“The Rings Of Akhaten” is written by Neil Cross, the showrunner of “Luther”, who was brought onboard Doctor Who’s writing team by one of the show’s producers, Caroline Skinner, during its seventh season. He was originally commissioned to write “Hide” (one of the first episodes of the season to be written and filmed), and because Steven Moffat liked his work on that story so much, he was asked to write a second episode as well that wound up becoming “The Rings Of Akhaten”. With “The Rings Of Akhaten”, the show decided to go big for Clara’s first trip to an alien planet (after her introduction in “The Bells Of Saint John“), and deliver some more of the spectacle Doctor Who had promised its audience for the show’s 50th anniversary season. Neil Cross frequently consulted with Steven Moffat about his ideas, and Steven’s input as showrunner wound up heavily impacting the final version of this episode: particularly when it came to Clara’s role in this story, and Neil Cross giving her her time to shine in the climax.
I honestly wish we saw more episodes from Neil after Series 7, because “The Rings Of Akhaten” and “Hide” are both pretty creative episodes, that give the Doctor and Clara a lot of rich, charismatic characterization in their forty-five minute runtimes. “The Rings Of Akhaten” was actually panned pretty heavily when it first aired, because a lot of people thought the tone of this episode was too saccharine, and the premise was too outlandish, even for Doctor Who. Now that several years has passed, the fandom has a much kinder view of it these days, and I’m glad to see this episode has gotten a lot more appreciation, because it’s actually my favorite episode of Series 7, alongside “The Name Of The Doctor“. The first thirty-minutes make for a sweet, adventurous, feel-good story, while the last fifteen minutes turn this episode into something truly special.
“The Rings Of Akhaten” actually starts on a pretty creepy note, that confirms the Doctor (Matt Smith) is definitely starting to become obsessed with the mystery of an ‘Impossible Girl’, when we’re treated to a montage of the Doc stalking Clara down her timeline: spying on her and her parents during her formative years, to see if there’s anything unusual about her. He only winds up determining that she’s just a regular human with an average, unremarkable background, which makes him more stumped than ever, but he doesn’t let on that he has any ulterior motives about wanting her to travel with him, when he goes to pick her up in the present day for her first trip through time.
The Doctor winds up taking her to a rings system in space comprised of seven worlds, who all worship a sleeping god in a temple and gather together once a millennia to appease him. As we established in “The Satan Pit“, the Doctor has been around for a long time and he’s an agnostic individual who believes in cold, hard facts over myths. He doesn’t believe in religious stories, like the kind the spacefarers subscribe to, but he doesn’t see any harm in them either. He won’t deny other people their faith unless it’s hurting someone, and in this episode, it’s definitely going to hurt someone, since the Doctor and Clara eventually discover that the Old God and his servants have been indoctrinating a little girl since birth to become a human sacrifice, whether she wants to or not. The Doctor is quite rightly disgusted when he learns of this, and he doesn’t waste any time trying to talk her out of it. He makes a pretty convincing argument, because as we all know, the Doctor has quite a way with words.
The Doctor decides to stand up for Merry and her people, and while he’s doing so, he decides to pass along his own personal philosophy to Clara, to give her an idea of what traveling with him is all about. If there’s a grave injustice happening, if people are in danger, you have a moral imperative to help, to do what’s right when nobody else will, even if it’s dangerous, which is something that takes true courage. In the Doctor’s eyes, every life has value, every life is precious, because every life is fleeting and finite. Any system that sacrifices one innocent life for the sake of a thousand, like the kind Akhaten is built upon, is sick, cowardly and unacceptable. It cannot be allowed to stand. The Doctor is personally appalled by the way the Old God has exploited and oppressed these people for thousands of years, so he’s willing to fight a god to save a planet, despite the terrible odds stacked against him.
