Apr 8 2013 12:00pm

Clara’s Not a Mystery, She’s a Person. Doctor Who: “The Rings of Akhaten”

Doctor Who The Rings of Akhaten

In the 21st century, Doctor Who has always put a heavy amount of focus on season premieres and season finales. When a new dynamic is being introduced, whether that is a new Doctor or a new companion, the narrative of their introduction is always supported by several circuses’ worth of outlying publicity and viewer anticipation. “Rose,” “Smith and Jones,” “The Eleventh Hour,” and “The Bells of Saint John,” all debuted with this expectation and more or less performed admirably, even though Doctor Who stories aren’t really designed to withstand such scrutiny.

An oft-unspoken result of that scrutiny is that we usually don’t get to see what impact the new companion/Doctor will have going forward until the episode after their debut. “The End of the World,” “Gridlock,” and “The Beast Below” all carry this peculiar tone and “The Rings of Akhaten” is no different. Even though the episode makes no sense.

Spoilers for the episode (and the villain of the next) ahead.

These Episodes After share certain qualities: The Doctor explains the basics of the TARDIS/time travel/aliens in a clever way, the new companion goes off to explore on her own and stumbles into trouble, and circumstances result in the companion/Doctor realizing something that makes them want to continue traveling.

“The Rings of Akhaten” hits all of those marks and hits them well, conveying a satisfying emotional impact in a broad, almost literally operatic, manner. But it does so by divorcing them completely from the plot of the episode, creating a dissonance that makes anything aside from those moments feel non-existent.

Consider the confrontation between the Doctor and the parasitic god planet. After watching the episode I was hard-pressed to care about (or even remember) the details of how the Doctor got into that situation. They took a space motorcycle over, the Doctor pretended a door was heavy, Clara pretended to be stuck to the god’s glass case for what seemed like forever. Even though these events followed each other sequentially, they didn’t really cohere and I never cared about their resolution.

Instead, what kept me watching, and what ultimately made “The Rings of Akhaten” a surprisingly potent episode, were the interactions between the characters. An entire people lulling a god to sleep. The monk’s great sadness at being the one to end the song. The Doctor’s speech to the Queen of Years about her uniqueness. The Doctor telling Clara that they don’t walk away.

All of it leading to an unexpectedly intense confession between the Doctor and the god-planet. (It might be a sun. It’s called both in the episode.) Here we are reminded how large a being the Doctor truly is and how much he risks simply by traveling. Here is a man who is barred from nothing, including the greatest joys and the most terrifying depths that existence can cultivate. For the first time in his entire run, Matt Smith proved to me just how old the Doctor really is.

The episode offers a large number of these kinds of moments, and they all manage to impart new information to both new and long-time viewers even as they go through familiar rhythms.

Despite the Doctor’s aching vulnerability, Clara is by far the biggest revelation in the episode. Whereas the viewers knows Clara primarily as a mystery to be solved, “The Rings of Akhaten” busies itself with making Clara a person both to the viewer and to the Doctor himself. The episode opens with the story of how her mother and father met, how Clara came along, and how she subsequently lost her parents. These scenes inform Clara’s character when later she crouches behind the TARDIS, imparting confidence to a cowering Queen of Years in a motherly, if mournful, way.

Doctor Who The Rings of Akhaten

This need to nurture is shown to be a key component of Clara’s character and for the rest of the episode she is never far from the Queen of Years, ready to support the child as she takes on the immense task of singing a hungry god to sleep. It’s quite a contrast from the Doctor, who is primarily there to see the spectacle of it and doesn’t particularly care about the Queen of Years until something goes wrong.

Her need to nurture eventually extends to the Doctor, and she sacrifices the greatest mementos of her past to save him and the people who live on the rings of Akhaten. Nevertheless, once she finds out the Doctor was spying on her as a child, she draws immediate boundaries between the two of them and reminds the Doctor and the viewer that even if she reminds us of someone we know she is not that person and should be considered on her own terms.

