Songs. Since the Doctor returned in 2005 they’ve formed a quiet coda in the background of his lives, and not simply because of composer Murray Gold’s bombastic injection of sound. ‘I sang a song and the Daleks ran away’, Nine told Rose. ‘Your song is ending soon’, the Ood warned Ten, and sang him to sleep. And Eleven? Well, he’s played around a lot with a certain Melody lately.
We mention this because the concept of songs is key to ‘The Rings of Akhaten’. Not since ‘Planet of the Ood’ has music played such an important part in an episode. Yet for all it’s tremendous sound and visual beauty, ‘Rings’ orbits a flaw that risks swallowing up all the good of the episode: an under-developed story that leads to a muddled ending.
But remember your Hitchhiker’s Guide and Don’t Panic. ‘Rings’ is hollow at its core but it has its charms. Chief of these is Murray Gold’s score, and his work on this episode is destined to take up a large amount of space on the next Doctor Who album. If you’re a fan of the Ood’s ‘Song of Freedom’ or the choral regeneration theme ‘Vale Decem’ then one song will be a treat, as the Crouch End Chorus belt out a cosmic tune for the ages. ‘Rings’ defies the laws of physics to make its song heard – in space no one can hear you scream, but they can hear you sing apparently – so whack up the volume and feel the blood tingle in your ears.
It’s not all about what we can hear either. “I would like to see something awesome,” Clara tells The Doctor, and he duly delivers, for as a location Akhaten is a feast for the eyes; a large dollop of CGI and a stupendous amount of prosthetics working together to make one of the most alien places we’ve seen in a long time. A bustling alien marketplace is packed with new species, calling to mind Series 1’s Platform One as well as the troll market of Hellboy 2.
It’s a credit to the design team that there’s not one reheated Hath or repainted Slitheen here among the latex hordes. You’ll wear out the pause button trying to examine the aliens in each shot. And perhaps that’s the big problem with Luther creator Neil Cross’s script – it’s so busy marvelling at its own exotic wonders that it forgets to keep its eye on the story pacing and content. Like the Doctor zipping through the marketplace, it gets a bit side-tracked.
This is a shame, as there are actually some nice RTD-esque nods to Clara’s past and The Doctor’s life (one aside will have classic Who fans’ ears burning), and Cross has an immediate grasp on the pair’s relationship. But we need more than aesthetics and an ear for a smart line from our weekly 45 minute fix. We need episodes with story. With soul. ‘The Rings of Akhaten’ lacks that, resulting in an episode that few will be loudly singing the praises of.
Airs at 6.15pm on Saturday 6 April on BBC One.
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