The Rings of Akhaten
|Production Code||Series 7, Episode 7|
|Dates||April 6, 2013|
With Matt Smith,
Written by Neil Cross Directed by Farren Blackburn
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat, Caroline Skinner.
|Synopsis: The Doctor and Clara attend a religious festival where the Queen of Years is about to be sacrificed.|
A Review by Harry O'Driscoll 21/6/13
In the weeks up until The Rings of Akhaten was aired, it looked like it was going to be the highlight of Series 7. Visually, it seemed extraordinary: both the Vigil and that Mummy thing looked great, the idea of pyramids and sacrifices seemed a potent one, and it looked like it really would be the best alien world the revived series had done. But it was so awful, it really is a terrible let down.
The singing really was ridiculous. It just isn't Doctor Who, it detracts from any sense of adventure and it feels like probably the show's sappiest moment since Fear Her. It wasn't until a few days later that I first appreciated that Neil Cross was trying to give a proper insight into an alien culture. That travelling to an alien world isn't just CGI monsters and quarries. But it just doesn't feel like Doctor Who. Resolutions are something of a weak spot in the Moffat era and this is a good example, with another soppy explanation that doesn't make sense.
Both the Vigil and the Mummy are used badly, and it becomes unclear why they are even there, except so that there is a monster. The writing gets a little bit sloppy in places: the Doctor and Clara travel on a Moped in space, somehow without oxygen. The TARDIS translation matrix seems to translate only according to the needs of the script, with characters sometimes speaking English and sometimes not. There's another great big plot hole about the sun that I won't reveal to avoid spoilers.
But even when you get past all of that, the episode is actually rather dull, and I found myself drifting off at points. There are no real background characters beyond the Queen of Years who does nothing to captivate the audience. It's interesting the increased focus of children during Steven Moffat's tenure when he himself has said that children don't particularly enjoy watching children their own age. The Doctor's sonic screwdriver has now become absurdly overused and should probably be written out again.
That is not to say that the story isn't impressive aesthetically; it does create an alien environment rather well and the number of aliens we witness is rather impressive. It's just that not much is made of them and they remain in the background throughout.
Overall, this is a very disappointing episode, completely mushy and wet, and with none of the promise it looked like it would have.
Maybe I was too quick to judge.
Maybe I just was not expecting anything like this, particularly during the Moffat era and got caught up in the entire backlash that this was one of the worst episodes ever. Looking back on it now, I've even cringed at my previous review.
I still maintain that it has its problems: it drags in the middle and how the hell did they survive now the sun is gone? As for the resolution with the leaf, I just believe the way it's presented sets itself up for easy ridicule. But I get that Doctor Who has one foot in the world of fantasy.
When I first reviewed this, I mentioned that I appreciated Neil Cross's attempt to convey an alien culture and how out of the norm this was for new Who. I regret that I said that I said that it does not feel like Doctor Who, because it's a show so eclectic that to say there is a standard pattern is obtuse.
The inclusion of Merry still feels like another lazy attempt to appeal to kids, but I won't deny that her performance is better than most and the Doctor telling Merry she does have to sacrifice herself is a very nice moment. Unusually, the Doctor is out of his depth here, and his standing up to Akhaten anyway was great. Watching his final speech again, I did find it difficult not to be moved by it.
Plus it's one of few scripts to give Clara a personality, and a pleasant one at that. I've not been a fan of Clara during Series 8, so I did look back on this and appreciate the template Neil Cross had made for her character; particularly given Moffat did not seem to provide one.
So yes, this is an admission I was wrong. It's still is not perfect in my view, but the vitriol directed against it is unjustified. I just wish I had not joined in on it. Oh well, you live and learn.
Fantasy in Doctor Who by Craig Land 16/7/13
The general opinions on The Rings of Akhaten that I seem to get from people range from vague indifference to vehement hatred. It came last on most polls ranking the episodes of Season 7. Fans are already chucking its name around in the same breath as stories like Underworld, Timelash and The Dominators. It's pretty clear that fandom as a whole did not like this episode.
And I've got to ask; why?
What crime did The Rings of Akhaten commit that has apparently consigned it to the annals of 'terrible Doctor Who stories'? Was it the production? Well, clearly not; Akhaten has one of the most sumptuous productions of the entire season, with big-budget shots of planet, space vehicles and suns exploding. It's all very visually appealing. So nothing much to complain about on that front. Was it the acting, then? Also unlikely; Jenna-Louise Coleman gets probably more worthwhile material to get her teeth into in these forty-five minutes than she does for the rest of the season! Matt Smith, meanwhile, gets a memorable speech which he doesn't overplay too much, while the guest actors are all perfectly acceptable, including a particularly adorable child actor in Emilia Jones. Once again, there's nothing much to criticise here.
So what are we left with, then? Well, from where I'm standing, the only thing that's left for fandom to attack so vehemently is Neil Cross' script. People just don't like the ideas that he's presenting us. And this is where I think fandom is being both harsh and unfair. Neil Cross' script is perfectly fine; it explores themes of emotional repression, religion and memory in appropriate depth, while also presenting an entertaining adventure story. The problem is, he does this by touching that most taboo of genres in Doctor Who fandom: fantasy.
I'm not necessarily saying that Doctor Who fans dislike fantasy intensely; heck, a lot of Doctor Who fans I've met tend to also be fans of The Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, Ursula K le Guin, Harry Potter and The Magic Roundabout. We as fans clearly don't have too much of a problem with the trappings of the fantasy genre. Indeed, Doctor Who and fantasy would appear to be appropriate bedfellows: both rely on interesting and occasionally outlandish ideas, well-developed worlds and characters, and involved participation on the part of the reader or viewer. We can even draw comparisons between different elements of fantasy and Doctor Who: what separates an Orc and a Sontaran and an Ogron? All are fantastical creatures who regard war with an almost religious deference, who also regularly threaten our heroes. The names we give them may be different, but they are fairly similar characters in conception.
