Tuesday, 9 April 2013

On 9.4.13 by KieronMoore in , , ,    No comments
I watched the latest Doctor Who a day and a half late, and by then had picked up the general opinion on it – that it’s crap. A lot of people had told me it’s crap. I was apprehensive. 

But people were wrong. I really enjoyed Neil Cross’ The Rings of Akhaten. In fact, I enjoyed it more than The Bells of Saint John. What you gon’ do ‘bout that, people? 

For her first trip away from Earth, the Doctor took Clara to “something awesome” – that something being the Sun-singers of Akhet, a solar system containing more made-up sci-fi words than the opening of Dune. From Dor’een the barking moped dealer to the ghostly-voiced Vigil, Akhet was a beautifully designed society populated by a myriad of interesting creatures. The visually rich marketplace and amphitheatre scenes live up to the tradition of the Star Wars cantina. What a perfect setting for Cross’ tale of gods and monsters! Throughout, the story brings into question the nature of belief, a theme which begins with the Doctor regarding the culture’s beliefs as “a nice story” and seems to crescendo at the moment you realise that they’re keeping the Old God asleep not out of respect but out of fear, before the big twist revealing the true nature of Old God – which Team TARDIS implode the shit out of anyway. These mythic elements to the story reflect the writer’s views through an increasingly mad allegory which allows for great drama – and that’s pretty much my description of good science fiction. 

One of my main criticisms of The Bells of Saint John was that I wasn’t yet finding Clara an engaging companion. This week, that changed. The story played out through Clara’s eyes and, with her sassiness toned down, she became a likeable and interesting character rather than a plot point. The opening montage summed up Clara’s family history beautifully. We saw the very sweet backstory behind her leaf, and, for the first time, we saw how she’s lost someone important to her – her caring mother. This explains her refusal to abandon the children she nannies and, later in this episode, her care for the afraid Merry, nicely linking her character story to the plot of the week. She’s a character for whom family matters, and her quirks are related to this – the inheritance of the saying “oh my stars” from her mother is a subtle and lovely touch. I liked this character. 

I liked the Doctor in this episode too. Like with Clara, Cross’ Doctor seems toned down from Moffat’s. He’s clownish as ever at times, but not annoyingly so – his failure to join in the Long Song is hilariously reminiscent of a footballer who doesn’t know the national anthem. Using the phrase “technical boo-boo” and the word “refulgent” in the same episode, this Doctor is childish but also clever. We saw the caring side to the Doctor, as he wanted to take Clara on a nice day out and keep her safe, but also the nicely manipulative side, first tracing her life from the shadows. Thankfully, this mix of caring and manipulation for Clara didn’t descend into the perverseness that last week’s unconscious stroking incident got close to. Later in the episode, the Doctor’s speech to the Old God is powerful, using nods to previous stories to explore his own past, without becoming indulgent or angsty. Matt Smith delivers a beautiful performance that balances all of these contrasting elements of the Eleventh Doctor into a Doctor that, more than I have in the past few episodes, I liked. 

In a moment reminiscent of 2005’s The Parting of the Ways, Clara, having been sent to run away as the Doctor faced the Old God alone, drew on her mother’s words and turned back to help him out. A great moment of characterisation for both of them, which led to a fine conclusion. Yes, it’s one of those Doctor Who dénouements where the day is saved by some mystical and scientifically unsound power of emotion; I have complained about the overuse of such endings before, but for me, this one worked. Thanks to the well-set up nature of the culture’s use of sentimental objects, the smooth links to Clara’s past, and excellent performances from Smith and Coleman, this ending really worked. 

I’d also like to briefly mention Murray Gold’s score, which was particularly good, and not too intrusive for once, in this episode. Clara’s theme over the opening montage and the powerful instrumental backing to the ceremonial song were the highlights which really brought out the emotion in these sequences and made them flow. 

My final “I liked this thing” point goes to the way the Doctor’s picking up and dropping off Clara at the start and end of adventures, like in series 7A with Amy and Rory. This fits well into the pacing of the episode rather than being a burden – Clara’s excited waiting for the TARDIS to show up tells us a lot about her character in one quick and quiet moment. 

The general consensus, as I said at the start, seems to be that The Rings of Akhatekatakenaten (that title gets longer every time I try to write it) is crap. I really don’t understand this. Cross’ script has an ambitious story and a great balance of sentiment, adventure, and character detail. It’s been brought to the screen amazingly, with a glorious detail and atmosphere in every corner of the alien world. With the zany excesses of last week toned down, this episode made me start to like Clara, and the Doctor’s great in it too. Screw you, general consensus.


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