The Rings of Akhaten Spoiler-Free Review
Given Neil Cross’ pedigree as the writer of the highly acclaimed and award winning BBC series Luther, it’s unfortunate that his first to air Doctor Who story this year is such a mixed bag.
The episode’s basic set-up is similar to that of The End of the World, with the Doctor taking new companion Clara on a trip far, far away for her first real adventure in the TARDIS. The pair arrive in the bustling alien marketplace of Tiaanamaat where the locals are preparing for the Festival of Offerings. Soon enough Clara bumps into a young native girl called Merry, aka the Queen of Years, who must perform a ritual to appease an ancient God, or face terrible consequences.
Let’s start with the positives. This is a visually sumptuous episode with some impressive CGI work. Akhaten and surrounding settlements that feature are all superbly realised (for the most part). There’s also an impressive array of new aliens and monsters on display. They weren’t lying when they said we’d see more than ever before!
The episode has some strong character moments. It delves into Clara’s past and gives some much needed insight into her character. The significance of the leaf is explained and we also learn the origin of her “101 Places to See” book. Clara’s more caring side is also explored as she becomes something of a mother figure for Merry. If you weren’t sold on Coleman in the opener, her scenes here may turn you around.
As for the Doctor, while a lot of attention goes towards Clara and Merry, Matt Smith still has a few moments to shine. One of the best things about the episode is getting to see the Doctor experience the world again through Clara’s eyes. It gives Smith the chance to play that childlike sense of wonder that he does so well. There’s also a great Doctor-y speech late on that will excite long-time fans due to its numerous references to the past.
For all the aliens on display in the background, this is an episode with a small supporting cast. Most of the hard work falls to Emilia Jones as the young Merry. Fortunately she delivers a performance beyond her years.
Where the episode really falls down on is the thin plot and pacing. After a potentially intriguing premise the episode stalls and it never really recovers. Part of the issues are to do with the fact that songs are so pivotal to the plot. It’s not that the songs are bad (on the contrary, there’s some nice pieces that are hard to get out of your head), it’s just that they go on for so long and kill the tension. Whereas A Christmas Carol used song in one powerful moment, here it threatens to overtake the episode.
Another area the episode struggles is the main monsters of the story. Not the designs, which are great, but the use of them (or lack thereof). The Vigil show promise early on, with a suitably creepy presence and whispering voices. An early scene where they appear to be stalking a character is full of menace. Sadly that’s really as far as it goes and they are discarded quickly when the story has no need of them. The “Mummy” too suffers from the same problem. What we’re left with is a voiceless threat that looks impressive, but doesn’t ever really feel very threatening.
We end up with an average episode raised by some nice character developments. There’s plenty of intriguing ideas here, but they are not explored in a satisfying way.