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Doctor Who Review: “The Rings of Akhaten”

Clara 1
When I saw the trailer for “The Rings of Akhaten,” and took in the very alien sets and even more alien… aliens, I assumed it was going to be a Star Trek or Farscape inspired space odyssey, and while it initially seemed like it, this was again an episode that focused on our two main characters and how they grow to understand each other by dealing with unfamiliar and dangerous circumstances. In other words, it was a Doctor Who episode, and one that was surprisingly very sweet and touching even if it didn’t offer much in the way of plot. Maybe I’m getting soft in my old age, but I was really moved by it, and I’m traditionally a cold-hearted bastard. Huh.

The episode was written by Luther creator Neil Cross, and I must say, he’s a terrific writer for going so far outside of what he normally does, or at least what I know him for. Luther’s a gritty cop drama about serial killers and corruption and redemption, and this episode is, at its heart, about a little girl who is scared to sing in public. It’s something to which we can all relate. It also allowed us to get to know Clara – this Clara – better than we already thought we did in her curiosity and then wish to help the small Queen of Years, who is made to memorize the sum total of the history of her people, if only to be sacrificed to an ancient god. I adore Jenna-Louise Coleman. She is the absolute perfect companion, and she and Matt Smith, who is also just phenomenal every single week, get on so spectacularly that I’m glad we have another six weeks with them.

Bike

The direction by Farren Blackburn, of Luther, The Fades and other such British programming, is mostly good. I loved the way he handled the “street” scenes on the asteroid, with all the various types of aliens and species, all of which looked amazing. He also did the stuff on Earth well, for the small amount Earth was onscreen. I didn’t think, however, the massive blue-or-green screen stuff matched particularly well. That’s not necessarily his fault, as the special effects were done by other people, but I still feel like the scenes could have been staged a little better so that the backgrounds didn’t look so very unbelievable. That’s generally a minor nitpick, but the fact that they kept having to travel back and forth across expanses of space (which apparently has breathable atmosphere which is always at room temperature) really drew attention to the pretty but sometimes not well-blended CGI.

Something else that I didn’t really care for were the “evil” creatures. Sure, they looked amazing. Seriously, the designers outdid themselves. No, I’m talking about how they were used narratively. So, the Vigil are tasked with feeding the Queen of Years to the Grandfather if she decides she doesn’t want to be sacrificed; fine. I loved that they used sound to attack; that was great. The mummy in the glass box is not the elder god itself but is the alarm clock which awakens the god, which happens to be the sun around which the titular rings orbit. What’s the point of the alarm clock in the first place other than for us to think it’s the god? If all the songs and everything are meant to keep the alarm clock asleep so that it can’t wake up the god, then why didn’t the people just kill the damn alarm clock while it was asleep? Did everyone think the thing in the box was the god? If so, then what did they think happened to the Queen of Years each time she got taken to the pyramid? Are the Vigil feeding her to the god or the alarm clock? And why would a god, even just a parasitic one, need a bipedal mummified creature that ALSO hibernates all the time to wake it up? That’s a very strange symbiotic relationship. What does the mummy get out of it besides a lifetime supply of lullabies to listen to from inside its cozy, see-thru box? It just didn’t make sense, really. Also, “Cozy, See-Thru Box” is the name of my third album.

Akhaten

However, the episode wasn’t about the Vigil or the mummy or even the god itself; it was about parents and what they mean to us when we’re scared. The Doctor actually mentions in this that he had a granddaughter, not just making weird allusions to the fact that he had a family at one point. This is juxtaposed with the sun god, which is also called “Grandfather.” Stories are to be passed on from the old to the young, but in the case of the god, he needs stories from the young to keep him alive. He’s a bad grandpa. The Doctor learns about Clara’s past, which, we learn, colors the way she deals with the situation at hand. Lessons she was taught help her face her fears and all that. She also learns a bit about the Doctor’s past and who he is, and what traveling with him will be like. Clara’s final speech, about being her own person and not the shadow of a ghost, is a wonderful little moment that lets the Doctor (and the audience) know that she’s more than a mystery. She has to be. As much as I liked her, I don’t think Amy ever really was.

