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Recap / Doctor Who S33 E7 "The Rings of Akhaten"

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The Rings of Akhaten
So, about that leaf...
Written by Neil Cross
Directed by Farren Blackburn
Air date: 6 April 2013

"There's quite a difference, isn't there, between what was and what should have been. There's an awful lot of one, but there's an infinity of the other."
The Doctor

The superbly sentimental one. Which also happens to be ham-tacular. Ham that's sugar-cured with singing.

The first broadcast Doctor Who episode by Promoted Fanboy Neil Cross, who got the job by mentioning Doctor Who for years in every BBC meeting. However, this episode was the second one that he wrote, and his first, "Hide", was broadcast two episodes later.

The Doctor quietly watches (and reads The Beano) as Clara's parents meet for the first time. A leaf blows into Clara's dad's face and he stumbles into the road, where her mother saves him from being hit by a car. The two fall in love, become Clara's mother and father, and raise her with kindness and sweet stories. The Doctor is always there, just to watch her grow up. When Clara's mother dies, the Doctor is there at the graveyard, just looking at the scene from a distance. Clara is, for all intents and purposes, a completely normal human being, but this is not the case. "She's not possible!" the Doctor declares.

On the day after her previous adventure, the Doctor arrives to come pick Clara up. Clara wants to see "something awesome", so the Doctor whisks her off to the gorgeous inhabited rings of the planet Akhaten, where the Festival of Offerings is in full swing. Wandering off at the marketplace, Clara meets Merry, the very young Queen of Years, as the pilgrims and natives prepare for the ceremony. Merry is terrified of her role as a ceremonial singer, thinking she'll screw up despite having been extensively taught every song and story known to her culture. Clara encourages her to go through with it, remembering how her own mother raised her to be courageous, and Merry agrees to perform the hymn for "Grandfather", the old god. However, said god very unexpectedly interrupts little Merry's song and drags her through the air towards its tomb. The Doctor and Clara stop being tourists and leap into action, following suit on a space motorbike.

The Doctor sonics open the tomb door and Clara calls for Merry to join them but she refuses. The Doctor is thus forced to seal himself, Clara, Merry and a monk (frantically singing sacred lullabies) in together with a tremendously scary mummified vampire, who wakes up and starts attacking its own cage. Merry insists on making a Heroic Sacrifice and letting it feed on her memories — all the songs and stories she's been taught are for this purpose. The Doctor refuses to let her do this and explains to her the sheer improbability of someone as unique as a living person being born in the first place (glancing at Clara while he talks) and the pointlessness of sacrificing something as beautiful as her own life.

Merry is still intensely scared, and she fully blames Clara for convincing her to go through with the ritual, even though no one knew it would lead to this. While Merry uses her knowledge of her culture's lore to improvise an escape, the thing breaks through its glass and lets out a shrill yell, which triggers a beam that makes contact with the planet, after which the mummy falls unconscious. As it turns out, the mummy isn't the Old God. It was the Old God's alarm clock. The Old God is the entire planet.

The Doctor asks Clara to get Merry to safety on the air bike, while he stays behind to confront the living, monstrous planet. Merry takes up her old spot on the ceremonial dais again and begins to sing, hoping to calm the beast. The Doctor exposes himself to it, voluntarily letting the thing Mind Rape him and show it every single one of his memories: the Time War, the beginning of life and its ending, the death of entire universes. Entire worlds that laughed in the face of physics and relied on the mind of a madman. The monster isn't quite sated yet, so while the Doctor, crying by this point, struggles to keep standing up, Clara rushes back into the tomb and offers the monster her leaf: not just its memories, but Clara's grief at what might have been if her mother hadn't died. Since the thought of innumerable possibilities is stronger than even the Doctor's 1200 years of life, the planet gorges itself on Clara's grief and dies.

In the aftermath, the Doctor explains that Clara reminds him of someone who died. Clara tells him she won't be a Replacement Goldfish for whomever it is he lost, not realising that he's talking about her.


