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Doctor Who: The Rings Of Akhaten (Review)

The Rings of Akhaten is a visual feast. Both the Mill and Millennium FX deserve a tremendous amount for realising the eponymous environment, which stands out as the perhaps the most impressively alien landscape to appear on Doctor Who since the show began broadcasting in high definition. It’s a solid demonstration that Doctor Who has come a long way since the eighties, and that the show is well able to keep pace with its American competitors. However, it also makes the news that the Mill has been forced to shut down all the more depressing – especially since that shut-down was partially due to the reduced number of Doctor Who episodes being produced each year.

In fact, a lot of the bigger problems with The Rings of Akhaten can be traced back to the decision to structure this seventh season of the revived show, split over two different years instead of across a single year. Most obviously, there’s the fact that we are half-way through this season of Doctor Who, and The Rings of Akhaten feels like the second or third episode of a given season. So much time is taken up with matters and concerns associated with the first half of a given season that The Rings of Akhaten ultimately feels quite light and almost insubstantial.

Burn with me...

Burn with me…

The Bells of St. John felt more like the opening episode of a season than a mid-year premiere. It introduced a new companion in a contemporary London setting with a smart science-fiction premise that didn’t require too much foreshadowing or development. However, this wasn’t the first episode in a thirteen-episode run, it was the seventh episode of the year, so it felt a little bit too trite. The Rings of Akhaten feels like the second or third episode of a season, more like The End of the World or The Beast Below, and not just because of its science-fiction setting.

After a roller-coaster first adventure, The Rings of Akhaten serves mainly to demonstrate how the Doctor and Clara are going to interact with one another. It gives us a bit of insight into our new companion, while demonstrating exactly what the TARDIS (and the show) are capable of. So much time is spent celebrating the simple logistics of a Doctor Who plot that there isn’t too much room for development or subversion, or other clever structural stuff.

I wonder if they have a cantina around here...

I wonder if they have a cantina around here…

The Rings of Akhaten is remarkably straight-forward. The Doctor goes somewhere. Stuff happens. The Doctor reacts to that. More stuff happens, the Doctor goes somewhere else, but the number of sets never gets overwhelming. Murray Gold’s score soars. The Doctor offers some clever meta-physical technobabble that connects the monster to the theme of the episode, and all the dots are efficiently connected in the most logical manner possible. There’s no major twist, there’s not too much development.

There is lots of running, lots of shouting and enough wit to try to cover up the fact that this is a fairly standard-issue plot, because you need a standard-issue plot to introduce your new lead character. And, to be fair, there’s nothing wrong with that. I am quite fond of these early straight-forward run-around adventures, especially those with with a nice science-fiction aesthetic to them. However, there’s a big difference between putting an episode like that at the start of the year, and positioning it at the half-way point. One is relatively satisfying, while the other is frustrating.

Take it or leaf it...

Take it or leaf it…

We’re already closer to the end of the seventh season than the beginning, so we really should have something to show for it. A simple run-around feels a bit “light”, even for a show that normally thrives on “light” and “insubstantial.” I suspect that Neil Cross is part of the reason. I love Neil Cross’ work, generally speaking. His work on Luther alone marks him as a screenwriting talent to watch. And I’m fairly sure that it makes sense that his first Doctor Who experience should be a relatively straightforward script like this. However, it feels as if the script could have used a bit of a polish and a bit of  shine to tighten it up a bit, to anchor down the big ideas.

There is a lot to like here. The Rings of Akhaten is, after all, about religion – which is a big meaty subject that writers just love to sink their teeth into. The problem is that The Rings of Akhaten feels a little… blunt in the way that it handles the issue. We’re dealing with a bunch of people living on rocks worshipping a god. That god-like being lives in the sun, recalling myths about the Egyptian deity Ra. Despite borrowing some Egyptian symbolism – the pyramid, for example – this society is monotheist.

He is awake...

He is awake…

The climate of these worlds seems to recall the desert. Seven worlds orbit that sun, a number which has spiritual significance in Judaism. The god is referred to as “grandfather”, which conjures up images of an old white-haired man with a beard – as does the use of the adjective “old.” When the Doctor confronts the creature at the end of the episode, he aggressively challenges it. “You like to think you’re a god,” he warns it. “You’re not a god. You’re just a parasite, full of jealousy and envy and longing for the lives of others.'” Apparently, the creature sustains itself on their love and their devotion, their loyalty and their sacrifice. “You feed on them,” the Doctor accuses.

This feels almost painfully blunt. Reading the Old Testament, some theologians have made the argument that Yahweh comes across as an abusive parental figure, demanding exclusive love from his followers. Here, the god-like being demands songs and souls (“they’re the same thing!”) from his followers, and it feels like a rather blunt criticism of a particular kind of worship. It’s an idea that could have used a bit more development or a bit more nuance – like, for example, the portrayal of religion and worship in The God Complex.

Ride on...

