Doctor Who recap: 'The Rings of Akhaten'
The Doctor takes his mysterious new companion to a spaced-out religious ceremony which involves a sleeping vampire god. A flying Moped figures prominently.
Last night’s episode of Doctor Who officially kickstarted the era of Clara the Companion, as the Doctor conduced an investigation into the origins of the Impossible Woman — who, you’ll recall, has already died twice in two time periods on two planets. Is she a cross-temporal clone? Is she a whole series of Oswin™ Brand Androids, scattered across space and time by one of the Doctor’s enemies? Is she the nexus of all realities? The Doctor went straight to the source. Specifically, he traveled back to Summer 1981. A young man walked down the road on a windy day. A giant leaf blew right into his face. He stumbled, stepping in front of a car — and a woman pulled him out of the way. Their eyes met. They smiled. It was love at first sight. You laugh, but this is how all relationships start in Britain.
The Doctor sped quickly through their courtship. The man apparently saved the leaf, and gave it to the lady as a present. He gave her a speech which played with the infinite array of things that had to go right for the two of them to meet: “This exact leaf had to grow in that exact way,” he noted, describing it with no irony as “the most important leaf in human history.” (You have to imagine that we’ll return to that line, again and again, as the mystery of Clara deepens in future episodes.)
The two got married, gave birth to little Clara, lived a happy life…and then the mother died. (Her tombstone gave her birthday as September 11, 1960; she died in March 2005, which is coincidentally the same month that the revived Dr. Who started airing on the BBC? Coincidence? Probably.) The Doctor watched young Clara and her father at her mother’s grave. He whispered to himself: “She’s not possible.”
And yet, when he traveled back to the present, there was Clara waiting patiently to begin her adventure. The Doctor asked her what she wanted to see. The future! The past! Deep space! Shallow space! She had a simple request; “Something awesome.” The Doctor rose to the challenge, taking her to the Rings of Akhaten. He pointed out the niftiest piece of local architecture: The Pyramid, maintained by the Sun Singers of the Khet. Local religious types believed that life in the universe originated here in the Rings. Clara asked him if that was true. I loved how the Doctor managed to make his response sound joyful and rueful all at once: “It’s what they believe. It’s a nice story.”
The Doctor had brought her just in time for the Festival of Offerings, when the rings all align. But they had some time to kill, so they meandered into a local market. An aggressive salesalien named Doreen offered them a ride on a space-moped. Seems that the local currency runs on a financial model of psychometry. There’s no money: Instead, you have to offer something that has deep meaning to you, and they can measure those emotions.
Clara lost track of the Doctor, and wound up in the middle of a chase. A little girl was running away from some tough-looking monks and a trio of serious fellows with helmets/faces that made them look like the better-funded cousins of the Tusken Raiders. It turned out that the girl was the Queen of Years, an important local religious figure who carried within herself “The vessel of our history” — every poem, every legend, every chronicle, and every song. Today, to celebrate the Festival of Offerings, she would have to sing a song to a god…and she was nervous that she would screw it up.
NEXT: This is why you shouldn’t make “little girls singing a pretty song” a key aspect of your national security complexClara assured her that she would do fine; she told a story about how scared she was of getting lost as a child, but how — the first time she got lost — she turned out just fine. We also got a quick flashback to Clara’s mother, who assured her daughter, “I will always be here, and I will always come and find you. Every single time.” (ASIDE: It’s interesting to see how the show is already structurally setting Clara apart from dearly-departed Amy Pond; whereas Amy’s backstory had a dreamy no-parents fairy tale quality, we’ve already learned about Clara’s parents. You get the sense that there’s more to the story of Clara’s mother, who was the first owner of the “101 Places to Go” book. END OF ASIDE.)
The little girl returned to her handlers. Everyone assembled in the staging area to watch her sing. The sheer number of aliens on display in this episode was striking. (Even more striking was the fact that most of them looked brand-new; did you spot any familiar ETs in the audience?) The little Queen began singing — joining a duet with a monk, who was in the pyramid across the gulf of space. Inside of the pyramid, the “god” lay sleeping inside of a glass cube reminiscent of the Javier Bardem prison cell in Skyfall. The god looked pretty freaky. Personally, I prefer my deities to look a bit less designed-by-H.R.-Giger-on-a-mushroom-bender, but that’s just a personal preference.
