Is the Doctor Who episode “The Rings of Akhaten” already one of the series’ most misunderstood? Almost two years ago, the Doctor urged his companions Amy & Rory not to live up to the title of “Let’s Kill Hitler”, for the vaguely-explained sci-fi reasons that changing history doesn’t always work out for the best. The Doctor defeated the devil before, in “The Impossible Planet” and “The Satan Pit” from Series 2. Here he has no compunctions in also killing god.
I’ve now listened to three fan podcasts debating the merits of “The Rings of Akhaten”, and was frankly surprised to discover the episode has been met by Doctor Who fandom with ambivalence at best, and outright derision from the rest. I would certainly not try to defend it as an instant classic, but it certainly does not deserve to be counted among the abysmal failures like “Fear Her” and “Last of the Time Lords”. In fact, I would argue it’s worthy of praise for daring to say something potentially very controversial. Perhaps it doesn’t say it very well (as evidenced by the fact that none of the participants in those three podcasts so much as broach the topic), but at least it’s a story that strives to be more than the usual Doctor-defeats-an-alien-invasion routine (not that there’s anything wrong with that routine — as a lifelong fan I love that routine!).
Out of all the various opinions voiced by the hosts of Radio Free Skaro, Verity, and Two Minute Time Lord, I align most with Chip of the latter, who was pleased the show still has the potential to be surprising. But everyone, even Chip, failed to even address what I took to be the major takeaway from the episode: the Doctor essentially rescued a civilization from a parasite they worshipped as a god. He freed a society from their self-defeating religion, and they thanked him for it.
Writer Neil Cross is famous for the grim BBC series Luther, and his script for Doctor Who was generally much lighter. But “The Rings of Akhaten” was about something very important, in a way that the series does not often attempt. I would classify it broadly in the same league as “Vincent and the Doctor”, where science fiction tropes were employed for a thinly-veiled metaphor of a particular aspect of human existence. Just as “Vincent and the Doctor” used time travel and invisible monsters to explore the topic of depression and suicide, “The Rings of Akhaten” used asteroids, interstellar mopeds, and angry space mummies to make a point about the detrimental effects of religion.
After watching the episode, I fully expected the fan conversation to be about how the show overstepped by taking on the negative affects of faith and religion. I expected many to take offense for daring to go there. But instead, it got called “dumb” and “stupid”, and Radio Free Skaro even dubbed it “The Borings of Akhenaten”. I suppose it raises the questions of what people want or expect from Doctor Who, which would seem to be plot, story, and character development. Anything beyond that (such as allegorical explorations of deeper themes like faith and religion) might as well be invisible. A good piece of science fiction ought to excel in both areas, so it seems “The Borings of Akhenaten” falls down on both fronts: none of the podcast hosts thought to mention the topic of religion (imagine talking about “Vincent and the Doctor” without mentioning depression!), and on the practical side, the plot particulars might not hold up to much scrutiny. But since when has Doctor Who ever been about hard sci-fi and airtight plotting? Any fan that demands that stuff probably ought to be watching Star Trek.
I don’t think I’m reaching at all in my interpretation here. This has to be one of the most thinly-veiled metaphors in Doctor Who history. The Doctor (Matt Smith) and Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) begin their adventure explicitly discussing the society’s religion. He briefly explains how their belief system works: a giant orb in the sky, known as Grandfather, is worshipped as a vengeful god. A priesthood has long placated it via song, until today.
Clara wondrously asks, “Is it true?” For of course, she just rode across space and time to her first alien world, so it would’t be much more of a stretch to ask if, yes, the giant ball of gas in the sky (which the hosts of Verity memorably compared to Charlie Brown’s Great Pumpkin) might actually be a god that demands offerings of precious memories. The Doctor pauses, smiles, and then replies “It’s a nice story”. Again, it’s not subtle: the Doctor is saying that what these people believe is a god is actually just a thing. Many, many times before he’s unmasked the supernatural: the mummies in “Pyramids of Mars” were robots, the ghosts in “The Unquiet Dead” and the devil in “The Satan Pit” were aliens, etc. There is no real supernatural in the Doctor Who universe.
