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The Rings of Akhaten Review: Doctor Who: Series 7

Episode two of Doctor Who Series 7 part two called ‘The Rings of Akhaten’ was a surprisingly excellent addition to the series. The previous week, I had watched the teaser ad for this episode and I have to admit my expectations were low. It seemed at the time that this adventure would be yet another filler episode which would probably overuse the use of monsters and special effects to hide what I felt would end up being a forgettable entry. I was completely wrong! Scriptwriter Neil Cross does a fantastic job of giving us an exciting, funny, witty and emotionally charged episode. This review will contain spoilers so if you haven’t watched the episode before, you should watch it first if you have not done so already. The episode is currently screening on the BBC I-player at the time of writing this and will be available there for a month before being released later on DVD and Blu-ray. What I enjoyed most about this episode was that it took me completely by surprise; it’s themes, general impact on me emotionally and the spectacular character development created through the script.

Rings of Akhaten Poster

Copyright by BBC Pictures, Used for editorial purposes.

Following the last episode called ‘The Bells of Saint John’, ‘The Rings of Akhaten’ begins in the summer of 1981 where we see the Doctor reading a summer edition of the Beano comic while a catchy tune called ‘Ghost Town’ by The Specials is heard in the background which works perfectly within the scene for conveying the time period as the track was also released that year. On a quick side note, it was nice to see and hear my mum yell; ‘I had that copy of the Beano when I was younger!’ while we watched the episode together. Getting back to my review of the episode, the opening refers back to the previous episode where Doctor Who companion Clara Oswald explains to the Doctor that the leaf in her ‘101 places to see’ journal means page one. I assumed after watching the episode, ‘The Bells of Saint John’ that we would maybe have to wait a few more episodes of the series before discovering what the hidden message here was about but it’s explained now at the beginning of ‘The Rings of Akhaten’. We see a flashback of Clara’s parents meeting each other for the first time where her young Dad is nearly run over by a car while being distracted by a leaf which blows off a tree towards him. Meanwhile Clara’s Mum rescues him saving him from death. The following scene that we observe takes place at night revealing Clara’s parents running towards a house under umbrellas while it’s raining heavily where we assume they have both been dating for sometime and that the scene takes place some considerable time after their initial meeting. There’s a beautiful moment where Clara’s Dad holds the leaf that originally fell to him from the previous scene and explains how it’s the most important leaf in the whole of human history because if it hadn’t fallen from the tree, he would never have met Ellie, Clara’s Mum. It’s a lovely moment between the couple and I can’t help but feel a little soppy and slightly jealous of Clara’s Dad being able to come up with good lines like that and also because I haven’t really got anyone to tell stories to like that to in person. It’s nice to hear Clara’s theme played within the background soundtrack too which helps the viewer associate the characters with Clara. We’re given a glimpse of Clara’s upbringing as a baby before the scene shifts in time again with another flashback where the Doctor is accidentally spotted perhaps even deliberately watching the couple and introduces himself to them and Clara while she’s a little girl. I’m wondering whether Clara would remember the Doctor’s meeting here but we are left to assume that she doesn’t. Following this we visually see Clara and her Dad mourning her mother’s death over a grave while the Doctor watches from behind a tree. We’re not told the circumstances of why Clara’s mum dies so perhaps we’ll discover the reason later in the series. I felt that the cinematography was excellent here too featuring a good mix of shots, particularly the sequence with the Beano comic and car sequence.

There’s a scene which is similar to the whole story arc of River Song’s from series 6 where here again the Doctor attempts to make sense of a mystery which in this case is to discover the meaning behind Clara while in the Tardis time machine. For those not familiar with the character Clara, the Doctor first meets her three times in three different time periods. In each time period, Clara plays the same character of Clara Oswald Oswen but doesn’t seem to be connected directly to the events associated with the different versions of herself. The first two encounters she has with the Doctor, a Clara of the future and a Clara from Victorian times dies but the Clara Oswald that’s travelling with us in this episode lives in modern times where the Doctor is attempting to unravel the mystery surrounding her. ‘She’s impossible’ is a phrase that the Doctor uses to convey his confusion over the riddle. A scene taking place in the Tardis with the Doctor alone is helpful in establishing to the audience where we are in relation to the whole story arc of the series but on a negative note, it will be confusing to general watchers who haven’t watched the series so far.

