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Take It or Leaf It: a Doctor Who “The Rings of Akhaten” Recap

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Leaves are bashing against the pavement of Somewhere, UK while Egyptian music plays in the background. Oh, here we go, we’re going to learn the significance of the “page one.” leaf from last week’s opener. Thank God, I couldn’t take much more of the geekitudinous firestorm of speculation on the Doctor Who Facebook pages regarding the symbolism behind the leaf and the clues to be deciphered therein.  As a lone red leaf falls in this meet-cute vignette from the past, we see that it is 1981 according to the date on creepy-stalker Doctor’s Beano mag, and said leaf smacks Clara’s soon-to-be dad square in the face, causing his need to be saved from being hit by a car by her soon-to-be mum.

Cut to Clara’s soon-to-be dad (things get wordy when you have no names)  giving that very leaf to soon-to-be mum, who gets all doe-eyed and teary over his truly endearing and synchronistic tale of the leaf bringing them together. Cut to increasingly irritated Doctor dripping wet across the road; maybe he’s irritated because that isn’t the maple leaf in Clara’s book. Did the props department screw up?  Is there another leaf?  Is Moffat screwing with our heads?  We know only know the answer to that last question. We skim through  graduating scenes of domestic bliss with a little girl, complete with a bedside reading of the erroneous 101 Places to Go book from last week, and now the Doctor gets a ball to the head by wee Clara. Seriously, he is being mega creepo in this intro. Oh look, Mum’s wearing acid washed jeans and a matching jacket. Ah, acidwash. Hee.  Mum apologizes to the Doctor for the ball to the head and they have  an exchange about the harmfulness of embarrassment and Clara’s mum says it isn’t. It is Doctor, let me tell you. The Doctor says hello to Clara and we cut to her book and pages flipping and we finally learn that Clara’s mum’s name is Ellie and oh look, a tear, then a grave, and she’s dead. Nice Moffat. Totally didn’t see that one coming from a mile away. Cut to Clara, who with her bangs looks every bit like a sixteen-year old Christina Ricci, and cut to her Dad who rather than looking just pleasantly attractive, looks rather hot.  I guess misery and graying hair really work for him. Doctor lurking again by a tree, always a tree (Forest reference again), then saying she is “not possible”  in the TARDIS and cut to opening credits. I’m tired already and we haven’t even started the show. Run new titles which I still don’t like (too McCoy era which is the point, , but I still don’t like it) And my son says “it is different mommy, but still cool.” Betrayed.

So Clara who’s anxiously awaiting the Doctor’s return, boards and rambles on about what time is made of and something about strawberries and yeah, it’s kind of dumb.  And they yammer about where she wants to go, and how not knowing is like not remembering your favorite book when asked (there is a book reference again), and they land on what appears to be an asteroid. It’s a part of the Rings of Akhaten, apparently and they stare out at another asteroid with a pyramid on it, which is where these aliens believe life began. Doctor says it’s a nice story. Stories are very important in this episode, folks. Does there happen to be an atmosphere on this thing or is the TARDIS providing an air corridor?  Remember all of this for later.

Now we’re in a marketplace that is a cross between a Moroccan Sook and the Mos Eisley (only with more color and no whining), with loads of different aliens milling about. I can see where the budget went this week; way to go creature-making department. Then the Doctor casually mentions he once brought his granddaughter here.  A million Doctor Who fans just went “squee” over that one, I promise you. Everyone is here for the Festival of Offerings which according to Eleven is just like a big Shrove Tuesday pancake party only without the pancakes, I’m guessing. Cue barking alien guy, whoops, no wrong, it’s a she, and she wants something psychically imprinted for currency to rent her space moped. Is this Flash Gordon all of a sudden?  The red hues. The space bike. Did the Doctor just tickle her wattle? Now a little girl with scars comes running by, followed by similarly robed men who ask Clara if she’s seen the Queen of Years. Ooh, that sounds ominous. Clara trots off to find the little blond girl of about ten, and at this point, no one thinks she is not the Queen of Years.

