The first proper space adventure is a momentous occasion for any “Doctor Who” companion, and Clara’s request that the Doctor show her “something awesome” paid off in a mostly delightful fashion in “The Rings of Akhaten.”
After last week’s somewhat bumpy third introduction to new co-star Jenna-Louise Coleman, this week’s installment wasted little time sending the Doctor and Clara off on a life-or-death escapade in a far flung section of the universe. We also learned a bit more about Clara, the Doctor’s obsession with her and that leaf Clara referred to as “page one.”
This was the first “Who” episode written by “Luther” creator Neil Cross and above all showcased a childlike sense of wonder that may have seemed unexpected coming from a man known for dark detective drama. (It’s a little less unexpected if you consider Cross’ work as a co-writer on the recent Guillermo del Toro-produced horror film “Mama,” which involves two young girls bonding with a supernatural being.) In a way, Cross returned “Who” to the wide-eyed, emotion-driven storytelling of previous showrunner Russell T. Davies — as “Akhaten” recalled the Ninth Doctor’s first space adventure with Rose in “The End of the World.”
The approach fit nicely with a story that was very much about unpacking Clara’s past — showing us the romantic story of how her parents met (cue the leaf), revealing that her mother has been dead for seven years (cue the tears), and exposing the Doctor for the time traveling stalker he is (sure, he’s trying to figure out this “impossible girl” but popping in and out of her past is a bit creepy, right?) — as well as establishing how she and the Doctor fit together as a team.
Young actress Emilia Jones’ performance as “Queen of Years” Merry was spot on, and fit nicely into “Who’s” recent tradition of placing children at the center of a story. It also gave us a chance to see Clara’s maternal side take over, nodding to both her current job as a nanny and “The Snowmen’s” Clara the governess. And it nicely underlined how Clara’s strong bond with her mother drives both her instinct to protect Merry and her commitment to come to the Doctor’s rescue. (Clara’s mother’s promise “I will always come and find you, every single time,” feels directly echoed in the Doctor’s “We don’t walk away.”)
When Clara sees the Doctor cross both his hearts and make his promise to Merry, it’s obvious she knows she’s found a good man. Whether or not the Clara/Doctor relationship is destined to be a romantic one or something else, “Rings of Akhaten” feels like an important turning point. We’ll see what develops from here.
Despite a few creepy moments and the thrill of a moped racing through outer space, this wasn’t really an episode packed with action or scares. And some fans will surely grumble about the low-key way Clara and the Doctor defeat the personality-free parasite villain. But the emotional stuff was all aces, and in “Doctor Who” that counts for a lot.
– It’s impossible not to think of the “Star Wars” cantina as the Doctor and Clara are exploring the market, but what’s impressive is how favorably the breadth and imagination of the show’s creature design compares to that cinematic classic. TV, and the “Doctor,” have both come a long way.
– The Doctor casually referencing his granddaughter can’t be a mistake, right? The first Doctor’s granddaughter Susan is a part of “Who” canon, and in this 50th anniversary year (which will even see the broadcast of a TV movie about the creation of the “Doctor Who” series) I expect we’ll have more nods like that to come.
– “Not strawberries. No. No. That would be unacceptable.”
– More details about Clara: She hated history and she’s afraid the TARDIS doesn’t like her. She also insists that whoever the Doctor thinks he’s chasing, that person isn’t her. Think she’s right about that?