Saturday, 13 April 2013

Doctor Who - The Rings Of Akhaten Review

The Doctor and Clara's latest adventure is thematically rich despite a thin plot

Last week's installment ended with Clara describing the leaf in the pages of her book as "page 1"; the comment went unexplained. I eventually thought nothing of it and was pleasantly surprised to see it brought up again so quickly. The Rings of Akhaten not only allowed Clara to demonstrate her worthiness as a companion, but explored themes of fear, loss and religion.

The Rings of Akhaten (or Indiana Jones and The Sunshine X-Factor as it could be called) started with a sweet prologue which charted the story of the leaf and its importance. The leaf brought together Clara's mother (originally named Ellie Ravenwood. Ravenwood as in Marion Ravenwood from Indiana Jones) and father, and is of significant emotional value to Clara. Not only does this help to develop Clara as a character,  but plays a pivotal role in the episode's conclusion.

The Doctor and Clara explore the alien market.

Moments later, The Doctor has taken Clara to see The Rings Of Akhaten, a planetary system with a glistening pyramid at the centre. The plot gets a little bit muddled here and I could never fully understand what the planets, the races and the temple were called. All that matters is that there is a Festival of Offerings to commemorate the alignment of the planets. During the festival, they worship the god who they believe created their world.

Executive producer Steven Moffat said that he wanted to fully explore an alien world, and not trap The Doctor in a tunnel. On that account, he succeeds. The planet is very alien indeed, filled with a smorgasbord of weird and wonderful creatures passing through the action (more informally known as doing a "Mos Eisley Cantina" from Star Wars).

Moments later, Clara is on her own and follows a scared young girl. The girl (called Merry) has the terrifying task of having to sing the ancient song that keeps the god happy. It's no coincidence that The Doctor is absent from this section as this is very much about Clara demonstrating her compassionate side as she helps Merry tackle her fears. Every companion has their first alien adventure and Clara's is excellent. She displays determination, kindness and bravery; all the characteristics of a worthy companion.

The singing of the ancient song doesn't entirely go according to plan which causes the god to stir from his slumbers (it would certainly make The X-Factor more interesting if these were the consequences).

A singing contest with very high stakes
What follows is a less than subtle commentary on religion from writer Neil Cross. Hints were dropped earlier in the episode; Clara's mother says "Oh My Stars" instead of "Oh My God" and The Doctor refers to the inhabitant's beliefs as a "nice story". Doctor Who has tackled religion and faith in other episodes (most notably in The God Complex), but The Rings Of Akhaten is the most openly atheist episode of Doctor Who that I can recall. The Doctor dismantles Merry's fear of her god, and explains how Merry's sacrifice would be a waste of her unique life.

It's eventually revealed that the mummy creature in the temple was not the god, but a waking mechanism for the large sun like planet. Except it's not a god, but a parasite that feeds on people's stories and life experiences. After a brief lesson on The Big Bang, The Doctor is left to tackle the hungry parasite all by himself. He gives a grandstanding speech that has become almost too common in recent series, believing that his extensive memories and stories will give the parasite what it needs. Thankfully The Doctor doesn't succeed; this is Clara's episode and it's only right that she should be the one to defeat the monster.

Her speech about the infinity of experiences that never were was magnificent and if anything, should have been longer than The Doctor's speech. It's a speech of great emotional depth as Clara gives up the leaf, a treasured memento and symbol of how important her mother was to her. The difference between what was and what should have been proves to be too much for the parasite which implodes, freeing the people from their blind faith.

Both visually and thematically, the episode owes a lot to Danny Boyle's Sunshine.
For me, the main difference between Moffat-era and Davies-era Doctor Who is the endings of episodes. In Davies' run, conclusions to the adventures would be more technical and plot driven. They would involve The Doctor figuring out how the problem through the use of physical things. During Moffat's tenure, the endings tend to be less logical but have greater philosophical weight. I'm certainly generalising here and, if done right, both styles of ending can be satisfying. 

As such, many were disappointed with the episode where the monster was defeated by a leaf and there was a lot of magical screwdriver waving. The mummy monster which dominated the promotional material turned out to be a bit of a red herring which perhaps annoyed some people. Personally, I can be more forgiving of an episode like The Rings Of Akhaten where the strong themes make up for the illogicalities of the plot.

Irrespective of any opinions, I have to admire the ambition of Doctor Who. Here is an episode of a family show which tackled religion, faith, fear, sacrifice, compassion and... space mopeds. A lot of this may have gone unnoticed by some of the very young viewers, but it demonstrates Moffat's determination to not dumb down his ideas just because Doctor Who a children's show.

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