Doctor Who: “The Rings of Akhaten”

My Twitter feed was ablaze this weekend with friends — both Doctor Who lovers and Doctor Who haters — claiming “The Rings of Akhaten” was the worst episode yet. I watched it with trepidation, expecting something so awful it would make a shit episode like “The Power of Three” look like “Pyramids of Mars.” To my surprise, I didn’t think it was terrible, just overly earnest and suffering from plot holes so big you could pilot a TARDIS through them — provided you actually decide to pilot your all-powerful, time machine/space ship instead of, say, renting a space scooter instead.

SPOILERS BELOW!

So at Clara’s request, the Doctor takes her someplace “awesome,” which this time turns out to be the Rings of Akhaten, not the Eye of Orion. The Rings are actually a collection of small, asteroid-sized planets circling a single star. There, the Doctor and Clara explore one of those alien marketplaces that have been all the rage since Luke Skywalker stepped foot into the Cantina on Tatooine. And like the Cantina, all the myriad aliens in attendance speak in grunts, growls, clicks, and barks that Clara can’t understand but the Doctor, being a thousand years old and having been everywhere, can. I guess the TARDIS’s telepathic universal translator, which is never mentioned once in the episode — not ONCE — is offline or something. Eventually, Clara wanders away and stumbles into The Plot. It’s the Queen of Years, a little girl who speaks English, apparently, and she has to sing a ritual song (also in English!) or Grandfather, their mean, old god, will wake up and eat everyone. She’s nervous about it, but Clara convinces her she’ll do a great job. She does, of course, but everything goes to shit anyway, and it’s up to the Doctor and Clara to race after the now kidnapped Queen of Years in the TARDIS a much slower rented space scooter, because why not? Someone somewhere thought it would be cool, logic be damned. Also, everyone speaks English from this point forward. Just so you know.

Apparently, the atmosphere of this planet extends indefinitely into space, because the Doctor and Clara aren’t wearing helmets when they take their space scooter between worlds to rescue the Queen of Years. Then they get there, and the coolest scene in the entire episode occurs: a scary thing in a glass box wants to break out and eat the Queen, and weird robot things materialize to make sure it happens, and suddenly we have some very good suspense and world-building and even a little terror. Of course, this being Moffat-era Doctor Who, it’s all negated almost instantly. The cool monster in the glass box is actually just an “alarm clock” (what?) and the real Grandfather is the sun itself, a sentient entity that eats stories (what?). Then there’s some overly earnest stuff happening (though the Doctor’s speech about his memories wasn’t bad; it almost reminded me of Tennant or Eccleston) and some singing (which I didn’t hate, because I’m a softy and I like scenes where people sing) and then there’s some bullshit about a leaf (what?) and the sun implodes. Victory!

I mean, um…victory? The Doctor and Clara have destroyed this solar system’s sun, but everyone is happy anyway. They’re heroes. Hell, the Doctor and Clara even congratulate themselves, without a smidge of irony, for what amounts to theoretically dooming an entire civilization to a cold death in the unforgiving black void of space. Doctor Who, ladies and gentlemen! Buy your t-shirts now!

Aside from the ridiculous plot holes and logic problems, there are two endemic problems on display here. The first is that Doctor Who has become a show that literally cannot think of anything for its characters to do outside the plot or when away from each other. When we see Clara for the first time this episode, she is just sitting on the steps waiting for the Doctor to show up. That’s it. She’s not packing. She’s not saying goodbye to that family she babysits for, or to her own father. She’s not writing a note that says, “If anything should happen to me…” or even looking in the mirror and asking herself if she’s ready for something like this. No, she’s just sitting there. Waiting. Rose had a vibrant family life and a sometimes boyfriend. Martha was a doctor herself. Donna, too, had a vibrant family and a career. But Clara, much like Amy, apparently has no outside life. She just sits around waiting for the Doctor. The Girl Who Waited, Part Two.

In this episode, the Doctor suffers from the same problem. When Clara first wanders off and encounters the Queen of Years, the Doctor is nowhere to be seen for several minutes. Eventually he shows up again eating some alien fruit. He just wandered off. He didn’t do anything. Hell, there’s no indication he was even secretly watching Clara to see how she holds up when confronted with alien life. Nope, he’s just doing nothing because he was away from Clara and the plot for a moment, and that’s what this show has become.

Another serious problem with “The Rings of Akhaten” is that we’ve basically seen it all before. This episode is the same as “The End of the World,” “Gridlock,” “The Fires of Pompeii,” and “The Beast Below.” Not in plot specifics, perhaps, but in tone. It’s the same old “Doctor takes a new companion somewhere exciting so he can show her how cool it is to travel with him” episode that we’ve been seeing since 2005. It’s getting stale. The program really needs to shake up this formula, and I think the best way to do that is have the next companion be someone the Doctor meets in space, in the future, rather than a contemporary figure. This way, he doesn’t have to pull the same “look how cool space is” routine for the millionth time, and we might actually get a new, exciting dynamic instead of the same one being played out over and over again. Are you listening, Doctor Who writers?

No, of course you’re not.

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