• 7th April 2013 • Review by Seb Patrick •
Contrary to what you might think, there’s little joy to be had in eviscerating poor Doctor Who. Perhaps there is for some writers, but personally, I want Who to be great all the time. At the very least, I want it to be good all the time. It’s with next to no pleasure, therefore, that I find myself sitting down to discuss “The Rings of Akhaten”. Anticipation for this one wasn’t at a particular height to begin with, but it’s a genuine shock to discover that after a promising (if not spellbinding) start to proceedings last week, the much-heralded arrival of writer Neil Cross onto the team makes for arguably the biggest misstep yet of the Moffat era.
There’s usually merit in episodes that reach for something bold and don’t quite succeed, or ones that undo a swathe of good work with a severely misjudged moment. The two crimes that are largely unforgivable, however, are to be downright boring, and/or downright stupid. While a handful of episodes of the revived series have committed one or the other of these sins, “Akhaten” manages to be possibly the first episode since “Fear Her” to achieve both.
Given that “new companion takes first trip to an alien world” stories have developed something of a formula, it’s no surprise to see “Akhaten” borrow elements liberally from the likes of “The End of the World” and “The Beast Below” – a motley assortment of alien creations here (although RTD, to be fair, did at least take care to name and give distinct characteristics to each new background race he brought in – here, it feels like a raid on a costume workshop), an overcrowded and slightly cloying indoor marketplace type set there.
For the flaws that each of those two stories cited had, however, at least they were each actually about something – and, perhaps more pertinently, about humanity. “The End of the World” may have had no humans in it aside from Rose and Cassandra, but was very firmly concerned with the Earth; while “The Beast Below” had some pretty damning things to say about human nature. “Akhaten”, by contrast, seems to bear true RTD’s (at the time that he said it, slightly mean-spirited) remark back in the day about the viewer not caring about “the Zog monsters from Zog”. The society in and around Akhaten simply isn’t well-drawn enough for us to care about it – it’s remote, difficult to identify with, and frankly a little bit silly in all its sun-worshipping. This latter point is, admittedly, about the one thing the episode does seem to try and be making a comment about – but as religious satire goes, it’s slight and facile.
You sense that even those making the episode didn’t feel especially invested in its story – that can be the only reason for the lengthy singing scenes, that seem to draw on far past the point necessary to get the sense of them across, and which contribute hugely to the impression that, for much of its running time, the episode fails to compel on even the most basic level. Even by this point we’re already somewhat lost, however: what should be sparky and lively opening exchanges between Doctor and companion as they explore this new location simply feel rote, and do little to tell us about their dynamic.
If the worst the episode did was fail to excite, though, then it would be fairly easy to forget and move on from – another “Curse of the Black Spot”, perhaps. Where it becomes actively unlikeable, however, is in doing things that are just downright stupid – things that should never have got past the first draft of any intelligent writer (as Cross clearly is), let alone a script editor and a dictatorial head writer. If we skim over the Doctor callously forcing his newly-recruited companion to give up the wedding ring of a mother he knows is dead purely because he doesn’t want to lose his sonic screwdriver (as if he’s never had more than one) by admitting that the script does deliberately emphasise the need for it a few scenes later, that still doesn’t explain the need to hire a space moped in the first place (what with there being a perfectly good TARDIS parked just around the corner). That’s even before getting to the ghastly imagery of the Doctor and Clara blasting through space on said moped, in a scene that seems to exist solely in order to provide COOL KICKASS WHIZZY FLYING SPACE MOPED scenes to put in trailers aimed at the American market.
What’s worse, this scene actually makes one from a previous episode – the Doctor riding the anti-grav bike up the Shard – look worse by comparison. While inherently silly, the scene last week at least felt like a daft, self-indulgent one-off. With two so similar scenes occurring in successive weeks, though, all of a sudden it feels like the show is turning into something that plays with cool action imagery in a cynical and hollow fashion while completely ignoring the heart and soul that’s supposed to run through it. Others, of course, have accused the show of succumbing to this sort of thing long before now – this is the first occasion on which I’ve had cause to think they might be on to something.
(Oh, and an aside: I’m not usually one to quibble about scientific veracity in Doctor Who, but if you’re making the kind of basic elementary error – by which I mean having two characters fly through space with apparent disregard for the inherent lack of breathable atmosphere – only otherwise made by Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, then you really need to take a long, hard look at yourself.)
Interviews and features about this episode published in advance suggested that it was a late rush-job, which would at least seem to explain Cross’ apparent lack of interest in the concept itself, or in putting together something particularly compelling (we’re also assured that his next episode, “Hide”, is one far closer to his heart; so to give him some credit, let’s not judge him as a Who writer until after then). It would also explain why the episode introduces not one, but two different kinds of monster that appear to be little more than red herrings, and which are simply abandoned as threats.
In the case of the Mummy, it’s a deliberate part of the episode’s bait-and-switch (even if it seems to make no logical sense whatsoever – why and how would a vampiric creature sleeping in a cage serve as a planet’s “alarm clock”?) – but after introducing an actually quite creepy new creature in the shape of the Vigil (made up of elements of various other monsters they may be, but they’re still somewhat effective in their execution), it’s bizarre that they’re given no more than a minute or two of screen time and then neatly packaged away. You have to question the pacing of an episode, frankly, when more time is spent watching people sing than watching monsters attack.
There’s an attempt to push some feeling into the episode by way of another lengthy Doctor speech (one that simply doesn’t feel like the episode has earned it, frankly), and by tying the flashback to Clara’s parents and childhood (which are, incidentally, easily the high point of the episode – though I can’t shake a sneaking suspicion that that pre-credits sequence might have been the work of Moffat anyway) into how the story is resolved. But nothing helps shake the feeling that this is an utterly disjointed script, little helped by some of the weakest direction seen on the show in some while – even shaking something of a lacklustre performance out of the previously entirely unimpeachable Smith. It’s an episode that seems to aspire to do little more than just be there, to fill a week in the schedule – and this, in my eyes, is far more worthy of damning criticism than a noble failure or bloated flawed opus.
What’s more, at a time when we get so few episodes per year, an episode even being allowed to be a last-minute rush job is simply unfathomable. We can only hope that it’s an anomaly, that circumstances have conspired to make it series 7’s weakest episode by such a considerable margin. With Cross’ “real” episode, not to mention Ice Warriors, Gaiman and new Cybermen to come, the omens are still in the series’ favour – but if another episode like this is allowed out of the gates, there might be serious questions asked about what the heck the show thinks it’s doing.