DrewBackWhen delves into The Rings Of Akhaten and finds its critique of cults and religion doesn’t quite land.
Before I start: a listener’s Facebook comment reminded me The Rings of Akhaten is some people’s favourite episode – as, surely, is every episode of Doctor Who. And it was crafted with commitment by many talented people, who perhaps didn’t see their ambitions and desires for it fully realized. I say this after originally reviewing this episode in an increasingly drunken, at times anguished haze where I scornfully wrote it off as a product of the series’ B-unit. I felt it wore thin, as characters popped from scene to scene with decreasing regard for continuity or explanation, as effects shots and scenes repeated multiple times, and as the mummy perpetually pounded on the Plexiglas. Regardless, here I’ll aim to be fairer and more respectful, even as I do find more to criticize than revere.
(Our discussions of the religious aspects of this episode in our review run from 1:12:25 to 1:18:30 and from 1:23:20 to 1:37:00. We reached divergent conclusions and have differing interpretations. Add yours below!)
There are 10-year-old girls, and boys, and younger, all over the world who need saving from cults right now. Religious cults. Christian cults. Never mind the superseded Norse gods we discussed; the deity matters naught when people have evil on their minds. Nobody needs to be sacrificed – Jesus died once for all on the cross – and nobody should be coerced into faith, by person or by law, because God knows their hearts (Psalm 139; Luke 10:10–11). Children should indeed be scared out of sacrificing themselves, they should know what it means, their sacrifice would be a waste. And beyond the issue of content lies the further spectre of abuse. There’s no place for civility with any such institution; respect must never be a bar against rescuing those held in subjection ASAP.
And there’s no way I, my religion notwithstanding, could defend the cult depicted here: some bloke sings a duff note and apparently a little scapegoat girl has to pay with her life, because patriarchy. I look forward to the Second Coming; these devotees will do anything to prevent their god waking up. OG’s a false god, a parasitic soul-leech and unambiguously so. My not liking the episode doesn’t mean I have any more tolerance for false gods; it’s just that I think there’s one true one. I’m the guy who responds to that meme of the serene-looking, probably white “face-of-reason” (or occasionally Ricky Gervais) with, “Yes, actually. Thanks for repeating what I’d confess to, only with Blue Steel to back up your sense of superiority.”
Monotheism entails I believe there’s only one fewer false god than the most militant atheist ever to have existed believes. If you’re n, I’m n – 1 (although quite an important 1), but statistically that still puts our apparently divergent thinking in even closer relation than that between chimpanzees and humans genetically. Somehow it’s easy to forget how much we share in common.
And there’s so much to lampoon in religion: hypocrisy, secrecy, suppression, submission, ignorance – Neil Gaiman may yet be chortling away about this story. Jim’s idea from our review appeals, of the episode satirizing religious lip-service and misinterpreting the core tenets of a faith, not understanding it over centuries, hence the believers confuse Grandfather with the Old God and don’t know who the lullaby’s really for. That’d go some way towards explaining the ease with which Merry’s suffocating religious upbringing is clinically dispatched by The Doctor’s Key Stage 2 science lesson. Also, to bring in Smith’s climactic speech, people do live in terror of gods and their judgement. Our own ancestors devoted themselves, sacrificed themselves in the same way. I don’t much fancy going to Hell.
Furthermore, Doc is respectful of proceedings for much of this episode: save for pushing in and grabbing prime seats, he’s the perfect gentleman, a stand-up chap, as Leon literally was in Oxford Community Church a few weeks ago. The Akhaten genesis story comprises, in its entirety, all life in the universe originating on the planet where the pyramid is. Doc says, “Well, it’s what they believe. It’s a nice story.” There’s nothing scornful in Smith’s expression. And he’s been to Planet One, the oldest planet in the universe, in The Pandorica Opens. Later, at the Festival of Offerings, he and Clara share a look not of contempt, but of excitement at what they’re experiencing.
So why would I deal out a 1.1 rating, or presume to take offence at Doctor Who adding another counterfeit creator to the vast pseudo-pantheon? Leon and Jim thought the episode dealt with religion respectfully as far as the circumstances warranted, so there’s evidently more than one valid interpretation. Why would I reject the alternatives? Do I feel threatened, even when I reckon my own religion doesn’t resemble the cult shown here in any way, beyond sharing the most basic religious concepts? Maybe, and I’ll try to set out why. I contest that my frustration with Akhaten arises from a more defensible source than offence: rather, from so nearly being able to agree with it, but in the end having to oppose it. I felt a wedge being forced into the audience, when Doctor Who with a little more charity and nuance could be more inclusive to everyone’s advantage, but chooses another way.
