Sunday, June 2, 2013

"The Rings of Akhaten"

"I thought this was the one with Desperate Dan."
It's episode two if we consider this half of the series to be its own beast, and therefore in slavish adherence to the orthodoxy established by RTD it's time for our arbitrary trip to the future/an alien planet. But before that can begin the Doctor needs to get his creep on. We see him observing Clara's mother rescue her father from a car after a leaf blew in his face, watching them from behind a copy of the Beano because of how eccentric he is. "Oh my stars!" Clara's mother exclaims with zero conviction. We see the Doctor scowling in the rain as they get together, Clara's dad returning the leaf. He gives Clara's mum a big speech about how the leaf is the "most important leaf in human history", which feels like a horrific Moff insertion given that this is a concession to the plot arc. Next the Doctor spies on Clara as a tiny child and at the cemetery after Clara's mother has been buried, her father standing next to her and looking about as convincing a father as Matt Smith himself; next to Jenna-Louise Coleman he looks like he could be her brother, but not her father. The Doctor is apparently trying to assess Clara's legitimacy as a person. I'm surprised we never saw him perched in a tree with binoculars observing her conception. He bursts into the TARDIS ranting that she's "not possible", like we need to hear that with it having been made so explicit in two prior episodes.
Legends persist that a complete copy of
"The Power of the Daleks" is held within...
So Clara turns up for her first adventure, the Doctor asking her where she wants to go. "I dunno," she replies, and fair enough I say, because it'd be hard to pick one thing first, but she settles on "Something awesome." Whoa there nelly, it's New Who, let's not expect too much. The Doctor clambers around the TARDIS like a hyperactive monkey flicking switches, pulling levers and what not before they arrive in the "light of an alien sun." But we need to be aware that the big glowing orange thing in the distance is not this sun, it's just a planet. This confused a lot of people, and it's not amazingly clear here, but the asteroids are meant to be rings around the planet Akhaten, hence the name. The pyramid and asteroid city look quite nice, but I don't want to get false hope, and upon hearing it's a holy site I just know that we're going to get some magic thinking soon. I do like the Doctor's remark about the local religion: "It's what they believe, it's a nice story." If only the rest of the dialogue in this episode was as reserved. The Doctor and Clara emerge in the marketplace, which is very Star Wars, full of gibbering aliens which the Doctor can understand but we can't. What happened to the TARDIS translation circuits? In fact to say it's like something from Star Wars is a bit of an understatement. The show never does nice set-based alien worlds these days except for brief filler sequences like in the Series 6 finale and honestly it's a relief to have one; I believe it was portrayed rather disingenuously by the production team as a novel concept, as if the show didn't do this all the time back in its Classic heyday.
Jokes aside, it legitimately looks like she grabs this
guy's knob when she turns around in this bit.
We get some very mixed bag dialogue from the Doctor where he mentions a lot of ridiculous-sounding alien races along with remarking that he visited Akhaten before with his granddaughter. Wahey, Susan reference. He also compares the current festival to popular religious events "like Pancake Tuesday" which I thought was an amusing comparison. This is how you do eccentric; you don't just have the character waving his arms around and rambling. They pass a space moped which is a prop as Eighties as can be, and the Doctor arbitrarily vanishes so that Clara can pursue a little girl being chased by guys in red robes. Took a while to get to some kind of plot, didn't it? Clara follows her behind the set, apparently, because she catches up with her in a room full of random, not-very-futuristic-looking junk like corrugated tubing and boxes where she is pursued by some unmistakably threatening black-suited gas-mask-head nasties before dragging the girl off to the TARDIS, which won't permit her access. As a subsitute Clara and the little girl make full use of the elaborate sets by hiding behind the TARDIS, in which the girl reveals herself as 'Merry Gejehl, the Queen of Years', a living vessel of history who's scared because she has to sing a song to the local grumpy deity. You can't help but feel a bit sorry for the poor dear, so Clara responds with her own boring anecdote about being scared, 'pluck' apparently being her main attitude. It's swiftly hug time with the Queen cheered up and reunited with the red robed monks before Clara reunites with the Doctor. Across the way, in the pyramid asteroid, another monk who looks a bit like Mark Gatiss is singing in an amusingly warbling voice in a rather simplistic 'inner temple' set that has a nice old school vibe to it. The centrepiece is a rather unimpressive 'generic New Who villain' mummy with big pointy head sitting on a throne in a glass box.
