DOCTOR WHO – The Rings Of Akhaten


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Season 7, Episode 8 “The Rings Of Akhaten”


When the Doctor takes Clara on her first proper trip in the TARDIS, they arrive at the Rings of Akhaten. There they will meet Merry, Queen of Years and find themselves facing a sleeping being that calls Itself a god, on the verge of awakening and threatening them all.


“Listen. There is one thing you need to know about traveling with me, well, one thing apart from the blue box and the two hearts. We don’t walk away.”

‘Allo everyone! Here follows my thoughts and opinions on our latest episode of Doctor Who, “The Rings Of Akhaten”. As usual it contains SPOILERS, so if you haven’t seen it, well, you should, shouldn’t you?

Good Lord, this episode… sure is pretty.

Those who know me,  know that isn’t actually a compliment. It’s shorthand for “Wow, that looks great, pity the story is rubbish.”

OK, that’s harsh; it isn’t, in fact, that bad. There are, in fact, many wonderful moments in this episode. But great googley moogley, there are problems here. The first is that this episode feels like it’s maybe 15 minutes too short, and that is actually the core of the problem with “The Rings Of Aknaten”: It’s too fast for its own good. Since the show has returned to television, we’ve seen the departure of the long form story of the Original Series, where stories tended to run 4-6 twenty-minute episodes, occasionally more. The trend here has been standalone eps that maybe were pieces of a larger arc, with the rare two-parter. There have been benefits to this, because, if we’re honest, there was a LOT of padding (read: running up and down corridors) in the Original Series, but every now and again, it works against us, and this is a prime example.


There is a really cool world here. A world we see… nowhere near enough of. And it hurts the story. Let’s consider a moment the method of commerce: items of personal value, imbued with the memories and emotions of the people who use them. It’s a fascinating premise, in fact, it’s the premise that the whole Grandfather-God/Aknaten people is based on. Merry, The Queen of Years, is raised to have the history and memories of millions of years of the millions and millions of inhabitants of this star system… quite the emotional dinner, that. It’s no wonder that the Doctor’s 1000’s of years didn’t fill Grandfather: Every generation It eats the soul of the Queen and she’s carrying a LOT more cultural memory than even our Time Lord can.

It’s also a world where the inhabitants have to know what is going to happen to the little girl they have made the Queen. Look at the crowd, for heaven’s sake; do you see panic? Sure you see some people reacting when she’s grabbed, and odds are good that they, like the Doctor and Clara, are there to see the ceremony as tourists, but the majority of the crowd? They knew this was going to happen. It happens every generation, it’s how Grandfather is kept “sleeping”, and could you imagine the story we would have had if we spent some time talking about a culture that sends a child off to have her soul gobbled up, to save everyone else?


And then there’s the question of what, exactly, Grandfather is supposed to be here, because I’ve watched this episode a half-dozen times, and I still can’t tell if It’s supposed to be the sun or a planet. I’m leaning towards planet, considering its proximity to the asteroids and the other planetoids, and if that’s the case, well, OK. Sort of. The asteroids are obviously orbiting it, and some of them are inhabited, so their orbits are going to have issues, but OK. But if It is the sun? “Saving” everyone just wiped out the thing everything in their solar system was revolving around, plus the largest heat source, and since we’re told there are 7 inhabited worlds… that’s a lot of death and destruction Clara just managed on her first trip out. And it was  growing, and I’m pretty sure that expanding stars are going to have a pretty major effect on the environment around them, and it ain’t going to be a pretty one. Of course, there could have been some clear explanation as to which stellar body it was supposed to be, AND how the inhabitants dealt with the after effects, but not in the version that was broadcast.

Oh, hey, Wikipedia calls it a planet. OK. That’s a little better. Still.

And, is it just me, or is the weight of Clara’s leaf – imbued though it is with all the potential of a life cut short, all her imaginings of her mother, all the power of “what if” inside it – kind of dwarfed by the cultural memories and history of millions of years that 7 worlds, 7 worlds, have trained, encoded or whatever into young Merry? Clara, however impossible she may be, is one woman. Her mother was one woman. It just seems… a little too sweet. Not the first time that love and emotion have conquered Who‘s baddies, but one of the dodgiest methinks.

