It’s seems to be something of a tradition of the new Doctor Who to follow up the first episode, which is generally an earth-based alien invasion of some kind or other (see “Rose,” “Smith and Jones,” “Partners in Crime,” and “The Eleventh Hour”) with the grand second episode in which the Doctor and his new companion visit an alien planet (a la “The End of the World,” “New Earth,” “Gridlock,” “Planet of the Ood,” and “The Beast Below”). The Doctor’s intention in bringing the new companion to said alien planet is usually to show off. The result is just as often that they arrive just in time to witness or in order to bring about some grand event, on a national political scale. The Ninth Doctor and Rose watched the sun expand and engulf planet Earth. The Tenth Doctor and each of his companions facilitated the end of some type of oppressive governmental regime in all of his three such episodes. The Eleventh Doctor followed suit in his first trip with Amy.
The Eleventh Doctor’s first outing with Clara reminds me of a mash-up of “The End of the World” and “The Beast Below.” In “The End of the World”, The Doctor and Rose arrive with the express purpose of being spectators to a rare extraterrestrial event: In the former, the end of Planet Earth Viewing Party, in the latter, the Feast of Offerings on the rings of the planet Akhaten. Of course, things go horribly wrong and they end up saving the other spectators from catastrophe. Visually, there can be no denying the strong similarity between this:
In fact, the similarity is so striking that I have to wonder to what our attention is meant to be drawn. There has been much speculation about possible links between Clara and Rose (children cast as background actors that looks peculiarly like a young Rose and Mickey; the same brown car hitting Rose’s dad and nearly hitting Clara’s; the death of Clara’s mother nearly coinciding with the 2005 revival of the show). After the Tenth Doctor’s tragic loss of one companion after the other, and two and a half seasons spent with Amy and Rory, is this meant to be a fresh start? The Doctor turning over a new leaf (no pun intended), and starting new as he did with Rose? Or maybe the link is more thematic. “The End of the World” ends with one of my favorite Who scenes ever: The Doctor explaining to Rose that everything comes to an eventual end. It’s the first time in New Who that we hear of the Time Lords, and the first we hear of the Time War, full stop. It’s powerful stuff, and one can only respond as Rose does: By suggesting that they go get some chips.
In other words, “The End of the World” is all about beginnings, endings, and The Doctor’s memories, which is exactly what “The Rings of Akhaten” proves to be about. The climax in which The Doctor offers his life story as food for the Old God was one of those classic Who moments in which The Doctor seems more than the sum of his parts. When his collective experience really does seem to span the eons. I found myself trying to make connections between the beats of his speech and the story as I know it, but I must remember that there are thirty years of stories I’ve never seen, and even then The Doctor must be alluding to stories no one has seen yet. He has, we’re reminded, information that must never be revealed.
The most troubling and amazing part of that speech is how The Doctor seems, at times, to be talking about himself. Here we have an ancient character who is often called a god, speaking to the Old God. Both are called Grandfather within the episode. In his description of the Old God, we see a mirror image of The Doctor’s darkest characteristics:
All these people who’s ancestors devoted themselves, sacrificed themselves to you. Can you hear them singing? Oh, you like to think you’re a god. You’re not a god, you’re just a parasite, eaten out with jealousy and envy and longing for the lives of others. You feed on them, on the memory of love and loss and birth and death and joy and sorrow!
The Doctor has certainly found many loyal companions who have and would willingly sacrifice themselves for him. Are we to interpret his need for companions as similarly selfish, even “parasitic,” as he calls it. Lest we start to see The Doctor in a villainous light, this vampire-like image is followed up by one of a self-sacrificial and tragic hero:
I’ve lived a long life and I’ve seen a few things. I walked away from the Last Great Time War. I marked the passing of the Time Lords. I saw the birth of the universe and I watched as time ran out, moment by moment, until nothing remained. No time. No space. Just me. I walked in universes where the laws of physics were devised by the mind of a madman. I’ve watched universes freeze and creations burn. I have seen things you wouldn’t believe. I have lost things you will never understand.
Both portraits are equally true. I’m constantly astonished by the complexity of this silly little show, and never more so than when we are given a glimpse of The Doctor’s psyche. He is surely one of the most complex characters ever created.
What I’m also struck by in these first two episodes is how different The Eleventh Doctor seems to how he’s always acted before. I don’t think we can just put this down to Clara’s influence, for it goes beyond the moments when he’s simply interacting with her. He speaks, carries himself, and even acts differently. Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise me, as I got used to the show (and The Doctor) feeling different with every new series and companion under Russell T. Davies’ supervision. After three years of Eleven/Amy/Rory, however, Eleven and anyone else is a strange thing, and Matt Smith seems to have decided to do something new with his performance as well. He is certainly older, more serious. Smith always played his Doctor with a sense of age, but this goes beyond his “old man in a young man’s body” thing. This goes beyond an outdated fashion sense. This feels like age. Like weariness. The Eleventh Doctor had, by and large up to this point, seemed as though he’d put some of his predecessors’ burdens (the Time War, the painful loss of so many companions) to rest. Now, it seems to me that he’s picked them back up again. Not in bitterness, as at the end of Ten’s life, but with maturity and peace.
No longer does he try to even pretend that he won’t get involved. In a nice reverse echo of “The Beast Below,” The Doctor defies Clara’s (and the audience’s) expectation of his actions. In the former episode, The Doctor tells Amy a bold-faced lie, explaining that they “never get involved” in the affairs of other planets, only to immediately contradict himself by running out of the TARDIS to comfort a crying child. Amy quickly catches on to the fact that this is The Doctor’s modus operandi. This time, Clara expects The Doctor to walk away, and challenges him for doing so. The Doctor whirls on her, explaining instead that the one thing she should know about traveling with him is that, “We never just walk away.” This new Eleventh Doctor seems to care, and feel, more deeply than he ever has before. He seems to have accepted his purpose: To help others. Not as a meddlesome demi-god, but as a wise and benevolent intergalactic custodian. He is quick to rush to the rescue, ready and willing to sacrifice himself, alarmingly open and vulnerable with his memories and emotions.
I wasn’t sure what to make of “The Rings of Akhaten” at first, and not surprisingly is seems to have polarized its audience. It does not seem to have that “instant classic” feel that great episodes often due, but the more I think about it, the more there is to find. The deep and complicated character development which seems to be in play this series is extremely rewarding for this viewer, and I can’t wait to see what revelations we’re building to in the finale and the impending anniversary.
Final Note: People are so talented, I can’t handle it. Every so often you come across a fan-made video which is utterly perfect, and captures the essence of the thing in just a few minutes of music and clever editing. Whovians, I give you this. You’ll thank me later.