Review by Mark Bousquet
“THE RINGS OF AKHATEN” – Series 7, Episode 8, Episode 233 – Written by Neil Cross; Directed by Farren Blackburn – It’s Clara Oswald’s first spin in the TARDIS and she wants to see something awesome, so the Doctor takes her to see the Rings of Akhaten. They have a wonderful time looking at the seven worlds and a big pyramid and chatting with a little girl, who sings a lovely song. And then they go home. Well, not right away. Because The Plant Of Akhaten Is Like Mogo, If Mogo Was A Parasite Who Ate Memories.
If THE RINGS OF AKHATEN were a person you met at a party, you would have a pleasant conversation with them by the buffet table in between bites of “I’m not sure what this is but it’s pretty good, isn’t it?” appetizers, and then five minutes after they left you would not be able to remember their name, and on the ride home you would struggle to remember one memorable thing they said, but you were pretty sure they weren’t from around here.
AKHATEN is the kind of episode that serves as a glue for a season. Your overall opinion of Series 7 isn’t going to be made or lost by AKHATEN but it can push it in either direction; if you like the season, a pleasant, ordinary episode like AKHATEN might be remembered a bit more fondly than if you dislike that particular series. It’s Series 7’s version of THE SHAKESPEARE CODE or THE LONG GAME or THE SONTARAN EXPERIMENT. It’s okay, it’s not overly memorable, but in a few years when you’re rewatching Series 7, you’ll probably find this episode better than you remembered it.
There’s nothing offensive about AKHATEN to me, but the memorable moments are few and far between. In fact, here they are:
One: Clara doesn’t think the TARDIS likes her.
Two: Behind the TARDIS, Clara and the young Mary Gejelh, Queen of Years, have a really nice chat, in which Clara helps Mary get over her biggest fear. We get a nice bit of Clara’s backstory about how her mother has promised to come and find her “every single time” she’s lost. What’s wonderful about the scene is not only how Clara helps the young Queen find her confidence, but just how Jenna-Louise Coleman delivers her lines. I’ve watched the scene a few times now and I’m totally in love with how she talks – she speeds up through the informational bits and then slows down for the important moments. It’s reminiscent of how Matt Smith often approaches the Doctor, to the point where I’m starting to wonder if perhaps–
CRACKPOT THEORY ALERT — CRACKPOT THEORY ALERT — CRACKPOT THEORY ALERT
— I’m starting to wonder if Clara doesn’t have some kind of connection to the Doctor.
Like … she’s his mom.
I know we already kinda sorta probably almost definitely met his mum back in THE END OF TIME, and I know that most people would rather just forget the bit in the Eighth Doctor’s TV MOVIE that the Doctor is half-human, but until it’s officially rescinded on the TV show, we have to at least entertain the theory.
What’s Clara’s signature line? “Run you clever boy … and remember,” she’s said during her “other” lives. We’ve largely taken this “boy” designation as something cheeky, but taken another way, it’s also a way to refer to someone younger than yourself. I’ve held for quite some time that ultimately it’s going to be the Time Lords that are behind all of the Doctor’s relaunched troubles. And what do we have here in AKHATEN? A Clara Oswald driven by the memory of her mother that she will always come and find her daughter, which makes it fitting if Clara then, in essence, becomes her mother when she goes to save the Doctor at the end of AKHATEN.
There’s much less romantic tension between the Doctor and Clara, or even romantic interest from Clara’s point of view than most of our previous reboot Companions, and she does, in fact, scold the Doctor quite often. With the Ponds, Matt Smith made the Doctor feel ancient, but I’m not getting that vibe from him with Clara around. I’m getting a much more school boy vibe, so far. Yeah, there are moments when he looks and feels old, but there are just as many moments where Clara is scolding him as she stands up for herself and asserts her presence in the narrative, as if she were in charge and he was the Companion. And check out his outfit during the scene where Mary sings – he’s got glasses on that look like he took them off a Harry Potter cover and he’s sitting there with his little schoolbook, explaining to Clara what’s going on.