I’ve put all of this very broadly to try and keep this post short, but my point is that the episode was far from “dumb”, “stupid” or “boring”. For better or for worse, it took on some complicated questions about religion. It also made me wonder about what it is the Doctor does to the civilizations he rescues. He has a long history of freeing groups from oppression, often leaving at the end of the story having totally and utterly upended the status quo. Here, the Doctor frees a people from their self-destructive religion. It’s not a perfect metaphor for atheism, for in a sense this god is real — not actually a god, but real. Atheists would point to the tyranny of organized religion, which is the work of fellow humans.
John Lennon asked in “Imagine” that we consider a world without countries or possessions, and heaven or religion. The alien civilization in “The Rings of Akhaten” has an economy that derives directly from their religion: just as their ersatz god feeds upon emotional memories, they pay for goods and services with objects imbued with sentimental value. The Doctor destroys both of these things: not only their god but also the very meaning behind their currency.
This alien culture, as far as we see it in this episode, is defined by only two things: its religion and its commerce. All we see of them is a marketplace and a religious order. So, in rescuing them, the Doctor takes away everything that we know about them. And they’re happy for it. Surely that’s the interesting thing about this episode, right?
Despite being the ostensible protagonist of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Arthur Dent is remarkably out of control of his destiny. Throughout, he survives various calamities equipped only with only a Babel fish, towel, and implausible happenstance. But most of its cast of characters are equally adrift in a senseless universe: Zaphod Beeblebrox is the ultimate irresponsible slacker, just hanging out as the universe unfairly happens to produce everything he needs. Ford Prefect just barely clings on to a dead-end travel writing gig in the backwaters of the galaxy. Mr. Prosser and Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz are mere salarymen dispassionately dispatching their duties, too jaded even to evilly enjoy their cataclysmic impact upon others (the symbolic mirroring between these characters was laid bare in the original radio series, where they were both portrayed by the same actor — curiously not the case in the TV show, when it ought to have been trivial to do likewise, considering how much alien makeup was involved).
If you’re just joining The Dork Report’s trilogy (in three parts… so far) on Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, don’t miss Part One, on its highly improbable leap from radio to TV, and Part Two, on its influence & legacy.
If the many misfortunes that befall Arthur seem meaningless, and his escapes equally arbitrary, maybe it’s because Adams was one of the world’s most famous atheists. He was friend and matchmaker to outspoken debunker of supernaturalism Richard Dawkins — indeed, he introduced to him to his future wife Lalla Ward (who played Romana during Adams’ tenure on Doctor Who, and is still revered today as “the lord high queen of the nerds” by Topless Robot). It would be extremely convenient to draw connections between Dawkins and the Hitchhiker’s character Oolon Colluphid, were the chronology not so inconvenient: the series was written long before Adams discovered Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene, and before they became friends after Dawkins wrote Adams an admitted “fan letter.” Colluphid, of course, wrote the highly influential and controversial trilogy Where God Went Wrong, Some More of God’s Greatest Mistakes and Who is this God Person Anyway?, and Well, That About Wraps It Up For God — an oeuvre only slightly less pointed than Dawkins’ own.
Absorbing Hitchhikers’ in prose, on stage, TV, or radio has long been the first baby step for many current and future atheists. The first few moments of all versions of the story feature numerous gags about God, the most well-known of which involves the infamous Babel Fish. When I first read the novel as a kid, I was of course pleasantly grossed out by the notion of sticking a fish in your ear. Whether or not a child reader grasps the overt allusion to the biblical Tower of Babel, most would be versed enough in science fiction to recognize that Adams was mocking the accepted convention that English is spoken throughout the universe. Star Trek and Doctor Who both made offhand comments to explain the language barrier issue in pseudo-scientific manners, which is perhaps the healthiest narrative approach — why get bogged down in technicalities, which only get in the way of telling a good story? But Adams decided to confront the conceit head-on, and not only subvert it but also take it to a startling philosophical conclusion. In literary theory, this would be a casebook example of deconstruction. Here’s the relevant excerpt from the original radio show:
The Babel Fish is small, yellow, leech like, and probably the oddest thing in the Universe. It feeds on brainwave energy, absorbing all unconscious frequencies and then excreting telepathically a matrix formed from the conscious frequencies and nerve signals picked up from the speech centers of the brain; the practical upshot of which is that if you stick on in your ear you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language – the speech you hear decodes the brainwave matrix. Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mindbogglingly useful could evolve purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as a final clinching proof of the non-existence of God.
