Episode 7.07 Writer: Neil Cross Director: Farren Blackburn
THE ONE WHERE The Doctor whisks Clara off on her first off-Earth adventure, taking her to the visually stunning Rings Of Ahkaten, a star system where the locals are about to put on the “Festival Of Offerings” in tribute to their god – a ball of gas with a taste for souls.
VERDICT Luther creator Neil Cross has his first crack at a Doctor Who episode (he’s also written episode nine, “Hide”) and it’s an inventive – if not particularly effective – trip to a genuinely alien world. It’s become traditional for a companion’s second adventure with the Doctor (okay, it’s technically the fourth in Jenna-Louise Coleman’s case) to travel somewhere a little more foreign than contemporary planet Earth, and the Doctor answers Clara’s request to go “somewhere awesome” with a truly spectacular view over the titular rings. And even though everything feels rather too studio-based when the Doctor and Clara actually make landfall, the vast range of alien species milling around market places and the Festival of Offerings make the episode feel just as other-worldly as the Star Wars Cantina. There’s even a few Star Warsy alien sound effects in there.
It’s an episode so packed with great ideas – the most important leaf in the universe, souls being made of memories, a system of currency based around objects of sentimental value, a never-ending lullaby, a frightened child queen whose brain has been filled with an entire culture’s history – that it deserves points for trying to play around with the Who formula. But after a slightly overly-pedestrian, plot-establishing first half it starts to descend into Who 101, as the Doctor does the usual and saves the day.
For starters, the episode makes a compelling case for the Doctor being separated from his sonic screwdriver for a while– when you’ve got a tool that can open unopenable doors, repel alien heavies and do pretty much anything else a scriptwriter might require, any sense of danger evaporates immediately. (That said, the soul-munching planet-sized “grandfather” in “The Rings of Akhaten” is so (literally) nebulous that it arguably wasn’t that scary to begin with.)
And then there’s the Doctor’s now-traditional “come and get me, I’m the Doctor and I’m ace” speech to the Big Bad. They’re great things to watch if they’re used sparingly, but they’ve become so common that their power to enthral is somewhat diminished. Did the Doctor never watch The Incredibles, with its important message about the dangers of monologuing?
But the episode is saved by a trump card that comes in the shape of Clara. Delving into her backstory via a touching and tragic prologue (as hinted in the online prequel to “The Bells Of St John”, the Doctor’s been watching her for years), we start to see what makes her tick. It’s refreshing to see a companion who isn’t in total awe of the Doctor (she’s not that flattered that he’s been stalking her), and she’s not afraid to take the lead when she needs to. The scene where she sacrifices the leaf that brought her parents together is – despite the cloying music and cheesy ride on a space-moped – a properly touching moment, and seals it as Clara’s episode. As if we didn’t already know it after three previous outings, Coleman has the potential to be a truly great companion.
DEJA WHO The Doctor says he travelled to the Rings Of Akhaten before with his granddaughter – presumably he looked like William Hartnell then.
ALIENS AMONG US The Star Wars Cantina feel was no accident – prosthetics supremo Neill Gorton had long wanted to pack a scene with different species, and had been planning it for years. ”We can’t afford to make 30-odd brand-new aliens all at once, so over the past few years I’ve collected various moulds and casts,” he told the Radio Times. “In my spare time I’d quietly sculpt another alien then bash out another one, so that when the opportunity came around we could go, ‘aha! look, we’ve got all this stuff that we can utilise.’”
SCONES VS SCONES The Doctor wades into the age-old debate over the pronunciation of “scone”. He says scone (rhymes with con) rather than scone (rhymes with bone). Surely that’s the argument over, right?
STAR TURN? This is a highly unusual episode of Who in that it doesn’t feature a big-name guest star.
INFLUENCES There’s a big Guillermo del Toro/Mike Mignola influence to some of the aliens here – Grandfather’s “alarm clock” in the cage looks like a cousin of the Angel of Death in Hellboy II: The Golden Army, while the Vigil might have taken design tips from Hellboy foe Kroenen.
Also, did the Doctor and Clara steal Flash Gordon’s flying bike from Mongo?
And did anyone else think that Grandfather looked like Oogie Boogie from TheNightmare Before Christmas‘s face pasted to the front of a star?
LIFE OF BRIAN Did the Doctor take cosmology tips from Professor Brian Cox when he cameoed in “The Power Of Three“? His pep talk to Merry about all her atoms being born in the middle of stars could come right out of Wonders Of The Universe.
HIT ME WITH YOUR SONIC SCREWDRIVER The Rings Of Akhaten sound like they could be part of Ian Dury and The Blockheads’ “Hit Me WIth Your Rhythm Stick” – they’d sit quite nicely alongside the deserts of Sudan and he gardens of Japan.
BEST LINE The Doctor: “Ooh, that is interesting, a frequency modulated acoustic lock. The key changes ten million zillion squillion times a second.” Clara: ”Can you open it?” The Doctor: ”Technically no. In reality, also no. But still, let’s give it a stab.”