When I saw the trailer for “The Rings of Akhaten,” and took in the very alien sets and even more alien… aliens, I assumed it was going to be a Star Trek or Farscape inspired space odyssey, and while it initially seemed like it, this was again an episode that focused on our two main characters and how they grow to understand each other by dealing with unfamiliar and dangerous circumstances. In other words, it was a Doctor Who episode, and one that was surprisingly very sweet and touching even if it didn’t offer much in the way of plot. Maybe I’m getting soft in my old age, but I was really moved by it, and I’m traditionally a cold-hearted bastard. Huh.
The episode was written by Luther creator Neil Cross, and I must say, he’s a terrific writer for going so far outside of what he normally does, or at least what I know him for. Luther’s a gritty cop drama about serial killers and corruption and redemption, and this episode is, at its heart, about a little girl who is scared to sing in public. It’s something to which we can all relate. It also allowed us to get to know Clara – this Clara – better than we already thought we did in her curiosity and then wish to help the small Queen of Years, who is made to memorize the sum total of the history of her people, if only to be sacrificed to an ancient god. I adore Jenna-Louise Coleman. She is the absolute perfect companion, and she and Matt Smith, who is also just phenomenal every single week, get on so spectacularly that I’m glad we have another six weeks with them.
The direction by Farren Blackburn, of Luther, The Fades and other such British programming, is mostly good. I loved the way he handled the “street” scenes on the asteroid, with all the various types of aliens and species, all of which looked amazing. He also did the stuff on Earth well, for the small amount Earth was onscreen. I didn’t think, however, the massive blue-or-green screen stuff matched particularly well. That’s not necessarily his fault, as the special effects were done by other people, but I still feel like the scenes could have been staged a little better so that the backgrounds didn’t look so very unbelievable. That’s generally a minor nitpick, but the fact that they kept having to travel back and forth across expanses of space (which apparently has breathable atmosphere which is always at room temperature) really drew attention to the pretty but sometimes not well-blended CGI.
Something else that I didn’t really care for were the “evil” creatures. Sure, they looked amazing. Seriously, the designers outdid themselves. No, I’m talking about how they were used narratively. So, the Vigil are tasked with feeding the Queen of Years to the Grandfather if she decides she doesn’t want to be sacrificed; fine. I loved that they used sound to attack; that was great. The mummy in the glass box is not the elder god itself but is the alarm clock which awakens the god, which happens to be the sun around which the titular rings orbit. What’s the point of the alarm clock in the first place other than for us to think it’s the god? If all the songs and everything are meant to keep the alarm clock asleep so that it can’t wake up the god, then why didn’t the people just kill the damn alarm clock while it was asleep? Did everyone think the thing in the box was the god? If so, then what did they think happened to the Queen of Years each time she got taken to the pyramid? Are the Vigil feeding her to the god or the alarm clock? And why would a god, even just a parasitic one, need a bipedal mummified creature that ALSO hibernates all the time to wake it up? That’s a very strange symbiotic relationship. What does the mummy get out of it besides a lifetime supply of lullabies to listen to from inside its cozy, see-thru box? It just didn’t make sense, really. Also, “Cozy, See-Thru Box” is the name of my third album.
However, the episode wasn’t about the Vigil or the mummy or even the god itself; it was about parents and what they mean to us when we’re scared. The Doctor actually mentions in this that he had a granddaughter, not just making weird allusions to the fact that he had a family at one point. This is juxtaposed with the sun god, which is also called “Grandfather.” Stories are to be passed on from the old to the young, but in the case of the god, he needs stories from the young to keep him alive. He’s a bad grandpa. The Doctor learns about Clara’s past, which, we learn, colors the way she deals with the situation at hand. Lessons she was taught help her face her fears and all that. She also learns a bit about the Doctor’s past and who he is, and what traveling with him will be like. Clara’s final speech, about being her own person and not the shadow of a ghost, is a wonderful little moment that lets the Doctor (and the audience) know that she’s more than a mystery. She has to be. As much as I liked her, I don’t think Amy ever really was.
Despite those few misgivings, I really, really liked “The Rings of Akhaten.” I hope the rest of Series 7 continues the way the previous seven episodes have. I’ve always said Series 5 is my favorite New Who series, but at this rate, 7 will have it beat by a mile, even with “A Town Called Mercy” in there.
Next week, it’s the one we’ve all been waiting for: “Cold War,” written by Mark Gatiss and directed by Douglas Mackinnon, the one that sees the return of the Ice Warriors, this time on a 1980s nuclear submarine, and even features Game of Thrones’ Liam Cunningham. I am excite!