The Doctor’s Memories Can’t Wait: "The Rings Of Akhaten”
A funny thing happened as I neared the end of the first act of the story in "The Rings of Akhaten." Merry Galel, the young Queen of Years, delivered her song in front of her people that told all of their voluminous history, and I found myself wondering -- if only for a moment -- if this episode of Doctor Who might buck the regular formula altogether: perhaps nothing major would go wrong. New companion Clara had already helped the girl with her stage fright, running contrary to my expectation that those trying to find the girl had something worse in mind. Plus, the relatively languid pace that introduced this alien world hinted at a change of pace. Would this episode be some sort of simple-in-plot yet complex-in-thought meditation on the culture of the sort of fantastical place that for my taste we see too seldom in The Doctor's televised adventures?
Of course, the standard formula did follow, as the girl was whisked away by this world's angry "god," prompting The Doctor and Clara to mount a rescue operation. However, it was a good sign that this tale gave me that sort of pause, because here was a world creatively rendered. The idea of a place that trades items imbued with sentiment, nostalgia, and memory for currency is an excellent hook. Certainly if I were able to lug my own collection of junk across the universe to this place (I'm something of a packrat and a collector), I could be a very wealthy guy, so it has that appeal.
Furthermore, the realization that a 1000-year-old Time Lord would have very little left in the way of physical objects that could carry sentimental value is a clever one. On a long enough timeline, someone is bound to realize that all the items he picked up along the way and tossed into a trunk on his TARDIS with its virtually limitless space are simply "things." They have utility, but ultimately they are as easy to jettison as one might trade in a scarf for a celery stalk or a Jelly Baby for a Jammie Dodger.
The Doctor brings Clara to Akhaten to show her something "awesome," but he only does so after discreetly checking out her past. We learn that the leaf in Clara's book fatefully blew into her father's face allowing him to meet her mother. We also learn that her mother passed away when she still young, thus perhaps explaining Clara's nanny instinct. By the end of the story, The Doctor's survey of the unaware Clara felt a little creepy, particularly when combined with his blatant testing of her potential mettle as a companion. Apparently disappear for a while and see how Clara does when confronted with a runaway child. Leave it to her to give up her dead mother's ring to pay for the rocket sled. Rely on her to surrender the precious leaf that finally sated the sun "god" ravenous for tales of experience.
Not all of those things were The Doctor's fault, but it only seemed right that he finally would admit to Clara that he had watched her as a child and that he initially chose her because she reminded him of a deceased friend. The Doctor still owes her more details than that -- namely that there were two other incarnations of her and all three share commonalities that seem too significant to be coincidence -- but he was not quite ready to own up to all of it. At least she received her ring back. (It just occurred to me that you could count that among the titular "rings" along with those of the astronomical variety if you like.)
Plus, The Doctor was noble at the right times as usual. He respects and appreciates the myth of Akhaten that holds it as the origin of all life in the universe, even if he is the one individual that could testify that it is only a legend. Per the rules he lays out for Clara, he does not "walk away," but he does run to protect that worth protecting. Most significantly, he's willing to sacrifice himself to the soul-eating sun, even if there was a twinge of melodramatic grandstanding in his speech delivery. (You better shout if you're going to try to communicate with that thing, though, right? And I was still tempted to transcribe his words.) That was another detail I quite enjoyed: The Doctor's past experiences are broad but still ultimately finite, but the simple infinite possibilities of Clara's mother's life ended prematurely flummoxed the beast.
Overall, I dug this one, even if I felt a little like a sap for buying into it, and I hope you bought into it too. As I mentioned, we visit immersive alien worlds far too infrequently on Doctor Who, and I look forward to writer Neil Cross' next offering. (He'll return just two episodes from now.) I also look forward to Jenna-Louise Coleman continuing to throw herself into this role as she did in that barking match with the alien that wanted to rent her the rocket sled.
Next week we have the return of a very old Doctor Who opponent and what should be a claustrophobic adventure on a submarine. Perhaps we'll also learn more about the mystery of Clara. Is there any significance to the fact that - per her own musing over the TARDIS's locked doors - that The Doctor's blue box does not seem to like her?
Classic Doctor Who Bonus:
I can't tie too much of "The Ark In Space" into "The Rings of Akhaten." They both have words that begin with an "A" and contain a "K." They each have a companion's first journey on the TARDIS (Harry Sullivan and Clara, respectively). "The Ark In Space" references a solar flare disaster that was also referenced in "The Beast Below," Amy Pond's second adventure that shared situations similar to some of those in "The Rings of Akhaten," the second adventure of this form of Clara Oswald. No, truly I was just in the mood to see another Tom Baker portrayal of The Doctor this week.
When Doctor Who first returned back in 2005, one of my early reactions was a wish for more cliffhangers like the old days. Of course, in those old days, I was watching it in syndication, and in that format the cliffhanger usually just showed up at the 45-minute mark of a 90-minute adventure. Still, my skewed nostalgia assumed that the old way was better and that I had actually received quantitatively and qualitatively more science-fiction goodness when I was a kid.
It turned out that was not the case. Old Who and new Who are vastly different in pacing. It would be no problem translating the slow burn of "The Ark In Space" into a modern episode that would finish in less than half the time, thanks to quick dialogue, more rapid plotting, and a lot more running.
The story follows a spaceship full of humans left in suspended animation and intended to repopulate the Earth when it is safe to return. Unfortunately, their spaceship is contaminated by an insect alien parasite while they are still sleeping, and it is up to The Doctor to save the day.
"The Ark In Space" was recently named by a major entertainment publication as the best of the Tom Baker episodes. I would not agree with that, but it is a solid installment carried by Tom Baker's fun performance. Watch it for his ridiculous grin, a grin similar to the one that Eccleston delivered at the end of "Rose," thus insuring that - even if the debut was a bit shaky - I was back with the fun days of Doctor Who to stay. Also watch it because the way they did science-fiction back in the 70s was simply cool to soak up.
C. Robert Dimitri made all the display toy Daleks at Whimsic Alley in Los Angeles bellow "Exterminate!" and such at once this week. He also purchased that exploding Van Gogh TARDIS on a t-shirt.