"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!"
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?
REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - A beautiful and atypical story that could have used sharper direction at times, but nonetheless breathes life into Clara.