  • Alien Sky: An Invoked Trope by the Doctor, as Clara requests to be taken something awesome. The Doctor gives her this trope IN SPACE!, as she sees her first alien sun while standing on a tiny asteroid.
  • Ambiguously Human: Every local who appears to be human, most prominently Merry and the choristers (who have ridged Facial Markings and blue-ish veins around the edge of their faces).
  • Appease the Volcano God: Not a volcano, but the same principle applies. Feed the Old God your stories and memories or he'll eat the Seven Planets and then move on.
  • Artistic License – Economics: The city's currency is items with sentimental value, but the items they're traded for seem to use a similar value system as Earth.
  • Badass Boast: The Doctor gets an epic one combined with a List-of-Experiences Speech.
    The Doctor: I walked away from the Last Great Time War. I marked the passing of the Time Lords. I saw the birth of the universe and I watched as time ran out, moment by moment, until nothing remained. No time. No space. Just me! I've walked in universes where the laws of physics were devised by the mind of a MAD... MAN. I've watched universes freeze and creations burn. I have 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. Knowledge that will make parasite gods BLAZE! SO COME OOOOON THEN! TAKE IT! TAKE IT ALL, BABY! HAVE IT! YOU HAVE IT ALL!
  • Batman Can Breathe in Space: The entire episode is spent on asteroids that should never hold an atmosphere, the habitable parts of these asteroids extend onto the surface and into empty space, and there are several sequences where the characters ride a space-moped without helmets or space suits. It's reasonable to assume there's an artificial atmosphere, but this is not elaborated on in the episode.
  • Bazaar of the Bizarre: The marketplace has glowing blue fruit (non toxic!), space mopeds and aliens that communicate with barks.
  • Beam-O-War: The Doctor has a sonic-off with the guardians of the temple. They eventually overcome his sonic screwdriver, but not quickly enough to stop him.
  • Big Bad: The Old God.
  • Call-Back: The Doctor's speech to the Queen of Years (and his mention of seeing the beginning of time) calls back to "The Edge of Destruction", where the TARDIS went too far into the past because a button got stuck.
  • Chewing the Scenery: The Doctor hams it up like there's no tomorrow while delivering his Badass Boast speech in the episode's climax.
  • Conspicuously Light Patch: Near the episode's beginning, there's a shot of a tree with one big red leaf, and many smaller yellow leaves. Guess which one ends up being "the most important leaf in human history"?
  • Continuity Nod:
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • The space bike comes in handy twice over.
    • Clara's leaf is introduced as a memento from her parents' courtship. It becomes the key to saving the day.
  • Declarative Finger: The Doctor gives one to Akhaten in its final moments.
  • Did You Just Punch Out Cthulhu?: The Doctor and Clara defeat a sentient planet.
  • Don't Wake the Sleeper: A textbook example in that the threat is sleeping and a full religion is established to keep it asleep. It's even doubled, in that the sleeping god is a sleeper that will awaken an even bigger sleeper if awakened.
  • Dramatic Choir Number: The Doctor discovers that young Merry Gejelh is to be offered as a sacrifice to keep the god of Akhaten from awakening. The Doctor and Clara save her from the withered mummy that they think is being worshipped, only to realize that it was merely the "alarm clock" and that the star at the heart of the system is the god, and that it has awakened. The Doctor moves Clara and Merry to relative safety, then returns to the temple to confront the god, known as "Grandfather". Merry, hoping to support the Doctor, leads the various races gathered together in a choral performance of "The Long Song" to help bolster him with the psychic resonance, as The Doctor offers up his memories to the stellar deity.
  • Eldritch Abomination: Akhaten is actually revealed to be an unbelievably ancient, sentient, planet-sized parasitic monstrosity of immense power with formless features that must be kept asleep, otherwise it will devour everything.
  • Emotion Eater: Akhaten feeds on emotions and stories.
  • Eternally Pearly-White Teeth: That mummy has had some dental work. That's the point of mummification, after all, preserving the body.
  • False Cause: The Most Important Leaf in Human History had to grow in that exact spot in that exact way for the wind to etc. etc. It's a sweet reminder of their Meet Cute, though.
  • Foreshadowing: The infinite possibilities leaf actually represented Clara herself, not her mother's unlived future, hinting at The Reveal of Clara's true nature later in the season.
