Since deciding that I really needed to write this blog post, I have: gotten up to get a snack, searched a couple of topics on the web, went on twitter, uploaded some pictures to my computer…basically anything but actually start on the post. Why am I telling you this? Well, I’ve realized that all that reveals my feelings towards the episode; it just left me feeling uninspired. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t good either. “The Bells of St. John” may not have been perfect, but when it was over, I knew that I had liked it. “The Bells of Akhaten” just left me feeling, well, nothing.
The episode had potential. It was the first time in a while that the Doctor has travelled to a proper alien world, filled with different types of beings (including one that looked kind of like a Hath). Clara wants to see something amazing, so the Doctor takes her to the rings around the planet Akhaten. All of the beings in nearby systems believe that life originated on this planet, so it is a very important place. There is a big festival going on and aliens have gathered from all around for the ceremony in which the Queen of Years sings her song to ensure that the old god stays asleep.
While Clara is exploring the bustling marketplace (and learning that this world uses objects with sentimental value as its currency), she encounters a small girl running away. Clara wants to help the girl and learns that she is Merry, the Queen of Years. Merry is running away because she is afraid that she will get the song that she is supposed to sing wrong and “Grandfather” (which we later learn is another name for the old god) will be displeased. Clara convinces her that everything will be okay, so Merry returns to perform her duty. Unfortunately, while singing her song, Merry is suddenly taken in some kind of tractor beam to the pyramid which is on another planetoid and the Doctor and Clara rush after her to save her.
Essentially, we learn that the Queen of Years is to be a sacrifice to the old god, who feeds on souls (or stories, since the Doctor asserts that a soul is made up of stories). This is why the Queen of Years learns all of the stories of her people, so that they can be fed to the god. The Doctor and Clara, however, stop the sacrifice and the old god, who turns out to be the planet Akhaten, awakens. The Doctor tries to feed him his memories, but that is not enough, so Clara offers up her most treasured possession: the leaf that blew into the face of her father, causing her parents to meet. Her mother died young, so she asserts that the leaf contains an infinite amount of possibilities, which is too much for the “god” to handle and he ends up destroying himself.
This episode was written by Neil Cross, who is the creator/writer of Luther (which I think is a brilliant show), so I was looking forward to seeing what he would do with a Doctor Who episode. His Luther episodes are usually very tightly plotted, but, unfortunately, this episode felt a bit disjointed to me. Even though there were some very emotional moments, I was never able to get too emotionally involved. It also had some interesting commentary on religion in parts, but that’s probably a discussion for another post. The episode had many interesting ideas and scenes, like the variety of species in the marketplace, the unique form of currency, or the Doctor’s speech to the “god,” but they never really gelled into a cohesive whole for me. I saw how this could happen, however, when I read this interview with Neil Cross about his episode. He says that he began by learning what materials were available to him in creating this alien world and what others wanted to see in the story. From there he took these “disparate and unconnected resources and I used them kind of how David Bowie used to write lyrics by mixing them up until the story began to suggest itself.” This might explain why the story felt so disjointed to me.
The ending just didn’t quite work for me. The Vigil seemed like they could have been an interesting adversary for the Doctor, and has a very interesting (and creepy) look to them, but they were gone before you could really appreciate them. The same for the god’s “alarm clock,” the mummy. It was another scary-looking creature that could have been used more, although it did get more screen time than the Vigil. Besides the underused monsters, I found the ending of the story a bit confusing. Was the Queen of Years always a human sacrifice every few years or was it just because Grandfather’s alarm clock was stirring this time? Who was she sacrificed to: the “god” or the “alarm clock”? Why did the Doctor seem to have no ill effects from the “god” feeding on his memories? Could the “god” feed on people’s memories without destroying them, or was this just because the Doctor is a TIme Lord? Why was Clara’s leaf so powerful? Didn’t anyone else on the planet ever make an offering of something that was connected to someone who had died young?
In something that I would expect from a Neil Cross story, the strength of the episode was definitely the character development. There continues to be good chemistry between the Doctor and Clara. The early scene between the two of them in the TARDIS showed a give and take between the two that was almost akin to an intricate dance. Clara is also shown to be a very independent, caring person. She doesn’t seem to need the Doctor very much; she can handle herself pretty well. She is even the one who comes up with the way to stop the “god” from destroying the galaxy. When the Doctor tells her that she reminds him of someone who died, she is very clear with the Doctor that she doesn’t want to travel with him just to be a stand-in for someone else. She is definitely a companion who wants to travel with the Doctor on her terms, not his. She also continues to show a real compassion for children, which goes along with her history of a being nanny/governess.
Matt Smith turns in another excellent performance in this story, even if it is more Clara’s story than his. I know some people feel that Matt Smith is given too many monologues, but I enjoy them. He is often at his best when he is displaying the angry, darker side of the Doctor, which he was able to do in his monologue at the end of the story.
There is an interesting moment that might be completely insignificant, but it really stood out for me. When Clara tries to hide Merry in the TARDIS, the doors are locked, although the Doctor didn’t appear to lock them. There is a rather imposing shot of the TARDIS and Clara comments that she doesn’t think it likes her. I’ve even read some theories that Clara wasn’t able to understand the dog-like language that some aliens spoke because the TARDIS deliberately wasn’t translating for her. I tend to lean towards a more practical explanation, that the TARDIS didn’t translate simply because Cross (or someone else behind the scenes) wanted to have the comedic moment that ensues from the Doctor speaking in barks and growls, even though it didn’t really make sense with the TARDIS’ ability to translate. Still, it will be interesting to see if the TARDIS’ dislike for Clara is ever developed further.
This was also an episode of many references to other works. On a completely out of left field reference, the Doctor quotes a bit of “The Walrus and the Carpenter” from Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking-Glass,” but most of the references were to other science fiction movies. There was a very clear Star Wars influence on the story. It is almost impossible to gather a large variety of alien species together for a scene without thinking of the alien cantina scene in Star Wars. The space motorcycles in the story were also inspired by the speeder bikes in Return of the Jedi. Additionally, the Doctor’s monologue was also reminiscent of Roy Batty’s speech in Blade Runner (and perhaps the Doctor’s quote from “To Market” was a reference as well).
Overall, this story felt very uneven. There were aspects I really enjoyed and others that fell flat for me. However, continuing with the trend of references to the show’s history, this episode contained a few lines meant to excite the fans. The Doctor’s monologue referenced many of his past adventures, like the new series’ “Utopia” and classic stories like “The Celestial Toymaker,” “The Mind Robber,” and “The Three Doctors.” Most interesting was his reference to his last time visiting the rings of Akhaten. The Doctor tells Clara that the last time came to the rings he was with his granddaughter, which is the first direct reference in modern Who to Susan. I’d love to see them pick up that storyline for the fiftieth, to eliminate some of the question marks that surround her character. Could there be another TIme Lord in the universe (if Susan is, in fact a Time Lord)? The Doctor left Susan on earth in the second half of the 22nd century, so she might have been safe from the Time War. I know it’s unlikely that they would pick up this storyline, but anything’s possible, right?