Before we zip off to Clara’s first (second? third? bajillionth?) time and space adventure, the Doctor proves his devotion to Clara’s mystery by shadowing her timeline. First he stalks her parents’ first encounter (ah, there’s the leaf from Clara’s book, helping to engineer a meet-cute!) and spying when Clara’s future dad confesses his love by showing he saved that auspicious leaf. Hey, that’s probably the night of Clara’s conception. Didn’t think the weird factor of this could be upped any further, did you? You’re welcome!
After glimpses of Clara being raised from babyhood, the Doctor lurks at a playground so he can finally meet young (six-ish?) Clara. Haha at his dorky fighting stance when her ball hits him!
Gosh, Eleven’s Peter Pan-ish qualities aside, I’m kinda done with the Doctor meeting his companions as little girls. Oh, and he spies on sixteen-ish Clara with her dad, crying at the gravesite of her recently-departed mum. It’s all very thorough. And touching. If by touching you mean creepy.
Honestly, I loved the entire narrative of the leaf, “the most important leaf in human history.” It’s exactly the sort of marvelous within the mundane that the Doctor celebrates in all his NuWho manifestations. And of course if the Doctor is hunting down the mystery that is the “She can’t be. She is! She’s not possible!” existence of Clara, it makes sense for him to delve through her life via the TARDIS. I also adore getting actual backstory for Clara — how much more poignant is Clara’s attachment to the Maitlands, considering her own history with grief and loss? AND YET. The creepy-weird can’t be erased completely; I’m rather hoping this series explores it, because oh, the possibilities!
Cut to the present, Clara’s nervous-giddy on the stairs awaiting the Doctor’s repeated invitation to travel, apparently completely over her previous pragmatic stalling. Soon they’re discussing what sort of stuff time’s made of (not strawberries, obviously) and deciding where to go for their first date trip. The Doctor takes Clara’s suggestion of “something awesome” literally: moments later they’re witnessing the reveal of a holy site cosmic-side: the temple of the Rings of Akhaten, seven worlds orbiting the same star, in time for the Festival of Offerings.
Clara’s introduction to alien existence and culture is exceptionally gentle. The Doctor presents the local lore (that all life in the universe originated there) kindly: “Well, it’s what they believe. It’s a nice story.” The varieties of aliens at the bazaar they visit don’t overwhelm her; she follows the Doctor’s lead of encountering them with goofy enthusiasm, giggling as she passes one or another clearly mild-mannered species.
The only hint of something disconcerting is the Doctor’s offhand remark that he’s been here before: “a long time ago, with my granddaughter.” Hai thar, Susan Foreman reference!
When Clara contemplates renting a hover-moped from the barking but ultimately adorable alien Dor’een (the TARDIS doesn’t translate barks, I suppose?) for the region’s every-thousand-years Festival of Offerings (“quite a big thing locally, like Pancake Tuesday”), the Doctor tells her currency here takes the form of significant objects, “psychically imprinted with their history.” Then the Doctor inexplicably disappears so Clara can spot an anxious-looking lost child and hurry to her aid.
Quickly entering an abandoned corridor (and why not? It’s like reverse Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy around these parts: it’s the aliens who are Mostly Harmless), Clara once again shows her affinity for small children, finding and comforting the child by assuring her she has no idea who the girl is (translation: this is one important munchkin).
FINALLY we get scary aliens, goth-y black-clad blokes with Hannibal-Lecter-ish full-face masks, prowling the corridors, breathing, “Merry”. Yikes and yay! Close by, Clara tells her new charge if they need to hide, “I know the perfect box,” a “shippy thing, time-y, space-y” sort of dilly, yo. Whoops, this version of Clara hasn’t her TARDIS key yet, and besides, “I don’t think it likes me,” Clara says, puzzled when the door won’t yield. Probably because she’s a time-and-space anomaly, much like Captain Jack. Hmm, why isn’t the Doctor itchy around her, if that’s the case?
Hiding behind the TARDIS, Clara’s pal explains she’s Merry Gejelh, the Queen of Years (a sort of Dalai Llama-ish posish around these parts). Chosen as a baby and taught every “chronicle, poem, legend, and song”, she’s now expected to sing to a god at the Festival of Offerings.
“Blimey, I hated history,” Clara remarks, impressed (because history hates her, if she’s indeed that time-and-space anomaly), and reassures Merry with a tale of getting lost and found by her mother as a little girl.
Clara never again feared getting lost, not after her mother promised her “I will always be here, and I will always come and find you. Every single time.” Clara tells Merry she needn’t worry about getting the song wrong or “making Grandfather angry” (interesting little parallel with the Doctor as grandfather, hmm). Emboldened, Merry reunites with the monk-ish followers in red robes to prepare (and the Doctor returns with no explanation whatsoever for why he trotted off).
