Doctor Who: The Rings of Akhaten (BBC1)

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Contains spoilers

The audience reaction to last week’s season opener appears to have been largely positive albeit with a sizeable churlish minority carping away in the background. If that’s true then the reaction to the second episode of the eight-episode half-season could be said to be the mirror image: largely negative, but with an enthusiastic minority singing its praises.

The good stuff first: this was an episode which sought to reestablish just how awesome travelling in space and time would actually be, by offering us genuine spectacle. The visualisation of the eponymous orbiting rings was really quite spectacular, and the market place scenes that followed were a very pleasing and effective evocation of a Mos Eisley-esque meeting place of dozens of alien creatures and cultures. There was a wonderfully lyrical idea of non-monetary currency (bartering by way of items of sentimental importance to the bearer rather than useless bits of paper and metal discs) and a lovely sense of a real occasion taking place when the 11-year-old Queen of Years takes centre stage at an eons-old religious ceremony.

Perhaps the best part of the whole thing is when new companion Clara becomes separated from the Doctor in the bustle of the market and runs to the aid of a distressed, stage-struck Queen. Not only is Clara willing to defend Merry from from some fearsome-looking pursuing aliens, she’s also able to give an emotional pep-talk to get Merry back in the game for her big moment. It’s a quite fantastic few minutes for Jenna-Louise Coleman who is already shaping up to be one of the best Doctor Who companions of all time; it says much for her performance (and also that of Emilia Jones as Merry) that we don’t miss the Doctor one bit during this time. In fact, watching a brand new show called The Clara Oswald Adventures becomes a tantalisingly appealing option.

All of these pleasurable experiences do take some time to play out, however, and halfway through you’re still waiting for the story to show up and things to get moving. They attempt to do so when the ceremony goes awry and Merry is abducted to be psychically fed to the god to whom the song-based ritual is dedicated. Of course neither the Doctor nor Clara can simply walk away and leave her in peril: for the second time in two episodes they jump on a moped to ride to the rescue, although alas just as last week’s ride up the side of the London Shard was the weakest moment of last week’s FX, so the space moped is the low point of this week’s.

Still, all’s well and good and bubbling along nicely – except that the show now only has time for some serious over-use of the sonic screwdriver (sadly, I’m beginning to think it’s time for the thing to go up in flames again) and then to try and pacify the waking god figure; who it turns out is not the nondescript monster in the glass box but rather the ludicrous smiley face digitally painted on the nearby mini-sun. How are they going to confront a monster the size of a small sun? Well – apparently by singing a lullaby to it while the Doctor seeks to talk it into a coma by telling it about all his past adventures. When that’s not quite enough, Clara’s on hand with the final coup de grace which turns out to be an ordinary tree leaf of great sentimental importance to her (it’s key to how her parents met) and which proves to be the final “waffer thin mint” to an already-engorged sun-god, who promptly simmers down and all is well.

Really? That’s it? Singing a song, having a chat and waving a leaf and the monster goes ‘poof’? Clara’s lost her memento (everybody: “awwww”) but otherwise there’s been no cost to anyone. A certain amount of eccentric whimsy is all well and good, but you can’t build a solid structure from it. As a result the episode is all a little light-weight and insubstantial, all beautiful trimmings and amazing trappings but nothing underpinning it. To riff off the original fan nickname given to Jenna-Louise Coleman’s character – “Soufflé Girl” – it’s rather like one of those air-light egg confections that has been left in the oven just a little too long, causing it to collapse under its own lack of substance to leave a gooey unpalatable mess when it has promised so much only a few minutes before.

So while admiring many of its parts, I found “The Rings of Akhaten” ultimately unfulfilling and rather disappointing as a whole. I also find it difficult to know exactly who it was intended for. There have been episodes of late that I haven’t liked, such as “The Curse of the Black Spot” or “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship”, but which I’ve acknowledged will appeal to younger children – and that’s fine. The show has to appeal to all ages after all, and that includes the younger demographic rather than pandering to aged has-been longtime fans like myself. But for all its enchanting fairytale aspirations, I can’t see “The Rings of Akhaten” appealing to kids – it’s simply too slow, cerebral and high-brow and I would suspect that children would end up lost, confused and a little bored at the end of the 44 minutes. If it also didn’t appeal to me either as an adult or a long-time fan, then who exactly is it going to appeal to?

All that said, it was a perfectly well done episode and a pleasure to watch from a production point of view and to listen to from a music perspective. It had good performances all around and in particular a great ‘proper’ introduction to Clara Oswald as a travelling companion. Once again the episode felt a bit like a throw back to an equivalent Russell T Davies episode in tone and style (“The End of the World” which did much the same work establishing the character of Rose Tyler) although perhaps the Moffat-era “The Beast Below” is even closer (which likewise gave Amy Pond her first galactic toe dip.)

There have been far better Doctor Who outings to be sure, but there have also been far, far worse stories with considerably less with which to redeem themselves. If this proves to be the weakest of the eight stories in the 2013 series then there’s no real harm done here – just a promising opportunity somewhat squandered.

Doctor Who continues on BBC1 on Saturday evenings starting around 6.15pm, with repeats on BBC and also available on the BBC iPlayer. Series 7 part 2 is out on DVD and Blu-ray on May 20.

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