Sunday, April 7, 2013

Souls Made of Stories - Review of "The Rings of Akhaten"

Takes on a bit more meaning now, doesn't it?
Spoilers for "The Rings of Akhaten" below the poem (Happy Poetry Month, by the way).

“If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good help to you nevertheless
And filter and fiber your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop some where waiting for you”
 ― Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

This will be an episode of Doctor Who that I will keep going back to over and over again.

I was completely prepared to do the fangirl-flail review of "The Rings of Akhaten."  I mean, after the Doctor said he'd been to Akhaten with his granddaughter, I had to pause the episode for about five minutes while I did this seal-hand-flappy-thing I do when something really excites me (my baby sister does the same thing - that's beside the point).

But I kept watching.  And I realized that "The Rings of Akhaten" is much more than just the Doctor taking his new companion off on grand adventures through time and space.  It's also about discovering who you are, what makes you up, the people that create you along the way - the memories you carry and the things that hold the most value to you.  It's almost to the emotional level of "The Fires of Pompeii" - but in a drastically different way.

The cold open should have been a clue - when Clara's dad talks about how this exact leaf had to grow in that exact place, etc. so he could meet Clara's mum.  Stuff like that resonates with me and I certainly made note of it (maybe to put on a plaque or something one day).

I loved Clara's interaction with Merry Gal-El (quite the Kryptonian name, you think?)  At first, I was annoyed that the Doctor took off and left Clara to her own devices.  But it seems Clara can take care of herself.  She's confident, though not so confident that she doesn't need the Doctor at all (maybe confident isn't the right word - competent?  Yeah. I like that one).  I loved that Clara immediately reached out to a young girl and becomes a sort-of mentor to her.  Maybe it's my own penchant for working with kids, but I love stuff like that - Clara doesn't even think about it.  There's a child in trouble and she immediately tries to help - not just try to find the girl's parents, but also to help her understand her fears and to cope with them.  Granted, I've never had to help a young queen get up the courage to sing a lullaby for a parasitical ball of gas that feeds on soul and memory - but the intent is certainly there.  And it's fitting that she took Mary back to the TARDIS and that's where she told her story about getting lost and what her mother taught her.  Even the image of the blue box alongside the scene of Clara telling a story creates a poignancy that's very meta (and I hope I'm using that term correctly, but with all the speculation that Clara is a physical manifestation of Doctor Who the show/franchise in this anniversary year, it think it's appropriate)

The Doctor teaching (more or less) Clara how things are done on Team TARDIS - "We never walk away."  But sometimes, we run.  Or - the companion runs and is expected to let the Doctor handle it.  Except that the Doctor only takes the very best and the very best would never leave him (or anyone else) behind.

Also - the people of Akhaten giving Clara back her mother's ring.  So many times we have the Doctor being thanked or honored in some way.  But for once - it was the companion who saved everyone and it was the companion who was thanked.

And then... the ending.

I almost don't want to hear any of the podcasters nitpick over this scientific impossibility or that little detail  as they review this episode (though I certainly will listen).  Because this kind of story takes on... a lot of meaning, I think.  Something very different.  Something very special that doesn't come along every day.  I could just chalk it up to Matt Smith's performance because - oh boy - he gave that scene hell and came back 'round to bake it cookies.  I could even give equal - if not more - credit to Jenna-Louise Coleman for her part in that scene because there was a moment where I thought I was actually listening to a female version of the Doctor give her speech.  Moments of memory lost - things that should have been but weren't - an infinity of possibility taken away.

All that from one leaf that should be crumbled up into dust by now, but isn't.  Probably held together by memory and love.

The more I watch Doctor Who, the more I find myself in it.  I don't ever go looking for it.  That's not even why I started watching it in the first place.  I just wanted something entertaining and mindless to enjoy.  And maybe it's how my brain works - maybe I'm predisposed to finding these deep and soul-searching meanings in shows (though for the life of me, I can't think of another one I've done this with).  I know I talk a lot about this, but Doctor Who is something entirely special to me.  Something that I've learned from and has been there for me in times of terrible darkness and times of unadulterated joy.  And the little cynic in my head keeps going "Are you batshit insane?? It's a stupid TV show!!!"  But then, the emotional, sentimental side of me whacks the cynic with a broom and locks it back in the cupboard where it belongs.

Stories define us.  Memories define us.  They define us mere mortals just as much as they define thousand-year-old Time Lords.  They are precious and ought to be treated as such (and they often are).  Sadness, joy, pain, pleasure, love, hate, friendship, enemies, anger, giddiness, confusion, knowledge, birth, death  - all those dichotomies.  They make up the purpose of life and existence and being here.  These are things I've been taught all my life and I feel the truth of that every single day of my life.  To have it communicated in a television show - almost boggles my mind.  But, just like Clara's dad, I also know that there are reasons for the way things happen.  And none of it is coincidence.  You have to grow in exactly the right spot to have exactly the right experiences and meet exactly the right people.

I wish I could give words to what I'm thinking and feeling right now.  I wish there was a way to show how deeply these ideas and emotions run.  But I also know that human language is limited.  Which is probably why music featured so strongly and so beautifully in this episode.  Where words fail, music carries the day.

In the end - Clara's mother's promise to her is something that Clara wants to pay forward to someone else she cares about.  She comes to care about Merry Gal-El through the course of the episode.  But she also cares about the Doctor.  Because the story of the memory of the day Clara got lost at Blackpool Beach is ultimately what ended up saving the day, it seems appropriate to end on this bit of verse from Leaves of Grass -

“I will You, in all, Myself, with promise to never desert you,
To which I sign my name.”
― Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

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