The argument goes something like this:
“I refuse to prove that I exist,” says God, “for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing”. “But,” says Man, “the Babel fish is a dead giveaway isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don’t. QED” “Oh dear,” says God, “I hadn’t thought of that,” and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic. “Oh, that was easy” says Man, and for an encore he proves that black is white and gets killed on the next zebra crossing.
Most leading theologians claim that this argument is a load of dingo’s kidneys, but that didn’t stop Oolon Coluphid making a small fortune when he used it as the central theme of his best-selling book Well, That About Wraps It Up For God.
Meanwhile, the poor Babel Fish, be effectively removing all barriers to communication between different cultures and races, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.
— The Original Hitchhiker Radio Scripts, Douglas Adams, p29-30
The above excerpt is from The Guide itself, the book within the book (another gift to literary theorists). The Guide is full of useless information, when not outright incorrect, but one wonders if Adams was wistfully imagining a more advanced alien society possessed of greater secular wisdom than our own — one in which even lowly travel guides take it as a given that there is no Flying Spaghetti Monster, Invisible Sky Daddy, or Ceiling Cat watching over us. What is especially remarkable is how economical the above excerpt is. It’s elegant, concise, and above all, funny. In only a few lines, Adams co-opts two common theistic arguments into a logical equation that ≠ God: so-called “irreducible complexity” and the ultimate get-out-of-any-argument gambit, faith. To him, faith and belief aren’t enough when it comes to the really important questions:
“Isn’t belief-that-there-is-not-a-god as irrational, arrogant, etc., as belief-that-there-is-a-god? To which I say ‘no’ for several reasons. First of all I do not believe-that-there-is-not-a-god. I don’t see what belief has got to do with it […] As a carapace for the protection of irrational notions from legitimate questions, however, I think that the word has a lot of mischief to answer for […] I am, however, convinced that there is no god, which is a totally different stance.”
— Douglas Adams, interview with American Atheist, quoted in Douglas Adams and God – Portrait of a Radical Atheist by Nicolas Botti
To the above, I say “can I get an amen?” The word “belief” is appropriate for matters of superstition, but not for matters of science. The self-professed “radical atheist” we hear from above is considerably more gentle and breezy when he playfully tweaks religion in Hitchhiker’s. But it’s easy to imagine how these books might incite the ire of the easily offended Religious Right currently dominating the US political scene. That is, if they were literary-minded enough to sit down and actually attempt to read a book — any book — which clearly they aren’t. Consider how the Monty Python film The Life of Brian was famously protested against for precisely the wrong reasons. Its detractors assumed the film mocked Jesus (when it is in fact quite respectful), but failed to recognize that the Pythons’ true target was organized religion itself. This also fascinated Adams:
“I am fascinated by religion. (That’s a completely different thing from believing in it!) It has had such an incalculably huge effect on human affairs. What is it? What does it represent? Why have we invented it? How does it keep going? What will become of it? I love to keep poking and prodding at it. I’ve thought about it so much over the years that that fascination is bound to spill over into my writing.”
— Douglas Adams, interview with American Atheist
The same Christian fundamentalists that decry the ostensible witchcraft at the core of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books (whether they acknowledge Rowling’s own Christian faith or not) would surely object to the capricious, overtly godless universe in which The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is set.
Speaking of literary-mindedness, for a man who wrote for the all-ages adventure program Doctor Who, Adams incorporated very little actual physical violence into Hitchhiker’s. It’s interesting that when Arthur and Ford are tortured on the Vogon ship, the means is not waterboarding, electrocution, or solitary confinement, but rather the reading aloud of poetry. For all the power of language to harm, Arthur and Ford are unable to talk their way out of their predicament. This suggests that in the Hitchhiker’s universe, literature is either obscure and irrelevant (as seen in some of more unhelpful Guide entries, or when Arthur fails to enlighten some cavemen with a game of Scrabble), or outright hostile (such as the aforementioned Vogon poetry, and the official documents that doom Arthur’s house and planet to demolition).
