Doctor Who has always been a show filled with wild and crazy ideas. It’s part of its charm, part of its lure. The sheer breadth of possibilities the show offers and its willingness to completely reinvent itself at times are what have kept it going for so long. It doesn’t always work. Sometimes, wonderfully creative ideas don’t meet their full potential. Sometimes, they turn out to not be so wonderful after all. “The Rings of Akhaten” is one of those times that a wonderful idea just doesn’t reach the heights it might have. Written by Neil Cross (a newcomer to Doctor Who, but well-known for the series, Luther), it is stunningly gorgeous, both visually and in its concepts. Unfortunately, it suffers from a number of problems: an ill-defined threat, a lack of character development for anyone other than the series regulars, and an unsatisfying conclusion. It’s a shame because there is so much good here and on each viewing, I couldn’t help but see the potential for a truly amazing episode. Instead, it ends up in that list of Doctor Who episodes that reached for the stars and missed.
Before I go on, I should make certain one thing is absolutely cleared up. I’ve seen a lot of people online under the mistaken belief that the large, deep-red object on the screen is a star. I’ve even seen little cartoons and comic strips making fun of how the Doctor and Clara destroyed a star and thus wiped out the entire system and its seven worlds. But the Doctor did not destroy a star and he did not wipe out the entire solar system as a result.
Akhaten is not a star. It’s a planet. A gas planet, in fact. It’s not the source of heat and light for the solar system. Note that the light reflected off the temple when it’s first revealed is coming from the opposite direction to the planet. We never see the actual star of this system. It’s somewhere off-screen. It is not Akhaten. To be fair, Doctor Who and science fiction in general don’t often show gas planets even though in reality they seem to be about as common as rocky planets. I actually can’t recall off the top of my head another time that Doctor Who has featured a gas planet prominently. As such, people may not be all that familiar with gas planets. Nonetheless, Akhaten is clearly identified as a planet a couple of times in the episode. The asteroids that the marketplace and temple are built on make up the rings around the planet (thus the name of the episode). Admittedly, the loss of a planet in a system would probably play havoc with the gravitational forces in that system, which could cause all sorts of problems, but those are the sort of things you can easily sweep under the rug in fantasy like Doctor Who.
Visually, it’s a wonderfully realized planet, alien in appearance (looking sufficiently different from our solar system’s gas planets—Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune), yet sufficiently realistic to convince that a gas planet could really look like that. The rings around it create a stunning vista and it’s understandable why the Doctor chooses to bring Clara here after she asks to see “something awesome”.
The planet and the society of the seven worlds are indeed the highlight of “The Rings of Akhaten”, and I don’t just mean the visual awe of so many different alien species. Cross has done a lot of world-building in this episode, and as a result, viewers are treated to a society that is truly different—truly alien—to what we’re used to in the real world. I love the use of memory and stories as a form of currency. Yes, it’s science fictiony gobbledygook, but it’s the kind of thing that Doctor Who thrives on, and it lays the foundation perfectly for the planet feeding on memories. This whole idea of memory is also the basis of this society’s religion, and in just a few broad strokes (memory, stories, and music), the episode manages to convey and bring alive the religion extremely effectively.
The music, too, comes across incredibly convincingly (well, as long as you ignore the fact that there’s sometimes an invisible orchestra backing the singers up—perhaps it’s recorded and played out at the right moments). The singers sing like real people, flaws and all. There is no auto-tuning here. Merry sings like a young, untrained girl and the chorister in the temple sounds like a real chorister and not a Broadway singer or pop star. The songs themselves are repetitive, but that fits with the idea that they are religious songs designed to tell stories. At least one of those songs (the one the choristers in the temple sing) is meant to go on forever. Of course, the melody and words get repetitive!
All the aspects of the world-building combine beautifully to create a great opening (I’m not counting the pre-title sequence here—I’ll get to that in a bit) and set-up to the story. Up until the moment Merry is caught and brought into the temple, “The Rings of Akhaten” maintains the potential to be one of the best Doctor Who stories in a long time. Unfortunately, as soon as the action moves to the temple, the story loses most of the strengths that were making it so good.