It comes as a shock to us and to the Doctor. Longtime viewers have become accustomed to companions being overwhelmed by the possibility and wonder that the Doctor represents. And the Doctor himself has become accustomed to using that wonder to roll onwards without bothering to explain, well, anything, if he can help it. Here we’re reminded that we really don’t know anything about Clara, even though we’ve seen her so many times before.

“The Rings of Akhaten” manages to rattle us with new revelations about the Doctor and Clara and underscores that the show and its characters are going in directions that we may not be anticipating. Despite his relative bounciness in “The Snowmen” and “The Bells of Saint John,” the Doctor is clearly still wounded and withdrawn thanks to the departure of the Ponds and the circumstances surrounding the Silence. And Clara….

Doctor Who The Rings of Akhaten

While the episode accomplishes these revelations through some marvelous character interactions, the other aspects of “The Rings of Akhaten” are messy. We don’t really get to know or understand the society of the rings of Akhaten, so we don’t quite care about their struggle. What exposition there is sits like a hot mess right in the middle of the episode. (The scene with the alarm-clock-mummy beating on its cage went on FOR. EV. ER, right? It wasn’t just me?) The flimsiness of the plot seems to infect the characters themselves by the end. Does anyone care that an entire planet/sun/scary-face just disappeared, dooming Akhaten to a cold death as it drifts out into space? The Doctor, Clara, and the Queen sure didn’t seem to.

Still, I did like the sheer number of weird new aliens in the market and the Queen of Years came off as a realistic kid even through the space-fantasy plot. I also thought the lullaby-singing sequence itself did a good job at being genuinely beautiful while still building an effective sense of dread.

“The Rings of Akhaten” won’t go down as one of the better episodes of Doctor Who, but it gave us emotionally fraught moments that will linger far into the rest of the season, and perhaps beyond. It washes over you, leaving small deep pools behind. I now relate to the Doctor and Clara’s journey far more than I ever did after “The Bells of Saint John.” How it happened just doesn’t seem as important as the fact that it happened. This time, that’s enough.

Doctor Who The Rings of Akhaten

Other tidbits:

  • Does sexy/the TARDIS really not like Clara or did she just forget to use the key? If the former, then why? (Wait, does she even have a TARDIS key?)
  • Alternate explanation: the TARDIS doesn’t have an opinion about Clara but knew the Queen of Years needed to be at the singing ceremony and not hiding inside an infinitely-sized spaceship.
  • What changed on Clara’s street after she and the Doctor returned from the rings of Akhaten? How she sees the world, or something more material?
  • The Doctor Who nostalgia train seems to have left the station, next stop the 50th anniversary. Second Doctor villain the Great Intelligence showed up in “The Snowmen,” the Doctor discards the coat of his tenth incarnation in “The Bells of Saint John,” and here he mentioned last visiting Akhaten with his granddaughter. Next week sees the return of old villains the Ice Warriors, as well.
  • Not only did this episode share elements from Rose and the Ninth Doctor’s first post-debut adventure “The End of the World,” but Clara exhibits a lot of the same desires that Rose did. Namely, an urge to explore and an eye for small emotional details in seemingly commonplace people that the Doctor often disregards.
  • Episode writer Neil Cross = not so closet Blade Runner devotee? “Home again, home again jiggety jig” and the partially misquoted “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe” were both uttered in the ep.
  • If next week’s “Cold War” reduces Clara back to a damsel in distress I will be so disappointed.

Chris Lough is the production manager of and has walked through websites where the laws of blogging were created by a mad man.

Uncle Mikey
1. Uncle Mikey
As far as I know, this instance of Clara has not yet been given a key, nor even evidence that there IS a key. As River Song predicted, the Doctor himself almost never actually USES a key anymore, although we also rarely see him snap his fingers, either. The TARDIS just seems to be locked or unlocked when it needs to be.
Uncle Mikey
2. Owlmouse
Also, don't forget how the translation function of the TARDIS does not appear to be working all that well for Clara. She couldn't understand a fair number of the aliens they encountered.

