5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
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THE RINGS OF AKHATEN
Question. What the snardleflarding hooplehoop was that?
Because really, it was weird. And not good weird. Empty, slushy, deja-vuey bad weird.
Remember all the great things we had to say about the restraint in the previous episode? About how they left some subtlety in? Making the impact much greater? Here, not with the yes.
We'll let you into a secret. Don't tell anyone. When two people love each other very, very much, things happen off-camera and they end up with a baby. Oh, you knew that? All of you? So why do they feel the need to spell it out to us?
They even laboriously explain Clara's Leaf Of Mystery. Clara's father, a hapless doofus who can't even fold a map, is so discombobulated by a face full of leaf that he manages, through a supreme effort of stupidity, to stagger sideways into the middle of the road. He then turns round and goggles at the oncoming car as if it's a Cyberman on a tricycle until a nice young lady saves him.
We get it. Clara's Mum and Dad meet cute. Apparently, however, there is still some room for ambiguity in this setup, so they have them smiling sappily to hammer it home.
OK, now we really, totally get it. No need for any more, is there? No, but they give it to us anyway. Clara's Dad presents her Mum with the leaf: forgivable on its own, even a bit sweet. Until, that is, he embarks on a full-bore mawkfest about how in all the streets in all the towns in all the world she and the leaf had to end up in his. We were choking in the torrent of sugar.
OK. Back to the baby. They have one. It grows. It grows a bit more. (We swear we are not making this up.) And then Clara's Mum is gone.
Losing a parent is tough, especially when you, they or both of you are young. The thing is, though, we all know that. In an episode with not more than 43 minutes to spend on plot, is it really necessary to spell out that Clara's parents met each other and fell in love?
Unless, of course, the whole point is to show us the Doctor creepily hovering around the entire process. He seems to be making a habit of spying on girls he likes in their youth, but supervising the conception's a bit much. We were expecting see him up a ladder with binoculars trained through the bedroom window. OK, we know he's trying to figure out why Clara is strange, but it's all just a bit skin-crawly.
And then, whoa! Major deja vu kicks in! Plus that weirdness we were talking about.
So it's like all the new companion episodes, right? Take new companion somewhere alien and stuff? We're not that thrilled with how closely this parallels some of those episodes, but it's clear they think that it's a good idea. Whatever.
Of course, that only scratches the surface of the deja vu. It's as if Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Blade Runner and Flash Gordon have been lolling around in the digestive system of Neil Cross's subconscious, ready to be vomited up at will and put to work. Not that there's any reason to think it was his idea: it's just as likely that his brief was "Give us a Star Wars ripoff and throw a bit of Indy in as well". The Indyesque promotional graphics for this episode show that the BBC think it's a peachy keen concept.
We disagree, since we think retreads are creatively bankrupt. We also seriously, seriously hope they're not throwing in all this stuff to draw in the ever-growing American audience. What makes Doctor Who what it is - and successful - is that it's itself. Blending it into every other successful franchise is asking for a quick trip to the cemetary of dead series.
What's more, in order to wedge in their parody, they have to violate the logic of their own series. Why can't Clara understand all the aliens via the TARDIS translation circuits? We'd like to think it's because the TARDIS doesn't like her and so is only selectively translating, but we think the real answer is that it just looks cooler this way. Grr.
The choice to rip off George Lucas up one side and down the other, however, isn't the major part of the weirdness we're talking about. What that is is this:
Sure, they rush around through marketplaces and on Flash Gordon scooters. Evil guys thrash around in boxes. The Doctor waves the sonic screwdriver a lot. (A LOT. More on that story later.) But none of that can disguise the fact that all of this episode boils down to some people standing around and yapping.
Not just talking to explain the action, or to lead into the action, or as a lull in the action. The talking IS the action.
Maybe this part really is down to Neil Cross, who knows? We haven't seen enough of his Luther to really judge, since it made us laugh when it clearly wasn't meant to so we stopped watching, but that seems to involve a lot of jawing as well, in between his lead character putting his fist through the wall.
Whoever's responsible, it's a really, really bad idea. It's just so incredibly static. Quick, Merry needs to hide! Oh, no, she doesn't, actually, as after a long chat with Clara she goes back to what she was doing. Then there's a bunch of admittedly very pretty singing, but you couldn't really mistake it for action, could you? Things go a bit Pete Tong at the community sing-song, so the Doctor and Clara go after Merry on a moped and then...talk to her. While the Doctor holds a door up, which they do their best to present as thrilling and dynamic, but who are they kidding? Eventually the Doctor gets inside, and then...more talking! This time with Mr Got Out Of Bed On the Wrong Side writhing around being annoyed behind them, but still, just talking.