Eventually, he decides to sacrifice his memories by letting the creature feast upon them, in the hopes that doing so will kill it. In a rare moment of vulnerability for the Doctor, we see him bare his soul as he looks back over his entire life – including the parts he usually chooses not to remember, because they hurt so much. Old wounds that have long since scarred, and fresh wounds that still haven’t healed fully, like what happened in “The Angels Take Manhattan” a few episodes ago. Matt Smith combines passion, anger, pride and grief into a single performance, and as a result, the climax becomes one of his finest hours as the Doctor. The Doctor’s plan fails, because as glorious as that scene was, this episode was not about him. Instead, Clara steps up to save the day with her own ingenious sacrifice, that fully cements her newfound friendship with the Doctor. However, the final scene makes it clear that the Doctor still missed the whole point of this episode. In his desire to solve a paradox, he’s so fixated on what Clara might be that he’s currently overlooking who she is as a person (which turns out to be the true reason why she became an ‘Impossible Girl’), and he won’t learn from his error in judgment until the season finale.
In “The Rings Of Akhaten”, we learn a lot more about Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman), the things she values and the experiences that shaped her life. A long time ago, a stray leaf in the wind brought Clara’s parents together when it led Ellie Oswald to save Dave Oswald’s life. So in a way, the leaf also brought Clara into the world, as the end result of her parents’ love for each other, and it became a cherished family heirloom. Clara loved her mom (who really helped to shape the person she grew up to be) dearly, so she was devastated when her mom died young and she lost her as a teen. To this day, Clara still keeps the leaf around to remember Ellie and honor her memory, and since she’s now living out her childhood dreams of seeing the world with the Doctor, Clara is feeling especially nostalgic.
The Doctor takes her to a world where sentimental objects are used as currency, where memories hold weight, and a person’s soul is considered to be the total sum of all the experiences they’ve had throughout their lives. Clara has a blast, trying to soak in as much alien culture as she can, when she bumps into a Merry Gejelh, a little girl on the run. Clara’s compassion for children is one of her most defining traits as a character: she doesn’t know anything about this kid or her world in general, but she cannot in good conscience ignore a terrified child in need. So she reaches out to her as a friend to comfort her and shares a story with her about her mom teaching her to face her fears as a girl, passing along Ellie’s wisdom. Clara’s bond with Merry is pretty cute, since she basically acts as her self-appointed big sis. Clara unknowingly talks Merry into putting herself in danger, and once she realizes that, she immediately takes responsibility for her mistake and rushes to save her. She tries to take the Doctor’s words of wisdom to heart and be the very best version of herself that she can be: for Merry and her planet.
When the Doctor’s plan to destroy the Old God fails, Clara manages to figure out a better solution. Overwhelming the beast with the past didn’t work, so she decides to kill it with the infinite potential of a future that went unlived – symbolized by a single, unlikely leaf. Over the years, Ellie Oswald’s memory has given Clara strength and helped her stay brave in trying times. Here, it actually manages to save an entire world. Because the life Ellie had, the impact she had on the world around her and the people she loved, it all mattered just as much as the Doctor’s thousand years of adventures: it’s an incredibly stirring, heartwarming sentiment from a show that has always championed the value of a simple human life. There are plenty of episodes of Doctor Who where the power of love saves the day somehow, but “The Rings Of Akhaten” is one of the rare times it feels completely earned by everything that built up to it.
Afterwards, Clara gets the Doctor to admit he sought her out as a companion because she reminds him of someone, so she makes it clear that she’ll only keep traveling with him if he treats her as her own person, and not as a stand-in for someone else. In other words, she has no intention of being what Martha was for the Tenth Doctor. And the people of Akhaten make sure to give her their thanks, for saving their world. “The Rings Of Akhaten” was quite a character-building episode for Clara, that allowed her to earn her stripes as a companion for something she did instead of her echoes. In this episode, Clara was kind enough to reach out to Merry about her problems, brave enough to get involved in alien business that she barely understood, and selfless enough to give up one of her family’s most precious heirlooms to save a world that was not her own thousands of years into the future. She definitely proved that she’s companion material, and I gained a lot of respect for after this adventure.
“The Rings Of Akhaten” devotes a lot more time to world-building than Doctor Who usually does: going out of its way to establish the unique setting of this story. Most of this episode takes place within a rings system in the far future, where the citizens of seven worlds both fear and worship a sleeping god who lies at the heart of their home. Every time a new millennium comes, they gather together to praise him and provide him with offerings to appease him. The Doctor naturally thinks it’s all a myth, but since this is “Doctor Who”, it turns out there’s some truth to the tall tales.
