Saturday, 6 April 2013

Doctor Who: The Rings of Akhaten

“What I would like to see….What I would like to see, is something AWESOME!”

Well, it had to happen. This episode wasn’t awful, or even close, but it was still sort of meh. The arc stuff was handled well and the relationship between the Doctor and Clara is simmering nicely. But the actual story this week seems rather light on plot, subtext and memorable guest characters. Still, the design was fantastic and the CGI looked spectacular.

The setting worked nicely: the old trick of basing an alien society on societies from Earth’s history allows the writer, newcomer and Luther scribe Neil Cross, to quickly sketch out an alien culture without having to explain too much. This is a family of worlds based around religious practices which echo both Egypt and pre-Columbian Mexico, both of them civilisations based around pyramids, mummies and the like. The name of the episode, vaguely Middle Eastern feel and costumes suggest Egypt, but the notion of human sacrifice to the gods to keep the Sun shining reflects meso-American civilisations such as the Aztecs, giving us a rich cultural mix.

Thing is, there isn’t much of a plot. Clara befriends a little girl, who happens to be the Queen of Years aka Merry. There are a lot of beautifully sung songs. There’s a pissed off god who feeds on soulful memories. That’s it. But then the real plot here revolves around Clara. This episode reminds me very much of The Beast Below, not only in its studio based appearance, or in the fact that it represents the first taste of an alien world for a new companion, but also in the fact that Clara’s personality, and her empathy for others, drives everything.

The episode opens with the pervy old Doctor stalking Clara throughout her entire life. His point, of course, is to try and work out the connection with the other two Claras he has met and lost. Pleasingly, the leaf which was referred to last episode turns out to be both important in connecting Clara to her late mother and integral to the plot. It is Clara’s more personal memories, not those of the ancient, alien Doctor, which save the day. Nevertheless, the Doctor’s passionate monologue refers to all sorts of dark secrets which are obviously part of the season’s arc.

It’s the fiftieth anniversary season. This being so, we get references to the series’ past. There is a reference to the Doctor’s granddaughter, reminding us of the shows very first year, and even the Vigil evoke both the Silence in robot form and the robot mummies from Pyramids of Mars. Away from the series’ past, I love the way 1981 is invoked by the cars, fashions and The Specials Ghost Town. I also love the nice little cultural touches to an alien society in which objects of sentimental value are used as currency, the character of the Queen of Years hints at a rich literary history, and songs are of vital importance. This may be an average episode of Doctor Who, but even an average episode is a cut above most television.

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