All of these things are problems that, to me, could be solved with just a little more time. Time to develop the culture more, time to define our villain more, time to deal with the aftermath more. I wonder how much script ended up on the cutting room floor, because I have a hard time believing that the writer of this story, Neil Cross, the creator of Luther, wouldn’t see the big holes here.

But those are just the bad things I see… let’s talk about the good, because all such complaints aside, there really is a LOT to like here.


The world and its inhabitants are really cool to look at, and I understand that the effects team has been setting aside masks and costumes for a while, saving them up to have this kind of large-scale display, and it really pays off. The range of creatures on display, the detail, all reminds me of those fantastic moments from Farscape, with the amazing work of the Henson Creature Shop. And even if we don’t get the depth I think we needed from the culture there, we get enough to be intrigued. It’s a nice moment when Clara asks if the legends of life starting there are true, and the Doctor replies, “Well. That’s what they believe.” He’s not mocking the idea, he’s simply saying it’s what they believe, without judgement. That he follows it with “It’s a nice story” cements this. He’s not commenting on its truth, he’s just saying it’s a nice story. And we all know how important stories are to the history of the Doctor. I’ve seen some comments out there saying this episode is being critical of religion, but that’s just nonsense. Doctor Who rarely touches on real religious faith in a judgmental manner, and why would they? Sure, there have been plenty of false gods on display, but that’s because they are bad guys, abusing the faith of their followers.

Everyone seems to be talking about the great array of aliens and referencing the Cantina scene in Star Wars, and sure, it does evoke that. But I keep falling back to the Original Series Star Trek episode “The Apple”. Yes, yes, the stories aren’t really alike, but it’s a false god story, and maybe it’s the makeup of Merry’s people evoking Star Trek. Dunno, but there it is.


And while the mummy-esque “alarm clock” is sort of generic alien, the Vigil are really creepy, so creepy in fact that their brief time on camera is a bit of a disappointment. I would love to see them return somehow, because their look and voices are worth some more time.


Let’s talk about Merry Gejelh, played quite nicely by a young actress named Emilia Jones. Doctor Who has quite an excellent tradition of bringing us extremely talented child actors, and she is no exception. From her fear of failing at singing the song, to her fear when it’s clear what her fate is meant to be, Jones delivers, and her singing voice is quite lovely as well. Her father is the British singer and presenter Aled Jones, and clearly talent runs in the family. She’s going to be someone to watch, certainly. My favorite moments with her are when she is talking about her fears of failing, and when she realizes what he fate is meant to be… she’s scared, but she’s committed to her training and beliefs, and she’s willing to be sacrificed if that will save her people.

Jenna-Louise Coleman gets to finally be a Companion for real this time, and aside from the aforementioned leaf thing, is pretty wonderful here. Well, with another exception, and I’ll get to that in a moment, but really, she shines. It’s nice to see her, faced with the ability to go anywhere and anywhen, be at a loss to say what she would like to see, because it is an overwhelming thought, isn’t it? Her wonder and excitement at seeing an alien world is palpable, and, if it’s a bit like what we saw from Rose and Amy, that’s to be expected. This is the scene all our modern Companions have had, and Coleman nails it.

She also has that sense of compassion that we’ve seen in her before, that drive to help others, and it makes sense that she’d do much of what she does here, from going after Merry to see if she’s alright and fighting for her when she sees she’s in danger. Those moments with Merry are quite wonderful and played pitch perfect. Even if we didn’t have the mystery of why versions of her have met the Doctor already, she’d be an excellent companion for the Doctor. Needless to say, her chemistry with Matt Smith continues to be just pure fun. Yesssssss, there is a false note here we do need to talk about, because while her reaction to finding out she reminds the Doctor of “someone” seems good at first, it’s a little bit less than it should be, missing a pretty crucial asking for more information part that, if what we’ve seen so far plays out, will come back to bite them both in the end. Odds are good it’s a conscious writing decision, but it’s still jarring. And one must call attention to her oh-so-simple line when she returns to Earth: “It looks different.” Again. Pitch perfect.


