Book Review: 2010: Odyssey Two
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Posts by Mike:
- Why won’t Hurt’s and Tennant’s Doctors remember these events? Not just because “Moffat decided to break the rules.” Smith’s Doctor explicitly tells the other two that their “time streams are out of sync.” One doesn’t have to buy the reason the script gives, but one must admit it’s there!
- How can Tom Baker’s “Curator Doctor” be Smith’s Doctor from a future point in time? Again, the dialogue makes it clear (by Who standards of clarity, anyway): the Curator tells the Doctor that he may find himself “revisiting” a few old, favorite faces. Consider also that, in “The Night of the Doctor,” the Sisterhood of Karn gave McGann’s Doctor an elixir that removes the randomness of regeneration. We can infer that the Doctor will choose to revisit Tom Baker’s face, albeit in a form reflecting his age and wisdom. In his brief scene as the Curator, in fact, Baker embodies a blend of seniority and silliness; he achieves the balance of youth and age that preoccupies all three Doctors throughout the special.
- The Zygon plot was not “pointless,” as Ben and Matt contend.The Zygons specifically may not have been needed, but some threat to the Earth was, so Kate would face the kind of impossible choice the Doctor faced in the Time War. This allegedly “pointless” plot underscores the main point of the special: “another way” out of conflict must be found and, when a “closer look” is taken, can be found. This philosophy is close to the modern series’ heart: “No one dies today!”
- Think of Abraham and Sarah, so eager to make God’s promise of a child come true that they try to hurry the plan along by drawing Hagar into the mess.
- Think of King Saul, who refused to wait for the prophet Samuel and took it upon himself to play priest, earning God’s anger and losing Israel’s throne.
- Think of Saul’s successor, David, who indulged a moment of moral weakness by calculating the conquest of another man’s wife, a decision that led to bloodshed and grief.
- Think of Judas, who may have been so impatient for Jesus to show himself as Messiah that he accepted a payoff of thirty pieces of silver for forcing Jesus’ hand.
- The Refertilisation of Weed Planet 313 by Ron Jon Newton recounts the invasion from the Martian perspective, yielding insight you might not expect. The increasingly anguished transmissions from the Martian tripod operators to their commanders back home lead me to think about how quick we are to demonize those who are different from us, and to appreciate again the wisdom in Jesus’ call, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5.44).
- Herbert West versus the Martians (A Tale of Our Fair City) by audio drama troupe Hartlife NFP in Chicago is my personal favorite of the three. It’s a hilarious romp through the tropes of space invader stories, starring a ridiculously larger-than-life scientist who seems to save the day almost despite himself. Don’t let his chipper tone fool you too much, however; there’s an unexpected dip into darkness at the end that reminds us, in the prophet Jeremiah’s words, that the human heart “is devious above all else; it is perverse—who can understand it?” (17.9). All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory, even swaggering, square-jawed Herbert West.
- Finally, first-place winner Dead London by the UK’s Wireless Theatre Company returns Wells’ Martians to their old stomping grounds, adapting the Mercury Theatre’s listen-as-it-happens approach (well suited to the modern, social media age, it turns out—for example, the falling cylinder almost immediately gets its own Twitter hashtag) but preserving the novel’s English locales. In fact, the drama was recorded live and entirely on location at Horsell Common, as in Wells’ original. (Grovers Mills gets spared this time around!) Dead London treats the Martian invasion as an apocalypse, not just in the sense of a world-ending event, but also in the sense the original Greek word suggests. An “apocalypse” is, literally, an unveiling, a revelation… and what Dead London’s characters learn about themselves when all they know is stripped away may be more terrifying than any tripod.
- Tomorrow, our editor extraordinaire Sarah Pfeffer kicks things off with a howling good list…
- On Friday, October 25, Joshua Thiede invites you in for some not-so-friendly games…
- On Saturday, October 26, Max Pfeffer makes some monstrously good viewing suggestions for the weekend…
- On Sunday, October 27, Matt Anderson has a devil of a time delving into a DC comic book…
- On Monday, October 28, Mike Poteet knows how to get Sleepy Hollow fans through those “No new episode again?!?” blues…
- On Tuesday, October 29, Daniel Butcher grants you access to the darker side of Level Seven…
- On Wednesday, October 30, Ben DeBono asks if you’ve been scared by any good books lately…
- And last but not least, on the big day itself, Adam Pracht revisits the best Halloween animation without a jazz score by Vince Guaraldi
Now that’s a birthday party!