A giant alien parasite did set up shop in their neighborhood, thousands of years ago, so it could be worshipped, and since it’s a sentient creature, it’s also quite the hypocrite that demands love and respect from the people who depend upon it, but gives none in return. So, as the Doctor swiftly surmises, it’s basically your run of the mill tyrant who rules through fear and intimidation. It demands that the people of the ring system give it something of immense value every time it wakes up from its slumber, which is why the Queen of Years exists. The Queen of Years is the vessel of Akhaten’s culture, who knows every fact, every detail and every song about their culture: the perfect type of food for a creature that feeds on memories. While the people of Akhaten trying their absolute best to keep the sleeping titan resting, a select few of them keep the Queen of Years around as a contingency plan if worst comes to worst. The Queen of Years by the way is a little girl who they’ve been indoctrinating since birth to accept her fate as a human sacrifice as a necessary evil for the greater good, so that everyone else can live – and this has been traditional in their culture for quite some time.
The current Queen of Years, Merry Gejelh, rebels and runs away, because she’s afraid of the terrible responsibility that’s been foisted upon her, just like any child would be in her position. Clara gives her hope and convinces her that she won’t fail at her duties (because she has no idea what’s truly at stake here) – and then everything gets shot to hell. Once the Old God kidnaps her and commands she become his dinner, Merry accepts that she needs to die, but thankfully, the Doctor and Clara intervene and stand up for her. During one of several beautiful speeches in this episode, the Doctor breaks down his view of the world to Merry to make her aware of her own value, her own uniqueness, and her own right to live – to really drive home just how cruel and depraved it was that the adults around her would demand that kind of sacrifice from her, especially her so-called god.
After receiving plenty of emotional support from Clara, and plenty of inspiration from the Doctor, Merry wants to fight back so her world can be free of the Old God’s tyranny. During the climax, she gathers together with the other members of her chorus, so they can all show their support to the Doctor – which is why “The Long Song” packs so much power. It’s not just the Doctor standing up to the Old God and delivering a passionate speech, condemning everything he stands for. It’s also Merry Gejhel and her people finally finding their courage, refusing to be passive victims of a false god anymore, taking back control of their lives – and it is a beautiful sight to behold (thanks in no small part to Emillia Jones being a very talented singer). Clara finishes the job and kills off the lumbering tyrant for good, and afterwards, Merry and the others give her back her mother’s ring (which she had to trade away earlier, to save Merry’s life), to thank her for all she and the Doctor did for them, which puts a sweet little bow on this episode.
“The Rings Of Akhaten” is directed by Farren Blackburn, who returns to direct his second episode for Doctor Who after “The Doctor, The Widow And The Wardrobe” earlier this season. “The Rings Of Akhaten” is one of those episodes where the costume department has a massive workload to contend with. Since this episode is filled to the brim with alien extras, dozens and dozens of prosthetic alien costumes had to be created for this episode, to fill out several packed crowd shots. The set design throughout Series 7 has been pretty spectacular so far, from the Dalek Asylum, to the Silurian ship, to the town of Mercy, to Victorian London, and the show’s spiffy production values do not let up in this episode either. “The Rings Of Akhaten” has an Egyptian aesthetic in space going on for it – with golden temples floating out amongst asteroids and other space debris – that’s pretty gorgeous to lay your eyes on. Neil Cross’s vision of a bustling alien world is only held back by some wonky greenscreen effects at times, during the space moped chase scenes.
“The Rings Of Akhaten” is quite easily one of the best scores Murray Gold has written for the show, and the closest thing we’ll ever get to a Doctor Who musical. This story is one of the very rare times where Murray’s music gets to become diegetic, and he takes a very similar approach to it as he did with “Abigail’s Song” in “A Christmas Carol“. He writes an original, one-off melody to serve as the main theme of the episode; he seeds it in a few instrumental tracks like “The Leaf” and “Merry Gejelh” to set up the building blocks of it early on; then he gives it lyrics for the first time in “God Of Akhaten“; and finally he lets it flourish to its full potential in the two climatic tracks, “The Long Song” and “Infinite Potential“, where the Doctor and Clara bare their souls to Old God to bring him down. Other great pieces he wrote for this episode include “Something Awesome“, “Market Day“, “The Speeder“, “Never Wake” and “Always You, Never A Replacement“.
