[Review] - Doctor Who, Series 7 Episode 8, "The Rings Of Akhaten"

I think I should make clear, I am not adverse to complexity. I love complexity. If a show wants to be deep and layered and require not just thought but deep analysis, then I say go for it. I do however, caution that the more complex something becomes, the greater the chance of things getting lost, or confused. The more threads, the bigger the knot, as it were. So, and especially in a series of Doctor Who where the intention is to have episodes that stand on their own rather then form part of an arc, simpler is better. Case in point, The Rings of Akhaten, which for the most part is a very simple, very straight forward adventure tale from Luthor scribe Neil Cross. In fact, Rings proves both of my points, as it occasionally lumps elements on top of each other, making the episode heavy with the unnecessary. Then it simplifies itself again, and everything gets back on track.

Rings suffered from a few serious flaws. Flaws distracting enough to cripple an episode completely. Luckily, Rings had an ace up it's sleeve: perhaps the most pure, honest example of Doctoring we've seen since The Pandorica Opens.

Hit the jump to read the review, which contains spoilers that have sure enough footing not to be knocked into traffic by a leaf.

In 1983, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the series, each serial featured the return of a classic villain, and culminated in the anniversary special, the Five Doctors. Moffat has clearly taken this as an example, but instead of doing something quite so obvious, he's went the more subtle route with his commemoration. Each episode is being filled with a treasure trove of call backs, shout outs and references to the 50 years of the programme. From here on out, I'll begin these reviews spotting as many of those references as I can without looking them up.

So, the Doctor says that Susan, his granddaughter, came with him to the Rings at some point years ago. In his boast at the end, he mentions surviving the Time War from Russell T. Davies era, time running out from The Big Bang, and a universe created by a mad man would be Omega in The Three Doctors. Douglas Adams got a reference in the form of the hooloovoo (traditionally a hyper intelligent shade of blue, and here appearing to be made out of a fireplace grate), and Clara's mother died very close to the day the series returned in 2005. Which is yet another connection Clara has to the series as a whole, as her adventures book skips over the ages 16 and 23. 16 is the number of years the series was off between '89 and '05. Clara was born in 1989, the year the series was cancelled, and skipped the year her mother died, 2005, the year the series came back, and the year she first appeared in the series, 2012.

There is perhaps another form of reference going on here, and if so I might have judged last week's episode a bit more harshly then it deserved (only barely though). Last week's plot borrowed heavily from the idea behind The Idiot's Lantern, an episode generally considered Mark Gatiss' weakest. This week owed much of it's plot and framework to The Beast Below, the episode which Steven Moffat declares his least favourite of those he's written. Much has been made that later in the series an episode will take place entirely within the TARDIS herself, born from the lackluster memories of the classic episode The Invasion of Time. I wonder then, if this series isn't attempting to go back and rework the series' less then impressive episodes into something better.

As I said, there is more then a few similarities between Ring and The Beast Below, and the best element came in the form of the companion asserting themselves. This episode was a significant improvement for Clara, who never once was remotely a damsel. She precipitated the majority of the action, led the character's involvement, and ultimately saved the day. She had a line, an obvious reference to the disconnect between the popular term and the actual term for the Doctor's fellow travellers, where she insists that she can assist him, and I certainly hope this will be the case. It is rare that the Doctor travels with anyone who is actually an assistant, rather then just a companion. Companion suggests friendship, and familiarity. Assistant suggests someone who is as capable as the Doctor. Romana is probably the best example of the latter, along with Nyssa and River. Amy was a companion. I hope that Clara might prove to be an assistant.

The episode began very simply: a girl sings to a mummy. The girl is nervous, the mummy wakes and the girl screams. A very simple frame work, and an effective one. As simple a story as that allows for loads of character moments, and through them development, which Clara gets straight away, and the young Mary as well. And even once the action starts, that simple frame work provides enough of a place to start from that the episode continues to function without major issue, from a narrative position. It is only in the third act, when the Mummy begins to rise, that more and more kept getting added on, that the episode faltered. The Vigil were simply designed, creepy and completely useless. They served absolutely no point except to appear (with a bit of exposition logic-failure on the part of Merry, who didn't know about the sacrifice in the previous scene, but now knows the Vigil help make the sacrifice), put up not much of a fight, and then disappear without incident. The Mummy too, turned out to be pointless, though I rather wish he hadn't been. Between a fantastic looking creature design of the prosthetic Mummy, or the dodgy CG pumpkin head, I'd take the Mummy any day.

And really, what was the reasoning there? What did the space head thing accomplish that the real, physical (in terms of production) Mummy wouldn't have been able to do. Would the Doctor have not been able to boast to him in the same manner? Would Clara not have been able to sacrifice to him in the same way? Would the Mummy not have made for a more lasting and effective villain to add to the annals of the series history, rather then a nondescript thing (think too of the difference between window store mannequins compared to the formless blob of the Nestene Consciousness. Which lingers in your head longer?). I was looking forward to the Mummy breaking free, and being a force to recon with. All that bluster, and without a bit of blow as it turns out.