Could Doctor Who have been feted with any more spectacle, fun, and affection than it was in “The Day of the Doctor?” I don’t think so. Steven Moffat spun his strongest Who tale since “The Big Bang.” Writing a story to celebrate the venerable franchise’s half-century mark couldn’t have been easy, but Moffat met the moment (no pun intended) with courage, cleverness, and charm.
Moffat was aided and abetted by a remarkably talented cast. Matt Smith was at his simultaneously brilliant and batty, fast-talking, fez-tossing, hand-flapping best (LOL), and David Tennant effortlessly slipped back into his “proper skinny” suit and “sandshoes.” It’s obvious the two men had great fun working together; the meeting of Doctors Ten and Eleven (well, I say Ten and Eleven…) in an Elizabethan forest–with the reign and life of Elizabeth I herself on the line–makes me grin each time I watch it.
As the “War Doctor,” John Hurt almost steals the show from them both, however. Based on what we glimpsed of him in “The Name of the Doctor” and “The Night of the Doctor,” I feared this “new” Doctor would be the grim-and-gritty villain of the piece. Instead, I am delighted by Hurt’s portrayal of the Doctor in the moments before The Moment. Hurt can conveys the physical and emotional toll of the Time War with a look—and convince me that, even on “the day it wasn’t possible to get it right,” the Doctor’s light had not been entirely consumed by darkness (“Why are you pointing your screwdrivers like that? They’re scientific instruments, not water pistols!”).
I applaud the decision to bring back Billie Piper. As the “Bad Wolf Girl” Interface, she is, yeah, a little hot (as one of the script’s early jokes puts it, letting us know this show won’t be all serious business), a little creepy, and a lot compelling. I also found myself genuinely enjoying Jenna Coleman as Clara for the first time since “The Snowmen.” No longer “the Impossible Girl,” she shows herself a capable Companion, especially in her private conversation with the War Doctor. Only her clear eyes see the significance of the War Doctor’s still young ones, allowing her to plant a seed of change she then helps Smith’s Doctor fully grow.
“The Day of the Doctor” has no shortage of impressive female characters. Joanna Page is a formidable Queen Elizabeth (“I may have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but at the time, so did the Zygon”). Jemma Redgrave made a welcome return as Kate Lethbridge-Stewart, smart and strong-willed and not to be trifled with. And I hope we’ll see Ingrid Oliver come back as Osgood sometime. Although she “prays” to the Doctor to save her, she’s able to save herself when circumstances demand, as that quick jerk of the Tom Baker scarf from under her Zygon duplicate’s feet makes clear!
I don’t want to slight the behind-the-scenes wizards. Visually, “The Day of the Doctor” feels more cinematic than any of the “standalone, movie-style episodes” from series seven. A few moments did seem manufactured mostly for 3D, but overall, the special surpassed the modern series’ consistently high special effects standard. Watching the Time War unfold in all its Star Wars-esque CGI glory was especially exciting. (The TARDIS crashing through the wall into those waiting Daleks, knocking them over like so many bowling pins? Outstanding!)
I hope the powers that be over at Star Trek, no doubt already eyeing their franchise’s fiftieth anniversary in 2016, were watching carefully. This is how you mark such a milestone: honoring the past with passion and panache, while at the same time charting a fresh new direction for the future.
Pooh-Pooh to Party Poopers!
And now for some internecine grumbling…
Remember that little ditty Martin Short’s character in Father of the Bride sings? “Every party needs a pooper, that’s why we invited you?” I was humming it as I listened to our own Ben De Bono and Matt Anderson rain on Who’s parade in their comments on the special. I know, they said they liked it. But were we watching the same show? I have ready answers for at least three of their objections.
I grant that Matt and Ben make the valid point that Doctor Who continuity problems can be challenging and sometimes impossible to solve. (See my own attempt to come to peace with “The Wedding of River Song” and, frankly, series six as a whole!) Why did a baker’s dozen of Doctors show up all at once to shove Gallifrey off to a pocket universe? As I told a friend who asked the same question, “I don’t know, but it sure was cool.” Sometimes for Moffat, that’s motivation enough.
