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Sunday, April 7, 2013

Doctor Who Review: The Rings of Akhaten

Doctor Who

Another week, another exciting episode of Doctor Who! Saturday's episode "The Rings of Akaten" was an alien-filled, emotional, completely out there Who episode that we haven't seen in quite some time. The episode begins by following the Doctor as he checks in on Clara throughout her life. He seems to be searching for some clue as to who and what she is. The pre-titles sequence also helped to set up "the most important leaf in human history", which was the impetus for Clara's parents meeting

Doctor Who
"Oh no, wait, this was from the rain gutter. Whoops."

Cut to Clara's first adventure to an alien world. This is a seminal moment for any companion. Earth's past and future may seem somewhat similar, but setting foot on a world lightyears from your own, with creatures so unlike anything you've ever seen...that's when you know you're in for something awesome. So, upon Clara's request, The Doctor knew just the place to take her....Akhaten.

I have to pause and talk about just how much this reminded me of Nine and Rose's first outing to see the destruction of Earth in the year 5 billion in the episode "The End of the World." Seeing the wonder on the companion's faces, the Doctor interacting with strange aliens, and the overall feeling that you, the viewer, were somewhere really special and new is quintessentially "Doctor Who" and a great experience for any fan, but especially for people who might be watching the show for the first time.

What's old is new again.

The Doctor and Clara go through a market packed with a veritable Mos Eisly Cantina's worth of aliens. Clara takes it all in stride, despite a few language barriers, and is truly amazed at what she's witnessing. The Doctor mentions that he had been here previously with his granddaughter, a reference to the very first companion, Susan Foreman. This may have been just a one-off reference, but I'm not taking anything for granted during the show's golden anniversary year. In any case, all these aliens have gathered for the Festival of Offerings, where beings trade items of sentimental value (the more important to them, the more valuable) and one lucky little girl is selected to sing an angry god to sleep so that he won't eat their souls. You know, just like Easter.

Doctor Who

Separated from the Doctor in the bustling crowd, Clara comes across a scared little girl named Merry. Merry is to be the Queen of Years at this millennium's festival, and she is nervous that if she doesn't sing her song well, the god will wake up and devour all the people and systems nearby.

Doctor Who
"I thought we were seeing Jersey Boys!"

An interesting bit happens when Clara, in an attempt to rescue Merry, takes her to the TARDIS. Not only will the doors not open, which is nothing major because she doesn't have the key, but Clara gets the sense that the old girl doesn't seem to like her very much. We know that the TARDIS is more than a machine, but what is it about Clara that she doesn't like? Perhaps she's just tired of having "impossible girls" on board shacking up in one of the bedrooms.

"Yeahhh, we totally did it in the swimming pool...and the Zero Room...
and atop the Eye of Harmony."

Hiding behind the big blue box, Clara assures Merry that she will sing her song well and that gives the little girl courage. That is, until she botches it and wakes up the hungry god. The Doctor and Clara race to save her as she is pulled towards an asteroid containing the Pyramid of the Rings of Akhaten. They are confronted by the god's guardians, The Vigil, who move and speak as if carried on a creepy whisper.

The Rings of Akhaten
Carried, also, perhaps, on the remnants of some wicked garlic bread.
By using the sonic screwdriver, the Doctor is able to hold the monsters back long enough for Clara and Merry to escape. He soon realizes, however, that "the Mummy" is not the ultimate enemy. Instead, its Akhaten itself. Now, the Doctor has faced an all-consuming star before in "42", but this beast is a parasite that feeds off of memories. The Doctor offers all he has: memories of distant worlds, the creation of the universe and the end of time, the last Time War, and knowledge so horrible that it must never be shared. Fans of the series, old and new, had a feast of references in that one speech. I thought it was a pretty powerful performance by Matt Smith. He showed that the scars of the Time War are still with him, what it means to carry the burden of being the last Time Lord, and the relief of finally being able to unload all of it from his shoulders. Smith has done a number of excellent orations during his tenure as the Doctor, but this is one of his finest.

"Just ignore all the awkward moments in junior high..."

Ultimately, it's not "what was" that could defeat the parasite, but "what could have been". Clara offers her parent's leaf as a symbol of all the memories and events that never were (her mother died fairly young, it seems), and the infinite possibilities finally satiates the beast, who is reduced to nothingness. A noble sacrifice by a truly brilliant new companion.

While this episode wasn't exactly the best in terms of pacing and story, I really thought it was phenomenal in terms of setting and characters. It's always ambitious to have so many aliens in one place, and this episode did a great job of making it seem like a truly bizarre bazaar (see what I did there?). All the shots of Akhaten in space were truly breath taking. I hope more can be done with the Vigil in the future, they were pretty creepy and worth seeing again. The episode also managed to connect wonderfully to the show's past. Ever since Matt Smith took on the role and Steven Moffat became the show runner, I felt that there was a bit of a dearth of references to even the previous series of the current era, let to those of the classic seasons. But through his speech, and the reference to his granddaughter, I felt that there was a real connection being made to the long and storied history of Doctor Who. It makes me feel like this show, and this Doctor, and this fan, is connected to a whole bigger universe.

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