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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Doctor Who blogging: “The Rings of Akhaten”

Doctor Who The Rings of Akhaten

(all spoilers! don’t read till you’ve seen the episode… or unless you don’t care if it’s spoiled for you. this is a love fest only — all complaints and bitching must come from a place of love / previous: “The Bells of Saint John”)

(get my downloadable discussion guide to “The Rings of Akhaten” for teachers, librarians, and everyone else who needs to keep kids amused, engaged, and educated at DoctorWhoTeachersGuides.co.uk)

My Twitter feed on Saturday night and all day Sunday was full of many many people who were very disappointed by this episode. So I was prepared for the worst by the time I finally got around to watching it.

I’m so relieved to discover that I really like this episode.

Sure, it touches on a lot of my pet topics, such as the importance of stories and how religion is “a nice story” until somebody gets hurts. But it’s also closer to the Doctor Who I love. I’ve enjoyed how the new incarnation of the show has been about the Doctor as a character in a way that the old show never was… but it had slipped away from that since Matt Smith arrived, as Amy somehow drifted into the position of protagonist. I liked her fine, but I wasn’t too into The Amy Pond Show. And if I was afraid that now we were going to be getting The Clara Oswald Show… well, maybe I’m a little more optimistic again. I wasn’t madly in love with “The Bells of Saint John,” but it did at least feature the Doctor seeming to be more proactive and less dragged along by external events. And now, this week, we get a peek at a really Doctor-ish Doctor again.

When he’s standing before the “Old God” shouting about walking in “universes where the laws of physics were devised by the mind of a madman” with tears running down his face, about how he knows “things, secrets that must never be told, knowledge that must never be spoken”? I got chills. Clara was stunned earlier when it seemed to her that he had nothing important, no thing laden with special meaning to him. But he does: he has his own memories, the horrendous weigh of his own experience.

This is the same Doctor about whom it has been said:

I’ve seen him, and he’s like fire and ice and rage. He’s like the night and the storm in the heart of the sun. He’s ancient and forever. He burns at the center of time and he can see the turn of the universe. And… he’s wonderful.

I feel like we haven’t seen that Doctor in a while.

The thing with Clara’s leaf is probably overly strained, but that doesn’t bother me much — contrary to how I’ve been unable to refrain from nitpicking similar things in other recent episodes — because overall, the episode works so well on many different levels. From Clara’s very warm and heartfelt interactions with Merry, the Queen of Years, all the way up to wondering whether, when the Doctor is shouting at “Grandfather,” if he’s also shouting at himself, there’s an emotional cohesion, for the characters we’re only just meeting and for the Doctor and Clara. I love that Merry went from being afraid she’d mess up her Very Important song to not being afraid to sacrifice herself to the “Old God” when she thought it would save her people: that feels right; she’s been raised for this, she’s not gonna run away from it. But it also doesn’t feel like a cheapening of the deeply held beliefs of Merry and her people when the Doctor fixes it so that she doesn’t have to sacrifice herself.

I love that how this little adventure feels like it’s starting out like one of those not-dangerous days, the “nice day out” for Clara, wandering an alien marketplace, alien people watching, tasting the alien victuals (which turn out to be not that tasty after all).

Doctor Who The Rings of Akhaten Matt Smith Jenna-Louise Coleman

And then the ceremony that Merry sings at! It’s really amazing, really beautiful, really awesome — surely this is what traveling with the Doctor would be like, getting to experience so many incredible things all the time. I would have been perfectly happy for this to be just a regular day for the Doctor and his companion, because even his ordinary days must be extraordinary.

The best thing, though, is that this story works on its own merits, regardless of whatever the larger Story of Clara is going to be, and also separate from the Doctor’s own mythology, while also tying in to those things! The Doctor could be literally yelling at some future version of himself in “Grandfather” (surely the meta reason for him to have mentioned coming to the Rings of Akhaten previously with his granddaughter is to remind us that he is himself a grandfather, or has at least been called that in the past). And when the Doctor says to Merry, “There is only one Merry Gejelh, and there will never be another,” hanging in the air is the implication that even though we’re all unique starstuff, now there’s another Clara, and another. (Yet it also works as a lovely reason why Merry should not sacrifice herself if she doesn’t have to.) It interesting, too, that Clara thinks the reason she and Merry can’t get into the TARDIS if because the TARDIS doesn’t like her; she doesn’t think, “Oh, I don’t have a key,” she clearly gets wave of dislike from the TARDIS. Does the TARDIS know something about Clara? Or does she simply lack a key but not an imagination?