On the other hand, Doctor Who in its modern form is rarely real science fiction. Moffat has contended repeatedly that it is a fairy tale, and fairy tales adhere to the logic of dreams and unfettered imagination, and to the longings of the heart. But Moffat has also made Doctor Who a magic show. Magic show audiences strike this contract with the illusionist: “We’ll suspend our disbelief in order for you to fool us, as long as you make it worth our while.” “The Day of the Doctor” doesn’t make perfect sense—but every single one of its seventy-five minutes makes me feel perfectly entertained.
“See, Everything Has Become New!”
Matt and Ben did raise a question that occurred to me, too: Did the Time Lords deserve to be saved? In its previous allusions to and depictions of the Time War, Doctor Who has revealed (not, I gather, without classic series precedent) that Gallifreyan society had become corrupt and immoral. We learned in series three, for example, that the Council essentially created the Master as a living weapon, driving him mad by planting that incessant drumbeat in his mind. In “The End of Time,” we saw Rassilon was more than willing to claim a Earth for Gallifrey’s rebirth. The Doctor believed the Time War made his people no better than their enemies; and if we take “The Night of the Doctor” seriously, we must believe that conviction motivates the War Doctor, too. How, then, could he and Tennant’s Doctor agree with Smith’s Doctor’s plan to preserve Gallifrey?
It’s a good question, but I think it’s easily answered. As the Doctor states, he’s had four centuries to think over his actions—and he’s changed his mind. And if we sci-fi Christians don’t find that answer satisfactory, we might ask what that dissatisfaction says about us. Can Christians, who profess to be saved by grace alone (Eph. 2.5), ever resent the gift of a second chance? Dare we risk acting like Jonah, camped out under a sorry little bean plant on Nineveh’s outskirts, complaining that God has changed the divine mind, lamenting God’s decision to really be gracious and merciful, “slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (Jonah 4.2). No, the Doctor is not God—but how can we feel anything but glad that he, in effect, shows mercy to his own world—especially, to its over two million children, innocents caught in the crossfire who, like the citizens of Nineveh, “do not know their right hand from their left” (4.11)?
The Doctor extends grace and mercy not only to Gallifrey but also to the Doctor himself. I felt so torn watching the three Doctors place their hands, together, on the Moment’s Big Red Button. With Clara, I wanted them not to press it; but I at least appreciated that Tennant’s and Smith’s Doctors were acknowledging and acting in solidarity with Hurt’s. In that scene, the Doctor owns up to his past in a new and painful way. He has mentioned more than once what he’s done, but now he squarely faces and claims his action as his own. In order for us to experience growth and new life, we also must own up to the actions for which we’d rather deny responsibility. We must claim the faces we try to keep hidden, even from ourselves—for they are not hidden to God.
In the end, of course, the Doctor(s) rewrite(s) his (their) own history (whew!), and “The Day of the Doctor” is a day of new beginnings. The removal of Gallifrey from the field of battle strikes me as an event J.R.R. Tolkien would term a eucatastrophe:
…the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale)… [the] sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur… [denying] universal final defeat and… giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world… (“On Fairy-Stories”)
As with all good birthday parties, the dominant tone is joy. The Doctor gives his world and himself the gift of new direction, new hope, new life. It may not be “sudden” from his point of view—again, he’s had four hundred years to work the calculations (at last, that unresolved age discrepancy from series six pays off!), but it is sudden from ours; and, from any vantage point, it is miraculous. Wherever we see new direction, hope, and life breaking forth, the ultimate cause is the same grace and love of God we see in Jesus Christ, in whom “everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor. 5.17). The Doctor is reconciled to Gallifrey, to himself, and—“Who knows?”—to a new, future homecoming, even if it will be “the long way ’round.”
If the BBC teaser for Matt Smith’s impending last “Geronimo” is to be trusted, we are not done with Trenzalore, the Silence, or the First Question in the short run. But “The Day of the Doctor” has set a refreshing and resoundingly joyful new direction for Doctor Who in the long run. I look forward to seeing to what hopeful places this madman with the magic, blue box take us as the program’s fifty-first year begins.
All Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version.
I wouldn’t be surprised if An Adventure in Space and Time prompts some viewers to decide William Hartnell, the first actor to portray the character, is their favorite Doctor. This new docudrama, created as part of the celebration of Doctor Who’s fiftieth anniversary, is not only a deft and engrossing dramatization of the classic series’ beginnings but also a beautiful portrait of an actor who, facing what he thought was the end of his career, unexpectedly found himself at an incredible new beginning.
Not Hartnell alone, of course. Adventure shows us why Doctor Who has no ready counterpart to Gene Roddenberry or George Lucas. Its opening credits include no “Created By” title card. Doctor Who was a group effort, one many people believed in and worked hard to bring to the screen.
Having only been a Who fan since 2010, I’m sure I didn’t catch all the ways Mark Gatiss’ script streamlines Doctor Who’s genesis—although, having recently watched the DVD featurettes for “An Unearthly Child,” I think I caught a few (for example, the TARDIS control room wasn’t designed haphazardly by BBC artists at all, but was outsourced to a model-maker who did an extraordinary job on an extremely tight budget). I also noticed the many details Adventure got absolutely right (the TARDIS control console really was painted light green, to show up as white on monochrome televisions; the Radiophonic Workshop really did create the TARDIS engine sound by scraping a house key across piano wires).
But Gatiss makes the very smart decision to emphasize the pioneering work of producer Verity Lambert (played by Jessica Raine) and director Waris Hussein (Sacha Dhawan). Bringing the BBC’s new Saturday afternoon science fiction serial for children to life was challenge enough; that Lambert was a woman working in a predominantly male business and that Hussein was the BBC’s first Indian director only increased the odds they were up against. Adventure doesn’t dwell on the sexism and racism Lambert and Hussein encounter, but it does depict it, reminding us how far society has come since 1963 thanks to people like these two inventive talents.
Still, Adventure is mostly Hartnell’s story. As played by
Bradley Martin David Bradley (whoops!), Hartnell is, before he dons the Doctor’s white wig and Astrakhan hat, a curmudgeonly and short-tempered cynic who’s dismissive of the so-called “success” he’s found playing authority figures in military movies. When Lambert and Hussein approach him about playing the Doctor, Hartnell is hostile toward the idea. As he commits to the part and the project, however, he undergoes an almost Scrooge-like transformation, reconnecting with his passion for his craft (he insists on mapping out the function of every switch and dial on the TARDIS console in order to insure week-to-week consistency, because “the kiddies will notice”) and his inner child—his “twinkle.” I don’t know whether the scene in which Hartnell spontaneously leads a group of adoring schoolchildren through a park “back to the TARDIS” actually happened, but I dearly hope it did! Hartnell enjoys the attention, certainly (as the scene in which he admires his portrait on the first Doctor Who Annual illustrates), but I sensed he truly loved firing young people’s imaginations, even if he didn’t always quite understand how he did so.
The adulation of British children, however, became a burden Hartnell cannot continue to bear. Several years into Doctor Who’s run, we watch Hartnell, whose poor health and age are catching up with him, running lines with his wife at bedtime, worried sore that he will disappoint his young fans. “They’re depending on me,” he says. Hartnell has reconnected with his own granddaughter, Judy; she tells her classmates, “My sampa is Doctor Who, and he can do anything!” Hearing Hartnell tell her that she “mustn’t expect too much from [her] old grandpa” is only one of many moving moments in the film’s latter half, as Hartnell struggles to cope with the series’ “gobbledygook”-filled scripts and unforgiving production schedule.
It may sound as though Adventure is heading for a sad ending. Wonderfully, it isn’t. It emerges as more than a biopic, as more than a behind-the-scenes story of a TV show, because it reads Hartnell’s experience as a parable. It reminds us, certainly, that nothing lasts forever (even to the point of putting the words of David Tennant’s Doctor in Hartnell’s mouth—“I don’t want to go”— the only “meta” moment that rang a little hollow for me). But even more, it celebrates our God-given capacity for creativity. When we choose to, Adventure says, we can use our talents to bring even the wildest flights of fancy to life, entertaining and enlightening others, and even inspiring them toward creative adventures of their own.