Very little is clear about the cult’s set-up. It’s not obvious what causes the apocalyptic rumbling to start in the temple: is it Merry? An off-note by the chorister? In our review we wondered whether the alarm clock ever can be satisfied so the OG doesn’t come for people… or is it just their souls, or their memories? And if the OG will wake up eventually whatever happens, is their tradition meaningless? Who was the mummy? How on earth did this all begin in the first place? The cultic aspects are made as unattractive, vague, and dull as possible. No value is to be found in any of the content, which was kept well clear of any deeper meaning. Again, it rang bells for Jim, so it may serve a satirical purpose.
I’d contend though that the confusion at the heart of this cult is a help to no one: not the characters, nor the viewers whatever their stripe. This includes definitional ambiguity. You may have noticed I keep calling the Akhaten faith-scheme a cult when the episode only mentions tradition, holy sites, gods, and beliefs. Let’s define a cult so we can go out and dismantle some later. Oxford’s online dictionary offers a few definitions, among them, “A relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or as imposing excessive control over members” and, “A misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular thing.”
Here’s where it gets tricky, where gaps in subjectivity open up that can swallow whole belief systems. A cult seems to be imagined by the etymologists as less than a religion, warped and unreal, hence I view Scientology to be a cult as opposed to my Anglican Christianity, but some wouldn’t dignify my beliefs by allowing any typical distinction between these two. Whatever, The Rings of Akhaten seems to be dealing with, and indeed conflating, both by having an outwardly acceptable religion shielding an inner sacrificial cult – and using neither term in the episode. Some viewers will see a false religion, others just another religion, yet others a cult, and no commentary or guidance is offered. You may find after watching that your brain’s filled in the gap left with whichever term best fits your personal definition.
So already we can say at least that this episode isn’t bridging this difference in the audience. Can this be mere chance? It could be so as not to cause offence by using sensitive words. However, now let me call in something apparently unambiguous: a menacing musical note sounds the very second the choristers arrive in pursuit of Merry.
But the choristers aren’t evil, are they? Aren’t they just cowardly and ineffective? This hinges on another ambiguity. Merry was chosen to be the Queen of Years when she was a baby, the day the last Queen of Years died (so surely the songs, chronicles, etc. are indeed stored on a DVD somewhere). She has to sing a special song to a god in front of everyone, and she’s scared of getting it wrong and making Grandfather angry. No one’s trying to hurt her, she says. But later Merry provides this explanation for the Vigil: “If the Queen of Years is unwilling to be feasted upon, it’s their job to feed her to Grandfather.” So she was always going to be sacrificed and she knew as much. It’s hard to see, then, how her getting the song wrong could have made any difference. Note also, this all comes from the same character, the one on this world most knowledgeable about its history.
At this point, let me propose a heuristic. Either (a) a particular theme has to work consistently within the episode; or (b) it’s supposed to be, by virtue of its ambiguity, reflective of something in our world; or (c) it fails on both levels and we can safely say it’s straight-up nonsense, indulgent authorial brain-dribble made trivial spectacle at best. Surely this holds for all science fiction. From my perspective then, if the episode’s not to be incoherent or meaningless, written by utter amateurs, every false note in this story about a false god and its false religion creates a double negative – a loophole in its argument, overspill that without containment comes to encompass a real-life parallel. Without any work of definition on the episode’s part, such a thematic parallel could span the spectrum from the wackiest cultic bullshit to my God whom I believe is no parasite, but a contributor of stuff for the soul, an edifier.
These are all implicit connections – at no point does the episode mention my God specifically. But I hope my logic is correct in stating that each narrative incongruity in such circumstances creates latitude to cement this divide already present in the audience. A person of faith is given the choice of the episode being crap or a dig in the direction of something they believe, and there are plenty of verbal parallels to back such a suspicion up. Lordy! Oh my stars! A person without faith has these options too, and may enjoy the dig, not perceive it as a dig, or be disinterested. Only I have anything to defend in this scenario, and just look at the lengths to which I’m going.
For me, I see most meaning in Merry’s putting her trust in The Doctor precipitately. As Leon and Jim pointed out, she’s only 10 or 11 years old, yet that doesn’t negate her capacity to respond or deliberate. She can definitely be expected to show some agency, especially if she’s been charged with a whole civilization’s memories and she knows their lives depend on what she says next. She certainly does later on, braving the stage with a new song. Nor do I think The Doctor’s critique can be confined to Merry’s tradition’s genesis story. For her to put her trust in whatever The Doctor decides to do next, over all her inculcation and programming, means not defaulting to some other story or argument from her supposedly immense stock of religious lore, one more applicable to the situation where one god or another is actually either feeding or screaming right in front of them. She could plausibly respond to The Doctor, “Just so, this is what we believe, but we believe life started here, then fanned out across the stars. Let me sing you a weeklong song about it.”