  • For Want Of A Nail: "The most important leaf in human history," an ordinary leaf that, through a series of improbable coincidences, was in just the right position to bring Clara's parents together.
  • God Is Evil: Akhaten's true nature is a merciless parasite that has to be appeased with memories and kept asleep with Music Magic. When the mummy stirs, the songs changes to a much more urgent "never wake from slumber".
  • God Is Good: Akhaten, the sentient planet god of the seven systems, is referred to as "my warrior" and "my hero" in the songs. This suggests that the songs are to assure him that everything's fine and he can continue to rest his "holy head".
  • Genius Loci: Akhaten is revealed to be not the mummy sitting upon the temple's throne, but a sentient planet.
  • Heavenly Concentric Circles: Akhaten is a parasitic, sentient planet that is revered by the people inhabiting neighboring planets as an evil god. There's an entire religion created to prevent Akhaten from ever waking up. Akhaten is surrounded by two concentric asteroid ring systems, with the inner one housing the pyramid-like Apex Temple where the ritual to keep him sleeping is performed. This makes this an Exploited Trope.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: The Doctor nearly makes one when he challenges Akhaten to eat all of his memories. He survives the experience, but it was a near thing. Instead, Clara sacrifices her leaf to the Old God.
  • Holding Hands: The Doctor takes Clara's hand when taking her for a closer look.
  • Humanoid Abomination: "Grandfather" is a mostly humanoid thing that sits on a throne in a temple. Except it's actually just the entity responsible for devouring the Queen of Years' stories in order to satiate the Old God.
  • Indy Hat Roll: The Doctor does one under the closing tomb door; rolling back to retrieve his sonic screwdriver.
  • Insert Song: The long song.
  • Intangible Price: Akhaten has this sort of economy. Just as their ersatz god feeds upon emotional memories, they pay for goods and services with objects imbued with sentimental value.
  • Internal Homage: The Doctor's speech to the monster is very reminiscent of the Eighth Doctor's speech in "Phobos". Neil Cross' other series 7 episode, "Hide", made the link more explicit with many direct references to the Eighth Doctor's audios.
  • Karma Houdini: When we last see the Vigil, they're teleporting away after their child sacrifice goes awry. Admittedly, they were fighting for a noble cause (preventing Akhaten from awakening), but they still sacrificed multiple children to their "god" and abandoned everyone on the planet when Akhaten awoke.
  • Kill the God: The sentient planet is called the "god of Akhaten", but it's not really a god. It's actually a really big, really old, really powerful parasite. Nevertheless, Clara and the Doctor bring a permanent end to its reign of terror.
  • Load-Bearing Hero: The Doctor manages to open the door to the temple with his sonic screwdriver, but has to keep it there to prevent the door from closing. Paradoxically, he still seems to feel the weight of the door despite not actually touching it, which he lampshades a few times.
  • Macguffin Super Person: Merry is the Queen of Years and the one who will appease the Old God with her sacrifice. Clara meets her in classic fashion; running from some mooks and scary soldier guys.
  • Make Some Noise: The power of the temple guardians is sonic based, like the screwdriver.
  • Manly Tears: The Doctor cries during his magnificent speech to Akhaten.
  • Meet Cute: Clara's parents meet Rescue Romance style when a leaf nearly caused Dave to fall into ongoing traffic, with Ellie pulling him away from a car. This leads to Love at First Sight.
  • "Mister Sandman" Sequence: The Doctor reads the 1981 Beano Summer Special. The track playing is "Ghost Town" by the Specials, released in 1981. So, it's probably 1981.
  • Musical Episode: Downplayed in that there is a lot of singing in this episode, but it's only done by two people, both of whom are professionals in official circumstances.
  • Music Soothes the Savage Beast: The Sun-Singers have been singing a lullaby to the Old God for generations upon generations in order to keep it asleep.
  • Mythology Gag:
    • Victorian Clara's gravestone in "The Snowmen" says she was born on November 23, the date "An Unearthly Child" aired in 1963. She also lived to age 26, the same age as classic Doctor Who when it was cancelled in 1989. Clara's mother died on March 5th, 2005, the day "Rose" (the first episode of the new series) takes place.
    • The Doctor reading The Beano might be a reference to Peter Cushing's Doctor reading The Eagle.
    • Having a villain who goes by the name of "Grandfather" brings to mind the Doctor Who Expanded Universe villain Grandfather Paradox.
