18 September 2011

Watching Doctor Who before the Easter Vigil...

'The God Complex,' last night's Doctor Who episode, was interesting, and I was amused by someone tweeting in its aftermath to say:
'That was fun: people getting attacked by the god of Feuerbach, with a cameo by David Walliams as a sort of alien LibDem.'
This, of course, set me to frowning at my failure to have read any Feuerbach, as I don't really think it's good enough to read about people; you have to read what they actually said themselves. It's obvious that the current crop of celebrity atheists are pygmies riding on the shoulders of the likes of Feuerbach, Marx, Nietszche, and Freud, and it bothers me that I've read so little of those four. None of Feuerbach, as I've said, and far too little of the other three. They're serious thinkers, and require serious engagement.

This evening, Paul Cornell -- whose written some fine episodes of Doctor Who in his own right -- said that he'd got around to watching it:
'Just saw last night's Doctor Who: excellent stuff, and, maybe surprisingly for that subject, a positive portrayal of a person of faith.'
The person in question was Rita, the intelligent young doctor who responds to the Doctor's surprised question, 'You're Muslim?' with a simple 'Don't be frightened.' She comes across very well, a fine example of how faith and reason can work in harmony, rather than in crude opposition. Still, I found it kind of surprising that  he thought a positive portrayal of a person of faith to be surprising in Doctor Who. 

He'd not be alone in holding that view, though, as the Guardian's blogpost on the episode makes clear:
'In the end "The God Complex" was funny and thoughtful: Doctor Who is by nature a secular show, but this didn't hammer you over the head with an atheist agenda; until her faith got the better of her, Rita was presented as being empowered by it. It was blind faith, of course that emerged as dangerous.'
Aside from the lazy conflation of secularism with atheism -- they're very different phenomena, in that that though plenty of atheists are secularists, there are plenty of secularists who aren't atheists and there have been plenty of atheists who most certainly weren't secularists -- I found this an odd statement. Is Doctor Who really a secular show? Indeed, given how the Guardian commentator seems to see little difference between secularism and atheism, is it a normally an atheist show?

Secularist, but not Atheist...
My feeling has long been that Doctor Who might be a secular show, but it certainly isn't an atheist one -- how could it be, given that its principal character is somebody who has a habit of giving his life for those he loves, sacrificing himself to save the world, and then returning to life again?

And yes, I realise that the two most recent show-runners for Doctor Who, Russell T. Davies and Stephen Moffat, are atheists, but the reality seems to be that if you write a messianic character, then in our post-Christian culture it's hard to pull this off without Christ shining through.

And sometimes it's very obvious. Did you notice how the Doctor was betrayed with a kiss in the recent 'Let's Kill Hitler' episode? A poisoned kiss, as we were later to learn, with the TARDIS informing the Doctor that:
'Your system has been contaminated by the poison of the Judas Tree.'
Yes, slain by a kiss from the Judas Tree. Shades of Gethsemane, anyone?

Check out Mark 14:45, for starters...

An Easter Hero
The Doctor as Christ motif has been unmissable in Stephen Moffat's two series, the first of which began on Easter Saturday 2010, the second on Easter Saturday 2011. Given the Doctor's messianic character, as a sacrificed and risen saviour, that these series should have launched at Easter looks fortuitous, to say the least. Moffat, as an exceptionally skilled writer, seems to have loaded both 'The Eleventh Hour' and 'The Impossible Astronaut' with Paschal imagery.

Watch, for instance, how the pre-credits sequence to 'The Eleventh Hour' saw the Doctor having an encounter with a cross...

Look on top of the spire. Plotwise, is this necessary?

And how the after the credits we're taken to young Amelia Pond praying in her room, with her prayers seemingly being answered by the TARDIS crashing in her back garden. The first words we heard spoken by Amy -- the first words we hear in Stephen Moffat's run of Doctor Who -- are the following prayer:
'Dear Santa, thank you for the dolls and pencils, and the fish. It's Easter now, so I hope I didn't wake you, but -- honest -- it is an emergency. There's a crack in my wall. Aunt Sharon says it's just an ordinary crack, but I know it's not. Because at night, there's voices. So please, please could you send someone to fix it? Or a policeman. Or -- back in a moment -- Thank you, Santa.'
For what it's worth, we'll later see that she has a large cross on a drawing in her room.