They get away, which then requires a deep and intense conversation. The Doctor heroically steps in to save the day...by talking. It doesn't work, so Clara has to rescue him....by.....talking. Honestly, you couldn't make it up.
And it's not as if all the yappy gabby talky talky speechifying redeems itself. Nobody, but nobody, can declaim like Matt Smith, and if anyone could save the speech about how he's been there and done that it would be him. He certainly gives it everything and a half, and it's emotionally affecting just from his performance alone. The problem is, however, that we've heard it all before. Not just in Doctor Who, which would be bad enough. Worse, it comes across as a faint, inept ghost of the Roy Batty speech in Blade Runner.
Then it's Clara's turn. Leaf rampant, she talks at the giant pumpkin until it can't take any more and goes away. And do we know how it feels.
Of course, they have to stitch all that talking together with something. And in a titanically, desperately bad move, they make that something the sonic screwdriver. In the previous episode The Bells Of Saint John, the sonic screwdriver was used as it should be to avoid irritating the audience with trivial details. Here, it's everything: we were surprised the Doctor didn't blow his nose on it. Remember when the Doctor used to solve problems through logic, daring and the force of his personality? Now he just points a screwdriver at them. Ugh.
Then there's the muddiness of the plot. It's a god! Oh, no it isn't, it's a vampire! Oh, no it isn't, it's an alarm clock! Oh, no it isn't, it's a god! Oh, no it isn't, it's some sort of planety thing! This was possibly intended as a series of cunning twists with exciting surprises exploding at every turn, but it just comes across as if they can't make up their minds.
There are some strange little loose ends, too. Does Merry really attempt to feed Clara to the vampire? That kinda detracts from her adorability, doesn't it? And why, when they're trying to figure out how to exit the temple, do they all ignore the chorister instead of asking him how the hell he got in there in the first place?
Matt Smith is flawless, but even he can't save this, especially as his giant Speech Of Doom ends up seeming to cost him absolutely nothing at all. What was the point? Jenna-Louise Coleman is also terrific: warm, charismatic and intelligent. We particularly like her rapport with Merry, dovetailing nicely with her background as a nanny, and her reaction when the Doctor tells her she reminds him of someone. But again, this can't save a character who when thrown hip-deep into another culture immediately starts bossing the locals around. "How do you know?" Merry says. "You don't know anything!" Out of the mouths of babes...
What a mess. Aside from the performances, is there anything to like?
Hmm. The singing, like we said, is beautiful. The aliens are beautiful, too. We love those three guys in the motorbike helmets who all move their heads in time: such a simple, cheap concept, but so creepy. Some of the visual work is stunning (let's draw a discreet curtain over the greenscreen stuff. Budgets are in freefall at the BBC and even its golden goose has to cut its costs somewhere).
And there are some nice details. It's clearly no accident that in an episode where the Doctor mentions his granddaughter (bet that threw new series fans for a loop), the god is called Grandfather. "Just because he eats your soul doesn't make him a god". Very symbolic, oh yes.
Also symbolic is the jab at religion: it's a bit too poke you in the eye for our tastes, but at least they were trying to get some meaningful content in. We also like the Doctor's speech to Merry about the wonder of her being made of elements from the Big Bang: it's nice to see some real science squeeze its way in amongst the handwaving, and the speech nicely encapsulates the sheer gobsmackingness of the universe.
And as ever with Steven Moffat at the helm, there are some lovely lines. "Well, not strawberries...that would be unacceptable." "Quite a big thing, locally, like Pancake Tuesday."
Not a lot, is it? But it's something. Overall, though, too many missteps and wrong-headed decisions mean we have to file this episode under "horrible".
MORAL: Talking solves everything.
It doesn't help our enjoyment of this episode that we keep reading it as "Rings of Ahkenaten", which is intensely irritating. Akhaten. Akhaten. Akhaten.
So the Queen of Years gets scooped up in a giant bubble and propelled across the universe. Wouldn't you think this would cause panic and despair among the locals? Not a bit of it. When Clara and Merry come back, there they all are, still eating their ice creams and reading their programmes.
It's not a sun. No, no, no. It's a "planet sized parasite". So in that case, why is all red and fiery and sung at by Sun Singers? Our bet is that they got a long way down the production track before someone pointed out that if the sun pissed off, an awful lot of people were going to die. Oops! Exit sun, stage left, and hello, parasite.