  • Never Split the Party: This time it's the Doctor who breaks the "don't wander off" rule.
  • Newspaper Dating: Done for the benefit of the viewers rather than the Doctor himself when we see him reading The Beano Summer Special of 1981.
  • Newspaper-Thin Disguise: The Doctor with his comic book when he's investigating Clara's past.
  • No Biochemical Barriers: Clara chomps on an alien fruit before the Doctor has finished scanning it to make sure it's safe. The Doctor doesn't even bother reprimanding her, presumably as he's got exactly the same attitude to potential danger.
  • No Endor Holocaust: The Doctor mentions all of the people having been saved, in spite of the destruction of a planet, suggesting that the loss has not been insurmountable for them or that whatever system is able to maintain a unified interplanetary atmosphere also protected the planets. In any case, whatever it was it was much better and less damaging than letting the "Old God" eat them all.
  • Not-So-Innocent Whistle: Clara is trying to sneak Merry back to the TARDIS. Along the way, Merry ducks to hide behind an obstacle while Clara leans on it and waves at a passerby while whistling.
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • When the mummy begins to stir, the chorister starts singing much more urgently.
    • One of the few times we get to truly see this from the Doctor, once he realizes the sheer scale and power of what he's dealing with.
    • Akhaten gets one briefly, during the Doctor's speech.
  • Our Souls Are Different: They consist of songs and stories.
  • Our Vampires Are Different: The Doctor calls "Grandfather" a vampire, but only in the sense that it's a parasite. Turns out the real Old God isn't even remotely humanoid.
  • Patrick Stewart Speech: The Doctor delivers one to Merry, describing how precious life is.
  • Phlebotinum Overload: The Old God feeds on the life experiences of others but when Clara offers it "the most important leaf in human history", containing not only the experiences of its owner but all the experiences they could have had, it implodes. The Doctor tried to invoke this with his own memories, and came pretty close, but Akhaten managed to pull through.
  • The Power of Love: Clara defeats the God by "feeding" it her parents' Tragic Keepsake.
  • People in Rubber Suits: This episode holds the record for having the most physical aliens to appear onscreen in Doctor Who history.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: The Doctor gives one to the Old God. It's not a god, it's just a parasite.
  • Red Herring: The Doctor mentions visiting Akhaten with Susan, and then we find out that the god of Akhaten is called "Grandfather". At first, it looks like the aliens are worshiping the First Doctor.
  • Replacement Goldfish: Clara asks the Doctor why he chose her; he responds that she "reminds him of someone who died." She points out that she's her own self, not a replacement for someone else. She doesn't yet realize that she's a Replacement Goldfish for herself.
  • Saving the World With Art: The people of Akhaten believe that a song must always be sung in order to keep an angry god asleep, and if it ever ceases he will awake and devour them all.
  • Scenery Porn: The Rings of Akhaten are gorgeous and shown in great detail.
  • Ship Tease: Clara's eyes widen as the Doctor gives her a ring. Turns out it's her mother's ring she sold for the space hopper; the people she saved wanted her to have it back.
  • Slasher Smile: Akhaten flashes a few nasty, mocking grins at the Doctor while they stare each other off.
  • Staring Down Cthulhu: The Doctor stares down Akhaten when it finally awakes.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: The temple monk presses a button on his wrist device and disappears into thin air.
  • Sealed Evil in a Can: The Old God in a Pyramid has people singing in shifts to create a constant lullaby that keeps it asleep. If it wakes up, it will eat everyone. It turns that out the real monster is the planet.
  • Self-Deprecation: Clara's little speech at not competing with a ghost might be a Call-Back to Martha.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: The Doctor still has traces of this because of his loss of the Ponds, telling Clara to run away with Merry.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Multiple references are made to Harrison Ford films: A New Hope, Blade Runner, and various Indiana Jones movies.
    • A nod to Star Wars:
      Neil Cross: Marcus [Wilson, producer] phoned me up and said, "We've always wanted to have a speeder-bike like in Return of the Jedi and we know how to do it inexpensively, so can you get one into the story?"
      • Also, the bazaar reminds one of the famous Cantina scene in A New Hope.
