DOCTOR WHO: Series 7 - The Rings of Akhaten / Review

The Rings of Akhaten
6 April 2013, 6.15pm

This episode's writer Neil Cross has a bit of a mixed pedigree. On British television, he's currently lauded as the creator and writer of the award-winning Luther (2010-) and was former lead writer on two seasons of Spooks (2002-11) and in Hollywood he recently improved his science fiction cachet by rewriting a draft of Guillermo del Toro's forthcoming Pacific Rim and signing up to script the Sam Raimi adaptation of The Day of the Triffids. Cross has indicated his affection for Doctor Who and a long held desire to write for the series and Steven Moffat has generously provided him with two opportunities this year. The Rings of Akhaten is the second of two scripts but the first to be screened, with haunted house thriller Hide a fortnight away.

The clues to why it's worth sticking with this episode, despite some major flaws, are provided in the opening three and a half minutes. The flashback is fast becoming a common trope in the series, usually a way of embedding in a predilection for revealing memories, a character's past or underlining a bit of non-linearity in the story. However, here the Doctor's stalking of Clara's past posits him as an active witness to memory and of her parents' first meeting in 1981 if an ironic inclusion of The Specials 'Ghost Town' on the soundtrack and the Summer Special of the Beano are anything to go by.

'I don't believe in ghosts'
More flashbacks follow her birth and childhood and the terrible grief at the loss of her mother Ellie with a real sense that the Doctor is observing it all. It is also a way of connecting the extraordinary events that follow to Clara's domestic milieu on Earth, maintaining the thread of audience identification running through the series with more of those Proustian rushes of memory I discussed in the review of The Bells of Saint John.

For those of us thinking the prelude to The Bells of Saint John, wherein the Doctor chats to a young Clara on the playground swings, was a bit throwaway this rather makes you reconsider its status. The '101 Places to See' book is prominent again and has its own increasing significance as a memento mori during Clara's maturing into adulthood.

It is, symbolically, 'a remembrance of death'. A remembrance commencing with Clara's mum saving her dad Dave from a collision with a car after a leaf, that leaf, slaps him in the face. The leaf was described as 'page one' in The Bells of Saint John, the beginning of her story but also a reminder of fate, consequence and, later, of a life not lived (for both Clara and her mother).

The book clearly belonged to Ellie, her mum, and is a tragic reminder of her demise. We might assume the missing ages of 16 and 23 in its front pages have some bearing on this. It also suggests Clara is 24 when she meets the Doctor in The Bells of Saint John and, back in 2005 in this sequence, that's a 16 year-old Clara standing at the graveside with her father. This Clara then is herself a memento mori not only for her mother's days that never were but for the equally tragic and short-lived Oswin Oswald, the entertainments officer on board the Alaska and destined to be a Dalek, and the Victorian Clara who died fighting the Great Intelligence. The gravestone of her mother also reminds us of the flashforward in The Snowmen where present day Clara finds the gravestone of her 1892 namesake and defiantly says, 'I don't believe in ghosts.'

With that proposition in mind, it's interesting to see how this is reflected in Cross's story. The episode reminds me of The End of the World, very much following the pattern it established where the Doctor takes his companion to the far future or an alien world to demonstrate the wonders of the universe to a homebody now desperate to stretch their wings. Clara's interaction with her bizarre environment becomes a baptism of fire, a judgement of her worthiness as a companion. Note how she's clutching the '101 Places to See' book as she sits waiting for the Doctor's return (it figures heavily in the climax of the episode too), her bluff nonchalance of the previous episode transformed into a clear desire for him to take her away to see 'something awesome.'

This he does, introducing her to the ringed world Akhaten's alien pilgrimage of Panbabylonians, Lucanians and a Terraberserker of the Kodion Belt before dropping his bombshell about a previous visit with 'my granddaughter'. Strangely, the TARDIS seems unable to translate the various alien voices that greet her as per normal. Is this deliberate or just an oversight by the producers? The TARDIS does seem to have a strange reaction to Clara and this might be part of it.

The Festival of Offerings is compared by the Doctor to Pancake Tuesday which is, in the long run, not too far away from the theme of the episode, culminating in both the Doctor and Clara giving up their memories in an act of penitential unburdening, as it were. It's also symbolised in the barter system used on Akhaten, trading in objects of sentimental value, imbued with fond remembrance and full of history and stories, correlating to the leaf, the book of '101 Places to See' and to the Doctor himself. As Clara succinctly puts it, 'You pay. You're a thousand years old, you must have something you care about.' Does the Doctor have enough to care about left in him, we wonder?

Once they're involved in the religious ceremonies of the Sunsingers of Akhet, the episode shifts into an interesting exploration of alien creation myths and belief systems, of enduring faith in ancient gods and the rituals to contain and appease them. So, we also get a little of Gridlock and The Satan Pit thrown in for good measure in its treatment of mythology and religion. 'It's a nice story,' comments the Doctor of the seven worlds' belief that all life in the universe originated out of their ancient system.

