Watching The Doctor

Doctor-who-series-7b-the-rings-of-akhaten-poster-landscape-1024x723If the first episode of Doctor Who‘s season 7.5 was a James Bond-esque adventure, the second episode, “The Rings of Akhaten” can best be described as Who-meets-Indiana Jones. Before I explain, let me first state that this episode was, in my humble opinion (yes, there are those of us who still spell that out), a breath of fresh air coming off of last week’s unfortunate dreck.

tNisYdo“Rings” starts off with a bit of backstory for Clara, including the origin of the leaf and a reason why the Doctor found it so distasteful (remember, he licked it). The leaf that Clara carries with her is the very reason that her parents met. In a very romantic moment, her father tells her mother that it is the most important leaf in human history. He describes how if not for that leaf and the many things that caused it to appear that day, that they would never have met. The leaf blew into his face, almost getting him killed in traffic. She saved him by pushing him clear. It’s kind of like Back to the Future except without him being a peeping tom. I’d like to think that when the Doctor licked the leaf, he was actually licking residue from Clara’s father’s face which, while some would consider it erotic, is kind of disgusting too.

Anyway, flash-forward to the present where the Doctor whisks Clara on her first extraterrestrial adventure. Clara, in a very funny and human moment, can’t seem to decide where she wants to go. When faced with all of time and space, it’s kind of hard to pick a starting point. Finally she decides she wants to see “something awesome.” And so, the Doctor takes her to the Rings of Akhaten; a temple in space where aliens from the Seven Systems come to worship their god.

cult-doctor-who-s07-e02-the-rings-of-akhaten-3When they arrive, the Doctor and Clara do a bit of sightseeing and reintroduce a concept that has been missing from Who for a while; the awe of travelling with the Doctor. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that these people who travel with the Doctor are setting foot on alien worlds, with alien suns and, well, aliens! It’s the ultimate tourist experience. The problem that the audience has when a companion is around for awhile (like Amy & Rory) is that the sense of wonder tends to fade as the companions become more experienced and slightly more jaded. I don’t know that I’d ever really stop being in awe at all the wonderful and terrifying things that the universe has in store.

The only thing about this scene that gets a bit wonky is that it continues to confuse the audience (at least of the new series) about the exact way that the TARDIS translation circuit works. In the Davies years, it seemed to work pretty universally, in that the TARDIS would pretty much translate all languages in real time. In “The Fires of Pompeii” we even got to find out what happens when a companion tries to speak the native language while being translated by the TARDIS. Lately, this seems to be less of an issue as the translations seem to work at the convenience of the story. Hence, Clara couldn’t understand any alien who wasn’t a humanoid. Not a huge deal, but it does present a minor canonical problem. Either way, the scene was funny and played well enough to make it at least a tolerable plot contrivance.

doctor-who-rings-of-akhaten-overnights-mainThe Rings themselves are beautifully rendered by Who’s special effects house the Mill, which is bittersweet. The effects are key in this episode, and the good folks at the Mill truly rose to the challenge with incredible vistas. It’s therefore a shame that the Mill will be shutting down it’s TV division and will no longer be able to do the effects for the show. If you ever questioned what they could do, check out their work in this episode.

The tourist scene contains a bit of interesting commentary with regards to commerce. At the Rings, they don’t use paper money. Instead they use something of real value; items that have personal value to you. The idea is that paper is just that… paper. A personal item holds sentimental value and history. In this part of the galaxy, that value is tangible and can be bartered for goods and services.

cult-doctor-who-s07-e02-the-rings-of-akhaten-4Clara meets up with Merry Gejehl, the Queen of Years. Merry is a little girl with a big responsibility. She has to sing to her god to keep him asleep. She has the whole of her people’s history in her mind and that knowledge doesn’t keep her from being scared that she will mess up. Clara comforts her and immediately shows the compassion that will make her an excellent companion.

Merry decides to go ahead with her “Bat Mitzvah” and sing to her god, which they also call “grandfather”. As a side note, this episode had an effect on me that I haven’t encountered in a long while in the new series; it made me think beyond the episode. In one moment the Doctor admits that he has been here before, a long time ago, with his granddaughter. This made me imagine this lovely scene with William Hartnell’s Doctor and Susan, in which the Doctor brings his granddaughter to a ceremony to watch these people sing to their “grandfather” in an almost endearing attempt to show just how important grandfathers can be.

cult-doctor-who-s07-e02-the-rings-of-akhaten-2Anyway, this wouldn’t be a Doctor Who episode if things didn’t go horribly wrong, and Merry is immediately taken to the temple for a face-to-face with God. The Doctor and Clara give chase on a space moped (twice in two episodes that the Doctor has ridden a moped that defies gravity). They break into the temple and the Doctor is just able to snatch his Sonic Screwdriver before it is crushed by the heavy rock door (à la Dr. Jones).

In an effort to prevent Merry from sacrificing herself to her god, the Doctor tells her a story. He speaks of how the universe was created in a giant explosion that sent dust scattering all over the cosmos. This dust combined to become various things, including Merry. The tale recalls the conversation from earlier with Clara’s parents and the leaf. One of the underlying morals of this story seems to be how precious and unique we all are and how so many incredibly specific things had to happen to make each and every one of us.

Meanwhile God’s henchmen (the Vigil) show up to force Merry to sacrifice herself, leading the Doctor to do his best Harry Potter impression, using his sonic screwdriver like Harry’s wand to square off against the powers of the Vigil.

rings-akhaten-bbca-promo-1Eventually, however, the Doctor comes face-to-face with the god… a huge being in the shape of a star that eats memories and experiences. He tells Clara to take Merry as far away as possible so he can square off against the angry god. It is here that the Doctor is allowed to do what he does best: he inspires. Seeing the Doctor going toe-to-toe against a star being, despite his fears, gives Merry the courage to want to help. She and Clara watch as the Doctor (in one of Matt Smith’s most stirring performances since taking the role) feeds the god his memories and secrets. We see the anguish and age of this man in ways we haven’t seen since David Tenant was in the role and it is soooo good.

Jenna-akhaten-leafThe Doctor gives his all, and while it is not enough to appease the god, it is enough to inspire Clara to come to his aid with the thing she values most of all. She offers up the most important leaf in human history as a token of all the memories that could have been. An infinite supply of sadness for the god to feed on. Finally sated, the day is saved.

This episode delivers on an idea that has permeated the show almost since its beginning; the idea that the human spirit… humanity itself… can be more powerful than the Doctor, the TARDIS, the sonic screwdriver and the hordes of evil combined. It may sound trite, but it is a lesson worth listening to. What makes us human: our emotions, our compassion, our understanding are all powerful tools that not only enable us to get through the day, but can make life worthwhile.

Ancient temples, religion, ceremonies and a few close calls… yes, that’s Indiana Jones. But it can also be some of the best that Doctor Who has to offer.