(all spoilers! don’t read till you’ve seen the episode… or unless you don’t care if it’s spoiled for you. this is a love fest only — all complaints and bitching must come from a place of love / previous: “The Bells of Saint John”)
(get my downloadable discussion guide to “The Rings of Akhaten” for teachers, librarians, and everyone else who needs to keep kids amused, engaged, and educated at DoctorWhoTeachersGuides.co.uk)
My Twitter feed on Saturday night and all day Sunday was full of many many people who were very disappointed by this episode. So I was prepared for the worst by the time I finally got around to watching it.
I’m so relieved to discover that I really like this episode.
Sure, it touches on a lot of my pet topics, such as the importance of stories and how religion is “a nice story” until somebody gets hurts. But it’s also closer to the Doctor Who I love. I’ve enjoyed how the new incarnation of the show has been about the Doctor as a character in a way that the old show never was… but it had slipped away from that since Matt Smith arrived, as Amy somehow drifted into the position of protagonist. I liked her fine, but I wasn’t too into The Amy Pond Show. And if I was afraid that now we were going to be getting The Clara Oswald Show… well, maybe I’m a little more optimistic again. I wasn’t madly in love with “The Bells of Saint John,” but it did at least feature the Doctor seeming to be more proactive and less dragged along by external events. And now, this week, we get a peek at a really Doctor-ish Doctor again.
When he’s standing before the “Old God” shouting about walking in “universes where the laws of physics were devised by the mind of a madman” with tears running down his face, about how he knows “things, secrets that must never be told, knowledge that must never be spoken”? I got chills. Clara was stunned earlier when it seemed to her that he had nothing important, no thing laden with special meaning to him. But he does: he has his own memories, the horrendous weigh of his own experience.
This is the same Doctor about whom it has been said:
I’ve seen him, and he’s like fire and ice and rage. He’s like the night and the storm in the heart of the sun. He’s ancient and forever. He burns at the center of time and he can see the turn of the universe. And… he’s wonderful.
I feel like we haven’t seen that Doctor in a while.
The thing with Clara’s leaf is probably overly strained, but that doesn’t bother me much — contrary to how I’ve been unable to refrain from nitpicking similar things in other recent episodes — because overall, the episode works so well on many different levels. From Clara’s very warm and heartfelt interactions with Merry, the Queen of Years, all the way up to wondering whether, when the Doctor is shouting at “Grandfather,” if he’s also shouting at himself, there’s an emotional cohesion, for the characters we’re only just meeting and for the Doctor and Clara. I love that Merry went from being afraid she’d mess up her Very Important song to not being afraid to sacrifice herself to the “Old God” when she thought it would save her people: that feels right; she’s been raised for this, she’s not gonna run away from it. But it also doesn’t feel like a cheapening of the deeply held beliefs of Merry and her people when the Doctor fixes it so that she doesn’t have to sacrifice herself.
I love that how this little adventure feels like it’s starting out like one of those not-dangerous days, the “nice day out” for Clara, wandering an alien marketplace, alien people watching, tasting the alien victuals (which turn out to be not that tasty after all).
And then the ceremony that Merry sings at! It’s really amazing, really beautiful, really awesome — surely this is what traveling with the Doctor would be like, getting to experience so many incredible things all the time. I would have been perfectly happy for this to be just a regular day for the Doctor and his companion, because even his ordinary days must be extraordinary.
The best thing, though, is that this story works on its own merits, regardless of whatever the larger Story of Clara is going to be, and also separate from the Doctor’s own mythology, while also tying in to those things! The Doctor could be literally yelling at some future version of himself in “Grandfather” (surely the meta reason for him to have mentioned coming to the Rings of Akhaten previously with his granddaughter is to remind us that he is himself a grandfather, or has at least been called that in the past). And when the Doctor says to Merry, “There is only one Merry Gejelh, and there will never be another,” hanging in the air is the implication that even though we’re all unique starstuff, now there’s another Clara, and another. (Yet it also works as a lovely reason why Merry should not sacrifice herself if she doesn’t have to.) It interesting, too, that Clara thinks the reason she and Merry can’t get into the TARDIS if because the TARDIS doesn’t like her; she doesn’t think, “Oh, I don’t have a key,” she clearly gets wave of dislike from the TARDIS. Does the TARDIS know something about Clara? Or does she simply lack a key but not an imagination?
Random thoughts on “The Rings of Akhaten”:
• Is it a tad stalkerish that the Doctor is spying on Clara’s parents?
• Hey, it’s the Hooloovoo from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy!
• I’m loving the Farscape vibe this episode gave off:
• “The Long Song ended with me.” Ooo, that reminds me of “The Nine Billion Names of God,” one of the first science fiction stories I ever read.
• It’s all a bit Cthulhu, too, isn’t it, appeasing the “Old God”?
• Great quotes:
“You’re a thousand years old, you must have something you care about.” –Clara, to the Doctor
“There is one thing you need to know about traveling with me: we don’t walk away.” –the Doctor, to Clara
“Can you open it?” –Clara, to the Doctor, about a very locked door
“Technically, no. In reality, also no. But still, let’s give it a stab.” –the Doctor
“Stop it, you’re scaring her.” –Clara, to the Doctor, about the Queen of Years
“Good. She should be scared.” –the Doctor
“I think I may have made a bit of a tactical boo-boo…” –the Doctor
(next: “Cold War”)