[A revised and improved version of this essay appears in my book The Eleventh Doctor: a critical ramble through Matt Smith’s tenure in Doctor Who.]
There’s lots to like in The Rings of Ahkaten, starting with the decidedly Star Wars cantina-ish marketplace full of outlandish aliens all getting along perfectly well together. It feels sort of like a place, rather than a set. (my wife and I both spotted the cantina homage immediately, and it’s since been confirmed.)
But on the other hand …
I am afraid I am really starting to lose patience with Clara. When we first met her as a human, in The Snowmen, her defining quality was her quick intelligence and articulate speech. This time, we get:
So we’re moving … through actual … Time. So what’s it made of? Time? I mean, if you can just row through it it’s got to be made of stuff like jam’s made of strawberries, so what’s it made of?
It’s incoherent and ignorant, all at once. That is not the Clara that the Doctor was so delighted by. And then this terrible, terrible anti-climax:
OK. So … so … so. So … I’d like to see, I would like to see, what I would like to see is … [looong pause; Clara spins on the spot an looks straight at the camera] Something awesome.
The poverty of imagination and intellect is palpable.
So that’s a problem with the writing. Unfortunately the acting is no better. Coleman perpetually addresses the camera, preens, mugs, and generally behaves more like children’s TV presenter than an actor. When she cracks a joke, she stops to feel pleased with herself. It’s “look at me” acting.
It’s taken four episodes for me to reach this conclusion — partly just because I am trying to be charitable but also for another reason. In Asylum of the Daleks, Clara wasn’t human, so Coleman was playing a character impersonating her own idea of what she’s like — a subtle challenge. In The Snowmen, she was playing a character who led a double life, and so who we needed to see to be acting. In The Bells of Saint John, she spent quite a bit of time being dead, so can be forgiven for not quite feeling her usual self. But this time, there is no excuse: Coleman’s job is to play the role of Clara, to play it straight, and to show us a person we can believe in. And we don’t.
Am I being harsh by going on so much about Clara’s deficiencies of writing and acting (and for that matter direction)? Maybe. But the companion is a hugely important character. Doctor Who is a series in which only two characters recur from week to week, so when one of them is below par that’s 50% of the recurring cast. That’s bad. When Riley was not particularly compelling in Buffy series 4 and 5, that was unfortunate but not disastrous, because he was one of an ensemble cast of ten (Buffy, Joyce, Willow, Tara, Xander, Anya, Giles, Spike, Dawn). But if Clara’s character doesn’t pick up soon, it’s going to undermine the whole of the rest of the series (and likely the next one, too).
All right, I am done criticising Clara now. Let’s move on …
As a morality tale, Rings has something going for it. As I noted above, all the different alien species seem to get on fine together. They’re in a functioning society, and that is a valuable thing. (It’s more than you can say for most purely-human societies in Doctor Who.) But as is so often the case with fictional ideal societies, a dark secret lies beneath the surface. This time, it’s that peace is bought at the price of a periodic sacrifice: a young girl, The Queen of Years.
Now this is a fascinating setup. It parallels Ursula Le Guin’s famous short story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, in which (to quote Wikipedia) “Everything about Omelas is pleasing, except for the city’s one atrocity: the good fortune of Omelas requires that a single unfortunate child be kept in perpetual filth, darkness and misery.” (I seem to remember reading something similar as an in-passing part of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, but I wouldn’t swear to it.) In Doctor Who, the situation is simplified by killing the sacrifice outright, or at least handing her over to the evil god to be killed; in some respects The Beast Below more closely parallels the Omelas situation.
Much could be done with this. Sadly, not much is. The situation is rather thrown away because of the crowd’s complete non-reaction when the Queen, who we’d been led to believe would merely be required to sing, is taken by the evil god. Is that what the crowd expected? Is it what they wanted? Are the horrified? Are they complicit? If so, do they feel guilty? It’s impossible to tell, because they all just go on singing.
Now it would be possible to interpret this charitably, as indicating that the production team wanted to leave the crowd neutral to provide a blank moral canvas that we could project out own attitudes onto. Done well, this could draw us to think more intentionally about our own choices — buying clothes made cheaply in far-East sweatshops, for example. But in fact the effect was one of moral abdication. The civilisation, and so the programme, just didn’t seem to have a stance.
Once the girl is sucked into the Pyramid Of Doom, the Doctor and Clara go off to rescue her on a flying motorbike (a motif appearing for the second consecutive week). Jolly japes ensue with some Tusken Raiders armed with blue light. The Queen is rescued, and so needless to say a vampire breaks out of a fish-tank and a nearby planet turns into a giant pumpkin — I hate it when that happens.
Once the Giant Pumpkin starts making faces, the only way to defeat it is with a leaf, which happily Clara has to hand.
Now all of this sounds much more negative than it really is. Despite my apparent scorn for the plot, I did throughly enjoy the episode — not least for its powerful use of genuinely beautiful diegetic music. It’s always fun to see the places and things, and the Doctor himself remains a delight (though perhaps less so in this episode than in most).
Still, Rings of Akhaten feels like two thirds of a great episode: rich setting, beautiful visuals and sound, fascinating moral dilemma, and … then nothing much. Just some running around and shouting. It feels like the production team did all the groundwork, then went for lunch when they should have been building an actual structure on that foundation.
I’m going to leave you with a link: the bizarrely named Millennium Dome, Elephant does such a good job at taking apart the specific failings of plot that it would be redundant for me to attempt something similar. Go and read his article. (Then come back here and comment on this one!)