The Rings of Akhaten (Doctor Who series 7, episode 7)

[A revised and improved version of this essay appears in my book The Eleventh Doctor: a critical ramble through Matt Smith’s tenure in Doctor Who.]

There’s lots to like in The Rings of Ahkaten, starting with the decidedly Star Wars cantina-ish marketplace full of outlandish aliens all getting along perfectly well together. It feels sort of like a place, rather than a set. (my wife and I both spotted the cantina homage immediately, and it’s since been confirmed.)

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But on the other hand …

I am afraid I am really starting to lose patience with Clara. When we first met her as a human, in The Snowmen, her defining quality was her quick intelligence and articulate speech. This time, we get:

So we’re moving … through actual … Time. So what’s it made of? Time? I mean, if you can just row through it it’s got to be made of stuff like jam’s made of strawberries, so what’s it made of?

It’s incoherent and ignorant, all at once. That is not the Clara that the Doctor was so delighted by. And then this terrible, terrible anti-climax:

OK. So … so … so. So … I’d like to see, I would like to see, what I would like to see is … [looong pause; Clara spins on the spot an looks straight at the camera] Something awesome.

The poverty of imagination and intellect is palpable.

So that’s a problem with the writing. Unfortunately the acting is no better. Coleman perpetually addresses the camera, preens, mugs, and generally behaves more like children’s TV presenter than an actor. When she cracks a joke, she stops to feel pleased with herself. It’s “look at me” acting.

It’s taken four episodes for me to reach this conclusion — partly just because I am trying to be charitable but also for another reason. In Asylum of the Daleks, Clara wasn’t human, so Coleman was playing a character impersonating her own idea of what she’s like — a subtle challenge. In The Snowmen, she was playing a character who led a double life, and so who we needed to see to be acting. In The Bells of Saint John, she spent quite a bit of time being dead, so can be forgiven for not quite feeling her usual self. But this time, there is no excuse: Coleman’s job is to play the role of Clara, to play it straight, and to show us a person we can believe in. And we don’t.

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Am I being harsh by going on so much about Clara’s deficiencies of writing and acting (and for that matter direction)? Maybe. But the companion is a hugely important character. Doctor Who is a series in which only two characters recur from week to week, so when one of them  is below par that’s 50% of the recurring cast. That’s bad. When Riley was not particularly compelling in Buffy series 4 and 5, that was unfortunate but not disastrous, because he was one of an ensemble cast of ten (Buffy, Joyce, Willow, Tara, Xander, Anya, Giles, Spike, Dawn). But if Clara’s character doesn’t pick up soon, it’s going to undermine the whole of the rest of the series (and likely the next one, too).

All right, I am done criticising Clara now. Let’s move on …

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As a morality tale, Rings has something going for it. As I noted above, all the different alien species seem to get on fine together. They’re in a functioning society, and that is a valuable thing. (It’s more than you can say for most purely-human societies in Doctor Who.) But as is so often the case with fictional ideal societies, a dark secret lies beneath the surface. This time, it’s that peace is bought at the price of a periodic sacrifice: a young girl, The Queen of Years.

Now this is a fascinating setup. It parallels Ursula Le Guin’s famous short story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, in which (to quote Wikipedia) “Everything about Omelas is pleasing, except for the city’s one atrocity: the good fortune of Omelas requires that a single unfortunate child be kept in perpetual filth, darkness and misery.” (I seem to remember reading something similar as an in-passing part of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, but I wouldn’t swear to it.) In Doctor Who, the situation is simplified by killing the sacrifice outright, or at least handing her over to the evil god to be killed; in some respects The Beast Below more closely parallels the Omelas situation.

Much could be done with this. Sadly, not much is. The situation is rather thrown away because of the crowd’s complete non-reaction when the Queen, who we’d been led to believe would merely be required to sing, is taken by the evil god. Is that what the crowd expected? Is it what they wanted? Are the horrified? Are they complicit? If so, do they feel guilty? It’s impossible to tell, because they all just go on singing.

Now it would be possible to interpret this charitably, as indicating that the production team wanted to leave the crowd neutral to provide a blank moral canvas that we could project out own attitudes onto. Done well, this could draw us to think more intentionally about our own choices — buying clothes made cheaply in far-East sweatshops, for example. But in fact the effect was one of moral abdication. The civilisation, and so the programme, just didn’t seem to have a stance.

