Doctor Who: Akhaten vs. Aztecs

Doctor Who: Akhaten vs. Aztecs April 7, 2013

If one compares the most recent Doctor Who episode “The Rings of Akhaten” with the episode “The Aztecs” from the very first season, an interesting change in the Doctor's outlook about religion and human sacrifice emerges.

In “The Aztecs” the Doctor is emphatically opposed to Barbara's interference in an attempt to change history. It may be that that concern was largely pragmatic – paradoxes are created if you tamper with a past that you are directly connected with. But it sounds like his concern is more general, and that interference with their religion would be wrong in principle.

In “The Rings of Akhaten” the Doctor's point of view has changed. A major theme of the episode is how the constituent parts of the universe come together to bring about a unique set of affairs – whether an individual human life, or two human lives being joined together in love. And so the Doctor explicitly objects to the idea of Merry sacrificing herself to a god, insisting that she is a unique entity made from the products of dead stars configured in a specific way that is not identically mirrored anywhere else in the universe. And so for her to sacrifice herself would be a waste.

Given that the “old god” is a sentient sun thought by the inhabitants of that part of space to have created all life, there is an interesting additional importance to the Doctor's point: it was not this so-called god, but stars now dead, that contributed the stuff that makes of Merry's existence.

Towards the end of the episode, the Doctor is ready to give his own life (although his sharing his memories doesn't seem to threaten him the way it would have supposedly have destroyed Merry). And so the point is not about all form of “sacrifice”, but specifically about the notion of sacrifice to a deity that demands one to. Sacrificing oneself to save others, willing sacrifice for something greater than oneself, is not considered wasteful in the same way.

For longtime fans of the show, how do you think the view of religion and human sacrifice has evolved over the course of the show? Is this best viewed as an evolution in the Doctor's thinking, or simply a lack of consistency resulting from the show's long history?


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  • Doug

    It would be easier to comment if last night’s episode had made any kind of narrative sense. The Aztecs made sense in terms of the then Doctor’s character. I’m not so sure Matt Smith’s Doctor has become too much of a self-referential symbol for the scriptwriters to drive the storyline via his character.

    • I am not so sure. The idea that you can’t tamper with history is problematic if you are going to have time travelers involved in history. I think the Doctor as one who interferes – which he has been for so much of the show’s history – works better.

      • Doug

        But think for example of all the dialogue about fixed points of history in “The Fires of Pompeii” and the number of historical story lines where the Doctor’s interference ends up restoring history as we know it.

        • True, but in “The Aztecs” the Doctor says “That’s their religion” as though that in itself justifies his insistence that Barbara not try to change things.

          • tastysmores

            Because, back when he was in his first incarnation he was a grumpy old man who was content with just observing space and time. River notes as much when she talks about how much people are now afraid of him (in A Good Man Goes to War): The fact that he’s now willing to intervene makes people scared. Of course the Aztecs could no longer rely on The Doctor to let them be now; that’s probably why we haven’t seen a pure historical in a while (Pompeii being one of the rare examples, and it messed up 10 something awful).

            That drive to intervene never existed with the First Doctor. They are supposed to be different. 10 says as much during The Christmas Invasion:

            “I don’t know! See that’s the thing. I’m the Doctor. But beyond that I just don’t know. I literally do not know who I am. It’s all untested. Am I funny? Am I sarcastic? Sexy? Right old misery? Life and soul? Right-handed, left-handed? A gambler, a fighter, a coward, a traitor, a liar, a nervous wreck? I mean judging by the evidence I’ve certainly got a gob. … No second chances. I’m that sort of a man.”

          • Marcus

            I think the difference is that the story about the Aztecs was set on Earth. Perhaps there was a desire to avoid the charge of perpetuating notions of Western superiority. Especially since the show was initially intended to explore history.

  • Just Sayin’

    An insider speaking “truth to power”! :

    This new young Doctor doesn’t seem mature enough for a mid-Twenties human being, never mind a Time Lord. We need a Doctor with gravitas, not raging adolescent hormones.

  • cameronhorsburgh

    To intervene or not to intervene has been a big question throughout the modern series, and probably most of all for the Eleventh Doctor. He begins his reign by boasting to the Atraxi about his reputation for intervening, and he does similar things outside the Pandorica and at Demon’s Run. Yet he becomes arrogant, and this comes to a head in “The God Complex” when he realises that he needs to wean people off of him. Intervening is fine, but he can only do so much.