I was rather alarmed by how willing the Doctor was to lose Clara in the crowd. It actually felt like a test. He wanted to see what she would do. And his insistence that she be the one to give up something she cares about was alarming. I mean, he keeps wearing Amy's glasses. His refusal to even think about sacrificing them was notable. (Also, kind of selfish. He picked this place to satisfy Clara's request for awesome. He knew exactly how they paid for things there.)
Scott K. Andrews
3. ScottKAndrews
“Home again, home again jiggety jig” This is a nursery rhyme quote, long pre-dating Blade Runner and still in common use in my neck of the woods :-)
Steven Halter
4. stevenhalter
I don't think that Clara has a key and it will be very interesting if the Tardis really doesn't like her--and why.
Uncle Mikey
5. Cross777
Worst Smith episode yet, following a weak season premiere.
Uncle Mikey
6. Ser Tom
I must disagree with your assessmet that: "The Rings of Akhaten” won’t go down as one of the better episodes of Doctor Who

Yes, there were a few glaring holes in the plot (When the god-star imploded I immediately wondered what Akhaten would do for a sun now.), but overall, the episode struck many important chords and carried through satisfactorily.

There were so many deep concepts touched on in this episode.
- Personal/sentimental value being prized over mere monetary worth. "It makes more sense than trading in bits of paper", for one.
- Souls as the accumulated stories of our lives.
- "We do not walk away." as contrasted to
-"When we hold something precious, ... we run ... until we are out from under the shadow."
- The power of stories and songs in a culture, and the ultimate power of infinite possibilities.

The singing ceremony was beautifully executed and moving.
The Doctor's confessional scene was powerful and brought home the immensity of the Doctor's own story.

And then, in the end, even after Clara declares herself to most emphatically NOT be the person the Doctor remembers from another time, we still have the mystery of who she really is. I at least could see in the Doctor's final expression an awareness of this and a determination to get to the bottom of it.
Uncle Mikey
7. Kudzu
The Doctor Who nostalgia train seems to have left the station, next stop the 50th anniversary

I think he also may have name checked the Troughton story "The Mind Robber" in his speech about a dimension where a madman made the rules.
Douglas Freer
8. Futurewriter1120
I don't think the planets of Akhaten will freeze to death at all since its clearly shown that the vacuum of space around the Rings had breathable air, so maybe the area doesn't need a sun to keep warm.
With the TARDIS keeping Clara and the queen out, maybe it's a bit of both. Maybe it knew the queen needed to stay there but it also doesn't want Clara inside without the Doctor with her.
For Clara's street I took it as her viewing it differently, not that anything had really changed.
If Clara does become a damsel next week, maybe some more of the Doctor spying on her life will be brought up or she could be a damsel but not made powerless to the point that the Doctor needs to rescue her.
Edit: I thought of a new theory behind the Clara mystery. Maybe we're wrong, yes even the Doctor, and these three women aren't the same person, but instead are related by blood. We don't know what family Clara Oswin Oswald had so she might've had a brother who is the ancestor of Clara Oswald and its just coincidence they look the same. And as for Oswin Oswald, she might be a descendent of Clara, or if not it might be like River Song and that's Clara at the end of her story thus making them one and the same.
Uncle Mikey
9. ChocolateRob
I don't know how true it is but I heard the suggestion that The TARDIS does not like Clara for the same reason that it flew to the end of time to try and dislodge Jack Harkness. They are both impossibilities, immortals in a sense, they continue to exist no matter how many times they die.

Obviously they both work differently but there could be something there.
(Personally I think she just needs a key.)
yo sil
10. catperson
I really liked this episode. Yes towards the end it was a bit rushed, and the Doctor at the beginning when he was investigating Clara's family was a bit creepy, but I liked it very much overall.
Clara's mother is the one who died, not both her parents. Her dad calls her phone during the Bell's of St. John.
yo sil
11. catperson
By the way, who thinks that the "secrets and knowledge that can never be spoken" is an allusion to the Question?
Chris Lough
12. TorChris
I don't know how true it is but I heard the suggestion that The TARDIS does not like Clara for the same reason that it flew to the end of time to try and dislodge Jack Harkness. They are both impossibilities, immortals in a sense, they continue to exist no matter how many times they die.