It’s the changing-of-the-monks on the pyramid temple satellite: they kneel before a glass-enclosed creepy mummy alien, the “Grandfather” Merry mentioned. Over on an opposite world, Merry is led in to sing. The Doctor and Clara elbow their way to primo seats; Merry begins her song, which the temple monk answers with his own refrain.
It’s a “lullaby without end,” the Doctor explains (donning Amy’s glasses to read a program) “to feed the old god, to keep him asleep.” Around them, the observing aliens hold out tokens of offering which disappear as the song continues.
Merry’s song swells as the watching alien audience joins in, everyone swaying; even the Doctor comes in for a line or two. Honestly, at this point I kept thinking, “Wow, someone really wanted to write a dreamy child-led Olympics opening ceremony, but for aliens.”
But then the monk at the temple stops, horrified; the song’s gone wrong. When he continues, now maudlin, poor Merry gets zipped into a demonic Oz-bubble to lift her away to the temple — and meet her DOOM!
“Why are we walking away?” Clara demands as the Doctor rushes back to the bazaar. Hey now, girl, if there’s one thing you should know about the Doctor, apart from the blue box and the two hearts, it’s that “we don’t walk away!” They run to rent a hover-moped from Dor’een, but there’s the matter of “something precious”; as the Doctor can’t give away his Sonic Screwdriver, Clara reluctantly hands over her mother’s ring, poor kid.
Soon Clara and the Doctor speed on the moped (it’s like they know I make dolphin noises at every Doctor-and-Clara-on-a-motorcycle variation they can come up with).
Too late: Merry’s sucked into the temple, which has a rapidly changing “frequency modulated acoustic lock”. “But still, let’s give it a stab,” the Doctor says gamely.
“I don’t know what to do next,” Merry pleads with the still-singing kneeling monk. “What happens?” Girl, what happens is that the mummy’s eyes open, and you scream like a banshee! The Doctor manages to open the “quite extraordinarily heavy” temple door, using the Sonic Screwdriver and a metric ton of pluck, but Merry doesn’t want to leave, telling Clara “No, go away… you don’t know anything!”
I do like that Merry’s not immediately persuaded to run like hell; she’s been raised on this lore that tells her she’s got to sacrifice herself if the song goes wrong, after all. She even makes a desperate bid to switch out her fate, fixing Clara to the glass case with a mind-zap (many talents, has Merry), but “he doesn’t want you, he wants me!” Merry says, anguished.
The Doctor finally drops the “astonishingly heavy door!” and rolls under after the Sonic Screwdriver as it closes (very Indy of you, Doctor). “Did you just lock us in? With the soul-eating monster?” Clara demands. Yes indeedy! It’s dunzo for the maudlin-song monk (“That’s it, then. Song’s over.”), while the Doctor disparages how the story’s supposed to end: “He threatens to wake, they offer him a pure soul, the soul of the Queen of Years.” Dude, this eating of a tiny girl who’s crammed with history lessons happens every thousand years then? All righty.
But Merry doesn’t have to give herself to Grandfather, the Doctor argues, offering a Big Bang story by way of a few “The Walrus and the Carpenter” lines that ends in Merry’s existence: “You are unique in the universe: there is only one Merry Gejelh.” If she offers herself, it isn’t a sacrifice. It’s a waste. There’s some other way for everyone to be okay. “Promise?” Merry asks. “Cross my hearts.” Awww!
But then Grandfather gets really angry, cracking at his glass case and ready to feast on everyone everywhere. Those black-clad blokes reappear, and they’re so awesome and frightening! Apparently, they’re The Vigil: “If the Queen of Years is unwilling to be feasted upon, it’s their job to feed her to Grandfather.” The Vigil send zaps the Doctor’s way, who counters with Sonic Screwdriver jolts! Merry uses all that larnin’ to sing a “secret song” and open a secret door; while the Doctor holds off the baddies, Clara and Merry run.
After momentarily trapping The Vigil in another Oz bubble, Grandfather furiously breaks from his case, shattering the glass. Awesome! But then the Vigil just ups and leaves. Meh. “Grandfather’s awake. They’ve no function anymore.” Well. That was a poor use of their creepiness, in my opinion. Well, we still have scary Grandfather! Okaayy, now Grandfather’s kaput. The Doctor made “a tactical booboo, more of a semantics mix-up, really.” Our villain, the Old God, isn’t the mummy or the Vigil, but the sentient sun. “Oh, my stars,” Clara breathes, echoing her mother’s oft-repeated phrase. Forget your stars, Clara: my villains! *clutches at the disappeared Vigil*
“You promised!” Merry rails, understandably upset at the soul-consumption direction things are taking. “I say leg it,” Clara suggests (she and the Doctor briefly agree on The Lake District, 1927, where apparently you can get great scones). But no, he’s going to fight, Clara realizes. “Regrettably, yes,” the Doctor answers, briefly posturing he’s “seen bigger” (referencing 42, the other sentient sun episode). Really? Clara asks skeptically. “Are you joking, it’s massive!” the Doctor yells.