    He can’t hide though—he has enemies who want him gone. He still has to stop the Silence, and there are plenty of people and races who want him for one thing or another. So he must keep on running and doing what he can to keep those close to him safe.

    Things look up when he meets Clara—somehow she is able to erase all record of him from the universe’s databases. What does he do with his newfound anonymity? He hides. First, in Victorian England, where he stays until he is found by Clara. Then he holes up in a monastery in medieval England, until he gets a phone call from Clara. Both times he has to do some of his old fashioned intervening, against an old enemy who seems to have some recollection of him.

    Then, he’s back to his old tricks. It seems he just wants to do the touristy thing—run around the universe looking at things that are awesome with a friend. (That said, Donna, Amy and Clara also seem to be mysteries that need solving.) Yet world eating monsters turn up and the Doctor does what he has to. Yet there’s a change, or at least a nuancing here. Instead of being in a state of constant running away, the Doctor’s new mantra is that you don’t run away, ‘unless you’re holding something precious, in which case you run and don’t stop until you’re out from under the shadow.’ [My memory of the quote!]

    Thus it seems that during his period of reflection the Doctor has devised a little calculus for determining when intervention is appropriate: protecting precious things (here a vulnerable child) is paramount and facing parasitic deities to protect civilisations at risk to ones life isn’t far down the list.

    In other words, intervening is necessary if it protects the vulnerable. Yet such intervention will always have unintended consequences. The Doctor’s pretty good at fixing flaws in history, but fixing them in himself… I sense a season finale coming up soon!

    • Excellent thoughts – do I sense a blog post about Doctor Who coming up soon from you? 🙂

      • cameronhorsburgh

        Could be! My blog has died over the last couple of years. About the only place I get to make assertions without footnotes is in blog comments and my sermons on Sunday mornings.

  • Plstcsldgr

    This episode doesn’t really change historical events like Aztecs the doctors r even says this was going to happen anyway she didn’t have to be sacrificed because it wouldn’t help. Aztecs he says you can’t stop the sacrifice it’s already happening you can’t change it the message is the same different circumstances

    • Your comment doesn’t make much sense even grammatically. But you seem to be missing the main point. Both events were, from a certain standpoint in history, the past, while from another they are both the future and from another they are both the present. And so saying that something would happen anyway is dubious. The only way I can see for distinguishing the two is that, in the case of Barbara and the Aztecs, she would have been changing human and thus her own history.

  • Ivan

    The show seems fairly consistent to me and the writers certainly seem knowledgeable of older episodes. I think the Doctor has indeed changed. It occurs to me that the First Doctor has similar mores to the Time Lords (yes, I realize that the writers had no concept of Time Lords yet, but I don’t mind retrospectively evaluating the Doctor in light of later ideas). It seems to me that the Time Lords have a non-interference / neutrality ethic.

    Later Doctors are much more willing to intervene and there are some Classic episodes that have ethics somewhere in between. Take for example the sacrifice of the Swamp People to Krull in “Power of the Krull” in the Key to Time hexology. The Fourth Doctor is opposed to the natives sacrificing people to Krull, but is also supportive of the fact that they’re trying to stop outsiders from exploiting the swamps that they live in. The Fourth Doctor recognizes that their human sacrifice to Krull is an integral part of their worldview that also includes their right to throw out invaders who are willing to exploit the swampland they live on.

    Another opposition to a godlike being are in the two Mara episodes in the Fifth Doctor era, which have a very similar villain to the god of Akhaten.

    So, I think that the Doctor has become progressively more involved in defending other cultures against their vampiric or tyrannical gods or against religions that involve human sacrifice. Also, one of the major themes of the new series has been the Doctor’s ongoing and ever-changing reaction to his double genocide in the Time War. In a recent special mini episode, “Night of the Doctor”, we see the Eighth Doctor regenerate into the War Doctor. He clearly doesn’t want to be involved in the Time War. He’s ethically opposed to taking sides. His final decision to commit double genocide of the Daleks and Timelords to save countless lives of other species was a radical change to his ethics.

    So, I think, in the Eleventh Doctor, we see new, post-Time War ethics.