Doctor Who: The Rings of Akhaten

Doctor Who: The Rings of Akhaten April 6, 2013

The Doctor Who episode “The Rings of Akhaten” is surely one of the best in the show’s history for those interested in seeing Doctor Who explore religion. Spoilers ahead!

The episode begins with a charming scene (with the Doctor somewhat creepily spying on it) as a leaf blowing in the wind – yes, the leaf that was later “page 1” in Clara’s book – causes a man and woman to meet. Those two people will eventually become Clara’s parents. The Doctor, at both the beginning and the end of the episode, is trying to figure out what it is that makes Clara possible – a seemingly ordinary girl, and yet she lived and died in two different time periods and here she is alive again.

The very name of the previous episode – “The Bells of St. John” indicates that this mystery is the season’s story arc, rather like the flesh or the death of the Doctor or Bad Wolf have been in previous seasons. That episode was focused on the Great Intelligence and wi-fi, and yet the name of the episode is nothing to do with that, but instead focuses our attention on the mystery of Clara – and the additional mystery of who gave her the phone number for the Doctor’s TARDIS.

In “The Rings of Akhaten,” apart from at the beginning and end, the focus is in fact on the episode’s standalone story. Clara has trouble deciding where she wants to go, eventually saying “Somewhere awesome.” The Doctor takes her to the rings of Akhaten for the Festival of Offerings – and he mentions that he had been there once, a long time ago, with his granddaughter.

A religious component is introduced to the episode early on. Local people believe that a site in that system where a pyramid stands is the place where all life in the universe began. When Clara asks if that is true, the Doctor says “It’s what they believe. It’s a nice story.”

The psalm singers of Akhaten come into focus soon, and Mary, Queen of Years, a young girl who is the repository for her society’s history and stories. It is her job to sing to the old god and keep it asleep.

But it is the time for the old god to awaken.

The Doctor is very adamant about the deity – “It will feed on your soul, but that doesn’t make it a god. It’s a vampire.”

Since the entity feeds on the stories which comprise one’s soul – “we’re all stories in the end” – eventually the Doctor is willing to give the entity his memories to feed on, hoping that will be too much for it. In the process, he says that he was there for the universe’s beginning and its end, and that he guards secrets that must never be spoken. (There is an allusion to either the Celestial Toymaker or The Mind Robber when the Doctor says he’s been to a parallel universe where the laws of physics were controlled by a madman’s mind).

In a sense, the Doctor is portrayed as a true god, taking on a lesser being, a parasite, that some have mistakenly called “the only god.”

With the presence of a vampire and a mummy, there were echoes of ancient Egypt (and thus perhaps the popular myth of ancient gods as aliens?). And the name of the system, Akhaten, sounds a lot like Akhenaten, the pharaoh famous for seeking to introduce monotheism, the worship of one God alone – the sun!

In the end, what defeats the false god is not the Doctor as another god, however superior in certain respects. He could only feed the entity what has been. But Clara steps forward and offers the leaf, as a token of a life cut short too soon, and thus all the infinite possibilities of what might have been and could be. Infinity defeats the deity that isn’t truly ultimate.

The hints at the Doctor’s secrets bring us back to the era of the Seventh Doctor, when the Cartmel Master Plan, as it has been referred to, was focusing more attention on the mystery of who the Doctor is. Then as now, the challenge is to have some satisfying revelations and yet an ongoing mystery. We’ve all seen how that can be done well or poorly. Perhaps we will indeed get to hear the Doctor’s name – if so, I suspect that it will sound like “Doctor Who.” But the matter of why the Doctor’s identity needed to be such a secret can be spun out for much longer.

What did you think of “The Rings of Akhaten”?

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  • There was this question of “personal identity”, when Clara said that she didn’t want to be identified with some “ghost”. That felt like quite a painful moment for the Doctor.

  • I didn’t watch it, but my daughter thought it was good.

  • Evan Hershman

    Loved it. I think Clara is now my favorite companion so far.

  • cameronhorsburgh

    I’m not sure how I felt about this one—it seemed to be let down by some fairly cheesy special effects. It felt like early Red Dwarf, but without the laugh track.