The Doctor explained that the monks had been singing the same song for untold hundreds of years, passing it along “chorus to chorus to chorus for generations.” Apparently, this neverending serenade was how they kept the god sleeping. Meanwhile, the Festival of Offerings specifically involved all the attendees holding up objects of value, which were absorbed into bright beautiful space dust by the god. Yes, things sure were going smoothly! Surely, nothing could possibly go wrong.
Then it all turned apocalyptic. To be honest, I couldn’t quite tell what happened — I thought the little Queen was singing her part just fine, but then everyone acted like she had messed up. In any case, the Queen was grabbed by a ball of space magic and pulled over to the pyramid. The Doctor raced back to the market, but he assured Clara he wasn’t fleeing. “We don’t walk away,” he explained. But they needed to get that space-moped — and for that, they needed to part with something precious. Clara was stupefied: After a thousand years, doesn’t the Doctor own anything precious? All he had to show was a screwdriver. (Again, this was a moment that seemed simultaneously charming and sad: The Doctor doesn’t really have things, because he’s so attached to people, but he’s also a nomad who lives in a blue box. He doesn’t have anywhere to put his head down at night; heck, have we ever seen him in bed?)
So Clara offered the salesalien a ring, given to her by her mother, and off they drove through a happily oxygenated part of space. The Doctor and Clara tried to save the little Queen, who didn’t seem to even want to be saved. She would sacrifice herself to her god to save all the others. What did one person matter? The Doctor disagreed. That thing — the deity they called Grandfather — was a vampire, not a god.
NEXT: Unique in the universeThe Heroic Music theme started up as the Doctor gave her a quick guide to how she came to be: An explosion in a distant star, the elements that scattered all across deep space, the evolution of everything, “ships, ceiling wax, cabbages, Kings,” all of it somehow leading up to the inextricable moment when the little Queen was born. “You are unique in the universe,” the Doctor said. “Getting rid of that existence isn’t a sacrifice. It’s a waste.”
This was an awesome moment, with Matt Smith killing every line. It was interesting, too, to see how it echoed what Clara’s father said about the leaf way back in the opening montage. “The Rings of Akhaten” was, in some ways, a fairly straightforward parasite-worshipped-as-a-god-goes-crazy-and-needs-to-be-stopped-by-power-of-love episode of Doctor Who, but those two speeches seemed to hint at some deeper themes that will be bandied about in the Clara era. In both cases, the people talking were describing the overwhelming process of infinite causality — the million billion unlikely variables that go into a single moment of the universe.
But in both cases, the speakers didn’t diminish the importance of a single person, or a single leaf; if anything, the infinite variables supercharged those tiny little things, as if every person were a microcosm for the whole miracle of the universe. I wonder how this will play into the mystery of Clara — a woman who, as near as we can tell, has existed in exactly the same way at least three separate times across history.
As the Doctor fought off the Tusken Raider-bodyguards, Grandfather slowly punched his way out of the prison cell. When he emerged, he let out a howl — and then seemed to slouch over, dead. The Doctor realized his mistake. That thing wasn’t Grandfather; it was just “Grandfather’s Alarm Clock.” The massive sun-singularity-star-black-hole thingy at the center of the Rings suddenly grew a terrifying skull face; it was the image of a parasite that could consume the seven worlds, and more. “I’ve seen bigger,” said the Doctor. “Really?” asked Clara. “Are you joking? It’s massive!” the Doctor said.
He instructed her to flee. “When we’re holding onto something precious, we run,” he explained, motioning to the little Queen — although I wonder if he also wanted to get Clara, his Impossible Woman, out of harm’s way. Then the Doctor walked out to face Grandfather. It was quite a sight, seeing him silhouetted with the bright burning lava lamp skull god behind him. He needed to have some words with this Mr. Grandfather. Back at the Coliseum singing area, the little Queen began leading her people in song. (The words of her new song were different from the earlier one; instead of “rest,” she seemed to be singing “Wake Up.”)
