Written by: Neil Cross
Directed by: Ferrun Blackburn
For her first proper journey in the TARDIS, Clara Oswald has a simple request; something awesome. The Rings of Akhaten certainly seem to fit the bill - one of the most diverse regions of the galaxy, in the midst of a spectacular, once in a millennium religious festival. However, the Queen of Years has disappeared, and that could lead to far, far, far bigger problems…
After last week’s solidly good but unspectacular opener, I was hoping for big things from ‘The Rings of Akhaten’. The writer, Neil Cross, is the brain behind one of the most highly regarded offerings from the BBC over the last few years, the crime drama ‘Luther’ (admittedly not something I’ve seen myself), and is certainly an out and out Whovian: he allegedly got the job by mentioning the show in every meeting he had with BBC staff until someone asked him if he was interested. In addition, the trailers looked very promising, with spooky aliens and stunning vistas galore, and a rather nifty space moped.
Sadly, the final result is not quite as awesome as Clara might have wanted.
The problems start with the opening sequence, as the Doctor stalks Clara from her parents first meeting, brought about by the most important leaf in the universe, through her birth, childhood, and eventually catching up with her right where we left her at the end of ‘The Bells of St John’. Viewed in isolation, it’s a great bit of writing and television. It fills in an awful lot of blanks in Clara’s backstory (presumably without revealing anything too important), it’s touching, and it makes Clara feel more like an actual character than a convenient mystery, building on last week’s episode. It is actually highly reminiscent of the wonderful montage sequence at the opening of Pixar’s ‘Up’. Put it in the context of the episode though, and it becomes a lengthy scene that, while of high quality and introducing a few things of thematic and plot importance for later, does take time away from the actual meat of the episode.
This more or less sums up the episode, in fact. There are so many good ideas in the script, but each one takes up time that leaves the plot leaving threadbare. Memories as currency? Brilliant. The most important leaf in the universe? Sweet, clever, and does at least have relevance – but still, ultimately, an idea that gets too much time devoted to it. The moped? Fairly cool, but it does seem rather redundant given the existence of the TARDIS. The most glaring example is the Vigil, the trio of aliens that seem to function as a kind of police force. They look sinister, and allow the Doctor to be badass, but they make two appearances, look threatening and wave their hands around, and then disappear never to be seen again. Some of the ideas could have been stripped out completely, and more development given to the ones that remained. Better yet, it would have been spread out over two episodes, which would have allowed all the great ideas room to breathe and still develop a good story – there are some cultural elements to the story that cry out for a deeper look but never even get considered.
This is not to say that the episode is a stinker, although if you read certain media reports and fan-sites you could be forgiven for thinking that; all the individual ideas are, as said, really rather good, the plot is a good one, albeit underdeveloped, there are some intriguing hints of the story to come, and there’s at least one moment that is probably going to be a stand out of the series – it may be a little cheesy, but I’m a sucker for the Doctor’s epic speeches. Given another episode to spread out over, it could well have been one of the best stories of certainly Smith’s run.
As it is though, another slightly underwhelming episode.