Doctor Who is the rare series where sometimes the most important guest stars are the writers. Series 7 has already featured an episode from 'Being Human' creator Toby Whithouse, and later this year we'll be seeing the second adventure penned by Hugo Award-winner Neil Gaiman. Saturday marked the Doctor Who debut of 'Luther' creator Neil Cross.
Despite Cross's gritty tendencies on that Idris Elba-starring cop drama, "The Rings of Akhaten" (the first of his two episodes this series) proved to be a rather sentimental affair, eschewing most scares for emotional character-building. Mostly it worked, but it did result in an intriguing episode with a lot of ideas -- too many, unfortunately, to resolve.
It's hard not to note the similarities this episode had with series 5's "The Beast Below," especially after the "Eleventh Hour"-esque antics of last week's "The Bells of Saint John." "The Rings of Akhaten" did find the Doctor and his new companion in a totally alien urban setting, with the new companion helping a scared little girl and discovering a conspiracy involving sacrifices to a mysterious giant being keeping the planet alive. There are more similarities with "The Beast Below," but I'll stop there.
So the basic structure of "The Rings of Akhaten" was perhaps a little too familiar, but that didn't keep the episode from humming along nicely, with plenty of character development for Clara. The Doctor's new companion is still mysterious -- in fact, more mysterious, now that we know she had an almost entirely normal childhood -- but we also know that she's got some emotional baggage from the death of her mother. That actually goes a long way toward explaining why she chose a job as a nanny, and it was nice for the series not to beat us over the head with that fact.
A lot of the episode was built around sentimentality, of course -- hell, most of the episode's climax featured a rather nice (if poppy) musical number that, somehow didn't feel trite at all. The idea of an entity that feeds on sentimentality barely avoided feeling like a plot device designed for character development. If nothing else, it served as a reminder that Doctor Who can really, surprisingly, pull off being shamelessly sappy.
That turned out to be the episode's saving grace, because for the most part, it turned down all its chances to be actually scary. The massive, parasitic god wasn't all that interesting (aside from its role as a plot device), and the mummy, although quite hilariously called "grandfather," turned out to be a false alarm (for the record, I would have rather the mummy been the episode's big villain -- it was much more threatening). I was rather interested by the Vigil, the group of masked SS-types who were able to produce waves of sound as a threat to the Doctor. They were the creepiest part of the episode, but I couldn't help but feel that they were grossly underused. They could have carried the episode by themselves, but they were simply brushed aside. I certainly hope they return.
Overall, "The Rings of Akhaten" was a good episode, but not a great one. It suffered, most of all, from an excess of ideas (especially villains), though it managed to be sappy without being too annoying. It certainly won't go down as one of the best of series 7, but it won't go down as one of the show's worst episodes, either.
At the end of the day, "The Rings of Akhaten" left me wanting to see what Cross will do with "Hide," his next episode. That one will likely ditch all sentimentality in favor of some scares -- and to be honest, that prospect excites me more than this episode did. 6.8/10
- Was anyone else expecting the Mos Eisley cantina music when they first arrived at Akhaten?
- Speaking of music, what a strange use of The Specials' "Ghost Town" right at the beginning. It didn't quite feel like it was in the right place.
- The Doctor's monologues are getting a little boring -- they're just lists of things we haven't seen (but would totally like to). I was quite a big fan of how the Doctor's memories of adventure didn't fill the god up, but Clara's simple leaf did.