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The Doctor’s Memories Can’t Wait: "The Rings Of Akhaten”

By C. Robert Dimitri | TV Reviews | April 10, 2013 | Comments ()


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A funny thing happened as I neared the end of the first act of the story in "The Rings of Akhaten." Merry Galel, the young Queen of Years, delivered her song in front of her people that told all of their voluminous history, and I found myself wondering -- if only for a moment -- if this episode of Doctor Who might buck the regular formula altogether: perhaps nothing major would go wrong. New companion Clara had already helped the girl with her stage fright, running contrary to my expectation that those trying to find the girl had something worse in mind. Plus, the relatively languid pace that introduced this alien world hinted at a change of pace. Would this episode be some sort of simple-in-plot yet complex-in-thought meditation on the culture of the sort of fantastical place that for my taste we see too seldom in The Doctor's televised adventures?

Of course, the standard formula did follow, as the girl was whisked away by this world's angry "god," prompting The Doctor and Clara to mount a rescue operation. However, it was a good sign that this tale gave me that sort of pause, because here was a world creatively rendered. The idea of a place that trades items imbued with sentiment, nostalgia, and memory for currency is an excellent hook. Certainly if I were able to lug my own collection of junk across the universe to this place (I'm something of a packrat and a collector), I could be a very wealthy guy, so it has that appeal.

Furthermore, the realization that a 1000-year-old Time Lord would have very little left in the way of physical objects that could carry sentimental value is a clever one. On a long enough timeline, someone is bound to realize that all the items he picked up along the way and tossed into a trunk on his TARDIS with its virtually limitless space are simply "things." They have utility, but ultimately they are as easy to jettison as one might trade in a scarf for a celery stalk or a Jelly Baby for a Jammie Dodger.

The Doctor brings Clara to Akhaten to show her something "awesome," but he only does so after discreetly checking out her past. We learn that the leaf in Clara's book fatefully blew into her father's face allowing him to meet her mother. We also learn that her mother passed away when she still young, thus perhaps explaining Clara's nanny instinct. By the end of the story, The Doctor's survey of the unaware Clara felt a little creepy, particularly when combined with his blatant testing of her potential mettle as a companion. Apparently disappear for a while and see how Clara does when confronted with a runaway child. Leave it to her to give up her dead mother's ring to pay for the rocket sled. Rely on her to surrender the precious leaf that finally sated the sun "god" ravenous for tales of experience.

Not all of those things were The Doctor's fault, but it only seemed right that he finally would admit to Clara that he had watched her as a child and that he initially chose her because she reminded him of a deceased friend. The Doctor still owes her more details than that -- namely that there were two other incarnations of her and all three share commonalities that seem too significant to be coincidence -- but he was not quite ready to own up to all of it. At least she received her ring back. (It just occurred to me that you could count that among the titular "rings" along with those of the astronomical variety if you like.)

Plus, The Doctor was noble at the right times as usual. He respects and appreciates the myth of Akhaten that holds it as the origin of all life in the universe, even if he is the one individual that could testify that it is only a legend. Per the rules he lays out for Clara, he does not "walk away," but he does run to protect that worth protecting. Most significantly, he's willing to sacrifice himself to the soul-eating sun, even if there was a twinge of melodramatic grandstanding in his speech delivery. (You better shout if you're going to try to communicate with that thing, though, right? And I was still tempted to transcribe his words.) That was another detail I quite enjoyed: The Doctor's past experiences are broad but still ultimately finite, but the simple infinite possibilities of Clara's mother's life ended prematurely flummoxed the beast.

Overall, I dug this one, even if I felt a little like a sap for buying into it, and I hope you bought into it too. As I mentioned, we visit immersive alien worlds far too infrequently on Doctor Who, and I look forward to writer Neil Cross' next offering. (He'll return just two episodes from now.) I also look forward to Jenna-Louise Coleman continuing to throw herself into this role as she did in that barking match with the alien that wanted to rent her the rocket sled.

