The Rings of Akhaten
The Rings of Akhaten was the seventh episode of the seventh series of Doctor Who produced by BBC Wales. In it, the Eleventh Doctor’s new companion, Clara Oswald, took her first trip in the TARDIS to an alien planet. Clara’s mother, Ellie Oswald, previously seen in The Bells of Saint John: A Prequel, was also shown to have passed away eight years before Clara met the Doctor.
The wind blows autumn leaves and a wooden gate closes. One large, reddish-orange leaf rattles on the tree. A young man with dark hair, dressed in a suit, fumbles with an unfolded map as he walks down a pavement. The Doctor peers out from behind a copy of The Beano Summer Special 1981. The young man looks around in confusion when suddenly a leaf falls from the tree into his face. He stumbles into the street and the path of an oncoming car, but is pulled aside by a beautiful young woman. She asks if he is all right and he smiles.
Some time later, the two are sharing an umbrella and stumble up to a doorway in laughter. He pulls out the leaf and she asks why he kept it. He explains that “this exact leaf had to grow in that exact way, in that exact place, so that precise wind could tear it from that precise branch, and make it fly into this exact face at that exact moment. And if just one of those tiny little things had never happened, I’d never have met you. Which makes this the most important leaf in human history.” They kiss; the Doctor frowns and walks away in the rain.
Later, baby Clara is held by her father. While playing as a toddler, Clara’s mother shows Clara her book, 101 Places to See. The Doctor is hit in the face by a football. He pops up with his hands in a defensive gesture as Clara’s mother asks if he’s all right. Among other things, he says that’s he’s possibly a touch embarrassed and seriously asks if that’s dangerous. Clara’s father brings her over and she’s introduced.
A teenage Clara, holding her mother’s book, stands with her father in mourning over the gravestone for “Ellie Oswald, beloved wife and mother, born 11th September 1960, died 5 March 2005” . The Doctor watches and returns to the TARDIS. He reviews her file on the scanner; he’s been investigating her past to make sure she’s just a human girl. He declares, “She’s not possible.”
Clara is sitting on the stairway with her book. She hears the TARDIS land, the door open, and she smiles and jumps up as the doorbell rings. In the TARDIS console room, she asks about the nature of time (“not made of strawberries”), and if the TARDIS can go anywhere (“within reason”). The Doctor asks her where she wants to go, and she freezes, admitting that the breadth of options makes it difficult to think of one. The Doctor prompts her until she smiles and says she wants to see “something awesome”.
The Doctor walks her out of the TARDIS, with her eyes closed, into the light of an alien sun. He bids her open her eyes so that he can welcome her to the Rings of Akhaten. A golden pyramid comes into view. It is the Pyramid of the Rings of Akhaten, a holy site for the Sun-singers of Akhet. This is a system of seven worlds, orbiting the same star, and they believe that all life in the universe originated on Akhaten. Clara asks to go to it.
They wander an alien market. The Doctor says that most of the people around are local species, and points out some: some Pan-Babylonians, a Lugalirakush, some Eukanians, a Hooloovoo and an Ultramanta. He does a ritual greeting with a Terraberserker of the Cadonian Belt, mentioning that they’re not common. He says he forgot how much he liked it there — he’d been there a long time ago with his granddaughter. Clara’s a bit shocked at this, but the Doctor’s moving fast. She runs after him and he presents her with a glowing blue fruit. She takes a bite as he scans it with his screwdriver. She shakes her head at the taste.
The place is crowded because of the Festival of Offerings, and a creature comes up to Clara, barking and growling at her. The Doctor returns, barking himself to communicate, and introduces Dor’een to Clara. Dor’een had been asking if they want to rent a moped. Clara asks what it costs and the Doctor explains that they don’t use money, here. They use objects of sentimental value as currency. “Psychometry. Objects psychically imprinted with their history.” She dislikes the idea, thinking it’s terrible to have to give up something important to you in trade. The Doctor says it’s better than bits of paper, so she says that he should pay, as someone who’s a thousand years old should have something that he cares about. The Doctor pulls out his sonic screwdriver, then shakes his head and puts it back.
Clara turns her back for a moment, then goes looking for him. A little girl, wearing crimson robes, bumps into her and runs off. Shortly afterwards, two men wearing similar robes, presumably monks of the religious order of that system, ask Clara if she’d seen the Queen of Years. Clara shrugs and they search on.
Clara goes to look for the young girl, and finds her in the back corridors. The girl runs, and Clara slowly follows. They startle each other and laugh. The girl says she’s hiding and is confused and skeptical that Clara doesn’t know her. The girl says she needs help to hide, and Clara knows the perfect box. Three men wearing black uniforms with brass buttons and facial masks appear and start whispering, calling out for the girl. Clara takes the little girl to the TARDIS and tries to open the doors, but they are locked. She rattles the doors a bit, then states that the blue box just doesn’t like her.
Clara gets a little angry, but she forgets it when the little girl ducks behind the TARDIS. She tells Clara that her name is Merry Galel, and she’s the Queen of Years. She was chosen to become this as a baby, when the previous Queen died. She knows every story, poem, legend, and song of their culture. She’s scared because she has to sing a special song to their god to keep him from waking. Clara tells her that everyone’s scared when they’re little. She had been scared of being lost, until she’d gotten lost once. Her mom found her and took her home, and told her that no matter how lost she was, her mom would always find her. Afterwards, Clara was many times scared, but never of being lost.
