The creator of the psychological crime drama Luther joins the Doctor Who writing team with a script that takes the Doctor and Clara to The Rings of Akhaten to watch a caged god become very annoyed at a young girl’s attempt at singing.
Since Doctor Who returned for the 21st century all of the Doctor’s regular female companions have met the Time Lord in stories set in contemporary England and then been whisked off in quick order to adventures in Earth’s future and past. Within such a trilogy the diversity, wonder and danger of space and time that the TARDIS can offer are quickly demonstrated. With its space setting and cornucopia of alien species The Rings of Akathen is reminiscent of one of the strongest voyages into the future that the TARDIS has made, when the Ninth Doctor and Rose travelled to Platform One to witness The End of the World for the planet Earth.
Both The End of the World and The Rings of Akhaten show off many diverse alien species within a short space of time within a contained environment. Doctor Who has come a long way since the days of dodgy effects and questionable prosthetics and never has the backdrop to an episode looked so gloriously alien as in The Rings of Akhaten. Millennium FX’s Neil Gorton made numerous moulds in his spare time in the hope that they might be used in the future for a big alien crowd scene and here they are showcased in scenes that outdo the famous cantina scene from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope way back in 1977. The special effects seen nowadays in Doctor Who are worthy of Hollywood films with far greater budgets and long gone are three Daleks invading the world in Day of the Daleks or a rather cuddly giant rat prowling the sewers of London in The Talons of Weng-Chiang.
Kindness isn’t always bestowed upon Russell T Davies’ scriptwriting, which so often required frenetic spectacle to bridge illogical gaps in the narrative, but with The End of the World he brilliantly balanced a series of elements to produce a highly memorable tale that helped no end with the overwhelming success of the Ninth Doctor’s era and guaranteed a shining new future for Doctor Who. There’s fun as a Wurlitzer jukebox is mistaken for an iPod, horror as the Steward is burnt to death when the solar filter in his office is sabotaged and mystery regarding the fate of the Time Lords as Jabe realises who the Doctor is.
Unfortunately The Rings of Akathen lacks the depth of The End of the World and ultimately is an exercise in style over substance with a paper-thin perfunctory plot and totally forgettable secondary characters. Anyone expecting innovative twists on the Doctor Who formula due to the infusion of new blood from a writer associated with the spy shenanigans of Spooks and the dark brooding of Luther will be left severely disappointed. No hunting of an intergalactic serial killer or terrorist for the Doctor here. It’s Doctor Who by the numbers as the Doctor and Clara arrive in an alien environment, the companion befriends an innocent, a monster escapes an aeons-old confinement and the Time Lord must bare his damaged soul and reference the horror of the Last Great Time War in order to win the day. Lots of boxes ticked with a tale constructed from tried, tested and tired elements. Even the Doctor’s status as a grandfather gets a mention.
The Rings of Akhaten frequently comes across as paying homage to the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises. Aside from the gathering of aliens bringing to mind the previously mentioned cantina scene in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, the space moped that the Doctor and Clara ride is reminiscent of the speeder bikes from Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi , an asteroid field as in Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back and the appearance of the young Queen of Years seems based upon the look of Queen Amidala in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. The domain of the Mummy evokes the lair of the pan-dimensional aliens in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and the Doctor retrieving his sonic screwdriver from the other side of a descending door is a clear nod to all the times Dr Jones had to rescue his hat or whip in similar circumstances.
For series 7, which began way back in September 2012, Steven Moffat dictated that there would only be single episode “blockbuster of the week” stories and this approach doesn’t find favour with many old time fans brought up on the four 25 minute episode format that equates to two episodes of the new format. The single 45 minute episode format all too often works against the narrative as by the time tension has been suitably ratcheted up it’s a rush for the finish line and the denouncement. Stories such The Rings of Akhaten cry out for a double episode allocation to develop intriguing ideas such as precious memory-laden objects being used as currency, the alien societies and the weird buggers dressed like soldiers from the Weimar Republic era that appear to enforce the sacrifice of the child Queen of Years. The society and cultures settled upon the rings of Akathen had the potential to become as intriguing as those encountered in Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland or Neil Gaiman’s London Below but they don’t get the chance to develop in the way they might have in classic Doctor Who.
Swathes of The Rings of Akhaten were unnecessarily devoted to developing the not-so-mysterious and not-so-interesting backstory of new companion Clara instead of building a coherent narrative for the main plot line. Steven Moffat’s influence on this aspect of the narrative screams out as the Doctor once again monitors the evolution of a companion (or potential companion) from childhood through to adulthood. This has already been done to death with Amelia Pond in the initial part of the Matt Smith era and with Madame de Pompadour in the David Tennant story The Girl in the Fireplace. The potential of time contained within the leaf that Clara’s father saved from his first meeting with her mother was a not-uninteresting concept but the trope of the concept companion has worn out its welcome, yet there is bound to be more of it in the rest of Series 7b as the “mystery” of Clara is explored.
As the all-important 50th anniversary of Doctor Who draws ever closer the absence of Karen Gillan from proceedings is becoming more and more discernible and her absence lamented with every story featuring her successor. Whilst the programme makers have declared themselves delighted with the chemistry and relationship between Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman, it’s patently obvious that after three stories Clara hasn’t come close to proving herself a worthy replacement for Amy. Coleman almost seems to be putting too much effort into her scenes as her movements and speech are too clipped and precise to be considered naturalistic.
A new companion is bound to face a tough time when they replace a much-loved predecessor. Freema Agyeman had a massive uphill task in replacing Billie Piper but she succeeded magnificently and her departure as a regular after only one series met with much disapproval towards RTD and rumours of behind the scenes issues. Though the character of Clara may be lacking in many areas all the indications are that she’ll never be as tiresome as the bull-in-a-china shop, shrill and annoying Donna Noble as portrayed by Catherine Tate.
In the days of the classic series Doctor Who survived on strength of concept and narrative and in stories like The Rings of Akathen these twin pillars remain woefully absent.