Matt Smith’s Doctor is, as always, a wonderful mix of humor, sadness and anger, and it’s all of those we get here, to great effect. There are some dodgy bits, but those are side effects of our rushed story, and things like his reacting without much thought or knowledge of what is going on fall under that category. The Doctor’s obvious joy in sharing the universe with Clara is nicely contrasted by his questions as to who and what she really is, but the real joy here is those early moments where he’s taking her through the market, his pleasure in showing her the worlds that await her. And even when he is reacting without thinking it through, it’s Smith’s wry humor and rapid fire delivery that makes it work at first viewing. His speech about his memories and what he’s seen is excellent, even if there are elements of Roy Batty and the 10th Doctor in there, and the tear that rolls down his cheek is a pretty powerful one, considering the Doctor’s unfamiliarity with his own tears. It’s also a nice series of references to Original Series stories, with “Inferno” and Omega getting tips of the hat, but the best callback is the one that makes me really wonder… when the Doctor mentions his granddaughter.

Throughout the new series, we’ve had a few references to the Doctor’s family, the occasional reference to being a father and having lost his family, but they’ve always been pretty generic. I can’t think of any other time that he just out and says “I have a granddaughter”, and with the 50th Anniversary approaching, well, there is the rumor that Clara is somehow Susan. I don’t buy that one, especially after the intro to this episode, but it does give me hope for the return of the first, and arguably the most important Companion. The Doctor did, after all, promise her that he would, one day, return. One can hope.


And we can’t talk about this episode without talking about the opening, can we? We get to see the origins of the leaf, as it flies on the wind and into the face of a young man, blinding him for a moment and sending him into the path of a car. Rescued by a pretty young woman, it’s a classic “meet cute” moment, which leads to a marriage and the birth of a daughter, one Clara Oswald. It also leads to the tragic, early death of Clara’s mother, and the chain of events that finds Clara staying with family friends who have also lost a wife and mother, and that is where the Doctor finds her again. It’s a lovely sequence, marred only by the presence of an observer to these critical moments of Clara’s life: The Doctor. I’m reading opinions that the Doctor is sort of a stalker here, aaaaaaannnnd, yeah, a bit. But again, the Doctor isn’t human, and Clara is a paradox, isn’t she? He’s not watching her for prurient reasons. He’s trying to figure her out, trying to see what lies at the core of her appearing in his life over and over. And remember that she has died both times… if the Doctor doesn’t solve the mystery…


So there we are! Clara’s second real story, and while it’s not a perfect story, and the story is the problem, it’s still got some great moments, and it is, frankly, gorgeous. It’s still better than some of the first half of the season (I’m looking at you “Power Of Three”), and with the Ice Warriors returning this week, I’m feeling better about this season. We are left with some questions of course, aside from the mystery of Clara, most notably the oh-so-interesting reaction of the TARDIS to Clara and her thinking the Good Ship doesn’t like her. The TARDIS isn’t fond of paradoxes, is she? And what about Clara’s mother? Is there something to her last name, Ravenwood? It’s an unusual name, and then there’s the “I will always find you and come for you” speech. Could be nothing, but somehow I doubt it.

We’ll see, won’t we?

OK, then… up next, it’s “Cold War”, which gives us both the return of the Ice Warriors and appearances by Liam Cunningham (Dog Soldiers) and the amazing David Warner.  See you then!


[“Doctor Who” on the BBC web site]     [“Doctor Who” on BBC America]

Timothy Harvey

Timothy Harvey is a Kansas City based writer, director, actor and editor, with something of a passion for film noir movies. He was the art director for the horror films American Maniacs, Blood of Me, and the pilot for the science fiction series Paradox City. His own short films include the Noir Trilogy, 9 1/2 Years, The Statement of Randolph Carter - adapted for the screen by Jason Hunt - and the music video for IAMEVE’s Temptress. He’s a former President and board member for the Independent Filmmakers Coalition of Kansas City, and has served on the board of Film Society KC.

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