How do you humanize an episode of Doctor Who? As someone who watches the show regularly and passionately, but has not quite figured out how to become part of the conversation or interpretive process, a lot of times my struggles with the Whoniverse is limited to what my little mind can ascertain from the often twisted and allegorical stories.
Considering this is the first of my blogs about Doctor Who, I thought I would take the opportunity to introduce how it is that I blog about TV. This is not a recap. It will not just tell you whether or not the episode is “good” or “bad” in simple terms so that you can decide whether or not to watch the episode you recorded to your DVR. As Doctor Who is such an unusual show, written by so many different individuals and covering so many different archetypes (from the monster-centric episodes to the psychological thrillers to the historical wibbley wobbley timey wimey), there is no single way to interpret an episode on a scale of 1 to 10. It’s nebulous, unexpected at times and often you just have to go along for the ride without reviewing on the basis of taste, but rather on its place in the grand scheme of the show.
So here we arrive at “The Rings of Akhaten.” This is the eighth episode in Doctor Who series seven. It is the second episode since the long break that began after the Christmas episode of the series (“The Snowmen”), which was only the second time new companion, Clara Oswald (Jenna-Louise Coleman), appeared on the series – though her identity has changed slightly from episode to episode.
For those who aren’t already acquainted with the Who calendar, it tends to be split up into sections throughout the year. Series seven began on September 1 of last year with “Asylum of the Daleks” (the first episode with Coleman), but then ended on the 29 with the departure of Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill), the Doctor’s previous companions.
Ultimately, “The Rings of Akhaten” was a return to the alien-heavy, outer-spacey themes of Doctor Who, something we haven’t seen so much for a few months what with the most recent couple of episodes taking place on Earth. Without reading too much into this transition, it brought viewers back into a state of wonder and confusion that is afforded by episodes of Doctor Who that completely take us out of the familiar. It’s this kind of departure that opened the episode up to an even greater degree of allegory, particularly with the God-like creature that looms over the faraway planet which we are now becoming privy to.
One of the greater moments in the episode took place when The Doctor tried to convince Merry, a young girl who is “The Queen of Years,” burdened with the task of knowing the entire history of her people and communicating with their God, that she is more than just a stockpile of memories and stories. “All the elements in your body were forged many, many millions of years ago in the heart of a faraway star that exploded and died,” The Doctor said. “That explosion scattered those elements across the desolations of deep space. After so, so many millions of years these elements came together to form new stars and new planets and on and on it went. The elements came together and burst apart forming shoes, ships, sealing wax and cabbages and kings. Until eventually they came together to make you. You are unique in the universe.”
Give Matt Smith a monologue and his delivery will instantly captivate you, making you feel that each and every word, enunciated in powerful sequence, is like the ticking clock before the bomb goes off. When the bomb does, in fact, go off, it bursts with metaphorical energy. This particular monologue, related to the ability of the universe to create living, breathing beings, capable of emotion and intellect that the “God” figure in this episode has no way of understanding.
The “God” that the individuals of this planet worship feeds off of their “souls,” which the Doctor identifies as their most powerful memories and treasured stories. When the Doctor finally offers his own “soul,” he says, “I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe, I have lost things you will never understand and I know things – secrets that must never be told, knowledge that must never be spoken.”
In the end, Clara offers up her own “soul” in the form of a memento that signifies her parents’ meeting. She claims it represents all the days not spent, those that her mother (who died young) did not get to live. In the end, The Doctor wraps everything up in a neat package, saying “An infinity is too much, even for your appetite,” and what we are left to understand is that the strength of the soul alone – with all its love and compassion and emotion – has the capacity to maintain the power of past and present, of here and now, whereas a manipulative “God” in this faraway planet only has the power to steal from those who worship it.
So maybe that’s reading too much into an episode of a science fiction television series, but hopefully anyone who identifies as a Doctor Who fan will appreciate the insights into a world that despite not necessarily representing our own, can provide us with a sense of being – of the wonder of the human race. It’s a common theme throughout the series – the Doctor himself is fascinated with the human heart and soul. So as we walk away from “The Rings of Akhaten,” maybe that’s how we’re meant to feel too.