Summer is coming to an end, and the wind is blowing reddened leaves from the trees. The Doctor reads a brand-new copy of The Beano Summer Special 1981, then looks up to see Dave Oswald trying to flatten out a map. A leaf blows into Dave’s face and he stumbles back – into the path of an oncoming car!
“Oh my stars!” Ellie Ravenwood exclaims, pulling him out of the car’s way. “Are you alright?” Dave’s more than alright now…
A rainy night, and Ellie and Dave shelter under an umbrella, rushing back to Ellie’s house. “So I’ve got something for you,” he tells her and he produces that same leaf. “This exact leaf had to grow in that exact way, in that exact place, so that precise wind could tear it from that precise branch, and make it fly into this exact face at that exact moment. And if just one of those tiny little things had never happened, I’d never have met you. Which makes this the most important leaf in human history.” The Doctor walks away as they share their first kiss.
Dave and Ellie get married and have a baby – and her name is Clara.
And the Doctor finally watches Clara and her Dad, the former clutching a book – 101 Places to See, now owned by Clara, but once owned by her Mum – at Ellie’s funeral.
Back in the TARDIS, he reviews all he’s learned about Clara: “She’s just a girl. How can she be? She can’t be! She is! She can’t be… She’s not possible.”
24-year-old Clara waits in her house, once more holding 101 Places to See. And then there’s the sound of ancient engines…
Clara has no idea where in all of time and space she’d like to go, so the Doctor simply takes her to see something awesome: the Rings of Akhaten. Seven planets orbiting one sun, a star where the Sun-Singers of Akhet believe all life began. “It’s a nice story,” the Doctor concludes.
The TARDIS materialises in the middle of the Festival of Offerings on the asteroid, Tiaanamat, a Festival celebrating the holy period of time when the seven worlds align and the golden pyramid (containing within, the mysterious ‘Grandfather’) shines against the sun.
Clara meets Dor’een, who asks her if she’d like to rent a moped. Clara has no money – but that’s alright. They don’t use money in Akhaten; they use objects with personal, sentimental value as currency. “Psychometry,” the Doctor explains. “Objects psychically imprinted with their history.” Nonetheless, she doesn’t need a moped – yet. Clara marvels at the vast array of aliens all bustling around the Tiaanamat market – Panbabylonians, Lucanians, a Lugal-Irra-Kush, a Hooloovoo, Ceth Luketh, Qom Vo Tivig, a Terraberserker of the Kodion Belt… and she soon loses the Doctor.
But she does stumble into the scared Queen of Years, hiding from those who want to take her to sing to the fabled Old God. The Vigil stalk the corridors, their haunting voices calling out for her. The Queen of Years needs to hide, and Clara knows the perfect box.
But when she gets to the TARDIS, she can’t get in. “I don’t think it likes me!” Clara complains, and the two duck behind the space-time ship to hide instead. Merry Galel – The Queen of Years – explains that she knows every chronicle, every poem, every legend, every song; the vessel of Akhaten’s history. It’s her job to continue the never-ending Long Song, a lullaby designed to keep Grandfather – the Old God – asleep. And she’s, quite simply, scared she’ll get it wrong.
Clara remembers that she used to be afraid of being lost. “It doesn’t matter where you are,” Ellie’s voice echoes in Clara’s head, “in the jungle or the desert or on the moon… However lost you might feel, you’ll never really be lost – not really. Because I will always be here. And I will always come and find you. Every single time.”
Clara leads Merry to the Sun-Singers, and she and the Doctor join a massive congregation.
Lay down, my warrior…
In the pyramid, the role of Chorister passes to Rezh Baphix, who sings to a red-robed mummy: Grandfather, imprisoned in a glass box. Back on Tiaanamat, the Sun-Singers bring Merry out in front of the congregation. She begins to sing, and the pyramid opens up, Baphix singing in harmony with her.
Akhaten… Oh, God of Akhaten…Oh, God of – Oh, God of – Oh, God of Akhaten…
“It’s been going for millions of year, Chorister handing over to Chorister, generation after generation after generation,” the Doctor tells Clara. The congregation hold up gifts of value – sacrifices to the Old God – that fizzle in the air and disappear.