Yes, I know that she's praying to Santa rather than God, but we live in a confused world nowadays. And don't gloss over the fact that the pet she received is a fish either; it might seem a chance reference, but I really don't think it is. Even without the references to them, we'd know Amelia had dolls and pencils, as much later on we see the drawings she's done and the dolls she's made of the Doctor and herself. The fish, which we'll never see, is the most ancient symbol of Christianity -- indeed of Christ himself, and this passage let's us know that the sequence isn't merely shown at Easter; it's set at Easter, which will make the following scenes all the more significant.

She rushes out into the garden, this redheaded girl, where she meets, as someone rising from his tomb, a man who has saved the world, and died, and been restored to life. It's worth noting that Mary Magdalene, apostle to the apostles and first witness to the Resurrection in at least a couple of Gospels, was invariably represented in medieval art as a redhead. Lest you think it's silly to read any significance into that, keep in mind too that Eve was often also construed in medieval thought as a redhead -- because Adam was made from red clay, and she was made from Adam -- and that in early Christian thought, the entire Passion story was regarded as the story of Eden recast.

But I'll get to that in a bit.

Anyway, Amy brings the Doctor inside as he's hungry, and it turns out that the only thing he eats is the improbable combination that is fish fingers and custard. Yes. Fish. Again. But take a look at Luke's gospel, where Jesus addresses the dumbfounded apostles, still incapable of believing that he was physically present among them, by asking whether they had anything to eat, and then taking some fish from them, and eating it. It's his consumption of the fish that proves he's really there, that they're not imagining him.

Important to the story too are Annette Crosbie's character Mrs Angelo and her grandson Jeff. Two angels, so, just like in Luke 24 and Acts 1.

It's not a straight point-for-point allegory, by any means, but rather an Easter tale that plays in a polyvalent way with Paschal ideas and imagery. Other aspects of the Passion and Easter story show their faces in the episode, most notably his promise to Amy -- just before his 'ascension' -- that he'll return, the darkening of the sky during the day, and the very odd moment when, triumphant over the episode's serpentine villain he spreads his arms wide and cries 'who da man?'

Who da man? Behold the man, more like it. With arms spread like that in a moment of triumph over the Devil, he embodies the Christus Victor principle.

And yes, I said the Devil.

Two Gardens, Two Temptations...
Early Christian thought put a lot of weight on the Protoevangelium of Genesis 3:15 and of Paul's description at 1 Corinthians 15:22  of Jesus as a new Adam; it saw the whole story of Christ's incarnation, and in particular his passion and death on the cross, as a recasting of the drama of Eden. Jesus was the new Adam, Mary the new Eve, Gethsemane the new Eden, and the Cross the new Tree.

Well, if Easter carries within it the imagery of Eden, it probably shouldn't surprise us that lots of the action in this episode should take place in a garden, that there'd be a couple of scenes where nudity appears as somehow simultaneously natural and shameful, and that there'd be a memorable moment where our redheaded Eve would give our Adam an apple...

I know, in the Bible it's simply a generic fruit, but still, in our culture we've always thought of the fruit as being an apple. Amy gives the Doctor an apple, but unlike Adam he doesn't eat it; instead like Christ, the second Adam, he'll eat fish.

And, of course, the diabolic villain's a serpent...

The Eden story is, of course, the story of the Fall, of how the world goes wrong; it's an idea that occurs in other myths too, perhaps most famously in the Greek myth of Pandora's box. It's curious then that Prisoner Zero will eventually taunt the Doctor by saying 'The universe is cracked. The Pandorica will open.'

More tomorrow...

1 comment:

Maidrin Ruadh said...

Very interesting and possibly true that Christian imagery informs some of the decisions, but I think you are reading too much into the show. For example, Amelia Pond is red haired because both the actresses who play her (incidently, they are cousins) are red haired. In other words, is the red hair an essential part of the plot or just the hair colour of the actress who successfully got the part of Companion.