So, I used to review Doctor Who over at Tor.com, but I don’t do that anymore. Last week, I participated in a dual review of “The Bells of Saint John” over at Slate.com. I figured I’d keep the Doctor Who love going here. Because why not. 🙂 You can look forward to them on Fridays, so that you have something new to read/talk about before the new episode tomorrow after you’ve read all the other recaps and whatnot earlier in the week. Enjoy!
“THE RINGS OF AKHATEN”
The Doctor takes Clara on her first adventure in the TARDIS! But not before he spies on her parents in the 1980s, trying to trace her origins to see if she could actually, possibly be just an ordinary human girl. He insists, despite watching her parents meet in an ordinary, if incredibly adorable way that involves “the most important leaf in human history,” that she is “impossible.” He and Clara then travel to the Rings of Akhaten, a group of seven planetoids orbiting the planet Akhaten, a huge planet with a pyramid on top that houses an Old God. On one of the planetoids, the Doctor takes Clara on a tour of an alien marketplace where stories and memories are currency, introducing her to several new species and generally wowing her with awesome, just like she asked. Clara gets separated from the Doctor and ends up bumping into a little girl who is running from someone. She calls herself the Queen of Years, and once Clara helps her hide, she explains that her name is Merry Gejehl, and that she was chosen to be the Queen of Years when she was a baby; chosen to be a vessel for all of her people’s history. She knows every poem, every story, every legend, everything, and has been trained to sing it all in a song to feed the Old God (sometimes called “Grandfather”) at the Festival of Offerings, an annual ceremony where everyone gathers together to feed the Old God stories, memories, and emotions in order to keep him asleep. Merry is afraid she’ll get the song wrong, but Clara helps her find her courage. She sings the song, and for a while, the festival is beautiful, but the god is apparently hungrier than anyone thought. Or is it? Nope. It just so happens that Akhaten itself is a planet-sized parasite that was scheduled to wake up anyway. It feeds on the energy in stories and emotions. So, what does the Doctor do? Saves Merry from being sacrificed and offers himself instead, figuring that 900+ years of stories would do the trick, but it’s not enough. Here comes Clara to the rescue offering something brilliant – The Most Important Leaf in Human History – which contained not only all the stories she and her family have already lived, but all the infinite possibilities in the days that will never be, because her mother died early. The Planet-God is overstuffed with potential, and is more than satisfied. Clara saves a planetary system.
I LOVED this episode, and it seems to have broken the Moffat second-episode curse. You know the one. The one where the second episode that airs after a premiere always kinda (if not REALLY) sucks (ie: “The Beast Below”, though that’s grown on me upon multiple viewings, or “The Curse of the Black Spot,” which can only grow on a person like a cancer)? It was as if Neil Cross wrote a Doctor Who episode just for me! As unfeeling as I thought “The Bells of Saint John” was, this episode had all the character-driven emotion I think is essential to a successful Doctor Who episode. However, I didn’t like the episode simply because of the warm fuzzies it gave me, but because I thought it brought up some interesting explorations of the Big Themes of Doctor Who, and some interesting tidbits that might figure into not only the mystery of Clara Prime, but the 50th Anniversary of the show.
Clara Is a Person
The thing that worried me most about “The Snowmen” and “The Bells of Saint John” seemed to worry writer Neil Cross, too. I worried that Clara was all puzzle-piece and no humanity. Up until now, Steven Moffat was writing her that way, but with this episode, not only do we get to know her as a fully-realized human being, but she insists on it saying that she wants to travel with the Doctor “as me. I won’t compete with a ghost!” In her interaction with Merry, we get to know that Clara is warm and loving, and confident that warmth and love are powerful things. Her parents loved each other a great deal, and she learned from them. When the Doctor takes her around the marketplace and they meet an alien named Do’reen who seems to speak in a series of barks, Clara barks back, trying to communicate in her native language. She is also someone who didn’t need the Doctor to teach her that “we don’t leave anyone behind.” She came in knowing that, and we see her first wanting to rescue Merry, then going back to save the Doctor when he needs it. Clara was also smart and insightful enough to realize that there was something greater than all the stories that happened, and that’s all the stories that never happened. That was a brilliant solution that she came up with without the Doctor’s help, and I wanted to cheer as I sat alone in my living room watching this episode. 🙂 Also, I loved me some Amy Pond, but Clara gives killer banter.
And then there’s Clara being the companion who constantly surprises us. For example, rather than say the usual, “It’s bigger on the inside!” when referring to the TARDIS, she says “It’s smaller on the outside!” When the Doctor asks her where she wants to go, her first response is You know when anyone asks you what your favorite book is and straight away you forget every book you’ve ever read? I loved that response, as it was such a keenly observed bit of human behavior.
Finally, I saw the same spark that I saw in “Asylum of the Daleks” when we got to know Oswin, and I’m looking forward to getting to know Clara as Clara a lot better. Jenna-Louise Coleman is rocking it.
Matt Smith Is Amazing With Children (not to mention monologues)
If there is suddenly an epidemic of exploded ovaries among Whovian women, it’ll be Matt Smith’s fault. From the moment he interacted with Caitlin Blackwood as Amelia Pond, I knew he’d be trouble. Whereas both Eccleston as the Ninth and Tenant as the Tenth Doctors were a bit prickly, Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor is totally The Children’s Doctor. Perhaps it’s because he’s the youngest to play the role, but Smith has a great rapport with young costars, and one of the highlights of this episode was the scene in which the Doctor describes The Big Bang to Merry, convincing her that she doesn’t need to sacrifice herself for this parasite, who did not, in fact, create the Universe.
