This episode by Neil Cross is a welcome change from the enjoyable, but bloated, The Bells of Saint John. A proper alien location and much more focused. Touch of the Bondian theme in the business with the moped that nicely mocked the grandiosity of the previous episode. I’ll be looking out for a motorcycle/moped motif in the next one. Enjoyed the market, which is fast challenging the ubiquitous quarry in the classic series for favourite location, and loved the chocolate box selection of brilliant, unique aliens. As a nod to the 50th anniversary year, the Doctor reveals that he once visited the Seven Planets with his granddaughter. So that would be the original William Hartnell Doctor, with Susan.
This week we got a closer look at Clara’s past, with the Doctor becoming even more stalkerish, and investigating Clara’s parents in an attempt to solve the mystery of her apparent regeneration. The leaf on the first page of her book, 101 Places to See, is explained as the leaf that blew across her future dad’s face and almost got him run over in 1981, only to be saved by Clara’s future mum. Lovely scene, that. But the Doctor is no closer to solving the mystery – “She’s not possible” – and Clara explicitly warns him off: “I’m not a bargain basement stand-in for someone else. I’m not going to compete with a ghost.”
The Rings of Akhaten is all about stories and memories, which the Doctor equates with the souls the Old God wants to eat. One of best monsters yet, a stellar vampire feeding off the lives of those on the Seven Planets, who have evolved a religion where it’s sung to sleep by the choristers and the Queen of Years. To make Mary a child, lost and afraid like Clara was at Blackpool, comforted by Clara as an adult as she was by her mum, ties their stories together in a very satisfying way. Even the local currency is psychometric, any object of emotional significance that’s laden with stories.
But stories are more than about what’s actually happened, they’re also about what might have happened. As the Doctor says, “There’s an awful lot of one and an infinity of the other. And infinity’s too much.” This is what destroys the Old God. Clara, never one to walk away, goes to the Doctor’s rescue after the Old God drains him dry of his Time Lord memories. Her weapon is the leaf that brought her parents together, which also contains the life that might have been if her mum hadn’t died. Clara’s infinite yearnings are there, so many they can buy salvation from the monster who’s been holding the population in fear for millennia. A thoroughly satisfying way of defeating the Old God, much more so than anything the Doctor could have done with a sonic screwdriver or a spot of timey-wimey jiggery-pokery.
This episode is saying something interesting and paradoxical about religion. On the one hand, the Old God is a “parasite,” compelling worship in case it should wake and drink their souls. Yet the religion that evolves around it is extremely beautiful. The music is glorious, and the feeling in the arena one of awe and wonder. I think Moffat and Neil Cross want us to recognise the cognitive dissonance and think on.
There’s also an echo of the Great Intelligence from last week’s episode, a being who craves minds stuffed with stories, its food source being the social media. While the Great Intelligence is also a vampire, the festivals of offering it feeds on are rather more tawdry.
This is grown-up writing. I want to see more of Neil Cross’ work.