The Rings of Akhaten

New Who, Series 7

Good news from Akhaten — someplace (almost) awesome

(Apologies to Robert Silverberg, and spoilers ahoy!)

"The soul is made of stories, not atoms. Everything that ever happens to us — people we loved, people we lost ... people we found again, against all the odds." — The Doctor talks a little secular humanism.

Are you their mummy? Screenshot, The Rings of AkhatenAre you their mummy? Screenshot, The Rings of Akhaten, copyright © BBC 2013.

April 12, 2013, OTTAWA — After the idiot-plot wank-fest that was "The Bells of Saint John", Doctor Who's second episode in series 7.5, "The Rings of Akhaten" (hereafter just "The Rings") came as a welcome tonic. If the special effects strain against their budgetary limitations and some of the plot turns don't bear too close an examination, the program at least delivered us more than just Steven Moffat's say-so that new Companion, Clara Oswald, is a person we would like to get to know.

"The Rings" is set on an asteroid (or planetoid, I dunno) in a star system boasting not one, but seven inhabited planets, whose respective species nevertheless share the same religion, whose worshippers believe that all life in the universe originated on the local gas giant. ("Did it?" Clara wonders? "Well," says the Doctor, "It's what they believe. It's a nice story.") The faith features an ancient god which must be constantly placated with song — and maybe with something (or someone) more.

That said, the episode doesn't get off to a promising start.

The Doctor (hiding behind a copy of Beano, which for some reason did crack me up) watches as a nebbishy-looking young man is whacked by a leaf blown from a tree, nearly hit by an oncoming car as he stumbles and rescued by a woman who pulls him out of harm's way at the last instant. The man and the woman, of course, are Clara's parents and we learn that the Doctor is watching her through time.

Leaving aside the creepy stalker vibe (which Clara addresses near the end of the episode at least), the sequence is very poorly directed, static and as unexciting as one can imagine. The leaf looks silly, the rescue is without tension and the actors portraying Clara's parents are, to be kind, amateurish.

By the time Matt Smith declares that Clara is "impossible" and that "she can't be, but she is!" this viewer was rolling his eyes in anticipation of something awful, not awesome.

How nice it can be to be wrong!

As the episode proper begins, Clara returns to the TARDIS, scared and sceptical, but finally ready to say Yes! to the Doctor's offer of all of time and space. Where do you wanna go? he asks her.

As might any of us, Clara stumbles over infinity.

Can't remember the name of her favourite book: The Rings of Akhaten screenshotCan't remember the name of her favourite book. Screenshot detail from The Rings of Akhaten, copyright © BBC 2013.

"Do you know when somebody asks you, 'What's your favourite book?' and straight away you forget every book you've ever read?" "Well no," the Doctor doesn't, "not technically".

"That's okay," says Clara. She shakes her head, struggling to open the gift. "I would like to see ... something awesome!"

With subtle gestures and expressions, Jenna-Louise Coleman nails Clara's confusion and awe, her doubts and her hopes. Coleman's Clara is a young woman diving into deeper waters than she had ever imagined existed, but who has the self-confidence to believe she will be able to swim back to shore, if only she pays attention — and maybe, has a little luck as well.

As portrayed by Coleman, Clara could be the quintessential "classic" Doctor Who Companion, a stand-in for the viewer, an intelligent but relatively ignorant and more or less normal person who can have things explained to her (and thus, to us), but who will also have the imagination and bravery needed to have the Doctor's back — think Sarah Jane Smith or Ace or even Leelah. Sadly, we already know Steven Moffat has other plans for Clara, but Jenna-Louise Coleman is giving us a taste of what should have been — about which more anon.

"The Rings" is a solid and fairly typical Doctor Who adventure. The Doctor brings his new companion to a time and place he believes to be "awesome" but also safe. But coincidence, the Doctor's own (and typical) carelessness and Clara's own empathetic curiosity lead to the duo's immersion into a crisis of civilizations.

After giving Clara a geo-spatial over-view of where they're going — a planetoid among a ring system orbiting a gas giant — we cut to a bustling (if smallish; this episode's budget really shows in places) alien bazaar where any number of alien races put Clara's sang froid to the test.

The Doctor provides some exposition, then swans off. Clara spots a young girl who looks even more lost and afraid than she feels. Clara follows her. The girl is called Merry Gejelh, and is incredulous that Clara doesn't know she is "The Queen of Years." The young Queen explains she is needed for some sort of ceremony, and is afraid she'll mess it up. Clara convinces her that she, Merry, will do fine and takes her back to the bazaar, where the girl's escort take her back into their much-relieved custody. (Nevermind how easily she slipped that escort; she did, all right?)