The episode had some very weak production values. The moped scene were very old school, and I don't mean that in an endearing sort of way. I mean they were clunky, obviously fake and not at all concerned with covering up for it. The giant sky god too was among the worst effects the series has done in recent years, especially under Moffat's tenure where the CG has steadily increased in quality. It was really, very bad, the jack-o-lantern face being happy and sad at the Doctor, reminding me of those coloured blobs that used to attack the Enterprise. Counter to that though was a spectacular amount of prosthetics work, with the trading market the Doctor Who equivalent of the Star Wars cantina scene. And best of all, it wasn't just a collection of the various head pieces the props department had lying around. There were no familiar faces in that crowd. They were new, original creations. It was fantastic, but undercut by the utter failure of the digital effects.

I watch every episode twice, once to enjoy, and once to examine. And I'm glad I did, because the first time I watched it, I thought the god thing was the sun, and that the script had confused the word 'planet' for the word 'asteroid.' On the second viewing, I understood that the god thing was meant to be a massive Saturn-like gas giant planet. Except, all the effects made the god thing very closely resemble a star, and at the end when it destroyed itself all the light went out, which really made me angry when it immediately cut back to Earth. I had thought that Doctor had extinguished these peoples star, dooming them all to a slow cold death, and then buggered off back to London. If it was only a gas giant, things wouldn't fair much better for them, with the gravitational forces in the solar system being thrown all out of whack, and over the next thousand or so years the orbits of all the other (extensively inhabited) planets suffering massive repercussions.

Of course, this came in an episode where acoustics were used to combat physical force, and where sounds travelled across space, so science realism wasn't high up on the list of requirements. I wonder though, if in the original script that the pyramid and the amphitheatre weren't on the same planet, and the separate asteroids and moped bits were added in at the last minute. Because it seemed often that they were treated as being considerably closer to each other then they were (the suggestion that Clara and Mary could see the Doctor while he was showing down with the beastie).

The episode was saved by Matt Smith, and the writing of that final speech. Be it Cross, or an addition from Moffat, but whomever is responsible for putting those words in Smith's mouth deserves a clap on the back. Setting aside that earlier in the episode he gave a wonderful version of Carl Sagan's "star stuff" quote that should be used in every science documentary from here on out, but it is always a pleasure to have Smith remind us of how (in the truest sense of the word) awesome the Doctor is. He's faced gods before. He practically is one at this point. And it's always fun to see someone else figure that out.

Even if they are an angry space pumpkin.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


  1. I agree with thinking the gas giant was a sun. I thought that too. I haven't watched it again yet so thank you for clearing that up. At the end of the episode I was like "Hey wait a minute he's doomed these people!"

    This half of the season is a bit of a mystery to me. When I watch I love it because finally new Doctor Who but then after I think about the episodes they seem a bit mediocre to me. A lot of stuff seemed to be a retread of prior ideas in the last two eps either from another episode (like the beast below) or an elements of the companion (meeting them as a child, companion being at the center of some big mystery from the beginning etc.) The intro to Clara also felt very familiar mostly because Bells of St. John was her 3rd appearance and 2nd intro story so that was to be expected. What I wouldn't give for just a regular companion to travel with the Doctor that isn't the crux of a conspiracy against the Doctor (Amy), fated to travel with him (Donna), or have this huge mystery surrounding her (Clara), at this point that wold almost be a novelty.

    Great Doctor Who Review, keep it up.

    1. "What I wouldn't give for just a regular companion to travel with the Doctor that isn't the crux of a conspiracy against the Doctor (Amy), fated to travel with him (Donna), or have this huge mystery surrounding her (Clara)."

      I am 100% behind you on that. Moffat has said on several occasions that he believes that Doctor Who is the story of the companions, which I disagree with him completely on. It's the Doctor's story, with the companions as audience surrogates. The audience can't align their point of view with a character who is preternatural.

      It's why everyone loved Sarah-Jane, and still do. She was the perfect companion: capable, strong, appealing, and a support for the Doctor, someone on whom he could count completely (and one of the few companions to have left the TARDIS against their will). What made her special was she wasn't anything special; she was just Sarah-Jane, and that was enough.

    2. So true. It seems these days companions have to have a gimmick to travel with the Doctor. I just want to go back to him just meeting someone and taking them on adventures.

      Have you ever checked out the Doctor Who Classic Series Audio Plays done by Big Finish? They record full cast audio dramas with the surviving Doctors and companions. It's really the only place besides the books where you can get any 8th Doctor material. If you haven't and you like Classic Who I highly recommend you check them out.

    3. One of the reasons I'm always pushing for the return of 8 in a multi-Doctor story is how much I enjoy Paul McGann's work in the Big Finish stuff, all of which is leagues better then The Film. I so very much want to see him play the role in the flesh again, but with a quality script behind him this time.