“Doctor Who” Season 7: “The Rings of Akhaten”


Allons-y, Alonso! The City Entertainment Blog is going to take a crack at reviewing non-reality shows, starting with “Doctor Who.” Before we jump into this week’s new episode, a bit about your humble blogger. I’m a fairly recent “Who” convert, having devoured almost all of the reboot episodes in the past three months (I missed a Christmas special or two). I’m now going back and watching as much of the classic stuff as I can find. I love the show and its mythology, but admittedly I’m nowhere close to an expert.

However, I have my own “companions,” a viewing party that includes several die-hard fans of the Doctor. Between them they have a fairly encyclopediac knowledge of the series. I mean, Anna dressed up as a full-sized Dalek for Comic-Con. That’s dedication.

Anyway, on to “The Rings of Akhaten,” in which our dashing, bowtied hero tried to discover more about The Impossible Girl, his new companion, Clara Oswald. The beginning of the episode answered at least one mystery surrounding The Girl Twice Dead, as the Doctor went back in time to watch Clara’s parents meet thanks to the serendipitous arrival of a lone leaf. It’s the same leaf that became “page 1” of Clara’s travel book, which we saw last episode.

In the present, the Doctor took Clara for her first official spin in the TARDIS. She wanted to see something amazing. He gave it to her: the Rings of Akhaten, the celestial satellites spinning around a massive red star (presumably Akhaten, although I don’t know if that was ever explicitly stated). The Doctor explained that the two of them were there for a specific reason: the people of the seven planets that orbit the star believe that this is the birthplace of all life in the universe, and that every thousand years they gather for a ceremony honoring their god, which sleeps in a gleaming pyramid on one of the asteroids circling the star.

The two of them end up in a bazaar full of all manner of aliens -- I feel like we haven’t had a fun menagerie scene like that in a while -- and two intriguing narrative nuggets were casually dropped. First, the Doctor mentioned to Clara that he once brought his granddaughter to this place. Second, Clara again evaded discussing her past when the Doctor asked her for something of personal/emotional value, which is used as currency at the bazaar.

Looking back at the three iterations of Clara that we have met thus far (the one in the future from “Asylum of the Daleks,” the one from the past from “The Snowmen,” and this current present version), every one of them has shown an impulse to redirect the conversation as soon as the Doctor starts inquiring about her past. Typically this is done via Clara flirting and subsequently befuddling the Doctor. Given that we learned this episode that Clara’s mother died young, it may simply be a defense mechanism on her part. But I remain highly dubious of Clara’s alleged origins.

At the bazaar Clara ran into a little girl, Merry, Queen of Years, who was trying to hide. Merry explained that she had a big part to play in the upcoming ceremony, and was terrified that she would get it wrong. Clara assured her that she would do great. But when the ceremony started, with Merry singing to the pyramid that supposedly contained their sleeping god, called Grandfather, something went wrong -- Merry messed up. Suddenly Grandfather started to wake up and Merry was snatched in an energy field and dragged toward the pyramid. The Doctor and Clara grabbed a space motorcycle (lots of motorcycles in the second part of S7; my friends suspect Steven Moffat’s going through a mid-life crisis) and zipped to her rescue.

In the pyramid our heroes discovered a few things. 1) That Grandfather is essentially a parasite that feeds on other beings’ stories/life experiences; 2) That Merry was in fact always going to be sacrificed, whether she screwed up or not; 3) That Grandfather is not the mummy alien in the pyramid. That’s Grandfather’s “alarm clock.” Grandfather is in fact the star at the center of the rings, or possibly some sentient force that dwells within it.

That last part raised a few interesting questions with me. The Doctor said that the people that live on the seven planets in the rings of Akhaten believe the location to be the starting place for all life in the universe. Clara asked if that’s true, and the Doctor shrugged; what matters is that they believe it. But several things said throughout the episode suggest that there may be something to that belief. Merry made a few references to the fact that once the entity inside the star gets angry, it expands and consumes everything in its path. That sounds an awful lot like the Big Bang to me. And the Doctor specifically referenced the Big Bang when explaining that Merry (and everything else in existence) was created out of the stuff that launched out of that cosmic event at the dawn of time. Ultimately I don’t think it matters, but I did think it interesting that that idea was floated and then vaguely supported throughout the episode.

Ultimately the Doctor tried to stop Grandfather by force feeding him all of the stories and experiences he’s consumed over the thousand-plus years he’s lived as a Time Lord. But it wasn’t enough. Clara came in and offered up her leaf as an offering -- the leaf that brought her parents together, and which symbolizes not only the experiences her mother lived, but all of the possible experiences she COULD have had, had she not died. The leaf apparently did the trick, and Grandfather -- the entire star at the center of the rings of Akhaten -- folded in on itself and collapsed into nothing. The Doctor speculated that all of those possible realities represented in that leaf were simply too much for the parasite to digest.

