A Paradise Regained: The Rings of Akhaten in Perspective
David Selby takes another look at Neil Cross’ divisive Series 7 debut.
I think The Rings of Akhaten is going to be severely overlooked in future years. I’m going to add it to my ‘Unappreciated Classics’ pile, where it sits among stories like The Time Meddler, Shada, The TV Movie, The Long Game, New Earth, The Beast Below - and all the other stories that have been unfairly maligned because people have taken them at face-value. I’m speaking here as someone who enjoys dissecting what he watches. I want to know: why is that? Why did I enjoy (or, as it may be, despise) the episode? Why did a particular scene or character work? Why did it evoke those feelings within me?
The Rings of Akhaten, for me, is a blessing: an intricate, multi-layered narrative, with deep, poignant motifs and characterisation. The purpose of this article is to sequentially convey how I discovered my love for the story. Hopefully, you’ll reconsider your initial impressions on Neil Cross’ enchanting debut.
“Welcome to the Rings of Akhaten”
The Seven Worlds, all orbiting the same star, all share the belief that life hails from Akhaten. This sleeping God has had a bearing over the lives of all who live there. The people of the Seven Worlds, whilst living a communal lifestyle, are locked in a state of religious reverence. They’re doing what they believe is right to serve their God, but there’s no question that they’re intimidated by it. Millennia’s worth of experience has been downright wasted on it. The people of Akhaten would be better to relinquish their God, and their faith – but they can’t. It’s their fear that controls them.
For example: the ‘Endless Lullaby’ is somewhat reminiscent of the Ood’s ‘Song of Captivity’. It represents the civilians’ commitment to the God, and their desperation to keep it asleep. When the Chorister continues singing as the Mummy awakes, it accentuates how terrified he is of the consequences.
Aside from the Godliness, what I admire most about Akhaten is the communicated sense of culture. Neil Cross generously bestows his audience with an enriching, albeit brief, taster of what life in the Seven Worlds might be like. The market is a bustling place, populated with a variety of aliens, and the raw culture isn’t all that different to Earth. There’s the local cuisine, novelty excursions (Doreen’s moped), religious beliefs, and even a unique currency, one that suits the theme of the episode. Sentimentality, in its prime, has more value than simple money.
It also helped that Akhaten’s scenery was so striking and aesthetically pleasing. Kudos to the VFX department there. Cross’ script was translated gorgeously onto the screen.
“Can you feel the sunlight on your eyelids…?”
Cross is also careful with his choice of audience surrogate. I firmly believe, out of all of Series 7, that The Rings of Akhaten was that one that got Clara ‘just right’. The narrative is focalised through Clara’s point-of-view. There’s a distinct sense of wonder that the audience is filled with. As the Doctor would say: if you make all of time and space your backyard, what do you get? A backyard. But through Clara, you’re experiencing these extraordinary sights as if for the first time. Cross successfully expresses this with complexity and rare beauty.
Psychologically speaking, The Rings of Akhaten is essentially a story about human types of experience. Case in point: Clara’s backstory. She has vague recollections of her childhood that have lingered with her. The messages her mother has implanted, the maturity she’s been brought up with, they’ve all ‘conditioned’ her – shaped her sense of personal identity. She learns from her mother, and finds strength in her memory, though it breaks her heart to remember. As Ellie addresses Clara on her own level, so does Clara with Merry. As Ellie comes and finds Clara, and vows to continue doing so, Clara does so with the Doctor. Neil Cross explores the notion that tangible objects can become ‘imprinted’ with memories – it’s a touching notion, and, in my experience, it’s true. Have you ever tried to hold the glasses of someone you’ve lost? It’s an unbelievable pain – but a pain that gives us a reason to live, knowing they are always with us.
The Rings of Akhaten also explores themes of perception and perspective. “You’re not a God. You’re just a parasite eaten out with jealously and envy”, says the Doctor. The denizens of the Seven Worlds are confronted with the truth from the viewpoint of a newcomer. It would be harder if someone who’s been a resident of the Seven Worlds was to take on the Doctor’s role in the narrative.
“Can you hear them? All these people who lived in terror of you and your judgement…”
The Rings of Akhaten had a marvellous, uplifting ending – one of the very best. It was obviously written by someone who was a devout fan of the show. All of the little references were meaningful, whilst the connotations of the resolution were magnificent. After years of oppression, the people of the Seven Worlds finally found their own voice. They sung, and you can’t stop them singing – reminiscent of Last of the Time Lords (“One thing you can never do is stop them thinking”). It seems appropriate that, in a tale about wistful sentimentality, the Doctor would be the most valuable thing there. It’s a way for him to come clean about his experiences, as well as marking a refreshing change to the usual Doctor/companion exchange wherein the Doctor explains about the Time War. The irony is that his actions are fruitless. He doesn’t even stymie the beast. It’s unstoppable.
That’s until Clara steps in. There’s something exquisitely poetic and ingenious in the conclusion; that the behemoth isn’t defeated by what was, but by what could have been. As the Doctor remarks: “There’s an awful lot of one, but there’s an infinity of the other.” And that’s the most precious psychological experience: imagination. What could have been – it induces regret, sadness, and sometimes reassurance. It’s something that’s unique to us all.
The Rings of Akhaten isn’t without its faults, however. The Mummy and Vigil were severely underused, and the confusion about whether Akhaten is a sun or a planet is infuriating.
But overall, it’s a wonderful story: grand and operatic in scale, yet intricate and poignant in depth. It’s about sacrifice: the premature, melancholy ‘sacrifice’ of Clara’s mother, the sacrifices to the God, and Clara’s final sacrifice of the leaf in a compelling act of selflessness and bravery. The cast give stellar performances (kudos to Emilia Jones for a superb child performance, along with Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman for some of their best deliveries yet). From every angle, The Rings of Akhaten is a highly memorable and unique adventure.