Cue the return of the Doctor, who manages somehow (presumably aided by psychic paper) to procure front-row seats to what must the local equivalent of the announcement of a new Pope, at least. And of course, the Queen of Years is the star. The Doctor explains that,

[...] since the Rings were settled there has been a constant song sung to keep an angry god asleep. The people fear that the god [...] will awaken and consume the entire universe if the song is ever interrupted. Merry begins singing, joined by a chorister at the pyramid. During the song, a mummy in a glass case at the pyramid begins to awaken. Merry panics, believing she made a mistake [and a tractor beam pulls her] toward the pyramid and the mummy. (Thanks Wiki.)

Shades of 1987: Hover-cycles in spaaace! Screenshot, The Rings of AkhatenShades of 1987: Hover-cycles in spaaace! Screenshot, The Rings of Akhaten, copyright © BBC 2013.

Having none of that, The Doctor and Clara rent a space-cycle (why not take the TARDIS? Presumably a space-scooter was cool, at least until the episode's budget was slashed; we're not in 1970s FX territory, but we're not far off the 1980s) and set off in pursuit. This leads to a face-off, not just with the awakened mummy, but with a planet-sized entity that lives on stories.

The story's resolution, as is so often the case, depends too much on reversing the polarity of the neutron flow — in this case achieved through singing, story-telling and leaf-waving — for full dramatic satisfaction, but that's okay. We know the Doctor and Clara are going to survive; we watch for the journey, not the logic of climax. And in this case, though it makes little sense, Clara's sacrifice of "the most important leaf in human history" is moving because it feels true to Clara. And so, feels true to us.

Which brings us back to Clara, the new(ish) Companion, for whom the Doctor has an unhealthy fascination, because she is, he has said, "impossible!"

And maybe she is. We first met her in "Asylum of the Daleks", in which Coleman's performance was one of the very few highlights. She died in that episode, and died again in "The Snowmen" (which I have yet to review; subscribe to my newsletter to find out when I do). Happily, she did not die last week or this one, but there's no hope that Clara will be "only human".

So here we go again. Clara is Special, marked by Fate or Destiny or maybe, manipulated by some Power (the Great Intelligence?). And our job as viewers will be to parse forthcoming episodes for carefully-planted clues rather to engage in an organic dialogue with a fiction, like exploring the confines of a park, in stead of blazing one's own trail through a wilderness.

Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with giving the Doctor a Special companion — I loved Rose's arc with the Ninth Doctor, and even its variation in her single full series with the 10th — but as a steady diet, it palls.

Clara and the pumpkin-head god: The Rings of AkhatenClara and the pumpkin-head god. Screenshot detail from The Rings of Akhaten, copyright © BBC 2013.

Russel T Davies himself fell into a trap with Doctor Who; he wanted constantly to outdo himself conceptually, and so each companion's nature became the (or one of the) focus of the series. Along with the Doctor, Davies turned the Companions into superheroes. If Rose saved the universe, then Martha had to as well, and Donna must be "the most important woman in the universe", etcetera. Too often, spectacle and concept trumped story and emotion.

And Steven Moffat has chosen the same path, only with less balance. Moffat's Who is all puzzle, all the time, with Special Characters going through their paces. With less skill as a writer than Davies, when Moffat tries to get personal, as when the Ponds were talking divorce, the results are laughable. So all that remains is the mystery: How was Amy Special? How will her Destiny affect All Life In the Universe? Etcetera ...

Is it too much to ask that we be allowed a Companion who is not Special, and for a Doctor who can just be (an extraordinary) guy who travels in time and space? Is it too much to ask for stories that are about themselves, rather than next week's piece of some elaborate puzzle?

Since Steve Moffat remains at the helm of this beloved franchise, and since we already know that Clara is not just Special, but "Impossible!" of course it is too much to ask.

What Moffat seems unable to understand, is that it is character and story that makes a reader return to a beloved novel or even re-watch a children's adventure program. Consider the best episodes of Moffat's era. In "Vincent and the Doctor" the story was about a good man doomed by biology to a tragic end; it was a good story because it allowed for emotional complexity and faced painful truths that no polarity-reversal could fix. And in making a real person of the TARDIS itself, Neil Gaiman "The Doctor's Wife" the only episode of 2011 worth re-watching.

With "The Rings of Akhaten", writer Neil Cross' script and Jenna-Louise Coleman's subtle performance have given us an almost cruel taste of what might have been — and what, someday, might be again: a Doctor Who in which plot serves to motivate characters, not move them about the screen like so many robot chess pieces.

A classic? No. But an entertaining tale, well-told? Absolutely. I wish I could confidently ask for more.

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