A million fan theories about the significance of the leaf, all blown out of the sky in a minute-and-a-half of the pre-titles sequence on this episode. This cold open manages to tell more of a story than many episodes manage in their entire duration (and the episode begins in such a cheesy manner that it almost reminds me of The Armageddon Factor! Then again, a little cheese in the pre-titles is something we’ve almost come to expect of Steven Moffat-era Doctor Who) – but that’s perhaps the problem. Last week I asked the production team not to give us another quite-so laidback episode again in anything of a hurry, and yet here one is. Fortunately, there are enough differences (this being effectively The End of the World to last week’s Rose) for it not to matter. But there’s a bigger problem at hand, and it’s one that’s insurmountable; we’ll come back to that later.
Immediately the titles are through, we’re into The Beast Below territory, the Doctor’s introduction to Clara to the wonders of time and space travel just as magical and as beautiful as anything we’ve yet seen since the series returned. We’re seriously going to miss The Mill, and if there are financial restrictions in play at the BBC, there’s very little evidence of that here. The market sequences once the TARDIS arrives at its destination also belie the budget with a collection of aliens that almost puts the aforementioned The End of the World to shame. It’s a delight to be able to discover these things through Clara’s eyes, with Matt Smith toning down the whacky that occasionally threatens to overpower his performance in her presence, in a sequence that’s just about amusing and eye-opening enough not to seem too familiar from previous stories. Let’s face it, there are only so many times a new companion can discover her first aliens, her first alien world, and there’s enough charm here to see us through without us getting bored; the fact that Clara appears to take all this in her stride is no little help, although even after the Doctor’s jaunt through her past (his pre-seven o’clock “mission”), Moffat is still keeping us at a loss for any explanation as to what is going on with her character. It’s a good job nobody’s stuffing this story arc down our throats just at the moment though; the occasional gentle reminder that Clara is not all she seems is enough to get us into each new story, without making us tear our hair out in frustration at the thought of yet another companion-with-a-conceit character. The first fifteen minutes or so of The Rings of Akhaten are just as calm as The Bells of Saint John, and it turns out that’s a good thing: this anniversary Doctor Who, in which the stories are given enough breathing space to pull us right in before they hit us with the plot, are a reminder of how far the series has come these past eight years. The problems of taking stories and trying to cram them into single 45-minute stretches are now long gone; if anything, there’s occasionally the reverse problem, of there not being enough story to go around, but happily Steven Moffat and his team seem to be getting the balance just about right at the moment.
But then we arrive at the climax of the episode, and that’s when – through no fault, insofar as I can make out, of anybody who worked on the story – the whole thing rather peters out, when it ought to be taking off. Probably as a script it read brilliantly, with the dialogue certainly navigating a hairy path just the right side of falling into cliché, and no doubt with the effects budget high and a lot of goodwill riding in off the back of writer Neil Cross’ previous Doctor Who (the still-to-be-broadcast Hide, with these episodes having been recorded out of sequence), everybody must have been optimistic about creating something memorable and emotive. Murray Gold is giving it his all, that’s for sure (although the final song is just a little too much like the emphatic Ood-song that played out across the climactic scenes in Journey’s End for comfort, in terms of the arrangement at the very least), but there’s something important lacking. And what’s lacking is interaction.
There’s a massive sequence, which lasts a good few minutes, in which the entire main cast (albeit that that’s all of three people) are basically separated and acting by themselves to a green-screen. It looks fantastic, but unfortunately it plays rather skewed. With a mute and almost inanimate Big Bad (there was plenty of scope for the Minor Bad to rescue the situation, if only it had been cast as a speaking part! But it is a nice twist, if not an entirely original one, when the Big Bad turns out to be the Minor Bad, and it transpires that there’s another Big Bad literally on the horizon that had been hiding in plain sight the whole time), it’s as if Smith (and to a lesser extent Coleman) is giving out and not receiving, and it isn’t just the lack of interaction that causes the sequence to underwhelm; the notion that the Doctor is talking to a giant globe millions of miles away, and that this globe is not just hearing him but understanding him too, is probably a suspension of disbelief too far. You can throw in all the explanation you like; it simply doesn’t play convincingly.
Which is a shame, because in just about every other area, The Rings of Akhaten is as amiable and as enjoyable an episode as you’d wish it to be (indeed, it’s promising for Neil Cross’ other contribution, insofar as Hide is unlikely to feature a sequence remotely resembling this one). In fact Jenna-Louise gets a pretty decent, and in some ways unexpected, scene early in the episode (rather reminiscent of similar scenes in both The End of the World and The Beast Below, exaggerating still further the comparisons), in which she proves that Matt Smith isn’t the only regular who’s good with kids.
So, not a disaster by any stretch of the imagination, it’s just a pity that the promise of the first half-hour or so isn’t met by the episode’s end.
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