STORY 236: THE RINGS OF AKHATEN
Somehow, the Eleventh Doctor story The Rings of Akhaten managed to actually be...not bad. The fact that it wasn't a disaster as have so many Doctor Who stories of the Matt Smith Era is indeed something to be celebrated (in my current group of reviews, a shocking SEVEN of the Ten Worst Stories have been Eleventh Doctor stories, with only ten more stories to go before I formalize my First 100 Doctor Who Reviewed Stories So Far Lists--Top and Bottom Ten*). However, that isn't to say The Rings of Akhaten will ever join the ranks of say something like a similarly vaguely Egyptian-esque titled story: Pyramids of Mars. Instead, The Rings of Akhaten is something to enjoy for aspects outside the general story (the score, the costumes, the make-up), with the story itself having great potential only to sink into bad form.
The Doctor (Matt Smith) whisks his newest Companion, Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) on her first intergalactic adventure. Unbeknown to Clara, however, the Doctor has basically been stalking her all her short life, determined to find the mystery of The Girl Twice Dead (a little refresher: Clara aka Oswin turned out to be a Dalek in Asylum of the Daleks...and hence, dead, then a Clara Oswin Oswald, Victorian barmaid-cum-governess, died at the end of The Snowmen, and for the moment no real explanation has been put forth as to how she could be three versions...so far...of the same person). As such, the Doctor has been able to observe how Clara's parents came to meet (a leaf brought them together), their marriage, Mrs. Oswald's early death in 2005, and now to the present.
In any case the Doctor takes Clara to the titled Rings of Akhaten. These are from what I saw asteroids circling a large sun-like planet. On these asteroids we find all sorts of aliens waiting for a sacred ceremony. Here, in a marketplace eerily similar to Tattoine, the Doctor and Clara get separated. Clara runs into a little girl who herself is running away, a little girl named Merry (Emilia Jones). The Doctor Who version of Queen Amidala is indeed a Queen, the Queen of Years. Merry has to sing a song, a lullaby, to placate Grandfather, whom the various aliens hold to be an angry god. She is worried that she'll get the song wrong and thus be sacrificed. Clara first tries to get into the TARDIS for the Doctor's help, but curiously the TARDIS won't let her in (wonder why...), but she gives Merry confidence to sing her song.
The concert at first goes well (and it's a lovely lullaby). Of course, something went wrong, and Merry gets swept away to the Temple to await devouring. The Doctor and Clara race to rescue her, while all the other aliens just pretty much stare at it all. There, the Doctor and Clara find a being locked within a glass case who first attempts to take Merry's soul. The Doctor manages to stop both the monster and the Vigil (a group of masked henchmen) with his sonic screwdriver (more on that later), but in a 'twist' the monster in the glass case ISN'T Grandfather/Angry God. It is Akhaten itself...a giant ball of light that feeds off memories. The Doctor at first attempts to save the worlds by presenting his vast memories of pain and loss, but even that is not enough.
Enter Clara, who presents a leaf. That's right: A Leaf. It's not just any leaf; it's the leaf that brought her parents together, the one that is filled all the dreams, hopes, and futures of Mrs. Oswald that will not be because of her early death. Galactus....I mean, Akhaten, so overwhelmed with the possibilities, implodes. Back on Earth, Clara lets the Doctor know she will not serve as a substitute for a ghost after realizing he was at her mother's burial, and she goes home, observed by the mysterious Doctor.
|Oh, Canada...I mean, Clara...|
I think we should start by focusing on the good things in it. Murray Gold's score for once is lovely. The Lullaby Sans Fin is quite a pretty little number, and Jones has a pretty voice (think Charlotte Church before she lost her cuteness). The make-up work on all the various aliens (as well as the Vigil) is strong and the episode certainly is a beautiful-looking one (the imagery of the Doctor and Clara in silhouette against the burning light of Akhaten is striking).
If it were not for these external aspects, The Rings of Akhaten would be a total disaster as a story. Let's go over all the issues I found with it.