Adams had diverse interests beyond tweaking the noses of theists, and incorporated many gags into Hitchhiker’s that would appeal mostly to physicists and statisticians. Two things in particular that preoccupied him were metaphysics and computers, and he was able to put them together in the Deep Thought subplot. Curious humanoids outsource their philosophical questions to a sentient supercomputer tasked with calculating the answer to life, the universe, and everything. The answer “42” is just as meaningless as the question “what do you get if you multiply six by nine?” According to my reading, mathematicians might make sense of this equation if calculated in base 10 — AKA the decimal system — and gamblers would recognize 42 as the sum of all sides of a pair of dice. Unfortunately, these clever mathematicians and gamblers would be no closer to an understanding of the universe as anybody else. The pursuit of the answer and then the question wasted billions of years and immeasurable lives. Thus in one single plot twist, Adams pins a donkey tail on entire religions and whole schools of thought — they’re not just absurd, but also extraordinarily harmful.
The supposed irreverent nature of British humor is a tired topic among American geeks that came of age quoting Monty Python and Doctor Who in outrageously fake accents — even the most crass gags (I’m thinking here of Mrs. Slocomb’s tales regarding her “pussy” on Are You Being Served) sound more witty, sophisticated, and erudite to us when spoken in foreign accents. Here’s Adams on this very topic (regional humor that is, not cats):
“I think too much is made of the difference between US and UK humour. I don’t think there’s a difference in the way those audiences are treated. […] There are things the British think are as English as roast beef that the Americans think are as American as apple pie. The trick is to write about people. If you write about situations that people recognize then people will respond to it.”
–Douglas Adams, quoted in Don’t Panic by Neil Gaiman, page 94
The alleged great divide between American and British humor came back into relief again recently as Ricky Gervais closed the first of his Golden Globes hosting gigs in 2011. Most of his allegedly uncensored celebrity barbs turned out to be merely tired stabs at low-hanging fruit (certain Scientologists are gay, Charlie Sheen is a junkie, Hugh Hefner is an old creep that gets laid more than you ever will, etc.) that only resulted in more rolled eyes than bruised egos. But what upset outwardly pious Americans most was his closing quip “…and thank god for making me an atheist.” Anyone given to appreciating Adams’ cocktail of absurdism, logic, and philosophy would recognize Gervais’ brand of humor here. Unfortunately, the loudest voices in the current American landscape are holy rollers with persecution complexes.
Perhaps Adams’ atheism was the motivation behind his personal appearance as an archetypal modern man experiencing an existential crisis in the beginning of episode two of the Hitchhiker’s television series. If you believe Neil Gaiman, Adams stepped in simply because the original actor was stuck in traffic that day, but I prefer to imagine a greater significance. Just as Radiohead would later employ Marvin the Paranoid Android as a metaphor for the themes of paranoia and depression in their acclaimed album OK Computer, Adams plays a nameless everyman beset by the modern condition. Taking the long view of someone educated in evolution (which an alarming number of Americans believe to be more science fiction than actual sci-fi), he decides that it was all a mistake for life to leave the oceans in the first place.
But there’s a note of optimism to be had at the end of the series, which thanks to the wonderful narrative possibilities of time travel in science fiction, is not really the end but rather the beginning. Arthur, Ford, and the undesirable dregs of an ancient humanoid civilization land on prehistoric Earth and intermingle with brutish cavemen (interestingly, very much the same thing happens at the controversial conclusion to the 2003-09 TV series Battlestar Galactica, except much less funny). The series signs off with Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” — which works as both a sarcastic comment on humanity’s humble, decidedly not divine origins (we’re descended from interbred hunters & gatherers, hairdressers, and telephone sanitizers) but also as a sincere comment on Arthur and Ford’s begrudging friendship.
Thanks for reading Part Three of The Dork Report’s look back at Hitchhiker’s. Catch up with Part One, on its highly improbable leap from radio to TV, and Part Two, on its influence & legacy.
