Doctor Who: The Rings of Akhaten preview

"This is an ambitious, mildly creepy and slightly preposterous first stab at Who from Luther creator Neil Cross"

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When I was a little boy, I’d have loved this episode for all its weird and wonderful new monsters. I’d have wanted to know what each one was called, where they were from, exactly which monster did what… The action unfolds among the asteroid Rings of Akhaten, seven worlds teeming with diverse life-forms. While many feature only fleetingly, in a marketplace or at the Festival of Offerings, others loom large in the story, such as the eerie, slow-moving Vigil and the mummified “Old God” who keeps all the locals in a state of dread.

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It’s certainly a superb showcase for the talents of Neill Gorton. He and his team at Millennium FX have created prosthetics for Doctor Who since the series came back in 2005, and I am instantly reminded of that year’s second episode, The End of the World, where Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper encountered a menagerie of peculiar aliens.

Neill agrees there are similarities: “The story serves the same sort of purpose, which is ‘Now let’s go into space and see something really alien’. The Doctor’s trying to introduce his new assistant to the most alien environment he can – she’s a complete fish out of water. Of course back then [2005] we were desperately limited financially and it was very early on in the series. So this [latest episode] is an opportunity to show how far we’ve come – and up the ante. I’ve always wanted to do a scene like the Star Wars cantina” – which, of course, showed a lot of random critters hanging out.

Bizarrely, for me, Millennium FX are currently based at the top of the small road in Buckinghamshire where I grew up. If you’d told my seven-year-old self and my neighbourhood chums – playing at Sea Devils, Autons, Daleks and Ogrons among those factories and warehouses – that 40 years later Doctor Who would be making monsters there for real… well, it would have been too fantastical even for our open minds. 

What my childhood self would certainly not have appreciated about this latest episode is all the blooming naff singing that prevades the action. For millions of years on Akhaten, a succession of choristers have been engaged in “The Long Song”, a perpetual lullaby that keeps their Old God asleep. A daft idea if ever there was one. And I’d have cringed at the young girl, Merry, Queen of Years, who is ordained to warble for the mummy.

Yet as an adult I accept that young Emilia Jones is very endearing. Aged ten when this was filmed (and real-life daughter of former boy chorister Aled Jones), she really sells Merry’s mixture of naivety and immense knowledge, her natural childlike fear, and touchingly brings out Clara’s empathic side.

Arguably the most persuasive section is the prologue, before we reach Akhaten, a flurry of poignant moments in which the Doctor checks out Clara’s background and learns the significance of her dried maple leaf (seen last episode pressed inside her old book, 101 Places to Visit).

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I do have other reservations about The Rings of Akhaten, but will save them for the RT review after transmission. Don’t let me put you off. On balance, this is an ambitious, mildly creepy and slightly preposterous first stab at Who from Luther creator Neil Cross. Much to enjoy!