Despite those few misgivings, I really, really liked “The Rings of Akhaten.” I hope the rest of Series 7 continues the way the previous seven episodes have. I’ve always said Series 5 is my favorite New Who series, but at this rate, 7 will have it beat by a mile, even with “A Town Called Mercy” in there.

Next week, it’s the one we’ve all been waiting for: “Cold War,” written by Mark Gatiss and directed by Douglas Mackinnon, the one that sees the return of the Ice Warriors, this time on a 1980s nuclear submarine, and even features Game of Thrones’ Liam Cunningham. I am excite!

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h8y4PJ3a0lI&w=615&h=346]

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45 comments

  • Loved it! Clara is now officially my favorite Companion ever, no matter what her mysterious story is. Matt is top-notch as always; shove all the awards at that dude, he’s excellent!

  • I enjoyed this episode very much.

    I agree Clara is taking over as my favorite companion. Rose was and probably still is my favorite by a slim margin. But she had much more of a chance to build to there for me. As much as I really like Karen Gillan, Amy’s motivations and reasons for doing the things she did were never really very well fleshed out to me. Her and Rory’s relationship was odd to say the least. It was never really explained well enough for me. They never really grew and evolved in their dynamic until the last few episodes.

    Clara’s motivations and reason’s for being who she is is fairly clear just from these two episodes. It will be exiting and interesting to see how she changes in her travels. I really enjoy the character and her chemistry with the Doctor make me like Smith’s Doctor more than I have as of yet. He was pretty locked into a certain role with Amy the entire time. It is only Clara’s second episode and she already saves his bacon and does something even he could not do and did not think of until she initiated it. She is very much her own person in a way that Amy wasn’t.

    To be clear I liked Amy in her own way and was sad to see her and Rory go. However I was not as torn and affected as the loss of Rose in the way she was written off. That got me big time.

    In short this was the best episode of the last couple seasons for me for sure.

  • I cried in this episode. I oddly cried at the star dust part. I wept at the Doctor’s story and leaf offering scenes. I have no idea why. Maybe it’s just the idea of randomness creating something beautiful and rare. Maybe I’m just a softie…

    While the last episode was okay, this one had me by the end. If I rewatch the episode, it might not have that magic but I doubt it. This was great. I’m still crying… god dammit.

  • I think the “god” takes the memories in the priestess’s body while the mummy gets to eat her..that would explain why they call it a sacrifice! jus a thot. was a good episode tho.Cheers!

  • I loved this episode and think that the second half of season 7 is off to a cracking start. And this is coming from someone who actually didn’t care much for the first of the season. I cant wait to discover more about Clara and how she fits into the universe. Notice how the Doctor told the little girl that there is only one of her and of everyone else, and that’s what makes everyone special? Well there’s more than one Clara–or at least there appears to be–and that’s driving the Doctor bonkers. I hope it just keeps getting better!

  • Chalk me up as another fan of this episode. Lots of great stuff, and while I understand the comment about the effects not working out all throughout the episode they were prefect for the times when the Doctor and Clara were silhouetted against the sun. Love that image!

    Plus if there’s Matt Smith’s great speech in front of the Old God, he delivered it so well showing off once again his great ability to make his Doctor truly feel like he’s over a 1000 years old.

    Now bring on next week because it combines so many of my favorite things, the Cold War, Soviets, Submarines, and DOCTOR WHO!

  • Why is Merry singing “wake up…wake up and let the cloak of life clothe your bones” when they want the god to sleep? Who needs to “wake up”? Also, enjoyed how the Doctor used the moped service to get a read on Clara and her sentimental sacrifice of her mom’s ring.
    Oh, my stars…lots of clues this season.

  • I guess I’m in the minority, but I really didn’t care for this episode, and you’ve already pointed out the reasons. The plot just didn’t make sense to me, it all felt like a flimsy premise to beat us over the head with the value of sentimentality. The whole flying through open space with an apparently artificial atmosphere thing bothered me, but more than that I don’t understand the scene where the Sun God is supposed to be feeding on the doctors memories. Did the doctor lose chunks of his memory in the process? Or was it just a stall and somehow undone by Clara’s leaf? I just never felt there was any danger. And the Doctor claimed to have been to the rings before, but knew so little about the people he ended up fighting, which is just not how the doctor typically operates. I don’t know I haven’t been a fan of the past two episodes they lack any real sense of danger, but I do like Clara, so hopefully next week will be better.

