So, after last week’s zippy, entertaining romp of an opener, what’s next? Did episode two of the new series (or episode seven, as I’m duty-bound to call it) live up to the high standard set by the opener? Well, er… not entirely.
The Rings of Akhaten picked up the story in 1981, with the Doctor observing the meeting of Clara’s mother and father. And how did they meet? Well, it’s none other than the leaf from Clara’s book, taping itself to Clara’s father’s face and forcing Clara’s mother to save him, beginning an Up-esque prologue chronicling the birth of Clara, to her mother’s death in 2005 (are you trying to tell us something, Moffat?). It’s a nice little opening that sets up the events that take place later in the episode, but it’s surprising to see the mystery of the leaf, something that could easily have been eked out for a couple of episodes squandered by the three-minute mark.
So, back to the future (because that joke is definitely still funny, right? Right?), where modern Clara is embarking on her first trip in the TARDIS. In their first journeys, companions have asked to go ‘forwards in time’, or usually ‘wherever’, but Clara’s request made a certain degree of sense: something awesome. And because the Doctor’s track record in going to the places he intends to go is tiny, he managed to confound all our expectations by taking Clara to somewhere awesome. More specifically, the rings of the planet of Mos Akhaten Cantina… sorry, that’s just Akhaten.
It’s the first time in Who since episode two of the first revamped series, The End of the World, that we’ve seen a massive gathering of new aliens in one place… and it’s one of the highlights of the episode. Doctor Who hasn’t always shown a lot of groups of aliens together, so it’s nice to see a bunch of aliens that haven’t just been re-used from what the production team had available to them. Top marks also go to the set work, which is (while claustrophobic) uniformly excellent – which is just as well, given that aside from the opening, the episode is all done on sets.
You may have noticed that I’ve used up half the review without talking about the episode’s plot (aside from the pre-titles sequence). Well, it’s fairly thin. It doesn’t really get going for about fifteen minutes, then stampedes forward for a while, then trips over its shoelaces before getting up and stampeding to a climax. The pacing is completely off, with fast-paced, exciting set-pieces followed by meandering cut-able scenes. It’s genuinely great in places (the attack of the Mummy, the Doctor’s monologue), but it’s hard to really get engaged when the episode keeps hitting the brake.
So, the monsters. After last week’s alien no-show, there’s two brand new monsters, which are both really, really good. The Vigil are incredibly creepy (even if creepy whispers are a tad old), the Mummy’s an excellently designed threat… but they’re so under-used that they lack a proper impact. I can understand that Neil Cross wanted to get on with the plot, but it’s sad to see such great threat squandered.
But the true enemy this episode is the God, a ball of suspiciously pumpkin-like energy that feeds on memories. It’s a clever trick, even it it’s just a device to bring on a classic Doctor bad-ass monologue as it drains the Doctor’s memories. Matt Smith’s (who will go mostly unmentioned in these reviews, on account of not wanting to sound like a sheep bleating the same positive words over and over) acting is excellent in this scene – he genuinely sounds like the eleventh incarnation of a thousand-year old alien, not a thirty-year old actor with odd hair. But it’s not the Doctor that saves the day – it’s Clara’s leaf, with it’s handy ‘what-could-have-been’ powers… and an awful lot of singing.
Ah, yes singing. I’m not a huge fan of singing episodes, and Akhaten‘s songs did often feel surplus to requirements in the episode… even if they sound pretty good. The song at the end was a highlight, but otherwise they were an unnecessary intrusion into the episode, especially the awful ‘secret-door’ moment. They’re sung with aplomb by ten-year-old Emilia Jones, who’s really rather good as the Queen of Years. You may not be a fan of child actors, but Jones manages to counter expectations of a child actor by giving a very promising performance.
So, to wrap up the review: The Rings of Akhaten is a fun, if badly paced adventure with terrific performances (Jenna-Louise Coleman has gone unmentioned in this review, but she’s just as good as she was last week – more than holding her own against Matt Smith), great aliens and excellent visuals. Just leave out the songs next time, eh?
Tune in next Saturday for a review of Cold War, which marks the return of classic foe the Ice Warriors. It’s the one you’ve all been waiting for, folks.