“i walked away from the last great time war. i marked the passing of the time lords. i saw the birth of the universe and 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 mind of a madman. i’ve watched universes freeze and creations burn. i have seen things you wouldn’t believe. i have lost things you will never understand.”
Okay then. That’s what I’ll do; I will tell you a story. Can you hear them? All these people who lived in terror of you and your judgement. All these people who’s ancestors devoted themselves, sacrificed themselves to you. Can you hear them singing? Oh, you like to think you’re a god. You’re not a god, you’re just a parasite, eaten out with jealousy and envy and longing for the lives of other. You feed on them, on the memory of love and loss and birth and death and joy and sorrow! So… So… Come on, then. Take mine. Take my memories. But I hope you’ve got a big appetite because I’ve lived a long life and I’ve seen a few things. I walked away from the Last Great Time War. I marked 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 mind of a madman. I’ve watched universes 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 and knowledge that must never be spoken. Knowledge that will make parasite gods blaze. So come on then! Take it! Take it all, baby! Have it! You have it all!
Take my memories. But I hope you’ve got a big appetite because I’ve lived a long life and I’ve seen a few things. I walked away from the Last Great Time War. I marked 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 mind of a madman. I’ve watched universes 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 and knowledge that must never be spoken.
Oh, you like to think you’re a god. But you’re not a god. You’re just a parasite eaten out with jealousy and envy and longing for the lives of others. You feed on them. On the memory of love and loss and birth and death and joy and sorrow. So… so, come on, then. Take mine.
Okay then, that’s what I’ll do. I will tell you a story. Can you hear them? All these people who lived in terror of you and your judgement. All these people who’s ancestors devoted themselves, sacrificed themselves to you. Can you hear them singing? Oh, you like to think you’re a god. But you’re not a god. You’re just a parasite, eat now with jealousy and envy and longing for the lives of others. You feed on them. On the memory of love and loss and birth and death and joy and sorrow, so… So … come on, then. Take mine. Take my memories. But I hope you’ve got a big appetite. Because I’ve lived a long life. And I have seen a few things.
(SPOILER WARNING: The following is an in-depth critical analysis. If you haven’t seen this episode yet, you may want to before reading this review)
Remember Love And Monsters? The episode from the RTD era that nobody liked? The one with Peter Kay as the Absorbaloff? Yeah, that one. I personally thought that while there were loads of problems with Love And Monsters, it was an underrated gem of an episode that contained some of the most original and creative material in the whole of Doctor Who.
Why am I bringing this up, I can hear you asking in my head. Well it’s because I can’t help but feel just the slightest sense of deja vu going into The Rings Of Akhaten. Written by Neil Cross, the man behind BBC’s Luther starring Idris Elba, The Rings Of Akhaten isn’t very popular with fans. Some even going so far as to calling it the worst episode of the Moffat era. First of all… really? You think this is worse than Let’s Kill Hitler, The Wedding Of River Song, Asylum Of The Daleks and The Angels Take Manhattan?
While yes I do agree it’s not perfect, I personally really liked The Rings Of Akhaten. In fact this is the first episode of Series 7 that I actually wholeheartedly enjoyed watching.
For starters, it’s not set on Earth. One thing that always irritates me about New Who is that the Doctor can travel anywhere in time and space and yet we always end up on Earth. It’s as though the TARDIS is attached to the fucker on a bloody bungie rope. Even on the rare occasion we do actually visit another planet, it’s either populated by humans or the aliens look like humans. So it’s nice to have an episode that’s not only as far away from Earth as you can get, but also has aliens that actually… you know… look like aliens.
In some ways that is the most striking thing about The Rings Of Akhaten. The setting is gorgeous and a lot of imagination and creativity has gone into the designs of all the aliens. People often give me shit for slagging off Guardians Of The Galaxy for their unimaginative alien designs, saying that the reason they settled for humans with pink, blue, green and yellow skin is because apparently their $150 million budget won’t allow them to get too creative with their designs. Well The Rings Of Akhaten had an extremely small TV budget to work with (significantly reduced due to budget cuts within the BBC I might add), and they managed to make every single alien look visually interesting and unique. What’s Marvel’s excuse?
I mean just look at some of these aliens! There’s Doreen:
A weird robot man:
Whatever the fuck this thing is:
And my personal favourite, the Vigil:
They’re the secondary antagonists of this episode that threaten to take Merry away to be sacrificed if she doesn't comply and I really wish we could have learnt more about them because they’re immensely creepy. Not only do they look really cool, they also speak in these really quiet whispers that’s just utterly chilling.
