given room to be truly realized.
After pursuing her tragic past, The Doctor returns as promised to the present to take Clara on an adventure through time and space. They end up at Akhaten, a settlement in the middle of space that showcases a pyramid atop a giant asteroid. Once landed they encounter a market of strange and wonderful beings including Merry, a princess who must memorize a song that she must sing to an ancient being within the pyramid. While Clara assures the lost girl that she will be fine the actual significance of Merry’s duty is far greater and more dangerous than she has let on. Pursued by the mysterious Vigil, the Doctor and Clara find themselves in a situation that could put both their fate and their blossoming friendship at stake.
For the first time in a long time this feels like a true alien world story and that means no humans on a foreign planet. Cross really put some imagination into creating this world and the alien market scene for me was reminiscent of visiting Diagon Alley or Mos Eisley. Sure, the visual elements are dumbed down by some very obvious BBC sets but the unique nature of the alien creatures within this setting work exceptionally well. This is definitely the largest amount of aliens we have seen in one place on this show but even though Akhaten and its surrounding settlements are marvelous bits of visual effects they aren’t enough to salvage what sadly turns into a rather mixed bag plot-wise.
The trouble is that the story feels more like show then tell and that is where the story falls. We are given a great background to this world but the pay off and the overall dilemma that The Doctor and Clara encounter is full of holes and lacking bits of logic. First, the supporting roles are written rather cut and dry with no real investment in what becomes of them. Sure, Merry is sweet and her song is rather pretty but she is merely a plot device. The same goes for the baddies of this week, the Vigil, who while great in design aren’t use well and despite some great menace early on simply feel like a throw away creation.
If there is one element of current Who that climbed out of the ashes in spite of this poor plot it was the work of composer Murray Gold who is given much room to work with since the plot revolves around the importance of songs. The songs themselves sung by Merry are quite beautiful but they overtake the importance of the threat that Merry is facing in this strange Mummy creature. The Mummy was ultimately a ruse to a bigger and more powerful being that thrives on stories but it’s a rather dull plot point that doesn’t completely get a resolution despite being defeated by the combined efforts of The Doctor and Clara.
In spite of a weak plot and uninteresting supporting characters I found myself overall enjoying “Rings of Akhaten” more than “The Bells of Saint John” but only by a smidge. Something clicked better this week and for me it was in the overall development of Clara’s relationship with the Doctor. Clara shows she is witty and clever enough to compete with The Doctor but she still has a lot to learn. While Clara’s actions were more than admirable in saving The Doctor in the climax she is quick to give him the stiff upper lip when he tells of his reasons for bringing her along.
For me this sounded like echoes of what Martha should have said to the Tenth Doctor back in Series 3 in regards to Rose; she is not going to play second fiddle to a ghost. Obviously Clara to all of us feels like a ghost but she is quick to display a personality that makes us question the validity of the mystery. We also delve greatly into her background learning the tale of the infamous leaf from last week and just where that book of 101 places came from. It gives emotional depth to Clara and all her actions in this story and any reservations one may have had last week (I certainly did) are depleted.
The Doctor also seems to be back to his old self rattling off speeches about exploring space and the wonders of the universe. This is the Doctor we know and love and Matt Smith once again is given the chance to display his superb acting chops. The monologue he gives to the Grandfather sun/planet creature about the things he has seen sums up so much of how big the universe is just through the Doctor alone. If there was any gripe it was seeing The Doctor once again display an act of self sacrifice again. This is something we have seen fairly often in the new series and there are only so many times that you believe it to be a serious gesture rather than something that makes us aware that he knows what he is doing. Plus, when you consider that Clara offers up her own memories and stories this act of “bravery” feels unnecessary.
“Rings of Akhaten” wasn’t a huge step up from “The Bells of Saint John” and I maintain both are solid stories warts and all but it did have its merits. While personal enjoyment was felt from discovering a new world as an overall adventure it lacked greatly in comparison to the prior episode and leaves a lingering sense of doubt in Cross as a writer on Doctor Who. He gets another stab in two weeks time with haunted house story “Hide” but for now his first venture out of the gate wasn’t a bad story but it’s overall appeal is hurt by a mediocre narrative which considering the emphasis of stories in this episode is a little disappointing.
Rating: 6 out of 10 (Good, Not Great)
All Photos Credit: BBC America