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Once the girl is sucked into the Pyramid Of Doom, the Doctor and Clara go off to rescue her on a flying motorbike (a motif appearing for the second consecutive week). Jolly japes ensue with some Tusken Raiders armed with blue light. The Queen is rescued, and so needless to say a vampire breaks out of a fish-tank and a nearby planet turns into a giant pumpkin — I hate it when that happens.

Once the Giant Pumpkin starts making faces, the only way to defeat it is with a leaf, which happily Clara has to hand.

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Now all of this sounds much more negative than it really is. Despite my apparent scorn for the plot, I did throughly enjoy the episode — not least for its powerful use of genuinely beautiful diegetic music. It’s always fun to see the places and things, and the Doctor himself remains a delight (though perhaps less so in this episode than in most).

Still, Rings of Akhaten feels like two thirds of a great episode: rich setting, beautiful visuals and sound, fascinating moral dilemma, and … then nothing much. Just some running around and shouting. It feels like the production team did all the groundwork, then went for lunch when they should have been building an actual structure on that foundation.

I’m going to leave you with a link: the bizarrely named Millennium Dome, Elephant does such a good job at taking apart the specific failings of plot that it would be redundant for me to attempt something similar. Go and read his article. (Then come back here and comment on this one!)

15 responses to “The Rings of Akhaten (Doctor Who series 7, episode 7)

  1. The major failing with this episode was definitely in the writing. The plot and universal inconsistencies are so varied, that it’s not useful to repeat them.

    But the writing! Weird anti climax, pacing, wait for the song, wait, wait, wait, action, but not terribly urgent, super powers, monologue, monologue, moooooonologue, terribly tidy conclusion wherein the companion saves the universe despite the Doctor’s brave and meaningless sacrifice. (Our punishment for enduring the monologue, I suppose). I just so happen to have my childhood memento when I travelled a universe away. Is Clara a companion or a child?

    Just poor writing with no real feel for pacing and poor characterization. The episode was more of a setting than an event. I found Cold War to be significantly more enjoyable.

    This is Neil Cross’ first go at Doctor Who, so I’m willing to be forgiving, but I certainly hope he hasn’t screwed up “Hide” which looks so potentially creepy.

  2. This seems to continue the trend of this season so far — not bad, some peeks and troughs, but the peeks still not as near as the baseline or peeks of the past couple of seasons. Is the Moff used up, tired out, or just having a bit of a rut? Or is this a compliment, in that the last couple of seasons were in general so astounding, that anythign to follow will be viewed in negative light, even if its as good as or better than the rest of TV?

    DW is still my favorite show of all time, but this season feels very weak :(

  3. “Is the Moff used up, tired out, or just having a bit of a rut? Or is this a compliment, in that the last couple of seasons were in general so astounding, that anything to follow will be viewed in negative light, even if its as good as or better than the rest of TV?”

    Neither. When you have a Series with the mission statement “Big, Blockbuster ideas” the problem comes with the decision to keep “…in 45 minutes or less” along with the show.

    These episodes really do need to be longer (an hour at the very least) so the third acts can be much more satisfying. I want to give a damn about the threat for once, instead of having brilliant character moments (some of my favourite of the show have come from this series) and leaving no time to give us much in the way of a plot.

    I think Andrew Rilstone said recently how good it would be to see an episode where nothing happens, because it’s just so much fun seeing the Doctor doing whatever. To him I say watch the Series 5 and 6 DVD extra scenes.(Example, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6pglAT7Daxc) but I think it’s more than possible to achieve a great balance between the two… but we really do need more time for this.

    Asylum of the Daleks was paced excellently, though.
    .

  4. Perhaps two-parter episodes?

    I’m less a fan now (as when I was younger) of the older shows sprawling 4 or 7 part sequences; too much filler, whcih was obviosuly filler. But I fulyl agree.. its too tight now, for many of the big ideas they want to do.

    Perhaps a few two-parts should be okay — rather than recoile from the whole-season-arc to no-tight-arc, play int he middle.. mostly single eps, and a few doubles that don’t have to be big Christmas events.

    And for the love of all that is great, bring back the Fez :)

    jeff

  5. Julian says:

    When you have a Series with the mission statement “Big, Blockbuster ideas” the problem comes with the decision to keep “…in 45 minutes or less” along with the show.

    Yes. This.

