Right from the outset of this story with montage of scenes depicting the relationship between Clara’s parents, this is a tale where the central narrative is about the power of a person’s memories along with how they have a part to play in building the present and the future.
The opening sequence serves two purposes. Firstly, it emphasises the Doctor’s curiosity about Clara, something that doesn’t get resolved, even at this story’s conclusion. Secondly, it sets up the significance of the leaf, particularly at the episode’s conclusion, and provide an emphasis behind Clara’s remark at the end of “The Bells of Saint John” of the leaf being Page One of her particular story.
There are certain stories which are what you’d define as the “Companion’s tale”, and this one is very much Clara’s, and Jenna-Louise Coleman’s, first story to truly define Clara as a companion.
The first TARDIS scene shows Clara’s inquisitive side as she asks the Doctor whether time is made out of something, akin to jam being made out of strawberries. In this anniversary year, it could be seen as a nice little counterpoint to Ian’s remark waaayyyyyyy back in 1963 when he challenged the Doctor’s assertion that time can be travelled through.
However, this isn’t the story’s only reference to the Doctor’s past as he tells Clara that he has previously travelled to Akhaten with his his granddaughter, presumably Susan. Now, this is important as it really is the Doctor’s first tangible reference to his family. (I know, we have had references to the fact that the Doctor has been a father, but this is the first time in the new series that he has referenced travelling with s member of his family). I must admit that this reference was a nice little fanboy (or fangirl) moment which is underscored by the reaction shot of Jenna-Louise as if to say, “What did he just say???? Granddaughter????”
Anyway, back to Jenna-Louise’s performance. The first big scene between Clara and Merry is nicely written and acted out with some lovely acting and reacting between both Jenna-Louise and Emilia Jones in the role of Merry, The Queen of Years. This scene really brings home the power of memory as Clara uses her story of being lost on Blackpool Beach, along with the way her mother read to her, to calm Merry’s fears that she would not be able to fulfill her role.
Another aspect of this scene, as we go forward with the remainder of Season Seven, is the mystery behind who Clara is – specifically the TARDIS’s reaction to her by keeping her locked out. Now, on the one hand, it could be a red herring as simple as the Doctor not giving her a key to the TARDIS, but on the other hand, could this be an allergic reaction, of sorts, by The Ship in a similar fashion to her reaction to Jack in the Season Three episode “Utopia”? The conspiracy theorists amongst you can place your bets now).
The majority of the story falls on both Matt and Jenna-Louise’s shoulders, and they are already showing a firm bond, both as actors and characters, with the pair playing off each other to make an emotional dynamic.
The pair really sell the point of the episode’s central theme of memory, loss and looking forward. On the one hand, you have Clara who is more accepting to move forward in her life following the death of her mother, even to the point of handing over two of her most treasured possessions, and with them the memories attached to them. On the other hand, you have the Doctor who is, for the majority of the episode, is reluctant to look back due to the ghosts of his past that are always over his shoulder but is also scared to look forward because of what the nature of Clara’s mystery represents… uncertainty.
In fact, the Doctor only gains a small degree of catharsis when he faces up to the Old God/Grandfather speaking of the pain and burden that he carries with him. It’s sometimes difficult to keep in context, given Matt’s age plus the Doctor’s usage of words such as “cool” and “baby”, that the Doctor is over 1000 years of age and the character has seen a fair bit in the near fifty years that viewers have been travelling with him. Matt’s performance really sells the weight of the burden on his shoulders with the losses he has faced and the knowledge and secrets he has to keep. This speech was beautifully played by Matt and reminded me, albeit with greater force of delivery, of David Tennant’s performance in the cafe scene in “The End Of Time” where the Doctor spoke of the possibility of the Time Lord living too long. The speech also serves as a pointed reminder of Dorium’s words at the end of “The Wedding Of River Song”, along with the foreshadowing of “The Fall of the Eleventh”.
Now, I want to quickly talk about the parallel between the Doctor and the Old God/Grandfather, because it is a story where the term of Grandfather is featured prominently. On the one hand, you have the Doctor being not only a biological grandfather to Susan, but also, in effect, the Universe’s grandfather to children everywhere, something that it is reiterated in his belief that he and Clara don’t walk away when people are in peril. On the other hand, you have the Old God/Grandfather who expects respect and compliance through sacrifice and fear.
Sacrifice is something that Clara must make to show that it isn’t the pain of lives being lived that people should be concerned about when they grieve, but the sorrow of lives not being lived or being unfulfilled due to them being cut short, but this also leads to the moment of clarity for the character where she berates the Doctor by telling him that she isn’t the substitute for a ghost – whether this means the previous incarnations of Clara or Oswin, or an Am Pond, a Rose Tyler, or even a Susan.
Outside of the main plot strand, I enjoyed Neil Cross’s (creator of Luther) world-building with a system based on societies based on psychometry and music to maintain the status quo, along with the homework that he has put into researching the programme’s history (to the point of including a sneaky reference to the Patrick Troughton story “The Mind Robber” (“Walked in universes where the laws of physics were devised by the mind of a madman”) and the humour that he brings in (loved the communication by barking with Dor’een and the Doctor’s half singing at the handover ceremony which reminded me of someone who didn’t know the words of a hymn at a school assembly).
All in all, this is a story that will split opinion with the surface story being your basic companion travelling to her first alien world story, but if you dig underneath, you will find a pointer to possible future storylines which are as unfathomable as the Doctor’s reaction at the end of the episode.