What truly separates Doctor Who from fantasy is that fantasy is prone to rely on 'magic' as a solution to get out of trouble. It's a trapping of the genre: in order to appropriately suspend your belief when reading fantasy, one must automatically accept that magic is a real and functioning thing within the fictional universe. This doesn't sit well with Doctor Who fans; we like our 'magic' to be explained, even if it's using the most nonsensical and ridiculous technobabble imaginable. Why is the TARDIS bigger on the inside than out? Because it's dimensionally transcendental. As such, a knee-jerk reaction from Doctor Who fans whenever a concept is left unexplained in a story is to dismiss that story as relying on 'magic as a get-out clause', or something similar. The problem with this attitude is pretty clear: the only thing separating our technobabble from fantasy's magic is the name. After all, the TARDIS may be bigger on the inside than the out because it's dimensionally transcendental, but what, then, does 'dimensionally transcendental' mean? The answer is, of course, 'bigger on the inside than the out'. Our labels for unexplained concepts are no less superficial than fantasy's use of 'magic'. We just like to think they are because they dress the concepts up with a fancy, scientific-sounding name.
But what is it, then, that makes this scientific technobabble so much more acceptable than 'magic' as a justification for the more fantastical concepts in Doctor Who? The answer lies, I believe, in what both terms imply. We associate 'science' with rules, laws and realistic principles: a purely science-based fictional universe is one with definite boundaries and rules governing how that fictional universe functions. Conversely, 'magic' can supposedly do anything: bring the dead back to life, cure illness, refill an empty glass out of nowhere. It implies that anything in the universe is possible and that there are no rules. This goes against the mentality of us as fans; we want things to be ordered and realistic to some extent. We want, I think, to believe that the Doctor Who universe does have some sort of rules governing how it functions. As such, when an unexplained, 'magical' phenomenon occurs in an episode, we reject it, as it doesn't conform to the rules which the Doctor Who universe has established.
Returning to The Rings of Akhaten, we can now see that the episode does rely, to some extent, on 'magical' elements. The resolution, in particular, with its choirs of aliens singing to give the Doctor and Clara strength, and Clara's 'magical' leaf causing the alien sun to consume itself, departs from the usual scientific basis for Doctor Who's 'rules' and applies a more fantastical form of logic. But the problem with criticising the episode for its reliance on 'magic' - and the universe without any 'rules' that magic implies - is that The Rings of Akhaten still has rules, even if those rules are of a more fanciful nature than we would usually expect. The beginning of the episode establishes that objects collect memories and that these memories have value - the more powerful the memory, the more value the object will have. As such, the resolution of this episode takes this idea to its logical conclusion. Clara's leaf has a huge amount of emotional value, due to its association with her mother and the sheer coincidence of it blowing down just in time to blow in her father's face. Clara's entire existence is essentially based on an enormous, unlikely coincidence, which is symbolized by the leaf. As such, the leaf, representing all the human tragedy and coincidence embodied by Clara, is more powerful than the pain of a 900-year-old Time Lord. The resolution is still logical, it's just that the 'logic' that it is based on isn't of a nature that we are used to.
For this resolution to work, though, we have to believe that Clara has a great deal of tragedy and life experience behind her. Unfortunately, Clara is at this point still a cipher. A very energetic cipher, sure. A cipher brought beautifully to life by Jenna-Louise Coleman, definitely. But a cipher nonetheless. The episode rectifies this to some extent by focussing on what Clara is like, rather than who she is on a bare-bones, plot-mechanics way, which automatically does a lot for her characterisation compared to the other episodes of the season. But none of the solid emotional groundwork laid here is picked up for the rest of the season (other than in Neil Cross' other story of the season, Hide), and so, on rewatch, Clara's development here feels like a false start rather than the establishment of a strong and interesting character. Nonetheless, watching this episode as a standalone, her characterisation is strong enough to give the story's resolution some gravitas.
There are many other positives that The Rings of Akhaten brings to the table. The sense of history and culture we get from Akhaten and its unusual cultural practices. The sheer poetry of a civilisation held together by music. Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman acting their pants off. The story is a solid and interesting one. Nonetheless, it's the slightly different attitude towards 'magic' and fantasy the story takes that makes it stand out for me. I can't help but think that if Neil Cross were to take over from Steven Moffat, we'd get a very magical show indeed.
Mike Morris has long been one of my favourite reviewers on this site and has influenced an awful lot of my own opinions on Doctor Who. So when his review of The Rings of Akhaten stated that all the other reviews of this story on this-here site were negative, a little part of me died inside.
Because, to set the record straight, I love The Rings of Akhaten. I think it's the clear standout of Series 7B. I think it's one of the strongest Smith stories. I think it's the best pre-Series 8 showcase for Jenna Coleman as Clara. I think that a society held together by music and song is one of the most marvellously poetic ideas the series has ever produced. I agree 100% with everything that Mike said, and if this didn't come through from my original review, then I'm going to state it clearly here. This story rocks, and I think my esteem for it has only grown since broadcast.
What's increasingly impressive to me as we get further away is that this feels like such a contrast to the often-inward-looking Moffat-era. After Series 6 became focused on questions like 'Who is River Song?' or 'What is the Silence?' or 'How will the Doctor survive?', The Rings of Akhaten is a story that finally begins to look outwards and create its own world. Instead of collapsing under the weight of timey-wimey plotting and recurring characters, it places the Doctor and Clara into a brand-new situation and forces them to really learn about it. If anything, it feels like a return to the Hartnell era, with most of the plot development coming from the regulars learning about a place and how that world functions. It's marvellous, emotionally resonant and just a lovely 45 minutes of television.
Perhaps that got lost in the pile of wank that was my last review. Whoops.
