“Something awesome” is what Clara requests for her first trip into space, but is that what she and we, the viewers, receive?
The Time Lord certainly delivers spectacle: the Rings and Pyramid of Akhaten, “seven worlds orbiting the same star, all sharing the belief that life in the universe originated here” – excellent visuals from The Mill (the Soho effects house reportedly closing down soon).
He shows her a marketplace teeming with weird and wonderful alien life – 30-odd new monsters fashioned by Neill Gorton and his team at Millennium FX, as well as a few dopey-looking extras in terrible wigs. So, The Rings of Akhaten offers a sense of place and a lot of local colour – but there isn’t much of a story.
If you want to see the Doctor introducing his companion to an array of aliens in an adventure suffused with intrigue, tension and wit, bung on the DVD of The End of the World (2005) or even The Curse of Peladon (1972). If you want to be spooked by an evil Ancient-Egyptian-style god who’s kept inert inside a pyramid, may I refer you to the infinitely superior Pyramids of Mars (1975)? These all had gripping, coherent stories.
The Rings of Akhaten amounts to little more than series of events and has a more preposterous premise than usual. The physics alone are a challenge. How do the inhabitants of Akhaten survive in such proximity to their sun? What about the heat and radiation? And what constitutes the atmosphere among this cluster of asteroids? There seems to be breathable air wherever the Doctor and Clara go.
But what strikes me as even sillier is the notion that this fearsome Old God is being successfully kept dormant by a lullaby and has been for millions of years. Not only that, the lullaby is the responsibility of a succession of choristers. Don’t they ever eat, drink, sleep or pop to the loo? Hasn’t one of them sneezed in millions of years?
The lullaby itself, “The Long Song”, and the other dirges we’re treated to are remarkably weedy compositions that even the combined forces of the Crouch End Festival Chorus and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales cannot mitigate.
As for young Emilia Jones (ten when this was filmed, and real-life daughter of former boy chorister Aled Jones), well I cannot be mean about her. As Merry, Queen of Years, she overcomes the thinness of the material, carries off her scenes with aplomb, and really sells Merry’s mixture of naivety and knowledge, her natural childlike fear.
She brings out the empathic side of Clara, who is clearly drawn to children – both in this life (as a childminder back on Earth) and as her other self (in Victorian times). While Jenna-Louise Coleman continues to impress… and I can’t quite believe I’m about to type these words… Matt Smith is, for once, underwhelming.
Regular readers of my blog will know that I usually extol him to the stratosphere, but the director lets through a tad too much mugging and the Doctor’s giving-it-large, get-a-load-of-me grandstanding in front of “Grandfather”, the Halloween pumpkin star, is uncomfortable to watch. I don’t believe any of it.
The events on Akhaten don’t even have a proper ending. The “Grandfather” star appears to have been extinguished, and of course we’re left wondering what happens to Merry and all the other poor souls after it’s gone. The Doctor later tells Clara she saved everyone, but how are they existing? Wouldn’t the asteroid rings have dispersed without their centre of gravity?
Arguably the more persuasive section is the prologue, before we reach Akhaten, in which the Doctor checks out Clara’s background. He observes her parents Ellie and Dave’s first meeting in 1981, a love-at-first-sight/saved-from-death incident that reveals the significance of Clara’s maple leaf (seen last week pressed inside her 101 Places to Visit book). It’s a flurry of poignant moments in three and a half minutes, flicking through to Ellie Oswald’s death in 2005, with Jenna-Louise Coleman convincingly “teenaged” at the graveside.
This isn’t by any stretch the feeblest 21st-century episode, but when the supply of Doctor Who is on such a drip-feed – one season split over two years – I hope for better than this. Fortunately, Mark Gatiss’s Cold War (next week) is a massive improvement.