TARDIS Thoughts: Series 7, Episode 8: "The Rings of Akhaten"


Series 7, Episode 8: "The Rings of Akhaten"


Sorry this is a bit later than I promised the posts would be...but here's my analysis of the latest episode of Series 7, "The Rings of Akhaten."

Basic plot overview of this episode:

The Doctor finally picks up Clara for her first adventure (after doing a little not-so-covert spying on her past first, cause...well, he can) and asks the usual question of what she wants to see. After some hesitation, she says, "Something awesome."

The Doctor is more than happy to oblige this request (there's nothing he likes better than impressing people), and takes her to probably the most awesome place we have seen on the show: the Rings of Akhaten. Which is a big massive system of planets all lit by this really bright star. And it just so happens that they're there just in time for the Festival of Offerings, a big festival that takes place every thousand years "or so" when the Rings align.

They head down to the planet (they initially landed on an asteroid for some reason) to check things out, and land in a big bazaar full of aliens of all sorts, where the currency is not money but things that are precious to you. Meanwhile, Clara gets separated from the Doctor and meets this little girl named Merry, who we learn is the Queen of Years, an important part of the Festival because she must sing some really important song to a god. And in fact, the reason she's in the bazaar is that she's really afraid she'll get the song wrong, so she ran away from her guardians. Clara reassures her, then takes her back to the priests that were looking for her.

The moment Merry is supposed to sing comes, and all seems to be going well...until Merry gets caught in some strange energy ball and pulled toward the strange pyramid floating on a asteroid in front of the arena. The Doctor and Clara trade Clara's mother's ring for a speeder bike (which, ironically for being alien technology, looks kinda dated, like it belongs in the original Star Wars or something, or even the much-lower-budget Classic Who) and go to try to rescue Merry, but aren't able to reach her before she is pulled into the pyramid. A sequence ensues where the Doctor uses the Sonic to get the door open (and some funny bits where Matt has to keep holding the Sonic up to the heavy door to keep it open, even if he has to squat...which cannot have been good for his fragile back) and we meet that creepy mummy thing we saw in the promo photos that was behind glass. Oh and there are also these aliens called The Vigil, who are supposed to feed the Queen of Years to the mummy thing if she refuses to voluntarily sacrifice herself, and who look kinda like the Ood in my opinion. Well either the Ood or some creepy monster from a risqué anime (the ones with nasty-tentacled monsters). And the Vigil are pretty powerful...they knock both The Doctor AND Clara down, as well as knocking the Doctor's Sonic out of the way. When the two come to, the Doctor asks Clara to toss him his Sonic and the fight resumes. Clara talks Merry into singing a song which opens a secret door (one wonders why she didn't sing it earlier), through which she and Merry escape while the Doctor remains to finish off the baddies before following them.

They find their way back to where Clara and the Doctor parked the speeder bike, but the Doctor quickly realizes that something even more serious is going down, and that the mummy thing isn't the real "old god" (or "Grandfather" as the locals call him), but just an alarm clock for the real god. And now the real "old god" is awake, and really hungry, and that is not a good thing. The Doctor decides to remain behind to deal with this hungry deity while Clara returns to the planet on the bike with Merry.

The next scene is really intense. The Doctor has some words with the voiceless god (as Clara, Merry, and a bunch of aliens watch from the arena) before offering his memories to the god as nourishment. (This scene actually reminded me a lot of the Doctor's big speech to the Devil in "The Satan Pit," though it lacked the swagger Tennant gave that speech and was instead a much more desperate speech, which is okay because that is more befitting the scene anyway). I was actually scared for the Doctor in that moment, thinking he would actually lose all his memories. Which would NOT be good.

But thankfully, he is not alone. Merry decides to help him by leading all the aliens in a song. Clara just watches, but remembering her mother's words to her as a child ("And I will always come and find you. Every single time") and the Doctor's words to her from earlier in the episode ("We don't walk away"), finally decides to go rescue The Doctor. She speeds back to him on the speeder bike and offers the leaf from her 101 Places to See book to the god, saying it is full of history. The Doctor (who had been on his knees when Clara arrived) recovers and dares the god to eat the leaf, but it ends up exploding due to the leaf being full of an infinity of days that should have been but never came.

