Autumn leaves skitter and stop on a quiet suburban street. Without warning, they begin to glow, transmitting their unholy messages of terror to the residents of a quaint English town. ONLY THE DOCTOR CAN SAVE US FROM THE EVIL LEAVES! Wait, this episode isn't about ordinary objects turning out to be evil aliens from another dimension? Oh, my God, is this even an episode of Doctor Who? There's just some dude in a suit and tie looking lost, not like "from another dimension" lost, but regular lost. A leaf smacks him in the face, and a pretty lady in 1980s denim saves him from certain death by motorcar. The Doctor creepily looks on from behind a comic book.
Then the couple is mooning over the face-smacking leaf, which has suddenly become "the most important leaf in human history" due to its power to bring the couple together. The Doctor looks on, all creepy-like in the rain. It's apparent he's checking in on Clara Oswald's backstory. We fortunately skip the conception bit and go straight to toddling with Clara, reading with Clara, meeting Clara in the park and smacking the Doctor in the head with a soccer ball. Then some years later, the Doctor watches grown-up Clara mourning her mother in a cemetery. The Doctor returns to the TARDIS and declares Clara "not possible." Have you not been watching this show, Doctor? If it isn't possible, then it (a) exists and (b) probably has a crush on you.
Credits time! When we get back from the new wibbly-wobbly sequence, we find Clara where we left her in "The Bells of St. John," waiting to begin her adventures, book of 101 Places to See in hand. Clara asks what time is made of, like "jam is made of strawberries." The Doctor reassures her that time is not made of strawberries and asks her where she wants to go. After a lot of hemming and hawing, she does what every companion does -- she asks to go someplace awesome. Really? She's sitting there with a book that literally has 101 ideas for travel destinations, and all she can think of is "something awesome." Not impressive, Clara.
Fortunately, the Doctor is much less critical of indecisive companions, and brings her to the Rings of Akhaten, which look like asteroids but are actually "planets" orbiting a large red sun. One such planet holds a pyramid, a holy site for all seven worlds in the rings. Clara wants a closer look, so the pair jet off in the TARDIS to Babylon 5 -- I mean, a large marketplace full of aliens. The Doctor says he's been here before "with his granddaughter" -- a cute little shoutout for those who remember the first Doctor. But we've gotta get on with the plot here. It's festival time, and everyone is in town to check it out. Clara and the Doctor consider trading a precious item for a motor scooter, and then Clara proceeds to get lost and run into a little girl (shades of "The Beast Below," anyone?). The little girl is on the run from scarlet-hooded figures AND a bunch of creepy skull-helmeted dudes. The girl is Mary Gillel, "The Queen of Years," and she doesn't want to sing a song in front of a bunch of people. Clara uses her governess superpower to buck up her confidence, and then it's off to a big amphitheater for a very special episode of Akhaten's Got Talent.
Mary must sing her people's god (a nasty-looking dude in a box) back to sleep -- but something goes wrong. Suddenly he starts to wake, and tractor-beams Mary toward the temple. The Doctor springs into action, giving Clara the ol' "We don't walk away" speech before they use Clara's mother’s ring to rent a scooter and fly across the rings to save Mary and presumably all of Akhaten. Let's pause for a minute: The Doctor just spent five minutes out of 43 explaining to Clara that he flies in a box through time and space -- and last week we learned he keeps an anti-gravity motorbike in the TARDIS garage. Why, then, does Clara have to give up something precious so they can rent a car? If you went on a road trip with your best friend, and when you got to Yosemite she was like, "Actually, let's ditch my awesome Land Rover and you can pay $500 to get us a Segway instead," you'd probably say, "Get back in the damn Land Rover and drive, you moron!" But I guess that moment hasn't arrived yet for Clara, because she hands over the ring and they're off to the temple.