    • One of the races the Doctor claims makes up the crowd is the Hooloovoo. It appears to be an In Name Only reference though (possibly an attempt at trolling by the Doctor) since the Hooloovoo are described as "a hyper intelligent shade of the colour blue", whereas it's a human-looking alien, and the Doctor has read Douglas Adams in the past.
    • The Doctor borrows a line from "The Walrus and the Carpenter" while explaining how all things originate from stars.
    • And of course all of that is a glorious reference to Carl Sagan's "Cosmos", wherein he explains that billions of stars died to make us, that we're made of star-stuff.
    • "The Song Is Over" by The Who.
    • Clara calls the Sonic Screwdriver a spanner.
    • A monstrous Eldritch Abomination so powerful it can be considered a deity even by someone like the Doctor, who for the good of the universe is kept dormant by way of endless singing, and should the aforementioned music cease for a second it will wake and destroy everything. Yes, this story literally has the Doctor directly confronting Azathoth. Which makes two Outer Gods in a row; the Great Intelligence is Yog-Sothoth in-canon (Expanded Universe only).
    • Without using the exact words, the Doctor did ask the Old God do you hear the people sing?
    • The room where the Doctor confronts "Grandfather" looks a good deal like the Illusive Man's office.
    • The sentient planet that is capable of destroying civilizations sounds very much like the Brethren Moons from Dead Space 3.
    • In the opening sequence, a young man falls in love with (and tragically loses) a Manic Pixie Dream Girl named Ellie who dreams of travelling the world.
  • Single Tear: Both the Doctor and Clara, when making their offerings.
  • Space Is Noisy: So noisy, in fact, that you can sing to the Old God from a different planet and expect it to hear you.
  • Talking the Monster to Death: The Doctor gives it his all but it's not enough, so Clara takes a shot.
  • Targeted Human Sacrifice: The Queen of Years is taught all the lore and stories of her culture; when "Grandfather" wakes, he specifically wants her.
  • This Cannot Be!: The Doctor fumes that he can't find anything extraordinary about Clara, despite going through her entire timeline. "She can't be... she is! It's not possible!"
  • This Is Gonna Suck: The Doctor and Clara's conversation regarding the awakened Akhaten.
    Clara: You're going to fight it, aren't you?
    The Doctor: Regrettably, yes, I think I may be about to do that.
  • Too Spicy for Yog-Sothoth: The Doctor's 1200 years of far flung adventures are not quite spicy enough to bring down Akhaten. Clara's leaf, with it's infinite possibilities, does the trick.
  • Tragic Keepsake:
    • The leaf and a ring that belonged to Clara's mother.
    • The Doctor still has Amy's reading glasses.
  • The Undead: Akhaten's mouthpiece in the temple can best be described as a mummified vampire.
  • The Unintelligible: Most of the aliens in the bazaar speak in gibberish, including one that speaks in barks. This is despite the fact that a well-established convention in the series is that the TARDIS translates alien languages for the Doctor and the companions, though the Doctor is at least shown to be fluent in the barks.
  • Umbrella of Togetherness: Clara's parents while dating. Meanwhile, the poor Doctor is alone and soaking wet.
  • Villain: Exit, Stage Left: The Vigil teleport away after the Doctor interferes with their ritual.
  • Visible Boom Mic: The second time Clara encounters Merry (when they startle each other during their game of cat and mouse), though the sound guy does notice quick enough to lift it back up fast enough that it becomes a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment. Interestingly, all shots focused on Merry in that scene following the hiccup are close-ups.
  • When the Planets Align: When the Rings of Akhaten align every thousand years or so, an extremely important festival is thrown. Well, important locally; the Doctor compares the whole thing to "Pancake Tuesday".
  • The World Is Just Awesome: Neil Cross was asked by Steven Moffat to give Clara a proper introduction to the universe. In-universe, she asks for "something awesome" and the Doctor delivers.
  • Would Hurt a Child: "Grandfather", or those who serve him, has no qualms about kidnapping little girls if they decide not to do it, or about the fact the children either die or get their soul eaten.
  • The X of Y: "The Rings of Akhaten" is #120.
  • You Can't Thwart Stage One: Who really thought the Doctor would be able to keep the Old God from waking up?
  • You Remind Me of X: Played for drama — when the Doctor gives this trope, Clara assumes that she's a Replacement Goldfish for a dead friend and isn't happy. The irony is that it's actually Clara that the Doctor is referring to.

Alternative Title(s): Doctor Who S 33 E 07 The Rings Of Akhaten