"In our obsession with original sin, we sometimes forget original innocence" by Thomas Cookson 15/10/15
Just at the point where I was beginning to fear Series 7 was proving to be a total waste. Where the show's last bone fida classic, The Girl Who Waited, couldn't seem more far away. Where it looked like the show could've easily ended on The Wedding of River Song (if not The Big Bang) and would have run its course and little would have been lost. Right then came this story.
Is it a classic story? Well certainly I think it's the best story of the season so far. Will it go on to be remembered as a classic story, or more an unremarkable but generally agreeable story in the same vein as The Claws of Axos, The Androids of Tara, Frontios or The Unquiet Dead? For my money, I certainly think it's better than Midnight.
One thing about this story is that it feels like the proper opener of Series 7 part 2 after the previous week's appalling false start. Yes, one of Moffat's guest writers, a relative unknown, by happenstance did a far better job of launching the new season than he did, or at least would have done if Moffat hadn't been there first. I can't deny it. That fact alone is making me move more firmly into the 'Moffat must go' camp, even though I'd previously dismissed them as a bunch of sad RTD-lamenting philistine loonies.
A note about the above. There was a part of me that dreaded something like that would happen with The Bells of Saint John. Moffat at his best can introduce as many strong candidates for potential companions like Nancy and Sally, as companions he's actually introduced proper. But there's only so many times in a short space you can keep doing that successfully. So frankly the idea of having Clara have multiple versions of herself be introduced more than once a season just seemed asking for trouble, and for me The Bells of Saint John confirmed why it was a botch job waiting to happen. You can make that first contact between the Doctor and Clara magical, but you can't force it to happen again once it unhappens, unless you're really careful, which is a non-starter with Moffat these days.
But this story cements exactly what's been going wrong with Moffat's era of late, and why both this and The Girl Who Waited are such refreshing exceptions to the rule. It's something that was definitely a problem in RTD's writing (even in Children of Earth) but which has, since Moffat took over, become downright epidemic. The fixation with including too much incident. You might even say that in Davison-fan Moffat's case, it's proof that the double-edged curse and blessing of Earthshock's impact still haunts the show for worse. Perhaps the show was never and will never be the same since.
At first, Moffat's era had a tender gentleness to it in The Eleventh Hour that's reminiscent of his vaunted best, like The Empty Child and Blink. And whilst The Time of Angels and The Pandorica Opens were crammed with incident, they tended to fall, at least for me, on the right side of eventful. Day of the Moon marked where it started to go a bit wrong, right from the outset where it should have been resolving last week's cliffhanger but was instead pissing about with time jumps and set pieces. But Let's Kill Hitler was the point where this overkill approach really broke the show, and the arc.
It's also why The Wedding of River Song doesn't work: it doesn't have a plot; it's just meaningless set-pieces that are there as a distraction from the plot, which had already resolved itself five minutes in.
With Series 7, this only got worse, mainly thanks to Moffat yet again bringing in a writer like Chibnall who is actually classically worse at filling stories with meaningless incident than he now is. And I really wonder if actually The Bells of Saint John might have been on par with or worse for this than Let's Kill Hitler was.
But then there's The Girl Who Waited and this story, which are at the other, better end of the scale. Rather than being packed full of incident, they are simple stories that take their time and, being so antithetical to the season, they stand as its shining gem. To it, like older Amy said of Rory, they are stories that might seem on face value a bit uninteresting, until you take the time to actually listen to them. I think that describes many of the best classics of British TV. Of course, Moffat would never be caught dead admitting to liking something so 'dull'.
Yes it's Moffat being an overgrown adolescent, trying to be hip and down with the youth. And to his credit, at least it's not Red Dwarf Series 7 where it was clear that as the writers got older and more out of touch but desperate to appear sexy and modern, the more downright creepy it came off. Moffat hasn't reached that point yet, thank heaven.
But this particular story is paced well enough that even when having to cram the very This Is England-inspired backstory of Clara's family life into its opening as a lengthy non sequiter, when we actually reach the alien planet, the story it gets round to telling there feels complete and satisfying. Mainly because it builds to a sudden sense of inevitability and works backwards with the explanations from there as a means of solution hunting. It is an episode that focuses on a big anticipated moment. It's perhaps proof that Keeper of Traken or Snakedance could have worked as one episode.
And just when it seemed that the anniversary year was only going to be an event at all thanks to the coming An Adventure in Time and Space documentary than anything the TV series proper was going to be doing, I think this might indeed prove to be the most Hartnellian story of the colour era since Season 17's run.
And yes, this might mean that in this anniversary season, this will indeed prove to be another Snakedance or Enlightenment, being an exceptionally misplaced highlight of an otherwise exceptionally dull run that leaves everything hanging on the later anniversary story that might indeed prove to be Doctor Who's last chance to bow out with some dignity left.
But this feels genuinely Hartnellian, in which Clara gets to be Susan and Barbara at once, the wide-eyed child and the caring matriarch who can bridge the gulf between the Doctor's centuries of age and the child's. And indeed returns somewhat to that idea of the Unearthly Child (did they perhaps miss a trick when they could have called it An Otherworldly Child), specifically the idea of childhood in an alien culture. And as if to compensate for all the Adrics, Romuluses and Remuses, Simones and even the young audio cast of Mission to Magnus, I think they've struck perfect casting with young Merry, to the point where she carries the bulk of the episode impressively well.
In a strange sense, this is what the story's about. A return to Doctor Who's more stagecraft roots. In fact, it's a story squarely about the importance of performance and pouring your soul and pain and life into a heart-rendering exhibition. Do I even need to say why this is so refreshing and just what the show needed after the River Song arc of meaningless smug sociopathy and the soullessness of Let's Kill Hitler? Maybe, just maybe enough to completely wash away that bitter aftertaste.
