Doctor Who delivers this week with some of the show’s most familiar tropes: lost children, alien cultures, and Matt Smith chewing the scenery. But do we learn anything more of substance regarding Clara’s mysterious identity?
The show opens on a montage of the Doctor spying on Clara’s parents and her childhood. Yes. I mean, thankfully they don’t show him creeping on her conception, but I’m just saying, considering how River’s backstory turned out you’d think that would be an important moment to keep tabs while trying to figure out a person’s timey-wimey deal. Anyway, Clara’s parents never would have gotten together if her father hadn’t been hit in the face with a leaf, which he kept, and now it’s the leaf that Clara keeps in her book of 101 Places. The book used to be her mother’s book, her mother’s name is Ellie Ravenwood and she died early, when Clara was sixteen. You may begin your Up/Who crossover fanfics… now.
But back to our actual main characters. Last episode Clara told the Doctor to “come back tomorrow” and ask her again if she’d come away with him, and like anyone who’s made an appointment with a friend, she’s waiting for the Doctor when he shows up (although what is punctuality to time travel, I suppose) and away they go. She asks to see “something awesome,” and the Doctor delivers her to the Rings of Ahkaten, the central holy site of a seven planet system where all seven races believe all life originated on their holy site on an asteroid belt near their system’s star. But enough looking at the pretty pyramid. To the marketplace, and references to Classic Who!
The place is bustling in anticipation of the once-every-thousand-year Festival of Offerings, and we’re given some vital establishing exposition about the Akhatens’ unusual currency: instead of money, objects with sentimental value are traded, their value determined by the psychic residue left by the emotions that have been invested in them over the years. The Doctor disappears because it’s convenient for the plot, and Clara finds the episode’s MacGuffin, a small girl variably known as Mary (or apparently “Merry”) and the Queen of Years. She’s hiding from some guys in red cloaks and I’d just like to take this moment to say that I like that Clara’s brought a bag on her adventure. It’s very practical.
But it isn’t just the red cloaks (who are eventually revealed to be priests of a sort) who are after Merry, there are also teleporting, face-masked, whispering, creepy bad guys. She and Clara and the Queen run for the TARDIS, but it refuses to let her in and she doesn’t have a key yet. Clara mentions that it doesn’t seem to like her, which could either be foreshadowing or a gag. Anyway they decide to hide behind the TARDIS because I guess whispering masked guys can’t teleport back there. It’s like hiding behind the couch in that respect.
Merry is the Vessel of History, and it’s her responsibility to sing a song in front of everyone, and also a god. She’s scared that she won’t get it right and has run away. Clara tells her a story about how she used to have nightmares about getting lost and how her mother reassured her by telling her that she’d always come find Clara no matter where she was, which could either be foreshadowing or just exposition for events later in the episode. Clara reassures Merry that she has nothing to be scared of, and Merry returns to the priests. The Doctor returns because now the plot needs him to be there and the music gets all mysterious.
This is because we’re about to cut to some more priests who are either singing, badly lip-synching, or praying (or a combination) to some kind of alien mummy in Akhaten’s holy pyramid, located on the next asteroid over. Meanwhile, Merry starts her concert infront of the gathered masses of Akhaten, as the Doctor and Clara squeeze into some prime seating. Merry (and eventually the audience) joins her song with the priest on the pyramid, singing a “lullaby without end” to keep the god asleep. The audience gives offerings of sentimental value to feed the god.
Then things go wrong. Everybody stops singing except the priest, and Merry seems to be getting tractor-beamed off to the pyramid. The Doctor drags Clara along with him back into the marketplace and she berates him for “walking away” which he denies. He’s actually going to rent a moped. They have to rent it with Clara’s mother’s ring because the Doctor doesn’t have an item of sentimental value that isn’t super necessary like the sonic screwdriver (not even his bowtie, apparently). Also I guess they can’t take the TARDIS. Episodes with motorbikes or their equivalents in this half of the season are now two for two.
They zoom off after Merry, but she winds up getting sucked into the pyramid, with our heroes locked outside. The priest within is occupied nervously trying to keep the mummified god asleep. After some effort, the Doctor sonics the door open because, you know, that’s 90% of what the sonic screwdriver does. Merry insists that they leave because they will wake the god. Clara insists that they won’t leave without her, and Merry telekinetially sticks her to the mummy’s glass tomb. In order to end the argument, the Doctor lets the door down and locks them inside the pyramid.