Ride on…

That said, there are some interesting elements here. I like the idea that Cross is able to divorce the notion of faith and belief from a potentially abusive belief system. When they first arrive, the Doctor explains that the inhabitants of the system believe that all life originated here. “Did it?” Clara asks. The Doctor pragmatically, and politely, responds, “That’s what they believe. It’s a nice story.” After all, there is value in believing in things that we know to be impossible.

Clara’s own way of dealing with fear is to remember what her mother told her. “I will always be here,” Clara’s mother assured her, as a young child. “And I will always come and find you.” We see, of course, that this isn’t literally the case. Clara’s mother passed away relatively young, a life half-lived. However, even if her mother can’t always literally be there to protect Clara, believing that she might be gives Clara strength.

The god squad...

The god squad…

It’s a nice touch, even if the episode suffers a bit from turning the final confrontation between Clara and the god-like being into anger and resentment channelled towards an omnipotent being motivated by personal loss. While it isn’t the point of the scene, it could almost be read as Clara venting her anger towards a higher power for the fact that her mother was taken from her. It’s not what that scene claims to be about, but the way the episode is structured undermines the climax by suggesting that the creature isn’t overwhelmed by the sheer potential of mankind as it is by the resentment generated when that potential is cut short.

As a side note, I also like that Cross is perfectly able to allow the Doctor to express his own faith in scientific and rational terms. A miracle need not be religious, and faith is not incompatible with reason. The Doctor explains the big bang to Merry in terms that are almost mystical, tying in some notions of predestination and fate. Naturally, the Doctor’s own religion is primarily driven by concern for the individual. “You are unique in the universe. There is only one Merry Gallel, and there will never be another.”

Pyramids of Akhaten...

Pyramids of Akhaten…

There are a number of nice high-concepts here. I love, for example, the theory of “psychonomy”, the notion that things are assigned a personal worth and traded according to that. It’s not an idea that stands up to too much scrutiny (what economic system relies exclusively on the worth of the payment to the buyer?), but it’s a clever high-concept that illustrates how alien some systems might be. It’s these little touches that add a lot to Doctor Who.

The episode also does a decent job tying all this to the show’s fiftieth anniversary. “I came here a long time ago, with my grand daughter,” the Doctor recalls, a rather explicit acknowledgement of Susan. “The old god” who is worshipped here is also known as “grandfather”, something which seems less than subtle after the Doctor has been talking about his second-generation descendants. Perhaps it’s an allusion to the Doctor’s status as “the Lonely God”, something we haven’t heard in a while?

Spaced out...

Spaced out…

All this talk about stories being passed from generation, to the point where the story ends up belonging to a young child, can’t help but feel like a piece of meta-commentary on Doctor Who. It’s fifty years old, and – at its best – it always belonged to a younger generation of children. Fans might grow up with the show, and they might hang on to it, but Doctor Who survived for so long because it was a story that was capable of evolving and being passed on, from one generation to the next.

Matt Smith is fantastic, as ever. I get the sense that this year might be playing up the character’s age. Smith has a wonderful gift for portraying an old man trapped inside a young man’s body, and there are some wonderful shots of the character sitting in the crowd (with his “brainy specs” on) where you get a sense of how timelessly old that man must be. After all, with the series entering its fiftieth year on the air, there’s a need to emphasise just how hold the Doctor must be. The wardrobe changes hint at it, with the addition of the waistcoat, for example, but Smith’s performance really hammers it home.

Time is flying...

Time is flying…

The writing also contributes to this sense of age, as the Doctor shifts from Amy Pond’s imaginary friend to Clara Oswald’s guardian angel. While the Doctor was defined by his sudden appearance and extended absence from Amy’s story, relegated to the status of make-believe “raggedy Doctor”, here he is defined by his constant presence. He has known Clara her whole life, even before she knew him. She remembers him at her mother’s funeral. Asked what he was doing there, he replies, “Making sure.”

Smith’s Doctor has matured and aged here. While the Doctor still has the same high energy as he always had, he seems a bit more weary, a bit worn down. The temporary retirements in both The Snowmen and The Bells of St. John seem to suggest that he is getting older, that he can’t quite keep up with life the way that he used to. Far from being the mad man with a box who crashed into Amy’s world and did a fairly thorough job of accidentally ruining her childhood, it seems like the Doctor has instead been a responsible guardian for Clara.

A hands-on approach...

A hands-on approach…

There’s a wealth of good ideas here, and I’m very excited to see where the show goes with the relationship between the Doctor and Clara, but there’s still a sense of lost time here. We’re more than half-way through the season, so it feels a bit funny that it seems like we’re only getting started.

You might be interested in our other reviews of this season’s episodes of Doctor Who:

Note: To celebrate the show’s fiftieth anniversary, I’m doing weekly reviews of the show (past and present.) The last one published was Tom Baker’s Seeds of Doom, so feel free to check it out.

2 Responses

  1. I was thinking the same thing, this episode felt out of place both as a mid season story-line and as Clara’s second episode – I was hoping for something more like this last week

  2. I really don’t see the point in pretending this is the second half of season 7 whatever Moffat or the BBC say. This is a new season and I think it should be judged as such.

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