Monday 9 November 2020

Story 234 - The Rings of Akhaten

In which the Doctor embarks on an investigation into Clara, prior to seeing if she is going to take a trip with him in the TARDIS. He learns of how her parents first met - when her father, Dave, was distracted by a wind-blown leaf and was almost run over, but saved by her mother, Ellie. He witnesses her growing up, a seemingly normal child, then observes as she and her father bury her mother. Nothing he sees appears to be abnormal, and yet he has now met her, or a version of her, three times.
On returning to the present, the day after he had offered her a trip, she agrees to go with him.
The Doctor decides to take her to the exotic market at the Rings of Akhaten, for the Festival of Offerings. This takes place every thousand years, on a series of asteroids which circle a huge fiery gas giant planet. It is believed by the various races in this galaxy that all life in the universe began here. Clara is initially overwhelmed by the various alien species in attendance, but is more alarmed when the seemingly young Doctor mentions having visited the Festival before with his granddaughter. 

Clara sees a young girl in ornate red robes who is trying to hide from some similarly robed adults. Also searching are a group of sinister looking masked aliens, known as the Vigil. She follows the girl and tries to take her into the TARDIS, but the doors refuse to open for her. She learns that the girl is named Merry and she is to sing a special song at the Festival. She follows in a long line of young choristers known as the Queen of Years. Their task is to placate someone known as the Old God, who sleeps in a pyramid on one of the smaller asteroids, in closer orbit to the gas giant. The song maintains his sleep, but failure can mean his reawakening, and the death of the singer. Clara attempts to reassure the girl she will be okay, as the adult Choristers find her.

The Doctor and Clara then join the crowds for the performance. Unfortunately Merry makes a mistake, which seems to horrify the audience. She is caught in a tractor beam and pulled towards the pyramid. The Doctor and Clara give chase on a hired bike, Clara having to give her mother's ring in payment as the vendor, Dor'een, only accepts items of sentimental rather than monetary value.
They fly over to the pyramid. Merry is inside, confronted by a mummified being encased in glass. One of the adult Choristers joins her and attempts to sing the placating song. He fails, and the mummified being comes to life. When the Doctor attempts to remove Merry to safety, the Vigil materialise and attack them with sonic powers.

The Doctor uses his sonic screwdriver to beat them back, as the mummy smashes its way out of its glass cage. The Doctor and Clara get Merry outside, and the Doctor realises that the Old God was not the mummified figure after all. It simply acts as a conduit for the real Old God - the fiery gas giant itself. It stirs to life, taking on a the appearance of a malevolent face. Realising that it feeds on stories and memories, the Doctor sends Clara back to the market with Merry. He then offers his great life experience to the planet. This seems to sate it, but it then demands more. Clara takes to the space-bike and returns to the pyramid asteroid to help him. She offers the Old God the preserved leaf from her book. For her this symbolises the life her mother never had - all the potential experiences she could have had. These are infinite. The Old God over-indulges and is destroyed.
The Doctor takes Clara back home, and he recalls having seen him at her mother's grave when she was younger. The Doctor simply tells her that she reminds him of someone he once knew, who died. He still doesn't know what it is that is so impossible about her...

The Rings of Akhaten was written by Neil Cross, and was first broadcast on 6th April 2013.
It marks Clara's first trip in the TARDIS - but also begins to flag up a dislike the ship has for her. It refuses to open the doors when she tries to take Merry inside, and also fails to translate alien languages such as Dor'een's for her.
We are introduced to Clara's father, Dave - her mother having been introduced in the prequel for the previous episode.
Cross was the showrunner on the crime drama Luther, and he had already contributed a story for Series 7 - Hide. That wouldn't be shown until later in the series, but was made first.
Music plays a significant part in the story. Events revolve around a young singer and her failure to sing a particular song - the Long Song which is supposed to placate an ancient god. The Vigil use sound as a weapon, and the Doctor uses concentrated sound from the sonic screwdriver to unseal the pyramid and to defend against the Vigil's sonic attacks.
The monster-makers Millennium FX have their work cut out for them in this story. As well as the Vigil and the mummified being, they are called upon to populate the market with a variety of alien creatures, such as Dor'een. One of these creatures has a modified Hoix mask.

Clara's parents are played by Michael Dixon and Nicola Sian. They appear in flashback sequences as the Doctor looks into Clara's past. Merry is Emilia Jones - who is the daughter of singer and TV presenter Aled Jones (famous for We're Walking in the Air, from the Raymond Briggs animation The Snowman).
The adult Chorister is portrayed by Chris Anderson, whilst Dor'een is Karl Greenwood, a monster performer at various Doctor Who musical events. The mummy is Aiden Cook. This will be the first of a number of monster parts for him, including the Crooked Man in Hide, a Cyberman in Nightmare in Silver, and Zygons in The Day of the Doctor and The Zygon Invasion / The Zygon Inversion.

Overall, whilst visually stunning, the plot is really rather weak. There's a lot of build-up but all the jeopardy lies in the last fifteen minutes of the episode. How much you like the music makes a huge difference to your opinion on it. Most fans didn't like it, however - the DWM 50th Anniversary poll saw it at 233rd place (out of 241), making it the second worst story of the revived series.
Things you might like to know:
  • Ellie Oswald's date of death is given as March 5th 2005. This was the date of the Auton attack in Rose. Was she killed by an Auton?
  • The name of the planet was originally going to be Akhat - from the Egyptian hieroglyph akhet - meaning "the place where the sun rises".
  • Aliens seen in the market include Hooloovoo, Terraberserkers, Pan-Babylonians, Lucanians, Lugaleracush, a Ultramancer, and a Citizen of the City of Binding Light. The latter featured in The End of the World back in 2005.
  • The market scenes were a deliberate homage to the Star Wars cantina sequence, as was the use of a space-bike similar to those seen in Return of the Jedi.
  • There are similarities with a DWM comic strip - "Thinktwice" - where the Tenth Doctor destroys a memory-devourer by overloading it with his own many experiences.
  • The Vigil masks were based on old fashioned radio facades, in keeping with the musical theme of the story.
  • The Doctor is seen reading the 1981 Beano Summer Special - which prompted the comic to issue a reprint.
  • As I pointed out in my review of this story, wouldn't the destruction of the Old God have rather a disastrous impact on this whole planetary system?

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