I think it's easy to be cynical about not so much this episode, but about the show's cultivation of diminished expectations in general. Some might say that the story marks out certain predictabilities early on. That the space bike will be useful, that the 'grandfather' Merry talks about appeasing isn't quite what he sounds and that Clara's actually made a cultural misunderstanding and mistake in encouraging Merry that everything will be alright on the night. They'd possibly further say that I might be gushing about a predictable plot simply because that the fact a coherent plot and narrative exists at all is at this point a mark of progress in itself. But I say no to that. Predictability is only a problem if the story isn't deliberately playing on that inevitability, and this story certainly is.
We know something's going to go wrong during Merry's solo song sequence, but we're not sure when, and that's what makes it arresting. See again my point in my Snowmen review about the 'what happens next' clause.
In fact, MrTARDISreviews, who seems to share a lot of my antipathy toward where Mofffat's gone wrong of late, but likewise was pleasantly surprised and impressed by this episode, said how he would have been happy if the song sequence had been the whole story. It was that compelling.
Which funnily is what I thought was going to be the twist. That gradually it was going to turn out Merry wasn't just going to be singing this song tonight, but maybe for days or for years, maybe even forever. Which would have been a frightening idea.
The scene where the Doctor ran dragging Clara the other way from an abducted Merry genuinely had me wondering the worst about him, before reaffirming my better expectations beautifully. And frankly there's something deeply, deeply refreshing about a Doctor Who story where cultural misunderstanding and the alien's own fearful innocence is the cause of the predicament, rather than yet more New Who generic pantomime villainy that we're supposed to pretend is bounds ahead of Classic Who. We need more stories like this. We need writers like Neil Cross. I'd happily see him become showrunner right now.
This I think is the key point. The show seems to assume these days that the power of televised theatre is dead, for the masses at least. But this episode I think proves the makers wrong. It's speaking an old TV language of song, tone and stolid performance and immediate emotional courage that the audience instantly understands and gets. After having groomed us with emotional schmaltz, we're here seeing the kind of delicate, brave, shattering rich emotions that makes theatre what it is, and of a kind I thought we'd never see on TV again since the 70's. Which is why the conclusion where the Doctor gives the final soul-bearing performance works, and anyone watching would 'get' it.
Inevitably, this gets back to the question of how the show has become too complicated. Now it may be smug superiority on my part, but I don't think the Moffat era's too complicated at all. I can follow it easily usually, but I don't find it compelling on a human level. And frankly all the mystery-baiting just gets gratuitous and annoying after the third time and leaves me feeling again that the wrong things are being laboured over what's being neglected from standalone stories.
This story gives me hope that things might just be improving. That maybe Moffat, or at least his team, are finally getting better at this. What I mean by this is the opening chronicle of Clara's past and parentage seemed at first like more mystery fodder. But the conclusion showed it had a core place in this particular plot and became something that was part of a well-rounded standalone, not a dangling thread awaiting a disappointing explanation in the finale. In other words, it's not gratuitous, and it ends up carrying a lot of plot and character weight. This is the right way to do it.
It did feel like this story could have gone on forever and remained compelling, but it works at its length in a way few 45-minute stories do.
Between this and the next Ice Warriors story, which looks compelling, I just might have a really good feeling about this show again.
Confronting The Past by Mike Morris 14/6/16
I try and ignore fan-reaction when I write reviews, because it's a very selective thing and quite hard to pin down - when people talk about "fans," it usually translates as "the fans in my peer-group". However, with The Rings of Akhaten, it's hard to ignore. Before Thomas Cookson's recent piece, reviews on the Ratings Guide were universally negative. Most corners of the internet that I pass through seem to view this as... well let's be kind and say a false step. A friend of mine described it in terms that featured the words "barrel" and "scraping." It looks like I'm not out on a limb when I say that this one seems to be the Eleventh Doctor's equivalent of Underworld.
I'm hoping not. I'd like to think it'll be more like The Androids of Tara or The Ribos Operation - one of those stories that's loved by a spikey minority of fans. And that spikey minority will, of course, be right. The Rings of Akhaten is one of the best of all the Matt Smith stories, and for my money it's the best. It's a bright, vivid thing of beauty. It sings, in every sense of the word.
I love it, and it makes me feel happy. Therefore, I don't really want to spend this review attacking the opinions of others. However... look, there's no other way of saying it: a weirdly large percentage of the negative views of this story seem to be based on a single truism, namely that All The Singing Is Saaaaad. That old-time chestnut, "It's not Doctor Who!" even gets an outing in one of the reviews above. (Ah, so many memories! Next we should bring back the rad v trad debates.)
Is it too much to say that I find this kind of depressing? Perhaps what bothers me is that I've yet to see a cogent reason why the singing is so objectionable and/or shit. Even if we limit ourselves to New Who's comparatively conservative plots, this is a show that gave us aliens who fart, a replica Titanic in orbit around the planet, future civilisations making robots of Anne Robinson, moving statues that can never look at each other, multi-generational traffic jams, spiders that create parallel universes, and a whole universe that can be rebooted...
You can see where I'm going; compared to that list, "a society where singing is important" seems fairly normal. I'm trying to think of some sort of objective reasoning that it should be *singing* that doesn't belong in Doctor Who, and the only ones I can think of are unpleasantly macho - they're based around the idea that singing is a bit... effeminate. Or "gay", in the South Park sense of the word, and I hate to think of that sort of coinage gaining currency in Doctor Who. Perhaps the issue is that, essentially, the singing is there just to be beautiful, and that's in some way problematic. To be honest, I find both those lines of argument so far off-base that I don't really want to address them further.
Look, I like the singing. There's some really lovely voices on show, for a start. It adds to the texture of Akhaten as a place. If it doesn't float your boat, that's fine, but that might be your problem rather than the episode's; besides, it's not going to feature next week, so don't worry about it. Instead, why not focus on all the things this episode gets so right?