What about “we don’t walk away”, Clara asks when the Doctor tells her to run with Merry. “When we are holding on to something precious, we run, we run and run fast as we can, and we don’t stop running until we are out from under the shadow,” the Doctor corrects her. There’s some nice work here with the Doctor as the “good” grandfather, and he and Clara trading off on the role of protective parents. “Now. Off you pop. Take the moped. I’ll walk.” “Righty-ho, then,” he mutters as he gets ready to face the Old God.
Back at the arena, Merry starts up the lullaby again to help, persuading the audience (who have just been waiting around to learn Merry’s been eaten up properly? IDK) to join her. Inspired, the Doctor “feeds” the god, “a parasite” who eats the memories of love and loss, his story. “Take mine,” the Doctor says, determined, speeding through his story of loss, from the birth of the universe until time runs out, through the Time Wars and the last of the Time Lords, to losses, secrets, and knowledge “that will make parasite gods blaze.” So come on, he yells, take it; “take it all, baby!”
Merry smiles as she sees the star seemingly begin to falter — whether it’s the power of the Olympic Opening Ceremony kid-led song, or the Doctor’s dramatic speech, the star seems like it’s starting to implode. But for whatever reason, all this doesn’t seem to be enough to end this parasitic all-consuming god. And honestly, I’m not sure it’s enough for me, either — I want to love and be moved by the Doctor’s speech, I really do! But it’s hard when the reveal is so crammed in, following the story we as viewers know more or less by rote — the Doctor’s losses are indeed immense, and his story, if we try to comprehend the depth of his grief, should be enough to make us reel. But in an instance like this, it’s all tell and no show, and it’s not terribly surprising even the episode doesn’t think that’s enough to put an end to jealous all-consuming sentient sun-gods.
So it’s Clara to the rescue, as she hops back on the hover-moped and takes on her mother’s role in the story — she combines the memories of the Doctor saying, “We don’t walk away” with her mother’s promise to return “every single time.” At the Doctor’s side, she offers up her leaf, “the most important leaf in human history,” “full of a future that never got lived.” This offering is finally what gluts the sun, as it collapses when forced to consume the “infinity” of what might have been. Maybe it’s also a reminder that while it’s freaking tough to grasp the millennia of losses someone like the Doctor’s been through, we’re often readily touched by the private losses of ordinary humans.
Yay, the sun’s imploded! Er, what the hey are the people of the Seven Worlds supposed to do now, with no sun? Pfftt, apparently that’s unimportant, because it’s “home again, home again, jiggity jig!” as the Doctor and Clara return to the exact same day when they left. Though it “looks different” to Clara, it’s because she’s seeing through the new lens of her experiences, causing her to recognize that “you were watching”, at her mum’s grave site. Well, all that spying, you’re bound to get recognized eventually, Doctor.
The Doctor blusters he followed Clara’s life around because he was “making sure,” because “you remind me of someone. Someone who died.” Clara, in what I hope is the beginning of more exploration of how vexed all of this tracking-through-a-person’s-timeline and seeing Clara as multiple Claras is, tells him off. She’s not some “bargain-basement” stand-in for someone else; she won’t compete with a ghost.
In answer, the Doctor gives Clara her ring back, explaining “everyone” (all the people she saved) wanted her to have it, “You and no one else, Clara.” Assured by this — but really, though it’s a lovely return of Clara’s emotional currency, isn’t it a distraction from the larger issues here? — Clara leaves the TARDIS, smiling. The Doctor looks quite serious as he watches her leave — let’s hope this is an indication we’re getting a more serious treatment of Clara as part of a larger Clara/Oswin identity soon – and closes the door.
Ooh wee wahooooo thaphooo! The Doctor certainly honored Clara’s request to show her “something awesome”! The worlds of Akhaten certainly were marvelous visually, and the breadth of alien types such fun to see. But while the visual focus created such a lovely world, the plot was a bit thin on the ground. However, I have high hopes for seeing real exploration of who the hell Clara is exactly — and fervent optimism it won’t just be a tease at the start and finish of each ep, but something the show really tackles head on, and soon! Join me next time and let’s find out together, shall we?