There are a large number of things that are not developed and simply left unresolved. For example, there’s never really any satisfactory explanation for the mummy, other than it’s the planet’s “alarm clock”. Then there’s the Vigil. They show up for a short while and then leave, supposedly no longer needed. We never learn who or what they are (other than their job to feed the Queen of Years to Grandfather) and their presence in the episode seems superfluous. If the planet was waking up anyway and doesn’t need them while it’s awake, what is their point before that? They seem to be there to provide a few “action sequences” for the episode rather than for any in-story reason. And what’s with Merry’s weird psychic ability to hold Clara in place. She uses it in one scene without ever displaying or mentioning the ability beforehand or after. No one else of her species displays this ability either. Why doesn’t she use it against the Vigil?
Worse is that the actual threat of the planet is never clarified. Just what will happen if the planet wakes up? Merry says it will devour the system and then move on to worlds farther away, but she’s speaking from the beliefs of her religion, which the episode has already demonstrated as false. The planet feeds on memories, but when the Doctor attempts to overfeed it with his thousand-plus years of memories, it has no discernible effect on the Doctor other than to leave him a little winded. The Doctor gets back up apparently no worse for wear and still in possession of all the memories the planet fed on. If the planet feeds on people’s memories and leaves the people alive and healthy afterwards, what exactly is the threat?
Unfortunately, this is a recurring problem in Doctor Who over the last couple of years. The current production team seems very reluctant—one might almost say afraid—to have anyone die on the show. When people do die, it’s usually off-screen and usually nameless characters. When named characters die, they tend to come back to life (Rory, Clara, all the people erased from existence by the cracks in Series 5, and so on). In this episode, not only does no one die, no one ever seems under any real threat of death or even injury. Even the Vigil only knock people over with sonic waves that do no actual damage. This episode desperately needed to show us what the planet can do. As cold and heartless as it may sound, somebody in this episode needed to die in order to establish the threat. Perhaps the other chorister. Instead of conveniently teleporting away, perhaps the monster could suck out his memories and leave him a dried-up husk. Or perhaps some of the people in the market. The planet could whip a gaseous tentacle and absorb them. Either or both of these would let the audience see what would happen to the rest of the system if the planet isn’t stopped. Of course, this would require then providing a way for the Doctor to survive his face-off with the planet, but well, that’s all part of putting together a well-crafted story.
Then there’s the resolution, the defeat of the planet, which comes down to yet another “love conquers all” solution. To be fair, the episode does a very good job of setting up the fact that this story’s resolution is going to have something to do with emotion and memories. And at least in this case, the Doctor and Clara are actively trying to defeat the villain. Compare that to the resolution of “The Snowmen” where people cry over Clara’s death and, as a side effect, just happen to defeat the Great Intelligence in the process. The resolution of “Rings” comes out well ahead of that. And to be honest, if the Doctor successfully defeated the planet with his memories, I would have been reasonably satisfied. The episode would still have its other issues, but I would have considered this to have been an incredibly effective use of an emotion-wins-the-day ending. The episode successfully builds to the moment when the Doctor confronts the planet, and Matt Smith positively acts his socks off, giving one of the best performances I’ve seen from him. But then the planet doesn’t die and we get to do it all over again with Clara.
I don’t have a problem with the companion saving the day once in a while. I think it’s a good thing and it should happen. But here, it doesn’t really add to the story. It doesn’t take things to a new level. It just shows another confrontation that happens to work because of the leaf is the “most important thing in human history”—all because it brought Clara’s parents together and resulted in the creation of Clara herself. An episode that is already brimming with sentimentality now tips the scales and pours out even more, and it’s just too much. This is also yet another placement of family, motherhood in particular, on a pedestal as being the ideal life. A thousand years of memories can’t defeat the planet, but the unlived years of a mother can. We’ve seen this trope repeatedly in Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who, and even though he’s not the writer of this particular episode, his influence is clear. Instead of intensifying the drama, the repetition, both of the trope and the episodes doubled climax, instead nullifies that drama. As a viewer, I am left with a feeling of immense dissatisfaction.
