Review: ‘The Rings of Akhaten’


In 1995, Bruce Willis – then undergoing something of a career renaissance – starred alongside Milla Jovovich in The Fifth Element. It’s a film I’ve always hated. It looks utterly beautiful, but I have no idea what’s going on most of the time, chiefly because Jovovich’s role is mostly to witter on incoherently. Then Gary Oldman turns up sporting an American accent to rival David Bowie’s turn in Twin Peaks. Oh, and then there’s Chris Tucker, about whom I could say a great many unflattering things.

But there’s one scene that always holds my attention, and it’s this one.

Why am I showing you this? Well, if you’ve seen it you’ll probably have guessed, but ‘The Rings of Akhaten’ was – to all intents and purposes – this scene, padded out to three quarters of an hour. Oh, there was a bit more to it than that. There were references to at least two sci-fi classics, a bit of backstory for Clara, and an ending so predictable even my five-year-old could have seen it coming. And I confess this openly and without malice: I thoroughly enjoyed it.

For sure, the opening was a bit creepy. The extended flashback where we got to see Clara’s parents meet and fall in love and then have children is quite sweet until you remember that the Doctor is casually observing it all, like some sort of extraterrestrial peeping tom. It ends with a teenage Clara standing at her mother’s graveside, seemingly unaware that she’s being watched from behind a tree.


And you know, you get the feeling the chief writer made sure this bit went in. You know. As a reminder.


After this, the Doctor dances. Almost literally. There’s a weird mating ritual going on round the TARDIS console. The two of them won’t keep still; it’s practically musical theatre. You keep expecting one of them to belt out a bit of Sondheim, or perhaps this:

Yes, I know, it’s a stretch (and the quality isn’t great), but any excuse to get this song in somewhere.


“Consider yourself / Well in…”

The story kicks off properly when they reach the Rings of Akhaten, which takes the form of a Cairo bazaar populated by at least half the residents of the Star Wars cantina. It’s a derivative (intentionally so, from what I’ve read) but impressive sequence that must have eaten up most of the budget, which would presumably explain why the rest of the episode takes place mostly in a dimly-lit stone chamber and a CG amphitheatre. (Last year, we visited a Doctor Who museum in Bromyard whose big pull was that the private collector who owned most of the exhibits had spent a small fortune amassing every alien you saw for the bar sequence in ‘The End of Time’. Presumably he was checking his available balance as soon as the closing credits for tonight’s episode started to roll.)


This was, I will admit, rather good.

The Doctor produces exotic fruit that looks like mood lighting, and then vanishes, leaving Clara to console a frightened princess, hiding from her guards for fear she’ll make a mistake in the big end of term concert. Clara is able to empathise, thankfully not by telling her about the time she blew an ‘A’ instead of a ‘G’ when the recorder group were performing ‘Go And Tell Aunt Nancy’ to the year threes, but about the time she got lost on Blackpool beach. (I once heard a story about Blackpool beach, about two lions who escaped from the local zoo and took a wander along the beach, whereupon one exclaimed to the other “Not many people about for a bank holiday”. I mention it here because it is quite frankly more interesting than Clara’s.)

Princess Merry (which, I’m sorry, sounds like something out of Enid Blyton, and not in a good way) is being pursued by the Vigil, who “look a bit like the Empty Child” – those quotes belong to Thomas, who was watching with us. The Vigil are another example of the classic Who opening act; we assume they’re the villain of the week but their prime role is to have a wand duel with Matt Smith in a scene that’s so Harry Potter it’s frankly embarrassing.


I’m getting ahead of myself here. First we have Merry singing, just before she’s spirited away to a grisly fate, which leads to the Doctor and Clara borrowing the rocket cycle from Flash Gordon.


The Vigil are guarding Grandfather, a sleeping god trapped in a glass box. His chamber is guarded by an impassable polystyrene door which the Doctor is able to penetrate solely with technobabble, before holding it open in this week’s Comedy Gold moment. The door rises and descends with such unerring swiftness it practically slides out of its groove. It’s so wobbly it’s like we’re back in The Hand of Fear. Let’s skip over that, shall we?

In a sudden twist, the god-in-a-box is revealed to be an alarm clock, which would explain why he’s so ticked off (you see what I did there). It turns out the mythical god in question is in fact the entire sun, albeit a sun that resembles a carved-out pumpkin.

Happy Halloween.

Happy Halloween.

The sun / god thing demands a sacrifice: it wants a shrubbery the soul of the Queen of Years. Except the Doctor isn’t playing ball, and is determined instead to take on the god himself. This leads to a beautifully lit but frankly embarrassing monologue from the Doctor, who talks about all the things he’s seen and done – food enough for any hungry god. It’s the sort of omnipotent weary traveller bluster I thought we’d seen the last of when the Ponds gallivanted off to Manhattan, but it would seem the Lonely God thing can still get hauled out of the archives when you need something to fill up that climactic minute. I was quite enjoying it at first, but when Smith started quoting Blade Runner, bellowing “I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe!”, I wanted to break his fingers.

Gorgeous lighting. Shame the dialogue deteriorates so quickly.

Gorgeous lighting. Shame the dialogue deteriorates so quickly.

And there’s another thing. Who remembers this?

Don’t watch the whole thing, it’s car-crash TV. Just skip to the two minute mark and that little scene with Gwen. You see what I mean.

Of course, it’s Clara who saves the day, because the god feeds on things of value, and Clara has the leaf that brought her parents together – the cryptic ‘first page’ from last week’s installment  Her argument is that the leaf represents potential, as in days unlived, and that this ought to be enough to satisfy any god. This makes about as much sense as Sir Bedevere’s assertion that witches burn because they’re made of wood, but since when did religious fundamentalism have anything to do with common sense?