  • Perhaps the Doctor took Clara there precisely because he has been there before. What better way to suss out if her memories are real to her. If they are, its safe to assume she isn’t in on the mystery. This episode contains lots of clues. It strikes me as a set up piece for a later payoff. Things like memory, being lost and found, wake-up. I think we all might be re-watching this like Silence in the Library someday….

  • Sorry to sound a discordant note, but this episode was extremely disappointing. I really like to have at least a ghost of a plot, but this one was so thin is was virtually nonexistent. If the show keeps having people save the day by raising their voices in song, it will be time to start watching old reruns.

  • I walked away from this one scratching my head. At the :30 point I was wondering if something was actually going to happen. It was sloppy to say the least and learning about the link to Luther explains a lot. Talk about a show that goes nowhere… I think the other dissenters have it pegged. It is difficult for the audience to feel sentimental about a character we just met, even if she has died twice in front of us. I felt like they were expecting the rush of ‘the companion’s first journey” to carry the episode. It didn’t.

  • I think the show’s getting too self-referential and clever. Now they’re always explaining the role of the Doctor, and the Companion, and how they’ve done things over the years. It’s all right now and then, but the fan service stuff seems to be intruding a lot lately.

  • Genuinely really liked this episode. It wasn’t my favourite New Who episode nor did it really surpase the Bells of St John. But I still love it.

    The alien landscape was very intriguing to me and set a great backdrop for Clara’s real journey, which is suprising to me as I’m not a big sci fi fan as I don’t really like stuff like Star Trek or Farscape. (Except Doctor Who of course, I’m a HUGE fan of Doctor Who.)

    Though it wasn’t the best in terms of plot it was still an enjoyable story with a sweet heart that really showed of the new companion. Clara’s thoughts and action are explained well with being shoved in your face. Altogether I didn’t feel disapointed.

    One thing I particularly enjoyed which I haven’t seen many people mention is the religious commentary I felt happened. A rarity I very much liked to see. The musing on religion and what people will do and idolise in the name of it. The speech the doctor makes to grandfather about him not being a god was extremley interesting and insightful.

    All in all a good episode.

  • I love Dr Who, but I didn’t really enjoy this episode. I’m not really sentimental so the singing kinda made me cringe and the star with a face was just too much.

    The alien market was cool and I like the way Clara and the Dr bounce off each other. The fact that the Tardis doesn’t really like Clara yet was a nice touch.

    There was a lot that I liked in this episode, but the stuff that I didn’t really bugged me.

  • a very well written episode. but i also could not get past the 1990s-esque SFX/green screen of the hover bike in space. its 2013, and its DOCTOR WHO.. it could have been done waaaay better considering the spectacle that was made of the space vista the queen sang out into before it woke up.

  • I love Doctor Who and all, but are this many people really having emotional meltdowns and crying over this stuff?

    Doctor Who is a very FUN show but its also pretty corny and this one fits in as being a typical episode where the build up doesnt match up to the hokey easy ending. Granted, Matt Smith is getting better and Clara won me over from her first introduction but the overacting, the bad effects and the eye-rolling plots are far from being emotionally touching/challenging.

  • “I love Dr Who, but I didn’t really enjoy this episode. I’m not really sentimental so the singing kinda made me cringe and the star with a face was just too much.”

    Same here. The amount of time spent on singing felt like “filler” to me because after showcasing a fun “Hellboy-light” marketplace, nothing much actually happened after that.

    And as for the face-star… ugh. Havent we all pointed and laughed at the idea of making Galactus or Parallax into “Evil Space Clouds with a Face” before? So what makes it clever or threatening in any way when Doctor Who starts reciting to a planet with a face?

    Oh. And I know DW is on a budget but the Flash Gordon Jet Ski effects were the worst.

  • I felt on emotional level, this episode really got to me. I admittedly cried at the Doctor’s speech and Clara’s BUT overall the content of the episode wasn’t brilliant. I feel like Matt Smith era’s characters are always so strong and interesting but the story lines never feel adequate. I remember watching Tennant and Eccleston episodes and feeling like they were much longer and more fulfilling than what we’re getting now-a-days. Some how, those writers managed to fit in so much more, even if they were explaining some exciting, far off world or species. Yet in this episode, I barely got to understand what on earth this civilisation’s structure and history was or who the god was etc. It was a relief to have a not earth based story (I mean, the Doctor can travel anywhere he likes, yet most of his stories lately have been about humans! Doesn’t seem very likely…) and some strange aliens to look at.