After this, The Doctor takes Clara back home (not sure why though) and tells her she reminds him of someone who died. Clara, however, takes the defensive:

Well, whoever she was, I'm not her, okay? If you want me to travel with you, that's fine. But as me. I'm not a bargain basement stand-in for someone else. I'm not going to compete with a ghost.

This is somewhat like the end of Series 3, when Martha realized she was always going to be second best to Rose in the Doctor's heart and decided to leave:

DOCTOR: Of course not. Thank you. Martha Jones, you saved the world.
MARTHA: Yes, I did. I spent a lot of time with you thinking I was second best, but you know what? I am good. You going to be all right?
DOCTOR: Always. Yeah.
MARTHA: Right then. Bye.
(Martha leaves, then goes back inside.)
MARTHA: Because the thing is, it's like my friend Vicky. She lived with this bloke, student housing, there were five of them all packed in, and this bloke was called Sean. And she loved him. She did. She completely adored him. Spent all day long talking about him.
DOCTOR: Is this going anywhere?
MARTHA: Yes. Because he never looked at her twice. I mean, he liked her, but that was it. And she wasted years pining after him. Years of her life. Because while he was around, she never looked at anyone else. And I told her, I always said to her, time and time again, I said, get out. So this is me, getting out. 
Anyway, The Doctor gives Clara back her ring (the people of Akhaten wanted her to have it back) and she leaves the TARDIS. The Doctor then closes the door, with a serious look on his face.


So, why did I start with a plot overview instead of analyzing the plot as I went along?

Well, mostly because I wanted to get the plot out of the way before I went on to say something I want to say about this episode.

Okay, so a LOT of people, I've noticed, have been going on online, saying that this episode is "bad" and has a "weak plot." Not everyone, mind you; there are people who, like me, liked the episode a lot. But it does seem like a large majority of people did not like it.

I'll admit -- like with "The Bells of Saint John," the villains sort of took the back seat here. Also, for all the worry Merry had about singing the song, the moment where she actually did so was kinda underwhelming.

But I would not say that this episode had a weak plot. It did have a simple plot, but that's not the same thing. Someone pointed out in one discussion I read -- and I agree with this -- that the Classic Who episodes also usually had simple plots. Of course, that may be because they had a much lower budget back then. Also, because the episodes aired as multi-week serials (the different "parts" of the episode airing over several consecutive weeks), they didn't have to cram a ton of stuff into one episode.

The plot did not have the suspense and impact of "The Bells of Saint John," to be sure. It starts out simple enough - typical first Companion adventure with the Doctor introducing the Companion to what life is like traveling with him and trying to impress the Companion along the way. As Doctor Who episodes often go, The Doctor then discovers that something's awry and goes about figuring out what it is and fixing the problem/defeating the enemy. This is a simple plot, typical Doctor Who formula.

But I don't think this means it's weak. You have to remember too -- the guy who wrote this, Neil Cross, had never written for Doctor Who before prior to writing this episode (as well as "Hide," which airs in a couple weeks). He's primarily known as the showrunner/creator of Luther, a psychological crime drama that has, like Sherlock, been released in short seasons of a few episodes each (6 in the first season, 4 in the second, with a third season on the way). So, being new to the writing team, he was probably counseled to stick to a tried-and-true story formula.

Also, Series 7 has, as a series, been produced very differently from other series/seasons of Doctor Who. Instead of using a season-wide story arc like before, Series 7 consists of standalone adventures styled, as Moffat put it, like blockbuster movies. You had a big Dalek episode, an episode in space with dinosaurs, a Western, a kinda Wild Card episode ("The Power of Three"), and a sad, dramatic episode. Then came the traditional Christmas Special, which played out much like a movie as well (one could almost say it has a three-act structure, one of the most well-known story structures; I'd have to sit down and analyze it properly to say for sure).

