Let’s spare a thought for the second episode of a series.
Pilot episodes have a gargantuan task. There’s all the introductions, the setting up of the concept, establishing parameters, and all of that while at the same time telling a story to draw the audience in. But pilot episodes have some advantages as well. Introductions can be interesting stories in their own right. There’s mystery to hook an audience. Pilot episodes also get a lot of the attention from the show-runners, the budget, and the fans. Everybody remembers Doctor Who’s Rose, The Christmas Invasion and The Eleventh Hour.
The second episode sits in the pilot’s shadow, but its task is no less gargantuan. Now that the pilot has paved the way and hopefully hooked the audience, the second episode has to show that the success of the pilot wasn’t a fluke. In some ways, it has to signal to the audience, “okay, this is what the show can really do.”
I don’t think the Doctor Who revival would have been the success it has been without Russell T. Davies’ The End of the World. While Rose reintroduced us to the Doctor, and gave us the entry into the world with Rose, it was The End of the World that took Rose to the far future, introduced her to aliens and said to the audience, “this is what Doctor Who is really capable of. Remember this, even while we’re mostly Earthbound, because on this show anything can happen.”
The followup to The Eleventh Hour was The Beast Below, and it tried to do the same thing as The End of the World. Amy was taken to the future. Unfortunately, I think this was the first of Steven Moffat’s scripts to fall flat, possibly due to lacklustre direction. It got things off on the wrong foot, in my opinion, and it wouldn’t be until the Weeping Angels arrived (and, moreso, when Rory came into the picture) before things really started to click again.
Clara has been given a long introduction, but now that The Bells of Saint John is over, it’s time to move on with the show and show Clara (and the audience) what this program is capable of. So I think it’s no accident that, in The Rings of Akhaten, when Clara asks the Doctor to show her “something awesome”, he takes her to a very alien world. And, I think, he mostly delivers on the promise.
A full spoilery review can be found after the break.
This is the first time that writer Neil Cross’s name has appeared on Doctor Who, although it’s his second script for the series. According to an interview with SFX, Neil had long wanted to write for Doctor Who, but only submitted the script for the tenth episode of this season (coming up in two weeks and entitled Hide) after the producers agreed to work around his challenging schedule. The producers liked Hide so much that they asked him to supply another, which he fortunately had time for, and The Rings of Akhaten is the result.
The story begins with an explanation of the leaf the Doctor discovered in The Bells of Saint John. Turns out it’s a very special leaf that was instrumental in bringing Clara’s parents together in a romantic tale that the show is kind enough to show us. It’s sweet and it explains a lot, and so I can forgive the leaf for suddenly changing from a dried up maple leaf into some gargantuan dried-up oak thingy. I’m a little less appreciative of the Doctor stalking the elements of Clara’s story, but there’s a mystery afoot and you can’t expect the Doctor not to investigate, can you?
I will say that director Farren Blackburn (who previously directed The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe) does a fantastic job here (and throughout the episode), and includes one moment that made me drop my jaw. I believe that when we learn that Clara’s mother sadly dies when Clara is around ten, it’s Jenna-Louise Coulman who is present with her father at the funeral. How on Earth did they make her look as young as they did? It’s clearly Jenna, but she looks like a pre-teen. Is it make-up? Hairstyle? What? Truly a triumph.
That direction and attention to detail is put to good use when the Doctor returns to the present day and whisks off Clara (24) to someplace awesome — in this case the inhabited rings of the planet Akhaten. The streets of the settlements (which were studio-bound) are lush with exotic bric-a-brac and a diverse set of aliens. Neil Cross does some great worldbuilding here, and director Farren realizes this vision with aplomb, even if it does come across as somewhat like the Cantina scene in the movie Star Wars. Now, I could quibble over some parts of this. I was wondering why the TARDIS telepathic circuits seemed to be working only intermittently, translating for the important characters, but not most of the alien passers-by, some of whom forced the Doctor and Clara to speak by barking (perhaps there is an explanation; see my first point under “Random Thoughts”). However, that aside, this is one of the first times in a long time that I feel the show has visited an alien world that has felt truly alien.
Everybody, I think has stepped up their game. We are introduced to Merry Gejelh, otherwise known as the Queen of Years, portrayed with confidence and innocence by 11-year-old Emilia Jones. The show has been very fortunate to feature a number of fantastic performances by child actors, and Emilia Jones doesn’t let the side down. She bonds instantly with Clara as she runs away from her responsibilities as the spiritual leader of one of the race of people on the rings. She’s also a believable singer. Longtime composer for the series, Murray Gold, delivers some wonderful music to complement the story, giving us an auditory feast to go with the visual one.
Of course, with the Doctor around, it’s not long before things happen, and we’re caught up in the thick of the action. Of course, there’s more to being the young spiritual leader of a planet-worshipping religion, and the Doctor and Clara are soon forced into action when a ritual to keep a god from waking up turns into a ritual to feed poor Merry to said god. The Doctor and Clara do everything you’d expect them to do (much to the audience’s satisfaction) and, also, there’s some great misdirection (again, much to the audience’s satisfaction). Everything goes well until the final confrontation.
Overall, I was won over by The Rings of Akhaten, so the fact that the climax doesn’t quite measure up is a bit of a disappointment for me. It’s not bad by any means. It does walk the fine line between sentimental and schmaltzy, but doesn’t go over. There are some fantastic visuals of the Doctor in silhouette as the weight of his life (which he is giving over to the story-sucking planet) shows on his shoulders. But when Clara arrives and finally satiates the planetary parasite with the story behind the leaf (a story of so many possibilities unfulfilled), I wasn’t quite willing to buy the thing whole hog. I was able to understand what writer Neil Cross was getting at, and on an intellectual level I wanted the idea to succeed, but I can’t help but wonder how the regular audience would take this resolution. Would they feel that it all happened too easily? Would they even understand and really sympathize with what Clara is giving up? In the end, it’s just a leaf. There’s no real cost to Clara.
But this is possibly the only false note of the production. This is an episode I’d happily watch again, and perhaps on the second time, I’d be more in tune with the ending so as to appreciate it better. The rest of the tale offers fine music, excellent acting, strong characters and a sumptuous feast of detail. Neil Cross has won me over, and I look forward to his next script in the series, to come in two weeks.
- I was not surprised when the TARDIS refused to open for Clara. After all, the Doctor usually locks his ship and he hasn’t handed this Clara a key. However, the TARDIS does make an audible sound of disapproval which Clara instinctively senses as borderline hostility. The TARDIS does not appear to like her. EVERYBODY TAKE A NOTE!
- Did you notice that when presented with the glowing blue fruits, the Doctor uses his sonic screwdriver to identify them as “non-toxic and non-hallucinogenic” and says so… after Clara has taken her first bite?
- I do admit to being a little bit confused by the scene where the Doctor and Clara confront what they think is the soul eating monster. At one point, Merry uses her mental powers to pin Clara against the glass case where the monster is waking up. Why does she do that? Is it to scare Clara into making her want to leave? Then there is the dialogue between the Doctor and the Chorister when he says “the song ended with me.” I think the intent of that bit of dialogue is the Doctor giving the Chorister a gift, saying, “you don’t have to stick around. You’ve done everything you can”, and the Chorister grimly accepting and leaving the others to their fate. If that is the intent, it’s a strong scene, but perhaps I needed just a bit more to understand it.