But then the never-ending song ends. Something’s wrong. The pyramid glows and a burst of energy stretches out to Tiaanamat. It encapsulates Merry and drags her through space. None of the crowd do anything – this is the action of their God, so they daren’t interfere – except the Doctor, who runs off back to the market.
“Why are we walking away?!” Clara yells after him. “We can’t just walk away. This is my fault – I talked her into doing this!”
The Doctor turns back to her: “We don’t walk away.” And he goes to Dor’een, asking to rent the moped. But he has nothing of value – so Clara surrenders a ring of her Mum’s.
They head over to the pyramid on the moped, which Merry has been dragged inside. Just as Grandfather awakens. The door shuts behind them, sealing the Doctor, Clara and Merry inside with the ancient monster. Baphix tries to lull Grandfather back to sleep, but it’s not working – so he teleports out, leaving them to their fate.
As a last resort, the Queen of Years can act as a sacrifice to the Old God, to ease him back to sleep – but she has to surrender her soul, her memories, to do so. The Vigil teleport in to feed Merry to Grandfather, but the Doctor holds them at bay with his sonic. Merry sings another song and a secret exit opens. They escape out – the Vigil disappearing, no longer needed – but too late.
Grandfather smashes his box and lets out a yell. Then collapses, his job done.
The Doctor realises that Grandfather wasn’t the Old God. He was his alarm clock.
The massive planetary gas giant looming over Akhaten awakens, and Merry recalls legends that say the Old God will consume the seven worlds – and continue to eat everything. “Oh my stars,” Clara says, awestruck. Under instructions from the Doctor, she takes Merry on the moped back to Tiaanamat, leaving him to face the Old God.
“Isn’t he frightened?” Merry asks.
“I think he is. I think he’s very frightened,” Clara says.
“I want to help.”
“So do I.”
Merry stands up in front of the congregation again – and sings. Rest now, my warrior. Rest now, my King…
“Okay then,” the Doctor says, hearing her. “That’s what I’ll do. I’ll tell you a story.”
The congregation all joins in, and the overpowering sound is heard all over Akhaten.
“Can you hear them?” the Doctor says to the Old God. “All these people who lived in terror of you and your judgement; all these people whose ancestors devoted themselves, sacrificed themselves to you: can you hear them singing? You like to think you’re a God – but you’re not a God. You’re just a parasite… So – Come on then. Take mine. Take my memories.”
The planet reaches out, gaseous mists wrapping around the Doctor. “I hope you’ve got a big appetite. Because I’ve lived a long life, and I have seen a few things. I walked away from the last great Time War; I mark the passing of the Time Lords; I saw the birth of the universe and I watched as time ran out, moment by moment until nothing remained. No time, no space – just me. I walked in universes where the laws of physics were devised by the minds of a mad man. I watched universe freeze and creations burn. I have seen things you wouldn’t believe. I have lost things you will never understand. And I know things: secrets that must never be told; knowledge that must never be spoken; knowledge that will make parasite God blaze. So come on then! Take it! Take it all, baby! Have it! You have it all!”
But the parasite planet still burns. Suddenly, Clara’s at his side, her Mum’s words – “And I will always come and find you. Every single time” – echoing in her head. She opens 101 Places to See and holds up the most important leaf in human history.
“It’s full of stories; full of history. And full of a future that never got lived,” Clara explains, thinking back to her Mum’s grave. “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.”
The gas picks the leaf apart, disappearing into space and out of Clara’s hand – a life with infinite potential, infinite memories. “An infinity’s too much,” the Doctor says, “even for your appetite.” And the planet implodes.
The TARDIS materialises back on Earth, 2013, and the Doctor gives Clara her Mum’s ring; a present to her from the people of Akhaten for saving their lives. “You – and nobody else, Clara,” the Doctor smiles as she steps out of the TARDIS…
NEXT: “I WILL BLOW THIS SUB UP BEFORE YOU CAN EVEN REACH THAT BUTTON.”