First of all, I’d just like to make the point that this episode has been getting way more negative reviews than it deserves. “The Rings of Akhaten” is a rollicking space-y adventure complete with Star Wars-ian alien fauna and some seriously awesome visual effects from the masters from The Mill. The story structure is not revolutionary, but neither is it absurdly nonsensical like several of its predecessors. (“Fear Her,” anyone?) I believe the word here is ‘dependable’ – Moffat took a framework that has succeeded in the past and re-worked it. That said, there are several plot holes and gaps of logic – flying a space motorcycle through the void without a space suit, for one. Not to mention several occurrences of underwhelming dialogue. Before we get there, however, let’s backtrack a bit…
The episode begins with the Doctor observing the meeting of Clara’s parents – a clichéd but ultimately sweet rendition of the “dramatic rescue of the damsel in distress” trope…except in this situation, Clara’s father is the damsel. Smacked in the face with a maple leaf, he decides it’s a great idea to meander into oncoming traffic flailing his arms about. His future wife pushes him out of the way in the nick of time…and true love ensues.
Cue montage of Clara growing up (come on, we haven’t had one of those in ages). We see her mother giving her the “101 Places” book we saw in “The Bells of Saint John” (and now we know the origin of the leaf that constitutes the first page). Her mother then inexplicably dies (hopefully we’ll learn more about that later, as it is a major character shaper).
Cut to present-day TARDIS, and the Doctor is asking Clara what she would like to see. There is some fierce buildup as she ponders this question, and though her answer – “something awesome” – seems somewhat anticlimactic, the Doctor responds with his usual enthusiasm and begins dancing around the TARDIS console while pressing buttons and pulling levers in the standard takeoff sequence. (Interestingly enough, the order in which he does it all is actually the same episode to episode. And yes, I’ve double-checked this.)
The Doctor takes Clara to the Rings of Akhaten – seven planetoids orbiting a gas giant. Their visit coincides with the Festival of Offerings, which the Doctor passes off as the alien version of Pancake Tuesday. In reality, the Festival “celebrates” the aligning of the planetoids with a live performance by the Queen of Years, the young Merry Gejelh (played wonderfully by Emilia Jones). The Old God – christened “Grandfather” – resides in a golden pyramid on an asteroid, and the song is meant to placate him, acting as a lullaby. We see Clara in her “governess” role again as she comforts Merry and assures her that, despite her fears, she will not fail her song.
Merry is stolen away by Grandfather via tractor beam while she is singing and is taken to the pyramid. The Doctor and Clara arrive just in time (riding aforementioned nifty space motorcycle, paid for with Clara’s mother’s ring because of its sentimental value) to convince her not to sacrifice her soul. Then, just as Grandfather is about to
escape his glass cage…he goes limp. Shocking plot twist! Grandfather, the god, is actually the gas giant. (This seems like a fairly direct copy of the House from “The Doctor’s Wife.”) “Grandfather” is a massive parasitic creature that feeds off of memories and feelings. After sending Clara back to the
system’s main planetoid with Merry, the Doctor attempts to overfeed the giant by giving it all of his memories and feelings – he is, after all, the last Time Lord, and to a being that feeds off sentimentality, he should be a ten-course buffet. And yet, it’s still hungry. Clara zooms back to the pyramid to save the day (no surprises here) and proffers her maple leaf. Grandfather tentatively reaches out with a couple of glowy tendrils, presumably “eats” the leaf (absorbing all the memories it contains), and promptly implodes due to all the possible futures contained within its history – all of the experiences that Clara’s mother never had. (I can’t help but imagine the parasitic gas giant as an overly emotional Tumblr fangirl: “I can’t…I just can’t even. TOO MANY FEELS.” Commence implosion.)
A hasty denouement follows in which Clara confirms her position in the Doctor’s life as “not just a replacement” and then…goes back home. She’s just witnessed the grandeur and excitement and mystery and awesomeness that a life with the Doctor entails, and she just goes back to her house as if nothing happened? I find this difficult to believe.
Matt Smith’s acting is not quite at its best for the first time in the history of ever. I believe this was mainly due to the somewhat unimaginative script, especially in comparison to the witty, fast-paced dialogue found in “The Bells of Saint John.”
When the Doctor offers up his memories to Grandfather, and when Clara gives it the leaf encapsulating her mother’s life-that-never-was, there were no consequences. When Grandfather began eating the Doctor’s stories, I thought that perhaps afterwards he would be unable to remember any details of his past. When that didn’t happen and Clara stepped up to the plate with her leaf held high, I was sure that the act of Grandfather devouring it would erase her memories of her mother. That didn’t happen either. The point? There is potential in that scene for serious ramifications of hasty actions that is not realized.
Despite Smith’s slightly underwhelming overall performance, his heartfelt speech to Grandfather about days lived and days gone and time and stories and memories (although initially a bit forced in its sincerity) ends up being a very emotionally taxing scene and showcases Smith’s acting chops as he leaps from rage to depression to jubilation all in the space of several minutes.
The world is exceedingly well fleshed-out, vibrant with aliens and culture and stunning visual effects. The imagination required to pull this off is immense.
This episode seems to be disembarking from the companion-centric storylines that characterized the Ponds‘ episodes into a more Doctor-oriented Who. Yes, there is still a fair amount of Clara, especially on the day-saving front, but the story also seems very focused on the Doctor and how he ticks. Only time will tell if this is actually happening and, if so, whether it works or not.