Sunday, 7 September 2014

The Rings of Akhaten written by Neil Cross and directed by Farren Blackburn

This story in a nutshell: A leaf that manages to take on big old face...

The Nutty Professor: Remember when I said that the eleventh Doctor had seemed to have devolved into a series of eccentric tics rather than expressing any real character? Well I stand by what I say for the most part of The Rings of Akhaten because he is doing his usual shtick of leaping about, flapping his coat and waving the sonic screwdriver around. It’s not hideous viewing by any stretch of the imagination but it does feel a bit of a waste of a very strong actor. Smith is always superb but he can only be superb in what they have asked him to do. However, with sudden devastating clarity I was reminded precisely how good he should be on a more frequent basis in that astonishing speech he gives at the finale. He gave me goosebumps all over in a way that he has only ever done twice before (when he was locked in the Pandorica and at the end of The Doctor’s Wife when he has to say goodbye to the TARDIS) and really connects with the audience in a way that he rarely does when he is doing all that nutty professor ‘look at me, I’m quirky!’ nonsense. Clara calls the Doctor on whether all life did begin in this system and he gives a wonderfully diplomatic answer that manages to avoid the question and be respectful at the same time. The thought of the first Doctor and Susan visiting the alien marketplace together makes my heart sing. I haven’t had that vibe of the Doctor and his assistant simply enjoying their time together as I did when they were watching Merry sing (and the Doctor reminds me of myself when I try and sing hymns…coming in late all the time!) since season four. It’s a lovely feeling and I hope they cling onto it. As much as I hate the overuse of the sonic screwdriver (hate is a strong word but its really getting that way) I really enjoy watching Matt Smith when his performance gets physical and his wrestle with the (really heavy) door was genuinely amusing. I don’t often get the sense that Matt Smith is this 900 year old Time Lord with a weight of experiences behind him but he really captured that at the climax of this story. I felt he was an old, old man who was prepared to give that entire wealth of life to save this solar system and that was all down to the gravity of Smith’s performance. Oh if he could only be given material like this every week.

Closed Book: Clara is an odd one for sure. She works because Coleman is such a strong actress (see how she very much holds her own at the climax next to Smith in what could have been a crushingly awful sequence) but the simple fact is beyond saying that ‘she is nice’ I have absolutely no idea who this character is or why I should care about her. There was always something funny and tragic and pathetic and special about Donna, right from the start. She leapt from the screen as a fully rounded character that I loved spending time with her and wanted to go adventuring with her. Clara is like a blank page, one that is slowly being filled in but I am scared that we will only see the full picture by the time she leaves and (if past form is to be believed) it will hinge on a dreadful revelation that hasn’t made the wait worthwhile. It’s frustrating because I want to enjoy my time with her more than I do. If it wasn’t for Moffat’s nervousness at handing us comprehensive characters she could be amazing. Saying that I had great fun watching the Doctor and Clara interacting in this episode, she certainly does keep up with him in the witty dialogue stakes and I got a sense that she was a Doctor Who companion far more than I ever did with Amy. They have an unspoken affection and chemistry which just works. A friend and I were watching this episode together and discussing The Bells of Saint John and how nice it was for a companion to be introduced in such a dazzling way to the possibilities of the TARDIS during the street to plane sequence without having to go through the whole ‘bigger on the inside/it also travels in time’ rigmarole. Colour us unimpressed at the beginning of this adventure which sees them backtrack and set that sequence in this episode instead. Clara’s right – every time I get asked a question I automatically forget everything there is to know about that subject (it’s a curse). Clara’s scenes with Merry have a lovely ring of delicacy to them that really endeared me to them both and it struck me that both the Doctor and Clara have a wonderful rapport with children. The TARDIS doesn’t seem to like Clara for some reason (the same reason it had an aversion to Jack?) – considering it always warmed to Amy then clearly the machine has no taste. One thing that didn’t quite convince was how easily Clara took all this in. She doesn’t bat an eyelid at aliens and god planets and standing on rocks in the middle of space. Say what you will about Rose, her culture shock was at least realistic (or as realistic as this kind of situation can be).

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Do you mind if I tell you a story. One you might not have heard. All the elements in your body were forged many many millions of years ago in the heart of a faraway star that exploded and died. That explosion scattered those elements across the desolations of deep space and after so many millions of years these elements came together to form new stars and new planets and on and on it went. The elements came together and burst apart. Forming shoes and ships and seal wax and cabbages and Kings until eventually they came together to make you. You are unique in the universe.’
‘You’re going to fight it, aren’t you?’ ‘Regrettably yes I think I may be about to do that.’
‘Take my memories. But I hope you’ve got a big appetite because I’ve lived a long life and I have seen a few things. I walked away from the last great Time War. I marked the passing of the Time Lords. I saw the birth of the universe and I watched as Time ran out, moment by moment until nothing remained. No time. No space. Just me! I walked in universes where the laws of physics were devised by the mind of a madman. I have watched universe freeze and creations burn. I have seen things you wouldn’t believe. I have lost things you will never understand and I know things. Secrets that must never be told, knowledge that must never be spoken, knowledge that would make parasite Gods blaze! So come on then! Take it! Take it all baby! Have it! You have it all!’

