Imagine There’s No Religion: Doctor Who and The Rings of Akhaten

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.

Doctor Who The Rings of Akhenaten
The parasitic “god” known as Grandfather, memorably described by the hosts of the Verity podcast as Charlie Brown’s Great Pumpkin

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?

Religulous

Religulous movie poster

 

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?

Bill Maher in ReligulousA Jew and a talk show host walk into a bar… oh, you’ve heard this one?

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.

Bill Maher in ReligulousAnd on the third day, Jesus went to Orlando

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.

The plot thickens! Maher does not actually self-identify as an atheist. As he told The Onion’s A.V. Club,

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.


Official movie site: www.religulousmovie.net

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