Doctor Who: 707 “The Rings of Akhaten” Review
Reviewed by Adam James Cuthbert
“I walked away from the Last Great Time War. I marked the passing of the Time Lords. I saw the birth of the universe and I watched as time ran out, moment by moment, until nothing remained. No time. No space. Just me! I’ve walked in universes where the laws of physics were devised by the mind of a madman. I’ve watched universes freeze and creations burn. I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe. I’ve lost things you will never understand. And I know things. Secrets that must never be told. Knowledge that must never be spoken. Knowledge that will make parasite gods blaze!”– The Doctor
The Rings of Akhaten is a magnificent story. Grandiose and operatic in the scope and magnitude of its scintillating ambition and drive, but equally intimate and down-to-earth in its exploration of its central characters’ thoughts, feelings, and histories, The Rings of Akhaten is a triumph for neophyte Who writer Neil Cross (of Luther fame). Like the high-concept The Impossible Planet before it (which saw the Doctor clash with the Devil himself) so too does The Rings of Akhaten depict the Doctor’s confrontation with an adversary on a Godlike scale; a “parasite god” with delusions of grandeur that has held the Seven Worlds in its oppressive thrall for millions of years. Such an adversary – a celestial behemoth resembling a burning orange-red planet – serves as testament to the story’s grand sense of scale.
What I admire most about the story is how Cross imbues his world with a powerful sense of culture. We experience the literature (the ‘creation/origin tale’), arts, traditions, communality of the marketplace (Clara even samples the ‘local cuisine’), and currency of this vibrant, majestic world. The marketplace, for example, is a bustling ‘hive’ of activity; an impressive feat of production, populated with a diversity of alien species. (It’s a nice touch for the Doctor to have alien interrelationships as well, branching out the Doctor’s world.) It’s a shame that most of the expressive designs flit by so quickly, there isn’t time to fully appreciate them individually. However, it does help to situate the viewer with the focaliser, Clara’s point-of-view. We experience this world through glimpses, or fragments, as Clara herself does. (It’s not unreasonable to suggest this is an allegory for our own lives. Life, after all, is disclosed in fragments, or partialities, and we never experience the complete picture at once. There’s always another layer of meaning to be uncovered; as Clara herself learns within the story.)
The songs themselves make for a striking contrast, whilst enhancing the story’s lyrical atmosphere, ingraining us within this distinct sense of culture. The first – a haunting melody in reverence of the Old God, associated with rest and slumber – signifies the people’s dedication to tradition (“generation after generation” instructing one another in the lyrics, so as to continue ‘The Long Song’), but also their trepidation and oppression; while the second – a heart-warming, triumphant leitmotif – is associated with awakening and rebirth. This illuminates the narrative’s climatic reversal of circumstances: the people emerging from the shadows of their past, into the light of a new age.
Emilia Jones (daughter of singer Aled Jones) delivers a superlative performance for her young age. Not only is her singing radiant and beautiful, but she develops a poignant chemistry with Jenna-Louise Coleman, as Merry Gejelh, “the Queen of Years”, and Clara bond. I’m overjoyed that Cross has Clara address Merry on her own level, respecting the child’s intelligence.
Indeed, one of the story’s strengths lies in its elements of realism, as Clara – her personality, identity, and history – is sufficiently fleshed out, so as to emotionally invest us within the character, and convince us of her independent worth. In the scene where Clara and Merry converse around the back of the TARDIS, Clara acquires Merry’s trust and boosts her confidence by relating her own experience of being afraid: “Blackpool beach, bank holiday Monday. About ten billion people”. I love the nuance of Cross addressing this is how the world would be interpreted through a child’s eyes: incidents are amplified, grossly out of proportion, by a child’s sense of consternation and uncertainty about their place in the world, as they are still learning and discovering for themselves. Coleman flourishes at portraying this side to Clara. I would arguably prefer Clara’s arc to revolve around this portrayal: the story of a young woman who derives inner strength from the memory of her beloved mother; whose untimely death left her crestfallen, yet reaffirmed her confidence in the challenges of life. It’s simple yet transcendental.
Although there are echoes of Amy Pond within Clara’s character (both have an attachment to their childhood, and are psychologically identified with a salient childhood possession retained into their adulthood; in Clara’s case the book 101 Places to See, which she inherited from her mother), Cross effectively secures Clara (at least within The Rings of Akhaten) as an independent, well-rounded character within her own right. Not only does she nobly exchange her mother’s ring for the moped, recognising Merry’s life is paramount (as the Doctor later champions the sacredness of individual life), but she dauntlessly faces the gluttonous Old God, offering it “the most important leaf in human history”. The ordinary person is fascinating, Cross stresses. Their personal chronicle rivals the significance of elaborate mythologies, or mysteries, because the former, crucially, is what we, the audience, identify with. In this case, Clara’s triumph is a mirror for our own capacity to achieve our potential.
The Rings of Akhaten is ultimately a story about very human types of experience and self-discovery. Ironically, Cross creates a world that at its core is not too alien from our own. By introducing the principle of psychometry (“objects psychically imprinted with their history”), Cross lays the foundation for the story’s examination of the power of memory. This is evoked through the technique of analepsis/flashback, as Clara reminisces about her mother (“I will always find you”). Furthermore, Cross observes how, every day, we form lasting cognitive connections with the objects that occupy our world; that we instinctually attribute meaning to objects, in the process of shaping our lives. This can be seen in the opening sequence when Dave Oswald has attached a meaning to the leaf that resulted in his meeting, and falling in love, with Ellie Ravenwood.
The Rings of Akhaten is not without its flaws. The Mummy and the Vigil, particularly, were rather peripheral, despite boasting potentially sinister designs. It’s also unfortunate we had two consecutive stories that utilised a type of bike, as well as the plot-twist of the true antagonist lurking behind a proxy. The sonic screwdriver was overused – there’s a moment that borders on silliness. While I appreciate the ambiguity within the Doctor’s speech (does he refer to Omega (The Three Doctors), or the Celestial Toymaker perhaps?), the allusion to Susan, on the other hand, felt like an extraneous inclusion, as Clara’s bewilderment is never followed up.
For fun, I speculate the anomaly of Clara is that she’s destined to be reincarnated throughout human history, with the same soul being reconstituted in a new, physically identical body from the last (explaining how she has parents and a childhood), across discrete epochs (e.g. Victorian Britain, then say a passenger on the Titanic, another in WWII Britain), with no recollection of her past selves. The tragedy of her iterations is that they all die young. Of course, this presupposes the premature death of modern-day Clara.
In conclusion, The Rings of Akhaten was a satisfying, engrossing, multi-layered story. With a combination of memorable dialogue, stellar acting from the two lead actresses, and intelligent analysis of the power and nature of memory, community, and individuality, to surmount the obstacles of life, Cross places himself in good stead for any future contributions.