The Good:
  • I heard complaints about the ‘pointless’ pre-titles sequence showing how Clara’s parents met and I wonder if those people have actually watched the entire episode. Not only is it further information about the new companion (much needed as well) and probably contributes towards the larger arc surrounding the mystery of Clara but it is directly tied into this episode as well, provide the climax with its resolution. I liked the subtle way the writer told us the year (its on the front of the Beano the Doctor is reading) without having to plaster it all over the screen as they usually do. Despite Clara’s dad looking a little bit like a serial killer when he      grins maniacally at Ellie, this is really rather sweet. If you are like me and spend hours talking long into the night with friends about all kinds of existential bollocks then you’ll appreciate Dave’s statement about fate and everything having to fit into place for two people to meet. I think it was on Six Feet Under when I first heard the phrase Life is a series of accidents.’
  • Am I the only person who thinks that it is super cool that the TARDIS is smoking these days? I love that. I’ve pretty much fallen in love with the new design completely, it is a massive step up from the glass and chrome 80s lounge from before.
  • In general I think this episode looks amazing for something that was pulled off on television budget but (and it’s a big but) I think The Rings of Akhaten is the perfect example of the strengths and the limitations of what the show can achieve at the moment. All the CGI featuring the Rings and the Pyramid look incredible and its hard not to get swept up by that kind of visual majesty (unless you are very cynical). It’s wonderful that we get to meet so many different types of alien but I perhaps would have concentrated on one of two really good ones rather than what feels like hundreds of merely adequate ones. Doctor Who is never going to have the budget of Star Wars (unless it hits the big screen) and it feels like these should all be far more fluidly moving CGI aliens rather than men wandering by in rubber masks. It has a definite feel of classic Who in that respect but that’s nostalgia rather than something to be proud of. If you want to see what a bazaar full of alien life should look like check out any Roger Langridge drawn comic strip. The Ultramanta was just cool though, an oily golden robot with glowing red eyes. I hope we see them again. Despite looking freakily like the Seers in season fifteen’s Underworld, the Vigil were extremely creepy and well done (it just goes to show it's all down to the voice). The show wants to pull off a scene set in a massive alien amphitheatre full of aliens watching Merry perform so it graces us with a gorgeous CGI visual of the entire stadium and then has to be content with tight shots in a studio and obviously duplicated long shots of the aliens either side of the stairs in different positions. It goes from being entirely convincing to obviously false and back in a heartbeat. They’re trying, and I think that should always be the applauded and I find something quite comforting in the idea that Doctor Who still has limits despite it’s plentiful budget (compared to the classic series at least). The Doctor and Clara on the moped in space looks like it has leapt straight from the comic strip of DWM whilst also looking as camp as Christmas. I was both clapping my hands with excitement and cringing at the same time! The Mummy, in comparison to the other aliens on display, is extraordinary. You can see that a lot of work has gone into making this look as fearsome and as possible.
  • Wasn’t it wonderful that Doctor Who was presenting a genuinely alien culture full of colour and spectacle with its own atmosphere. This is the sort of setting that the show used to find itself in all the time re-2005,  the Doctor and his assistant turning up somewhere completely out there and getting involved in a real adventure that had nothing to do with contemporary Earth. It’s been so long I had forgotten what it felt like. Because we don’t know anything about this system and its rules so there is no way to predict what is going to happen and how it is going to pan out. That is rather exciting in a series that has rather gotten too bogged down in its own formula.
  • Whilst Murray Gold’s music threatened to drown the action on the odd occasion I thought his work on the two songs was magnificent. They are genuinely memorable, emotive pieces. The second time I watched I found myself joining in at the climax. Although I could have done without the aliens rocks their heads from side to side – for what was managing to balance finely between subtle and twee this tipped the climax over into over sentimentality.
The Bad:

