While last week there was the excitement of zooming through London on a quadracycle, this week Doctor Who delivers one of those stories only Who can. A fantastical adventure on the strange alien worlds called the Rings of Akhaten, a group of planetoids circling a gas giant, where The Doctor and Clara stumble upon a cult that worships and sacrifices memories to a god residing within the giant planet. In those opening moments on the planet you could easily believe they’d landed in Mos Eisley, and it’s Doctor Who‘s best display of aliens since “The End of the World.” There’s such fantastic visuals any lover of space porn will dig it. That’s where “The Rings of Akhaten” really shines, as a collection of moments strung together in a stunning, very realized world. It’s shame the final resolution is messy, otherwise it’d be a near flawless episode.
But things begin long before they arrive at Akhaten. Starting back before Clara was even conceived we watch as The Doctor spies on the first meeting of her parents, brought together through fate and a leaf blowing in the wind, all the way to Clara and her father standing over her mother’s tombstone. The Doctor is looking for an explanation as to why he’s met this girl before, and how he keeps meeting her even after she’s died. Her impossibility is very much on The Doctor’s mind, as I think it will be for the entirety of this season. And it also has me wondering, do all of The Doctor’s companions need to be “the something.” I’m not saying all of them were of great interest to The Doctor before he even met them, but past companions like Donna, destined to be the Doctor Donna, and Amy, destined to be his mother-in-law, had something unique about them that tied them to The Doctor. Clara being this “impossible girl” is the same thing, and I’m a little worried the payoff won’t be as good this time.
What Clara is, though, is a caretaker. And while Clara and The Doctor are attracted to one another through a shared thirst for adventure, I believe they’ll bond over their shared instinct to care for and protect. Clara has already shown how good she is at caring for young children, making them feel at ease in particular, and she shows that again with the young girl, Merry, Queen of Years. This little girl must sing a song, which is like telling a story, to the great god in order to pacify him. Otherwise he’ll consume everyone’s memories. But she’s afraid of failing and when on the run hides out with Clara near the TARDIS – who doesn’t seem to like Clara very much. Hmm. Could this be because she isn’t possible? Anyway, Clara confides in Merry about a time when she was little, lost, and scared. It’s a wonderful moment where Clara, in a way, gets to be a caretaker to Merry, helping her overcome her fear, not so unlike The Doctor. The loving, caring, almost human side of The Doctor that is. Jenna-Louise Coleman brings a great amount of confidence to Clara and it’s what makes moments like this so good to watch.
The Doctor has more than his fair share of moments, with one in particular really giving Matt Smith an opportunity to let it all out. Early on, when they’re in need of something with great sentimental value – the form of currency on Akhaten – Clara smartly says to him, “You’re a thousand years old, you must have something you care about?,” and all The Doctor can supply is his screwdriver. It’s as if over all his years of travel he has nothing more to show for it. And throughout the episode I kept wondering if we were going to see him lose it. It seemed to get a bit of extra attention this episode, and at one point almost bit the dust. This has me wondering if they’re considering for The Doctor to travel sans screwdriver for a little while, y’know, really test what he’s capable of without it.
Of course, the shining moment is The Doctor’s speech before he force feeds all his memories and experiences into the parasite god, hopefully destroying it with fullness. And it’s a simply marvelous speech where Smith goes for it on all levels, just pouring his heart out as The Doctor is recounting a lifetime of lifetimes. It’s a stunning moment. Sadly, it’s tainted by “Akhaten’s” confusing second half. See, Merry’s song fails, somehow, and so the god snatches her and intends to consume her soul as sacrifice. Oh, and that mummy, completely worthless. It was basically a place holder for the real threat of the god, revealed to actually be a memory-sucking parasite. Though it’s never really clear if you lose those memories once the god consumes them. If that’s the case, then The Doctor should have lost the memories he fed to it. You can see my confusion. Everything’s resolved when Clara offers up the “what if’s?” of her mother’s life, what could have been, which is far more fufilling than what has been, infinitely more so because in what could have been there are infinite possibilities. She gives up the leaf, what was the first page as she said last week.
But this doesn’t really clear anything up, because what has really been sacrificed? Only the leaf? The stories, the memories, the possible futures are all still there. This confusion hangs over the episode’s ending, like it was stretching for some big, prophetic moment it didn’t quite reach. That being said it’s not a bad episode by any means, just a little unfulfilling. For only the second chapter of their adventure it works well, allowing Clara to save the day and show The Doctor she’s capable of this. He tells at one point, “We don’t walk away,” and it’s him laying out the code for this lifestyle. The reason he’s always rescuing, and therefor running, is because he doesn’t turn his back on someone in need. He saves the day, and then dashes off to do it again in some other time and place. He needs a companion who will do the same, and Clara proves she can.
Next week the Ice Warriors make their new-Who debut in “Cold War”!
Doctor Who airs Saturday nights at 8pm EST on BBC America.