“The Rings Of Akhaten” is an episode that honestly makes you appreciate just how good Matt Smith and Jenna Coleman are as the Doctor and Clara, because this story was a pretty fantastic outing for both of them. And after I was a bit on the fence about her before, it’s the episode that fully sold me on Clara as a companion in 2013.
* “I’d like to see… I would like to see… what I would like to see is… something awesome!” Girl, you’re in luck, cause the Doc can certainly show you plenty of that.
* “What is it?” “The Pyramid of the Rings of Akhaten. It’s a holy site for the Sun Singers of Akhat” “The who of what?”
* “Do you know, I forget how much I like it here. We should come here more often” “You’ve been here before?” “Yes, I came here a long time ago with my granddaughter!” Heh, another Susan reference. That’s two in one season.
* “So, why is everyone here?” “For the Festival of Offerings. It takes place every thousand years or so, when the rings align. It’s quite a big thing, locally, like Pancake Tuesday”.
* “I’m the vessel of our history. I know every chronicle, every poem, every legend, every song” “Every single one? Blimey. I hated history”.
* “Listen. There’s one thing you need to know about travelling with me. Well, one thing apart from the blue box and the two hearts. We don’t walk away!”
* “Oh, that’s interesting. A frequency modulated acoustic lock. The key changes ten million zillion squillion times a second” “Can you open it?” “Technically, no. In reality, also no, but still, let’s give it a stab!”
* “Are you coming, then? Did I mention that the door is immensely heavy? Really quite extraordinarily heavy!”
* “Hey, do you mind if I tell you a story? One you might not have heard. All the elements in your body were forged many, many millions of years ago, in the heart of a far away star that exploded and died. That explosion scattered those elements across the desolations of deep space. After so, so many millions of years, these elements came together to form new stars and new planets. And on and on it went. The elements came together and burst apart, forming shoes and ships and sealing wax, and cabbages and kings. Until eventually, they came together to make you. You are unique in the universe. There is only one Merry Gejelh. And there will never be another. Getting rid of that existence isn’t a sacrifice, it is a waste”.
* I just have to say, the planet Akhaten – the Old God – looks a lot like a Jack-O-Lantern when it’s all lit up.
* “It’s really big” “I’ve seen bigger” “Really?” “Are you joking?! It’s massive!”
* “I walked away from the last Great Time War. I marked the passing of the Time Lords. I saw the birth of the universe and I watched as time ran out, moment by moment, until nothing remained. No time! No space! Just me! I walked in universes where the laws of physics were devised by the mind of a madman! I’ve watched universes freeze and creations burn! I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe! I have lost things you will never understand! And I know things: secrets that must never be told, knowledge that must never be spoken! Knowledge that will make parasite gods blaze! So come on, then! Take it! Take it all, baby! Have it! You have it all!”
* “Still hungry? Well, I brought something for you. This. The most important leaf in human history. The most important leaf in human history! It’s full of stories, full of history, and full of a future that never got lived. Days that should have been that never were, passed on to me. This leaf isn’t just the past, it’s a whole future that never happened. There are billions and millions of unlived days for every day we live, an infinity. All the days that never came! And these are all my mum’s!”
* “Infinite Potential“, the instrumental reprise of “The Long Song” that underscores Clara’s speech, would later make another return in “The Time Of The Doctor“, during the Eleventh Doctor’s final bow before he regenerated, which was a nice callback to one of the highlights of his tenure in my opinion.
* “Well, whoever she was, I’m not her, okay? If you want me to travel with you, that’s fine. But as me. I’m not a bargain basement stand-in for someone else. I’m not going to compete with a ghost” Quite right, Clara, quite right.
* “They wanted you to have it” “Who did?” “Everyone. All the people you saved. You. No one else: Clara” Aww…