7.7 – “The Rings Of Akhaten”
The Doctor takes Clara to see something awesome; a bunch of sort-of asteroid type worlds and a whole load of rocks swirling round a big orange planet, the fabled Rings of Ahkaten. Clara meets a little girl who has to sing a song to keep the Old God asleep, but the Old God wakes up and is about to devour everybody’s souls unless our heroes can find something emotional enough to give it serious indigestion. And the viewers are treated to a journey of faith, discovery and the true nature of the soul.
I’ve been to Anfield, the homeground and heart & soul of Liverpool Football Club, just the once. The Mighty Reds are my Team, I’m not a rabid fan, however, when that crowd roared out “You’ll never walk alone” before kick-off, it was something mighty powerful. I couldn’t help but think of this as Merry, the Queen of Years, and the rest of the crowd sang their song to support The Doctor as he was pouring his heart out to make the Old God burst from too much soul. Unfortunately, it didn’t work, not for the Old God. Liverpool won 2-0 that day at Anfield though…
The reason for the singing is that the people of Ahkaten apparently believe that all life in the Universe began in their neck of the woods so a strong religious cult has built up around the place – a bit like Anfield. Unlike Anfield, where the singing is meant to wake the Gods (or Team), the singing at Ahkaten is meant to keep the Old God (or Grandfather as it’s sometimes known) asleep, otherwise it will wake and consume the Universe. Doctor Who frequently deals with the spiritual/magical vs. science issue, and almost always comes down on the side of science. All those Hinchcliffian supernatural horrors were products of explainable (if occasionally unbelievable) science. However, the magic vs. science issue was really just part of the mystery to be uncovered (there’s no “Curse Of Peladon”, just an old monster in a cave; that’s not a Mummy lurching around, it’s the robot servant of a super-powerful alien). In the Rings of Akhaten, the conflict is more prominent and dealt with in more powerful ways.
At first, there’s something sweet and fascinating about the traditions of Ahkaten, how they don’t trade with money but with items of sentimental value. Clara asks if it’s true that all life started in Ahkaten and The Doctor is happy to reflect that it’s what the people there believe. Nothing wrong with a bit of faith – nobody’s getting hurt. And The Doctor explains that it’s psychic resonance that’s being picked up in the traded items and of course, we just want that little girl to have her big moment, she’s not really singing a song to a God. But something goes wrong and The Doctor has to spring into action as that God thing actually does wake up, which provokes a wee bit of running around, and a few more bits of bigger themes.
This episode has a similar function (on the surface anyway) as Series 5’s “The Beast Below” – it is the story which proves that Clara has what it takes to be A Companion. Clara comes up trumps, straight away (a bit like Amy) finding a child in trouble and befriending them. Then, when the shit hits the fan, there’s not a bit of her that wants to run away. There’s a waking God to confront and the way The Doctor and Clara deal with it is what makes this episode special. The religious followers of The Old God (being the bleeding great orange planet thing) believe it wants their souls, but The Doctor knows it feeds on experience, what the religious folk would interpret as their “souls”. And as we know that psychic resonance is “real” science in the Whoniverse (psychic paper is not magic), then The Doctor’s explanation anchors the whole thing in, at least, the fictional scientific and rational universe.
The Doctor’s finite stream of experience, no matter how vast it is, is still not enough to engorge the Old God. But the infinite possibilities of experience, streaming out of Clara’s leaf, and all that it stands for is, obviously, infinitely larger and is just the thing to sort the Old God out.
There are two passages in the episode which elevate it from being just another “power of love sorting it all out” story. After Merry has telekinetically pinned Clara to the Mummy-thing’s case, The Doctor has to persuade the little girl, who has led her whole life believing it was her destiny to be chosen for sacrifice, to let go. His explanation is beautiful – Merry is unique and to be sacrificed would be a waste, not because she was born to fulfil the artificial “destiny” of her faith, but because the real, rational, physical effects of the universe have made her so. It is the ongoing clashes of particles since the beginning of time that have led to Merry being right there, right then. There is wonder and awe and joy in this explanation that has no need for a God to explain it.
Similarly with Clara’s leaf; the first time I saw the episode, it was the absurd embodiment of that whole power of love nonsense that seemed to be replacing my preferred scientific resolving of problems. But it’s not. Its “power”, for want of a better term, stems from the same rational, science based explanation of why Merry is unique and valuable and, indeed, why all of us are.
What is the soul? Is it some supernatural, immutable essence of who we are, created by God, sent into the world by God and then eventually taken back again, by God – for whatever capricious motives He might have? I say no – and I’d say that “The Rings of Ahkaten” agrees with me. Our souls are the sum of our experience, which is informed by the experiences and personalities of those around us and who have come before us, and that which we pass on and share to all that are around us and will come after us. Some worry that it’s a bit prosaic that our minds and memories are made up of electrical impulses fizzing between molecules. But those molecules are made of elements born in the fires of exploding stars. And that universe spanning, all-time reaching process of stellar birth and re-birth has led to a species that can recognise those very processes that allow us to recognise them.
Surely there’s a beauty there that’s more profound and wonderful than any crude myth written up to, at best, make us feel a bit warm and fuzzy or, at worst, keep us under control?
The big orange planet thing as Universe devouring…thing is, frankly, a bit daft. However, this story has the bravery to stand up and proudly declare that the ramblings of myth and religion cannot compare to the incomparable beauty of truth. An enlightening 9/10.
Written and edited by Richard Barnes