Clara asks her if she’s lost, and the girl runs away again. Here is where I would give up. But not sweet, nurturing Clara, who walks past a silver air-conditioning duct. Good to know that HVAC repair men have employment in this alien culture. They startle each other, laugh, and talk about why Clara is following her and the kid doesn’t believe she doesn’t have a motive. And neither do the fans, to be honest.  As they talk about the girl being scared and needing to hide, three alien henchmen transport into the room. These guys are bald and their faces look a bit like they have parts of metal steampunk gas masks fused into their faces. The Empty Child been through here, guys?  Just sayin’. They whisper “Merry, where are you?”, which is effectively creepy (but is no “Are you my mummy?” but then Moffat didn’t write this one), but I am not sure that is exactly practical when calling for a lost child. Clara takes charge and leads Merry (who incidentally is all decked out in robes and a head covering reminiscent of a Bajoran vedek visiting DS9) to the TARDIS (stopping to explain to Merry that it is a “timey spacey thingie”, come on Clara, it is Spacey Wacey, Timey Wimey, get it right) but the doors won’t open for her, and she comments that it doesn’t seem to like her. Whovians will be chewing on that one for a while, let me tell you. Clara, clearly annoyed with Sexy, sits with Merry around back of the TARDIS for a chat and asks her “What’s happening?” like she is Raj or Rerun from the Seventies, but seriously, Clara is always sweet with kids (she’s cool that way) and learns that Merry really just has a bad case of stage fright and doesn’t want to get the song she is supposed to sing to a god, wrong. Fair enough. She’s also the carrier of their history and knows every song and poem. No wonder that kid looks worried; she’s a walking Kindle. Merry is cast really well; this child has a sincere face and timorous voice both cherry-picked to melt your cynical heart. I have a feeling that at some point our cockles will be all warm and fuzzy. I look forward to it because those masked guys are bound to catch up to her. At this point, Clara relays a sweet story about how she was afraid of getting lost and did, but that her mother found her and assured her that she would always find her. Clunk, that’s the sound of heavy foreshadowing. Clara lovingly reassures Merry that she will get it right, and then we’re right back to the marketplace where Merry’s handed off to her caretakers. The doctor strolls by, checking up on Clara, and munching what looks to be a blue styrofoam cupcake fruit. Odd eating habits, that one. He and Andrew Zimmern could hang. Cut back to the asteroids (or whatever they are) that form the rings and as the Doctor and Clara rush to their seats, we hear the ceremony in an outdoor amphitheater which faces the asteroid with the pyramid that contains a rather ugly and malicious-looking creature in a glass cage. You can tell these aliens have never seen Earth-bound cinema or they would know that putting homicidal maniacs in glass cages is never a good idea. Now the man who’s singing to the creature in the cage, comes out of the pyramid and sings back to Merry on the other asteroid, but how is this sound transmitting?  And how is there an atmosphere on these rocks? I don’t get it and wish at least one or two lines of dialogue had explained it, but as the song is quite beautiful, I shall let it pass. They are singing to the “mummy” also known as “the old god or grandfather.” There it is again, a reference to a grandfather. Do I smell herring or not? I can’t tell. Evidently this song is long and I mean long, it has gone on through a string of singers for thousands of years to keep that thing asleep. Why do I feel like he is about to wake up?

Next the audience give gifts of meaning for the old god which magically vanish in a trail of gold sparkle dust. Everyone joins in song and several million Who fans cringe as they start to fear the Doctor will sing too and then he kind of does, but trails off, thank god because that would just be too much giving the world a Coke and singing in perfect harmony. Next the asteroids shake because Grandfather has awakened from the man’s cracked voice  and he ain’t a happy pappy. Merry gets grabbed up by a golden tractor beam and is whisked off the amphitheater asteroid and is sucked into the pyramid on the other one. Then the Doctor and Clara come running back into the marketplace where Clara, completely incensed asks why he is walking away. He sternly answers her that “we don’t walk away”. No, they usually run, if they do anything, but let’s not split hairs. Doctor barks at Barking alien and then she barks back and then the Doctor is looking for something precious to give her. Clara reluctantly offers up her mother’s ring even though she is clearly not impressed with the Doctor for not giving up his screwdriver. Won’t she feel stupid later. I can’t blame her, though. And they are off on the space scooter to save Merry. They try to reach her, but  crash through the entry to the pyramid. The Doctor babbles about the pyramid having an atomic something or other lock  but eventually manages to open it. And as Clara walks up to the sleeping “god”, quipping that he doesn’t look big enough, we find out that Grandfather is going to eat on Merry’s soul. Nice. Merry, who incidently wants them to leave, inexplicably traps Clara to the glass with a blue, sparky force field, and the Doctor, holding up the heavy door with the sonic,  is highly irritated that Merry refuses to leave. He then oddly kind of sings at the door and lets it fall. Next up is one of my most favorite snarky lines from this episode where the Doctor rather frankly tells the male chanter, who is seriously chanting his patooty off to keep the monster asleep,  that “that’s not gonna happen, he’s waking up, mate.” The Doctor tells him to run, and like most cases when the Doctor tells someone to run, the guy does. He evaporates after rather defensively declaring that the long song ended with him, Yeah mate, because you cracked it on the song, and for some reason Merry is going to have to pay the price, but still no one mentions this. Oh wait, The Doctor does say he is waking because it is simply time for him to wake.

