“Something awesome.” That’s where Clara asked to be taken in her first trip in the Tardis. Rose was taken to see the end of the world in the year 5 billion. Martha was taken to visit Shakespeare in Elizabethan England. Donna to Pompeii’s last day. Amy to the Starship UK to save a star whale. The Doctor gives Clara Akhaten, which, as a “companion’s-first-trip” destination, easily beats the lot. Akhaten surely ranks among the most fully-formed, immersive alien planets the Tardis has visited in the revived series. Clara steps out of the Tardis and is immediately hit by a barrage of strange colours, shapes, sights, sounds and smells. It’s an entirely novel culture, a totally alien world, something Doctor Who, a show premised on “all of space and time”, doesn’t do quite nearly as often as one would expect. Here, the show delivers sumptuously, though. It’s constructed a whole, unique culture and ejected the viewer right into the middle of it. This is what being a tourist in a strange culture is supposed to be like, and here Doctor Who does space tourism. The visuals, throughout the whole episode, are duly spectacular.
After a couple of charming minutes watching the Doctor and Clara play the tourists, the plot of this episode gets rolling in the person of the sweet Merry Gejelh. Merry’s an enchanting little thing, and she brings out the empathetic and compassionate side in Clara in a few minutes’ beautiful dialogue in which Clara gently soothes Merry’s anxieties and convinces her to complete her duty. We learn a thing or two about the Doctor’s enigmatic new companion as she comforts Merry in those moments, such as how the death of her own mother explains her feeling of compulsion to look after Angie and Artie as their nanny after their mother died. This episode’s plot, centring around the awakening of the “Old God”, was generally somewhat light and insubstantial. There wasn’t all that much to it, and the resolution was simplistic. But (and there’s a very emphatic “but”), it was still a hugely gripping and enjoyable romp. There was real suspense in the threat of
Grandfather the mummy in the pyramid scene, which was realised terrifyingly and actually made compelling what little there was of substantive narrative.
Everyone remembers The Rings of Akhaten for one thing though. It’s when the Doctor realises he’s made a “semantics mix-up” and mistaken the mummy for the Old God… which is actually a dirty great planet that eats people’s souls. And he decides (clearly against his better judgment) to fight it. There follows about three of the most electrified, hypnotising minutes in the Doctor Who canon. The Doctor’s speech, raging against the Old God, offering up his own millennium’s accumulated memories, is exceptionally powerful, profoundly rousing stuff. I’ve seen it many times now, and it still never fails to bring on the goosebumps. I’d certainly consider it close to being one my all-time favourite scene. Matt Smith is otherworldly, digging deep and delivering one of the standout performances as the Doctor in those couple of minutes. He brings out forcefully at the same time the Doctor’s rage at the Old God as well as, in offering his own memories, the intense pain and regret those memories evoke. The acting is so awe-inspiringly good that Matt convinces you that he really is feeling the Doctor’s emotion and pain as the Doctor offers himself up, all that he is, all 1,300 years of him. The words themselves are poetic and rousing, and they’re set just perfectly to Merry’s song.
Some final thoughts. All the music in this episode is exquisite. My most energetic praise to Murray Gold, who has really seized the opportunity to display his considerable creative talents. For the life of me I can’t understand how some can disparage the music in this episode. It was beautiful. Take it from an actual classically-trained musician. I mean, I get that musical taste is subjective, but some music is just objectively good. Ravel’s Bolero, for example. Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. Gangnam Style. And this. Secondly, despite his exceptional delivery of the speech to the Old God, I found Matt Smith’s acting somewhat lacking again in the rest of this episode. The phrase “phoning it in” comes to mind. Admittedly, Matt wasn’t really given much of substance in this episode apart from the speech (and perhaps he expended all his energies on that speech; if so, I’m not complaining at all). However, his distant performance actually did create an interesting effect of making the Doctor seem distinctly aloof, tired and, above all, older. Which actually works really well, given both Matt Smith’s “old-man-in-a-young-man’s-body” Doctor and the maturity and increasing weariness of the Eleventh Doctor at this stage of his regeneration. It creates a totally different, and interesting dynamic with Clara as contrasted with that between Matt’s Doctor and Amy. Tom Baker’s uncommitted performance in his final season was similarly ironically effective in the same way.