After the main titles have kicked in, we see Clara sitting at the bottom of her baby sitting family’s home steps holding her ‘101 places to see’ journal. In the previous episode, Clara asks the Doctor to come back the following day rather than simply leave with him immediately which comes across as if she’s playing hard to get or simply reveals that she’s testing how trustworthy the Doctor is. She had said the evening before that she would think about running away with him to explore the Universe. The Doctor does return and Clara begins her adventures with the Doctor. I felt it was a nice scene to have, almost a nod to Amy Pond from series five where the Doctor does not return the following day but by misfortune arrives two decades later. This time he does return and I feel that the script writer may have planned this deliberately from having watched previous episodes. My imagination lets me believe that perhaps the Doctor is learning from his past mistakes although arriving back to see Ameila was more of a mistake with timing than on purpose.

I thought the scene inside the Tardis was really funny where Clara is asked by the Doctor where she would like to go. The Doctor says she can go anywhere, anytime, anyplace.. within reason. Clara attempts to think of somewhere and a specific time she would like to explore but struggles to decide. It’s a very humorous moment where the actress, Jenna Louise Coleman does a fantastic job of bringing fun to the scene, talking as quickly and spontaneously as the Doctor does. She decides she wants to go somewhere ‘awesome!’

Our time travellers venture to somewhere we haven’t seen before during a scene where the Doctor escorts Clara from the Tardis while placing his hands over her eyes then lifting them to reveal an alien world. The scene feels very much like Amy Pond’s scene back in series 5 where the Doctor lifts Amy out of the Tardis by her leg as she looks at the Universe for the first time. With Clara’s eyes now free to see, revealed on screen is a massive widespread space panorama which looks gorgeous. We can see stars, a massive red flamed planet and a rotating asteroid planet while smaller rocks float in mid space. It’s a beautiful moment and the special effects here are breathtaking looking better than anything seen in the earlier seasons of the show.

The Rings of Akhaten Monsters

Copyright by BBC Pictures, Used for editorial purposes.

The Doctor and Clara head for the planet next and we see our two companions enter a bustling market place filled with alien creatures from around the universe. I really liked this scene, it features uplifting music in the background while Clara and the Doctor explore the many creatures which are walking around. The set design, costumes and props are exceptional here and I like the style of smaller sets used for this season of Who where sets are filled with detail in confined spaces. The scene also reminds me of the Cantina scene from George Lucas’s Star Wars trilogy and there are plenty of Aliens which looking at now, I wouldn’t be surprised if they had been in earlier Doctor Who episodes from the classic who era. I’ll need to improve my Who knowledge to find out if there are any featured here. One of the Aliens has a funny name, a Hulavoo which sounds almost like a pun on the Hulahoops crisps you can buy especially when the alien’s head is shaped exactly the same as the snacks, maybe even a product placement! Furthermore, the Doctor initiates a strange and humorous hand shake with an Alien creature almost in the style of Walt Disney’s 1998 ‘The Parent Trap’ where Annie performs a special handshake with her grandfather. The best Alien has got to be the creature that barks. It took me completely off guard while I watched the episode and it makes me laugh every time I see it. Instead of speaking English or Alien speech, it’s language is barking. Clara initially thinks the creature doesn’t like her but the Doctor unexpectedly and comically barks back at the creature and then explains that it’s simply asking if she would like to buy a moped. The Doctor then suddenly makes a quirky ‘wee’ moped noise which is bound to raise a few laughs. I’m pretty sure there was an Alien creature that I’ve seen from a David Tennant Doctor Who episode as well at some point, please let me know below in the comments any creatures you have recognised. Also while exploring, the Doctor offers Clara a drink of some exotic Alien juice which I felt was a nice little touch even though Clara didn’t seem to like it too much. All of these little additions I believe help to let the viewer’s imagination think of a world greater than the events that take place within the episode’s plot and it leaves room for further exploration in perhaps future episodes. A highly enjoyable scene.

The Rings of Akhaten Pyramid Asteroid

Copyright by BBC Pictures, Used for editorial purposes.

The Doctor vanishes at this point for reasons we never find out about and we follow Clara as she begins to explore independently. A little girl runs scared through the marketplace followed by two men wearing red robes. We hear from them that the little girl is called the Queen of Years. Clara is curious and follows her in an attempt to see if she needs help. Clara then finds herself in a dark room which is a scary scene because we feel that a monster may attack her at any moment. The music tenses up here and there are a few jumpy moments until Clara finally catches up with the little girl. The two laugh with one another as they realise each other mean no harm. There are three extremely scary looking monsters though which arrive on the scene who are searching for Merry, the little girl. Their appearance is very similar to the mask that Hannibal Lecture wears which is extremely creepy considering that Doctor Who is a family show. Their costumes are great and the way they move adds a feeling of creepiness to the episode.