The other highlight, of course, was the Doctor’s monologue at the end, when he is telling the parasite to take all his stories. I was mesmerized and, I’ll admit it, I cried. Matt Smith continually acts the living bejeezus out of this role, summoning a depth beyond his years, and I consider this his best performance to date. “I have lost things that you will never understand!” That line killed me.
Though I could’ve done without “Take it all, baby!” I’m sorry, but the word “baby” should never be in a serious monologue. Not even one spoken by the Doctor. Ever. That should be a rule.
Faith (and respect for it)
I’m always interested when science fiction addresses issues of faith. Doctor Who does this a lot, to varying degrees of success, and this episode came at it in a way that was a bit uneven. On the one hand, when Clara asks if it’s true that all life came from Akhaten, the Doctor says things like “well, that’s what they believe.” But he doesn’t say it in a belittling way, rather, he respects the story they tell. We see this attitude at the Festival of Offerings, too, when the Doctor starts singing along with everyone and encourages Clara to do so as well. The Doctor has a lot of answers, but he’s also not about to shatter someone’s faith unless there’s a very good reason, like an alien minotaur (“The God Complex”), or as in “The Rings of Akhaten,” a parasitic planet about to kill a little girl for her soul.
However, there was one thing that rubbed me the wrong way. When the Doctor faces down this planet-sized parasite, he is very accusatory while having very little information. He berates it saying, “You like to think you’re a God. You feed on them…” When I heard this, I thought….How do you know what it thinks? Why do you assume it’s purposely taking advantage of them? The people of the Seven Worlds willingly accepted the planet as a god, but how can the Doctor assume that that’s what the parasite needed or wanted? It’s a parasite. It’s going to feed however it can. But I don’t think it was “using religion” to get what it wanted, and I think that this was a bad metaphor for that happening in life, if that’s what this was ultimately trying to be. Which I’m not sure it was.
For some, the weakness in this episode was in the science of it. For me, it was in the weak handling of the religion of this world by the Doctor. He respected their right to believe whatever they liked, but he didn’t really understand it, and when push came to shove, he didn’t really try (nor did the episode). Also, it also generally bunches my panties whenever I see people who “know better” think that they can take it upon themselves to “save” people from themselves. As if they have any right. I’m certainly glad Merry didn’t die, and I do believe that if there are facts to be known, they should be known, even by children. At the same time, she was a girl who was raised to save her people, and she was basically robbed of that. It’s like, great, I’m alive – but the only purpose I’ve ever known has been taken from me. Yeah, I’m young. I’ll find a new one, I guess. But still. That sucks. Way to step in and fix my life in a way that’s best for me, Doctor. Can’t have me believing in gods that will swoop in and save me, when I can just sit here and believe that you’ll…swoop in and save me….erm. But seriously, way to leave me a shell of my former self. Donna Noble and I should start a support group for people from whom you’ve taken away a greater purpose and left to flounder.
It’s interesting, then, that the episode considers the stories we tell and the things we believe our most important currency, so much so that Clara calls it “horrible” to be expected to give up something that means something to you in order to buy something else.
Potential Time, Special Dates, and the 50th Anniversary
A lot was made of Clara giving up something of great sentimental value, and the biggest thing she had was something that was made up of days that never could be. I wonder, then, if that’s part of the Clara mystery. Is she someone’s potential futures? Her mother’s, perhaps? And I mean literally, not in a symbolic “I will live the life my mother never could” kind of a way. Is she the Doctor’s potential futures? I can’t shake the feeling (which is probably totally wrong, but how cool would it be if I were right?) that Clara is somehow the Doctor’s mother. Moffat seems to enjoy exploring mother-child relationships (Amy/Melody, Madge Ardwell, Clara and her mother). He also seems to enjoy people’s essences being trapped in places they shouldn’t, hanging on in the ether (the echoes in “Silence in the Library,” trapped in the internet in “The Bells of Saint John”) It wouldn’t surprise me if Clara ended up being the energy of all the days that should’ve been for the Doctor’s mother but weren’t, because of the Time War; turning up at various points in time to remind him to “Run, you clever boy…and remember.” The date of Clara’s birth is the same day that Doctor Who premiered in 1963. The 50th Anniversary is coming up, and that’s technically when the Doctor was born. She was born the same day Doctor Who was… giving the Doctor life….
Or, I could completely be full of shit. That’s just as likely. 🙂
And then there are the dates on Ellie Oswald’s tombstone. Having her be born on September 11th is pretty obviously significant, but so is her date of death – March 5, 2005 – as it’s the same day that the Doctor met Rose Tyler! That’s GOT to be significant in a way that will likely become apparent as we get closer to the 50th Anniversary special.
Well, what did YOU think about “The Rings of Akhaten?” Entertain yourselves before the next episode of Doctor Who airs tomorrow by letting me know in the comments!
*** DON’T FORGET THE POUND BY POUND PLEDGE DRIVE – RUNNING APR. 5TH 2013-APR. 5TH 2014 ***