The Doctor uses the power of technobabble together with the sonic screwdriver to open the door to the temple, where Mary and a red-hooded, chanting monk are waiting for the god to wake up. Mary won't leave the temple, because she thinks she's responsible for waking up the angry god. She pins Clara to the wall using unexplained psychic powers (in purple!). The Doctor tells the monk that the "song is over," he beams away (he doesn't need to rent a moped, apparently). According to the Doctor, this is the god's "time to wake up" -- and he isn't a god after all, but a nasty vampiric monster. In fact, the Doctor chooses this moment to give Mary the lecture on the Big Bang she never got in Akhaten Parochial School. Take that, creationism!
Mary chooses not to sacrifice herself to the god, and the Doctor crosses his hearts that he'll help her find a way out. The scary skull guys show up to beat up the Doctor and Clara, and take Mary away. The Doctor uses the sonic screwdriver a-la-Harry Potter to hold them off, while Clara and Mary escape through a back door. The monster-in-a-box breaks free, the evil skull guys disappear, and it turns out that the actual god is not the monster-in-a-box, but his buddy the roiling red sun. You guys, the sun HAS A FACE! Because being red and on fire wasn't enough to demonstrate that he has big angry awake feelings.
Then things get … Moffaty. Mary and Clara escape back to the amphitheater, where everyone is still hanging out, not panicking at all. Mary leads everyone in a song to "help" the Doctor. The Doctor starts talking about … feelings (?) and stories (?) and some other gushy stuff, and then … he offers to sacrifice himself! He's full of precious memories and feelings and uniqueness! He's the last Time Lord, people! Even Matt Smith's wigging out isn't enough for this silent god-star-thing, so Clara offers it her precious family leaf because "what should have been" is greater than "what was." For some reason that makes the god all self-implodey and saves Akhaten (though how the seven worlds will stay in orbit with no sun is left unexplained).
The Doctor brings Clara back home, where she figures out that he was hanging out at her mom's grave. The Doctor says Clara "reminds her of someone who died." Clara doesn't want to be a "bargain-basement stand-in for someone else." Companions: always jealous of each other -- or themselves, in Clara's case. The Akhatenese are so delighted with the world-saving that went on this episode that they give Clara back her mom's ring (someone needs to Google the word "sacrifice" on this show). The Doctor promises that from now on there is Clara "and no one else" on his mind.
- Well, things could always be worse.
- No, really, they could have been: The Doctor might have had to sing his life story to the god-star-thing. In rhymed couplets. So at least we were spared that embarrassment.
- What was this episode about? Gods are bad for your self-esteem? Little girls are made of sugar and spice and their world's whole cultural heritage -- so please don't sacrifice them to monsters? I still haven't figured it out.
- The plot holes in this episode were so wide you could drive the TARDIS, an anti-gravity motorcycle AND that stupid interstellar Moped through them side-by-side. Mary uses her purple Clara-pinning powers exactly once, and with no explanation. The skull-helmet men look cool, but have no real purpose other than as a speed bump to the ultimate Doctor vs. star showdown.
- The Doctor can't throw himself, his soul, his memories, his last-of-the-Time Lordiness in the face of absolutely every baddie in the universe and expect us to get all weepy-eyed every time. In this episode, the trope is taken to a whole other level of stupid - the Doctor's "sacrifice" doesn't seem to involve anything more than getting tickled by the star-god, and Clara's involves burning up a leaf and letting an alien borrow her mom's ring for 40 minutes.
- We're on Clara's fourth appearance in a Doctor Who episode. It's time to stop introducing her character. It's traditional to give a companion a few episodes to settle in, and learn the rules of TARDIS travel, but that made a heck of a lot more sense when it was hard to come by old episodes. I'd much rather see a companion jump in head-first, and let confused fans backtrack to old episodes on Netflix.
- So who is Clara Oswin Oswald? There was a lot of chatter this episode about being "the only one" in the universe, a totally unique being. Is it possible that Clara isn't unique at all - that in some wibbly-wobbly fashion she has come in to being not once, but three times? Is she a clone? Neil Gaiman is has been touting his upcoming Cybermen episode - Clara could be a thrice-built robot sent to spy on the Doctor.
Next week, the Doctor and Clara visit a nuclear sub, and bottle-episode chaos ensues.