Clara escorts the little girl to the Tardis and there’s a few class moments with Clara when she whistles while signalling to an Alien passer by pretending nothing suspicious is happening. Upon finding the Tardis, Clara attempts to open it but it’s locked. She attempts to open it again by tapping on the Tardis door but it won’t budge. I liked this idea that the Doctor can only open the Tardis or perhaps the Tardis senses something about Clara that she doesn’t trust. By the way, the Tardis is female which is explained in the episode, ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ from series 6. The door being locked could be something significant and key to the whole series arc which might be explained later on in the series though it may just be a moment of bad luck for Clara. Either way, it was nice to see.

There’s a lovely scene where Clara and Merry sit behind the Tardis. Merry explains to Clara that she’s scared of getting it wrong and Clara tells her a story of when she was scared. It’s an excellent character moment for Clara and the scene really shows off Jenna Louise Coleman’s acting abilities. Clara’s story makes a point of saying that even though you feel scared sometimes, you’re never completely lost. We’re given a flashback of Clara’s mum saying to Clara as a little girl that she will always come and find her which was nice to see in the episode. I thought the acting ability of Merry played by Emilia Jones was really excellent too performing her lines with realism and clarity. She proves that she is well beyond her years and I’m sure she’ll have a successful acting career in the future. Merry’s character was interesting where the idea of having the knowledge of all of her nation’s history, every chronicle and song was inspired. I felt Clara’s dialogue saying that she hated history at school was funny as it wasn’t one of my favourite subjects myself. I also liked the reference to Blackpool Beach where her Mum had got her fish and chips, a memory I can relate to myself while I went on a summer holiday once to Blackpool.

Following these scenes, we’re given our first experience of the beautiful choir soundtrack that is heard in this episode. It sent chills down my back and brought the whole episode alive. Clara and the Doctor are seen scrambling for a seat in a massive spectator stand filled with Alien creatures! There was a lovely touch of humour as the aliens made room for them and I liked the Doctor’s history lesson about the world they were visiting while he holds an alien leaflet, not to mention the Doctor’s glasses, they’re cool! Merry’s singing is wonderful and I really liked the idea of communicating between the rock planet and pyramid planet through song. The idea is continued by revealing a massive door which can be opened by singing a specific song. It’s at this point, we see what we believe is Grandfather, a scary looking monster who sits asleep in a massive glass panelled box. There is a great special effect shot of the Alien creatures providing offerings where tiny particles are seen rising into the air. The crowd also begins to sing where there is a lovely moment where all of the Alien creatures and our two companions sway shoulder to shoulder singing. More humour was provided here while the Doctor attempted to sing not knowing the words to the song.

Matt Smith reading the Beano comic

© BBC. Image used for editorial purposes.

All of a sudden the man on the Pyramid asteroid stops singing, failing to ensure the song never ends. Merry is levitated into the air and pulled towards the Pyramid asteroid from the Alien planet’s ground. The Doctor and Clara attempt to rescue Merry where there’s a key character moment where the Doctor tells Clara that ‘we don’t walk away’. The piece of dialogue really sums up one of the Doctor’s main rules of being a time lord and it’s repeated later on in the episode where he tells Clara that ‘we don’t walk away but when we hold onto something precious, we run as fast as we can’. I feel this is interesting learning about the Doctor as it reveals his flaws but also the difficulties he has to endure as he can’t always save the day and has to suffer the consequences. Clara makes a funny jive at the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver calling it a spanner which almost comes across as a suggestive joke but also demonstrates how Clara enjoys making fun out of the Doctor at every opportunity which shows her independence and strength. The Doctor rushes back to the barking alien we saw earlier and wants to rent the moped that had been introduced earlier in the episode. There was a nice moment here where the Doctor has to be provide something valuable which is the currency used to rent the space vehicle. Clara reveals bravery and thought for others by offering her mother’s ring. The Doctor clearly looks uncomfortable taking the ring but they have no other option so allows Clara to give it up. Following this is a particularly ‘bad’ special effect shot of Clara and the Doctor riding through rocks to reach the Pyramid asteroid. I’m surprised how bad the shot looks considering how much money and time is spent on episodes. It doesn’t distract too much but it’s a shame it looked so bad and obviously was computer generated. As they arrive, there’s a funny moment where Clara has such a tight grip around the Doctor’s neck that he can’t breath. The whole episode seems to feature humour at every opportunity which is highly welcome, especially as the Doctor has had a few episodes in mourning after Amy and Rory’s departure from the series.

The Rings of Akhaten Promo Picture Featuring Matt Smith and Louise Jane Coleman

Copyright by BBC Pictures, Used for editorial purposes.

