What do you do with a second adventure that’s not a second adventure?
As far as Clara Oswin, this Clara Oswin, is concerned, “The Rings Of Akhaten” represents her first foray into the timey-wimey world of the Doctor. Episodes of this nature in the past have ranged from the good (Rose’s “The End Of The World”) to the not so good (Amy’s “The Beast Below), but generally they’re an opportunity for the Doctor to show off the full extent of what he and his flying blue box can do.
And that he does. But first…
At some indeterminate but 80s-infused moment in the past, a man is walking home from work. He gets blinded by a falling leaf, almost hit by a car, but saved by a delightful young woman. And thus began the tale of Clara Oswin (version 3.0).
Going into this episode expecting a lot of bombast and alien shindiggery, it was refreshing to see us dropped into something so unexpected. The tale of how Clara’s parents met was romance delivered with a light touch, carving out an idea of who these people were – and what their loss meant – in a way that a Clara monologue probably couldn’t have. It also returned to a theme which has been very important for Clara over the past few episodes: surrogate parents. In “The Bells Of Saint John” Clara was a nanny, as she was in “The Snowmen”, and in “Asylum Of The Daleks” she was whipping up a motherly souffle.
And in “The Rings Of Akhaten”, she gets to play mother again.
The Doctor has brought Clara to see the famed Rings of Akhaten, a group of populated asteroids orbiting a vast planet. But soon they’re closer to the ground and watching the dozens of alien species wheeling and dealing in the asteroid’s marketplace — Who’s cantina moment, if you will. And then Clara stumbles upon a young girl named Merry, aka The Queen Of Years, who’s terrified she’s going to screw up a song that’s meant to keep one hell of a monster at bay.
Let’s start with what works about this episode. I’ve praised the set and costume people at Who many times before, but it’s worth saying again how rich the settings and secondary characters have been – especially under Moffatt’s era. The scene with the various aliens was thrilling, but not overdone, a showcase without being showy. Similary, many of the effects were breath-taking, and it was refreshing to see a built-up moment live up to its premise when the Doctor showed Clara the sunlight bouncing off that floating temple. Glorious (although the less said about that hover-bike shot the better).
The story also started strongly. Separating Clara from the Doctor was contrived but necessary, showing how capable and confident she was in exploring the market on her own. She was also the exact right person to run into little Merry, helping her escape the Vigil and also doling out some motherly advice. The scene where Clara and Merry hid behind the TARDIS (which, once again, was very standoffish to our Companion) was emotionally effective and well-written.
Once we got past this, though, things began to get overly complex. So — and stop me if I’m wrong here — the Queen of Years is supposed to sing to the temple, and her voice joins with many others, keeping the Grandfather from waking and… killing everyone? And the Vigil work for the Grandfather, and have been trying to kidnap the Queen of Years? And then she’s kidnapped but nobody cares, or they are shocked, or something?
Yeah. There were two very strong themes under-pinning this episode. The first was the idea of Clara and her parents, and her ability to mother other people’s lost children – and by and large it was handled deftly. The second was faith, religion, and the things we do when lead by blind belief. This was far more muddied.
When the singing began — and went on — I was somewhat worried that at this point in the episode we didn’t really have an enemy. More than that, we didn’t have a problem, a task, a puzzle for the Doctor to figure out. We were just on an asteroid orbiting a planet, watching a geisha look-a-like 12-year-old belt out some alien national anthem. Which, somehow, is less exciting than it reads. The plot was missing, and much of that falls on Neil Cross’ over-complicated structure. We spent so much time on laying out the facts that by the time we got to anything really happening it was too late.
And then the Grandfather woke (and, again, he looked glorious), but he was just an alarm for something else. A sort of Grandfather clock.
The “something”, in this case, being the planet itself, which woke up and looked like one hell of an intimidating smiley face. It was, presumably, going to destroy everyone and everything, and the only way to satiate it was to let it feed on precious memories, items with sentimental value — something which was set up fairly subtly earlier in the episode.
The Doctor then shouted at the planet, and a certain amount of Who fans wet their pants with joy. I’ve garnered from enough forums and reviews in my time that a lot of people love when the Doctor shouts at things, so I won’t be foolish enough to say that it’s necessarily a mistake. But my God (or gods, or smiley face planets) do I think it amounts to a hell of a lot of sound and fury and nothing else. I didn’t care for it in The Pandorica Opens, and I don’t care for it now. I appreciated Smith’s performance, especially his tear, but it didn’t feel earned. It just felt like shouting.
More effective, if still somewhat heavy-handed, was Clara giving away her leaf — the one that had introduced her parents, caused her to be born, and that she’d kept all these years. The leaf was not just of sentimental value, but potential value. A signifier of the life Clara’s parents could have had. And what’s more powerful than that?
There were many components to this episode which worked. The visual work was stunning, Emilia Jones was fantastic as Merry, Clara’s parents were introduced adorably, and we got Clara initiated into life on the TARDIS with a lot of bombast. But the story structure was flawed, many core themes were dropped, and the solution felt stolen from us, forced emotion over smooth narrative.
It was fine, and I do still love Clara, but I’m waiting on something to really kick-start this batch.
– That song went on, didn’t it?
– It’s probably already been posited as a theory, but are we taking any bets for Clara actually being the TARDIS? The current incarnation of said machine doesn’t like her, we have an upcoming Neil Gaiman episode about the TARDIS, and in fifty years of the show the only two mainstays are the Doctor and his time machine. Seems a fitting companion for his anniversary?
– The shot when Clara got off the hover-bike back on the asteroid was hilariously edited.
– I would like to see more of Clara’s parents. Charming actors.
– It is a real shame that the nature of religion and faith was lost here, because it would have been lovely to see a family show really question these things. If sci-fi is about opening people’s eyes, it would do worse than to ask children to look at what they really think of their faith.
– What’s most impressive is that they didn’t use any aliens from previous episodes, from what I could spot. So much work!
– As a friend of mine pointed out, Jenna-Louise Coleman is a beautiful creature. As a gay man I’m saying this with as much objectivity as I can muster.