Clara wants to see something awesome this week, as The Doctor whisks her through Time and Space and to the gorgeous, fiery vistas of Akhaten. It's not all fun, speeder bikes and alien markets though. Something sinister lurks within the rings, and The Vigil are waiting... Spoilers, of course, beyond the cut!
There's shades of The End of the World and The Beast Below in The Rings of Akhaten. Not only in the fact that they're a) All second episodes in their runs or b) the new companion's first trip into the future/outer space, but in the fact that, whilst they're not a slice of particularly fantastic, must-see-event-TV Doctor Who, they're all quirky, enjoyable romps. Every once in a while Doctor Who needs this sort of rompy fare in a run, a palate cleanser among the scares and the villains and the epics.
The problem with romps though, is not really a lot happens - and that was the biggest problem with the episode. There were some lovely moments - Merry's singing in both circumstances was particularly nice (played by Aled Jones's daughter apparently - no wonder she's got quite the set of pipes on her!), as was Clara's offering of the leaf to the planet-parasite. And, of course, The Doctor's decision to let the parasite feed on his memories and his darkest secrets - what is it that The Doctor knows that it's so horrific, that it makes a whole planet sized entity burn? Is it the secret he's been running from all his life (well, at least since The Wedding of River Song!)? Is it Clara? Is it what we'll find out at Trenzalore? Whatever it is, it can't be that pleasant.
But it was all a bit... empty, in a way. Character-wise Jenna and Matt continue to shine, with some cracking little back and forths, especially as they practically danced across the Console room at the start. But the story just wasn't there to shore up 45 minutes of drama - the first 20, 25 minutes were lovely and full of nice worldbuilding and setting up... then nothing really happened (Or made much sense, frankly - what the hell happens to all those planetoids now that the Sun is dead!?) for the rest of the episode until it was all wrapped up with a jolly good bit of overtly-sentimental talking in the last 5 minutes. It's a shame, because the first half was so strong, that it just felt like it hit that halfway point, decided to stop doing much, or making much sense, and then petered on to the end. I hope Neil Cross' next attempt, Hide, is a bit more solid in the story department, because this, kinda like The Beast Below, was a little too fluffy. Nice fluff, pretty fluff (very pretty fluff, dodgy space-moped effects aside) but still... it lacked for me.
Aside from the main romp of the episode, we got some properly sneaky Doctor action, advancing the Clara mystery rather excitingly - seeing her parents meet, and then discovering the death of Clara's mother 8 years ago (odd to think that 2005 was 8 years ago already, feels like yesterday!). I love this turn by Eleven, it's almost like The Seventh Doctor's manipulation of Ace - going 'behind her back' so to speak, to discover more about Clara, and their little confrontation about it at the end just offered a taste of what's to come by the end of the series. Although I wish that he'd stop dropping her off, I want Clara to stay in the TARDIS: a companion, not a guest!
The real stars this week though were off camera - Neill Gorton and the Millennium FX team have rarely delivered a duff prosthetic in NuWho, but this episode was a veritable menagerie of great looking creatures. The market scenes were just filled to the rafters with odd looking, delightfully Doctor Who-ish oddities - we've come a long way from the Brothers Hop Pyleen and the Scholars of the University of Rago Rago 56 Rago in The End of the World, that's for sure. But my favourites were these fellas:
The Vigil, like their The Beast Below counterparts, The Smilers, are a fantastic monster design that ended up being woefully underused in the story. It's a damn shame with Doctor Who as of late, that we're getting some really interesting new creatures that look great and are hyped up in the pre-publicity stuff, only to end up falling flat in the episode itself. It's great that the show can fall back on classics like the Daleks or the Angels or what have you, but it feels like it's been ages since we've had an alien/monster that's new to the series and felt effective, effective enough to have people demanding to see them again. Still, I'll probably get the action figure!
But, complaints aside, it was enjoyable enough, if empty. We've had our palette cleansing romp stuff now though - next week it's nukes, Ser Davos and the return of an evil not ssssssseeen sssssssince the ssssssseventiesssss... the Ice Warriors are back, and it looks like a bloody cracker.