Standup comedian and occasional b-movie star Bill Maher remade himself into a satirical political pundit on the cable TV shows Politically Incorrect and Real Time. He most famously spoke truth to power when he defied the conventional wisdom after 9/11 and correctly stated that one thing the perpetrators were not were cowards. Not surprisingly, he was swiftly fired by Comedy Central. Had he stopped there, his arguable legacy would have been to blaze the trail for the likes of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to crossover from the gutter of comedy to mainstream political punditry. Maher’s peer Al Franken went even further, from heckler to actual political participant.
But Maher was not content to stop there. His latest incarnation is, for better or worse, the popular face of a growing movement against organized religion. Unlike the rational scientist Richard Dawkins (mostly rational, that is; his recent statements against children’s fantasy literature like Harry Potter reveal him to be at best a killjoy and at worst a censor) and the even more strident Christopher Hitchens, Maher uses comedy and outright mockery to advance the cause of atheism in the sometimes disturbingly theocratic American society. This Dork Reporter is on his side, but isn’t sure Maher and his movie Religulous is really what atheists need to combat the encroachment of church upon state. As Michael Moore is to liberals, so too may Maher be to atheists everywhere: is he really the best spokesperson?
Religulous teams Maher with director Larry Charles, also responsible for the high-concept low art Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006) and Brüno (2009). While Borat and Bruno fall on the fauxmentary end of the continuum, Religulous skirts with being an actual documentary but stops short of pretensions to impartiality. Maher and Charles talk their way into enemy territory like the Holy Land Experience theme park in Orlando, the Creation Museum in Kentucky (a temple to the denial of basic science that would be hilarious were it not such an astounding celebration of willful ignorance), and the Truckers’ Chapel in Raleigh. Maher and Charles may have used subterfuge to gain access, but the finished film is open about their deception. The filmmakers openly brag over such stunts by proudly including footage of the Holy Land Experience’s publicist freaking out at the presence of a bunch of godless liberals armed with a camera. All of this attitude is actually not necessary; the film is at its best when Maher allows his interviewees to simply talk their way into deep graves (which most of these intolerant ignoramuses do with great gusto).
My biggest issue with the movie is its use of satirical editorial juxtaposition that on at least one occasion is outright racist. I agree it’s fun to snicker at clips of cheesy old biblical movies, easy to mock the nauseatingly confused “former homosexual” Pastor John Wescott of Exchange Ministries with snippets of gay porn, and chuckle at the bald scam being run by José Luis de Jesús Miranda, a Puerto Rican claiming to be the direct descendent of Jesus Christ. But Maher refers to African American preacher Pastor Jeremiah Cummings’ gold jewelry as “bling” and intercuts footage of a comically stereotypical pimp. Wescott is obviously in deep denial, and Cummings and Miranda are despicable crooks out for nothing but their own profit, but such cheapshots are uncalled for.
In the midst of all this fervent madness, it’s somewhat surprising that the Catholic Church and even the Vatican itself come across as the most enlightened. Maher is kicked out of the Vatican proper, but meets with the supremely sane and rational Father George Coyne, head of the Vatican observatory. Coyne is one man of the cloth, at least, that does not deny science or celebrate ignorance. Maher also strikes interview gold with the hilariously outspoken former Vatican scholar Father Reginald Foster.
I’m not an atheist. There’s a really big difference between an atheist and someone who just doesn’t believe in religion. Religion to me is a bureaucracy between man and God that I don’t need. But I’m not an atheist, no. I believe there’s some force. If you want to call it God… I don’t believe God is a single parent who writes books.
Whether Maher positions himself as an atheist or merely a crusader against oppressive organized religion, he takes a kind of gleeful pride in it. Smug atheists can be just as insufferable as holier-than-thou theists. Even before becoming a self-appointed voice against religion, Maher had become somewhat infamous for louche behavior (dating and sometimes marrying strippers, frequenting the Playboy Mansion, etc.). His outspoken opinions and tabloid-ready behavior probably don’t help theists take him seriously. I imagine most fundamentalists picture atheists as being like Maher: proud, condescending, and shirking of the responsibility of religious-derived morals (in other words, not having hell to motivate them to not sin). What I think believers need to understand is many people arrive at atheism only after protracted periods of difficult soul searching, and aren’t necessarily smug about it.
Religulous may be preaching to the converted, but it can’t ever hurt to keep the pressure on those that would oppress and exploit others by claiming to have the ear of God.