Saturday, 20 April 2013

TV Review: Doctor Who 7.07 - The Rings of Akhaten

Say hello to the most divisive episode of series 7 yet.

Bombast. If I could write all of these reviews in single-word and still receive the same amount of accomplishment and lovely reception afterwards, that would be the word I would use to describe the second episodic instalment in series 7's concluding eight, a Neil Cross penned 42 minutes titled The Rings of Akhaten. Why bombast? Aliens, and lots of 'em; but surprisingly more prominently, epic dramatic monologues are quite the stand-out in this episode, taking place towards the end of a script struggling to carry the weight of such heavy heaps of dialogue. The Rings of Akhaten, admittedly, is a flawed episode. There's not a whole lot wrong with it, but Cross' debut tale is somewhat thin when it comes to plot, and if anything was proven by my review of last year's A Town called Mercy, it's that an episode lacking in a quality plot can't quite be saved by fantastic production values, superb direction and inspiring acting. Funnily enough, Akhaten packs all three of these, it just doesn't have a solid, complex enough tale to back-up the inclusion of such heady assets.

Comparisons to A Town called Mercy most definitely won't inspire confidence in this episode, but fear not; Akhaten happens to be of a fairly superior quality to that particular flop, at least in most of the aspects that Mercy dropped the ball. Now, Akhaten doesn't necessarily drop the ball, but it incautiously clings onto a ball so abnormally thin that, no matter how much it offers the viewer in the form of high-quality production, writing and set design amongst other things, it leaves a lot to be desired by the time those ending credits roll, at least in terms of story.

One of the highlights of the episode is the opening sequence, which digs a little deeper into Clara's past. Just don't expect too many revelations if you've not yet seen Rings.
Where the episode does succeed, greatly, is in its opening act. Before we delve into the main bulk, we take a short but sweet plunge into the past of Clara Oswald, the 'twice dead' companion we've all been speculating over ever since her initial introduction. The mysterious leaf that was brought up several times in the previous episode is explained, and Clara's parents are introduced. Funnily enough, they're introduced to each-other through the leaf, a plot-point that plays a major role towards the climax of the story. The cinematography in this scene, particularly when Clara's mother rests in her grave and a beautiful young daughter stands before her, is absolutely brilliant. Throughout the whole opening scene, The Doctor watches from a distance, hoping to pick up some clues on his mysterious companion, unfortunately to no avail. I've been pondering who exactly it was that penned this opening segment - Moffat or Cross - but no matter, it's an excellent scene that, sadly, builds up to a somewhat dissatisfying remainder.

Is it a planet or is it a sun? Lord only knows, but Akhaten and its inhabited meteoric rings are a sight to behold.
The remainder, then. Cross' first story and Clara's first proper adventure in the TARDIS takes us to the rings of planet/sun Akhaten (don't blame me for not knowing what exactly it is, BBC's official description says it's a planet, and the actual episode states it's both on separate occasions). It's a beautiful, large-scale setting that houses a small-scale tale of unexplored religious connotations and singing. Yes, singing. More on that later. As aforementioned, hundreds of aliens reside in the episode's setting, drawing many comparisons to the second episode of Doctor Who's entire revived run, 2005's The End of the World. The high quality of the opening scene seeps into the first act of the story post-opening credits, throwing crazy alien humanoids and robots at you left, right and centre, leaving the viewer in almost as much awe as Clara herself. Left to explore by herself, The Doctor's companion finds herself running into a young girl, Merry, portrayed superbly by child actor Emila Jones. Emila was also in Channel 4's fantastic drama Utopia, which aired at the start of the year, and as soon as I realised this I knew that they picked the right girl for the role in this Doctor Who outing.

Meet The Vigil, one of the most disappointingly underused monsters in recent memory. As if these fabulous creations aren't cool enough, they pack some truly ear-raising vocal work. It's a shame we most definitely won't see these guys in future episodes of Who.
Sadly, it's from Merry's introduction that things start to go a little downhill with the full-on establishing of the main plot. The young Queen of Years has to sing a sacred song in order to keep a god satisfied, as part of a ritual that takes place every century. The scenes involving said singing are ever so slightly cringey, not because they're badly realised, but the lyrical prowess here is that of a five year-old. For an ancient civilisation, their sacred lullabies are certainly basic. This isn't exactly a fundamental flaw, but it does take you out of the episode whenever Merry repeats the words 'Oh' 'god' and 'of' a billion times over. At least Murray Gold's sublime score saves these moments a little, and highlights the Doctor's speech towards the end. Back to the plot, a certain someone messes things up and it's up to the Doctor and Clara to protect Merry and resolve the slightly unfair consequences of this almighty goof. And that's it. That's the plot of this episode. Usually, I struggle to contain my synopsis of the story into a single paragraph in these reviews, but with Akhaten, I can do it in the space of a few sentences.

Matt Smith has delivered some of the best Doctor Who speeches, and while the one featured in Rings feels wholly out of place, it's still an absolutely stellar performance. After almost three years in the role, Smith continues to surprise me. Here's hoping he won't be gone any time soon...
How exactly does it make sense, then, that this episode's closing moments involve one of Matt Smith's Doctor's epic, grandiose speeches? It's the sort of thing that belongs in a much larger scale outing, and while the production team got things right in terms of scale, Cross' script didn't. Don't get me wrong, Matt Smith's ground-breaking performance is without a doubt, alongside the intriguing opening, one of the highlights of this story, it just feels rather forced after a lack of build-up beforehand. What I can praise about this scene wholeheartedly, however, is its dramatic conclusion. The moments following the Doctor's speech greatly implement Clara's established back-story from the opening minutes of the story, thankfully leaving you with less of a bitter taste in your mouth after what was a slightly hit and miss affair for the most part.

The Rings of Akhaten is a good episode, but the slowly-paced, slightly dire second act and the forced conclusion don't exactly make it a well-balanced one. All in all, however, this is a very enjoyable story for the most part, even on repeat viewings. Neil Cross clearly put a fair bit of thought into the ideas that are implemented into Rings, but they're just not explored anywhere near enough to be truly fruitful. It's a case of too much of one thing and too little of the other, resulting in a wholly unbalanced experience that I struggled to form an opinion on after my first viewing; the most important, and for many, only viewing. My hopes for Cross' next episode, the alleged fright-fest Hide, have become cautiously balanced following my experiences with The Rings of Akhaten. Until then, I hope you enjoyed this review. As always, feel free to drop me a comment or share through whatever social network you're on, that sort of stuff is always appreciated! Until next time...

1 comment:

Raphael Reviews said...

Awesome stuff. I definitely agree with everything here, Neil Cross has certainly made a marmite story. Kinda proves that you need a good plot otherwise everything pales.

Looking forward to Cold War....