And then came Series 7 Part 2. Again, we have episodes that look like they are meant to be blockbusters: a Bond/Bourne-influenced techno-thriller ("The Bells of Saint John"), an episode that is a bit Indiana Jones and a bit "old school sci-fi flick" (this episode), another thriller/adventure type of episode that's clearly influenced by The Hunt for Red October (this weekend's episode, "Cold War"), a ghost story ("Hide"), a sci-fi adventure probably influenced (and clearly named for) A Journey to the Center of the Earth ("Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS"), a Gothic-style horror story set in Victorian Yorkshire ("The Crimson Horror"), a creepy story involving a theme park and Cybermen ("Nightmare in Silver"), and an equally creepy (and also potentially Gothic) finale with waxy Silence-esque villains called The Whispermen, and suspense via a plot about someone stealing all The Doctor's friends, the return of River Song, and the revelation of a "big secret" about The Doctor ("Untitled Finale"). Not to mention the 50th Anniversary Special (also as yet unnamed) which the finale supposedly will lead into (per Matt Smith) and which we don't know much about the plot of - other than that it involves Ten, Rose (yep Tennant and Billie Piper are in it...yay!), Eleven, Clara, UNIT, Zygons, and some intense scenes like Eleven hanging from the TARDIS over Trafalgar Square (as shown from recent filming photos).

So I think people need to give these episodes a break. Just saying.

One thing that DID bug me a bit about this episode was this whole thing of The Doctor going to the past and basically spying on Clara (and her parents). I'm not really sure why that whole subplot was even necessary, though it wasn't random to be sure because of how it tied in with the rest of the episode through the leaf and through Clara realizing at the end of the episode that the Doctor was there watching when she and her dad were at her mother's grave 8 years prior. I guess it might come into play later in the big grand scheme of things that is the ongoing "Clara's identity" mystery. Still, it kinda feels wrong to me that he did that. I mean, ok, I get it, he has a time machine, but seriously, Doctor? Even if it was for the sake of unraveling the mystery about Clara, there is such a thing as privacy!

Lastly...there was a nice little nod in this episode to a certain Classic Who character:

DOCTOR: ...Do you know, I forget how much I like it here. We should come here more often.
CLARA: You've been here before?
DOCTOR: Yes, yes, yes. I came here a long time ago with my granddaughter. 
Of course, anyone familiar with Classic Who will recall that the First Doctor traveled with his granddaughter, Susan Foreman (not her actual name, just one she took while she and The Doctor were on Earth; one of the novels reveals her Gallifreyan name to be Arkytior). So, I took this line to be a reference to her. This is the first time I have seen Susan referenced in New Who, so I'm glad Steven Moffat decided to acknowledge her existence, especially with this being an anniversary year. Also, if the Festival of Offerings happens every 1,000 years or so, then most likely the Doctor's last visit there would have been within the First Doctor's lifetime, since the Doctor is currently 1,200 years old (he told Clara he was 1,000 but I think he was rounding, so I'm going off the number he gave in "A Town Called Mercy") and was somewhere in his 200s when he started traveling around in the TARDIS. (Then again, since he can time travel, this might be a moot point).

Okay, so that's my analysis. Next up: "Cold War," an episode clearly influenced by the famous Tom Clancy novel The Hunt for Red October and its equally famous film adaptation starring Alec Baldwin and Sean Connery. I haven't read the book, but I did see the movie at some point. The main difference? Ice Warriors of course! This episode will mark the Ice Warriors' first appearance since The Monster of Peladon in 1974. Forty freaking years ago. (Well, 39 if you want to get technical). And several hundred years ago from The Doctor's perspective. The episode is written by Mark Gatiss, who has wanted to bring the Ice Warriors back for ages but was only able to now because he talked Moffat into it while on the phone with him to talk ideas for Sherlock. Which just goes to show how awesome Gatiss is. (Also, a post I read on Tumblr today quoted Moffat as saying he really likes this episode too, that it's his favorite...so that should tell us something).

Also, the episode guest stars well-known actor David Warner, primarily known for roles like Sark/Dillinger/MCP in the original Tron and Spicer Lovejoy in Titanic, as Professor Grisenko. He is joined by Liam Cunningham, currently known for his role as Davos Seaworth on Game of Thrones, as Captain Zhukov and Tobias Menzies (Brutus in the miniseries Rome) as Lieutenant Stepashin. The episode is directed by Douglas Mackinnon, who directed a few episodes of Moffat's miniseries Jekyll and also directed the Doctor Who episodes "The Sontaran Strategem," "The Poison Sky," and "The Power of Three."

As I did last time, here's some trailers to whet your appetite before the episode airs! First ones are BBC, last is BBC America, as before.

Also, you can get some hints about the episode here. If you want. 

Oh, and in honor of the Susan reference, I'm tagging this with her tag as well as Clara's. :)

Well, till Saturday! Cheers!

Quotes from The Doctor Who Transcripts. "Last of the Time Lords" quote from this transcript.

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