This is one which is really hard to decide upon. On the one hand it gets a good few things right, has some interesting concepts and one of the best Doctor moments thus far this series. On the other it exemplifies a few core problems within the modern series.
Carrying on directly after the events of The Bells of Saint John, the episode depicts the Doctor trying to figure out Clara's past. Unable to understand just how she has lived three times now, he agrees to take her as a companion to try an understand her. After being asked to take them "somewhere exciting" he travels to the Rings of Akhaten, a marketplace and cultural melting pot. Even as they arrive however, a moment of importance is dawning upon the Rings. An old god is threatening to awaken, and a child is running scared...
Unlike usual i'm going to get into the bad before the good. Mostly because it's easier to explain and there are quite a few things it does need to be praised for.
The first, absolute biggest, problem here is definitely the episode's structure and pacing. To put it simply, it's all over the place without a single bit of professionalism shown it in at all. There's no clear mid point reversal, the third act is insanely short, the second act you can barely tell where it begins, and the episode seems to have no inciting incident. No specific moment in which the audience is supposed to become engaged within the plot or what is taking place on screen.
This isn't helped by the fact that the episode spends an age on something which barely relates to the actual events of the episode. Something which would have been far better handled by someone else and something which feels like it was forced in. As if Neil Cross was told after he had set upon a story "oh, and you need to sort all this out because the last episode ended with it." The actual idea isn't bad but it's just not very well handled.
The pacing is additionally all over the place. With the episode speeding along in bursts in some moments while dragging in the next. Leading to a conclusion against an antagonist who is threatening and a worthy foe for the Doctor to combat, but has oh so many wasted elements surrounding him. Namely a mummified corpse which is reduced to an unimpressive trigger mechanism, and an undefined goon squad of sonic blasting aliens. All of which have great designs, none of which are even remotely used to their fullest potential.
Those are overall the core problems and it's a shame because you can't ignore them. They're something directly interwoven within the episode's narrative and just keep showing up to cause problems. Even when you're trying to enjoy everything else in what should have been a much better episode. Mostly because there is a huge amount here which really works.
For starters there's the acting. It's modern day Doctor Who so you know it's rare to get some truly bad acting in any episode, but there are a good number of factors here which make it stand out.
The best examples are with Clara having to adapt to an alien environment extremely quickly as the Doctor is enjoying the scenery.
We've repeatedly seen companions have to deal with the strangeness of the future and alien worlds in the past so it's almost become cliche for them to be surprised. Here however there's a new spin put on it. Many scenes seem to have her surprised at the strangeness around her but quickly adjusting to the apparent bizarreness of it all.
While there are more than a few moments of this, one which stands out is where she's confronted by a salesman. Another is where she encounters the child mentioned in the description and has a surprisingly human moment with her. Both serve to further establish her as a companion, even if the former is mostly used for humour, and build her as a character. Eventually making its way towards a conclusion which, despite the botched opening, is an extremely well done ending.
The Doctor's best moment in all of this is during this conclusion in a speech when he is facing down the villain. Relating to his memories, life and experiences up to that point. All he has seen. The performance of Matt Smith, and music and dialogue all turn it into a truly outstanding moment. One which gels surprisingly well with what follows from Clara.
However, these mostly hinge on the latter half of the episode so how is the rest of it?
Well, the cultural melting pot mentioned is a core factor in terms of both scenery and representing what is at risk. Dozens of different aliens, unique races we've seen nothing of up to now, all play various roles within it. Milling about a very strange marketplace which is filled with all sorts of oddities. The presence of so many of them, used as background elements no less, makes the world they are in feel truly big. As if for them the alien creatures are an everyday, familiar sight the camera is not required to focus upon.
Another factor which really works here (sort of) is the fact that there is no threat suddenly introduced. Early on what we're just given is the world the Doctor and Clara are exploring, and it proved to be interesting enough to hold its own. You're not left watching a plot unveil or the Doctor chasing down someone, and as a result it becomes something interesting enough to watch. In some ways it feels like something you'd get out of the historical episodes the first and second Doctors used to go through on occasion.
Part of what really helps the world feel so expansive and great is the use of the scenery. While everything from the practical effects to the CGI look fantastic, it's the direction here which helps the most. Farren Blackburn has a specific knack for reworking and reusing very limited numbers of scenes, making a handful of locations look like somewhere new every time you see them. Along with its use of the aliens, this is again something which makes the world feel far more expansive. More than many other episodes we've seen in both classic and current Who.
Also Clara's line to the Doctor about not being a replacement for someone else. It's a definite strength as it needed to be said after not only Amy and Rory's departure, but also her other selves. Clara needed to stand out as her own person and this is something which is going to definitely help cement it as time progresses.
Oh and no "doctor who?" joke was made this time. Thank you, Mr. Cross.
Ultimately the episode feels like it was made in three seperate parts never intended to mix together. The introduction in the past feels like it should have been an episode in its own. Everything following that up to the song, watch the episode to understand that bit, feels like it should have been its own individual story. While the actual ending itself feels like it was something invented individually, and doesn't connect well with what came directly before emotionally. Each part works well on their own, but together? They keep managing to clash despite the obvious links with one another.
Is it worth watching? Sort of. It's hard to really say as there's a lot here to recommend and great moments but you have to be very forgiving to a lot of problems. Try skipping to when they arrive on Akhaten's rings and watching it, but if you feel uninterested don't bother to see it to the finish.
Doctor Who and all related characters and media are owned by the British Broadcasting Corporation.