Now on the Asteroid where Merry has been taken inside the Pyramid, the Doctor unlocks the large door by hacking into the acoustic sound lock with the use of his sonic screwdriver. I liked the notion that the door was heavy and even with the use of the sonic, the Doctor struggled to keep it open. Clara rushes in to save Merry but she refuses to leave, having been too focused on her duty. She reveals that she has special powers and places Clara in a trap where she can’t move, Merry controlling her with mind powers. Matt Smith demonstrates great skill with dialogue when he assesses the situation and realises that Merry isn’t going to come away with them so allows the main door to close, trapping himself, Clara and Merry within. Meanwhile the man wearing the robes is still singing attempting to keep Grandfather asleep. There’s a nice moment when the Doctor kneels down in front of him explaining that his efforts are useless and the singing then suddenly stops. ‘The song has ended’ is the line spoken by the Doctor before the man warps away using a device that is very similar to that used by River Song, a vortex manipulator. Suddenly the monster wakes up within the glass box, screaming with anger. There were some excellent shots of the ugly monster attempting to escape from the box, yelling and pulling monstrous faces towards the Doctor, Merry and Clara. The Hannibal Lecture looking monsters warp in too which look and sound as creepy as ever. The script surprises us again as Clara and Merry escape through a secret door which Merry opens by singing a secret song while the Doctor battles with the monsters using his sonic.

The biggest twist of the episode occurs here while the Doctor is battling the oncoming Monsters. He manages to catch up with Merry and Clara but suddenly the Monsters disappear and Grandfather breaks out of the glass box. A special effect shot reveals Grandfather projecting a massive bright light towards the red fire sun and then he collapses dying while the Monsters disappear. The Doctor has a sudden realisation that he has made a tactical error. He explains that Grandfather is merely an alarm clock for the real enemy, a massive Sun god of terror which is the size of the red sun Planet. I enjoyed this episode’s twist and like many others, I never saw it coming. Neil Cross drops in some additional light humour with the dialogue where the Doctor speaks of eating Lake District scones and he explains that the foe he faces is massive. This all sets up the climax of this episode. I liked Clara’s bravery by telling the Doctor that she can assist despite the Doctor’s reluctance to accept her help in fear of her Safety. It portrays Clara as a worthy companion and I’m looking forward to seeing how Clara will assist the Doctor in future adventures.

Rings of Akhaten Sun God

Copyright by BBC Pictures, Used for editorial purposes.

The climax of the episode is the highlight of the whole programme. The Doctor faces up to the giant red Planet of terror with a spectacular confrontation which begins with Merry singing a song to lift everyone’s spirits. The Doctor decides that he will tell a story and Matt Smith provides a heart wrenching speech which had my stomach beating. The last time I felt like this was during Amy and Rory’s departure at the end of ‘The Angels take Manhattan’. The scene really shows off Matt Smith’s acting ability and I’m so glad we’re given scenes like this in Doctor Who. ‘Take mine, take my memories’ the Doctor pronounces. He speaks passionately of things he has seen, the last great time war, the birth of the Universe, being left alone with nothing but himself while worlds were destroyed, time lords killed. He speaks of losing things which the sun god will never understand, having knowledge of events and secrets that must never be told. The Doctor sheds a tear as he pours all of what he knows towards the God which feeds on the memories and knowledge of others. ‘Take it, take it all baby!’ he shouts as masses of energy from the Doctor is projected out. The music is so uplifting here and it brings the episode to an all time high. Surprisingly, the Doctor doesn’t manage to completely satisfy the hunger of the Sun god. It is Clara who delivers the killing blow, sacrificing her most precious object of all, the leaf that brought her parents together. Clara’s speech is equally as well performed by Jenna Louise Coleman as Matt Smith’s dialogue and the script is really special here, where Clara explains that the leaf contains so many memories but also the many days that never were. The Doctor then realises that infinity is just too much for anyone’s thirst and the Sun god explodes and vanishes. This is probably one of the most memorable scenes from Doctor Who I’ve seen for a while and it’s one reason to see the episode just to see this one scene, it’s that good.

The final scene really sets up where we are with the whole Clara story line. I’m getting used to the new look Tardis although I preferred the old one, the space themed Tardis is an interesting concept and I’m looking forward to a future episode called ‘Journey into the centre of the Tardis’. There’s an interesting moment when Clara remembers that the Doctor was at her mother’s grave the day she mourned for her. This could be the start of an interesting plot development between the Doctor and the companion where she will be attempting to discover what the Doctor is hiding from her. Clara’s ring is returned as a gift from all of the Alien creatures she saved which I liked to see. Overall, a surprising episode which isn’t as epic as the likes of Moffat’s two part episodes but is one of the stronger stand alone episodes. I will review the following adventure called ‘The Cold War’ where I have different feelings about that one.

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