  • Saw this on twitter earlier so it might (or might not) be a bit of a spoiler, but did anyone notice that the car that nearly ran over Clara’s father is also the same model that killed Pete, Rose’s dad in “Father’s Day” back in season 1. Could this play into something later?

  • I have to say that Ireally do think that they went back to the older ways ofhow Doctor Who used to be in this episode, in that for once in the modern shows we are taken to a planet where the main lif forms are not human. Also the writer on this episode took his time and created a culture for these people and made a ritual, something that some of the old writers would do. I must also say that I appreciated the reference to Susan in this episode, the Doctor’s grand daughter, who was only seen in the William Heartnel years of the show. I like it when the current Doctor refeers back to his previous regenerations.

  • Love this episode but what was up with The Doctor face at the end right before he shuts the TARDIS door?
    I can’t quite understand it. Was he angry at Clara?

  • I often don’t get around to watching the episode until a few days after it airs, so the same holds true with reading the recap, though I see it appear on the site before then. With that in mind, might you consider choosing an image that isn’t from the last three minutes of the episode? Much of the climax was a bit of a letdown as I knew the original efforts of the Doctor were to be for naught and Clara would use her parents’ leaf, per the image.

    Thanks kindly!

  • Okay, spoilers for this episode and also WARNING BECAUSE RANT, but I figure this is already an accepted rant/spoiler zone so I’ll just go ahead and post this:

    Gotta say, that episode was good (and I could forgive the songs because they were good /ideas/ if not greatly executed. I mean, having the instruments come in when the little girl gets through a few lines was pretty hammy) but it totally could have been great.

    There were too many great plot ideas, and one (Clara and her past being Important) took mainstage while being uncomfortably equal in weight as the Doctor sacrificing his memories. It would have been amazing if they had synthesized the two ideas better. His speech would have been a glorious finale/regeneration lead-in, but I would have been just as happy with it happening sans finale if they had just… not immediately negated the meaning by having the Old God/Sun Thing not care. It was a beautiful point, but I think any fan of Doctor Who would be disappointed to see the Doctor shrugged off like that after such a knock-out speech.

    For instance, if his speech had worked but had left him comatose and memory-less, it would have been a killer cliffhanger. Next episode is Clara unable to get back in the TARDIS and having to find a way to bring the Doctor back- and that’s where the leaf could come in. The psychometry-trading people have psychometry down, so why not a psychometry-based healer? The healer says nothing will work because to restore the Doctor’s memories/soul would take an item with near infinite psychometric power. Then the What-if’s Leaf, Clara is a useful protagonist and the Doctor owes her his life, the End.

    I dunno, I just feel like this episode was very jumbled and mixed because of bad editing/pacing and them not giving each plot idea room to breathe. But! Ignoring those bits, I did like that they didn’t go completely the same formulaic DOCTOR + COMPANION FIRST PROPER ADVENTURE dealie that Moffat does where they go to a place to have fun but then the companion fucks things up and everything is bad and they spend most of the episode being chased until the Doctor macguffins so hard the bad guys explode. In fact, Clara didn’t fuck up at all- she handled herself very well. Yay good actress and decent writing for a companion!

  • Somebody brought up the point about why the people were singing “wake up” when they wanted the planet god to go back to sleep. I took it that they were singing to The Doctor to give him strength against the planet god.

    It was a planet, by the way, not a sun.

  • As far as the “alarm clock” goes,this vampire/mummy probably has a more normal/regulated “hibernation” schedule and the gas giant probably was more in a “passive state” than “hibernating” for those thousand years. Or it’s possible that the vampire/mummy was easier for the earlier residents of the Rings to believe was the Old God, or that in the convening years the message was muddled (since the “alarm clock” required its own sacrifice to “snooze” and that seems more like something that an Old God itself might need). Heck, it could even be that “Grandfather” was a creature that saw the ritual happening and just decided to swoop in, say that it was the Old God itself so it could get a sacrifice every thousand years, and the Doctor simply misread the situation (wouldn’t that be a hoot?). Wouldn’t it just be like a vampire mummy to be so opportunistic?

