It’s always potentially exciting when a new writer climbs aboard the good ship TARDIS, since there’s a possibility he sees Doctor Who in a way that nobody has before. Neil Cross is best known to Americans as the creator and writer of the Emmy-nominated, Idris Elba-starring character crime drama Luther – a series that might as well be described as the polar opposite of Doctor Who. What could a guy like this possibly bring to the table? It’s like pondering what Buck Rogers might be like as seen through the eyes of David Chase. Whatever one might have had in mind based on a familiarity with Luther, “The Rings of Akhaten” must surely be 180 degrees in yet another direction.
This tale set on a distant alien world begins much closer to home, but some years ago, in 1981. Picking up not long after last week’s episode ended (though really, with this era of Who, making guesses about the timeline feels increasingly a fool’s errand), the Doctor (Matt Smith) takes a lengthy detour through Clara’s (Jenna-Louise Coleman) past. The pre-credits sequence in a way recalls that sequence in Pixar’s Up - the one that reduces grown men to quivering heaps of tear-stained flesh. Immediately we learn what that leaf business was all about (“It’s page one!,” Clara teased last week): The leaf was key to bringing her parents together, and as you must surely know by now, that very same leaf ends up saving the day later on in the tale. We meet those parents – Dave and Ellie – and spy their raising of Clara over the years, via the Doctor, who lurks behind bushes and hides in dark corners, watching the Oswald family age and, in the case of Ellie, eventually die. He grows frustrated and maybe even a bit resentful over his inability to uncover a deeper truth; Clara is apparently nothing more than a normal human being. Perhaps too normal, which he boldly proclaims isn’t possible before going to collect her the morning after he left.
And off they go to somewhere awesome, Clara carrying the children’s book – 101 Places to See - that her mother passed on to her, as though it might be a guide worthy of using on the travels upon which she’s about to embark. And the Rings of Akhaten are indeed an awe-inspiring spectacle, and the episode seems intent on dazzling from the moment the time travelers arrive. The market full of aliens is a welcome sight as it’s the sort of thing Doctor Who doesn’t get to do nearly often enough. But that’s almost a distraction, as soon enough Clara meets Merry (Emilia Jones), the Queen of Years, who, oddly enough, is the episode’s only guest star of any major note, despite there being a world full of aliens on display. That this little girl with the mighty voice is at the center of all of this probably works both for and against “Rings.” The cynical side of me suspects this will be a divisive episode that many will view as sentimental hogwash, and frankly, if Jones wasn’t such an obvious and immense talent, I might be one of them. But this girl somehow manages to carry the often times goofy weight of her surroundings, and elevates the entire affair to something that’s mostly believable and engaging.
Doctor Who has a long history of taking religion and belief to task (“The Face of Evil” cannot be recommended highly enough). It happens far less (or at least far less obviously) on the new series than it did on the classic, but that is basically what we have here, however I don’t believe the series has ever done it quite as sweetly as “Rings” manages to. The way the Doctor beams and takes delight in this quirky alien belief system is positively charming. It’s like pretending to believe in Santa Claus for the sake of the kids. Eventually, the beliefs give way to something sinister and real lurking behind the curtain, and the episode stops just short of making religion the villain of the piece, by instead offering up a trio of villains, none of whom are ever really explained in enough detail to quite grasp what precisely is going on here. Outside of this being a piece of drama, perhaps hard explanations aren’t needed on this most alien of worlds.
The real beauty of “The Rings of Akhaten” lies in its bits and pieces of simplicity, such as the inspired speech the Doctor gives to Merry that begins with “All of the elements of your body were forged many, many millions of years ago in the heart of a faraway star” and ends with him quoting Lewis Carroll. Likewise, the idea that a single dead leaf from Earth in the year 1981 might one day save a distant civilization is the sort of thing that only Doctor Who would ever attempt, much less pull off. And the Doctor’s impassioned attempted sacrifice of all of his memories to the living planet saw Smith on fire (almost literally, it felt) in a way that’s usually reserved for season finales and the like. But here he was, giving it his all somewhere in the middle of a season as though he might not even be back next week, and it’s precisely that sort of dedication to craft (or lack of it) that can make or break and episode like this one. Good on him for stepping up, likely while acting in front of a green screen.
The set pieces – the festival, the ceremony, the sacrifice, the pyramid, the living planet, etc. – all very much felt devised to serve a TV plot. They were never quite organic enough, and sort of failed to satisfyingly coalesce into the biggest possible picture. “The Rings of Akhaten” is missing a certain “something” that takes a scenario within the Whoniverse and kicks is up to the next level. Again, it may just have to do with some of the unanswered questions draped over the larger scheme. Bit of a shame that the episode feels just shy of perfection, but given that this series so rarely feels perfect these days, “Rings” must be considered something of a minor triumph, if for no other reason than because it dared to attempt something different from the current Doctor Who norm. Yes, more of this, and less of the wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey.
Odd and Ends
- The term “soul” has been significantly used two weeks running in a series that normally eschews such terminology. Coincidence?
- This first journey of Clara’s is not only reminiscent of Rose’s first trip in the TARDIS in “The End of the World,” but it also harkens back to Amy’s initial jaunt in “The Beast Below,” for several reasons, not the least of which is that Amy was largely responsible for saving the day, just as Clara is here.
- Was the TARDIS being selective in what languages it was willing to translate for Clara? Does it, as she guessed, really not like her? And if so, why?
- The Doctor’s continued sporting of Amy’s reading glasses is a sweet, understated touch that needs no explanation beyond the Doctor’s sentiment for his old friend. It feels like something that’s exists solely between the Doctor and the viewer.
- The look on Clara’s face when the Doctor claimed, “I came here a long time ago with my granddaughter!” Comically lovely.
- The trio of figures that formed the Vigil were episode standouts, and vaguely reminded me of a family friendly take on Clive Barker’s Cenobites. Wouldn’t mind seeing them return at a later date.
- Clara’s mother plays a huge role in her daughter’s memory. I can’t help but think this woman is a big piece of the Clara puzzle.
- Did I count not one but maybe even two snippets of Blade Runner dialogue? “I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe” and “Home again, home again, jiggity jig.”