First things first: it's based on an incredibly seductive idea. I haven't a notion how the creative process for this script worked, but I find it easy to imagine this whole story growing from a single, initially throwaway, question: "what if sentimental value was the only kind of value?"
On the one hand, that's the kind of silly-but-interesting idea that has generated weird, strange stories like The Happiness Patrol. I'd have been happy with that, but The Rings of Akhaten goes further; the whole story's about sentiment and memory. It underpins Akhaten as a society, the nature of the foe at the end and the Doctor's confrontation with it. It's also how we come to form a view of the leads, in this story at least.
Of the entirety of Season 7, this story treats Clara (and her alter-egos) the best. Given that it's her first trip with the Doctor, you'd hope that would be the case. But what's clever is how Clara's attitude to remembrance is contrasted with the Doctor's, in a way that makes sense of both of them as people. The Doctor wants desperately to forget everything he's ever done or felt; Clara is living her life propped up by a memory of things that never even happened.
The pivotal scene is the one where they buy the speeder. The Doctor more or less press-gangs Clara into giving away a ring that belongs her dead mother and barely seems to understand that he's asking her to do something immensely painful. The reason he gives is that he doesn't have anything of sentimental value he can give away... even though we've seen that he's got Amy Pond's glasses with him the whole time. The Doctor, our world-saving, always-in-command, burns-like-the-fire-at-the-centre-of-the-universe hero... it turns out he's just a guy in denial.
That fits in with the rest of the story. One of the impressive things about The Rings of Akhaten is that the Doctor's flawed; he's dangerously capricious, but not in a way that feels forced. Thomas Cookson has already noted that, when Clara asks why they're running away, you do actually believe that might be what he's doing. When the Doctor's dickishly making Clara give away that ring, the story is expecting us to think "don't be such a wanker" rather than "ooh, look at the unknowable alien." It's the first story in a while that makes the Doctor a character, rather than an icon. In many ways, it's the opposite of The Doctor's Wife. That story took a fairly clear subtext of the series (the TARDIS as a living thing, and the Doctor and the TARDIS as a married couple) and just said it on screen - and got a lot of fairly baffling praise for doing so, in my view. Akhaten, on the other hand, creates a subtext rather than just making one explicit: the Doctor as a man running away from his feelings because they hurt too much, his constant movement being a coping mechanism for the fact that its too painful to stay in one place.
As for Clara, she's at the core of this episode in all sorts of ways. It's not just that she's given a backstory, her character's defined by the way she interacts with other characters. It wasn't until The Day of the Doctor that we were even told her job, but in this story she actually seems like a teacher even though it's never said. Ultimately, it's her character traits that get the Doctor involved at all: Clara's instinctively protective of a young child, and as a result she inadvertently encourages her to do something that turns out to be utterly horrendous. Her mistake is to assume, reasonably enough, that no society will throw a kid into a deliberately dangerous situation. She's wrong. The result is that the companion is involved by a real compulsion, not just following the Doctor's whims because she fancies him.
That's the other thing I love about this story: it's never entirely clear where it's going. It's actually a fairly simple tale about a civilisation in thrall to an alien they've elevated to godhood, but Akhaten never seems like it's just a puzzle for the Doctor to solve. The story opens up looking like it'll be about Clara's past; then it's about Clara saving a girl from creepy guys in masks; then it's about Merry's performance going wrong; then it's about a nasty thing in a box; finally, it's about the Doctor standing on a platform telling the story of his life. It changes gears between these elements effortlessly, so that half an hour in you still can't come close to guessing how it'll end.
Need I say that Neil Cross is clearly a Proper Writer? Both his Who stories really develop their ideas, in a way that other writers just... well... don't. As well as asking himself how an economy based on sentiment might work, he's also asked how such a society could evolve. Akhaten's entire culture is devolved from an alien superbeing who lives on stories of the past, so of course they value stories of the past above all else. Other writers would have put in a five minute scene explaining it all, but Neil Cross has the confidence to just leave it there for us to pick up if we want it. This is easily one of the best scripts since the new series began. I've no idea why he didn't come back after Series 7 (one might assume Luther has kept him busy), but he was still my hope for new showrunner prior to the coronation of Chris Chibnall.
He also wrote that scene.
By rights, I should hate the Doctor's final confrontation. I really can't stand it when the Doctor effectively solves things by his reputation, such as when he frightens off living-shadow-things or funny-giant-eye-aliens just by saying "Don't you know who I am?" A scene where he saves the day by standing there and telling a giant planet-god just how amazing he is... the ice is so thin you'd need a microscope to see it.
The scene's stupendous, though. It's partly because Matt Smith's performance is extraordinary. It's partly because the setup for it is worked right through the story - look at that bittersweet way the Doctor says of Akhaten's mythology that "It's a nice story," not able to believe that all life in the universe began here, but not quite willing to dismiss it either. We like to say the Doctor's a man without a past, but on this planet it's clearer than ever - and then, to save the day, he finds himself made to stand there and remember everything. This isn't a guy saying "don't you know who I am," it's someone coming to terms with the pain of his own life; it's meaningful, in a way the Doctor's struggles usually aren't. You can tell that he'd love to have all this history and past and reputation taken from him, so he doesn't have to deal with it any more. For a moment, he really seems to have a death wish. As Moffat will say later, he's "the one who forgets". Or, as RTD said, some time ago, "We forget because we must." I'm not as eloquent, so I'll just say that soliloquy is a masterpiece. And then, perfectly, it turns out not to matter; all those majetic pasts mean nothing when compared to stolen possibilities. A lot of this tale's about nostalgia, but it ends up being a beautifully optimistic story about the power of the future.