Next week we have the return of a very old Doctor Who opponent and what should be a claustrophobic adventure on a submarine. Perhaps we'll also learn more about the mystery of Clara. Is there any significance to the fact that - per her own musing over the TARDIS's locked doors - that The Doctor's blue box does not seem to like her?

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Classic Doctor Who Bonus:

I can't tie too much of "The Ark In Space" into "The Rings of Akhaten." They both have words that begin with an "A" and contain a "K." They each have a companion's first journey on the TARDIS (Harry Sullivan and Clara, respectively). "The Ark In Space" references a solar flare disaster that was also referenced in "The Beast Below," Amy Pond's second adventure that shared situations similar to some of those in "The Rings of Akhaten," the second adventure of this form of Clara Oswald. No, truly I was just in the mood to see another Tom Baker portrayal of The Doctor this week.

When Doctor Who first returned back in 2005, one of my early reactions was a wish for more cliffhangers like the old days. Of course, in those old days, I was watching it in syndication, and in that format the cliffhanger usually just showed up at the 45-minute mark of a 90-minute adventure. Still, my skewed nostalgia assumed that the old way was better and that I had actually received quantitatively and qualitatively more science-fiction goodness when I was a kid.

It turned out that was not the case. Old Who and new Who are vastly different in pacing. It would be no problem translating the slow burn of "The Ark In Space" into a modern episode that would finish in less than half the time, thanks to quick dialogue, more rapid plotting, and a lot more running.

The story follows a spaceship full of humans left in suspended animation and intended to repopulate the Earth when it is safe to return. Unfortunately, their spaceship is contaminated by an insect alien parasite while they are still sleeping, and it is up to The Doctor to save the day.

"The Ark In Space" was recently named by a major entertainment publication as the best of the Tom Baker episodes. I would not agree with that, but it is a solid installment carried by Tom Baker's fun performance. Watch it for his ridiculous grin, a grin similar to the one that Eccleston delivered at the end of "Rose," thus insuring that - even if the debut was a bit shaky - I was back with the fun days of Doctor Who to stay. Also watch it because the way they did science-fiction back in the 70s was simply cool to soak up.

C. Robert Dimitri made all the display toy Daleks at Whimsic Alley in Los Angeles bellow "Exterminate!" and such at once this week. He also purchased that exploding Van Gogh TARDIS on a t-shirt.



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Comments Are Welcome, Douches Are Not


  • wonkeythemonkey

    I'm beginning to recognize that Clara's nature is a sort of inverse of The Doctor's. Both have an immortality of sorts, but where The Doctor's life is continuous yet ever-changing, Clara's is discrete and unchanging. The Doctor lives a single life of unmeasurably great length, while Clara lives multiple (many?) lives that are (from what we've seen so far) tragically short. The Doctor's appearance and personality reset while his memory remains intact; Clara retains her appearance and personality with each incarnation, but loses all memories of past lives.

    I'm interested to see if future episodes reinforce this notion or undermine it. Personally, I'd really like to see it made explicit and explored in depth.

  • Samantha

    I just wanted the Doctor to shut up for once. That scene with the leaf was Clara's moment, if anyone was going to talk it should've been her, instead of his near maniacal rant.

    And I like DataAngel's idea. That would be good.

  • F'mal DeHyde

    I thought it was one of the worst Doctor Who episodes I've seen. Clara's loudly inappropriate "delighted" laughter during the alien religious ceremony made me cringe. The vampire-in-the-box alarm clock made no sense to me... did his feasting on the queen (if he had gotten his hands on her) somehow funnel down to the sun god?

    It was one of those few episodes that really took me out of the story and made me realize how stupid the entire premise was and how really really hammy both Clara and the Doctor were in this. Just generally a dismal showing.

  • St

    I thought that maybe it was just first episode. But after I watched second I understood that new girl is just freaking boring. She is fine, nice, pretty and BORING. I didn’t like Amy Pond too much. But I was never bored with her and Rory.
    But those two new episodes with Clara for me personally were the most boring episodes in Matt Smith’s Doctor Who history. I used my Fast Forward button almost every time when Clara was speaking with girl, or those songs, and whole episode was looking so cheap and bad. Even by Doctor’s standards.
    I really wish they would replace her to someone more interesting. She is weak actress. She is pretty but that is it. I was never super big fan of Doctor Who. But watched every episode with new Doctor. If next 2 episodes will be as boring and weak then I might actually stop watching.

