In Slate’s Doctor Who TV Club, Mac Rogers discusses the Doctor’s travels via IM every week with the show’s bloggers and fans. This week he’s chatting about “The Rings of Akhaten” with Phil Plait, who writes the Bad Astronomy blog at Slate.
Mac Rogers: I swear, I had no idea when I asked the writer of Bad Astronomy to chat about this particular episode that there’d be quite so much, er, bad astronomy. Or at least wacky astronomy! I’ll get to a little more of that in a second, but my overall take is that “The Rings of Akhaten” is more successful in its ideas and its visuals than in its plotting. I loved the exploration of storytelling, I loved the menagerie of aliens and space-scapes, but I thought the plot was a bit muddled.
Phil Plait: I think the overarching plot was straightforward: Sleeping alien god needs appeasement so it doesn’t eat everyone. I don’t think it was really sleeping so much as kinda hanging out and munching on the offerings from the citizens. The details I can always retcon—the singing was just a ritual to go with the offering, and was incidental. As the Doctor said, it was just time for him to (fully) wake up. As for the science of all this, well, I’ve learned not to probe too deeply into that for this show.
Mac: As a science-fiction fan who’s also famous for regularly calling out shoddy science, which do you prefer: harder science fiction that has at least some basis in genuine research or emerging technology, or softer, more magical sci-fi like Doctor Who where there’s essentially no interaction with real science so you don’t have to think about it?
Phil: I prefer hard sci-fi (rocket ships, aliens, advanced tech), but honestly, I’ll take story over science. As long as it’s consistent, or at least not shoutingly inconsistent, I’m okay with it. Look, I laughed a long, long time in “Blink” when the Doctor said time was “a big ball of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff” because that was perfect! Doctor Who is full of ridiculous science, but that’s OK if the plot demands it.
Mac: The Doctor famously said, “We’re all stories in the end” in Season 5, and the Moffat era has been deeply obsessed with storytelling. “Akhaten” investigates the ways in which both individuals and cultures can be rendered as stories. We follow the Doctor as he verifies Clara’s story—that she is indeed a real person, not one of an army of identical Clara-bots—and in the process eavesdrops on Clara’s father telling the tale of “the most important leaf in human history.” Then we travel through time and space to the seven planets of Akhaten system to meet young Merry Gillel, the “Queen of Years,” who has memorized her entire culture’s history—its story—which she can now render in song at the all-important Festival of Offerings. Finally, at a key climactic point in the story, the Doctor talks Merry out of sacrificing herself to the “Grandfather” parasite by impressing upon her the remarkable story of all cosmic events required to bring about her existence. He ends his plea by saying “You are Merry Gillel. There will never be another,” and we sense that he’s also talking about the mystery of Clara, who ought to be that unique.
Phil: The idea of people as stories has been done a few times in Doctor Who, and I like it. Of course, the meta-joke is that the Doctor himself is a story we’re watching! Given Mofffat’s history, I expect twisted and torrid plot developments, which is what makes his Doctor Who reign so much fun. I’ll add I loved loved loved the Doctor’s speech about supernovae. I’ve said the same thing many times myself. Never to a Queen of Years though.
Mac: Given that “Akhaten” is (present-day) Clara’s second episode, I was struck by how closely it resembled Amy Pond’s second episode, “The Beast Below“: After a dazzling space-walk, the Doctor takes his new companion to a distant, off-world location. There they discover a society trapped in a corrupt, long-running arrangement requiring the sacrifice of innocents. And, as in “Beast,” the new companion must step up to save the day when the Doctor can’t quite do it. Does Moffat see this as an essential part of the hero journey of the Doctor Who companion?
Phil: That’s a good question, and I’m not sure. Look at last week’s “Bells” episode: Evil group uses tech to control large groups of people for some nefarious purpose; that was done many times, like David Tennant’s first Christmas show, or “The Power of Three.” If you squint your eyes enough you can probably summarize any two TV shows the same way! But it may well be that the Companions need to go through something like this to achieve hero status. Donna’s first adventure in “Fires of Pompei” had a similar arc, with her begging the Doctor to help out another family, much as Clara does. This time, though, the Doctor doesn’t need convincing. Clara’s first episode, though, was when she was a Dalek, and still managed to come out a hero!
Mac: Where I thought the story got a bit muddled was at the climax. I thought the transfer of the threat from the Mummy (a properly frightening Doctor Who monster) to Grandfather proper (a jack-o’-lantern-faced celestial body) was a mistake. I’m still confused (and here comes the bad astronomy!): Was Grandfather the Akhaten system’s sun?
Phil: I was under the impression (from the special effects early on) that Grandfather was a planet, and the ring system orbited him.
Mac: After the Doctor’s fiercely defiant monologue to Grandfather (and basically no one in television does defiant monologues as well as Matt Smith), Grandfather seemed to dim in power … but then Clara suddenly looked concerned and jumped on the space-scooter to go and rescue the Doctor with her father’s “most important leaf.” I normally love the special effects rendered by the Mill (which sadly had to close down many of its operations this past week) but celestial Grandfather made for a confusing villain for me. It wasn’t clear when he was waxing vs. waning.
Phil: He was glowing, wasn’t he? So maybe he was the sun … in which case the Doctor and Clara just killed all those people they just saved. It would get mighty cold there without a central star! After the Doctor’s speech Grandfather started to collapse, but then was able to shrug off the Doctor’s history, reinflating. That’s when Clara jumped in and collapsed him all the way down. I liked this as a bit of storytelling, though it pulled me out of the show a bit—the Doctor is only 1,200 years old, and Grandfather millions—so why should the Doctor’s story do much more than cause a bit of indigestion? But the idea that what has happened is finite, compared to the infinities of what might-have-been—that was lovely.
Mac: I loved that Clara decides to rescue the Doctor after flashing back to her mother promising little-kid-Clara: “I will always find you.” I loved that the memory of being cared for inspires Clare to care for others.
Phil: Well, that’s the heroic move, right? Self-sacrifice, doing what needs to be done because it’s the right thing to do. One of my favorite things about the Doctor is that he tends to bring that out in people. They had it all along, and some don’t need prodding—maybe his choice of companions is not all that random—but it’s always right there in his companions when needed. Thinking about Clara also reminds me that at the very end, when Clara opens the TARDIS door, she says her home “looks different.” Then the Doctor goes into a longish speech about it being exactly the same. That was curious. Is it actually different (oooh, foreshadowing) or is she seeing it differently due to her now-larger universe?
Mac: That’s a great point. They didn’t go to the past, they went to another planet, so it wouldn’t have been a case of rewriting history. Does Clara have an inadvertent effect on the world around her, not unlike Amy in the early going?
Phil: Well, we know she’s weird; there are at least two of her, and maybe more. The Doctor said she “wasn’t possible”, so something is amiss. I trust Moffat will resolve this in as fun a way as possible.