Doctor Who #909: The Rings of Akhaten

"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 walked in universes where the laws of physics were devised by the mind of a mad man. I've watched universes freeze and creations burn. I've seen things you wouldn't believe. I have lost things you will 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. So come on, then. Take it! Take it all, baby!"
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Apr.6 2013.

IN THIS ONE... On her first trip, Clara sacrifices a leaf to an old star god.

REVIEW: Whatever my misgivings about original-Clara, I have to concede she comes into her own in this story. She has all the qualities required, but the unique qualities she brings to the table come into focus. Being a governess/babysitter isn't just a throwaway thing; her easy relationship with children is at the core of her personality. She befriends the young Queen of Years much as the Doctor himself might have. Not the companion as child (though the Doctor met her a couple times as a little girl), but as big sister or mother. An echo of the Doctor as imaginary friend. Kids believe in the Doctor, and Clara is the older person who plays along, nourishes that kid's imagination instead of smothering it. From all appearances, it's a trait she got from her mother. Ellie Oswald's shadow looms large in this episode and in Clara's life. She may be the first completely supportive mother figure in the canon too. Compare her to Jackie, Francine and Sylvia who had much more antagonistic relationships with their daughters. Ellie's absence idealizes her, of course, but through a book and values shared, Clara is a continuation of her mother rather than a reaction to her.

Writer Neil Cross offers something that is quite far from his excellent Luther series in tone and subject matter, but not in quality. The Rings of Akhaten manages to give Clara shape through theme and plot, while also creating a huge and original world, with a culture we've never seen, and though necessarily sketched in at 40-some minutes, seems deep and rich (could Big Finish one day show us that 1st Doc/Susan visit to Akhaten?). There is so much variety in this star system that its citizens can easily believe all life in the universe started there. More interesting still is that their economy is based on psychometrics, and they all seem to have a certain measure of psychic ability. This means that objects and concepts can be charged with emotional value, and memories/stories are a measure of someone's soul. The old god in the story can be pacified with songs and stories, and in the end is defeated (or satiated) by an object that holds mere potential (but see Theories). It's the ultimate non-violent Doctor Who resolution (even if the director went a bit overboard with the flashbacks to things that happened in this very episode).

That object is the leaf in Clara's book, the one she calls Page 1, a leaf also charged with emotional importance. Through complete chance, it caused Clara's parents to meet and fall in love, and she wouldn't be there without it. Uniqueness is really the theme of the episode. The Doctor's speech about how precious Merry is resonates. To him, the loss of a life isn't a noble sacrifice, it's a waste. There will never be another Merry, so he refuses to part with her. And there will never be another Clara... oh wait. Don't worry, there won't. We just can't explain it yet. And I love her in this. Waiting on the stairs for the TARDIS to show up. Giving up her mother's ring to save a child. The story about her no longer being afraid of getting lost (which ties into The Name of the Doctor). Faced with an infinite number of choices, not knowing where to go (infinity is one of Cross' leitmotifs in this). And her banter with the Doctor is sparkly and fun. Matt Smith gets some great lines too, and great big speeches, doing rifs on Carl Sagan and Blade Runner (the one quoted above). The episode is also replete with cool new alien looks (might some return?) and its own grand and memorable music. If it has a flaw it's that we can't stay in that world longer.

THEORIES: At the risk of destroying the magic of the ending... I quite like the idea that the leaf overstuffs the star-god because it contains the infinite potential of Ellie Oswald's unlived life, i.e. everything Clara and her parents ever imprinted on "the most important leaf in the universe", every plan they made, every dream they had, every "what if she'd lived". It's a great idea. Does it, however, break the rules explained on screen? We know it eats "souls" which are stories and memories. By feeding on the Doctor's mind, wouldn't it also have tasted the infinite possibilities of his life to come? Wouldn't everything it ever ate have such an infinite potential? I can accept that it's Clara framing it in that way that gives "Grandfather" a psychic indigestion, but for those who know how the season ends, there is another explanation. The leaf is, we're led to understand, a complex spacetime event. There must be billions of such objects in the universe, but only rarely are they identified. I am exactly where I am today because of billions of quantum decisions I am not really aware of. The leaf's importance was identified early and was charged with its own story, that's clearly important. But if we look at the leaf with TARDIS eyes, an entire time stream stretching before us, we can see that if the leaf caused Clara's parents to meet, and is thus responsible - in the Web of Time - for Clara being born, then it stands to reason it is responsible for everything Clara will ever do. Being responsible for the life of someone who travels with the Doctor and gets their timeline all twisted up with TARDIS travel is one thing; but the leaf if also responsible for all of Clara's echoes, and thus, the Doctor's entire timey-twisty life, especially if she "saved him" (physically or spiritually) across the centuries of his life. So after ingesting the Doctor's past, Grandfather's dessert turns out to be much bigger and richer than expected. That the leaf represents Ellie Oswald's unfulfilled promise is perhaps more satisfying poetically, but that it might represent Clara's only as-yet unrealized potential may be a more logical explanation. And what is Clara if not her mother's actual realization?