Ooh! The Doctor DOES outright say in the episode that she's impossible. I wonder if the upcoming "Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS" episode might be more revealing in regards to this.
Uncle Mikey
13. Ser Tom
@11 catperson
- Ooh OOh! I do! I do! Good catch!
yo sil
14. catperson
So maybe this episode has some hints towards the series finale? Possibly involving memories in some way?
Uncle Mikey
15. NickyK
I find myself agreeing completely with this excellent review as well as everything in the comments (which is contradictory, but then so, often, is Doctor Who).

When Clara couldn't get into the TARDIS with the child, I merely thought the Doctor had locked it (and she obviously was yet to acquire a key). I never considered any import to Clara's comment about the TARDIS not liking her. I thought it was rhetorical on her part and out of frustration. If there is any importance to be placed on this, then my preference would be that the TARDIS has her/its own mind, often acts for reasons not immediately apparent (even to the Doctor himself) and that perhaps the TARDIS is yet to make up her/its mind about Clara, so is being a bit protective.

Generally, this was a reasonable episode with many touching moments, some moments of power, insight and depth, some nice allusions and semi-teasing comments, but I felt the pace was a bit off. Yes, as Chris observed in his review, the mummy did seem to take an age to escape from its confines; and, as catperson said in his comment, it did seem a bit rushed towards the end. I also agreed with catperson's remark that the doctor investigating Clara's parents was a bit "creepy".

My own feeling about the pace (something I and friends of mine have noticed in several "stand-alone" episodes even back in the RTD days) is that this was an episode that, despite the mummy taking an age to escape, really needed an extra quarter of an hour to be fully and satisfactorily developed. Often things do seem a bit rushed. A lot of important information is delivered very quickly and then it's "Let's skip to the next scene".

For me, an extra 15 minutes would have enabled the director (and writer) to balance the long (but necessary, though disliked by some reviewers in the UK press) singing scenes (and the thing in the cage) with the other aspects of the overall story.

I sometimes wonder if we (well, if I) over analyze these episodes and should sit back and let the experience and fun just happen, but then analyzing this and that in DW is part of the experience and the fun!
Alan Courchene
16. Majicou
I did half-expect the Doctor to shout out "Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion!" A definite shout-out, though, was the Hooloovoo in the marketplace. The Doctor hasn't forgotten his old friend Douglas.

@5: And here you are on the Internet, albeit not within seconds, registering your disgust throughout the world.
Cain Latrani
17. CainS.Latrani
Just speaking for myself, but I found this to be one of the very best episodes of Smith's run. I was never a fan of the Ponds, as they overshadowed the Doctor, who is, in my mind, the person who must never be overshadowed.

All in all, this felt more like an old school Doctor Who episode, and that felt nice.
Uncle Mikey
18. Ser Tom
Speaking of shout outs. It occurs to me that the "trading pieces of paper" comment may have been a sly shout, or at least a reference to Hitchicker's Guide to the Universe.
Uncle Mikey
19. Ser Tom
errr ... Galaxy.
Alan Brown
20. AlanBrown
First and foremost, was I the ONLY person watching that space cycle as they rode from place to place without thinking of the Flash Gordon movie, and having a Queen sound track (Flash! Ahhh-ahhh!) play in my head?
I agree with those above who said these two most recent episodes followed a predictable pattern (first meeting with companion, witty and played for humor, second meeting with companion, go someplace remarkable where companion shows how special they are going to be). The first ep fit the template in a very enjoyable and satisfying way. This one, not so much. Half of it hit the marks quite well, but overall, it didn't hang together well. The Doctor feeding his emotions to the god/planet/sun brought out what I dislike most in the Doctor--grandiose and overbearing. Clara feeding her feeling of loss over her mother was touching, but would an object that fed on the emotions of thousands really be so impacted by one loss (even if already weakened by absorbing so much from the Doctor)? And the object disappearing without an explaination of the impact that will have on the rings, and folks who live there, was jarring. Explaining that it was a planet, and having it go dark when the god thing was defeated would have worked much better. At times like this, I think a little explaination, and more SF than fantasy would go a long way to help some of the episodes hang together better.
All in all, there was more right than wrong with the episode. Still it was better than many of the stand alone episodes from last season, and Clara is a good new companion, so I look forward to next week!
Uncle Mikey
21. Andrea K
I was at a loss as to how a leaf which represents the infinite future possibilities of a 40s woman could somehow outweigh the infinite future possibilities of a ten year old girl.
Uncle Mikey
22. Inverarity
To me, the point of the leaf was that Clara was thinking laterally, and the leaf represented a new point of view: rather than trying to appease the god with stories and memories and precious objects, she offered it a representation of potential. Which any other character could have done as well, but it worked because she didn't have the preconceived notions of everyone else in the story, and therefore she *believed* it when she claimed it was infinitely more worthy.