The same amount of effort and creativity also clearly went into the culture and religion of the aliens. I love the idea of psychometry (currency where people exchange items of sentimental value) and the whole chorister scene with Merry singing to the Old God was incredibly beautiful. It feels like a whole other world that actually exists and a lot of credit has to go to both Neil Cross and the production team for bringing it to life.
I’m also surprised to say that I found Clara to be one of the more enjoyable aspects of the episode. The smugness has been toned down dramatically and I really enjoyed her scenes with Merry, the Queen of Years. It’s her character that provides an emotional anchor to the story. We’re seeing the Rings of Akhaten through her eyes, which makes the whole experience feel even more magical.
But it’s the story that really gets me. While there are a few problems here and there, I honestly found what it had to say about religion and the nature of stories and fables very engrossing. The Rings Of Akhaten is very much a commentary on religious beliefs and institutions, and while Neil Cross doesn’t shy away from criticising it, he doesn’t paint it as being one dimensionally evil neither. The belief that all life in the universe originated from the Rings of Akhaten is almost certainly not true just like how the stories in the Bible and the Qur’an and other holy texts are almost certainly not true, but that doesn’t mean you can’t derive positive messages and meaning from them. The Doctor clearly doesn’t believe that all life started at Akhaten, but it’s a nice sentiment and he does appreciate the beauty of their culture and traditions. In fact I’d say this episode perfectly demonstrates the Doctor’s view of the world. To experience other cultures and to live and let live. He may not agree with their beliefs, but he will still defend their right to hold those beliefs no matter the cost.
That being said, there is a dark undercurrent to this, which becomes more apparent as the story goes along. The Queen of Years gets kidnapped and it turns out the benevolent ‘Grandfather’ that they all worship is in fact a planet sized parasite that feeds off of the souls of its believers (subtle, right?). Not only is this an obvious allusion to how Gods such as Yahweh from the Old Testament have been diluted from the genocidal, vindictive despots to the all loving, merciful creator figures that believers now view them as today, but it also highlights some of the more perverse and insidious qualities of organised religion (and before anyone starts complaining and accusing me of being a ‘fanatical atheist’, which is ridiculous in and of itself because you can’t have a fanatical non-belief in something, please bear in mind I do actually have first hand experience on this subject). While it’s easy to be taken in by the beauty and sentimentality of religion and faith, there is a dark side to it.
Religion, as a concept, actively discourages independent thought. There’s a reason why in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goat, God favours the sheep over the goats. It’s because the sheep are docile and require a shepherd to guide them. Goats are more aggressive and harder to control, and whether one cares to admit it or not, the simple fact of the matter is religion has been and always will be motivated by a desire to control. To discourage free thinking and questioning, and to spoon feed ideals and beliefs that followers will accept as unshakeable truth. This is the reason why faith schools exist. It isn’t so that kids can experience a religion or a culture (because you can easily do that in a secular school). It’s so that they can get then while they’re young. When they’re at their most defenceless. I know this because I myself have been the victim of this and it took me years to shake off some of the poisonous beliefs that I had been force fed during my childhood (such as that homosexuality is a sin). While I would never necessarily ridicule or discourage someone from believing in God, I will always view religion with a certain amount of disdain because not only is religion not necessary to believe in God, it’s also incredibly easy to weaponise. And I’m not just talking about terrorists and suicide bombers. I’m talking about the condoning of slavery and the suppression of women and homosexuals, as well as more recent examples such as the Catholic Church discouraging the use of condoms in AIDs ridden Africa, and fraudulent psychics and faith healers taking advantage of people’s beliefs in order to make a quick buck. Religion only ‘works’ if the message is benevolent. Thou shalt not kill and so on. But when an institution expects blind faith and unquestionable loyalty, it can be very easy for someone with authority and malicious intent within that institution to take advantage of that.
Now am I saying that religion is the root cause of evil? Of course not. That would be absurd. And if you are religious, please don’t think I’m trying to belittle or insult you. My dislike is purely directed toward the institution itself rather than the people who choose to follow it. As far as I’m concerned, you have every right to believe what you want to believe, provided it’s your own free choice and that your beliefs don’t threaten the lives of others or stand in the way of societal progress. I’m not saying that religion is inherently evil. I’m saying that religion can be easily exploited as a tool for evil due to the way it operates.
Which brings me back to The Rings Of Akhaten. Yes it’s all beautiful and sweet and lovely, but as I say there is a dark undercurrent to it. Let’s not forget that Merry was taken as a baby and groomed for years to be a potential sacrifice, being forced to learn every single poem, song and story and given no life of her own, and when the Parasite does wake up and take Merry, not a single person in the congregation lifts a finger to help her. That’s the power of blind faith. These otherwise decent and peaceful people become complicit in the subjugation, kidnapping and near death of a child because their religion dictates it. Even Merry, although frightened by the prospect of being sacrificed, initially refuses to let the Doctor and Clara rescue her because of her religious beliefs telling her she must be sacrificed. Clara is naturally horrified by this and the Doctor is quick to denounce this in his story to Merry about how we are all made of star dust, how we are all unique and that offering any life as a snack for a God isn’t a sacrifice, but a waste. Also I must stress that the true villain isn’t the believers. They’re just as much victims as Merry. The real villain is the Parasite. The God they worship. This malicious entity that has taken advantage of this community’s stories and beliefs and culture in order to satisfy its own goal.
