The Rings of Akhaten, by William Shaw

I don’t seem to have written anything about The Rings of Akhaten when it was first broadcast in 2013, nor did I pick is as one of my essential Twelfth Doctor watches in my 2017 guide to New Who. Both on first watching and on rewatching ten years later, I enjoyed it without especially loving it. It’s Clara’s first proper adventure as a companion, after several previous appearances, and I like the variety of alien races and the back-story for Clara, while regretting that more wasn’t made of either of these in the continuity. Emilia Jones rather glows as the main guest actor, in a story filmed when she was ten years old. She went on to star in an Oscar-winning film (CODA). I am less wild about planet-sized (let alone star-sized) evil aliens. Like I said, I enjoyed it without especially loving it.

It has not been adapted for print, and no subsequent adventure in TV or other media has returned to Akhaten. Several of the alien species have been seen again, notably as exhibits in Nightmare in Silver, and the story itself is moored into the wider continuity by the Doctor’s remark that he had previously visited Akhaten with his granddaughter. (And one of the alien races is a Hooloovoo, encountered differently in The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.)

William Shaw’s Black Archive monograph has really opened my eyes to what was actually going on in the story. and succeeded in making me feel that I need to give it another go to catch what I missed first time round. (Though I don’t think of myself as a careless watcher, so perhaps I should not take all the blame for my having missed some of these points.)

A brief introduction defends Shaw’s choice of The Rings of Akhaten to analyse, and introduces the themes of the book.

The first and longest chapter, “The Doctor as New Atheist”, jumps right in by looking at the impact of Richard Dawkins and other New Atheists on Doctor Who in the Russell T. Davies years (Dawkins himself actually appears on the show, of course) and examines how the Moffatt years saw a shift to a more measured engagement with gender, race, colonialism and indeed religion. The Rings of Akhaten is in fact a story about a religious ceremony, and the Doctor, coming in with a dismissive attitude to religion, is proved wrong several times. That’s a lot more interesting than I had realised.

The second chapter, “Clara, Merry, and the Most Important Leaf in Human History”, looks at the centrality of Clara and her relationship with Merry in the story, taking some time also for consideration of Murray Gold’s music and Orientalism by Edward Said. Again, I realised that there was more going on than I had noticed, especialiy if you consider the story’s place in Clara’s narrative arc.

The second paragraph of the third chapter, “Marks out of Akhaten” is:

This chapter therefore focuses on The Rings of Akhaten’s flaws, in terms of both its storytelling and its wider political context. In particular, it examines the episode’s relationship to some key concepts in postcolonial and feminist theory, and the ways in which it both exceeds, and ways in which it both exceeds, and tragically fulfils, the expectations of these schools of thought. None of this is to denigrate the episode. It is simply to argue that, while The Rings of Akhaten represents a positive step forward for Doctor Who, there are several ways in which it could have gone further.

I like very much that Shaw concedes that the story has flaws; some other Black Archive writers feel the need for total defence of their chosen story even when it’s a much worse story than The Rings of Akhaten. He mentions that its narrative beats are a bit uneven, which I agree with, and that there are not enough non-white actors, which I also agree with. He also looks at the disappointment felt by fans of writer Neil Cross’s previous career who may have expected something closer to the “gritty cop drama” Luther for which he is best known. I was not familiar with any of Cross’s non-Who work so that point passed me by.

The fourth chapter, “Anniversary Anxiety”, looks in a little more detail at the wider arc of story-telling in Moffat-era Who (though that phrase is not used), and how the story is one of the building bricks of the Clara narrative, interrogating and subverting what the show is actually about (ie the nature of the Doctor himself).

A brief conclusion explains Shaw’s own journey from sceptic to fan, having not enjoyed The Rings of Akhaten on first broadcast to realising its deeper significance.

An appendix asks whether Akhaten is a planet or a sun.

A second appendix has a decently long interview with the director, Farren Blackburn, explaining some of the artistic choices made during production.

A third appendix reproduces Blackburn’s “Director’s Statement”, his vision for the episode.

This is one of the longer Black Archives, but it really opened my mind to some of the aspects of the story that I wished I had caught for myself on watching. The last in this series that really excited me in the same way was Alyssa Franke’s monograph on Hell Bent. You may be able to get The Rings of Akhaten here. (Or here.)

The Black Archives
1st Doctor: Marco Polo (18) | The Dalek Invasion of Earth (30) | The Romans (32) | The Massacre (2)
2nd Doctor: The Underwater Menace (40) | The Evil of the Daleks (11) | The Mind Robber (7)
3rd Doctor: Doctor Who and the Silurians (39) | The Ambassadors of Death (3) | The Dæmons (26) | Carnival of Monsters (16) | The Time Warrior (24)
4th Doctor: Pyramids of Mars (12) | The Deadly Assassin (45) | The Face of Evil (27) | The Robots of Death (43) | Horror of Fang Rock (33) | Image of the Fendahl (5) | The Stones of Blood (47) | Full Circle (15) | Warriors’ Gate (31)
5th Doctor: Black Orchid (8) | The Awakening (46)
6th Doctor: Vengeance on Varos (41) | Timelash (35) | The Ultimate Foe (14)
7th Doctor: Battlefield (34) | The Curse of Fenric (23) | Ghost Light (6)
8th Doctor: The Movie (25) | The Night of the Doctor (49)
Other Doctor: Scream of the Shalka (10)
9th Doctor: Rose (1)
10th Doctor: The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (17) | Love & Monsters (28) | Human Nature / The Family of Blood (13) | The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords (38)
11th Doctor: The Eleventh Hour (19) | The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang (44)| The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon (29) | The God Complex (9) | The Rings of Akhaten (42) | The Day of the Doctor (50)
12th Doctor: Listen (36) | Dark Water / Death in Heaven (4) | Face the Raven (20) | Heaven Sent (21) | Hell Bent (22)
13th Doctor: Arachnids in the UK (48) | Kerblam! (37)