Doctor Who: The Rings of Akhaten
(1 episode, s07e07, 2013)
Dining on infinity.
A brisk wind blows the autumn leaves, particularly one large red leaf that flies into a man’s face. As the man stumbles into the street, a woman saves him from being run over. The pair begin a relationship around that leaf — the most important leaf in human history — and eventually have a child named Clara Oswald.
That girl later mourns her mother who died on March 5, 2005. The Doctor, who has been watching Clara through all of these events, laments that she cannot be possible.
Back in 2013, Clara is sitting with her book and waits for the Doctor. When he arrives, she rushes to meet him and asks about the nature of time, space, and travel in both. When asked, she decides that she wants to see something awesome.
So, he takes her to the rings of Akhaten. Among those rings is a pyramid, a holy site for the Sun-singers of Akhet, a people of this seven-world system that believe that all life in the universe originated on Akhaten. The Doctor tells Clara that it’s a nice story they believe, but indulges her wish to take a closer look.
In the market near the pyramid, the Doctor introduces Clara to Pan-Babylonians, a Lugalirakush, some Eukanians, a Hooloovoo, and an Ultramanta. He does a ritual greeting with a Terraberserker of the Cadonian Belt, then mentions that he forgot how much he liked it there. After all, he’s been there once before while traveling with his granddaughter.
Clara is shocked. She runs after him and samples a glowing blue fruit, but isn’t impressed with the flavor. She also encounters Dor’een, a being that barks to communicate. It’s odd that the TARDIS translation circuits haven’t kicked in fully for Clara, but the Doctor helps by translating that Dor’een wants to rent Clara a moped. The cost is a sentimental object, using payment through psychometry. Clara doesn’t like the idea of giving up something important in trade, but it’s not much different than exchanging valuable bits of paper.
Clara turns her back for a moment, losing the Doctor but running into a little girl in crimson robes. When the girl runs off, two men in similar attire approach and ask if she’s seen the Queen of Years. Clara is confused and pursues the girl to a junkyard. After a spell, the two cross paths again. The girl says that she’s hiding but Clara just wants to help. She offers to take Merry Galel to the TARDIS as masked creatures continue to search for her.
The TARDIS refuse to open for Clara, prompting her to think that the box doesn’t like her. The duo take refuge behind the TARDIS and Merry explains that she is the Queen of Years. She was chosen for the role as a baby when the previous Queen died. She knows every story, poem, legend, and song of their culture. She’s scared because she has to sing a special song to their god to keep him from waking. Clara consoles her about fear, telling the queen that she’ll get the song right before taking her back to the men in red robes that were looking for her.
The Doctor finally finds Clara, asking what she’s been up to while munching on one of the blue fruits. Clara tells him that she’s been exploring. They then go see Merry sing her song, a duet with a man in red robes at the pyramid who sings before a mummy-like being. The Doctor reads the program and tells her that it is the Long Song, a song to keep the Old God, also known as the Grandfather, asleep. Members of the audience hold up offerings of sentimental value to feed the Old God, and the Doctor joins in the song.
The Chorister in the pyramid falters and a golden energy seizes Merry, pulling her toward the pyramid. The Doctor leaves the scene, which Clara interprets as running away before the Doctor corrects her, and rents a moped with Clara’s mother’s ring. Together, they race into the rings to save Merry, but they barely miss her before touching down at the pyramid.
The Doctor is unable to unlock the doorway right away. Inside the pyramid, the Old God begins to awaken, but the Doctor finally breaks the lock’s code and raises the door. Merry refuses to leave, believing that her failure is her fault. The Old God feeds on souls, and Merry believes that it wants hers.
The Doctor releases the door and enters the pyramid. The Chorister flees, claiming that the Long Song ended with him, and the Old God awakens. The Doctor tells Merry that they didn’t wake him. Instead, the being woke because it was time to wake up. Merry is as a sacrifice, and if she’s going to be so voluntarily, he wants her to know why: Every time the Old God threatens to waken, the Queen of Years is offered as a sacrifice to put him back to sleep as it feeds on her story.
He explains: “Souls are made up of stories. People we lost. People we found against all odds.” He calms Merry by telling a story that she doesn’t know. She is unique in the universe and there won’t be another person like her. If Merry doesn’t offer herself, everything will be fine.
The Old God begins to crack the glass case around it and the masked beings arrive to secure Merry for the sacrifice. The Doctor is able to use his sonic screwdriver to overcome the guards while Clara asks Merry to sing the door open. Merry and Clara run for the moped as the Doctor holds the guards at bay, but as the being breaks the glass, the Doctor realizes that he’s made an error.
The beast was an alarm clock. The real Old God Akhaten is inside the star, and now that it’s awake it is hungry. Very hungry.
The Doctor decides to fight Akhaten as Clara returns Merry to the platform. He faces down the star as Merry sings and he begins to tell it a new story. The story of his own experiences over all of his known lives.
“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! And I watched universes freeze and creations burn! I have 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 would make parasite gods blaze! SO COME ON THEN! TAKE IT! TAKE IT ALL, BABY! HAVE IT! YOU HAVE IT ALL!“
Akhaten feeds on these experiences, and as the beast appears to return to slumber, the Doctor collapses. Unfortuantely, Akhaten isn’t quite sated. Clara recalls her mother’s words and returns to the Doctor’s side, offering the red leaf. The most important leaf in human history, full of her mother’s lost life and a future that never happened. Akhaten feeds on the infinite potential of that leaf, eventually falling asleep for good.
The Doctor returns Clara to her home, at which point Clara realizes that she saw the Doctor at her mother’s funeral. He tells her that she reminds him of someone he knew who died, but Clara tells him that she shouldn’t see her as a replacement.
The Doctor agrees, returning her mother’s ring. The people she saved wanted her to have it back. As Clara returns home, the Doctor looks on after her with a grim expression.
During this first adventure in the TARDIS to an alien planet, we find out that Clara’s mother died on March 5, 2005, the same day as the Auton invasion of Earth. It’s possible that she was a victim of that invasion, but not established.
What I really like about this story centers on the costume and set design, which exemplify this era of wonder and exploration in Doctor Who. Just look at all of the alien creatures in the bazaar! I also enjoy Clara’s sincerity, empathy, and innocence at this point in her journeys.
This is the first time in a while (either The Girl Who Waited or Asylum of the Daleks, depending on how you count the undercover Dalek puppets) that a story didn’t include an extensive cast of human characters and didn’t really link back to Earth. Clara is pretty much the only human in the story, and Earth only appears in establishing bookends instead of being the story’s setting. It’s refreshing.
I also like the Long Song – Emilia Jones has a beautiful singing voice – and the solution to feeding the beast of Ahkaten. The story falls apart though in Clara’s sacrifice: I’m not a big fan of her having to give up something so incredibly precious to travel with the Doctor, despite the obvious callback to the beginning of the tale. It’s almost like she’s being required to give up the core of who she is for the privilege.
That said, it can also be looked at as being pushed to grow beyond her self-established boundaries.
Either way, I guess that’s what gives the story so much power. It’s inducing strong emotions in the telling and the analysis, which is one measure of good storytelling.
Rating: 4/5 – “Would you care for a jelly baby?”
UP NEXT – Doctor Who: Cold War
The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.