Having introduced himself to Clara in the previous story The Bells of St John, the Doctor offers her the chance to come with him in his TARDIS. Following a swift prologue of the Doctor going back and watching Clara’s parents meet and a whistle-stop tour of her childhood, he asks her the ultimate question: All of time and space, where should we start? Clara opts for a cop-out choice and simply says “Something awesome”, so off we go to Akhaten where it’s time for the Festival Of Offerings and all the cultural, sci-fi and religious stuff that comes with it.
Immediately the first thing you notice at this point is how good the story looks. New companions seem to get a swift visit to an otherworldy locale for their debut and so Neil Cross takes delight in throwing Clara in at the deep end with Akhaten. With its bursting alien marketplace, the cultural differences in currency and manners, with its sky filled with floating rocks and a big star that everyone sings to, Cross crafted a unique and believable alien culture. The visuals that bring this to life are an undoubted highlight of the episode and it’s not hard to see that your license fee money has been well spent here. We’ve had alien worlds in the Matt Smith era before of course but this is the most visually striking one yet and makes The Rings of Akhaten a joy to watch. The detail here is stunning! Whatever you may think of the episode, love it or hate it, it’s worth your 45 minutes for the visuals alone.
It’s a shame that the story isn’t quite strong enough to hold itself together. After the opening that shows us Clara’s upbringing, which goes on and on and on and on and on and on and.... (you get the idea) without really going anywhere, you wonder whether maybe this time could’ve been used to better effect in fleshing out the story, as The Rings of Akhatan suffers from a few issues in the storytelling that I think could have benefited from a longer running time to get the most out of them.
The biggest issue is that it suffers from under-used monsters. We’ve got too many of them here.
First up is the Vigil, lifted straight out of any number of video games. Part Ood, part Imperial Stormtrooper, all useless. What do they do exactly? We first see them looking for Merry and calling out her name in a creepy raspy voice that could be scary to some younger viewers, but then when Merry is pulled into the asteroid they end up standing there screaming at her and knocking people over, but then they don’t actually do anything! That video game comparison is apt because if the Vigil is when you have to fight off some monsters to progress to the next room then the mummy, known as Grandfather, is the boss waiting there for you. He doesn’t really do anything but look intimidating and is so easily defeated that it’s laughable. At least he looks great, but in this particular episode that’s a given.
Finally we go one better and get the 'big boss' in the form of Akhaten himself. The Doctor’s latest foe is a gigantic parasitic would-be-god who takes on the form of a planet (he just does, okay?!) and seeks the worship of everyone inhabiting the planet’s rings. The Doctor claims never to have faced anything that big before – I guess Matt Smith hasn’t seen 42? Lucky him! – and so we have his confrontation with Akhaten building up as some huge exciting moment of grand spectacle, and indeed it is. The Doctor’s speech is beautiful and combined with Matt Smith’s pitch-perfect incredibly passionate and heartfelt delivery it becomes one of the Eleventh Doctor’s crowning moments and has been a favourite for other Doctors to do at conventions ever since (with Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, Paul McGann and John Hurt all taking a stab at it). Brilliantly written, expertly delivered and with the soundtrack to end all soundtracks – this speech will go down in history and be one of those moments we continue to look back upon for years to come.
I seriously can’t stress enough how good this speech is. Matt Smith is always wonderful as the Doctor, and this speech is one of the highlights from his 4 years on the show.
Can you hear them? All these people who've lived in terror of you and your judgement? All these people whose ancestors devoted themselves, sacrificed themselves, to you. Can you hear them singing? Oh, you like to thing you're a god. But you're not a god. You're just a parasite eaten out with jealousy and envy and longing for the lives of others. You feed on them, on the memory of love and loss and birth and death and joy and sorrow. So, come on, then. Take mine. Take my memories. But I hope you've got a big appetite, because I have lived a long life and I have seen a few things. 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 walked in universes where the laws of physics were devised by the mind of a mad man. I've watched universes freeze and creations burn. I've seen things you wouldn't believe. I have 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! So come on, then. Take it! Take it all, baby! Have it! You have it all!
That should be enough to defeat Akhaten – sounds ridiculous but makes sense in context – but then it turns out that this is one of those video games where you have to defeat the final boss in two stages (That’s the end of that analogy now, I promise!). For some reason the memories and the raw passion that the Doctor throws at Akhaten doesn’t defeat him and he comes back. Step forward Clara and her leaf! Because this leaf is supposed to be important because it falling into some guy’s face once is how Clara exists, it is apparently more important than anything else in the universe and able to defeat a god… you don’t need me to explain how stupid that is, do you?! The idea is that it’s more important what could have been than what actually happened, as if anyone else who made offerings to Akhaten before in the last millennia had no unfulfilled ambitions, and we all know that’s not gonna be the case!
I don’t mind a bit of deus-ex-machina in my Doctor Who from time-to-time (Rose absorbing the Time Vortex, the Doctor using the Pandorica to reset the universe) but this crosses the line (everyone thinking of the Doctor at the same time to turn him into Jesus, Rassilon escaping the Time War because he throws a diamond at a hologram). The point is that despite being heavily foreshadowed even a whole episode in advance it was unnecessary. The Doctor’s memories and the speech do come together to actually defeat Akhaten for a moment and so bringing him back like that was lazy writing. It feels like watching an improv class where the actor forgets his lines so another actress runs forward with some random object and tries to bring focus on it and the other actor just nods and goes along with it. This is utterly unnecessary and a “twist” that we didn’t need to see.
In fact this is the other issue I take with storytelling in this story: the sentiment. Anyone who has read my retrospective of Vincent & the Doctor will know how I feel about cheap sentiment being used in television and The Rings of Akhaten is loaded with it! From the pre-credits that introduces the “most important leaf in human history” through to the lazy ending as described already, there’s sentimental drivel a plenty. Clara’s story about getting lost as a child and her mother’s comforting words to her is probably the next-worst example but there’s also the patronising talk about why Merry should be scared and the fact that items of sentimental value are currency sticking out at you too. Is this episode REALLY by the man who wrote Luther?
That’s the thing about The Rings of Akhaten: there are so many good things and so many bad things that it’s hard to form an opinion on it. However for me there is one more Big Plus that carries it into high esteem and that’s Murray Gold’s soundtrack. He’s nailed it in almost every episode he’s worked on but this is one of those times that he gets it so much more right than usual. The Long Song (“Rest now my warrior…”) stands out as the best of the bunch but it’s just one part of the whole. This is the sort of thing that should be winning awards; I can’t stress enough how good this is! I think that The Rings of Akhaten is one example of when the good things outnumber the bad and overall it’s nowhere near as bad as you’ve been led to believe. Put on that series seven DVD and give it another go.
When he's not obsessing about Doctor Who whilst having I Am The Doctor play in his head, Dr. Moo can usually be found reading up on the latest in Quantum Physics. As you do when you're a physicist.