Responding to her request to see ‘something awesome’, the Doctor whisks Clara off to the inhabited rings of Akhaten, where a once-in-a-millennium event is about to occur. During the Festival of Offerings, the Queen of Years sings songs to satiate the appetite of the Old God, sacrificing herself to send it back to sleep. But when the Doctor and Clara intervene and the Old God awakes hungry and in the form of a living, burning star, they must find a way to subdue the ‘god’ before it consumes the memories of all before it.
There is one thing you need to know about travelling with me … We don’t walk away.
A first-time Who effort by Neil Cross, the creator of Luther, The Rings of Akhaten is an allegorical tale touching on religion, ritual sacrifice, the power of song to bind people together in faith and the intrinsic value of memories and stories. And probably a few other things as well.
Sacrifice is a running theme throughout the episode. In addition to the inhabitants’ collective willingness to sacrifice Merry, the current Queen of Years (Emilia Jones), to satisfy the needs of their parasitic god, we also have the Doctor willing to sacrifice both his own memories and himself to save others. And, of course, Clara proves herself a worthy companion by twice being willing to make huge personal sacrifices: first giving up her mother’s ring (which is eventually returned to her) and then the leaf which represents the life her mother never got to live (which isn’t).
In that respect this is a typical new companion second story. Having chosen to travel with the Doctor, the new girl is taken somewhere mind-bendingly exotic, whether it is the final days of Pompeii (Donna Noble, The Fires of Pompeii) or a spaceship containing the entire population of the UK and powered by a captive Star Whale (Amy Pond, The Beast Below), and ends up proving themselves a worthy foil to the Doctor. Clara is no exception here: she intervenes to protect Merry initially, insists on helping her when she is forcibly transported to the temple, then returns to the Doctor’s side in the finale to save the day.
In between, there is a clear nod to Star Wars as the Doctor and Clara’s exploration of the multi-species market echoes the cantina scene in the original film – a sequence which must have had the show’s prosthetics team having kittens. Even the space moped they later use was somewhat reminiscent of a landspeeder. (What is it with the Doctor and gravity-defying motorised transport this season?)
Having introduced us to the leaf in Clara’s 101 Places to See book last week, we quickly discover this week that it was the cause of her parents’ first meeting in 1981. (We see the Doctor hiding behind a 1981 Beano special and hear The Specials’ Ghost Town, a number one hit in the same year.) As such, her father describes it as “the most important leaf in human history”. And we learn that it is deeply symbolic to Clara herself as representing the life her mother never got to live after her death at the age of 44.
Of course, this raises the question of what the cause of Clara’s mother’s death was. Is it entirely innocent, or is it somehow Doctor-related? We know from The Bells of Saint John that Clara crossed off each year of her life in her travel book – which we learn here previously belonged to her mother – except for 16 and 23. Do these years correspond to her mother’s death (5th March 2005) and the Maitlands’ mother? It certainly seems to line up in terms of Clara’s timeline.
And in the episode’s coda, we have Clara realising that she saw the Doctor watching her at her mother’s grave. Her relationship with the Doctor is beginning to spill out all over time and space: their previous encounters in the Dalek asylum and Victorian England, the Doctor’s painting of her in 13th century Cumbria, and now the recognition of a childhood encounter. Where is this heading, and what exactly did the Doctor mean when he declared at the beginning of the episode, “She’s not possible”?
Fun stuff and in-jokes
- The Doctor mentions he has previously visited Akhaten with his grand-daughter (Susan, one of the FIrst Doctor’s original companions).
- The Doctor and his companion become separated in a busy marketplace – shades of the Tenth Doctor/Donna story Turn Left?
- “Cross my hearts.” Heh.
- The Doctor’s first thought at the mention of the Lake District? “They do great scones … in 1927.”
- The people of a world uniting in a song or incantation to ward off a great evil is more than a little reminiscent of the season three finale Last of the Time Lords, isn’t it?
- Once again the Doctor wears Amy Pond’s reading glasses (from The Angels Take Manhattan).
And finally, a gentle reminder of the mystery which was set up at the end of last season and which continues to hang over the ongoing narrative:
I know things. Secrets that must never be told. Knowledge that must never be spoken.
This has to be more than just the Doctor’s real name, surely?
Is the episode any good? It’s a slow starter, with large chunks of the first third of the episode devoted to filling in Clara’s back-story. But once it gets going, this is a good example of a more old-school Who story, one which is more talky and thoughtful than most and trades less on horror and action set-pieces – although visually it is a stunning episode in terms of CGI, costumes and prosthetics.
However, its final third is uneven, with the sonic screwdriver being overused – look, it’s a lock-pick and now it’s a force field generator thingy! – and the vanquishing of the Old God as living star in the guise of a Halloween pumpkin head being a bit of a damp squib as it is reduced to a leaf, several pages of exposition and the Doctor essentially taunting the Old God with “Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough.” (Although it is a great and heart-rending diatribe, and you get the sense that the Doctor would almost find it a relief to offload his darker memories on to someone else.)
That critique is possibly a bit harsh because I genuinely did enjoy much of this episode, which took us down some unusual avenues and again featured strong performances by both the ever-reliable Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman, who carries off Clara’s steel-behind-the-smile personality very well indeed. But somewhere in here there were some intriguing ideas and a fascinating episode trying to break out, and it didn’t quite happen. Okay, but mildly disappointing.