Merry believes Clara when she tells her she’ll get the song right, and Clara takes her back to the men in red robes who were looking for her. The Doctor comes up, eating the glowing blue fruit.
In a room in the pyramid, a man in red robes sings to a mummy. He switches out with the Chorister.
Clara and the Doctor arrive to view a ceremony. The Doctor shushes Clara when she tries to ask if they’re supposed to be there. There is some grumbling, then silence as Merry looks at Clara before she begins to sing a duet with the man in the pyramid. The Doctor reads the program and tells Clara that they’re signing the Long Song, a lullaby to keep the Old God, or Grandfather, asleep. There has been a Chorister singing this endless song for generations. Others in the audience hold up offerings, gifts of sentimental value, to feed the Old God. The viewers, including the Doctor, join in the song.
The Chorister in the pyramid falters, and they all stop singing, looking around in confusion. The Chorister raises his hood and continues. The ground shakes at the pyramid and in the viewing room, and a golden energy seizes Merry and starts moving her towards the pyramid. She screams and Clara asks if anyone is going to help her. She follows the Doctor, who is already leaving, saying he can’t just walk away because Clara talked Merry into doing this. He replies: “Listen, there is one thing you need to know about traveling with me. Well, one thing, apart from the blue box and the two hearts. We don’t walk away.”
He walks up to Dor’een, barking, then pats his pockets and looks back to Clara. He tells her he needs something. She’s confused, saying that he must have something himself. He pulls out the screwdriver, saying, “I don’t want to give it away because it comes in handy.” She looks down and quietly takes her mother’s ring from her hand and hands it over. They take the moped and fly it out to the glowing ball carrying Merry. Clara almost takes her hand, but the little girl flies into the pyramid.
Clara and the Doctor land at a doorway protected by a frequency-modulated acoustic lock. He says that he really can’t open it, as it changes too quickly, but he’ll try anyway.
The Chorister continues to sing. Merry walks closer, saying that she doesn’t know what to do. She screams. The Doctor manages to open the door, but it’s very difficult and heavy to hold up. As Merry won’t leave, the Doctor is unable to do anything other than hold the door up. Merry won’t leave, as she believes that it is her fault the Old God is waking, and she doesn’t believe Clara any more because Clara was wrong. Now the Old God will eat their souls. She tele-kinetically pins Clara to the glass around the Old God, and then says that he doesn’t want Clara, he wants her, but if the others don’t leave the God will eat them too. The Doctor says they’re never going to leave, then hums a bar and lets go of the door. Clara asks if they’ve just been locked in with the soul-eating monster, and the Doctor says yes.
The Chorister is still trying to sing the god back to sleep, and the Doctor advises he run. He stops, and declares that the Long Song has ended with him. He presses a button on his wrist band and disappears. The mummy begins to move, and the Doctor tells Merry that they didn’t wake him, he woke because it was time to wake up.
He tells Merry that she was intended as a sacrifice for the monster, because if she’s going to do this voluntarily she should know why. He tells her a story about how she is unique and he believes that her sacrifice would be a waste. Merry lets Clara go and they begin to run. The Vigil appear, and Merry says it is their job to feed her to the Old God. They knock the Doctor and Clara unconscious and lead her to the mummy. Clara rouses first and gets the screwdriver to the Doctor. He holds off the Vigil with the screwdriver. Merry sings the secret song, opening another door. They run, but Clara goes back for the Doctor. He holds back the Vigil again as the mummy breaks the glass, and a beam of light shoots from him into the planet.
The Vigil disappear, and the Doctor says they’re gone because Grandfather is awake and they’re no longer needed. He declares that he’s made a tactical mistake. He thought that the Old God and Grandfather were the same thing (the Mummy), but “it was just Grandfather’s alarm clock”. Akhaten itself is the Old God. Merry declares that the entity will eat everyone in the system and then continue across the stars. Clara and the Doctor talk about going somewhere else but she knows he’s going to stay to fight it.
He sends Clara off to save Merry, and turns to confront the planet. Clara returns Merry to the viewing room. Merry wants to help, so she stands and begins singing a new song. The Doctor smiles, and begins to tell a story to the Old God, a story about the people singing to him, and about the things that the Doctor is and knows. His intention is to overwhelm it with his life experience. The planet begins to recede. The Doctor slumps to the ground.
The entity eats but swirls back again. Clara takes the moped back. She asks if it’s still hungry, then feeds it the most important leaf in human history, which is full of her mother’s lost life, a whole future that never happened. The entity feeds on the infinite possibilities represented by the leaf. The Doctor, reviving, declares that he must be full, as infinity is too much, even for his appetite. The planet recedes again, this time seemingly asleep for good.
The Doctor returns Clara to her home. She realizes that she’d seen him at her mother’s grave. He confesses that she reminds him of someone he knew, someone who died. He gives her back her mother’s ring, saying the people that she had saved wanted her to have it back. She leaves the TARDIS.