The ultimate message of The Rings Of Akhaten in my opinion is that while yes our stories and beliefs are important, it’s also equally as important to take a critical view of them and challenge them. Don’t just believe something because it’s convenient or because it sounds nice.
As much as I enjoyed The Rings Of Akhaten and the message it conveys, it’s not perfect. One common criticism I do agree with is that this episode does often become a bit of a talky talkfest at points. While yes the Doctor’s speech during the Long Song is incredibly well written and Matt Smith gives it everything he’s got, it is sadly undermined by the fact that this is technically the third big speech in this episode, and it’s immediately followed by a fourth speech from Clara. So as a result it doesn’t have the impact it should have.
Another common criticism I agree with is the overuse of the sonic screwdriver. I’ve always hated the sonic screwdriver because it’s often used as a Get Out Of Jail Free Card, but this episode just takes the piss. It opens doors, it shoots lasers, it creates a forcefield that prevents the Vigil from advancing. It’s just really lazy. If I were to ever become the showrunner of Doctor Who, the first thing I would do is get rid of the poxy sonic screwdriver. I would much rather see the Doctor get out of a situation using his wit and ingenuity rather than the sci-fi equivalent of a magic wand. (And speaking of deus ex machinas, if the ultimate purpose of the Queen of Years is to sacrifice her to the Parasite, why the fuck would there be a secret door so she can escape and how the fuck does Merry know about it?)
The resolution is a bit pants too. Clara offering her magic leaf up to the Parasite so it can feast off of the potential energy of the days she might have had with her mum before she passed away. Bollocks. One, the potential energy can’t be infinite because there are only a limited number of days Clara’s mum could have been alive and there are only so many things you could have done in those days before she died of natural causes, and two, couldn’t you argue that all objects have potential energy? What makes the leaf so special? What about her mum’s ring? Or the 101 Places To See book? Would one of her secondhand jumpers or used tampons be just as effective? The rules of psychometry are made quite clear. Objects have value because of the stories and emotional meaning they convey. Not the stories and emotional meaning they could convey. This is just the Silence and Weeping Angels all over again with the rules randomly changing to suit the writer’s needs.
Which brings me to the big Moffat arc. Clara is the impossible girl. Who is she? Where did she come from? How does she keep cropping up everywhere? Well the Doctor intends to find out… by stalking her parents.
Well that’s not alarmingly creepy, is it?
The thing is they could have just about gotten away with it if they had kept it to the Doctor watching Clara’s dad gormlessly stepping out into the middle of the road with the leaf on his face and Clara’s mum rescuing him (although perhaps they could cut out the bit where the Doctor is spying on them while reading a copy of the Beano because somehow that makes him look even more creepy), but then it just goes on and on and on. The Doctor watches as the two go on their first date, have the baby and watches Clara grow up. It’s just fucking disturbing. (I mean did the Doctor climb a tree and watch Clara’s parents having sex through a pair of binoculars?). Worse still, Clara finds out that the Doctor has been stalking her all her life and rather than get freaked out by it (you know? Like a normal person would?), she instead lightly chastises him for being a very naughty boy and then dismisses it. What planet does Moffat and co fucking operate on?
Despite some of its faults, I really liked The Rings Of Akhaten. I think it’s an incredibly underrated episode and I honestly think you should give this another chance. Not only is it visually and creatively brilliant, it also offers an effective critique of religion, explores the power of stories and beliefs, and the value of life itself. It’s easily my favourite episode of Series 7 by far (not that it has much competition, let’s be honest).
Ok then. That’s what I’ll do. I’ll tell you a story. Can you hear them? 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? Oh, you like to think you’re a God. But you’re not a God! You’re just a parasite. Eat now with jealousy and envy and longing for the lives of others. You feed on them. On the memory of love and loss and birth and death and joy and sorrow, so… so come on then. Take mine. Take my memories. But I hope you’re got a big appetite. Because I’ve lived a long life. And I’ve seen a few things. I walked away from the last great time war. I marked the passing of the Time Lords. I saw the birth of the universe and I watched as time run 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 mind of a madman! And I watched the universes freeze and creation 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 parasites Gods blaze! So come on then! Take it! Take it all, baby! Have it! You have it all!