The Pitfals of Zog!
In 2003 Russell T Davies sat down to write a pitch document, outlining his vision for twenty-first century Doctor Who. “Every story,” he insisted “should come back to Earth, to humanity, its ancestors and its descendants.” The reason for this, he explained, is that a connection with Earth created a greater emotional involvement with the story. “If the Zogs on planet Zog are having trouble with the Zog-monster … who gives a toss?” he asked.
It’s a measure of Davies’ influence over the reincarnated show that it’s taken nearly ten years for this orthodoxy to be challenged. Last night’s episode, The Rings of Akhaten, is the first in the twenty-first century to be about Zogs on the planet Zog having trouble with the Zog-monster. The only earthly connection is new companion Clara Oswald. And I think that while this was an experiment worth trying, it may well be that Davies was right; while Zoggy stories were a mainstay of old Who, this story lacked a certain something – ironic in an episode about a monster who feeds on stories and souls.
As we’ve come to expect (indeed, even take for granted) it looked fantastic. The cgi work for the titular ring of asteroids around a fiery planet are breathtaking, and the prosthetics team put in copious overtime supplying an array of aliens to fill the marketplace and stadium that wouldn’t have disgraced a movie. Farren Blackburn directs with verve and appropriate nods to Star Wars and Indiana Jones. There’s some great dialogue – indeed, some of the most Davies-esque we’ve had since he stopped writing for the show – and another formidable performance by Matt Smith.
The emotional core of the story is Clara. I stand by my comments last week about thinking this is the weakest of the character’s three versions – but Jenna-Louise does well, and we begin to flesh out the mystery of the three Oswalds with flashbacks to her childhood showing us (and the Doctor as he pops back to see various key moments) that she’s an ordinary human.
Where the story disappoints is in the lack of tension and threat. This is very odd when you consider that the writer is Neil Cross of Spooks and Luther fame and therefore a man quite capable of creating tension and threat when he wants to. The story involves an alien god, kept sleeping through the millennia by people singing lullabies to it. At first the god seems to be a sort of Eyptian mummy with a peculiarly shaped head (I thought at one stage the turdheads were going to be the baddie in this episode rather than last week’s spoonheads) but in a rather disappointing twist it vanishes to reveal that the god is a cgi orange planet which can’t talk or actually do anything and just sort of boils at us. Full credit to Matt and Jenna for going full hammer and tongs at a green screen at the end, but we can see now the wisdom of having such devices possess people so you can have scary voices and dialogue in stories such as The Satan Pit and 42.
There’s also a problem in that we’re not really sure what’s at stake here: Apparently the alien god requires little girls to be sacrificed to it once every so often – which is clearly not good – but what it’s awakening bodes for the Zog-people singing their hearts out, let alone the rest of the universe – isn’t made explicit. It feeds on stories we’re told. Can’t someone just buy it a kindle?
I suspect another problem was the score – none of the singing sounds particularly alien-y. The mass singing is a fairly standard Murray Gold anthem. Gold, again, is someone who’s contributions one has come to take for granted, it’s disappointing he didn’t rise to the challenge of this particular script.
This isn’t an actively bad episode, and it may make slightly more sense at the end of the run when (we’re promised) the mystery of the Clara storyline will have been explained. But the trailer for next week’s Martian on a submarine episode posed more threat than anything in the previous 45 minutes.
It wasn’t the Borings of Akhaten but I can’t give it Akhaten out of ten either.