A review by Nalini Haynes
The Doctor (Matt Smith) stalks Clara (Jenna Coleman) through time in the beginning of the Rings of Akhaten. He watches Clara’s parents meet, fall in love and play with Clara in the park as she grows up. After Clara’s mum died, the Doctor watches Clara and her dad in the cemetery. Later in the episode Clara talks to a lost girl about Clara’s fear of being lost and how her mum found her; queue memory scene where Clara is six, snuggled safe in her bed with her mum reassuring her.
The Doctor entices Clara to travel with him, taking her to the Rings of Akhaten. Clara wants a closer look so the Doctor lands on another asteroid where he takes Clara on a guided tour, introducing her to several different species of alien.
The Doctor disappears and Clara finds the lost girl who, frightened of angering Grandfather, is hiding…
This is the George Lucas of Doctor Who episodes: walking through the market is like walking through the Mos Eisley cantina or Jabba’s palace, with aliens at every turn, all in beautiful, detailed costumes. As they walk through the market, the viewer is transported to an exciting alien world and, like Clara, is enticed to join the Doctor on his travels. The story unfolds from the marketplace; the conflict in this episode is quite late starting.
This episode appears designed to encourage younger viewers to identify with Clara; Clara is not only cute, perky and young, but she was a child with child-like fears who reaches out to another child. At one stage the Doctor talks about protecting something precious – that ‘something precious’ being the child Merry – so the episode appears particularly aimed at the younger demographic. I am reminded of the gorgeous real-life YouTube clip where a young child asks Matt Smith if he’s afraid of the weeping angels, he asks if she is (she nods) and he reassures her that he’s there to fight the weeping angels (there’s something in my eye). The Rings of Akhaten seems particularly focused on appealing to children and their families, offering reassurance to the young that the Doctor will look after them.
Unfortunately, once Merry stands on stage to sing the plot goes to hell. I like to think of this episode as the ‘illusionist’ episode because
LOOK OVER HERE: QUIFF, CUTE COMPANION, CUTE KID, EXCITING MUSIC, DRAMA, ACTION don’t look over there at the plot.
Merry is the Queen of Years who sings the Long Song, a song that hasn’t stopped for thousands of years, with chorister handing over to chorister in a never-ending song intended to keep their god asleep… except it only happens once every thousand years. Merry is the latest in a long line of sacrifices to a capricious god who threatens to eat the solar system unless he’s fed with stories. Merry doesn’t know this although she knows all the stories and all the songs, even the ones about the Queen of Years being forced to sacrifice herself if she is unwilling. Merry knows there’s a backdoor to the pyramid from which no Queen of Years has ever escaped and she knows how to open this backdoor she’s not allowed to use.
Every object of value, with stories attached, dematerialises (look, pretty dust) to go to the god, except Merry who is transported to a pyramid where she’s to be eaten by a vampire – who isn’t the god – whoops, the god is awake. Next the Doctor feeds some of his stories to the god but doesn’t lose his memories and doesn’t disappear. Clara feeds the god a leaf that is supposed to have limitless possibilities so then the god is defeated with a full belly.
Really? The writing team from Sherlock couldn’t do better than this?
The Rings of Akhaten is an emotional roller-coaster ride for those willing to suspend disbelief in order to immerse themselves in this beautiful, exciting, alien world; it’s for those willing to be swept along with the drama carried by some fine actors and the emotion of the orchestral score. Children, the primary target audience for this episode, will probably identify more with Doctor Who while feeling reassured that the Doctor will save them from the monsters. Families who watch Doctor Who together will love the shared experience. Just don’t scratch the polished surface of the shiny plot.