But instead she caves. The narrative demands her religious upbringing must be rejected in its entirety. When there seems to be nothing positive to it (beyond naming the god and trying to keep it asleep), perhaps this isn’t so hard. Where this falls down is right at the end, in a shot shorter than a blink, when Doc and Clara are standing before a vacated solar system now robbed of its energy source. The cult had a purpose all along.
So (a) is out. I’m left with the options of (b) religious beliefs are nothing compared to basic scientific principles, or (c) this was an oversight by someone being slapdash and irresponsible, which isn’t impossible, given the speed with which the director cuts to a shot of the TARDIS landing back home. My suspicion is that (b) pertains, however – and that, without our being given more than two lines of insight into Merry’s religious beliefs, again the expectation is we should supply our own, or what we understand religion to be.
I hope, if nothing else, this justifies why it’s hard for me to like this episode. Broadening this out beyond me though, all the ambiguity may, in a best-case scenario, allow for tracks to be covered and counterarguments to be marshalled, but it’s unhelpful when it comes to teaching anyone anything of use. We’ve encountered cults elsewhere on Who Back When recently, in The Eight Truths. As in that serial, cults need not be religious – they can masquerade under the moniker of self-help groups, like Nxivm. The Eighth Doctor’s companion Lucie Miller received a crash-course in isolation and self-doubt much like the one described here. This portrayal of indoctrination is far more instructive for a viewer than what we get from Akhaten, where Merry abruptly swaps what she’s been told by all the creepy men back home for a new charismatic stranger’s spiel, aided by a little kindness from Clara, who could easily be posing as his recruiter. It’s simply not a good model for critical thinking. Is that why Merry goes for it? I’m not certain that’s what the writers intended.
Nor perhaps did they foresee the sharpness of their caricature dulling its applicability to real-life parallels. Because turning up as polite spectators at a religious service and intervening when it turns into a bloodbath is patently the right thing to do. But real life isn’t so straightforward. Religions and cults aren’t brittle things like what we see here; they persist for decades, centuries, millennia; they have charismatic leaders and defenders; they hide their cruelties expertly; they have strong hierarchies (more than a couple of child-catching choristers, anyway); they appeal to rational people, or they would die. They don’t subsist purely on sublimated ignorance in need of grounding, tempting as that may be to believe. So this episode doesn’t provide any of the tools needed to tackle a cult after all.
The episode ends with Clara protesting she’ll be no bargain-basement stand-in for someone else, picking up Merry’s progression from zeroine to activated heroine, a farmed fish suddenly freed to swim into the cosmic ocean. For this progression to take place, the presumed good of the deluded community is rejected in favour of a new kind of good, one that allows the survival of the individual without requiring her sacrifice or a false god. What then happens to the thousands of suddenly atomized individuals left to drift off into space? The final whip-away from Doc and Clara staring at the dark heart of a newly hollowed-out system perfectly encapsulates the removal of the basis for their continued interaction, meeting the writers’ lack of care for what follows.
There’s no revitalized community, no reintegration once the new song ends and the foe is overthrown. If we were ever given a chance to feel for them, it’d be saddening: the only joy anyone at the Festival experiences comes from their being gathered together. It doesn’t stem from the cult at all, as evinced by their equal enthusiasm for the Long Song and their new song led by Merry. Not that the community qualify as a fine bunch of lads, their only trait being unthinking conformity whether Merry is about to be eaten, has avoided getting eaten, or has fallen in behind their Antichrist. Their inertia is appalling – all another valid point of satire, perhaps. The religious are fine with misattributing some phenomenon to their god’s agency. Yet when science proves otherwise, the cause of their blindness carries on much as before, minimally modified in spite of the knock.
Church services, however, simmer with silent dissidence in my experience. We stand up and sit down at the same times but in the intervening week we’ll discuss the euphemisms a vicar used or dissect the service in any number of ways. My wife and I skipped between two different churches for eight years, rejoicing at the best of both, gritting our teeth at the worst, and never able to fully settle. Just because we’re on sacred ground doesn’t mean we turn off our minds. And detaching any hint of kindness from the congregants and limiting it to Doc and Clara is the worst kind of partisanship, division from religion its only possible purpose, the one homogenizing commonality and its entailments only accentuated by the variety of different races on display.
Finally, can we explain away Merry’s final “Wake up, wake up!” as sung only to Doc or to her congregation? It seems pointed and Doc’s hardly asleep – can it really not be pointed at us? As someone who feels like a passably unique individual most of the time, I can’t help bridling at the suggestion that religion in any way robs me of a second or a third dimension. Nor has this story shown me anything better I should be waking up to.
