Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Rings of Akhaten

Let's get this out of the way first: Neil Cross cracks the 45-minute Who episode. This doesn't feel rushed or incomplete. It's a rarity these days to find an episode where the story feels fully explored and told. And even when it does, as in, say, most Mark Gatiss scripts, it feels like a story that wasn't really worthy of the Doctor's powers. The Rings of Akhaten transports us to a fantastic world and gives us a satisfying glimpse of its culture, and builds to the Doctor facing down a god-like villain without feeling underdeveloped. There's plenty wrong with the episode, but none of the usual Moffat-era flaws scar the story. And for that, I really liked it.

New Who has created a tradition for introducing a new companion: after introducing them in a modern earth episode, follow up with both a fantasy-historical and an outer space story, of which the space story typically focuses largely on the companion and how she deals with being taken into a whole new world: End of the World, Gridlock, Planet of the Ood, The Beast Below, and Amy's Choice. I like this half of the tradition. It gives the production team a cool world to create and the companion a chance to show off.

And Clara has a lot to show off. Finally at the center of an adventure after two, er, false starts and her real intro in Bells of St. John, she shows herself to be gentle-hearted, fun-loving, often hilarious, clever, and a good improviser. When she sees a scared little girl running away, she handles it expertly, calling on her years as a nanny. In the finale, she figures out the nature of the story she's in and defeats the villain after the Doctor only managed to wound it. And, intriguingly, the TARDIS doesn't like her. The stuff about Clara is terrific. The story itself has some rough patches, but she's yet to be anything less than wonderful.

The episode opens with the Doctor watching the odd story of how her parents met by the strangest of chances involving a large tree leaf. Director Farren Blackburn shows the same heavy hand that flattened The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe, and playing the Doctor's semi-stalking of Clara as charming rather than slightly creepy (understandable, as he's trying to unravel her very strange mystery) just makes it much creepier. However, it's the first of several intelligently layered mysteries; Cross sets up a lot of intriguing things with both Clara and the main story to draw us in, and the mysteriousness survives Blackburn's complete lack of subtlety.

The Doctor asks Clara where she wants to go, and with all of time and space at her disposal, she can't think of a place she'd like to go, so she tells the Doctor to take her "somewhere awesome". So he takes her to Akhaten. And man, Akhaten is cool looking. It's the sort of world we've always wanted to see in Who but never could: a world that really does have dozens of different alien species, each with their own culture and individuality. Not to mention the stunning backdrop - a vast ring of planetoids orbiting a spectacular planet that turns out to be Akhaten's sleeping god.

It's worth noting just how far Moffat has improved the production values of the show. Davies presented a pretty cool-looking show, but he only had two or three really impressive episodes surrounded by a bunch of running around on cheap old Earth. Under Moffat, the show looks fantastic pretty much every time out. Even a less-than-impressive director like Blackburn can turn out pretty good stuff these days.

And the story is effective for a 45-minute Who story: intriguing enough to be worthy of the Doctor's time, but simple enough to be fully fleshed out - except for the non-speaking villain, there's really only one significant supporting character, but through her you get a good sense of the world's culture. Cross takes his time setting everything up - nothing dangerous happens until halfway into the episode, and Cross trusts that we'll be carried along by the combination of world-building and our knowledge that, this being Doctor Who and involving dormant gods awakening (shades of Hinchcliffe!), things are going to go amazingly wrong. And so, in the action-packed second half, there's plenty of time to play everything out. (Also, lots of pretty singing.)

And Clara continues to intrigue. She's yet to feel fully fleshed-out the way other New Who companions are, but she's got plenty going for her. She certainly proves herself as a companion, both in her gentle understanding of the little girl and her solution at the end - she's clever enough to understand the Doctor's abstract, largely metaphorical plan, and able to tweak it and save the day. Coleman remains as delightful as ever ("Can you pretend like I'm totally a space alien and explain?"), and there's still plenty of mystery and foreshadowing surrounding Clara to carry things until she's developed further. In particular, the TARDIS not liking her is both funny and intriguing.

And, of course, the dialogue between Smith and Coleman is fantastic:

CLARA: Did you just lock us in?
CLARA: With the soul-eating monster?
CLARA: And is there actually a way to get out?
DOCTOR: What, before it eats our souls?
CLARA: Ideally, yeah.
DOCTOR: Possibly. Probably. There usually seems to be.
Cross presents a Doctor with a lot of darkness under his whimsy, and not epic sorts of darkness, but petty: the way the Doctor makes Clara give up something of hers for the space moped, or the somewhat stalker-ish way he goes through Clara's life to try to solve the mystery around her. It's effectively unnerving. I do hope Clara brings it up down the line; leaving the creepy sides of the Doctor dangling would cast a real shadow over things.

Anyway, the second half has a lot of running around, though why the Doctor and Clara get the space moped instead of, you know, the TARDIS is weird. One of those times a cool visual is a possibility, but the setup doesn't make sense. The Doctor spends of time holding up a door with his Sonic, which is an engaging enough scene when Smith gets to play it for all it's worth. And so the episode rockets toward a... mixed bag of a climax.

As an idea, the Doctor's way of defeating the villain (and Clara's tweaking) is not only pretty cool, but plays nicely into one of Moffat's big themes: the power of stories. Since Grandfather feeds on memories, the Doctor tries to overload him with his own memories, which encompass glimpses of the whole of time. When that stops just short of working, however, Clara feeds him something much vaster: stories of what might have been, represented by the leaf that led to her parents' first meeting. And where every story that did happen isn't quite enough to finish Grandfather, all the stories that could have happened are far too much for him to handle. It's a wonderful idea, harkening back to The Big Bang in particular.

But the Doctor's speech itself, well... Smith plays the hell out of the speech, but he can't fully disguise what a flat speech it actually is. Part of it is that I'm a little tired of New Who speeches where the point of the speech is just "I'm the Doctor, and I'm awesome!" That might be forgivable, but the words are just way too reminiscent of Roy Batty's "Tears in the rain" speech from Blade Runner, without any of the poetry of that classic scene. Again, Smith pretties it up all he can, but it's just a B-version of one of the great scenes in Sci-Fi, and it's hard to get around that.

They defeat the planet-god, and it collapses and disappears... so what's going to hold that ring civilization together in terms of stable gravity and a primary light source? I mean, I know the Doctor sometimes leaves people to sort the aftermath out themselves, and sometimes to less-than-desirable effect, but that's just ridiculous. Clearly, this planet-ish creature was their primary light and heat source, since the sun is pretty far off in the distance, and that mass of debris is going to be wrecking all into each other with its gravity no longer stabalizing everything.

Still, in spite of its flaws, Rings of Akhaten gets the important things right: a fully-fleshed-out, well-paced story that focueses on showing off a cool new companion. It's not great, but it's no surprise Cross's next script - Hide - really delivers the goods.


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  • There were a lot of references to Ancient Egypt in Akhaten - the Pryamid, the mummy, the suggestion that the world was the center of culture and near the beginning of life itself, and the name Akhaten is clearly derived from Akhenaten, the pharoah who worshipped Aten, the sun god. (and was married to Nefertiti, incidentally) I'm not sure if Cross meant anything clever beyond the references themselves, but they're fun to spot.
  • ... though they do remind me of how much I hated the characterization of Nefertiti in Dinosaurs on a Spaceship. Not Cross's fault, of course.

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