- A beautiful and atypical story that could have used sharper direction at times, but nonetheless breathes life into Clara.


snell said...

"Compare [Ellie] to Jackie, Francine and Sylvia who had much more antagonistic relationships with their daughters."

One is compelled to note that the prior 3 mothers were RTD creations. You don't have to be Freud to detect some mother issues he's been working on in his writing...

Andrew Gilbertson said...

This is one of my pet peeves. I am 90% sure that this was supposed to be a gas giant orbitted by a ring and lots of moons, not the system's star. they're too close for it to be a star, there's still light when it goes out, the size of it comparatively, etc.

But everyone thinks its a star.

I did for the first 2-3 watches, too. (In fact, wondering why there wasn't a reference to '42' that he'd encountered a living star before (asie from the obvious reason of 'everyone wants to or already has forgotten about 42 along with The Lazarus Experiment') first got me pondering it.) I *think* the production team intended a gas giant- but colored it so incompetently, with reds and oranges and burning colors, then had it burst into flame, that the intent didn't read to the audience. It's bad filmmaking 101 (right up there with shooting down at the giant dino in Jurassic Park III), and totally on them... but I really think it's supposed to be a gas giant. Barely-ignited brown dwarf at best.

If not, it is one small, dim, cool star. :-)

Also, I know that Sagan's star-stuff in inspirational to many people, and it may just be my theology speaking... but did anyone else find the Doctor's speech to be escpeisally DEmotivating? "Yeah, you're just a collection of random stuff that used to be other stuff anf will go on to be other stuff." To me, that says 'you're definitively NOT special, except as a random and unique configuration of all this stuff that's not unique to you' rather than 'you are special and unique.' Clearly it did not play that way to you, Siskoid- but I'm wondering if to anyone else? Certainly to me, it's all about the stuff her body is composed of being special and nothing about HER being special.

Good episode, though. I like the Hartnellian references and themes- the Vigil (wasn't that their name?) have a VERY 60s-Who vocal effect. This is definitely the 1st-Doctor tribute as much as Cold Blood is the 2nd, Hide is the third, etc. (A sequence in which, as usual, Colin Baker gets skipped on in the end.) ;-)

Siskoid said...

You make a good point about the nature of the "star" (and the word could mean life-giver here and still be a radiating gas giant; indeed, if it's a being that acts as a cool star, then the ecosystem around it doesn't need to conform to any known astronomy. As I watched it, I only saw a magical space that needn't conform to physics at all.

And yes, your theological point of view may be showing there. I subscribe to the idea that the divine is expressed in two diametrically opposed ways. One is the physical universe, which I find more amazing if it is this at once simple and complex system on the macro and micro scales, developing in incredible ways over an infinity, natural forces creating all that we see and can't see. The other is the divine within, which is what each individual person can accomplish whether creatively, ethically, scientifically, spiritually, however you look at it. I do not believe in predestination, and give my life the meaning I want to give it. Afterlife or not (and I'm too much of a skeptic to seriously believe in that as such), we're on the Earthly plane for so short a time, every second does count.

So what others might call emptiness and a reason to despair, I see only urgency and how privileged to experience what we do as links in a chain going back through our families, cultures, ecosystem, and ultimately, in the Sagan/Doctor metaphor, from the beginnings to the very end of this universe.


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