It's been a long time since we've had a title as old-fashioned as "The Rings of Akhaten" on Doctor Who. In the classic years, almost every story came with a pulpy title like that, and generally found the Doctor visiting some alien civilization, discovering corruption and intrigue in their society and putting it right – usually by running up and down lots of corridors - before he left.
Such an Imperialist approach to space and time travel doesn't really wash in 2013, but this was a tale with lofty ambition smuggled inside a deceptively simple shell. Break this one down to its component parts and there's really not much to it.
We open with the Doctor once again obsessed with the origin of his latest companion, Clara. We've already seen her die – twice – in two different time periods, light years apart. Can she really be a normal human being? The Doctor pops back to the 1980s to see her parents meet for the first time – and to read The Beano, because he's a man of taste – and to keep pace with Clara's life to see where her impossibility comes from. The answer: nowhere. She really does appear to be a normal person, albeit one who seems to have doppelgangers in the most coincidental places.
The Doctor's curiosity is then swapped for Clara's. Embarking on her first jaunt in the TARDIS, the Doctor asks the immortal questions: “Where do you want to go? What do you want to see?” Clara wants to see “something awesome” so the Doctor whisks her off to the titular Rings of Akhaten, a sort of interstellar mecca, where seven worlds pay homage to a sleeping god in the Festival of Offerings.
So many Who stories in recent years have had aliens coming to Earth, and it's always refreshing when that dynamic is reversed. This episode positively revels in the prospect of alien life, with the community surrounding Akhaten rivalling Mos Eisley for sheer variety of extra-terrestrial species and wonderful prosthetics and masks. It's also fun to have the Doctor hinting that he's been here before, back when he was in his first incarnation.
No sooner have we had the whistlestop tour of weird faces and comical misunderstandings with barking female aliens than the meat of the story kicks in. Clara bumps into a little girl, scared and on the run from some monastic figures. She's the Queen of Years, the latest in a long line of receptacles for all the stories and songs of her people's history. At the Festival of Offerings, she'll sing a lullaby to keep their god asleep, but she's worried she'll get it wrong. She doesn't get it wrong, but the god is waking up anyway, and sure enough it's up to the Doctor to save the girl and – by extension – all those rubber-faced aliens watching from afar. There's a creepy mummy in a glass cage of emotion. There are a trio of Space Cenobites. And there's a sentient soul-devouring star that comes across as a thematic mash-up of Galactus and Ego the Living Planet.
Despite all these concepts, it's a surprisingly small story set against a visually epic backdrop, with the Doctor and Clara zipping between only two locations thanks to a handy space moped. Where the episode distinguishes itself is in the chewy ideas rumbling away underneath the expected banter and sonic screwdriver deus ex machina moments.
In particular, there's a strong humanist streak to the script which comes incredibly close to outright condemning religion. The Doctor tells Clara of the creation myth that led to the Festival of Offerings, then dismisses it as a “nice story.” He reveals that the “god” is nothing of the sort – just another form of life with appetites beyond the understanding of more corporeal creatures. And he berates that “god” for being petty and jealous, feeding off the lives of its followers even as they willingly sacrifice themselves in its honor.
It's a confrontational allegory, and one that is only slightly softened by the sci-fi trappings. Doctor Who has always been a show that favors reason over blind faith, but rarely has it been so nakedly displayed as having the Timelord literally scream into the face of a false deity.
But there's even more going on here, as we learn that Clara lost her mother when she was young and in a few deftly written scenes we get a hint of how that's shaped her. In her scenes with the Queen of Years, there's a lot of exploration – both subtle and on-the-nose – of how we carry the lives of those who made us, and how that can be a source of both fear and wonder. It's especially interesting to see the maternal theme at work, as this episode marks the Doctor Who debut of writer Neil Cross, creator of Idris Elba detective show Luther and – more appropriately – the screenwriter of the recent Guillermo Del Toro produced horror movie, Mama.
Cross gets a little too flowery towards the end of this episode, laying it on a bit thick as the Doctor gushes about the cosmic origins of every unique and special being in the universe, while Clara becomes uncharacteristically verbose as she turns her mother's missing future into a weapon that can repel even a ravenous star. And, while it's nice to see science fiction dabbling in matters musical, the alien hymns on display here are disappointingly Earth-like in their soppy pop-ballad styling and cloyingly literal lyrics.
Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman sell the schmaltz though, and between the abundance of fantastic creature make-ups and the surprisingly heavy themes, it's easy to forgive the basic fact that the episode is really nothing more than a series of conversations.