    Some of the story seemed a little convenient—the Doctor was able to break an unbreakable lock with his sonic screwdriver, the bad guys (the Vigil? Another religious term. Did these guys remind anyone of the Silence?) luckily used some sort of sonic weapon which the Doctor was able to counter with his sonic screwdriver, and there just happened to be a song which would unlock the secret door. This sort of luck is pretty common around the Doctor though, and to my mind it detracts from otherwise good story-telling.

    All that said, it wasn’t a bad episode. I’m becoming more and more intrigued by Clara’s story and I’m looking for clues everywhere. My research so far tells me that Clara’s mum died on the day the trailers for the restart of Doctor Who first aired on TV. I’m sure her birthdate means something (September 11? Would you choose that date without reason?) WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN???? 😉

  • Pseudonym

    I have to admit, I wasn’t thinking about the religious implications on this one. I was busy taking in the music.

    I believe what I said to my wife during the episode was, “there’s that Murray Gold high tenor again”. Nonetheless, I think he outdid himself this time.

    • The incorporation of so much vocal music into the show has really been a treat!

  • Jack Collins

    It reminded me way too much of “The Beast Below.” I mean, that could be a deliberate attempt to evoke some archetypal companion’s-first-offworld-adventure. But I suspect lazy writing. I am intrigued by the whole “most important leaf” business, just because I’ve been thinking about the series of sheer improbabilities that led my life to where it is (my parents only met because my mother missed an exit…). But I still don’t like this Clara as much as the others.

  • Just Me

    Where I can find the song about God of Akhaten?

  • Paladin

    These episodes r the best clara is the best so if u criticize just dont comment

  • A Raxacoricofallapatorian scum

    I really enjoyed it, but there were those aliens which I forgot the name of and I think that they should’ve gotten a bigger role. They were just there and I just didn’t feel right about it. I loved the speech and the song, but how did The Doctor not lose all of his memory? Is it because the song has sentimental meaning to it so that the parasite god would ‘eat’ that, or what was it? I’d give this episode a 4/5.

  • A Raxacoricofallapatorian scum

    Also, sorry if my English isn’t great. I learned it from Doctor Who and internet, basically the only two things I do in my life other than eating Fish Fingers with Custard. And banana’s. Long live banana’s.

  • Ivan

    This was one of my favorite 11th Doctor episodes. The music stole the show, as far as I’m concerned. One interesting bit that hasn’t been mentioned is that, at one point, the Doctor says that he’s wrong. He says “it is a god.” It’s clearly a parasite and he treats it as such. I think what he may have meant is that it’s god-like in power.

    However, maybe he meant something deeper. I believe we’re told that the people of Akhaten have been performing this ritual for a million years! Even though their god turns out to be a parasite, the people have built their society around it. Their currency is objects of sentimental value. Everyone holds up such objects at the ritual as offerings to the god. In such a religion, I think people would put a high value on living life to its fullest. Remember that they don’t know their god will suck it dry of them (well, until the Doctor comes along). I imagine that, until they learned the truth, they believed their god wanted them to live life to its fullest. It probably did, just for much more selfish and crueler reasons than they imagined.

    I wonder if there’s deeper significance to the doctor’s assertion that the being is a god, which is that, even though it’s a parasite, it’s a parasite that has inspired people to live to their fullness for a million years. Yes, it’s all to suck that fullness dry, but Doctor Who is fond of making things complicated for us and giving no easy answers to dilemmas. It makes us think. Yes, it’s good the parasite died of over-eating, but what an amazing culture! Not sure if there’s any “moral” here. More like it makes me think and that’s what good science fiction should do, in my opinion.

    By the way, the subtitles I saw had the Queen of Years (the child priestess) as being named Merry, as opposed to Mary. I think Mary would be kind of a lame name for an alien. It would be like naming an alien Joe or John. Merry seems like a name that any species and culture might give to someone, though. I like it better for that reason.

    • You’re right about the spelling of the name. I found out after I wrote the blog post, and didn’t go back and change it, sorry!