The Rings of Akhaten is more or less everything I want Doctor Who to be. It's about fantastical universes. It treats its more outlandish ideas seriously, and the serious ideas with a lightness of touch. It portrays its leads as proper, complex people, and then throws them into crazy situations. It's got a bright, interesting environment and characters we care about, and it never does the expected thing. In short, it's like nothing else on television, forty-five minutes that only this programme could ever produce. If the majority opinion doesn't agree, the majority are missing out big-time. I love it.
The light of an alien sun by Hugh Sturgess 6/9/16
I've been hesitating making up my mind on this one, because it's the only episode of the back half of Series 7 that I hated on first broadcast. I think the fan consensus is with me on this one, and those who insist it's actually great have more than a touch of deliberate contrarianism to their arguments. I know that this is Neil Cross's first Doctor Who episode, so he's bound to produce something a little off-kilter, and he's trying (presumably on Steven Moffat's instructions) to take "Doctor Who as a fairytale" as far as it can realistically go without Rupert Bear parodies. The problem for me is not, fundamentally, that it exists in a lyrical universe in which emotional value equals exchange value and songs can keep a giant parasite sun quiet. The problem is that it's a horribly muddled mass of poorly developed ideas, in which the Doctor has nothing to do but be annoying as hell.
I've talked before about the universal fannish fear of "silliness". It's a completely understandable reaction to being looked down on and mocked for liking some vaguely disreputable cultural touchstone. Comic book nerds went wild over Tim Burton's Batman because it rescued Batman from shark repellent and POW ZAP KOWEE. They went wild again over Batman Begins because it rescued Batman from Mr. Freeze ice puns and rubber Bat-nipples. Like comic books, Doctor Who has always had the faintly disqualifying charge that it is "for kids", and there is something sad or pathetic about a grown man (and it was always a man back then) enjoying it on a level below irony. Being silly runs the risk of confirming to everyone that they were right about us: we are fans of something stupid and childish. This is not an unrealistic fear. Most people use surface-level signifiers like tone and colour palate as a heuristic to tell them what kind of story they're watching. For instance, muted grey colours, unshaved chins and shaky cams tell viewers they are watching a serious drama aimed at adults. Thus House of Cards gets treated as a serious drama even though it is fundamentally a ridiculous show that has a child's view of American politics. Switching on a piece of TV about a monster made from liquorice all-sorts, most viewers will assume immediately that they are watching something dumb. So Who fans hope for serious, gritty, "realistic" episodes that their friends can watch and compliment afterwards.
I'm sure plenty of the negative reactions to The Rings of Akhaten were motivated by a fear of silliness. It's got a little girl in it, it's about singing, and the day is saved by the Power of Love (again). Must be syrupy rubbish for kids. The creators of the show obviously knew what they were doing, of course. In a season characterised by ostentatious genre transvestism, The Rings of Akhaten is trying to give us the definitive "fairytale" take on Doctor Who. That's really quite interesting, since the Moffat era (or at least the Smith era) has been a fairytale from the beginning. The episode clearly knows this, as it imports some of the elements of the Pond era, or at least their flavour, into Clara's story: the Doctor meeting Clara as a child, the similarities between 101 Places to See and Amelia's books and drawings. Clara is a character from children's fiction, exclaiming "my stars!" (never again, though), providing immediate maternal comfort to Mary and instinctively understanding the rules of this world (enabling her to defeat Grandfather).
The Moffat era has regularly returned to the idea of people becoming stories, and here that idea gets its most spectacular expression in a monster that eats stories. More tellingly, the episode repeatedly emphasises never-ending stories. The long song is literally a story that never ends. Mary is the Queen of Years, who knows every story ever told, and the Doctor gives her courage by telling her a story she might not have heard before, one that places her life in relation to the star that had to die to create the elements that make up her body. (Parenthetically, it's a nice moment that is ruined by the unearned "you are unique" moral.) The Doctor overfeeds Grandfather with his own story, and Clara finishes him off with all the stories that could happen. Given that Moffat Who has framed itself as part of a story that never ends, The Rings of Akhaten could be seen as a story of a monster being defeated by the act of continuing the series itself. This is Doctor Who as Scheherazade. While it continues, it lives.
This should be fascinating. It should be the culmination of everything Moffat brought to the series in 2010. The society of Akhaten should be beautiful, magical, lyrical. It's trying to be a genuinely alien world that operates on fairytale rules. Instead, it's just a bunch of bullshit. It never feels like a real world, it never feels like a place people live in. For all that I think Tolkein-esque world-building is tedious in the extreme, the sheer vagueness of Akhaten as a place is poisonous to the story. It feels more like handwaving at vaguely fantastical things, rather than anything actually fantastical. All the different ideas the script packs into the setting - the multiple species, the psychometric economy, the Queen of Years, the Vigil, the mummy, the old god - are trying to create a detailed alien world, but they just seem arbitrary. Here's the Queen of Years, now here's the Vigil, now let's go to the big auditorium to sing at the pyramidÉ The audience is left adrift, unable to invest in this world when some other random "rule" or "tradition" can be thrust in our faces.
Why does the crowd sing at Grandfather to wake up having spent millennia telling him to stay sleeping? What does this hope to achieve? It's not even explained exactly why feeding on the Doctor's stories and Clara's leaf kill Grandfather. One must conclude he over-ate. Clara's winning move - to give Grandfather the leaf as the embodiment of an infinity of potential stories rather than a finite number of real ones - is utter bullshit, because we don't have enough grasp of the rules of the world for this to be anything other than abracadabra. So the soul parasite can feed on things that didn't happen but might have? But he needs to be talked into doing that, otherwise the Doctor's potentialities would have turned him into Mr. Creosote. The climax hinges on convincing the audience that the "infinity of possibilities" sounds reasonable enough in the context of lived stories. It either does or it doesn't, and it sure doesn't to me.
