Review: DOCTOR WHO S7E08, THE RINGS OF AKHATEN (Or, Real Development Allows Clara To Believably Help Save The Day)
While I still have problems with last week's messy return taking too long to introduce Clara for the third time, there's little to fault as this episode opens, with it providing real backstory for the Doctor's latest companion. It's a successful and succinct look at her life, beginning back when her parents met for the first time; it elegantly details the values and ideas that she has grown up with. Unlike last week, we're then able to head into the adventure with something to grasp onto, an understanding of her character that makes her somebody we really want to root for.
That's important, because this story is really about Clara and what makes her tick. There's a whole load of other stuff going on too, but the main plot is largely illogical and dull. However, it's of little concern, because it's far more rewarding when a show delivers effective character development than it is to watch something pull off a clever plot. "The Rings Of Akhaten" is clearly not as interested in its plot as it is in throwing the central duo into a difficult situation and showing us how they react.
The Doctor and Clara take a journey to the spectacular rings of the planet Akhaten. Here, they encounter many aliens who follow certain rituals to keep themselves safe from a god that appears to dwell within a pyramid. Clara then meets Merry, the Queen of Years. She's a child who has been selected to sing a particular song that is used to keep the dangerous god asleep. Clara helps calm her nerves about the upcoming ceremony but it soon becomes obvious that the god will awaken anyway.
What we then get is an episode entirely devoted to establishing how these characters will respond when facing the most deadly of enemies. It's essential for the show to reemphasise its themes in the aftermath of big changes and here we get reminders about how important it is to remain resilient and fight even when victory looks impossible. We also get to see more of the human side to Clara, as she becomes to driving force of the narrative. She's the one making decisions and taking risks more frequently, leaving the Doctor to fill a more reactionary role that still provides a strong showcase for what makes audiences care about the character.
The performances here are certainly more assured than they were in last week's episode. The chemistry that the pair share is clear to see at every opportunity and when the pacing of their dialogue is slowed down, they both get moments to shine. For Matt Smith, the speech about the Doctor's history and experiences serves as a great chance to show just how much he's made this character his own. Jenna-Louise Coleman gets a number of memorable moments throughout, and her interactions with Merry (played by promising child actress Emilia Jones, who some may recognise from Channel 4's Utopia) are some of the episode's best scenes.
Because the plotting lacks logic or momentum, it's difficult to rank this among the better episodes of Doctor Who. I find this more restrained approach infinitely preferable to whatever was going on last week, though, and I don't mind it if the show ends up with convenient plot resolutions (such as singing and telling stories) if it manages to sell at least some of the emotion along the way. Sure, this is basically a straightforward origin story for Clara, but, by focussing on the characters and establishing themes, we get something a bit more involving to work with.
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