Random thoughts on “The Rings of Akhaten”:

• Is it a tad stalkerish that the Doctor is spying on Clara’s parents?

• Hey, it’s the Hooloovoo from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy!

• I’m loving the Farscape vibe this episode gave off:

Doctor Who The Rings of Akhaten

Doctor Who The Rings of Akhaten

• “The Long Song ended with me.” Ooo, that reminds me of “The Nine Billion Names of God,” one of the first science fiction stories I ever read.

• It’s all a bit Cthulhu, too, isn’t it, appeasing the “Old God”?

• Great quotes:

“You’re a thousand years old, you must have something you care about.” –Clara, to the Doctor

“There is one thing you need to know about traveling with me: we don’t walk away.” –the Doctor, to Clara

“Can you open it?” –Clara, to the Doctor, about a very locked door
“Technically, no. In reality, also no. But still, let’s give it a stab.” –the Doctor

“Stop it, you’re scaring her.” –Clara, to the Doctor, about the Queen of Years
“Good. She should be scared.” –the Doctor

“I think I may have made a bit of a tactical boo-boo…” –the Doctor

(next: “Cold War”)

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  • I_Sell_Books

    I thought this was a great ‘story’ episode, one that is complete in and of itself. One of my problems with Moffat’s Dr Who – and I speak as a writer of Science Fiction (working on publication, dammit) – is that he constantly throws in fantastic plot ideas…that go nowhere. Things I’d love to see more about. And he leaves them there, which is fine…except he never references them again. Which, again, is fine – if used judiciously. I frequently feel that coherence is missing in his stories, which is perhaps why I like this episode so much.

    And to continue with his fantastic plot ideas, one of them here is the Doctor’s speech, which hints at grand and terrible things, some of which we know, others which we suspect. The beauty of this complete ep is that these are hints within the overarching story, possibly a lead into a larger arc, but they are merely hints – it’s not necessary for him to write any more. It’s a tough thing to do, and I wish he would practice at it some more.

  • I thought this episode was the silliest, lamest episode of DW in a long, long time. Clunky, confusing and often downright lazy.

    Does the Doctor still have memories? Why wasn’t the Tardis translating the alien languages? What happens to all the planets that were orbiting that god-thing? Did they use the light that came off of it at all?

    The singing was STUPID and extremely cloying. Look, there are only twelve or so episodes of this, the premier British TV show every year. Is it really too much to ask that the scripts be good? Is there no quality control?

    Moffat is really losing it. He is all ideas and no execution.

  • Keith

    Said it in the first episode thread, but meant it for this episode. Did anyone notice the TARDIS control panel start to swing out of place about five minutes into the episode? They are shooting down from above and it looks like Matt Smith begins to pull on the console and it swings out, but they hide most of this with a wipe from right to left. I don’t think it was supposed to happen, but they figured they covered it up enough with the wipe not to have to reshoot the scene.

    I thought the episode was ok. Didn’t really move me one way or another. It did have something of a Farscape vibe. The TARDIS not letting Clara in was interesting. Maybe I’ll go back and watch it and see if I feel differently after Maryann’s positive review.

  • Judy

    My problem is I’m getting a bit bored with Moffat writing the same story over and over again, and using mystical magic to solve problems (tears, memories — bleh), instead of figuring out a solution that actually involves a character doing something heroic. The scene with the jack-o-lantern parasite was like “The Satan Pit”, except that, unlike Clara and Eleven essentially “wishing” it away, Rose actually took action to rescue everyone. I recently saw a couple of old Nine and Ten episodes. I had forgotten the level and quality of acting CE and DT brought to the role, and, for all their faults, I miss the great, romantic sweep of RTD’s stories that made you feel like these things really mattered. I liked Matt Smith when he first began, but his range as an actor is just too narrow to do justice to the character. I was not moved by his big monologue to the parasite in this one. I miss Rory. In Moffat’s version of the Doctor, Rory has been the only character who consistently developed and who rose to the level of hero.

  • ermawong

    Another fun bit: in an episode with Indiana Jones references, Clara’s mother’s maiden name was Ravenwood.

  • Der Bruno Stroszek

    I can generally find something to enjoy in all of Who’s great pariah episodes, but I just couldn’t get anything out of this one. It’s nice that they slow things down and focus on character a bit more, but I’m not convinced they’ve got any idea of where they’re going with the character stuff yet.