  • Meenakshi Arunachalana

    Don't understand all the hatred for this episode as I loved it. Thought it was beautiful.

  • Tinkerville

    I liked this episode a lot, but I enjoyed it purely because of Clara, The Doctor and little Alien girl-- the plot made practically no sense to me, even when I rewatched it. It was really unclear what the god actually was (a gaseous being I suppose, but that could've been clarified), what in the heck the mummy things were (the god's "alarm clocks" don't tell me anything), along with a bunch of other questions I was left with.

    I was also confused about the Queen of Years. So this girl inherits all of her people's stories, history, etc. so that it's enough to feed the god for a set amount of time when she's sacrificed to it? If that's the case, what's the purpose of the neverending song?

    This episode had a lot of great ideas behind it but the execution was kind of all over the place. I also loved the idea of a society that trades in sentimental value and monsters that feed on experiences, but it definitely could've been plotted better. Still great fun though.. I'm such a sucker for the emotional "choruses of people sing to a crescendo while the Doctor fights a big bad" kind of endings.

    Also, for some reason I'm thrilled that the TARDIS doesn't like Clara. It's such an interesting twist and I absolutely think it's going to be important later.

    PS: Are recaps coming out on Wednesdays now? Just wondering when to expect them.

  • ceebee_eebee

    I worship Neil Cross as a writer god and you just made my whole week with the news he's coming back for another go. JOY!

  • bleujayone

    Eleven more points....

    1. Okay, we were still debating on whether the sleeping god thing was in the form of a sun or a gaseous planet. The Doctor himself said something about seven inhabited worlds orbiting the same sun and having the same belief that the sun was where all life came from. Let's say that it is indeed the case here and somehow people can hop from satellite to satellite via space moped with worry of air or getting burned because suspension of disbelief and all. The "sun" was destroyed. what kept the planets together now that the gravity it made was gone, for that matter what about the light and heat?

    2. Option #2, is that it was some kind of gas giant planet near the sun, hence why it had rings around it and the moons it had were orbiting within its own atmosphere. Think of it as being similar to Mongo and its moons in Flash Gordon.They even zip around in a red sky on "rocket-cycles" in similar fashion. That way you wouldn't need to worry about such things as breathing air because everything is still surrounded by the gas giants atmosphere (assuming its breathable), We again would have the same problem of what would happen to everyone once the planet god blinked out of existence, but you could argue the atmosphere was left behind and that it would give everyone enough time to evacuate.

    3. I agree with the others in that if the Doctor offered up the sum of his memories he either should have been left a blank slate, or if he retained his memories, he would have at least lost the emotional attachments to them. Now they would just seem like one is watching someone else's records... I think it could have been touching if the Doctor lost the passion connected with his lifetime of experiences, It would have been far more of a sacrifice to watch his memories ebb away.

    4. Alright, I'm no botanist. But that leaf is NOT the same one as shown last week. The previous leaf was clearly a maple leaf. This one, though red, is not. I rather doubt this was an error on the part of the Props Dept., so I will have to assume someone is trying to be clever again.

    5. They skipped over a BIG course of events in that we have no idea what happened after the Sleeping God/ Soul Vampire was destroyed. I would've thought there would have been a massive suicide in that millions of people just had their faith proven to be a sham. If the Doctor and Clara not interfered, Merry would have been sacrificed and all would have been perhaps as its always been every 1,000 years for millions of years. This would be the equivalent of proving that Moses was nothing but a jealous second-born prince who want to screw up his brother's kingdom or that Jesus of Nazareth was just a bipolar carpenter. The point is that if millions of people suddenly had their religion debunked, many of them would not take it very well. We see that every day just when someone questions things much less prove otherwise.

