Neil Cross is a new writer to the Doctor Who family, having made his name with Spooks before establishing it thanks to the runaway success of Luther. I was rather looking forward to seeing what a writer with his dark and twisted sensibilities would bring to the show, but "The Rings of Akhaten" delivered very little beyond unconvincing alien mythology, melodramatics, and more than its fair share of nonsense.
Things actually began very promising, with a narrative appetiser about Clara's (Jenna-Louise Coleman) personal history--as The Doctor (Matt Smith) essentially vetted his "impossible companion" by investigating her family history. It turns out she's a very ordinary girl, born as a result of a chance encounter between her parents involving a windblown leaf (a wonderful and unexpected answer to a small mystery last week), so The Doctor's still at a loss when it comes to explaining how he's already met two ill-fated incarnations of Clara before now. I also liked the ingredient of family tragedy, with Clara losing her mother, and it feels like her mum may have something to do with her daughter's miraculous resurrections. Or am I reading too much into things?
Sadly, once this week's story actually began, my interested started to slip until I was only vaguely kept awake by Matt Smith's committed performance. The Doctor whisked Clara to an asteroid that's part of the planet Akhaten's rings, which also overlooks an asteroid containing a dormant mummified creature known as Grandfather. This eyeless being is kept docile by the cosmopolitan citizens of Akhaten through a never-ending lullaby, and their visit coincided with a Festival of Offerings where a newly chosen queen--Merry, the Queen of Years (Emilia Jones, daughter of Aled Jones)--will take over the song from the appointed Chorister.
It's quite an intriguing and whimsical idea, but this story plodded along as a mish-mash of previous episodes ("The End of the World"-meets-"The Beast Below", with a musical resolution that reminded me of Christmas special "The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe"). There was lots of alien creatures to gaze at in the Star Wars-esque marketplace of Akhaten, and some bizarre customs and cultural jokes to giggle at, but nothing really grabbed your interest. My biggest gripe was how the story unfolded in a way that kept providing silly short-cuts to various dead-ends (like when Merry revealed a secret escape route that can be opened vocally), and the gross overuse of The Doctor's sonic screwdriver. This was a recurring problem the show had in its Russell T. Davies years, and one I'd hoped was firmly behind us.
After a Flash Gordon-style space-moped sequence (how were they able to breathe?), and lots of standing around watching a scaly creature flail around in a glass box, it all boiled down to the people of Akhaten singing at a gigantic planet with a face. Matt Smith was even given a rousing speech as the week's monster feasted on his memories, but the episode just didn't earn that moment. Smith gave it his best and even squeezed out some tears, but the moment just didn't work for me. I was more interested in the earlier Clara back-story and wondering why the TARDIS wouldn't open its doors to her. Does the TARDIS know she's trouble, or an unwitting danger to The Doctor? Or did Clara just not have a key?
I've seen far worse episodes, but "The Rings of Akhaten" screamed time-filler and was a disappointing hour from a skilled writer whose work I very much enjoy. Maybe he's just not a sci-fi/fantasy writer, and will be on safer ground with a less fanciful storyline that plays to his strengths. Cross's next Who will be a ghost story called "Hide" in a fortnight, and that already seems a much better fit. Leave the alien Gods and pyramids to someone else.
written by Neil Cross / directed by Farren Blackburn / 6 April 2013 / BBC1