    Who is Clara, for example? I don’t mean “What’s the solution to the mystery about her?”, but what sort of person is she? Is she the sort of person who calls the Doctor for help when an alien starts growling at her, or is she the sort of person who gives a pep talk to an alien little girl caught up in a frightening situation that neither she nor Clara can understand yet? Why is she so annoyed that the TARDIS, which the Doctor told her last episode is too powerful to risk falling into the wrong hands, is locked while they’re both away?

    I can see why the Doctor thinks her leaf is so important – it could be the clue to solving why she keeps appearing throughout time – but why does she call it the most important leaf in the universe, as if she knows she’s of massive cosmic significance? This feels like something that was discussed in the writer’s room that made it into the script without anyone wondering if it sounded right coming out of one of the characters’ mouths.

    What, exactly, is the threat in this episode? We’re led to believe that the star creature kills people, or at least wipes their brains, when it takes their memories, but the Doctor seems utterly unaffected. Does it ask for children as sacrifice because anything else will give it a fatal case of indigestion? If so, what a pathetic villain. Is it really a sun, and if so, how are any of its planets going to survive it going supernova?

    There’s an awful first-draft feeling about this; the ‘funny’ conversation consists of characters stammering and giggling at each other, and the ‘tense’ bits consist of characters making long speeches at each other, and there’s a huge hole where actual content is supposed to go.

  • Jo

    I had the same questions during the episode – well, I didn’t think about the lighting, but you’re absolutely correct. I also wondered how they can breathe while on a moped travelling between… planets? asteroids?
    Despite that, I really enjoyed this episode. I don’t know what you had against the singing, but I thought it was good, and the way they use objects with psychometric imprints as currency was really clever, and actually set up what happens later pretty nicely. It certainly wasn’t my favourite Doctor Who episode ever, but it was good.

  • Isobel_A

    I feel pretty much exactly the same. I was unexpectedly happy with Matt Smith at first, but now I’m finding him tiresome and one-note. I hadn’t thought to contrast this episode with ‘The Satan Pit’, but it’s a great comparison. That had a real feeling of menace and peril, it was genuinely frightening at points. It had a much more epic, filmic feel and the performances were 100 times better. Rose had something better to do than simply be girly and nice to children.

    ‘The Rings of Akhaten’ was just – blah. La la la skippy, no depth of emotion. No genuine feeling that the Doctor won’t just save the day by magic (instead of something more satisfying) and it didn’t make any sense, like other people have said. If the sun is actually an alien entity, and the Doctor defeats it, what happens to the worlds surrounding it?

    The only interesting thing in the entire episode was the potential of the TARDIS not liking Clara. I wonder if it’s going to be picked up in Neil Gaiman’s next episode, whether that’s going to be about the TARDIS again?

    ETA: I think someone in the previous thread mentioned something along the lines of Doctor Who now being a fairy tale, not a sci-fi show. I think my problem with it, recently, is that it’s the ‘wrong’ type of fairy tale. Doctor Who has always had to cater to both littlies and adults, but it’s managed to do so whilst retaining a real sense of threat (and subsequently, triumph over those threats) among the silliness and fun. This new ‘fairy tale’ Doctor Who, though, seems to be more Disney than Grimm, and I’m not enjoying it.

  • RogerBW

    I think that one of my problems with new Who, one that betrays its editors’ roots in fandom of the old series, is the way that it persists in regarding the Doctor as the Most Important Person Ever in the Entire Universe (not always in a plot sense, but in the awe given to him by passing characters). It’s a very Mary Sue-ish attitude. I’d hoped this would end with Moffat’s departure, but that doesn’t seem to have happened.

  • Yeah, I have a thing about people singing in movies/TV shows… It often doesn’t work for me, for some reason. And in this instance the singing bits were so unbearable that I skipped through the episode and missed pieces of dialogue just to avoid the singing.

  • Bob

    The first ”singing bit”, with the lines sung between the Queen of Years, and the Old God’s other custodian was quite eerily effective-the next, climactic ”singing bit”. where the other attendees at the ritual start joining in, reminded me horribly of a Coke advert from the 70s, which involved a massed choir of wholesome looking young people on a hill side bursting into a chorus of ”I’d Like To Teach the World To Sing”. This was not good.
    Overall, though, another enjoyable, fun episode.

  • From my point of view, the significance of the leaf to Clara was explained when her father explained to her mother that everything had to line up correctly for that leaf to fall in his face at that exact moment that her mother was there to save him. She became his world, his life, his reason for existing, etc… It *is* page one of their story (noting that trees become pages in a book in which you leaf through over time) and it’s also really the beginning of Clara’s story because she wouldn’t exist had they not met (at least in this time period).

