Here’s the next installment in my li’l series exploring every companion’s first trip with the Doctor! The idea of the first trip on Doctor Who fascinates me. Not the first time a companion meets the Doctor, when they get caught up in the wake of adventure, danger, and world-saving. But rather the first trip they willingly take in the TARDIS after the Doctor invites them to travel with them through all of time and space. What type of person says “yes”? Where do they go? What does the journey reveal and how does it affect them? After helping the Doctor (Matt Smith) stop the Great Intelligence from harvesting human consciousnesses, Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) responds to his invitation by saying, “Come back tomorrow. Ask me again.” When the Doctor asks why, she says, “Because tomorrow I might say yes. Sometime after 7:00 ok for you?” In “The Rings of Akhaten” (S7E7) the Doctor returns and they journey to the inhabited rings of the planet Akhaten in the distant future to wander their lively bazaar and attend an ancient religious festival.
I need to say something about “The Rings of Akhaten” at the start.
Before I do, I want to be clear about another point. I love Doctor Who. Many episodes of Doctor Who make me cry at their beauty or their tragedy or both. If I lived in a terrible dystopian world where I had to chose only one fictional universe to experience for the rest of my life, I’d pick Doctor Who. I’d leave behind Marvel and Star Wars and Ghostbusters and DC and everything else for the Doctor. There is no other story, no other piece of art – no novel, no comic, no song, no album, no movie, no TV series, no anything – that means more to me than Doctor Who or moves more within me than Doctor Who does. So, keep that in mind when I say…
“The Rings of Akhaten” is one of the single most beautiful episodes of Doctor Who I’ve ever seen.
I love it. I sob every time I watch it. I’m not talking a few tears either. It’s the if-I-have-my-glasses-on-I-need-to-pause-the-show-to-wipe-them-clean-after sort of crying. It’s so beautiful! It captures both the Doctor and Clara’s character so vividly and it does what Doctor Who does best – lift your heart and fill your soul :).
To that end, this episode says so much about divinity and religion and our relationship to God (and what we understand God to be). But right now, in this moment, I want to reflect on what it says about us.
The episode begins with the Doctor filling the time (as much as the phrase applies to someone with a literal time machine) before he picks Clara up by journeying through Clara’s life, going back to when her parents first met and watching through the point where Clara buries her mother eight years before she meets the Doctor. The Doctor does this not to be creepy (although, to be fair, it kind of is all the same) but because he’s trying to sort the mystery around her identity. Before meeting her in 2013 after she inexplicably calls the TARDIS, the Doctor met a woman named Oswin Oswald on the Dalek Asylum planet. Then, in London in 1892, the Doctor meets a young barmaid/governess also named Clara Oswald with whom he faces the Great Intelligence when it first arrived on Earth. Both women resemble the Clara Oswald he meets in 2013, even though that’s impossible.
With no answers, the Doctor abandons his trip through her past and goes to pick Clara up, as requested, the next night after 7:00. The wheezing of the TARDIS lets Clara know the Doctor’s arrived and, once onboard, Clara begins asking questions.
Clara – “So we’re movin’? Through actual time? [laughs] So what’s it made of? Time? I mean if you can just row it through it, it’s got to be made of stuff like jam’s made of strawberries so what’s it made of?”
The Doctor – “Well strawberries, no. No, no, no, that would be unacceptable.”
Clara – “And we can go anywhere?”
The Doctor – “Within reason. Well, I say ‘reason’…”
Clara – “So we could go backwards in time?”
The Doctor – “And space, yes.”
Clara – “And forwards in time.”
The Doctor – “And space, totally. So, where do you wanna go, hey? What do you wanna see?”
Clara – “……..I dunno. Do you know when somebody asks you what’s your favorite book and straightaway you forget every single book that you’ve ever read.”
The Doctor – “No, totally not.”
Clara – “Well it’s a thing that happens.”
The Doctor – “And? Back to the question.”
Clara – “Ok, so, so, so, so, I’d like to see, I would like to see, what I would like to see is…..[big smile] somethin’ awesome.”
I really love this scene because it feels so real. Can you imagine having this choice before you? I mean can you imagine really having this choice before you? You can go anywhere in time or space. Where would you go?? How do you even begin to choose?? I have spent a lot of time turning this question over in my mind. There is a good chance freezing and then asking to see “somethin’ awesome” would be where I’d end up. I mean, I struggle sometimes to pick what I want when I go for ice cream because there are so many delicious options and this would be choosing what I wanted to see first in all of time and space. So yeah, I may well end up echoing Clara ;D.