At this point the the Doctor impresses upon the priest that the reason the mummy is waking up is because it’s time for him to wake up, not because they screwed up the lullaby. The priest disappears, teleports, or disintegrates, which of those three is left completely unclear. The doctor sonics the god fully awake with Clara stuck to his cage, and then he decides to give Merry a monologue about how she shouldn’t let the god eat her soul and quote Through the Looking Glass. Meanwhile, the aforementioned god is pounding on the glass behind Clara’s head. The Doctor promises to find a way to save everyone so she won’t have to sacrifice herself. She releases Clara and the temple starts shaking, which signals the imminent arrival of “the Vigil” who will feed her to the god. The Vigil are the creepy masked whispering people, and they spit lasers. Hurray!
Some things happen here involving sonic screwdrivers and a secret song that Merry knows because being the Vessel of History has to be good for something, but the upside is our heroes manage to get outside of the pyramid and the Vigil disappear. The bad news is the god smashes his glass cage, the holy pyramid fires a very big laser at the sun, and then the god crumbles. It turns out the mummy wasn’t actually the Old God of the inhabitants of Akhaten. It was his alarm clock. The old god is actually the sun, which is officially one too many evil sentient suns for one science fiction series.
If the sun doesn’t get to eat Merry and the cultural knowledge she’s been imbued with, he’ll eat the seven worlds and then embark on a new odyssey across the stars. The Doctor convinces Clara to get Merry to safety even after she pins him with the same line he gave her earlier in the episode: “We don’t walk away.” His answer: “But when we’re holding on to something precious, we run.” Oh Doctor, you do know how to set off my companion feels. The Doctor, drama queen that he is, goes to face the Old Sun God alone, now revealed as a lava-y skull face on the star’s surface. Meanwhile, Clara runs with her precious Merry to… the neighboring asteroid, which, considering what we just learned about the Old God’s ambitions, really, really doesn’t seem far enough.
But Merry decides to help by singing what appears, to my ears, to be the opposite of a lullaby. The Doctor decides to offer the God his memories, and gives a tearful, raging speech that’s probably going to get memorized and recited as often as a certain monologue from “The Pandorica Opens” despite the fact that at the end of it he calls the god “baby.” So, the god takes all the Doctor’s memories and then the Doctor sort of falls over but is otherwise pretty much fine. Remind me again why it was such a bad idea to let the God eat Merry’s memories?
Unfortunately after eating the Doctor the god is still hungry, but on the other hand, Clara picks this moment to finally go back to help the doctor (after a couple of flashbacks to moments from earlier in the episode concerning her mother and the Doctor). She offers the god the leaf from her book, because of the future it represents where her mother didn’t die when she was sixteen, and because the only thing larger than a universe of knowledge is the possibility of what might have been. This satisfies/defeats/destroys the god.
In their gratitude (even though the end result was apparently the destruction of their solar system’s star… so… yeah, it would have been nice to have a bit of an explanation there), the inhabitants of Akhaten return Clara’s mother’s ring, and the Doctor delivers her home, the very same day she left, so perhaps the new console is allowing him to be more precise. Clara suddenly remembers seeing him when he spied on her past self visiting her at her mother’s grave earlier in the episode. She wants to know why he was spying on her past self. He says it was because she reminds him of someone who died, at which point she asserts her own uniqueness and autonomy, but probably also should have asserted her right to not get spied on by an omnipotent time traveler. Doctor, perhaps you should tell her what the deal is, as she surely has a right to know that two other incarnations of her have died almost immediately upon coming into contact with you. Clara walks off back to her normal life, the doctor is left with the same mystery he started out with.
The episode hasn’t exactly given us much more to go with on Clara’s backstory. It seemed at first that any window into her childhood experience might be relevant, but her mother’s advice on fear of being lost was imperative in the conclusion of the episode, so it doesn’t seem that we’re supposed to draw larger conclusions from it. If it wasn’t simply a joke, there’s plenty of grist to mull over in the TARDIS not liking her. It’s worth noting that this episode would seem to answer some questions the Doctor asked her last episode about why she’s stuck around so long with the family she’s living with, who have recently lost their mother. It would not be a stretch to say that Clara is deeply affected by the early loss of her mother and sympathizes with her young charges. And while I can’t remember any particular mother connections for Christmas-Episode-Clara personally (obviously she was also caring for children whose mother had died), I believe that “Asylum of the Daleks”‘ Oswin was narrating her journal to her mother.
In conclusion, I am happy that my hopes of last episode came true: this appears to be more of Clara going on a series of test adventures with the Doctor but not officially joining up with him yet. I do wish he’d stop spying on her though, or at least be upfront with her about why. That stuff could really be misinterpreted as creepy, Doctor! Also what gravitational force is holding the Akhaten system together, and what source of power is lighting and warming those seven worlds? That didn’t even occur to me until this morning and it seems like pretty relevant information!