It’s after the schoolboy glasses come off where we see the timelines collapsing into a single moment. The Doctor tells her, in the third really memorable thing that happens in AKHATEN, “Listen, there is one thing you need to know about traveling with me. Well, one thing apart from the blue box and the two hearts. We don’t walk away.” As written and played, it comes off like the Doctor is giving Clara instructions, but remember why the Doctor says this – things are going to crap with Mary, Queen of Years and the angry god, and he’s off to do something about it. And where’s Clara while this is happening?
Running behind him, demanding that they do something about it because it’s her fault.
The Doctor’s speech, in other words, is much less a statement of purpose as it is an affirmation of what Clara is already demanding they do. The Doctor’s fire is in Clara’s words, as is his tremendous sense of guilt. Now, I’m not suggesting that the Doctor only says these things because Clara wants him to say them. What I’m saying is that, you know, timey wimey, we’re in a loop here where the Doctor and his mother are reinforcing their own deeply held beliefs.
One of the reasons I like the theory being pushed by Mike Faber of Earth Station One and others that Clara is the girl in the computer from THE SILENCE IN THE LIBRARY and FOREST OF THE DEAD is that it ties back to an earlier Moffat episode. As we saw in Series 6, there’s two DOCTOR WHO narratives going on: the Moffat episodes and everything else. Steven Moffat clearly has control over everything, of course, but it makes sense that the bows he’ll tie on his DOCTOR WHO years will be drawn from his own work.
And that’s one of the reasons why I’m sure my Crackpot Theory is definitely not true – because it’s drawn from the work of others. For now, though, I’m going to stand by this theory that Clara is the Doctor’s mother because that promise by the BBC executive whose name I can’t remember that no one is going to be able to figure out Clara’s true origin. As I joked on the Earth Station Who podcast two weeks ago – that it either means the exec thinks Moffat is infinitely smarter than the audience, or that Moffat isn’t going to play fair.
Stepping outside his own little Moffat World bubble would be just that kind of swerve, and it would be fitting given that this is the 50th Anniversary year.
I’m not suggesting, either, that Clara – that any versions of Clara – are even aware of her motherhood, at least consciously, but if the Doctor’s mother could send out her own “drum beat” to herself at an earlier point in time, she could be imploring the Doctor to “remember” for the both of them.
We also know that Moffat, like Russell T. Davies before him, likes to double down on the details, and so an episode that’s overtly about motherhood like AKHATEN might also be covertly about motherhood, too, as we see the lessons of the mother passed down to the daughter and passed on to the grandson.
And what bit of info does the Doctor happen to let out in AKHATEN? When Clara asks if he’s been here before, he replies, “Oh yes, with my granddaughter.”
Round and round the timeline spins …
Heck, at the end when they’re facing down the Akhaten parasite, they even cry out of the same eye.
As an episode, THE RINGS OF AKHATEN is a lesser version of THE BEAST BELOW, as the Doctor takes his new Companion to a very alien setting where they help a kid and dangerous shenanigans ensue. AKHATEN is a thin episode, but it is quite enjoyable as far as a light snack goes. I like how they use singing to get to the emotional core of the episode, but the episode succeeds because of Clara and the Doctor’s emotional responses.
The Doctor gives a moving speech to the parasite planet about all that he’s seen (the parasite feeds on these memories), but then Clara leaves the safety of her distant location and goes running into danger and one-ups the Doctor’s speech. She gives her own emotional plea/challenge to the parasite and gives up her parent’s leaf – the leaf that blew into her father’s face that caused him to meet Clara’s mother. It’s “the most important leaf in the universe” to Clara … but maybe, just maybe, it’s the most important leaf in the universe for other reasons to, as it’s the leaf that led to Clara, and Clara is what leads to the Doctor.
When I was on the ESW podcast two weeks back, I said I was not going to get caught up in the speculation game this half-series.