Seeking “somethin’ awesome,” the Doctor materializes the TARDIS on the rings around the planet Akhaten. Specifically they land on Tiaanamat, the largest piece of ore in the outer ring of the asteroid belt. The Doctor guides Clara outside the TARDIS’ doors with her eyes closed before inviting her to open them, telling her she is basking in the light of an alien star. Tiaanamat is inhabited by many species from across the universe and the Doctor and Clara are soon walking through Tiaanamat’s lively bazaar. Excitedly the Doctor tells her, “Do you know, I forget how much I like it here. We should come here more often.” Clara asks, “You’ve been here before?” The Doctor tells her, “Yes, yes, yes. I came here a long time ago with my granddaughter.”
The shock on Clara’s face is evident, and it underscores how little she knows about the Doctor, though it’s quickly buried beneath the sensory overload of seeing dozens of alien species purchasing all manner of goods around her at what feels like a breakneck pace for someone unfamiliar with it all. Interestingly, Clara can only understand some of the species in the market. The TARDIS’ telepathic circuit isn’t working, or at least not in full. While it’s never confirmed in the show, I’d guess (and, as a quick bit o’ googling confirms, TARDIS Data Core: The Doctor Who Wiki offers the same theory) it’s because the TARDIS “doesn’t like” Clara and it may be doing what it can to make her uncomfortable and less likely to travel with the Doctor. To this end, the only species she can understand are the most humanoid of beings in the bazaar.
On that note, Clara soon meets Merry Gejelh (Emilia Jones), a young girl who appears to be running away. Clara puts Merry at ease with genuine care and concern, and Merry tells Clara she is afraid. She is the Queen of Years. Since birth she has learned every story, poem, legend, and song of her culture. Now, at the Festival of Offerings, it’s her job to sing the Old God back to sleep with the song of her people but she fears she’ll mess it up. Instinctively engaging her compassionate caretaker part, Clara makes Merry feel safe and heard. She listens to Merry. She validates Merry and empathizes with her. She tells Merry of her own fear of being lost when she was young and how she survived it happening. Merry relaxes and, with the confidence and security Clara gave her, walks with Clara back to the choristers in red robes who have been looking for her for the ceremony.
The Doctor and Clara go to the ceremony, watching as Merry begins singing the Long Song. The crowd begins to join her singing, holding up items of sentimental value, offerings to feed the Old God. It’s all very beautiful…until the Old God begins to wake and an arm of golden energy pulls Merry from her platform across space to the Pyramid of the Rings of Akhaten, the holy site where the Old God rests and the Sun-singers of Akhet have sang this endless song, in an unceasing rotation, for generations.
With Merry screaming for help, Clara cries out, “Is somebody going to do something? Excuse me, is somebody going to help her?” Following the Doctor as he strides back to the bazaar she asks, “Why are we walking away? We can’t just walk away. This is my fault! I talked her into doing this.” The Doctor turns, holds her in his gaze, and tells her, “Listen. There’s one thing you need to know about travelling with me. Well, one thing apart from the blue box and the two hearts. We don’t walk away.”
Renting a space moped, the Doctor and Clara get to the asteroid with the Pyramid of the Rings of Akhaten. Once inside the temple, they find a terrified Merry who refuses to leave with them. When Clara tries to reassure Merry she didn’t get the song wrong Merry says, “How do you know? You don’t know anything! You have to go! Go now, or he’ll eat us all!” Merry tells Clara the Old God will eat their souls and warns, “He doesn’t want you. He wants me. If you don’t leave, he’ll eat you all up too.” The Doctor echoes Clara, telling Merry she did nothing wrong.
The Doctor – “He’s waking because it’s his time to wake and feed, [to Merry] on you apparently, on your story.”
Clara – “She didn’t say ‘stories,’ she said ‘souls.’”
The Doctor – “Same thing. The song’s made of stories, not actions. Everything that ever happened to us – people we loved, people we lost…people we found again against all the odds. He threatens to wake, they offer him a pure soul, the soul of the Queen of Years.”
Clara – “Stop it. You’re scaring her.”
The Doctor – “Good. She should be scared. She’s sacrificing herself she should know what that means. Do you know what it means, Mary?”