  • Tangeu

    I had many of the problems and questions in this episode that you did, but I think beyond that I am just getting tired of everything being ‘soniced’. Struggling with the door is one of the worst things I’ve ever seen and then it was followed by a full on force blast battle, I’m actually surprised that he didn’t defeat the big bad with sonic since it kept being alluded to as his important sentimental item.

  • You mean RTD’s departure?

    I thought that’s the direction they were going with the whole “the Doctor erases himself from everyone’s memories” angle, so he can lose the whole Oncoming Storm mythos and go all hermity and incognito. But no, it just means that now he has to tell his entire life story to everyone he meets so they’ll realize how special he is!

    Or, as I summarized this episode: the Doctor makes a memory-eating god sit through his entire Classic series DVD collection, then it divides by zero and explodes.

    (Did the Doctor’s “sacrifice” even contribute to the monster’s defeat at all?)

  • RogerBW

    Yes, sorry, Davies’ departure. I see it as part and parcel with Davies’ season climaxes: the entire universe is going to be destroyed! Again! And all the other universes too!

  • teenygozer

    My husband was all bouncy and “the season is off to a GREAT start!” about this episode, I thought it was a long but liked many aspects of it… and strongly disliked other aspects. As you do with your movie reviews, I have to say: I’m “biast” (con): I really hate warm-and-fuzzy little-kid-character-oriented stories, I find them treacly and often hope the script offs the adorbs kid in the course of the story (because I am a bad, bad person who loves shades of gray characters.)

    1: Clara was whole-heartedly willing to give up the leaf and the ring, both of which had enormous value to her, no bitching & moaning about it, no second thoughts, just clear eyes and a forthright manner. This makes her character larger than life to my eyes. Did you ever read Kipling’s incredibly sexist poem, “If”? It ends with “…you’ll be a man, my son.” The sentiment of that poem would apply to Clara in this instance. Also pleased Clara went back for the Doctor.

    2: We both got the “Farscape” feel right off and happily commented about it at the same time. I said, “I love that the aliens aren’t of the ‘let’s put a small facial appliance on his face to make an alien’ variety, like they did on Star Trek Next Gen,” whereupon Merry shows up… with a few small facial appliances on her face. *sigh* I do wish Merry had not been a tiny, cute, adorable blonde-girl alien. The adorbs, it burns! If she’d been a non-adorbable alien who won me (and Clara) over with character instead of human tiny-girl physical adorableness, I would have been happier. If it had turned out that Merry was the main baddie, I’d have been ecstatic!

    3: Wished it was an epic poem with great meaning and not a song I could barely make the words out to, but that would have meant someone would have had to write a really good poem, and that’s hard to do. Easier to transmit cosmic grandeur to the audience with soaring notes!

    4: I had trouble understanding exactly what and who the baddie was. Was he a star? An evil gas giant with a bad attitude? At one point, the baddie reminded me of the villains in your typical holiday special for kids: the kind that are defeated by the power of looooove or friends banding together and doin’ teamwork and suchlike. I was pleased they didn’t do the trope where they make a friend of the baddie with a gift; we didn’t get the “Nobody ever bought me a gift before; will you be my friend?” thing happening.

    I’m gonna watch it again; I admit that I kept getting distracted (phone calls and people walking in). If you like it, it bears a second watching.

  • My thoughts exactly. Of course, to Clara, the leaf IS the most important thing in the universe.

  • teenygozer

    I hate to be a buttinsky or tell you your business, but:


    …some people in the know seem to think “getting published” is the past and self-publishing is the future. That is a link to a very long and terrifically interesting conversation.

    At any rate, one way or another, I look forward to one day buying your books!

  • Dat Guy

    No-one get the Omega reference? No-one has mentioned it! Good episode but very corny in many ways.

  • 123

    I quite liked this episode – I really enjoyed until about 2/3’s in (minus all the creepy Doctor lurking round Clara’s parents) – there seemed ot be little consequence for the gold whipsy light coming out of the Doctor? unless that’s gonna come back to haunt him…

  • Paul

    I agree completely. Interestingly, it seems it’s this Lonely God aspect of the Doctor that MaryAnn likes.

  • J.T. Dawgzone

    The singing was just about the only thing that I enjoyed in this episode, but still, I wondered how all those beings with alien mouths (or no mouths??) could produce human sounds.

