Doctor Who, Ep. 7.08, “The Rings of Akhaten”: Beautiful character beats, visuals marred by sloppy writing

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Promotional poster for Doctor Who, The Rings of Akhaten

Doctor Who, Series 7, Episode 8: “The Rings of Akhaten”
Written by Neil Cross
Directed by Farren Blackburn
Airs Saturdays at 8pm (ET) on BBC America

Last week, Doctor Who came back from its midseason hiatus with a fun, but frustrating, episode introducing the audience to the third incarnation of season 7.5 Companion, Clara “Oswin” Oswald. By the end of the episode, Clara was not yet a Companion, officially, but that is quickly resolved this week, with Clara joining the Doctor for an adventure to see “something awesome”, the one-in-1000-years Festival of Offerings on the rings of Akhaten. While this episode is a clear step up from the midseason premiere, there are still plenty of problems making this, disappointingly, one hell of a fridge episode. Alfred Hitchcock coined the term, referring to those internal inconsistencies or plot holes that may not be glaring when first watching a film, but occur to viewers later, when they go to the fridge for a late-night snack. “The Rings of Akhaten” is full of these.

Why does the TARDIS translate for Clara only intermittently? She can understand the characters driving the plot, who seem to speak English, but everyone else wandering around the bazaar speak in undistinguishable alien languages, to the point where the Doctor translates for Clara. This gives these scenes a fun, Star Wars Cantina feel, and it’s great to see such a wide variety of unfamiliar aliens, but it betrays the clearly established (and re-established with almost every Companion) series mythology. Had the Doctor commented on it as weird, this wouldn’t be an issue. Even one line about the TARDIS not liking her (as is hinted at later) and not wanting to translate nonessential conversations would have solved it. Instead, the show asks us to pay no attention to that plot hole behind the curtain.

Effects shot from Doctor Who, The Rings of Akhaten

How do the Doctor and Clara breathe when they’re zipping around through space on a moped? No mention is made of any kind of atmosphere or atmospheric shield on the part of the asteroid belt-like ring where the main action takes place and we see many gorgeous shots of asteroids gently drifting through space in the background, between the two main locations, which means one can’t exist there. Even if we’re to assume something serving this purpose is in place, if the PtB at Who decided a visual representation of the force pulling Merry (Emilia Jones) was important to show, why not some kind of air tunnel or corridor surrounding the moped or between the two asteroids? What should have been an exciting chase quickly becomes a distraction as more and more flaws come to mind. How is their hair blowing around in the vacuum of space? How are they speaking? The visuals of the scene are beautiful. The emotion is there. But once again, as audience members we’re asked not to think.

The biggest “fridge” moment, though, is the climax of the episode. The Doctor gives an impassioned monologue, offering up his memories to this alien God. We’ve seen the sacrifices of everyone else destroyed or otherwise consumed by the entity earlier. Afterward, Clara’s leaf is similarly dissolved. Yet the Doctor’s memories remain intact, or at least appear to, based on his unchanged personality and attitude. There is ample time for the being, which surrounds the Doctor with the same energy that later eats away the leaf, to absorb the experiences he so vividly describes. However, for no apparent reason, this doesn’t happen. It’s an enormous, emotional buildup with absolutely no payoff. Matt Smith is great in this scene and the power of his performance only makes the lack of any fallout or stakes all the more anticlimactic.

The Mummy and his minions from Doctor Who, The Rings of Akhaten

These inconsistencies are particularly frustrating because most of the rest of the episode is really strong. Clara and the Doctor continue their entertaining rapport and Clara’s brain freeze when presented with all of space and time to choose from is charming and probably how many of us would react. With the opening sequence, we get a welcome return to the pre-Amelia Pond focus on Companions’ families as part of their identity. The brief story of the leaf is effective and touching and gives appropriate weight to the connected moment at the episode’s climax. The entire world of Akhaten is wonderfully designed and realized, from the creature design to the gorgeous effects shots to Merry’s makeup, hair, and robes, and the scenes between Clara and Merry are sweet and a nice tie-in with “The Snowmen” and Clara’s previous scenes with children.

The songs are lovely, sung with a clear tone from the adults and a light vibrato from Merry, and the notion of the TARDIS not liking Clara is interesting, if she’s right, given her/its previous dislike of Jack, another anomalous impossibility. There are several shoutouts to long-term fans, from a mention of Susan, the Doctor’s granddaughter and very first Companion, to the creature design of the “alarm clock” Mummy, which is very reminiscent of Sutekh, the villain in one of the fourth Doctor’s best stories, “Pyramids of Mars”. The episode is, on the whole, well paced and structured and, unlike last week, enough time is given to make most of the ending, aside from the aforementioned issues, land. Neil Cross and Farren Blackburn do mostly great work with the episode and Matt Smith, Jenna Louise Coleman, and Emilia Jones are all on pointe. Hopefully the next few episodes will continue to improve and to expand Clara further from being a mystery to a real person. Overall, though some of the flaws from last week are still present, at least we’re moving in the right direction.

What did you think of this episode? Was I the only one focusing on the physics of space instead of Merry’s plight? Any new predictions about Clara or her parents? Anyone else stoked about the Susan mention? Post your thoughts below!

Kate Kulzick

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