There are a lot of other aspects to this episode, some that I like and some that I don’t. I like that we see some development of Clara as a character. Her reactions to travelling and her initial interaction with Merry gives a good indication of her as a person. The pre-title sequence gives a decent glimpse into her background and history. Admittedly, it’s a cheesy sequence and we don’t learn a whole lot about her parents. We don’t even learn her father’s name and we only learn her mother’s through writing in a book and on a tombstone. I also wasn’t very convinced by the actors playing Clara’s parents, but at least it’s some development. I would like to see more actual interaction between Clara and her friends and family beyond the small amount we got in “The Bells of Saint John” rather than just flashbacks of her childhood. That said, in just two episodes, Clara has had just about as much character development as Amy got in two and a half seasons, so the show has taken a definite step up in this regard.
The Doctor spying on Clara throughout her childhood is somewhat predictable (Moffat really likes the idea of the Doctor meeting his companions as children) and makes a degree of sense given that he’s trying to investigate the mystery around her existence. Still, it was good to see Clara tell him off when she realizes he has been doing this. The eleventh Doctor never gets taken to task for his interference in his companions’ lives, so it’s nice to see just a little of it here.
There’s also some nice character moments for the Doctor. As well as the afore-mentioned confrontation with the planet, there’s also the fact that, despite thousands of years of memories, the Doctor really has nothing to show for it all, no item other than the sonic screwdriver (and presumably the TARDIS, if one can think of the TARDIS as an item) that has significant meaning to him, and thus no way to pay for items in the marketplace. In the end, the Doctor always loses the people and things he holds closest to him.
Alas, while there’s some decent character development for Clara and the Doctor, there is nothing for any of the guest characters. The episode does such a great job developing the setting that it’s rather surprising it doesn’t make the same effort on the characters. Emilia Jones does a great job with what little she’s given in the role of Merry, but we never really learn anything about the character other than she’s a bit scared of performing her song, which is something you can expect from just about any young child. There’s nothing that sets her apart from all the other child characters to have appeared on the programme in recent years.
There are only two other named characters in the entire episode: the other chorister (whose name goes by so quickly, I can’t quite catch it, I’m afraid) and Doreen, the moped rental alien. The chorister teleports away before the Doctor and others can have any real interaction with him, and Doreen is primarily there as comic relief—comic relief that is, unfortunately, rather jarring and annoying. I don’t have a problem with an alien species that barks for communication, but in order to successfully convey such a communication method, it needs to be presented as more than just comedy. Here, it is only comedy, as Doreen has no personality whatsoever.
The barking also opens up the question of why the TARDIS doesn’t translate that for Clara. There doesn’t seem to be a reason for it, but to be fair, the show isn’t always consistent about the TARDIS’s translation abilities (particularly whether it translates writing or not).
There is also the bizarre moment when Clara decides the TARDIS doesn’t like her. The obvious explanation for Clara not being able to get into the TARDIS is simply that she doesn’t have the key, and it’s well established on the show that you need to have a key to get into the TARDIS (except those couple of occasions when the Doctor snaps his fingers to open the doors). It seems a bit odd that Clara doesn’t even consider that she might need a key (after all, there’s a fairly obvious key hole). However, despite this obvious explanation, the framing of the scene, particularly the ominous background music and change of lighting during the close-up of the TARDIS, implies that this moment has nothing to do with not having the key and that the TARDIS really doesn’t like her and doesn’t want her to get in. No doubt it has something to do with Clara being “impossible”, splintered across time in some way—similar to how the TARDIS doesn’t like Jack Harkness either. Yet trying to make an ominous scene out of something that is completely normal is a really terrible way of demonstrating this dislike. It’s as if the production team simply forgot that people normally need a key to get into the TARDIS.
Overall, “The Rings of Akhaten” is a frustrating episode because I so desperately want to like it, even love it. There’s so much in this story that is just brilliant and mesmerizing, but despite this, its faults let it down. To be fair, I enjoyed the story somewhat more on second viewing, but I still couldn’t ignore those faults and felt immensely let down by the ending. If only a couple of those faults were removed—a clearer threat from the planet or more personality for the characters—I think I could have considered it a very good episode. Unfortunately, I must consider it a masterpiece that could have been.