The Rings of Akhaten

The Rings of AkhatenTARDISI had more positive reaction to this review from DWM #460 than anything else I’ve ever written for the magazine. Pleasing, of course, but also a little sobering. Leaving aside the possibility this piece was actually a lot better than any of my others, it seemed as though people were delighted with the fact it had a negative skew. As if that intrinsically made it more ‘truthful’. As if praise is always fake. Which isn’t the case.

Maybe, though, it’ll help validate the fact any upbeat stuff I’ve turned out – and that’s most of it – has been my genuine response . When something has come along that I really didn’t like, I’ve been allowed to express that.

In short, I really, honestly did love Victory of the Daleks!

DWM #460Clara’s first declaration upon officially jumping aboard the TARDIS is to see “something awesome”. Well, maybe next week.

The Rings of Akhaten, written by Neil Cross (creator of the superb BBC One thriller Luther), is by some stretch the least awesome Doctor Who we’ve encountered for a long time. Honestly, it’s galling to say that, but this is a tale starved of jeopardy and instead stuffed with corny sentiment. The perception of Doctor Who fans may be that we inhabit the chillier outer rings on the emotional spectrum, but, even still, I once cried at Motorway Cops. This? There wasn’t a wet eye in the house as pathos ran nauseatingly amok. A cute little girl, the relentless singing, a keepsake from Mum, the Doctor spelling out his do-gooding mission statement – this was sugar-coating on a Rowntree’s scale. Even the invulnerable Matt Smith looked strained by the Time Lord’s interminable blubbing before the angry-faced sun called Grandfather.

With such syrupy gloop sticking underfoot, the story slows so badly that by the 20-minute mark we still haven’t got past the head-swaying Muppet choir. One imagines Statler and Waldorf in the balcony. Statler: “Wake up you old fool! You slept through the song!” Waldorf: “Who’s a fool? You watched it!”

There’s a mighty disconnect between this and the smartness and speed of the current day series. So much so, it would be easy to believe Cross hadn’t seen an episode since the 1980s. Even the leftfield mention of the Time War feels as if it’s come from a quick consult with Wikipedia. Otherwise, the script conforms to a hazy, out-dated concept of the show wherein it’s all about outer space, you pack in a lot of creatures, faux-religious mumbo jumbo, some moralising, some kind of wobbly undersized futuristic vehicle and you spuriously spilt up the Doctor and his companion at the end of the first act. There’s a secret passage in this story – a secret passage, I ask you! – which can be sung into existence, and when the monster topples we’re then told he wasn’t really the monster after all.  At which point another monster bustles along to be similarly browbeaten off the screen. I feel blue.

But it starts with promise, we can at least have that. Leaves on a street, our hero reading – as he jolly well should – a Beano Summer Special from 1981, and the slightly sinister concept of the Doctor stalking his companion through time. He’s not content to let Clara’s tale resolve itself, in fact, he’s not even prepared to trust her. That puts their relationship onto an interesting footing, even if this sequence did feel a little reminiscent of the Amelia/Amy Pond situation. The moment, later on, when Clara concludes the TARDIS is nursing some animosity towards her, feeds into the paranoia and promises interesting developments to come. There’s also nice restraint – sorely lacking elsewhere – in the telling of Ellie Oswald’s young death, economically establishing a backstory we weren’t expecting to even get for the new companion.  Although, please don’t let “Oh my stars” become a thing.

From there, it’s off to Akhaten, and one of the episode’s other small victories; the initial, stunning visualisation of a civilisation floating on a distant space rock and an ancient pyramid glinting under an alien sun. If only we could have left it there. Once we get indoors, we find the show flexing it muscles further, working out its longstanding Star Wars grudge by staging its variant of the cantina scene. There’s no doubt Doctor Who is now well up to the task of populating its stories with competently realised and varied creatures. It’s got nothing to prove. But in doing so, it takes a specifically un-Doctor Who approach to its creations, turning the aliens into a freak show, something to be goggled at, rather than truly met. This one barks like a dog, while that one looks like the green-headed golem made infamous in Star Trek‘s end credits.

Lip service is also paid, and probably thankfully so, to that forever dreary staple, the space-age religious order. There’s nothing duller than Doctor Who spelling out the detailed spiritual beliefs that underpin some fictional hooded clan. The Sunsingers of Akhet (a name that teeters perilously close to evoking some sort of OAP ‘sun seekers’ holiday outing) are but the latest pretenders to the Headless Monks or the Sisterhood of Karn. However, aside from their penchant for red robes, unfortunate facial eczema and Sing Date inspired musical collaborations across the asteroids, they take up little of our time.

The Rings of Akhaten – and I have to refer to my notes every time I write that impossible to assimilate title – is, at its very worst, something the series never is nowadays. It’s mockable Doctor Who. Aside from the immature emotional sludge, even the bits we should be able to rely upon don’t always work. The space scooter stuff, in particular, is most unfortunate, bringing to mind images of Sam Jones hanging off a similarly slow-moving vehicle in the 1980 Flash Gordon flick. As Brian Blessed might say, things really do take a diiiive here, and it’s comical how, when Clara makes her return journey on the thing, it’s cheated. We only see her alighting the moped having ‘just arrived’. A trick of The Pirate Planet vintage.

Writing a critical review of something is normally a lot more fun than singing praises. In this instance, that’s not true. It’s actually discomfiting to be addressing a new Doctor Who episode in such terms, here in DWM. It makes me sad. Neil Cross, as he’s proven elsewhere, is a great writer. His script passed across the desk of Steve Moffat – a terrific writer. How did it all go wrong? Worse still, scarcity of episodes in recent times has resulted in each being plugged as a movie-sized event. This isn’t that.

Contrary to the Doctor’s ethos, in this instance let’s just walk away.


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