“You’re just a parasite,” the Doctor said, noting that all the people who had lived in fear of Grandfather were singing. “Do you hear the people sing?” he said, “Singing a song of angry men? It is the music of a people who will not be slaves again!” Then, the killer. The old parasite wanted memories and emotions and hopes and dreams? “Take my memories,” said the last Time Lord. “I hope you’ve got a big appetite. I’ve lived a long life, and I’ve seen a few things.”
NEXT: Three cheers for Matt Smith!Seriously, props to Matt Smith: This episode was weirdly low an action and heavy on the Doctor saying Big Huge Giant Awesome Things — the equivalent of giving the big speech from Braveheart, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Any Given Sunday back-to-back-to-back — and he nailed every line to the wall. As the parasite ate up his memories, he talked about the things he’d seen. “I was there for the Birth of the Universe, and I was there when time ran out,” he said. “No time, no space just me. I’ve watched universes freeze. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. I have lost things you will never understand, and I have knowledge that will make parasite gods blaze.”
And yet, it didn’t quite seem like enough. Or maybe it was; the episode never quite nailed down the precise psychometric physics powering the parasite god. (Hey, I liked the episode, and even I have to admit that the climax was basically “People Emoting Vanquishingly.”) The important thing is, Clara clearly believed the Doctor was in trouble — and she came Mopedding back. “Still hungry?” she asked. “Well, I brought something for you. The most important leaf in human history.” She wasn’t just offering the beast memories: She was offering him a whole future that never got lived, the infinite variables awaiting Ellie Ravenwood Oswald before she died too young. The Doctor summed it up for the monster. There’s a difference between what was and what could’ve been: “There’s an awful lot of one, but an infinity of the other.”
The leaf slowly dissipated into ambient space dust. It was too much for the space-god. The Doctor’s near-infinite experience had left it overstuffed; the actual infinite experience of Clara’s departed mother was the killing blow. Grandfather went Full Creosote; his tummy ruptured, his psychometry got to psychometricized, and he fell into himself like a dying skull-star.
(It strikes me that something about this climax gets to the heart of the Doctor’s relationship with all his companions. He’s a guy who can, and has, go anywhere and do anything; but he needs regular people, with all the infinite variables of possibility they bring, in order to truly live life.)
The Doctor brought her back home: Earth, Present Day. Clara had realized something during the showdown with the space-god: The Doctor had been there, at her mother’s grave. He told her that he was investigating her: “You remind me of someone.” Clara laid down the law: “I’m not gonna compete with a ghost.” (ASIDE: It strikes me that this has a double meaning. In the Russell T. Davies era, every new companion always began in the shadow of their predecessor. Martha Jones never really emerged from the shadow of Rose Tyler — she loved the Doctor, but he didn’t love her back. Likewise, when Donna Noble joined the Doctor on his adventures, it was with the explicit promise that they would just be “mates.” Clara saying she’s “not gonna compete with a ghost” seems like a meta-message to Who viewers: I’m not Amy Pond, so don’t assume I will be. END OF ASIDE.) Clara walked off, perhaps dreaming of more adventures, leaving the doctor in his TARDIS, still pondering the impossibility of Clara.
Fellow viewers, what did you think of the episode? Did you dig the lavish clear-out-the-costume-department array of aliens in the episode? Will you be singing any of those weird lullabies to your children someday? And do you think that we’ll see more of Clara’s parents in the future, or was that just a bit of history-building? (The fact that her dad was played by a young actor who briefly wore gray hair dye makes me think “no”…but then again, given all the talk about the Importance of the Leaf, maybe we’ll be circling back to the moment the parents met.)
Also, quick note: I’ll be recapping Doctor Who in this space for the rest of this season/series/whatever they call it in whichever world you’re reading from. I’m a latecomer to the series, but I’m a devoted viewer; I’ve spent the last few months mainlining through the Eccleston/Tennant/Smith episodes, with occasional pauses to mourn a character’s departure/put my brain back together after some of Steven Moffat’s time-twisty episodes. I’m looking forward to journeying with you into the wild and mysterious Era of the Purple Coat.
Follow Darren on Twitter: @DarrenFranich