"Release the bull!"
We return to a rather silly looking arena where all the aliens are sitting around with popcorn and coke to watch Merry, and it's time for a nice long sing song. I honestly don't mind a bit of singing at this point; it's twee, but it's a nice contrast to the usual frantic nonsense with which these episodes are routinely imbued, somewhat reminiscent of Abigail's song from "A Christmas Carol". The Doctor reveals that Merry has to sing to the mummy to keep it asleep, the insinuation being that if it wakes up evil will transpire. I'm not sure this needed to be the plot's main threat; in a classic story with more time there'd probably be some ruthless corporate interest trying to disrupt the ceremony or someone who wanted to control the Old God for their own ends or what have you. The aliens all whip out mementoes with which to feed the Old God, which rather disappointingly dissolve into magic fairy dust as things so often do in New Who, and shaking myself out of my reverie I'm forced to concede that this is, at the end of the day, largely just meaningless fantasy. The Doctor still feels Doctorly in some of his remarks here and there's a nice alien atmosphere, but I just wish it wasn't so overtly fantastical. However! Something goes wrong (I can't tell what) and Merry falters, the mummy in the tomb starting to wake up. The chorister across the way in front of his glass box looks startled as Murray Gold's boring, stock "bad stuff happening" music gets whipped into gear, and he resumes his song more urgently. He starts with a long "Oh" and I honestly thought there was a chance he was about to sing "Ohhhh shiiiittt!" in a choral voice.
"I need to get her back to my dressing
room before she wakes up!"
So Merry gets carried off in a rather pants-looking orange energy bubble and the Doctor and Clara rush into pursuit, Clara using one of her mum's rings to provide payment for the Eighties space moped because the Doctor's too much of a stingy bastard to give up the sonic screwdriver which he overuses anyway. Then we get some silliness of the Doctor and Clara on hot pursuit after Merry against a CGI backdrop of some stars which could look worse but still seems absurd - no need for air or anything - with Merry desperately trying to reach for help before getting yanked through a door at the last minute, which the Smith complains has a really elaborate locking mechanism which is then unlocked with one swish of the sonic screwdriver. Why bother having a door? Why not just have had the moped arrive later than Merry? While the Doctor is stuffing around the evil mummy opens its generically red eyes, but he manages to open the door which he now, for some reason, has to hold up with the sonic screwdriver, spending ages standing there as if keeping it vertical puts a great weight upon him. This is the point at which the episode gets completely flushed and turns to nonsense. Clara tries to be reassuring but appropriately enough Merry shuts her down: "You don't know anything!" It's kind of nice to see the main characters' bravado get questioned occasionally. What I don't understand is why Merry psychically shackles Clara to the glass box when she admits that the mummy is interested in her and not Clara.
The Snozzberries taste like Snozzberries.
Apparently we've wasted enough time with the Doctor holding up the door because he rolls inside and grabs the sonic screwdriver just in time; I would have dearly loved for it to have been crushed. The chorister stops singing and teleports away while the Doctor waves the sonic screwdriver around like a numpty, revealing that the mummy feeds on stories and souls because souls are "made of stories". What? This is basically just pure fantasy now; the aliens may as well just be wizards. The Doctor waffles on and on in an unnecessarily long and elaborate speech to Merry about how she is "unique in the universe" and pontificating at the vampire mummy about how wasteful it is of living people's potential. It's just pointless grandiosity, time wasting which makes the Doctor look like he's full of hot air. At last the black-suited guys return for their only other scene; apparently they are 'The Vigil' who must deliver the Queen of Years to her sacrifice. What's the point of these villains? Couldn't the monks have filled this role? The Doctor's efforts to resist are met by them spewing blue light out of their mouths while Murray Gold's ridiculously bombastic music crashes and frets in the background. All is not lost, however, because apparently the sonic screwdriver is now basically a magic wand that spits green light against the Vigil's blue light like the "priori incantatem" sequence in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. It looks absolutely ridiculous, the Doctor thrusting his arm out like Daniel Radcliffe's slightly older and even less cool brother, and Merry sings a secret magic song to open a door so they can escape. This somehow leads them back out the front to the bike while the mummy screams and emits a beam of light into the nearby planet (not a sun). The Vigil piss off because they apparently now serve no purpose because the mummy was just an "alarm clock" for the real Old God, which is revealed to be: the planet Akhaten, with a big 'scary' face on it like a Jack-o'-lantern.