I think this is a pretty logical follow-on from the currency discussion earlier, as well as the general story logic of the Moffatt era- that is, something works because it's believed to work.

Incidentally, I thought that the Doctor was quite deliberately making Clara pay for the scooter - I think he was testing to see if she was 'real' enough to have memories and attachments that someone else (the trader) would recognize as valid. Might have been an ulterior motive in going to Akhaten in the first place...
Uncle Mikey
23. NiktheHeratik
AndreaK (and others):

The problem you're having was due to the fact that the plot had more holes in it than a Swiss Cheese factory. It was wrapped up in some clever and emotional writing, but it falls apart if you examine it too closely.

A bit like the beast below, or the ending to the fireplace girl, or some other episodes that were much worse than this and should not be named.
Cain Latrani
24. CainS.Latrani

The entire premise, and any given episode, falls apart if you think about too much. This one, I found better than the whole the Doctor was a robot all along idea at least.
Ursula L
25. Ursula
The potential for a ten year old girl might be greater than the potential in the memories of a lost mother as represented by a leaf.

But you can burn up a leaf, you don't want to burn up a little girl.

The Doctor offering his memories of the past was a morally acceptable sacrifice, but it didn't work, because a finite past is a different sort of sacrifice from the potential of the future.

So Clara offering the symbol that she associated with all of the days she might have had with her mother was a morally acceptable sacrifice which worked.

The traditional sacrifice, of an innocent child and the child's potential, worked, but was not morally acceptable, and the Doctor and Clara had to find an alternative.
Uncle Mikey
26. WillZ
What everyone is forgetting, is that "Grandfather" was the alarm clock to the big evil. It was not off-pace because of this - it is given a statute of when/how the sacrifice is tobe given to it to appease the real god, and they have to deliver in that time, else it will awaken. We didn't see it first off, because we're all thinking it is the "big bad" of the eposode, only to be seen that it really isn't.

Overall, I enjoyed the episode - it had the feel of a lot of the classic episodes, while still showing us that each incarnation of the doctor is completely different. Also the brilliance with the song in general, but I can't go on about it here - suffice it to say that, my expectations for the interesting stories ahead has just doubled.
yo sil
27. catperson
@22 - I realized that the Doctor was making Clara pay, but I didn't think of why! That's an interesting theory...
Uncle Mikey
28. Tumas
While it was nothing spectacular and was just good as an episode, I did enjoy it. It was interesting to see such influences as Star Wars and Indiana Jones (and, as pointed out above, a small hint of Flash Gordon). It was a shame to see that the Lucas-y influence went as far as to have great emotion but problematic plots.

I think the episode could have used a few more minutes to flesh thing out a bit more and have a bit less of Clara stuck next to the mummy for no practical reason. What was the relationship between the mummy and the planet? Why did the latter need the former at all to wake him up? The Vigil were also so very cool, well-dressed and Vader-like, but so under-utilised.

One thing which I haven't seen anyone point out is the ingenuity of using the leaf and the infinite potential within it. It reminded me of the Weeping Angels, who actually feed on the potential life of the people they send back in time. Kudos to Moffat for having the similar food sources nourish different parasites (or, in this case, engorge them) within this vast universe.

The Doctor Who nostalgia train seems to have left the station, next stop the 50th anniversary.