Mary – [frightened] “A god chose me.”
The Doctor – “It’s not a god. It’ll feed on your soul but that doesn’t make it a god. It is a vampire, and you don’t need to give yourself to him. Hey! Do you mind if I tell you a story, one you might not have heard? All of the elements in your body were forged many, many, many millions of years ago in the heart of a far away star and it exploded and died. That explosion scattered those elements across the desolation of deep space after so, so many millions of years, these elements came together to form new elements and new stars and new planets and on and on it went. The elements came together and burst apart forming shoes and ships and sealing-wax and cabbages and kings until, eventually, they came together to make you. You are unique in the universe. There is only one Merry Gejelh. And there will never be another. Getting rid of that existence isn’t a sacrifice. [to the creature] It is a waste.”
Mary – “So, if I don’t, then everyone else…”
The Doctor – “Will be fine.”
Mary – “How?”
The Doctor – “There’s always a way.”
Mary – “You promise?”
The Doctor – “Cross my hearts.”
I love this! I love this theology! What are our souls? Our souls are our stories – everything that’s ever happened to us, all the people we’ve loved, all the people we’ve lost, and the people we found again against all the odds. Traditionally we think of our souls as the spark of the Divine within us and, in this light, the beauty only multiples. What are our souls? What part of us is divine? At what intersection within ourselves do we touch God? Our stories – everything that’s ever happened to us, all the people we’ve loved, lost, and found again against all odds.
When I watch this episode the tears are normally starting to form by this point. I’m not sobbing or even crying outright yet, but my eyes are wet. This speech invites me to turn inward. It leads me to think of my own story – my own soul – everything that’s ever happened to me, all the people I’ve loved, all the people I’ve lost, and the people I found again against all the odds. Each and every one of those people, each and every one of those relationships, each and every little thing that’s ever happened to me is a gift. Within that web is where I find the Divine. Within that web is my soul. It’s my story. It is my song.
The Doctor doesn’t stop there. He tells Merry a new story. He assures her of her absolute and utter uniqueness in the history of the universe. Millions and millions of years of stars exploding and elements forming and the Doctor tells Merry, “they came together to make you. You are unique in the universe. There is only one Merry Gejelh. And there will never be another.” This, too, is true of all of us. It’s another invitation to turn inward and realize there is only one me just as there is only one you, dear reader. There will never be another. And our stories, our souls, and everything that fills them is unique across the millions and millions of years of cosmic history.
Outside the Pyramid, as the fiery star that is Akhaten begins to stir, the Doctor tells Clara and Merry it’s time to leave. Clara asks, “What about that stuff you said? We don’t walk away.” The Doctor says, “No, we don’t walk away. But when we are holding on to something precious [looking to Mary whose hand is in Clara’s and then back to Clara] we run. We run and run fast as we can and we don’t stop running until we are out from under the shadow. Now, off you pop. Take the moped. I’ll walk.” The episode has already invited the viewer to consider the beautiful depth of our stories and all the people we’ve loved, lost, and found again. Now it invites us to think of what is most precious to us. With whom do we hold onto and run fast as we can, not stopping until we are out from under the shadow? When do we stand and fight the shadow? And with whom do we run to protect? Who and what in our life is worth fighting for and who and what is worth running for?
As Clara and Merry fly back to the safety of Tiaanamat, the Doctor stands before the writhing fiery form of Akhaten and offers the parasitic force his story, his soul in exchange for Merry and the story of her people. By this point in the episode I am sobbing hard enough that it becomes hard to see the screen :). It’s so beautiful! It’s so powerful! And I don’t know that there’s a single better speech that captures how it feels to be the Doctor than what the Doctor tells Akhaten.
I don’t normally do this. I always like to type the dialogue I’m discussing, even if I offer a video clip, as I like to give readers the choice (and I often skip videos when I’m reading an article). But the clip is only 3:53 and there’s no way reading the words can come close to creating what happens when you hear Matt Smith deliver the lines while Emilia Jones sings her new song of hope with Clara by her side, as the people of Tiaanamat begin to sing with her and the score swells in the background. If you’ve not seen it, I suggest you to watch it. You can just read on if you like :). But I suggest you watch it all the same.