The inference here is that Akhaten and Akhet are derivations of the ancient Egyptian Akhet, the name for the horizon or mountain of light where the sun rises and sets and Akhet Khufu,  the name for the Great Pyramid, a place associated with recreation and rebirth. Visually and symbolically, it all seems related and the ancient mummy with his elongated head, who wakes in the pyramid during the Sunsinger ceremony, also looks like a dessicated version of the pharaoh Akhenaten.

Recreation and rebirth lie at the heart of the episode too. The offerings of the Sunsingers are created in stories, myths, poems and songs and there's a very nice parallel developed between Clara and the girl Merry (Emilia Jones), the appropriately named Queen of Years, where in their first encounter the colourful spectacle of an alien environment gives way to something more claustrophobic and fearful.
'we don't walk away'
The Vigil, along with the mummy one of the better designed creatures in the episode, also make their introduction here and although they're creepy with their blank masks, slow movements and whispering voices, they're consigned to be another 'monster of the week' superfluously drafted in and, later, like the mummy in the ancient pyramid, they're all rather an empty threat, more or less window dressing for the climax of the story. 

Director Farren Blackburn creates a great mood around the scenes between Clara and Merry, simply concentrating on character and having Clara understand the burden placed on a lost and confused child by relating her own childhood trauma of getting lost and being found again by her mother to Merry's predicament. Again this builds the back story for Clara, underscores the vital role of memory fueling Moffat's Doctor Who and particularly this episode where her mother's strength in difficult times is transformed into a maternal instinct seen here and with the Maitland children in last week's episode.

In Clara's journey to becoming the Doctor's companion and when she tries to shield Merry inside the TARDIS, she is confused as to why doesn't have access and is locked out. 'I don't think it likes me,' Clara observes, indicating she already sees the ship as a living thing. She hasn't earned the privilege of having her own front door key yet and the TARDIS may also be reluctant to let her in because she's potentially a dangerous temporal anomaly given her Woman Twice Dead status.

The sun worshippers of Akhaten feed their old god with lullabies to keep their 'grandfather' asleep, with generations of singers keeping the tradition alive as those in the audience offer up their mementos to him. As one grandfather to another, you get the feeling that the Doctor is seeing a mirror of himself in the ancient creature as much as Clara sees a version of herself in Merry, as the ancient trickster replacing his companions, becoming as mementos in order for him to continue.

The song from the stadium echoes many previous choral works composed for the series by Murray Gold and it's definitely a matter of personal taste as to how much you enjoy the 'songs' that dominate the middle and end of the episode. Much as they are a reflection of the themes in the episode, songs as markers of beginnings and endings, in the end they fail to convince simply because none of the rubber headed aliens in the audience actually look like they are singing. Another issue I have with Gold's scoring of this episode is his determination to fill any second of silence or calm with music. During some of the excellent character moments, where the acting is more reflective, his music performs inappropriate, horribly judged bombast in the background. 

When Merry gets carted off by a rather grumpy mummy (and after all that wailing, I don't blame it wanting to devour her) then the Doctor spells out his mission statement to Clara, 'we don't walk away'. She's clearly paying attention at this point as it's a mantra she will repeat in support of her rescue attempt towards the climax of the episode. To rescue Merry it also requires paying off Dor'een the big green monster with yet another memento mori, her mother's ring, to secure a space moped and travel to the pyramid. One assumes the barter system also provides the oxygen supply in outer space during the journey.

There's perhaps a nod back to the Doctor and Sarah breaking into Sutekh's prison in Pyramids of Mars as he and Clara open the pyramid to confront the angry mummy, another monster in the series with an appetite for souls and devouring children it seems. Here, the soul, as in The Bells of Saint John, is not some supernatural construct. It is the essence of us, our personalities, our memories and as the Doctor says 'everything that ever happened to us, people we loved, people we lost, people we found again against all the odds.' He talking as much about himself and Clara there.

To cut to the chase, the Doctor and Clara find themselves confronting an old god woken from slumber, one which has created its own origin myth out of sacrifice and that the Doctor counters with his description of an evolving universe to Merry, informing her she was born of unique atoms and star stuff rather than mythical gods and monsters and he quotes from Carroll's The Walrus and the Carpenter to perhaps suggest the old god merely mesmerises them into believing a nonsensical myth.

The old mummy turns out to be nothing more than an alarm clock for a planet sized devourer of worlds but its appearance allows Cross to restate the Doctor's policy on these matters: 'When we're holding on to something precious, we run, we run as fast as we can and we don't stop running until we are out from under the shadow.' Yes, Doctor Who. That running show.