Then a Clara and the Doctor tete a tete about the god not eating stories but souls and the Doctor responds that souls are made of stories, people we love, people we lost. Is that what they are made of? I am glad I got that answered finally. Merry is scared and the Doctor says she should be because she is sacrificing herself and should know what that means, and that the god is really a vampire.  Then he proceeds to tell her a story about the big bang. Is this about one or two?  I am unclear on this point.  I think the first one, though as he mentions forging and what not and there is no mention of the Pandorica. He goes on to say there will only ever be one Merry and that, that isn’t a sacrifice but a waste, which is a beautiful thing to say and so Clara smiles from her trapped vantage point. The Doctor tells Merry that no one will be harmed if she doesn’t make the sacrifice and as there are still fifteen minutes to go in this episode, I  think he is mistaken. The vampire breaks the glass as Clara is let go.  Merry mentions the Vigil who are the masked henchmen who will now force feed her to the vampire. These guys blow some blue-fire at Clara and the Doctor while trying to get Merry, and although they knock everyone back, they are quickly dispatched by the sonic. See Clara, I told you. Merry sings a song to the door, opening it, which, by the way might have proven helpful earlier when the Doctor and Clara were trying to get it in. Clara and Merry run, the Doctor eventually follows. The Vigil pursue, but ultimately decide to transport out as the creature breaks out of his cage and a light from on top of the pyramid strikes the sun it orbits. Turns out the old god is an alarm clock,  not Grandfather, which the sun in fact, is.

At this point, Clara recommends they “leg it” to the Lake District and we get a scones recommendation a la 1927 from the Doctor. A cream tea does sound quite nice right about now. Clara asks if he’s going to fight it and he replies he has seen bigger and she asks, “really?” and he’s all “are you kidding, it’s massive.” and people with the emotional maturity of a thirteen years old are giggling right about now. Hee. The Doctor wants Clara to take Merry and go, but she reminds him of the walking bit and he brings up the running bit and how if they have something precious (head inclined to Merry) they run and don’t stop. The Doctor heads to face the demon sun and, oh look, there’s a Jack O’Lantern face on the planet. Now some people may find this too cheesy, but this is Doctor Who and the cheese factor can often be quite high and still not spoil the story.  I say the face was a good idea. Giggle-worthy, but probably best. Ooh, cool shot of the planet in Clara’s eye from her location back on the amphitheater asteroid. As Merry attempts to sing to Grandfather, the Doctor gets the idea to share his own long song with the sun. The audience starts to sing with Merry and it is really quite a beautiful piece of music that is stirring on the same level as the music of The Planet of the Ood and A Christmas Carol.

Before telling his story, the Doctor admonishes the sun for masquerading as a god and for its longing and envy towards people’s lives. And then he gives quite a good speech about his lives and loves and loss, of seeing the birth and death of the universe (how does one do any of that, really?) and of the last great Time War. He tells the sun he’s seen and lost things that it can’t imagine and a lone tear streaks down his face. Whoa, Matt Smith is like the most amazing green screen actor ever on the television. He tells the sun to take his memories, “take it all”. And despite the beauty of this speech, I think I can hear giggling on a schoolyard again.  The sun then begins sucking the story, or soul, or memories or what-have-you from the Doctor.

The sun doesn’t seem satisfied, though and Clara, remembering her mother’s words that she would come and find her no matter where she was, jumps on the space bike to save our Doctor. She’s intrepid, our Clara; I give her that. Ballsy move driving a space bike from an alien world. Clara asks if the sun is still hungry and reaches in and gets her Dad’s leaf (but still not the Maple leaf from last week) from her book and repeats her father’s words that this is the “most important leaf in history” as she holds it up for the sun to consume its psychic energy or story or song or whatever. Just have to go with it. But it isn’t just full of stories, thanks to her mother’s death it’s full of days which never got lived and my throat closes up when she says, “these were my mum’s.” The Doctor must speak sun like he speaks baby because he quips, “you’re full?” and realizes that the sun can’t consume the infinite qualities of a future never lived or something like that because it makes sense and doesn’t, really. The sun gives up and appears to implode, and I am left wondering what happened to the inhabitants of the Rings because their sun might be dead?  Will we address this?  No. And why is the Doctor not dead from Grandfather sun eating his soul or story or song or –ah you get the picture? Oh, we’re back on Earth with the TARDIS materializing in front of Clara’s house. She gets ready to exit but suddenly remembers that the Doctor was watching her throughout her childhood, and wants to know why. As you do. The Doctor struggles over whether to tell her the truth, but simply says she reminds him of someone. Clara agrees to come traveling with him more permanently but not before making it clear to the Doctor that she’s not his friend who died, and the Doctor responds with a nose wrinkle that says, “sorry mate, I’m not buying it”, but agrees anyway. He gives her, her mother’s ring back, which the Rings people wanted her to have back. The TARDIS door shuts. Next week: A submarine episode rumored to involve the Ice Warriors last seen in Classic Who. Rating B+

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