Lame. Seriously lame.

Lame. Seriously lame.

Too much staring. But she's fun.

Too much staring as well. But she has a certain charm.

Oh, look, the whole thing was a mess. I know that. But it was a joyous mess. Smith and Coleman bounce off each other with flair, and it’s nice to see the Doctor actually enjoying himself again after the heavy brow that beset him in 2012. Coleman herself is including far too many ‘meaningful’ looks in her repertoire, but she’s not yet slipped into the irritating phase – something that I fear will happen the more we discover about her, as we did with River Song, but as an enigma she has a certain charm. Farren Blackburn directs with competence; Cross’s script is also competent, if melodramatic and occasionally silly (I could really have done without the dog barking), and thematically the thing hangs together pretty well, to the extent that I’m prepared to forgive some of its structural flaws and eyebrow-raising moments. In Clara, the Doctor has found a reason to travel again – and I, in turn, may have found a reason to watch.


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10 thoughts on “Review: ‘The Rings of Akhaten’

  1. After last week (which I found rather annoying with its fiveshadowing for the season), I was quite pleased with this episode.

    I do wish they’d tone down the score a bit. Sometimes it’s just TOO MUCH. And I also thought of The Fifth Element.

    I was amused, though, having just read that comic this week with Troughton taking Zoe and Jamie to an interstellar mall, to see that it was essentially the first place Smith took Clara.

    Also! There was a Hooloovoo! That made me smile. I do love when they tip hats to DNA.

    The 6y/o (who has refused to watch any episodes unless they contain Eccleston or Rose) actually sat and watched a good portion of this one with me. He and the 7y/o lost interest after 20 minutes of singing, though.

    Um…I had other things to say, but I seem to have forgotten them.

    • reverend61

      Oh, I’ve been wishing for years that Murray Gold would turn it down a bit. I will allow it, however, in the singing sequences, and also the bit when the Doctor was doing his monologue, because it drowned him out.

      From what I’ve seen a lot of people didn’t like this episode, and I can fully understand why. I just found it quite sweet, and ultimately life-affirming. Call me a sap.

  2. Missus Tribble

    In all of this I saw the Cantina, thought of the beautiful blue alien, cracked up laughing at the mention of the Hooloovoo (I got the impression that The Doctor was winging it because *he* didn’t know what most of the aliens were either) and got a sudden craving for a Kronk burger with cheese.

    You’re right; it was a pretty rubbish episode. With that said, it was brilliant rubbish and I enjoyed it for the most part 🙂

    • reverend61

      I know, it really wasn’t great. But I enjoyed it! Maybe I’m going soft in my old age.

      • Missus Tribble

        I suspect that we’re going to get the same whimsical fluff for a while and then – *BOOM!* – the big reveal for the 50th is going to smack us between the eyes and blow our brains out 🙂

      • reverend61

        I still think the big reveal will be that the Doctor’s name is actually Ken.

      • Missus Tribble

        Haha! That wouldn’t surprise me one bit!

  3. Jim

    I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone trash an episode of a show so much while still maintaining throughout that they enjoyed it. Also, in the future, if your really want to pick up more viewers, attempt to share your REAL thoughts on the piece you are reviewing, as opposed to regurgitating a bunch of tropes you spotted in the show, which any 10 year old can do with an internet connection. What makes a review interesting and worthwhile is when the writer avoids traps like giving the reader a shopping list of things they found cliched or tropey. There isn’t a single original point in your review.

    • reverend61

      Well, aren’t we Mr Grumpy this morning?

      I’ve just looked back at this review, having not read it in a while, and I do agree it’s not one of my better ones. I do try and adhere to certain standards when I’m writing online, but I don’t get paid for this, and that means I have no one’s expectations to meet except my own. I think I’m entitled to the occasional bad day!

      Your criticism that this was basically a list of tropes and cliches does hold some validity, even if you overstate your case a bit (as well as ignoring my comments about Clara’s story, the dodgy special effects and the entire last paragraph). I summarised the episode in this manner because that’s precisely what it was: a classic example of a first-time writer dropping in as many references to other stuff as he possibly could (whether he intended to or not) because it clearly helped him structure the episode. You may say that I’m being tropey when I refer to the rocket cycles as something from Flash Gordon, but my not saying it won’t make it any less obvious. The market bustles with the business of the Star Wars cantina because that was the most effective comparison I could think of (and the creative team specifically said the same thing, although I didn’t realise this until later). And you can’t look me in the eye and tell me that the Blade Runner reference in the closing speech was an accident.

      So the fact that I spent the entire review talking about tropes or idioms was, now that I look back at it, a very deliberate imitation. You tell me – again, with some validity – that “there isn’t a single original point”, but even if that’s the case (and originality really is subjective) then neither does the episode I’m talking about. Trashing a story that’s filled to bursting point with cliche and silliness is perfectly acceptable if it leaves you with the warm and fuzzy feeling that this story left. I have the same reaction to a Big Mac: I know it’s full of additives, and I can feel my arteries clogging as it goes down, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy the experience.

    • essjay

      I will never understand what purpose it serves to come onto someone’s blog to shit on a post that’s more than a year old.

      I know you’ll likely never see this, Jim. Most people that exhibit this sort of behaviour cut and run, so whatever.

      However, this irreverent (heh, see what I did there?) style works for plenty of people. Sorry you didn’t enjoy it.

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