This would’ve been an incredible ending. I’m already weeping. The story has said so much and said it all so beautifully. But it doesn’t end there. The Doctor’s sacrifice – all of the memories of the last Time Lord, the Doctor’s story, the Doctor’s soul – isn’t enough to sate Akhaten. The parasitic god still hungers, as the Doctor drops to his knees. In this moment Clara returns, holding 101 Places to See, a book which once belonged to her mother. Ellie gave the book to Clara and they read it together often when she was young. Inside the cover is a leaf, the leaf which was responsible for Ellie meeting Clara’s father, Dave, which she always told Clara was the book’s “first page” as that’s where her journey began. With the book in hand, she looks up at Akhaten with a smile on her face.
Clara – “Still hungry? Well I brought something for you. This [pulls the leaf from the book], the most important leaf in human history. [smiling] The most important leaf in human history. It’s full of stories. Full of history. And full of a future that never got lived. Days that should’ve been that never were, passed on to me. This leaf isn’t just the past, it’s a whole future that never happened. There are millions and millions of unlived days for every day we live – an infinity – all the days that never came. And these are all my mum’s.”
The Doctor – “Well? C’mon then, eat up. [Akhaten balks] Are you full? I expect so. Because there’s quite the difference, isn’t there, between what was and what should’ve been. There’s an awful lot of one but there’s an infinity of the other. And infinity’s too much, even for your appetite.”
Akhaten implodes. The people are safe. Ultimately, it was Clara who saved the day by offering all the potential her mother’s story held. Look at this. Look at what this show is saying.
Our stories are our souls, our song. Our stories are everything that’s ever happened to us, all the people we’ve loved, all the people we’ve lost, and the people we found again against all the odds. And the potential our stories hold – the story of any regular ol’ human being – is greater than the sum total of the last of the Time Lords’ memories. Our stories hold infinite potential. The Doctor, our brilliant, bold, fearless, nigh-immortal hero who willingly sacrifices his story to stop the vampiric Akhaten, pales in comparison to the infinite potential a human life holds.
Doctor Who showed us somethin’ awesome indeed, and we are left marveling at our own beautiful infinity.
I’ve wanted to write about this episode, my favorite of all the first trip episodes, for some time. Why did I finally do so today? Well, today’s my birthday :). And I couldn’t think of a better way to mark it than thinking about this.
It’s also worth mentioning, on your birthday you get a wish. So my birthday wish is for you, dear reader, to take a few moments to celebrate your story. Bask in the beautiful sound of your own Long Song, the song of your soul. Be mindful and thankful for the people you’ve loved, the people you’ve lost, and the people you found again against all odds. With a few deep, centering breaths, offer this grateful energy up, let it flow out into the universe for those you’ve loved and maybe give one or two of them a call and tell them you love them. That’s my birthday wish :).
Thank you for reading this piece, for sharing this moment of my birthday with me. Your soul, your story, your song is beautiful and, because we all need to hear it more often, please know, even if we’ve never meet or conversed in any way, I love you.
Want more of my li’l series exploring every companion’s first trip on Doctor Who? Well you’re in luck! Check out:
“Fancy a Trip in the Box?” – Considering the TARDIS and Each Companion’s First Trip for a look at what exactly the TARDIS is, how it works, and a brief summary of every companion’s first trip with the Doctor. It also considered what it would mean to say “yes” to the Doctor’s invitation and where you’d go if you had the chance.
Rose Tyler and the Doctor: Bonding at the End of the World explores “The End of the World” (S1E2) where the Doctor takes Rose five billion years into the future to see the last day of the Earth. This journey says so much about the Doctor’s emotional state and how Rose responds to their trip reveals much about who she is and why the Doctor needs her.
 Her mother’s tombstone reads, “Born 11th September 1960” and “Died 5th March 2005.” Doctor Who’s pilot when the series returned, “Rose,” aired in March of 2005. A little bit of googling revealed an interesting yet unconfirmed fan theory that Ellie, Clara’s mother, died in the Auton attack the Ninth Doctor and Rose have to stop.
 I did a lot of googling to be sure it was, in fact, Emilia Jones who sang the Long Song. And it was! According to The Golden Throats Wiki, which is a thing, “Jones made her singing debut as the Young Fiona in Shrek the Musical and sang ‘The Long Song’ in Doctor Who, during which she plays The Queen of Years.” If you’d like to see the article yourself you can click here: https://goldenthroats.fandom.com/wiki/Emilia_Jones#:~:text=Jones%20made%20her%20singing%20debut,plays%20The%20Queen%20of%20Years.