First, the threat was never real. I know Cross wanted to make a shocking twist by not having the monster in the glass case be "Grandfather" but when you're facing down a giant ball of light you have two problems. One: you can't have a menacing threat emerge from something that doesn't speak and doesn't take much action. Two: for those of us who have seen Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer or know a little bit about it (I'm the former), one just can't get away from thinking Akhaten is a knock-off of Galactus, the menacing world-destroyer shaped like a giant planet. I simply cannot believe anyone on Doctor Who could have seen that and not have at least suspected a similarity between Akhaten and Galactus. However, because the actual 'threat' kept shifting AND because one couldn't take the 'threat' seriously, one couldn't worry about whether or not little Merry sang her song or was eaten.
|Don't make me use this...again...|
In the Fifth Doctor story The Visitation (if I remember correctly), then-Doctor Who producer John Nathan-Turner ordered the sonic screwdriver destroyed, believing it was being overused to get the Doctor out of any and all situations. JNT got many things wrong during his tenure, but in this case he was absolutely right. Would that Steven Moffat follow suit, because here the sonic screwdriver did things it really shouldn't have. Granted, when one has less than an hour to present problem and solve it, the sonic screwdriver is a fast and easy way to get in and out of things, but it just looked so awful and worse, diminished the Doctor's formidable mental abilities.
Third, we have Coleman. Again, after so many stories with variations on Clara, I am finding her shockingly boring...almost on the same level as Dodo Chaplet or Katarina. These two First Doctor Companions are usually ranked near the bottom (with the latter not even surviving to two stories), and so far Clara just looks like a dumb girl with no personality. Another First Doctor Companion, Sara Kingdom, left a stronger impression because she had both a personality and evolved in her only story (The Daleks' Master Plan). It's already sad to see a Companion be so underused, and even worse to think a whole SERIES/SEASON is being built around HER!
|Cause I'm a Rocket Man...|
Fourth, we have strange plot points that don't make any sense. Putting aside the fact that Rings of Akhaten bears unfortunate similarities to Star Wars: A New Hope and The Phantom Menace (even Merry's wardrobe looks like it came from the Amidala Children's Collection), one has to wonder what will happen to those creatures on the various asteroids now that their gravitational hold has evaporated. One can wonder how the Doctor and Clara can fly so quickly from one asteroid to another without having any difficulty breathing. One can wonder how no one in the past has apparently failed to figure out the monster inside the glass case was not the actual Grandfather (I wondered about the monks within the Temple...wouldn't they have some idea of what that thing was).
As corollary to this, given that the Doctor has all but been stalking Clara (making him almost a pervert following a little girl), it is amazing, downright shocking to think Clara as an adult has no memories of meeting the Doctor in his long brown coat and bow tie when it's clear she was introduced to him by her mother when a soccer ball went his way. If we include The Bells of Saint John's prequel, Clara has clearly seen his face before...twice, in fact, and yet his visage rings no bells? Talk about dumb girl.
Fifth, does it really matter if the little girl doesn't sing her song? Frankly, I don't think that it's that much of a threat, and because we never get to know Merry we can't muster all that much sympathy for her in her predicament. At times, Merry came off as a bit whiny (No, you MUST let me die. You Must, You MUST!), to where I was rooting for Galactus.
Sixth and finally, here we have another case where the Doctor didn't solve the problem. I don't think he even really did anything. Instead, it was the Companion who jumped in to save the day. That plot device (something that has plagued the Smith Era Doctor Who...imagine Jo Grant coming in to defeat the monster that Jon Pertwee's Third Doctor couldn't!) is already old hat. However, how to defeat this giant soul-sucking monster? A LEAF!
A DAMN BLOODY LEAF!!!
Somehow, I can imagine the ghosts of William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, and Pertwee rolling their eyes at the nonsense that a LEAF saved the galaxy.
The Rings of Akhaten has some good ideas knocking around (the appeasing of an angry God, a giant monster, a far-out world), but it just isn't interesting. I would recommend watching The Rings of Akhaten with the mute on, enjoying its visual splendor while ignoring the plot or dialogue.
|I'm ACTUALLY beginning to HATE you...|
Next Story: Cold War
* As of today the Doctor Who reviewed stories are: from the Classic Era, every available story from An Unearthly Child to The Ambassadors of Death as well as The Sun Makers, and from NuWho starting with Rose up to The Girl in the Fireplace, followed by The Eleventh Hour onwards. Therefore, it is not and should not be taken as the definitive list of ALL Doctor Who. So there's hope that the Smith Era will not be the nadir of the series (Classic and Revived) and that other Doctor Who stories will take the place of the Eleventh Doctor's dominance of the Bottom Ten. Also, the list is preliminary, so I expect some shifting of stories before I make it official. However, I don't hold out much hope that the Smith Era will be overrepresented in the Worst and underrepresented in the Best.