It's possible that the flaw is in the forty-five minute format itself. Cross is trying to create a genuinely alien world with an extensive culture, not a human colony or something quite generic. Yet he also has to tell an adventure. Setting up that culture in the space he has is very tricky, and he doesn't do a very good job of it. He leans heavily on Doctor-delivered info-dumps, which add to the arbitrariness of the conceit. The Doctor yanks Clara around Akhaten force-feeding her buffets of exposition whenever it is vital the audience know something. The most severe example is when the Doctor tells us about the long song keeping Grandfather asleep, mere moments before he wakes up. Nothing about this is organic. The time constraints are very apparent, which comes as a surprise after so many years of the forty-five minute format. Series 1 and 2 had episodes that tried to convey a whole situation in the space of a few lines and just came off as half-hearted, but since then Doctor Who has got very good at creating complicated set-ups very quickly. Not so in this episode, which is The Long Game of 2013. Perhaps Doctor Who simply doesn't have the space to convey all the rules of an alien civilisation inside forty-five minutes. If so, that's an endorsement of two-parters as a more regular feature of the series. I'm not sure that's true, though. This is not just rushed, it consistently fails to emphasise the right things in its quest for brevity.
It's full of pointless delaying tactics like the ponderous moment at the door of the pyramid. The Doctor tells Clara that the sonic screwdriver can't open the door because the combination is changing "ten million zillion squillion times a second", yet less than a minute later it can open it because it has "locked onto the acoustic tumblers". Bullshit giveth and bullshit taketh away. The Doctor spends ages painfully holding the door open, then lets it close - they're locked in! When crisis strikes, Mary remembers there's a secret exit and they escape that way. What do moments like these do besides throw stones in the path of the story's progress? They don't affect the story in any meaningful fashion, since they are invented and discarded within a minute or so. When the Doctor, Clara and Mary are locked in with the mummy, we are in no doubt that they will think of a way out - the expectation is that they will do something clever or exciting to escape. Instead, there's just another door. These feel like the work of a writer who isn't confident his story is exciting enough, so has put in little obstacles to generate drama. Perhaps Murray Gold worried about that too, since the last twenty minutes or so of the episode is continuous frenetic strings and cymbals.
Grandfather is the story's central entity, yet he's a mishmash of ideas. He's a sun that feeds on stories, including ones that haven't happened, and he's kept asleep by singing, and his "alarm clock" is a mummy in a pyramid. How is that supposed to fit together? What element about him suggests any other, with the thin exception of putting a mummy inside a pyramid? (On that note, the obvious Egyptian theme of the story - the title, the golden pyramid, the mummy - goes nowhere despite being emphasised.) It's a rare Doctor Who episode that has me wanting to switch off before the end, but it's so hard to invest in this stuff it becomes extremely tiring. Who cares what happens to this tissue-thin world of arbitrary gibberish, or the annoying, whiny kid who is the only character of any detail? (Mary whinges that the Doctor promised he would save her when he's stumped by the parasite sun, which makes you wish he simply let Grandfather eat her.) If you like this sort of "fairytale" stuff and can overlook the crudeness of the story, good for you, but don't tell me that it's good television, or that my view is based on nothing but a prejudice against magic.
Without a compelling story, Matt Smith is left with nothing to do but schtick, and it's very apparent he has run out of things to do with the character. He is actively annoying in this episode, like the worst moments of Williams-era Tom Baker, amping up his usual routines to the point they become grating. It's not lazy at all; he's still putting his entire body into his performance, whirling about the screen like a man possessed. He simply has run out of those flashes of genius that made his Doctor such a delight. The point is that a good script covers a multitude of sins, and had The Rings of Akhaten been decent, Smith's weaknesses wouldn't be noticed.
In fact, it is absolutely true that I dislike this episode because it is childish and makes me feel silly. But not because it's children's fiction, which can be fantastic. This is fiction written for children by adults who don't have a high opinion of children. It's a world thrown together from a handful of fairytale tropes and hurriedly executed in the expectation that the intended audience won't make a fuss because they don't know any better, with a few saccharine moral lessons ("We don't walk away" and the shamelessly untrue "I will always find you" lines) because that's what kids' TV does. Kicking this story does not feel like laughing at Sesame Street. It feels like a plea to recognise that this is actually terrible, and we are not the silly people who will think it's acceptable.
That's what I'll do. I'll tell you a story. by Evan Weston 29/5/20
When Series 7 is dumped on by contemporary critics, The Rings of Akhaten is the story immediately singled out as just a total dud. I understand the criticism, but I think the point of the story is missed by these writers. The Rings of Akhaten isn't out there trying to be realistic or gritty. Neil Cross and the production team decided instead to put something together akin to a moving painting, and while the result is flawed in some respects, it is deeply beautiful. This is an absolutely lovely, very moving story that actually attempts to spin real threads around its characters and its universe.
First off, The Rings of Akhaten actually does something with Clara, and it's the last time in the entire season we find out something new about her personality. This is obviously very disappointing, but Clara is never better than she is in The Rings of Akhaten (though she's still a bit too quick to thrust herself into a dangerous situation, behaving like no sane human being would when the Doctor abandons her in an alien marketplace). The story of her mother's early death and "the most important leaf in human history" is a bit mawkish, and it's not quite as touching as that of Rose and her father, but you genuinely believe that Clara's overwhelming instinct to care even when it's going against her self-interest is driven by her mother's passing. Clara is able to move on from this when she sacrifices the leaf to Grandfather in order to save Akhaten, symbolically releasing herself from the bonds of grief.
This ending is often criticized for not making much sense from a technical perspective, but The Rings of Akhaten has no pretensions of being scientific. The parasite and the entire culture are set up on stories as currency and food, stories necessary in order to survive. Cross even has a line where he makes fun of the Doctor's attempt to explain the situation through technobabble. It's a beautifully simple concept, one that I wish more stories would employ. My quarrel with the ending is actually a bit different - I cannot for the life of me believe that the pain and suffering of a 1200 year-old Time Lord would fail to feed Grandfather while Clara's leaf succeeds. I get what the story is trying to do for the character, but that's a stretch to far. Still, The Rings of Akhaten is probably the only episode to date that properly developed Clara, and it deserves enormous props for doing so.