    6. While it show that the TARDIS does indeed do things to show that it might like or dislike a passenger, the fact is that Clara doesn't have a key. The TARDIS doesn't every just open up for random people without one, and has even let in many undesirables when they do. As for not translating, even that has come up on more than one occasion as it doesn't always know everything. If the writers are going to be making this a new thing to show something wrong with Clara they are not being faithful to the past.

    7. When young Clara is talking with her soon to be doomed mother, I got a very similar vibe from "Father's Day" with Rose and her father Pete. I almost wonder if her demise is in fact going to contribute to Clara's current situation and that the Doctor might know more than they are currently letting on.

    8. I appreciate the singing here in that they were trying to make it seem like a proud and ancient religion. But it seemed to go on and on almost filling up run time t a story that doesn't have as much substance as it should have. Only the Doctor, Clara and Merry's performances keep the story afloat in what was otherwise a very empty story.

    9. I got a Satan Pit feeling from this in that Doctor has always know the truth behind the legend but so long as it helped keep everything in check it was acceptable. I'm not sure what was different this time from the last time the Doctor (and Susan) watched this sacrifice being made. Perhaps in that time he realized what they witnessed and decided to change things this time around.

    10. A slight side-bar; I hated much of what previous showrunner/producer John Nathan Turner did in his tenure over Doctor Who. But one thing I now in hindsight appreciate him doing was getting rid of the sonic screwdriver. Not because there was anything wrong with it, but rather because the writers kept using it as a crutch to get out of situations. It became a lazy fix-it-all and JNT felt it was used too frequently where the Doctor's brains and cleverness should have been used. The last few years he's used it as a scanner that can give the answers to everything, and in many ways a tech version of a Harry Potter magic wand. This episode was no exception and it has gotten way past tired.

    11. I imagine when Clara got back home and said that she felt things were different even though the Doctor assures her its the same time and place from where they left that something will indeed turn out to be different other that Clara's perspective from the trip.

    Overall a rather weak episode kept afloat by its leads. I'm hoping next week's return of the Ice Warriors might allow itself to be a fun romp.

  • Tinkerville

    10: When the Doctor only had his screwdriver on him I was really hoping that he would give it to the woman so we'd finally see the Doctor function without it again. During Eccleston's run it was used an acceptable amount but now it's just getting ridiculous.

    11: I agree.. I didn't think that they would make a point of talking about it feeling different unless something is off, but I could be wrong.

  • Morgan_LaFai

    But he can't give the screwdriver away until after the 2nd to last time he meets River Song cause he gives it to her so that her mind can be downloaded onto it and put into the library.

    Of course I could be wrong as the show has never paid that much attention to such things as that, so maybe it doesn't matter.

  • Lisa Bee

    Honestly, my only problem with this episode was that the leaf in the front of her book was CLEARLY a different leaf than in the first episode.
    The first one was a straight-up, perfectly shaped maple leaf (and I know my maple leaves. Syrup syrup syrup!).

    What happened to it? Did someone think it was garbage and throw it out? Sweep it up? Did it blow away in the wind?
    Did... did Matt like the taste of it so much that after he licked it he ate it?

    Other than that little nuisance, I quite liked this episode, really.

  • Jo 'Mama' Besser

    I went to the Maple Syrup Festival on Saturday and absolutely demolished everything that I brought back by Monday. I would do the worst things for another funnel cake or some back bacon right now. All of my purchased candy is but a memory, now.

  • Erin S

    I was having serious "The Beast Below" flashbacks with this one, although I see how the formula helps you and the companion get the idea that "you can go anywhere in the universe, see?" I also thought for a while that Amy's reading glasses were going to come up, what with the "items with sentimental value" bit. Those are her glasses, right?

  • Haystacks

    I feel foolish, but I am still not clear - if the God 'consumed' memories, does that mean the doctor now has lost a bunch?

  • F'mal DeHyde

    That's a good question but he didn't appear to lose the memories, just share them. Which is kind of stupid since they were apparently going to "eat" the Queen for her memories/knowledge.

  • toblerone

    I didn't love or hate this episode.

    Random Thoughts:

    I loved Smith's performance / The Doctor's monologue especially for conveying the Doctor's underlying loneliness and sadness at all he has lost.

