‘The Rings of Akhaten’, written by Neil Cross, is an wonderful exercise in world building, creating a vivid alien backdrop for the adventure. Just as in ‘The End of the World’ and ‘Beast Below’ the companion is taken out of their comfort zone to prove their worth.
The result is a thrilling story that examines childhood fears, faith and the nature of sacrifice.
Spoilers From Here On
While ‘The Bells of Saint John’ kept its plot to a minimum to allow for the reintroduction of the Doctor and Clara this episode uses its plot to examine the new companions background and personality.
The opening, with the Doctor taking a whistle stop tour of Clara’s childhood, is reminiscent of his relationship with Amy but is also an effective means to examine her backstory. Within a few minutes director Farren Blackburn captures the feel of the eras (from the 80s to 2005) and communicates to both the viewer and the Doctor that Clara is a real person, even she impossibly has an incarnation in the past and the future.
Having performed a background check the Doctor whisks Clara away to the titular rings of Akhaten, where the aliens of seven worlds all believe is the origin of life in the universe. When Clara asks if its true the expression on the Doctor’s face indicates that it isn’t but what he says is that it is what they believe.
This lets us know from the start that this story is going to be an exploration of faith. It is not so much what is true or false but that people believe in something. This is important for the Doctor, who so often asks for others to put their faith in him.
The mixture of aliens on the Rings of Akhaten are an amusing hodge-podgy of the types of aliens we have seen before. No one is going to argue they are realistic but their sheer variety and imagination is entertaining. Their design brought back fond memories of ‘Farscape’.
Clara soon runs into Merry, a young girl who is the current Queen of Years, fleeing her responsibilities for fear that she will get them wrong. Emilia Jones does a great job here, putting in a believable performance and creating a convincing bond with Clara.
We see here that Clara can cope on her own without the Doctor, no doubt aided by her years of child minding. Her tale of her childhood nightmare of becoming lost being made real and the reassurance offered by her deceased mother lends us insight into her character and foreshadows the fact that a soul and the stories that make us are the same thing.
The resulting ceremony, where Merry has to sing their mummy-like Grandfather to sleep, is a triumph of SFX and musical design. The vast arena, crowded with aliens is glorious to see, just as the ceremonial song is beautiful to listen to.
Of course it all goes horribly wrong as Merry is snatched away and their ancient god begins to awaken. This establishes one of the important rules for the Doctor and his companions, they never walk away.
The scene in which the Doctor persuades Clara to give up her mothers ring, an item of great sentimental value, taps into the theme of sacrifice. The Doctor displays little awareness of how difficult the action is for Clara, almost as if he expects his companions to give up their past for him.
The rescue on the holy golden pyramid where the mummy stirs to life is extremely ominous, especially as a chorister repeatedly sings a verse, beginning the god to slumber once more.
Here the Doctor shows his absolute disdain for the practice of sacrifice and for so-called gods. Merry has been taught all the stories of the planets to make her soul all the more delicious for Grandfather. She was shaped and crafted to perform a function, at the cost of her life.
This may be deliberate attempt to highlight the Doctor’s own talent for turning his companions into tools and weapons, as pointed out by Davros. It may also be particularly relevant to Clara, whose nature may not be natural.
The appearance of the Vigil, a taskforce designed to make sure the Queen of Years performs her duties, are brief but effective. Their whispering voices and masks, which are reminiscent of the Silence, are chilling.
The stakes are increased with the revelation that the mummy is not the ancient god but the planet Akhaten itself, possibly the biggest opponent the Doctor has ever faced. His refusal to run, giving Clara time to escape with Merry, demonstrates the sheer bravery of the character.
Merry is elevated from mere victim by her choice to put aside her fear and sing a new, defiant song. This music delight works well with another stand-out performance from Matt Smith, as the Doctor gives a blistering speech to the god, calling it little more than a parasite.
The song and the Doctor’s sacrifice gives Clara the will to give up her most treasured possession, the leaf that brought her parents together. This display of pro-activeness and willingness to do what must be done shows why Clara makes the grade as a companion and helps diminish the disappointment of another ‘Love Conquers All’ ending.
This story encapsulates the shows philosophy that the lives of ordinary people are important, more so than the actions of higher beings. Their loves, triumphs, loses and sorrows are greater than anything a god could experience.
For all his power the Doctor has had these experiences, on a scale that is almost unimaginable. This doesn’t make him a deity but more human and most importantly, humane.
The end, with Clara realising that the Doctor was in her past, allows her to define herself as a character in her own right. For the first time she steps out of the shadow of mystery that surrounds her. Whatever the reason for other incarnations of her she is her own person.
I think I enjoyed this story more than ‘The Bells of Saint John’ because it not only explored an alien culture but was the first story to really let the character of Clara breath, freed of the break neck dialogue exchanges in Steven Moffat’s scripts.