  • Let me get this straight - upon being told about the infinite possibilities that an object can hold the sun decides to shrivel up and die as though it hadn’t thought of that before, or as if having the explanation spelt out has changed its state or its ability to effect. It reminds me of the story of the mad alternative universe that was told that it couldn’t possibly exist because it was too bizarre that it popped out of existence. Perhaps this is too abstract for me to get a grip on. Fundamentally I like the idea of a creature that feeds on memories being defeated by a multitude ofpossible memories and ones that will never be but the cynic in me sees what is actually being presented and that is a tatty old leaf defeating a killer sun. You have to really strain to see your way past that one and it seems clear given the internet outcry about the climax that the majority of the audience found that too much of an ask.
  • A planet with a face? Oh dear.
Haven’t I seen you before: Once again this episode was loaded with moments that felt as though they have been pillaged from previous NuWho installments. Since The Bells of Saint John had this treatment I guess its only fair that The Rings of Akhaten gets it too…

  • Having the Doctor ducking in and out of his companions childhood directly after that was all the show obsessed about with the previous incumbent of the role feels tired. There’s something a little voyeuristic about him digging into her history like this and catching her at her most vulnerable moments. It reminded me a little of how the 7th Doctor used to make Ace confront her fears. Is there something wrong with the Doctor finding somebody that he wants to travel with the two of them just heading off into the universe with no mysteries to unravel about either of them (there is a big question mark hanging over both of their heads this year). Plus didn’t we have the Doctor staring at the scanner ad nauseum during the first half of season six with a quizzical look about Amy?
  • I got a real Father’s Day vibe from the way this sequence was shot, using the music of the era and giving it a washed out look (post 2005 Doctor Who seems to suggest that the 80s was this grey wilderness and not the kaleidoscope of tie dye T-shirts, fluorescent shell suits and Doctors dressed like Ronald McDonald that it actually was).
  • The first trip after a modern day contemporary thriller being a trip to the future where the companions meets a myriad of aliens in a spectacular location. This could be The End of the World or The Beast Below, take your pick. The shot of the Doctor and Clara silhouetted against the rings of Akhaten with rocks and debris floating past looks exactly like the visuals at the end of Rose’s second story. I did think that captured that sense of heading out into the universe and being surrounded by strange and wonderful things far more effectively than The Beast Below though. There is a palpable sense of excitement from both the Doctor and Clara that is infectious.
  • Clara meeting a lost child and pursuing her into an off-limits area plays out beat for beat in exactly the same way as it did for Amy in The Beast Below.
  • Didn’t we have the Doctor and Clara racing to save the say on a bike last week? Is that going to be a running idea this season?
  • That bloody sonic screwdriver has become a liability. Get rid of the thing. It’s nothing but a Harry Potter magic wand now and it restrains the Doctor’s creativity in finding a solution.
  • A sentient planet or star was the basis of 42. Except it didn’t have the massive face of a Jack o’latern. 
  • Whilst I enjoyed the singing, it was also essential to the conclusions of Gridlock, Planet of the Ood and A Christmas Carol.
  • Dropping Clara off at the end of each adventure makes it feel less like the partnerships of old. Stop doing that. Amy had a reason to return home each time, Clara should just head off into the universe and have fun.
Result: The Rings of Akhaten did a number of things that I have been asking of the show for a while now. The Doctor and companion simply turning up somewhere fresh and have an adventure. Check. No timey wimey nonsense. Check. Witty dialogue without being too smug and self satisfied. Check. A likeable companion. Check. All these elements warm me to this piece and make me feel as though we have step back thirty years into classic Who. This is good. Whilst the elements that make up this story are as derivative and familiar as those of The Bells of Saint John the biggest difference here was the presentation of the story which is so different from anything we have ever seen before it was bound to divide opinion. If it wasn’t for the pre-titles sequence it would be an adventure where the Doctor’s assistant is the only human character that we get to meet and as such the script had to really hard to draw the audience into this setting because there was very little that is recognisable. It worked for me, for the reasons state above, but as far as I understand some people found this approach too much to handle. I loved the amount of aliens that we got to see and this rare glimpse into a genuinely different society. Matt Smith and Jenna Louise Coleman use this opportunity to explore the relationship between their two characters and I came away from this adventure feeling far more positive about their partnership than I did last week. They compliment each other beautifully and both do stunning work at the climax. There are problems with The Rings of Akhaten (familiar elements, some effects that are beyond the shows budget, the daft grinning face of Grandfather, the abstract resolution) but overall I thought this was a refreshing attempt to do something a bit out there with the show. A pleasing, colourful, sentimental piece: 7/10


Burstingfoam said...

I have to say, we're on different pages about Who at the moment (that's OK, different opinions and so on, and at least you justify them rather than ranting, even if I don't tend to agree), but it's nice to see someone give this less of a rollocking than it usually gets. There are some plot and execution problems, but for me this episode is about the abstract ideas and the alien-ness, and I'm glad to see someone else appreciate that.

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David Pirtle said...

I agree with you. This is a good bit of classic Who fun, and it also makes for a much better introduction to the character of Clara than the last episode. It even has a child actor who isn't terrible.