    Clara realizing the Doctor was at her mother's grave has a bit ham-handed and unnecessary. Lost handed this far better in The Incident, Parts 1 & 2.

    The special / practical effects in this episode were probably the worst in Moffat's run.

    I wouldn't read too much into the Tardis being locked.

    I hated the singing.

    I love Jenna Louise Coleman - She has rocketed to Number 1 in my Pajiba Five.

    Thanks for the review.

  • NateMan

    I agree with many of your points, especially the special effects. They were god-awful. And they can have such good ones, even in HD, when they keep things expansive. But this was too small an episode, too many terrible looking aliens and too much zooming around on improbably vehicles to look remotely charming or realistic.

  • BWeaves

    OK, I didn't like this episode. It was missing all the witty banter that last week's episode had.

    1. Star Wars bar bazaar. How come the TARDIS didn't translate all the aliens' speech. Barking dog?

    2. Why did the Doctor just disappear and leave Clara on her own? Made no sense. It was only there to forward the story, and it was awkward.

    3. The TARDIS doesn't hate Clara. She simply doesn't have a key to it.

    4. The monster in the glass box was what? An alarm clock? Huh?

    5. The three very slowly moving metal mask creatures were what? I've never seen slower chase scenes. And then they just disappear for no reason.

    6. Where exactly was this floating asteroid thing, that the Doctor could ride a seadoo (airdoo?) to it?

    7. So the sunmonster did "what" to the Doctor after the Doctor asked it to take all his memories? Nothing?

    8. Clara's leaf kept getting bigger as the episode went on. Is she giving the sunmonster the finger?

    9. Somehow, I didn't buy Clara's "This leaf holds all the memories that never will be" thing, as a way of doing in the sunmonster. It's a giant ball of flaming gas. I doubt it could think existentially.

  • NateMan

    All the same reasons you gave, plus the fact that all those aliens and many of the effects, the gravity sled in particular, looked incredibly cheesy. I know part of the Doctor's fun is the cheese, but the show doesn't always lend itself well to HD.

  • Fabius_Maximus

    Seems to me like you couldn't suspend your disbelief for this one. Surprising, since Doctor Who calls for that a lot. Most of your complaints are so minor, they didn't even occur to me.

    5. They were the god's caretakers/guards. They couldn't find the girl in that scene, so they left. Later, after the god is awakened, the Doctor explains their disappearance.

    6. It was across from the other asteroid thing orbiting that gas giant the god was imprisoned in. Apparently, the asteroid cities and the "space moped" share the same technology, i.e. creating a breathable atmosphere that works for most of the inhabitants, as well as a gravitation field.

    7. Well, it started to take the memories, but it stopped when it realized that it would take the memories of another god.

    9. That wasn't a sun, it was gas giant. The planet acted as the prison of a god, probably one that was inspired by the Cthulu mythos (because tentacles).

    All in all, I think it was a good episode, especially after that abysmal first part of series 7. ("Asylum..." and the Christmas Special were merely okay.)

  • Drake

    Agreed. I wasn't grabbed at all by this episode either, for the many of the reasons you listed. Disappointing.

  • DataAngel

    The TARDIS didn't translate for the viewers because the TARDIS didn't translate for Clara. The TARDIS really doesn't seem to like her much.

    I really want Clara to turn out to be the Big Bad of the season. The Doctor is so wary of her at the same time he's so smitten by her I want it to turn out that he has to destroy her to save the universe.

  • Alexandra Roderick

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  • Jo 'Mama' Besser

    For Pete's Sake, I could menstruate more sensible spams than these!

  • clancys_daddy

    Who was the hydro-cephalic who up voted it?

  • Guest

    Cosign.

  • Sorry to keep pulling an Obama talking about AGs. But I fell in love with Jenna every time the camera cut to her. I liked the rest of the episode too. I'm new to the show so I'm still trying to get used to it. This episode was pretty endearing to the characters, even without me knowing some backstory as to why they would act so heroic.

  • NateMan

    Yes. My wife said "Wow. She just oozes charm, doesn't she?" And it's true. She's so full of life that I love her character.

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