Today has been a day of racking my brain and wringing hands, as not only have I been afflicted with a lager-induced hangover, but I’ve watched The Rings of Akhaten twice now, and I keep changing my mind about it.
I’ll start by saying it’s very clear why Series 7 Part 1 was released on DVD separately. There is a tangible difference in tone between the first half of the series and the second, and not only due to the change in cast. Jenna-Louise Coleman has been a delight so far, and this incarnation of Clara has presented us with a lovely dynamic with the Doctor which I don’t feel we’ve seen before, certainly not since 2005 (my knowledge of classic Who, as I’ve stated in an earlier blog entry, is limited, but growing).
In recent history the Doctor’s companions have generally come from a background where they’ve lost their father. Rose lost her father as a child; Martha’s parents divorced and she was brought up by her mother; Donna’s father died after she first encountered the Doctor, Amy grew up with no parents at all, and even River’s father turned out to be one of her friends from school, weirdly enough. It wouldn’t be unfair to say then that they all see the Doctor as that father figure so lacking in their lives. Clara on the other hand lost her mother in 2005, and appears to still have her father around. I can only assume we will discover more about her parents as the series develops, but from what we know thus far, it would seem that she isn’t quite in need of that father figure of the Doctor than her previous incumbents. Certainly, although we are only two episodes in, it is curious to note that the Doctor has been dropping her off at home at the end of each one, before picking her up later.
The Rings of Akhaten then is an odd episode. The posters and trailer suggested to me something slightly different to what we actually got. I was happy to note, for example, that the line “We don’t walk away” said to Clara by the Doctor turned out to be not as a result of Clara suggesting that they leave (as it seemed from the trailer), but from Clara not understanding that the Doctor WASN’T walking away.
The set of the marketplace at Akhaten actually reminded me of the Roman marketplace where the Doctor took Donna in The Fires of Pompeii (albeit with slightly more aliens than Romans), and indeed, the whole episode for me had that air of a Tennant-era setting. Certainly more so than the majority of Smith’s tenure so far. I hadn’t been able to imagine Tennant’s Doctor in any of the episodes since he left, with the possible exception of Asylum of the Daleks, such is the change in tone since Moffat took over stewardship of the show.
In all honesty, on first viewing of The Rings of Akhaten I was initially a little underwhelmed. There were certain moments I wasn’t massively keen on, such as the epically cheesy moped across the stars, which was done twice for added cheese. Other little needless things bugged me slightly too, such as the total overuse, again, of the sonic screwdriver. Writers of Who generally find a clever little way to separate the Doctor from his TARDIS, to make the plot more interesting. If only they made the same effort to have the Doctor misplace his sonic more often I’d be a little happier. Moffat showed that this can be done to great effect in The Eleventh Hour.
Dor’een, the barking alien with the moped on offer, confused me slightly. Yes, let’s face it, the barking was pretty amusing, but given that the TARDIS was translating everything else, and has done for years (see: Fires of Pompeii again) why couldn’t Clara understand what Dor’een was saying? The other aliens were speaking English……
The main issue for me though was the selfishness of the Doctor when it came to the stage where one of the two protagonists had to hand over something of value to Dor’een to secure use of the moped. Eventually Clara handed over her mother’s ring, a lovely gesture which showed how much Clara felt responsible for Merry’s predicament. However, throughout the episode we had seen the Doctor wearing Amy’s glasses – suggesting that he hasn’t quite been able to let the Ponds go – and this would have been the perfect opportunity for the Doctor to hand over the glasses, which clearly mean a great deal to him. As I’ve discussed online with a fellow Who blogger/vlogger, this could have been a beautiful symbolic moment where the Doctor could have let go of the Ponds and moved on. Opportunity missed, methinks.
There’s no way I can talk about this episode and not discuss Matt Smith’s wonderful speech towards the end. Smith has made epic speeches before (the obvious one springing to mind is from The Pandorica Opens) but this was so beautifully delivered, so heart-rendingly honest, that you felt Smith’s tears were absolutely genuine, and although a great many recent Who moments have left me with a dry throat and a welling up of tears, this, and specifically the line “I have lost things you will never understand” moved me greatly. I was less enamoured with his use of the word “baby” in that speech, but hey, you can’t have it all.
My final issue with Akhaten is something I reckon may have actually been in the script at one point, but would not have worked, for reasons which will become obvious. When the Doctor and Clara offered up their memories for Grandfather to devour, I almost felt that this was intended as a sacrifice – that they would actually LOSE these memories forever. Certainly, given that the underlying theme of the series relates to memories, and “remembering”, this would have been fitting, and altogether incredibly tragic, for both to lose their important memories to this beast. Of course, a Doctor who’d forgotten everything he’d seen and experienced wouldn’t make for a great show, so I guess there’s no real way to have put that in. I do believe however that it would have made Grandfather a much more imposing and fearful foe.
Little niggles aside though, while Akhaten was not the episode I was expecting, it was certainly much improved second time around.