To start concluding this Long Song of my own: Merry says OG eats souls, but Doc survives, person, soul, and memories intact. Even if Merry’s new song is somehow sustaining him, um… how?
Doc’s speech to Merry contains references to Lewis Carroll that she can’t possibly appreciate. But she doesn’t question it, hence again his message is for the children in the audience – or the writing’s deficient.
OG actually has a name: it’s Akhaten. But this passed me by as the characters didn’t use it – partly in service of the solar system’s theological confusion but partly so we can be given lines like, “Is there an Old God?” “Unfortunately, yes.” How on earth, no, wait, how in the Akhaten system can Merry et al. not know who Akhaten is?
We also get a bad model for grief. There are children watching who’ll have just lost their mothers. Grief may be unending, but it isn’t infinite, it’s indefinite. And it’s nothing like infinite when Clara’s caused to smile when she hears the TARDIS approaching.
Add a pinch of bad science: Doc’s memories should outrank anyone else’s, including the tragedy of Clara’s lost mother and the supposed infinity of lost memories that result. Firstly, has nobody in the congregation, has Merry, never lost a mother? Did nobody bring their mum’s old earrings along to the Festival of Offerings we see; has no one ever done this in all the millions of years? In fact, retro-rewrite: Merry’s just been stripped of her spiritual innocence, lost her illusory ideas of what her god was, a universe-straddling deity. Instead of her mother’s days unlived, she has to live without her god’s. Both timelines are equally imaginary, so her moped-ing over and destroying OG with the potentiated inverse of 1/∞ might actually make mathematical sense. I wonder why this never occurred to the writers, or didn’t appeal? Better surely to glaze over Doc’s memories in favour of a leaf, and no need to mention the dad whose face it whacked either. And how exactly did it go from representing the meeting of dad and mum to being just about mum and then her vacated space?
I’ll conclude by way of a high-level sketch: at the start of The Rings Of Akhaten, there’s an unhappy girl pursued by severe men in billowing robes and a shadowy caste of gurgling, gas-mask-wearing, doom-scored villains. The Doctor thinks the religion/cult/faith is harmless, pretty bunkum but outwardly nice stories are shown to harbour an inner darkness. By the end, the girl’s confident and powerful, an individual fulfilling her potential, and a solar system has been liberated to embrace its demise. The episode can leave its terms vague, or evade, but dis/ingenuousness aside it’s still a sharp shock straight to the schnozz. There’s no mention (à la The Good Place, perhaps) of how some religions might compare to others; no mention of a potential true God to balance the example of the false god. In Moffat’s Doctor Who, you can have a Father Octavian-figure turning out to be a decent, kind, self-sacrificing sort but that’s as far as it can go. And the way this episode’s written splits the audience along the lines of their prior convictions; on one level, the choice is simplistically made out to be follow science/The Doctor, or follow religion. I’d like to continue to do both and be counted as no less of a fan or rational thinker for doing so, ta very much. Next to all that, whether The Doctor turns up at the Festival with the intention of being polite or patronizing rather pales.
Next time on Pew Pew Pew: I assert Doctor Who’s right to address all the points this episode engaged, and more. I argue why it’s a crucial task for a good Doctor, and why the character as written by Steven Moffat isn’t up to it.
To dwell on the Old Testament God for a moment, I found Exodus 32 (where Aaron has the golden calf made from the Israelites’ offerings, as mentioned in our review) extremely confusing at first. God appears to change His mind, for one thing. First He appears determined to wipe out the Israelites, but then accedes to Moses’ plea for leniency. Is this to show He’s not of the same ilk as the golden calf and his bull-god brethren? There are loads of parallels between God and Moses too. In verse 10 God wants to burn hot against the Israelites “that I may consume them”; in verse 19 it’s Moses who burns hot; in verse 22 Aaron pleads with Moses not to burn hot, then in verse 28 Moses has the Levites kill three thousand revellers; and finally in verse 35 God sends a plague on the people too. So that’s alright then? Well, in Exodus 20 the Ten Commandments are given, in Exodus 24 the Israelites accept God’s covenant, and here the Israelites break the first two commandments. The punishment in such ancient societies was death, and crucially was understood and accepted to be so. This form of social contract now seems primitive or vicious, but it upholds the justice agreed upon. Roberto Esposito wrote that law sustains a community’s life “only by continuously giving it a taste of death” – only in this way can a judicial system claim sufficient authority to dissuade people from arrogating this themselves arbitrarily. Plus there’s the possibility of some textual influence from 1 Kings 12. Ultimately, Jesus came to fulfil the law and do away with the need for any more scapegoats. That’s about as far as I can agree with The Rings Of Akhaten.
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