It turns out everything's going to hell with this revelation, as the Smith admits. "You promised!" Merry complains. Shut up Merry. The Doctor says "On yer bike," to Clara and suddenly she's back at the arena where Merry reveals that she wants to help, so they have another big sing song where all the aliens join in for a chorus. It's typical Murray Gold over-the-top feel good stuff and I'm surprised the various aliens don't all start waving lighters. Corny, but kind of touching in a way. The Doctor demands that the space pumpkin listen to the singing and recognise the value of all the people who have lived in fear of it. This should have been where the plot ended, with the Doctor changing Akhaten's mind and him learning to be a responsible "god" to his believers. It would have been bad, but not as bad as it ends up being. This isn't good enough, the Doctor revealing that Akhaten is actually "just a parasite", and announcing that it should take his story rather than feeding on the local innocents. This gives the Doctor the opportunity to launch into a massive, generic New Who speech along the lines of "I am the Doctor and this is me", as purple as a nasty bruise, where he rants about the Time War, the Time Lords, the beginning and end of the universe, laws of physics concocted by the insane (a reference to either Omega or "The Mind Robber", presumably), and legitimately include the Smith declaring that he's "seen things you wouldn't believe", a horrifically overt reference to Roy Batty's final speech from Blade Runner with none of its pathos. It all goes completely over the top, Matt Smith gurning like a maniac and looking visibly pained by the appallingly overwritten dialogue he is being expected to convey, ending on his insistence that Akhaten "take it all, baby!" Really? Makes him sound like a bloody idiot.
Deleted scene: the fourth climax where Smith has
to do a little dance to placate Akhaten.
But this still isn't enough. The tension is completely deflated after two climaxes, and now we have a third one where Clara returns. Now it's her turn to give a big, ridiculous speech, holding up the leaf which hit her father's head and announcing as it dissolves that it holds a "future that never got lived." What? It's very reminiscent of the "days you should have had" concept in "Blink" regarding the Weeping Angels, which makes me wonder how much this script was diddled by Moffat, and apparently it all makes sense because it gives Akhaten a meal of infinite stories which are too much for it, causing it to collapse in on itself and implode like it's the Seventh of November. With absolutely no goodbye to Merry or the other inhabitants of the Rings we're abruptly back on Earth outside Clara's house: "Home again, home again, jiggity jig," intones the Doctor. What's with these Blade Runner references right at the end? Clara informs the Doctor that she's not going to "compete with a ghost", presumably one of her past selves rather than Amy but still better than the characterisation Doormat Martha got in Series 3, and she gets her ring back, which apparently the alien wanted to happen. Couldn't we have seen that? Clara pisses off out of the TARDIS and we're done.
"Have to relax... it's all over at Christmas..."
"The Rings of Akhaten" is almost a good episode, particularly due to a nicely watchable but sadly brief early performance by Matt Smith, until about halfway through at which point it completely falls apart. The sonic screwdriver is especially overused, it's just fantasy with asteroids and the interesting setting becomes nothing more than set dressing for unnecessary explicit focus on the Doctor and Clara, which is maddeningly repetitive of what the show does all the time. The lack of any level of plot complexity and the utterly childish depiction of the 'villain', such as it is, along with the typical Moff "sentiment saves the day" resolution cause the episode to descend into the same tedium as all other New Who of the period, lazy self-aggrandising farce which takes all the wrong things too seriously; in this regard it bears all the hallmarks of its second half being heavily edited by Moffat prior to production, and I'd be curious to know if that's the case. It's probably the biggest disappointment of the series, as I originally went into it expecting a fun alien adventure, not a lot of magic and oratory, but I guess that was never very likely. It's worth remembering for its message: singing a song won't save you, but an old dry leaf will. A complete bungle.

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