A few thoughts on this. First and foremost, when the star collapsed in on itself my initial reaction was, “Um, what is going to happen to the various planets/asteroids orbiting that star?” Clearly there was a complicated gravity system at work there, and now the center of it is just…gone. Secondly, stars are kind of important for light and energy. There were seven planets with species living on them in that system. They are now living without any source of light. And possibly drifting out into space. The physics of that conclusion terrify me.

Beyond that, I’m not convinced that the Doctor’s explanation about what stopped Grandfather was what actually happened. Why that one leaf? Surely there had been other mementos offered by the crowd at various ceremonies that belonged to people who died unexpectedly. It just doesn’t make sense.

I am still totally unconvinced that the version of Clara currently traveling with the Doctor is who she says she is, and that her history is what is being presented to us. This is the third version of this exact same person that the Doctor has encountered in time. Who knows, there may be other versions of her out that he hasn’t yet encountered. She can’t be some normal girl. Something is going on there, and the Doctor knows it. It’s obvious that he likes Clara, is drawn to her. But he is also distrustful of her, as evidenced by him investigating her origins this episode. He is curious at best, suspicious at worst, and I think he has every reason to be.

So what is Clara? That is the big mystery surrounding this second half of the season. There are countless theories, of course. Our little band of viewers is collecting our observations. Disagree? Have something to add? Let us have it in the comments!

-The dates that are popping up around Clara line up way too closely to “Who” lore to be coincidental. According to Clara’s tombstone at the end of “The Snowmen” she was born on November 23. That’s the date the first episode of “Doctor Who” premiered in 1963. According to this episode, Clara’s mother died on March 5, 2005 -- the date that Rose Tyler left with the Ninth Doctor in Season 1 of the reboot. Character endings surrounding Clara are lining up very closely with beginnings for this show. It’s either a very subtle nod to fans or a deliberate trail of breadcrumbs.

-The TARDIS does not like Clara; it would not open its doors for her this episode. (I also notice that the Doctor keeps leaving the doors to it open since Clara has shown up, and it drives me NUTS.) For whatever reason it is reacting more negatively to her than it has with any other companion I’ve ever seen.

-Clara has repeatedly shown, in all of her incarnations, several defining characteristics. 1. She is drawn to the Doctor and actively follows him (or, in the case of Oswin, guides him). 2. She has mother/child issues. 3. She has a strong desire to travel and see the world. 4. She is a very quick learner.

-This is the first episode in recent memory that the Doctor has brought up Susan, the granddaughter the First Doctor traveled with during the first season of the show. The Doctor left Susan in the future to get married, and said he would come back for her. So far as we know, that has never happened. And Susan has been barely referenced since she departed in the original Season 2, in 1964. There was absolutely no reason for the Doctor to mention Susan here, because as far as I know, the adventure with Susan on Akhaten was never shown or mentioned previously. (Please correct me if I’m wrong.) This is a classic case of a gun showing up in the first act. Expect it to go off in the third.

-The rumor is that everything in the second half of this season leads up to the 50th anniversary special on November 23 of this year. Given that there are only six episodes left before that, it’s highly unlikely that the Clara mystery won’t somehow tie into that. My guess is that Clara either is Susan regenerated, or possibly her offspring.

- If nothing else, I bet she’s related to the Time Lords. Notice that the Doctor is wearing his fob watch again (it was dangling from his vest this episode). The last time I remember prominently seeing that watch was when the Master came back during the Tenth Doctor’s run. Those watches carry the personality/memories of a Time Lord for safekeeping. We don’t know that Susan was biologically a Time Lord, or adopted, or mixed species, or what. But the fact that the pocket watch just pops back up just as this new character joins the Doctor… Again, too many “coincidences.”

-There are some interesting things happening with numbers. The number 11 keeps appearing. We learned this episode that Clara’s mother was born on September 11. Last episode Clara told the child she was nannying that Chapter 11 in Amy Pond’s book would make her cry. And, of course, she’s running around with Eleventh Doctor. There are other interesting number things going on. Ages 16 and 23 were missing from Clara’s book, as shown in the last episode. That’s a difference of seven. Sevens have been popping up (such as the seven planets in orbit around the sun in this episode, or the number first shown on the cubes during the Slow Invasion in “The Power of Three”). This may be a lot of hooey, and certainly the least concrete of our observations. But it sure is fun to think about.

Next: Submarines! DavosSeaworth! Underwater intrigue!