It had to happen sometime! The first trip to an alien world is a Doctor Who companion rite of passage — for them, and for the audience still adjusting to the massive life change that is the introduction of a new companion. Now, I think it's almost universal that we all already love Clara, so it's not her fault that the world of Akhaten — though visually stunning — was not quite as exciting as The End of the World, the Ood, or the worst traffic jam that ever was.
I'm not saying that "Rings of Akhaten" didn't have its great points — again, the world they created was as cool as a bow tie, the script just didn't have a whole lot going for it. I loved the creative, Star Wars-esque creatures Clara and the Doctor encountered on Akhaten, especially the creepy "Vigil" dudes whose masks reminded me of "The Empty Child" meets Darth Vader. (With the breathing and all.) I just never was particularly afraid of the silly looking mummy in the glass cage, nor the giant star that served as God-slash-parasite for the lovely folks of the Seven Rings.
I didn't find the sacrifice of the Giver-esque mini-songstress to be that emotionally riveting either, so combine a "meh" villain and a plot that doesn't emotionally resonate, and you're left with just a beautiful and fun, if empty, adventure. To be fair, Matt Smith had some epic monologues to work with this episode, and he sold each one to provide the few moments of of bone-chilling emotional resonance in the episode. When the Doctor actually goes into the horrifically lonely details of his life, you remember just how sad Doctor Who can really be. It was all very Tenth Doctor, if we're being frank. Kudos to Smith for pulling it off so well.
Now, on to some good: the Up-like sequence in the beginning of the episode, that showed the meeting between Clara's parents, was beautiful. Ladies, WHERE are our Mr. Oswalds, emIright? If a guy comes to your house carrying "the most important leaf in human history" — AKA, the leaf that smacked him in the face and almost got him killed before you got in the way of the speeding car, thus bringing the two of you together — you hold that man tight and never let him go. Clara's beautiful mother Ellie did just that, before she passed away of an unknown cause, leaving Clara and her father alone and rightly ruined.
It was nice of the Doctor to go back and observe Clara's past — and it gave us the leaf's history so we'd fully understand how much it meant for Clara to give it up — but man, the Doctor needs to curb his creepy, staring at children in parks habit. If it were anyone else, that sequence would have been disturbing. And it wasn't really helpful for the Doctor, who still concluded that Clara was "not possible."
But possible or not, there she was — waiting patiently for the Doctor, ready to go with her book and her backpack, the morning after the Wi-Fi debacle. The Doctor asked her what she wanted to see, and, understandably, she had no idea. When you have all of time and space to choose from, Doctor, it might be nice to present the lady with some options. Like, when awkward first dates ask me the number one place on this Earth that I want to visit, I stumble and say like, ten things. Argentina? Scotland? Dollyville? It's tough, so I understand fully why Clara said "something awesome."
It's totally understandable why he chose Akhaten. Apart from its visual beauty, its kind people and the interesting fact that their currency is items of sentimental value should have made this a nifty field trip for Clara. Instead, they happened to get there on a day that only comes every 1000-years or so — the day the Queen of Years sings a song in front of the whole planet to keep the Old God to sleep, lest he wake up and eat all of their memories/moments of emotional value. If she could sing him this lullabye that would keep him to sleep, they'd all be safe — and that's not an unreasonable amount of pressure for a child, no way. (Aside: The Doctor compared the importance of this day to our "Pancake Day" which was hilarious, and also oh-so-right.)
But hey, guess what? He woke up. And, the legend was all a lie. If the creepy Vigil guys chasing the Queen of Words (who had in her little brain ALL of Akhaten's moments of sentimental value) before she sang her song didn't alert you to the fact that this girl was a sacrifice, then... shame on you. Watch more TV. She was pulled to the pyramid housing this unfortunate looking mummy thing, and he arose — as a sort of "alarm clock" that would soon awaken the Old God, which was really just Akhaten's sun.
When the Old God awoke the big (again, gorgeous) sun took on a sort of skull face, as it was ready to feed on some memories. The Doctor offered up his to save the Queen of Years, but I guess his time wasn't sentimental enough. (After this happened I re-watched the Tenth Doctor and Rose Tyler's goodbye on the beach, and guess what? I DISAGREE, Old God.) Here's the Doctor's plea in full, because it was too gorgeous to paraphrase:
"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 madman. I’ve watched universes freeze and creations burn. I've seen things you wouldn’t believe. I have lost things you’ll 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."
God, it's good to remember sometimes just how sad and lonely his existence is. But still, again, it wasn't enough. What WAS enough, however, was Clara's leaf. As she explained it, not only did that leaf contain things that were, it contained "a future that never was... days that never came." So damn sad. The fact that Clara was willing to give this up on her second go-round puts me even further in her corner, and all of the infinite wasted possibilities contained in the leaf were too much for the Old God, so he imploded.
Okay, now maybe I'm missing something here, but isn't the sun the thing that gives these people life? We didn't see what happened to Akhaten after implosion, and I know the Doctor would never let a planet full of wonderful people die, but come on — plot hole? Whatever, moving on. In the TARDIS the Doctor was still mulling over Clara's past, and she stated firmly that she would not compete with a ghost. FYI, Clara — the dude is not going to drop this one anytime soon.
So, that was about it. I've seen next week's episode and can verify that it's fantastic, so I hope that gives you solace if you were also slightly disappoined by Akhaten. Oh, and one more note: when Clara asked if the legend the Akhaten folks believed — that all life came from that one sun — and the Doctor responded, "It's what they believe. It's a nice story," did you also think they were commenting on our own stubborn reliance on religious doctrine? Do tell, and see you next week!
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[PHOTO CREDIT: BBC Worldwide]