Are y’all ready with the drinking game rules? Okay, then, let’s go. We start out with a man, lost, wandering down a street with a paper map. Where’s your computer phone, bro? What is this, 1981?
Yes, it is exactly 1981. The Doctor is sitting at a bus stop, keeping surveillance behind an issue of The Beano (it looks like mix of Highlights and MAD magazine from the cover) from that summer while The Specials’ song “Ghost Town” plays in the background. Before I can think about how much I miss ska, a leaf blows in the man’s face, temporarily blinding him. He’s pulled out of the way of an incoming car by a woman with whom he immediately falls head-over-heelsies in love.
And so we see how Clara’s parents met, and understand why the leaf in her book of 101 Places to See is so very important to her while the Doctor mumbles about how Clara’s multiple existences are “not possible.” Back in modern time, Clara waits for the Doctor to return, hears the TARDIS noise (drink!) and rushes out to join him.
The Doctor asks Clara where in timespace she wants to go, and her only requirement is that it’s “somewhere awesome” so the Doctor takes her to the Rings of Akhaten, a place where seven worlds orbit a star they believe to be the origin of the universe. To get an even closer look, they pop into an alien marketplace (drink all the beers you have since countless new aliens roam in and out for the rest of the episode) where sentimental objects are used as currency—the more dearly loved the object, the more valuable it is.
We see something that looks similar to an Ood, the Doctor uses the sonic (drink) to examine some of the local wares, and he tells Clara that everyone is gathered for the Festival of Offerings, a ceremony held every thousand years or so when the rings align.
A scared young girl in regal robes runs past Clara, followed by two men looking for her. Clara, naturally, doesn’t help them because they’re super creepy.
Instead, she finds the girl, Merry, who explains that as the Queen of Years, she is the vessel of the rings’ history. Like a super version of The Giver, her role is to remember every story, song, and bit of culture. As part of the ceremony, she has to sing a special song to their god and is terrified she’ll get it wrong. Clara soothes her with a story about getting lost and how her mom comforted her by saying she’d find her, no matter what.
Merry goes to the ceremony, and Clara and the Doctor sit in to watch. She begins to sing a never-ending lullaby to the old god, the Mummy, along with another chorister. This has been happening for millions of years, passed down in tradition from generation to generation.
As the song continues, members of the audience give the old god offerings of sentimental items so it can feed off of the memories and love associated with them. Everything goes really well for a minute, which means it’s destined to crash and burn.
Which it does when Merry and the chorister apparently screw up the song, and Merry gets pulled toward the pyramid with the Mummy by a tractor beam. Clara trades her mother’s ring for a space moped, and she and the Doctor zoom from the marketplace to the pyramid to save Merry.
Locked out, the Doctor uses the sonic (drink) to open to the door. The other chorister is frantically trying to sing a song to keep the Mummy asleep with hilariously literal lyrics “do not wake from slumber old god / do not wake from slumber” to no avail—it’s waking up and that is Bad News. If the Mummy doesn’t go back to sleep, he will angrily consume everyone’s souls.
TWIST: sacrificing Merry was always the plan; the Mummy wakes periodically and wants the Queen of Years because her soul is the richest due to all of the stories, memories, and knowledge she possesses. The Doctor’s like, “Aw hell naw!” and fights off a band scary-looking aliens only to find out that there IS an actual old god—the Mummy was just standing watch—and the old god is the sun at the center of the Rings of Akhaten. And it’s angry. And hungry.
The Doctor sends Merry and Clara back to the marketplace after deciding to face the old god alone. In an effort to help, Merry starts singing again. This time, the lyrics sounds like they’re about waking up rather than falling asleep, and the other aliens join in. I wrongly assumed that this would end up saving the day: after all these millennia, the people of the Akhaten system had it backwards. Instead of coaxing the god to sleep, they should encourage it to wake up and freely share/feed off of their memories and experiences.
Buuuut it’s a bit more sinister than all that. The Doctor starts speechifying (start drinking now and see if you can last until he stops) about how the god is just a parasite, feeding off of the memories of people. The Doctor challenges the god to feed off of his vast expanse of memories: the Time War, the birth and ending of the universe, and everything in between. Hot damn can Matt Smith sell a speech. I swear that boy could bring the weight of Shakespearean tragedy to a Dr. Seuss rhyme.
It’s not enough, though. The god wants more, and Clara earns her companion stripes by figuring out how to save the day. She presents the god with the leaf from her book, the “most important leaf in human history” because it’s full of stories, and full of the future that never happened after her mom died.
This appears to work, as the old god devours the leaf then basically blinks out of existence. Which I think means that the whole Akhaten system is now without a sun to sustain life but let’s not get too science-y here.
Back in modern London, the Doctor returns Clara to her home. She calls the Doctor out for spying on her and her family in the past. He says she reminds him of someone who died, and she snaps back that she’ll travel with him, but as herself, not some surrogate. Little does she know…
What was totally awesome? Compared to the whiz-bang pacing of the last episode, I appreciated the slower pace, completely alien location, opportunity to know Clara better, and more thematic/character-driven approach.
What could have used a little more sonic? That said, it ranks pretty low in terms of re-watch potential, possibly because it has several elements we’ve seen before. It reminded me a lot of The Beast Below.
Rating: 3 out of 5 fezzes.
References & Random Thoughts:
• The Doctor mentions being at Akhaten before with his “granddaughter.” He means Susan Foreman, the first Companion.
• When Clara and Merry are locked out of the TARDIS, it basically growls at Clara and she remarks that it must not like her. Is this a bigger clue to her timey-wimey duplicate nature clashing with the TARDIS?
• Seriously, what was with that Ood-like alien with the tentacles and face mask?
• Fun with numbers: Clara’s mom died 21 days before NuWho aired in 2005. Or to put it another way, just before Nine met Rose. The number 23 is missing from Clara’s book, and the only age her mom wrote in the book was 11. Doctor Who originally aired 11/23/1963.