Doctor Who has become incredibly popular in the U.S., and part of the result of this popularity is that sometimes, episodes feel self-aware, like they're striving to be accessible to a wider audience. I don't mind accessibility. I don't revel in feeling elitist about the TV I watch; in fact, that's what I've always liked about Doctor Who—in the beginning, it felt like I was peeking in at a tiny corner of a giant universe of stories. What I understood felt like a privilege, and what I didn't understand felt like a personal challenge to catch up on. Lately, the Who team has been working hard to make it possible for viewers to jump in at any point in time, and while I'm all for new fans, it's left me feeling like the Whoniverse has shrunk a bit. Thrillingly, "The Rings of Akhaten" reopened the universe for me. That's the good news.
Now, let's talk about the episode.
It began with a series of flashbacks that painted a picture of a family. First, a couple met when an errant leaf blew off a tree, making that leaf the most important piece of foliage in human history. Then we followed the couple as they fell in love and had a baby—and of course, that baby was Clara. The Doctor, in his effort to figure out who Clara is, had gone back to check in on her childhood. The last flashback we saw featured Clara standing at her mother's grave, holding her talisman, the 101 Places to See book.
The Doctor returned to modern-day Clara, as he promised, and she made the decision to travel with him… that day. They journeyed to a solar system of seven planets, grouped around a pyramid on a tiny planet—where the residents of the solar system believed all life had originated. "Did it?" Clara asked. "Well, that's what they believe. It's a nice story," he replied. They ended up in a busy outdoor market where tons of aliens of all types bustled around, growling and grunting and making weird beeping noises. Everyone was there for the Festival of Offerings, an event that happens every 1,000 years when the Rings of Akhaten align. While shopping around for fruit made of light and mopeds, we learned that currency in this universe is psychometry, or more simply, sentimental items that are psychically imprinted with history.
Clara happened upon a little girl who seemed frightened, and followed her to make sure she was okay. That's how we met Merry (Emilia Jones). She was the Queen of Years, and her job was to be the vessel that held every single piece of information about this local culture. During the Festival of Offerings, it would be her job to sing a special song to keep the old god, a.k.a. Grandfather, asleep. Merry was afraid of getting it wrong, and Clara soothed her by telling Merry a story about Clara's own mother, who promised that she'd always find Clara no matter what.
Clara and the Doctor went to the Festival of Offerings to cheer Merry on as she started singing her song. The song was a lullaby, to keep Grandfather asleep. The people at the festival were offering up their sentimental gifts to Grandfather, and it all seemed like a peaceful, lovely affair… until the singing stopped. Everyone was horrified. Merry had been taken into the pyramid via some sort of tractor beam, and the Doctor and Clara followed by trading one of Clara's mother's rings for a space moped. They wiggled their way inside the structure and found themselves stuck there with Merry and a monster who was waking up... and it was not happy about being awake. The Doctor trapped the monster in a very sturdy looking glass box while they tried to figure out what to do.
You see, this monster had everyone convinced it was a god, but really, it was just a vampire that fed on people's stories, their souls. Anytime he threatened to wake, they'd send him a pure soul to devour. Merry didn't want to be eaten, but felt like it was her duty. The Doctor disagreed, delivering one of my favorite—and one of the most multi-layered—lines I've heard on this show in a while: "Just because he eats your soul doesn't make him a god."
The Doctor, Clara, and Merry fought off the Vigil, the creepy (but well-dressed) guys who were there to make sure the Queen of Years was fed to Grandfather, and they managed to get away—but not before the monster emitted an enormous beam of light. There'd been a bit of a tactical boo-boo. The ugly monster wasn't Grandfather, it was Grandfather's alarm clock. Grandfather was an entire gas giant of a planet. And now that he was awake, he'd consume the seven worlds, and then he'd move on to others. So the Doctor had to fight it, but before he did, he made Clara run away with Merry, because "if we're holding something precious, we run, and we don't stop running until we are out from under the shadow," perhaps indicating some wisdom the Doctor had recently acquired.
He was left alone with Grandfather, just a tiny silhouette of a man in front of a pulsating, red-hot planet. And what did he offer up? His everything. All of his memories, all the things he'd ever seen, all the stories that made up his own soul. Obviously, the Doctor has seen things you wouldn't believe (hi there, Blade Runner!), he's lost things we'll never understand—this man has history. And scenes like this are where I think Matt Smith really shines. He's great at being charming and funny, but he can also be wonderfully intense.
The Doctor offered up a lot of stories to consume, but Grandfather wasn't done, so Clara rushed back to the Doctor's side to help. She didn't have as much history, but what she did have was squandered potential, in the form of her mother who passed away. Her mom didn't get to live out the rest of her life, so there was an infinite amount of stories that could have occurred but never did. There's a difference between what was and what should have been, and that difference was enough to feed an old god and put him back to sleep. The people of this solar system thanked Clara by giving her back her mother's ring (used to pay for the aforementioned moped), and Clara learned that the Doctor had been spying on her history. He tried to explain that she simply reminds him of someone who died, but Clara (and this is why I like her more and more with each episode) wasn't charmed—on the contrary, she was rather pissy to learn that the Doctor is using her as a "bargain basement stand-in." They left knowing each other a little better than before.
As I mentioned above, I loved this episode for how it jolted me back into feeling like I was peeking into a portion of the fully-formed universe. But that's not the only way I evaluate an episode of Doctor Who. Besides the world we visit in any given episode, I also try to consider the character development that takes place, as well as the successfulness of the plot itself. I thought "The Rings of Akhaten" did a great job of showing Clara off a bit more—her refusal to be seduced by the Doctor's usual charms, her past with her mother, her own maternal instincts. I also liked how the Doctor delved into the fact that he's comprised of 1,000 years of pain and travel and memories—something that's often acknowledged, but not always explored.
As for the plot itself, well, it did what Doctor Who plots often do: It started off very strong and fizzled out a bit. The Vigil and the monster we thought was Grandfather both looked cool, but were barely used. Plus, it didn't seem like Grandfather's feasting on the Doctor's memories/stories/soul seemed to alter the Doctor in the slightest. I thought perhaps such an experience would render the Doctor unable to recall his own history, or make Clara forget about her Mom, which would have really raised the stakes; instead, it seemed like they were both just sharing their histories. Sharing them with a pretty bad monster planet vampire, sure, which I imagine would be unpleasant, but that's just not as threatening as having everything you've ever known taken away from you.
Overall I'm happy with how the series is progressing, and I'm excited to feel that old Doctor Who peeking in on a corner of the universe magic tingling through me again. Like Clara's mom, this series is chock-full of potential for what could be.
What'd you think of the episode?
– First off: This guy. Love him.
– I was glad that Clara didn't have an immediate answer for what she'd want to see if all of the universe was open to her. I wouldn't have any idea either.
– Nice reference to the first Doctor, traveling with his granddaughter!
– I watched the Doctor's "moped noise" probably five times. What an odd sound that was!
– Nice Indiana Jones references in the artwork for this episode, as well as the sliding-under-the-door-and-reaching-back-for-your-screwdriver moment!
– These guys really like the Lake District, huh?
– The resolution of this episode reminded me a bit of Ghostbusters 2, when the New Yorkers outside start singing "Auld Lang Syne" and help fight Vigo the Carpathian.
– I definitely think, given that Clara has died twice, that the idea of "infinite potential from what should have been" will come up again and become a major storyline.