  • J.T. Dawgzone

    Why is she so annoyed that the TARDIS, which the Doctor told her last episode is too powerful to risk falling into the wrong hands, is locked while they’re both away?

    I had many of the same questions and annoyances you did, but this one’s easy. She thought that the little girl was in danger and was in desperate need of a place to hide. I thought her irritation was well founded.

  • DeFlipSide

    Am I the only one who noticed that Moffat lifted Merry’s entire story from Le Guin’s Tombs of Atuan? Arha the Eaten One, reborn, taken as a child to serve in the temple of the Old Powers and spend her life appeasing them with song and dance. Does that make Clara Ged?

  • Paul

    Am I the only one who noticed that a large proportion of the people who complain about this episode (which, I should note, I didn’t care for myself) don’t seem aware that it wasn’t written by Moffat?

    Incidentally, though I didn’t like the episode very much, I’m very glad that MaryAnn did. Doctor Who is all about providing variety, pleasing different people in different ways, I believe.

  • RogerBW

    Does anyone know how much influence the exec producer, editor, or whatever the role is called currently has on other people’s scripts? Historically it’s varied a lot even within Doctor Who; quite a few of the early scripts got completely rewritten (without credit).

  • I was reminded of Omega at first glance, but then the creature was clearly something completely different.

  • It’s not the Lonely God aspect per se, just the sense that he is a man with a long and deep and strange history. That often fails to come across with Smith’s Doctor.

    I’d love to see stories in which that history manifests itself, for example, in ways that show that he *isn’t* lonely — he must have friends scattered across all of time and space he can pop in to visit once and a while.

  • Der Bruno Stroszek

    Oh yeah, I understand why she was angry, but why was she surprised? It’s a pretty stupid thing to expect – does she also act startled when her friends lock their car doors?

    After Cold War I’m starting to see a little more nuance to Clara’s character, but I’m still not sure about Jenna-Louise Coleman’s performance; she feels much less assured than Billie Piper, Freema Agyeman, Catherine Tate and Karen Gillan felt at a similar juncture in their tenure. I’m not sure whether this is in the writing or the acting. It could be both.

  • Judy

    He’s the boss. I hold him responsible for all of the stories, regardless of whether he actually wrote them or just reviewed and approved them. He has said he maps out the entire series in advance, so just as I held RTD responsible for all of the work done on his watch, Moffat is in charge of all now.

  • Dat Guy

    I meant the quote; “I walked in universes where the laws of physics were devised by the mind of a madman” :) The plotline of the Three Doctors

  • Paul

    Now you see that’s the strange thing: I find that “a man with a long and deep and strange history” is something that is constantly conjured up by Smith’s performance, while I didn’t feel it in Tennant’s (which is not to say that I didn’t like Tennant’s performance: I thought he was marvellous, with the exception of the excesses of the last year). Smith convinces me that he’s an old man in a young man’s body through his performance, whereas both Eccleston and Tennant had to actually tell us.

  • Paul

    I don’t hold with the auteur theory of cinema, much less television.

    I blame RTD for The End of TIme, but I don’t see why he should carry the whole can for, say, The Lazarus Experiment. If Rooney fails to score, fouls someone and gets sent off, I don’t blame Ferguson.

  • RogerBW

    I think the degree of editorial oversight must vary quite a lot even within the same editor’s work.

  • Paul

    Yes. And I think this episode probably has more Moffat involvement than the same writer’s upcoming Hide. I’m just saying that the reduction of the whole creative endeavour of a team to a single person’s vision seems to me to be counterproductive.

  • RogerBW

    A good and reflective piece here from Andrew Rilstone:

  • Doctor80

    My problems with many of the second half episodes, is that they don’t seem to make sense within their own story. There is this grand story arc that overshadows the smaller stories, which I find annoying. There doesn’t seem to be given the same care to the first three episodes as later on. I still haven’t been able to revisit BoSJ, RoA and CW without finding myself not paying attention. And it really shouldn’t be like that with DW.

  • Doctor80

    An avid reader of your blog but first time poster:-) it was a great discovery finding it. Keep it up.

  • Dr. Acula

    Interesting you didn’t mention the part in the beginning where the Doctor casually mentions bringing his granddaughter to Akhaten, I would have thought that’d be something you’d mention, or did you not notice it? I loved that little mention of Susan. I good way to keep the Doctor in touch with his past, without getting too wrapped up in it(which he does enough of as it is).

  • Er, I did mention it.

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