Confronting what looks like the Eye of Sauron (Farren Blackburn emphasises this with a big closeup of the fiery eye reflected in Clara's own eye), the Doctor, like Gandalf, attempts to quench the god's fire. Unfortunately, this involves some more singing from Merry and a cloyingly sentimental singalong from the alien audience who probably should have scarpered by now. Even Matt Smith fails to dissipate the wailing and droning in the background and some of his ranting at this hungry 'god' is unconvincing, somewhat overplayed and rather ripe. Perhaps he's just trying to make himself heard over the din.

Naturally, Clara passes the test and doesn't walk away from the Doctor. While the Doctor's memories of the Time War and the death of the Time Lords, perhaps a final expunging of the guilt associated with another huge myth, are nothing but a mere Happy Meal for his opponent, it is Clara's memories of her mother, of a life never lived, a quantum memory of 'days that should have been but never were', which give old 'grandfather' a severe case of indigestion.

Cross's ideas are powerful and evocative and that leaf, 'the most important leaf in human history', is not only page one of Clara's life, a symbol of her unique origin just as Merry was regarded as unique to the universe by the Doctor, but it is also page one of Clara's journey with the Doctor, a life where you sacrifice something of yourself and you don't walk away. The creation of a new myth out of the old.
the 'epic' looks and feels underpowered...
With her performance Jenna-Louise Coleman steals the final scenes right from under Smith's nose and, looking back, she pretty much owns most of the episode and is rapidly becoming a major asset to the series. The final coda, back on Earth, has her confront the Doctor when she realises he was there watching at her mother's grave. To reiterate the nature of the story, Clara demands he not compare her with 'someone who died' and force her to 'compete with a ghost'. Again, she's very much alive and doesn't believe in that sort of thing. Even though the Doctor returns her mother's ring to placate her, he is still, like the rest of us, baffled by her mystery.

Clearly, as an element of Moffat's brief to 'write it like a movie poster. Let’s do big, huge mad ideas' The Rings of Akhaten is up there in the ambition stakes but succeeds and fails in equal measure. For example, it gladly wears many Star Wars references on its sleeve. This is both a restatement of the visual riffs to the film series that have cropped up recently and the notion of the 'epic' in the series which mixes wonderment with increasing juvenilsation.

The stadium full of alien visitors is perhaps a nod to the pod racing of The Phantom Menace, the bustling throngs of the market place a blatant steal of the Mos Eisley and cantina scenes from A New Hope and ditto the mopeds standing in for the speeder bikes from Return of the Jedi. However, the episode overreaches itself and the attempts to create this spectacular vernacular on a modest budget threaten to undermine the more intriguing narrative and character driven aspects of the episode. There are some disappointing set designs and visual effects littering the production and this comes as surprising from such acknowledged talents as designer Michael Pickwoad and effects company The Mill.

The CGI vistas of the rings and the pyramid and the silhouetted figure of the Doctor facing the fiery wrath of 'grandfather' are a signature of The Mill's ongoing efforts to bring scale to the series and they do look spectacular. However, their efforts to mix CGI backgrounds and live action often don't quite work. There aren't enough different angles and coverage to suggest that the stadium and the huge ring system occupy the same space. There is one single shot of the entire stadium and we never see it again. Several closer shots of the stadium are clearly a bunch of extras duplicated on a rather plain looking set to bump the numbers up.

Some of the moped shots suffer too, an example of unconvincing green screen effects and backgrounds being the occasional bĂȘte noire of current Doctor Who as much as poor yellow and blue CSO is used as the stick with which to beat classic Who. Cinema blockbusters have developed a fluidity in mixing live action and digital effects but some of the over ambitious work on The Rings of Akhaten is either too static or unconvincing.

Ironically, Euan Ferguson's recent attack in The Observer on the classic series of Doctor Who, praising The Bells of Saint John for its apparent triumph over the production values of the original series -  'slathered in cheap BBC foil or sporting a rubber ear-globule or some such', filled with poor acting on sets 'apparently made of tissue and spit, while making faintly electronic "woo" noises' - might be words he may care to revisit with The Rings of Akhaten

That this may be the first episode in Series 7 where the 'epic' looks and feels underpowered is again demonstrated by the budget savings raid on Neill Gorton's stockpile of said 'rubber ear-globules' for the cramped looking market place sequences, looking so retro you'd think you were actually watching something from 1977. I love Gorton's work on the series but this is not one of Millennium FX's finer moments as it's simply an exercise in bulking out scenes with some very inanimate rubber creatures. The mummy, the Vigil and Dor'een are far more successful.

It's oddly reassuring that even a new episode can fall short of the mark, its inadequacies sending us in search of its qualities as a story and efficacy in character development just as, and this is evident in Euan Ferguson's ignorance of its 50-year history, Doctor Who has always asked us to do since 1963.

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