Doctor Who has been rewarded the rare luxury of being allowed to go over the top and remain undeterred in terms of quality. It’s a show that at its core is clichés, overwrought emotions, and a lot of exposition done by yelling, but coincidentally it works. Doctor Who is a show for lovers of escapism. It’s for viewers who want to watch something magical unfold, to see the unimaginable and to be whisked away by the Doctor in his blue box just as his companion is. It’s for dreamers and to see an episode embrace that lack of limitations after such a long run of uninspired and earthbound episodes is a welcome and surprising change.
The start of the episode didn’t leave me as optimistic. It was all about the Doctor pining away at Clara, using her character as an enigma for the Doctor’s interest sake rather than building a true person. We watch as the Doctor travels back in time to when Clara’s parents met by a leaf (the leaf from last episode) blowing into her father’s face and causing the two to have a run-in. We watch as he’s there at her mother’s funeral. He’s piecing together this person he believes he doesn’t know but rather than portraying genuine curiosity it comes off more like a Doctor being creepy and overstepping his boundaries.
Luckily, this detrimental pit stop is just that and quickly and determinedly the episode swings away with the best installment in a very, very long time. And it all begins with Clara wanting something awesome.
The Doctor has whisked her away to a planet called Akhaten where their people and the planets around them are having a spiritual celebration. This is an episode where praise must be given to the many make-up artists and costume consultants on the show who’ve managed to make a planet appear new all the while creating handfuls of aliens, all in different make-up and hairstylings and clothes, to walk around and inhabit the society. Originally, this show drew me in because of the classic science fiction feel: the absurdity, the planets and the time travel. Somewhere in the past two seasons that’s been dropped by the wayside to make way for timey-wimey explorations and plot twists and puzzle pieces that frankly didn’t fit. This time it was back to the basics—new planets and new places to discover.
The Doctor is just about to get them a motorcycle to explore the planet with when he disappears and Clara sees a little girl, frightened and alone and running from something that scares her. As the little girl runs away Clara learns that she is the Queen of Years and decides to find her before the guards.
She finds the girl and tries to talk to her. She says she wants to help, she has no idea of her importance, but she’s here and she can help her. The Queen of Years tells her name is Merry, and agrees and follows Clara.
Clara takes her to the TARDIS but it seems to be having a temperamental bout and Merry slinks away to hide behind it.
Why is she so frightened, Clara wants to know. Merry tells her that she is the vessel of her planet, she knows all of their history, all of their books and all of their songs and on this day she has to sing a very important song to the old God and she’s afraid she’ll get it wrong. Clara tells her that everyone is frightened when they’re little. She once thought she’d lost her mother somewhere crowded and it had felt like the world was ending but then she found her and all was right. Fear is temporary and Merry can overcome it and perform the song beautifully. It’s as touching as can be, quiet and without cheap tricks to benefit the show and manipulate the viewer. Merry and Clara make a dynamic duo and it’s almost frustrating just how attached this show has managed to make me to Clara already. It’s as if we’ve gotten layers and layers of character development in two episodes that it took two seasons to give Amy.
Merry is assured and goes to perform her job just as the Doctor reappears again. They go to the stadium where Merry is about to sing her song and the crowd will give offerings to appease the God, often called Grandfather.
She opens her mouth and begins to sing and the little actress Emilia Jones has a beautiful and pure voice which manages to take a standard scene and turn it into a mesmerizing one. Music and the way it’s used and conducted in television or film can prove crucial to the execution and the way in which that musical score by Murray Gold, and the vocals of Jones, spin their way through the episode provide a sense of adventure. More importantly, the scene in which an entire planet rests their hope on a little girl’s lullaby is touching and effective in more ways than one.
Something’s gone wrong though and immediately the music stops and the crowd begins to panic as Merry is lifted into the air by a blaze of gold and begins to be drawn to the fortress on the opposing planet, where the grandfather God awaits her.
Clara runs after the Doctor as he rushes from the stadium, demanding to know why no one will help her, demanding to know if they will and the Doctor turns to her and tells her one thing, “One thing you need to know about traveling with me besides the blue box and the two hearts—we don’t walk away.” And with that and the help of something near and dear to Clara—her mother’s ring that she left behind—they’re rushing off into the space debris to save a little girl who knows too much.
I would go into more detail about how significant the Doctor’s line about never walking way is (just see how that sentiment went over with Amy and Rory) but there’s much to be talked about in the last half of this episode.
The two reach the planet and manage to lock themselves in the cave with Merry and the grandfather God. She tells them that because the song didn’t work he’s now waking up, and that he is snarling and thrashing against his windowed cell. Merry tells them that if she doesn’t allow him to steal her soul—her memories and her stories—then it will devour all of the planets around her. She must make the ultimate sacrifice.
The Doctor and Clara disagree. The Doctor tells Merry that she will be safe, they will get her back home and that her soul will not be taken. The God wasn’t ever anything to fear and simply needed a story big enough to fulfill its parasite status. They get her safely out of the cave but not before the God has broken completely out of its cage.
And that’s when the Doctor realizes his big tactical error: that wasn’t the god but instead was an alarm clock of sorts that awoke the true God when it was time. The true God being a matter of dust and stars and energy. This monster is bigger than the Doctor has anticipated so he sends Clara with Merry to bring her back to safety—while he does what he promises and keeps them safe.
I need to almost take a breath for this next scene so that I don’t merely gush or wax poetic about the joy I felt in watching it.
The Doctor confronts the God of sorts as Merry on the other planet begins to sing a song of hope as a way to elevate some of the Doctor’s fear and the outcome is positively stunning. Credit must be given to Neil Cross who penned this episode and is best known for his work on BBC drama Luther and his work here is stellar, managing to weave the Doctor’s history, his fears and his strength into a singular speech.
The most effecting piece of narrative comes a moment later as Emilia Jones’s voice swells and the music builds into a fully cinematic orchestra blend. The Doctor tells his story:
“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’ve 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. And I know things. Secrets that must never be told. Knowledge that must never be spoken. Knowledge that will make parasite gods blaze! So come on, then! Take it! Take it all, baby! Have it! You have it all!”
This is some fantastic writing and even better acting by Matt Smith. Smith has always been a genuinely charismatic screen presence, enjoyable to watch, highly capable and masters rapport with each new character but it’s rare as of late that we’ve been privy to see him test his acting limits and boy, am I glad they chose this episode to be the one. When given the right material Matt Smith can turn out a phenomenal performance. It isn’t often that we’re treated to the Doctor mentioning his past, the Time War is a particular doozey, and his history of loneliness coupled with the score and the acting was chill-inducing.
It was an episode that employed the notion of the Doctor being an old being, an alien out of place and out of time who’s seen too much life and at the same time not enough. His speech is tearful and full of regrets and he tries and narrates a life too complicated to fully justify in one monologue.
Add in Clara who gets her own heroic moment to save the Doctor and sacrifices one more story to fill the beast up—her parent’s leaf, a token of love and loss and what could have been and finally the monster is subdued. Jenna Louise-Coleman played this scene wonderfully and seeing the two silhouetted against the planet-sized god worked well into their own narratives.
The reason this episode works so well is because it is quintessential Doctor Who. It was about standing up for what’s right, fighting against seemingly unbeatable odds. It’s about loving people and using their lessons as a means of survival, sacrificing your own personhood for the betterment of the future, and what loss can reap upon the survivors.
It ends with the Doctor promising to see no ghosts in Clara: just her, and that’s the way it should be because the two make quite an astonishing pair all on their own.