Please note that this review of Doctor Who Series 7 episode The Rings of Akhaten contains some spoilers. Read at your own risk!
As low key stories go, The Rings of Akhaten is surprisingly visual. It has great costumes and prosthetic work, striking special effects and well directed key scenes – but despite the story, the acting and the Star Wars (prequel trilogy, admittedly) feel, there is something inherently forgettable about all of the otherworldly stuff and the efforts that the BBC Wales team put into creating a pretty convincing alien scenario.
Could it be that this nice little story that features some interesting backstory for Clara (something that didn’t happen for Amy Pond until the end of her first series) and her family has suffered from being sandwiched between the (mid-) season opener and the fan-pleasing return of the Ice Warriors in next week’s Cold War?
And did The Rings of Akhaten actually possess a legible plot?
Well, let’s stick with the main meat of the adventure. Yes, there are a few parallels between the planet-god-entity and the Doctor (mostly being called “Grandfather” and a fondness for humanoid companionship and ego-buffing) but the whole Merry-sings-it-goes-wrong-and-she’s-turned-into-a-living-sacrifice strand was pretty well signposted (there was little room for manoeuvrings into any other plot, really).
But until the Doctor and Clara encountered the “alarm clock”, the most important elements of The Rings of Akhaten weren’t the events on this alien world but back on earth in the late 1980s, where a girl meets a boy, Back to the Future-style, by hitting him with a car.
There’s even a tree involved.
Providing both a contrast to the “alienness” of Akhaten and acting as background and inspiration for Clara to sacrifice her precious leaf, the meeting of Dave Oswald with his future wife Ellie is built around the fateful leaf, the same piece of foliage that he later uses to propose and which we first saw in The Bells of Saint John. How a leaf can prove so important to a relationship is intriguing, but recalls the romance of some classic (Doctor Who such as Earthshock‘s “When did you last have the pleasure of smelling a flower, watching a sunset, eating a well-prepared meal?”).
The problem with the episode is that as nice as it is to watch and as important as those flashback elements are to Clara’s story and the resolution of events on Akhaten, not an awful lot happens.
Perhaps I’ve been watching too much classic Doctor Who of late; maybe fatherhood has made me old. I just get the feeling as much as I enjoyed the sights of the aliens, of Jenna-Louise Coleman’s wonderful, reactive performance, that it was missing something meaty. Although a lot seemed to be taking place on Akhaten, nothing really happened.
I’m going to reserve judgement on Neil Cross however, as this is his first episode and he has another in a couple of week’s time. Farren Blackburn has done another visually stunning job as director, however, but given the similar lack of substance to The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe, I wonder if the faults in this episode (including a slightly muted performance from Matt Smith) might be levelled at his door.
Clearly The Rings of Akhaten is Clara’s episode, but as much as I like Jenna-Louise Coleman and the development of the character, I wonder how many times I’ll watch it again…
Ultimately, it’s the episode before Cold War. Tragically, The Rings of Akhaten is a seat warmer; let’s hope the wait is worth it…
Things to take away from The Rings of Akhaten
Why did the Doctor go missing for so long? Was he off on another adventure? It’s one of those typically unexplained moments on the show since Moffat took the reins, and may even be a “wrong jacketed” Doctor moment from Flesh and Stone or – something far more mundane.
We’ve learned that Clara is indeed a real human, with parents, and understood why she was working as an au pair in The Bells of Saint John (her mother died; the family she was living with had a mother die). But how romantic was her father, with all of that talk about the leaf and its history and fate! More to the point, which one of Clara’s parents has something more to them? Because if there is an intrigue concerning the Doctor’s new best friend, her lineage has to be involved.