It's also one of the best-looking episodes in Doctor Who history. Akhaten is a gorgeously rendered planet, easily the most epic and wonderful delivered by the production team so far. While the inside of the planet feels more like a really expensive studio shoot, the alien-costume work done by the makeup team is extraordinary. The genre of the week is space opera, and we haven't had a better group of prosthetic aliens since the Star Wars cantina. There are at least 30 different species on display, and I can't think of a single weak link (the dog-creature from whom Clara buys the moped is a particular highlight). The Vigil are an especially creepy sci-fi creation who sadly go underused, but that doesn't mean the production team should be faulted. The eventual villainous planet looks great as well. But the real triumph is the color: the whole episode is washed over in huge, burnt oranges and shaded in with deep greens, giving it an autumnal feel that puts the fallen leaf front and center. It's brilliant cinematography, and Farren Blackburn directs the episode marvelously throughout.
The music is also a highlight, courtesy of the usually reliable Murray Gold. The longtime Doctor Who composer has grown better with age and experience, and his scores are nearly always superb at this point, but his song for the Queen of Years in The Rings of Akhaten is the most beautiful thing he's written since A Christmas Carol's soundtrack. Sung first at the opening of the episode's second act and again under the Doctor's epic climactic speech, its innocence and gentle beauty contrasted against the monster to whom it is sung say all you need to know about the danger our heroes face and the symbolic journey of the story. Cheers to Gold for an especially solid effort.
The story is also absurdly well-acted. Thanks to her meatier part, this is perhaps Jenna Coleman's best performance as Clara. She's allowed to actually show some emotion, and she's terrific, which has me hopeful for the character's future in Series 8. She's great with young Emilia Jones, who acts and sings as Merry Gillel and is another in the tradition of solid new Who child actors. However, the real star of The Rings of Akhaten is Matt Smith, who is terrific throughout but puts together maybe his best moment of the entire series in his speech to Grandfather. He delivers Cross's powerful lines with a deep passion and conviction, ripping the heart out of every word and throwing it out onto the screen. David Tennant, while wonderful in his own right, could never do something like this speech without making it cheesy. This is part of why I prefer the Eleventh Doctor to the Tenth. Smith's newfound maturity in Series 7 is the season's best asset. I only wish the Doctor's speech had been the episode's climax instead of a build-up to Clara's moment; had it somehow managed to combine them, we could be looking at a grade A- story.
Which is a really out there thing to say about The Rings of Akhaten, but despite the critical hits it's taken, I have a Grandfather-sized soft spot for this story. There are a lot of very good and not great stories in Series 7, and The Rings of Akhaten is not quite great, but it might be my favorite of the B+ episodes across the season. Neil Cross put together a beautiful, moving story that works as a gorgeous homage to space opera films and serves to develop Clara's character. Unfortunately, her emotional arc ends right here, but this warm story serves as a nice finish.
The new companion is a Leaf by Noe Geric 28/8/21
If there's something I really don't like about Series 7, it's the empty episodes, the non-existent continuity between them, the useless companions, and the irritating ones. I can agree on the fact that every episode of this series is unique, with one atmosphere the others don't have. But half of that series is empty. And if it wasn't for a nice little (long) song and Matt Smith performance, I think The Rings of Akhaten would've been one of the dullest episodes ever written.
After the loss of the Ponds and a full series (6) where he had apparently been playing someone else and not the Doctor, Matt Smith is now the nutty professor of Series 5 again. Seeing him saluting diverse races of aliens in the most ridiculous ways possible is quite fun. As the story is mainly about Clara, he disappears for a brief moment to let her live her own adventures on the planet. At the end, he makes a little speech of his, and that's a nice addition. Clara... the impossible girl... or should I say the most blank companion I've ever seen. Through her episodes, she continually changes her manners, her personality... She is nearly a Mary Sue, she can fly a spacecraft even if it is the first time she sees one, and she even knows how to save the day with a leaf. I still think she's the weakest addition to the Doctor Who universe. Most of Coleman's scenes are terribly acted. Look at the one in which the TARDIS refuses to let her enter, I was trying not to look at her incredibly weird reaction.
Worldbuilding is an important thing in Doctor Who. In a 45-minute episode, it is even the most difficult thing to do. Gridlock managed to have a good plot with an incredible worldbuilding, but Akhaten fails. The episode has exceptional worldbuilding, a world that is so complete it looks true. But the plot is nonexistent. Twenty minutes in the episode, and we barely start to see the beginning of the REAL story, not the exposition of an alien world. For once, the child actor doesn't spoil the episode (Artie and Angie are yet to come to make me regret that thought). All the cast is excellent while singing the Long Song, a perfect piece of music. The song itself manage to save the whole episode from being forgettable. And I think no one can forget how epic and poetic it is.
Not a big fan of the planet with eyes, the obvious green screen and the resolution. But what I dislike the most is the leaf. It appears out of nowhere as a plot element. If you hadn't guessed, after the cold opening, that it would be the element of the resolution, then you are one of the few lucky people who didn't know the end before the story even began. The ''Ho my stars'' line if probably the WORST thing ever said on TV. It's ludicrous, incredibly bad. I could write a whole book about how bad this single line is, and the characters repeat it at least three times in the episodes (mostly Clara and her mother).
Conclusion: if there wasn't the Long Song and that interesting worldbuilding, I would not even have remembered that this episode exists. Clara began to reveal her dark side, one of the worst companion ever written. Matt Smith finally impressed me in that one, after his performance in Vincent and the Doctor. At last, I can give the episode a 7/10, but if you remove the song, I give it a 3/10.