“The Rings of Akhatan” – Review: Redux

Clara “You’re going to fight it, aren’t you?”
Doctor “Regrettably yes, I think I might be about to do that.”
Clara “It’s really big.”
Doctor “I’ve seen bigger.”
Clara “Really?”
Doctor “Are you joking? it’s massive!”

Rings of Akhaten

I’ve been looking forward to writing this review for “The Rings of Akhaten”, or more correctly, I should say that I have been looking forward to re-watching it and then writing the review. As I am now at the stage in the series where I had ceased to write reviews in the immediate aftermath of first broadcast, I have no existing blog upon which to base any re-analysis. However, I clearly recall back in April of this year as the credits rolled on the first of Neil Cross’s two episodes in this little run, turning to my wife and saying “I really quite enjoyed that.” It was a gentle, fairy-tale-esque episode that didn’t really do very much to deliver upon Clara’s request to see something awesome for her first trip onboard the TARDIS. There seemed to be a bit too much singing, and Matt Smith’s shouting at the sun-God was overly reminiscent of his hollering while atop Stonehenge way back in “The Pandorica Opens”, but all in all, I felt it was charming. If I were to have given my patented ‘marks-out-0f twenty’ there and then, probably 13 or 14.

And then I decided to go online to Twitter and Gallifrey Base to see what everyone else was saying, where I was staggered at the vitriol directed towards the episode. Not since the days of “Love & Monsters” with its Blue Peter monster had such a division of opinion been drawn through a story. I didn’t by any means think that it was a classic but surely it wasn’t as bad as everyone was making out. So, I re-watched to see whether my opinion would be skewed upwards or downwards. Things start off unusually. We had been promised standalone episodes with a movie of the week format, but the pre-titles sequence was another time-travelling  montage of the Doctor looking back at Clara’s early years trying to discover what was special about her. i.e. it was all arc-related stuff. And a leaf. It was also about a leaf. The scene was reminiscent of “Father’s Day” with its almost car accident but the direction and stunt work here were, admittedly, a bit weak. The car never looked like it was going to hit anyone, and the leaf blowing in someone’s face would hardly force someone to take four steps into the middle of the road.

Anyway, for Clara’s first trip she wanted something awesome and it was a nice special effects shot seeing the eponymous rings for the first time. After that though we had a pretty cheap looking studio set with lots of extras with a variety of prosthetic get-ups reminiscent of the Star Wars Cantina scene or possibly the bit with Midshipman Frame and Jack Harkness at the end of “The End of Time”. There was a nice throwaway line about the Doctor used to go to the Rings of Akhaten with his granddaughter, although quite why he like doing it so much was beyond me.  However, one criticism that can be levelled at the episode is that barring a scene where Clara helps the Queen of Days overcome her fears pretty much nothing happens for the first twenty minutes but it does give us an opportunity to get to know the kind of person Clara is a bit better.

It is then that the bulk of the plot, for what it’s worth, begins to unfold. The culture is one which placed value on possessions and memories that mean a lot to the inhabitants, both in terms of currency and in the offering that the locals make to their gods. However, something goes wrong in the process, the god wakes up, which turns out to be one of the sentient suns first encountered in Chris Chibnall’s “42” and while the Doctor’s history is not enough to satiate the appetite of this god, the infinite possibilities of the future (represented by that single leaf) turn out to be enough to quash the sun’s needs and it vanishes in an almost literal puff of smoke. Of course, if you are someone who likes a bit of science in the their science fiction then this all probably comes across as some kind of awfully insipid romance or mystic nonsense. If you are brought into the whole Moffat fairy-tale version of the show then you might just get a little more out of it.

It seems to me now, on second viewing, to be something of a mish-mash of missed opportunities and tries too hard to do too much but succeeds in doing too little. For example, two scenes with the Vigil, who seem like they could have been the bad guys on their own but in the end who just gave up. There was a vampire in a glass cage who, as soon as he had escaped from his prison simply curled up and died. And of course, there was the sun that was defeated by a leaf. However, despite all of this I did quite enjoy it again. As an eye-opening view of the universe for Clara it worked in giving her an understanding of what life might be like travelling with the Doctor. For the Doctor, it reassured him, despite the mystery, that Clara would be a worthy companion. It was lightweight and fun, and sometimes, among all the big stories, you need a little story like this to catch your breath.

Highlight: The prosthetics on the aliens

Lowlight: There was a certain cost-cutting in evidence in the speeder bike scene that looked cheap

Talking Point: Was it god or bad?

Demon’s Run Rating: 12 out of 20

Original BBC1 Broadcast: 6th April 2013

Marathon Status: 96 gone, 6 to go

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