‘Doctor Who’ has been quite mythology-heavy lately, and it was high time the series gave us a nice one-off story that we could simply sit back and enjoy. Saturday’s episode, ‘The Rings of Akhaten’, provides us with just that, but it’s not quite as satisfying as I would have hoped.
Clara asks the Doctor to show her something amazing, so he takes her to the Rings of Akhaten, a series of asteroids circling a massive star. An ancient civilization built temples and markets on this space debris, and Clara wants to see it all. In the episode’s best sequence, the Doctor shows her around a trading post filled with all kinds of aliens, and even drops a reference all the way back to his first incarnation, revealing to Clara that he had previously been there with his granddaughter.
The episode’s plot revolves around a little girl who must sing to keep an ancient god asleep. However, the god awakens anyway, and is determined to eat the girl’s soul, or, as The Doctor explains, her stories. This is the sort of thing that Neil Gaiman is an absolute ace at, but sadly he’s not the author of ‘The Rings of Akhaten’. (However, fans of last season’s ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ will be happy to learn that Gaiman has returned for another episode that will feature the Cybermen.) The plot is threadbare and half-baked, making the episode’s resolution, which could have been a barnstormer, feel undeserved.
You see, the episode actually opens with a short history of Clara’s parents, starting with the day they met. A leaf hits Clara’s father in the face, and he stumbles into the street. His mother saves him from being run over, and they fall in love. Clara’s father explains that this is the most important leaf in human history, because without it, Clara would not exist.
This setup is paid off at the end of the episode, but it doesn’t work. First, the episode itself doesn’t have the thematic weight to pull off the idea. Secondly, we don’t know Clara nearly well enough to feel deeply about her or her life. Placing this episode so early in Clara’s arc would have been akin to making ‘The Girl who Waited’ Amy Pond’s third episode. It just wouldn’t have worked, because we haven’t had the time to make a strong connection with the character.
Matt Smith, however, delivers a monologue that would have brought the house down in a better paced episode. It’s one of those moments that fans will either love for its earnestness or deride as scenery chewing, but no matter what, it shows that Smith is really taking command of his tenure as the Doctor.
I’m all for a good one-off story, with the caveat that it actually needs to be good. Too much arc-heavy episodes can weigh a season down, but at least they seem to really be about something. ‘The Rings of Akhaten’ wants to be epic, but is instead merely mediocre.