It was great seeing and hearing the references to the series's and characters' rich histories. We should really get to see this more often.
Uncle Mikey
29. RalphT

Im fairly confident its a planet, and the temple and other cities are on its rings. Look at the reflective light from a nearby star hitting the planetoid in this picture.
Uncle Mikey
30. bryan rasmussen
Incidentally, I thought that the Doctor was quite deliberately making
Clara pay for the scooter - I think he was testing to see if she was
'real' enough to have memories and attachments that someone else (the
trader) would recognize as valid
that would be sensible if he hadn't spent the first part of the episode determining that she had in fact existed.
Uncle Mikey
31. e_nygma
Is it the TARDIS doesn't like Clara, or is it the TARDIS trying to protect the Doctor from the pain of loss? Martha and Donna traveled with him, yes, but Rose and Amy (and to a lesser extent, Rory) deeply affected him. Their removal from his life shook him to the core.

Could it be that the TARDIS saw his withdrawal from the world post-Pond(s) and decided that Clara could very easily lead him down the path of two-heartbreak yet again? As such, wouldn't it make sense for the TARDIS to try to keep Clara at arm's length from the Doctor? Obviously, if the Doctor wants to travel with Clara, then the TARDIS will let her travel with the Doctor. However, like a good friend, is the TARDIS (misguidedly?) protecting the Doctor from Clara, not because who she is but what she intrinsincally represents?
Ian Gazzotti
32. Atrus
I liked last week's episode but was bored for much of this one, it was weirdly paced and the plot was uncoherent. There were some good character moments, and the aliens were incredible, but it all got lost in a sea of awkward.
Uncle Mikey
33. Dark Claw
Once again, we see supposed Who fans spending more time whining and complaining rather than just enjoying. I feel sorry for some of you. You take this way too seriously. Whether it is complaining about the Ponds, Moffat's writing, Smith not being Tennant, etc., it seems that many fans would be better off watching something else.

Was the plotting perfect? No. Show me a television show where it always is. This is Doctor Who. Some things are just going to come off as being contrived no matter how well plotted or intentioned. You have to look beyond that and see the big picture. Put just about any episode in a vacuum and it can be nit picked. However, putting them all together eventually tells the story of the underlying theme. What you get with Moffat is the themes revolving as much around the companions as the Doctor and frankly there is nothing wrong with that. Doctor Who is not a one character show even if it has a titular character. Each iteration of the Doctor is a different character even if it is the same being and each companion brings a different dynamic. This is what keeps the show fresh and interesting.
Uncle Mikey
35. NickyK
The whole point of someone writing a review and allowing comments is that we all have the opportunity, should we wish, to say what we feel about what we saw.

I, personally, try and watch each episode (or this or anything else, or movies or whatever) and enjoy them with the usual "willing suspension of disbelief". This does not mean that, even if I loved what I saw, I can't be critical afterwards.

Yes, I do absolutely agree, as I said above. We do over-analyze these things! It's part of the fun. No one episode of anything will ever satisfy everyone. One of the reasons why we discuss and criticize DW more than, say, "Scooby Doo" is because we engage with the ideas, plots, themes, characters, arcs and so on.

There is nothing wrong with this. Personally, I have not been too keen on Moffat's tenure thus far, but that is my taste. I still accept that this is superior TV SF.

Yes, we tear things apart. Yes, we are over-critical. Yes we over analyze. If we didn't care we wouldn't share.

I am looking forward with great excitement to the next episode. Yes, I will later find problems with it. So what? I will enjoy it when I watch it first and foremost.

There is very little on TV now (as far as I can tell) that is original, daring, inspiring and leads to a lot of people expressing interesting opinions on a site such as this.

So, long live DW and thank you Mr Moffat.
Uncle Mikey
36. One Is Key
Did anyone else get the impression that the god-planet-thingy seemed a tiny bit like the Great Intelligence, what with the feeding on souls and such?
Uncle Mikey
37. Ethan corby dw fan
I think clara is rose cause in the idiots Lanton roses face is on the screen and she's saying help dr and again in the bells of St. John clara is in a screen saying help dr and clara wears many roses

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