    Anyway, I think it was also a known but perhaps unspoken part of the ritual that the Queen of Years was to be sacrificed directly. Didn’t Merry say something about how the last Queen of Years had died during the ceremony as well? It seems only logical (except perhaps to a young child) that the Queen of Years was to be sacrificed as a tribute.

  • I’m sorry, but the flying through space and not having issues with air just took me out of it. At least give us a pseudo science answer (the bike has an invisible energy barrier, or the astroid and all of this area of space are surrounded by a giant oxygen bubble).
    It wouldn’t take much, just something, anything.

  • Confused in two ways:
    1) Clara doesn’t understand what the alien in the marketplace is saying, even though the gift of the Tardis should let her speak/understand every language in the universe. Is this a further (unexplained) way of seeing that the Tardis doesn’t like her?

    2) Is there any explanation of the results of the Doctor sacrificing his memories? Did he lose memories or were they just “copied and downloaded” into the parasite? Did he lose them and get them back when the parasite died? Did the parasite refuse to take them?

    • I imagined that the one alien was actually making the noises that it makes as others would hear them in their own language (just as the Doctor can speak Horse and Baby, so to is this perhaps an acquired sublanguage or something that might be a language the TARDIS will only share with the Doctor).

      And I also think that the memories were “copied” though the emotions and “soul” of them might have been a tertiary characteristic that was taken in another way. Don’t forget, the items were “stories” or “souls,” with the explanation leaning more towards “stories.” I think that, just as a story is often best perpetuated by those closest to the sources, there had to be real meaning to the story and something physical to “eat” — I think that the Doctor was giving up a bit of his body with his stories (though I was surprised he was so unwilling to give up his Sonic Screwdriver) but somehow able to do so without needing to replace it with regeneration energy. Further, part of the consumption of the item may have been caused by the amount of the story that was attributed to the item or, more precisely, how much the “value” of the item was related to the story or stories acting as tribute (the Doctor is still more than the memories he was possibly giving up but Clara’s leaf was wholly valuable due to the story told).

  • I have seen a few people asking questions about why the TARDIS didn’t translate the alien languages for Clara. I was quite confused myself until I watched the episode again and took note of Clara’s statement about the TARDIS not liking Clara when the TARDIS wouldn’t let her in. Maybe the TARDIS is also choosing to not translate for Clara. As far as I can see, the Doctor hasn’t told Clara about the TARDIS’ ability to translate.

    All around, it was a great episode, minus the dodgy VFX. Matt Smith did an excellent job making me believe that the Doctor is old and has traveled a lot of miles/time. Loved the Doctor’s monolog. Plus there were so many references to Doctor Who of time past that it was enjoyable researching each reference.

    I think that it was an excellent episode that introduced so much for the future of Series 7 and the 50th anniversary. Looking forward to Matt Smith (hopefully) and Jenna Louis-Coleman in series 8.

  • Saltpork on April 7, 2013 at 7:15 pm said:

    Saw this on twitter earlier so it might (or might not) be a bit of a spoiler, but did anyone notice that the car that nearly ran over Clara’s father is also the same model that killed Pete, Rose’s dad in “Father’s Day” back in season 1. Could this play into something later?

    I thought the same thing and I was with you until I re-watched Father’s Day, so I made this: http://www.wmiii.net/doctor_who/rose_leaf.jpg

  • So a single leaf destroyed a god which the doctor could not. Did he not realize that his memories could have been used in a similar fashion? All those countless lives who died when he saved billions more, the infinite lost memories in each act to save the world, universe, and time itself? As I loved the symbolism of the leaf, the Doctor could have defeated the god on his own. that is my take

  • I really, really like this episode. its full of visual and script references to classic Doctor Who. There are mentions of “grandfather” while the Doctor is standing near things from William Hartnell’s era, like the circular carving from “The Aztecs” which is also where the giant chair comes from. The music and the flying bike-thing were very 1970s (I was looking for Tom Baker to appear) and the marketplace was full of things from earlier shows. More fans should examine this show as closely as they did the 50th Annversary Advert. So many previous eps represented.