I can't help but feel a bit bad for The Rings of Akhaten. It's been getting a lot of flack on the internet, with many people throwing words like "dull" and "boring" around, and I think that's a little unfair. It had its faults, sure, but it was still a very enjoyable episode of Doctor Who. It was a kind of cross between The End of the World, Gridlock and The Beast Below - and since at least the first two of those three were good, that can only be a compliment.
One thing the episode should be praised for is its ambition. It gave us an alien world, dozens upon dozens of alien creatures (the Doctor Who equivalent of the Star Wars cantina scene), a soul-eating god-like sun, and a moped capable of racing through space. I admit, there were moments where it looked a little cheap; the scenes just after Clara and the Doctor step out of the TARDIS and into the marketplace, for example, looked a little like something you'd have found in the original series of Star Trek. But, of course, that's what has always been part of the charm of Doctor Who. The bubble wrap in The Ark in Space added to the charm of the story, didn't it? Well, same goes for this.
|The Doctor and Clara visit the Rings of Akhaten in a visually stunning episode.|
Before I launch into talking about the other features of this episode I loved, though, I feel the need to mention briefly something I didn't love. The Rings of Akhaten was, at its core, a distinctly atheist commentary on modern religion and, although I'm not religious myself, I didn't really feel comfortable with the way it was handled. This isn't the first time Doctor Who has dealt with religion - it was one of the central themes of Gridlock, to cite a recent example. However, The Rings of Akhaten didn't appear to handle it with the same kind of grace and respect that Gridlock did. The closest it came to any kind of delicacy was with the Doctor's line "Well, it's what they believe," which Matt Smith delivered with a beautiful warmth. Other than that, it reeked a little too heavily of atheist bias. This isn't my way of saying that Doctor Who shouldn't explore religion - or even that it shouldn't explore it with an atheist slant (because it's pulled that off before in episodes such as Gridlock and The Satan Pit) - I'm just saying that something that big, and something that divisive, should be handled less sloppily.
The only other real problem the episode had was a pacing issue. The plot hurtled towards its climax way too early which, overall, made the episode feel rushed and confused. I was about to suggest that it would have been better as a two-parter, but actually there wasn't enough material for that (which was perhaps the very reason why Neil Cross, who penned this episode, was so keen for the episode to peak so early - in the hope that the momentum of that peak would be able to carry the rest of the story), nor was the basic premise of the plot strong enough to warrant two episodes.
|The malevolent, fake God of Akhaten. The Rings of Akhaten reeks a bit too much of an atheist agenda.|
But anyway, on to the positive things! Let's start with Clara. You might remember me saying last week that I hadn't warmed to her as much as I'd warmed to other companions. Well, thankfully this week's episode did a lot to rectify that, and that is in no small part due to the injection of some very RTD-like traits into the way she was written. Her interaction with Merry, the young, scared Queen of Years, was reminiscent of Rose's interaction with Raffalo in The End of the World in that it clearly establishes her capability to empathise with those around her. Empathy is something Amy was distinctly lacking, particularly in her first series, and so it's very pleasing to see that they haven't made the same mistake with Clara. Even putting aside the comparison to Amy, though, establishing Clara as an empathetic character was always going to make her very easy to like - and likeability is absolutely vital for the Doctor's companions.
Another welcome feature of the episode the inclusion of a lot of Clara's backstory, which showed us how her parents met and got married, and revealed that Clara's mother died a premature death. Now, one could argue that knowing that Clara had to cope with the death of a loved one at a very young age means we're more likely to like her because we feel sorry for her, but I'd argue that whilst there is merit to that point it's perhaps too cynical an approach to take. What makes her likeable is the fact that, by virtue of knowing some of her background, we know Clara herself better; she becomes more human and as a result she becomes more relatable. It gives her a lot of depth, too, because it sheds light on why, as became apparent in The Bells of Saint John, the death of the mother of the children she had been looking after affected her so much.
The quest to find out who Clara Oswald really is is the arc that links this half of the series together; however, whilst we don't yet know how she came to be a nanny in Victorian England or a crew member aboard the Alaska, I'm happy simply finding out about these little details of her life because they're what truly make her interesting.
|Jenna-Louise Coleman gives an assured, likeable performance as Clara.|
Another real highlight of this episode was Murray Gold's score, which continues to go from strength to strength. The music of The Rings of Akhaten was always going to have to be strong seeing as so much of the plot centres around the singing; indeed, a good 5-10 minutes of the episode features some kind of singing, which makes it very fortunate that Murray delivered such a corker of a song. His real forte, though, was the instrumental music. Every year Murray's music gets more and more epic and more and more cinematic, and this episode is unequivocal proof of that. The track that plays as the Doctor tells Clara "We don't walk away," was simply sublime. Carry on the good work, Mr Gold!
|"We don't walk away." A beautiful scene scored by some beautiful Murray Gold music.|
And, finally, we come to Matt Smith. I can put my hand on my heart and honestly say that words cannot do justice to how astonishing his performance was in this episode. One scene in particular will, I hope, come to be viewed as one of the defining moments for his Doctor, one of the iconic scenes revered for decades to come - his 'Have I that right?' moment. It's the scene where he stands alone in front of a raging god and gives this speech:
The Doctor: I hope you've got a big appetite because I've lived a long life and I've 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've walked in universes where the laws of physics were devised by the mind of a madman. I've watched universes freeze and creations burn. I've seen things you wouldn't believe. I've lost things you'll never understand. And I know things. Secrets that must never be told. Knowledge that must never be spoken. Knowledge that will make parasite gods blaze. So come on then! Take it! Take it all, baby! Have it! You have it all!
And the thing is, it isn't the speech that makes that scene what it is - it's Matt's performance. In his early days in the show, there were times where he made certain acting choices which I didn't think really worked. But in this scene it becomes evident just how much he has matured as an actor since then. That speech, on paper, is actually pretty arrogant. How easy would it have been to deliver it in an authoritative, powerful way? That's what most actors would have done. But Matt opted instead for vulnerability. He shouts it but his voice shakes. His delivery is so passionate that a tear rolls down his cheek. His performance gives life and meaning to that speech and transforms it into something transcendental. It's not only one of the finest displays of acting Doctor Who has ever seen, but one of the finest displays of acting I've ever seen. Full stop.