    The more I think about it, the more I think that a lot of my favourite stories post-2005 have been two-parters. Moffat’s debut, The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances. RTD’s high-point, Army of Ghosts/Doomsday. Possibly my high-point of the entire run, Paul Cornell’s masterly Human Nature/The Family of Blood. Moff’s Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, which has been diminished by the development of River Song but at the time was sensational. And the first of the 11th Doctor’s two-parters, Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone.

    Interestingly, even when a two-parter doesn’t really work, like The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood, it has space to include outstanding individual passages. In particular, the scene where the Doctor talks to the Silurian prisoner Alaya is my favourite single scene from any Doctor Who ever.

    Of course, two-partness is no guarantee of greatness. The judgement of history has not been kind of The Aliens of London/World War Three, and it’s not clear that Tom MacRae and Helen Rayner had enough clear ideas of where they wanted to take the Cybermen and Daleks in the their respective two-parters. But in general, things are better when the episodes have time to breathe.

  6. I just watched that additional scene. It’s very good — makes a lot more sense than the out-of-the-blue ending they went with instead.

  7. I’m looking forward to reading your review of “Cold War”. I still don’t know if that episode lived up to my expectations.

    You didn’t mention “The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit” when you were talking about fantastic two-parters. I thought everyone loved those episodes!

  8. In light of Cold War’s ‘stuff’ perhaps ‘something awesome’ was deliberate – spotting a pattern where, when asked specific questions Clara gives vague answers.
    (Wasn’t there something in conversation outside the house in Bells too).

    Bit of a Lovecraft thing going on with the sleeping Elder God that must not be woken thing.

  9. A strange confession, I know, but it’s been quite a while since I watched a story and wondered, or attempted to conclude, whether or not I liked it. I tend to come away with heatbeats of of what I consider to be key information (this is how Moffat has made me think, I fear). In the case of the current story, I’m seeing strong parallels between what’s happening here and the first half of season six, with the Doctor just as eager to discover the truth about Clara as he was with Amy (or is the Moff just being repetititive?) To be honest though I found him travelling into her past (however relevant it became it in the end) to be just a little creepy, to be honest. It must be the Gallifreyan equivalent of secretly doing some kind of web search on people you fancy. You know you can, but as a right-minded person, etc…

    So what are the heartbeats?
    The TARDIS not liking Clara.
    The importance of the Doctor’s speech to Merri regarding the uniqueness of each individual in the galaxy, when he knows that isn’t true about Clara.
    The value of past lives and more importantly of unlived lives (did anyone else see a comparison here with the Angels who feed on the power exuded by an unlived life/future?)

    I think the fact that the people of Akhaten returned the ring to Clara tends to suggest that the people supported what she did – although we never actually saw that, we only saw the Doctor produce it from his pocket. Not the first time there’s been a relationship between a ring and memories during Moffat’s reign.

    Of course, this could all be just red herrings. In general I liked the look of the story. I hated the rushed ending (not quite as rushed as Power of Three but rushed nonetheless). Or perhaps a better description would be a cluttered ending. Did the Vigil actually have a point in all of this?

    On Clara, – that’s just it with companions, Mike, you either love ’em or you hate ’em. It seems rather logical that as a character, she should change depending on the time and the place in which she appears. I personally have preferred her previous incarnations, too. I’d like to say it;s early days but historically, companions have either been loved or hated/dis-liked from the git go. To give Moffat his due as a professional writer, he has at least created a character which he can kill off and bring back again in another incarnation a couple of episodes later if no one likes her now!

  10. davecw, I know what you mean about beats. But I’d hate my Doctor Who watching to be reduced to a scanning for arc clues. Each episode surely needs to stand alone. Arciness is a bonus on top of intra-episode coherence, not a substitute for it.

  11. Not scanning for arc clues as such – rather that the arc clues themselves have been lacking in subtlety over the past couple of seasons. The underlying strength of the arc in RTD’s first season, for example, only really became apparent towards the end, while in Moffat’s first season, the crack was something we the audience were frequently much more aware of than the Doctor and Amy. I don’t know, for example, if the fact that both a leaf and a ring were involved in this particular episode is important or not (the leaf because River’s name was written on a prayer leaf, and the ring because it was the discovery of the engagement ring which reminded Amy of Rory). This, as I said, is how Moffat tends to make me think these days. Certainly I would never complain or criticise an episode just because it didn’t contain arc elements.

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  14. I feel that the only really good part of this episode was Matt Smith’s speech at the end about the stories. Other than that, I was thoroughly disappointed.

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