The latest series from über-executive producer J.J. Abrams puts two charismatic leading men—Karl Urban (whose pitch-perfect “Bones” McCoy is widely acclaimed as one of the best parts of Abrams’ Star Trek movies) and Michael Ealy (whom I’ve not seen before, but whom other genre fans might recall from FlashForward or Underworld: Awakening)—into the midst of what feels like a hastily contrived mash-up of Blade Runner; The Caves of Steel and Isaac Asimov’s other Lije Bailey/R. Daneel Olivaw novels; I, Robot (the Will Smith movie, this time); and every “buddy cop” movie you’ve seen since Lethal Weapon.
Set a few decades from now, when law enforcement works side-by-side with advanced humanoid robots to fight an ever-increasing crime rate, Almost Human tracks police detective John Kennex (Urban) as he returns to the force after a more than two-year absence. A deadly ambush he alone survived, planned by a girlfriend who betrayed him, left Kennex physically, mentally, and emotionally traumatized. He’s having trouble reentering life, as seen by both his clandestine visits to a memory recall technician and his psychosomatic inability to accept the bionic leg that replaces the one he lost.
Back on the beat, Kennex (his name sounds kind of, but not quite, like “connect,” which Kennex is having trouble doing—get it?) is paired with Dorian (Ealy), an android with issues of his own. He has the cool android capabilities you’d expect (no need to send a blood sample to the lab when Dorian can just inject it into his own neck and give you instant analysis), but is comfortable interacting with humans (he can deliver his information in “colloquial mode”) and badly wants to be a police officer. His model predates the cold, logical “MX” models currently in use, and is known for being prone to emotional outbursts. Dorian’s kind of like Lore from Star Trek:The Next Generation—retired from use because he was “too human”—only good, not evil. As Kennex’s captain tells him, Dorian is “special… just like you.” See? They’re both damaged goods. They’re both “almost human.” Get it?
Most of the show feels just that predictable. You know Kennex won’t want to be paired with an android (in fact, the pilot’s one genuinely surprising, and very funny, moment came early on, when Kennex literally shoves the MX partner he’s first assigned out of their moving car, into busy traffic), just as you know you’ll see the initial glimmerings of an “unlikely friendship” by the hour’s end (“Call me John”). Almost Human hits its plot and emotional beats in a professional but perfunctory way.
One subplot that hints at something deeper is Kennex’s prejudice toward Dorian. He continually refers to Dorian as a “synthetic,” a term Dorian regards as a slur. At several points, Dorian insists that Kennex treat him with respect, and tries to make Kennex understand his own motivations and hopes. Given that Dorian is played by an African-American actor, Almost Human could choose to use the characters’ relationship as a science fictional exploration of race relations. Ealy and Urban are surely capable of creating a rich interpersonal dynamic that would shine light on our society’s continuing struggle toward acceptance and equality (and not just in matters of race).
If Almost Human pursues that course, however, someone will have to let me know, because I didn’t find enough of value in the pilot to keep me interested. But I may go back and re-read The Caves of Steel sooner rather than later.
I was going to avoid any teasers, trailers, or other assorted goodies the BBC might throw our way before Doctor Who’s big fiftieth birthday on November 23. But today, as my Facebook feed filled with buzz about a “minisode,” my resistance cracked.
“The Night of the Doctor” bridges the gap between Paul McGann’s only televised adventure (until now) as the Eighth Doctor in the 1996 Doctor Who TV movie and the birth of the “modern series” in 2005. Who would’ve thought seven minutes could contain so much action, characterization, emotion, and sparkling dialogue? Stephen Moffat, that’s who. If “The Night of the Doctor” is any indication of what we can expect from “The Day of the Doctor” next weekend, we’re in for a treat.
Following up on the cryptic, closing scene of “The Name of the Doctor,” this minisode makes clear that John Hurt’s “War Doctor” marks a departure from the way our favorite Time Lord generally sees himself (or, at least, saw himself). This Doctor is not “a good man,” but a good man gone to war (that sounds familiar…) Cass’ death, coupled with the intense hatred she expressed toward him, provokes the Doctor to renounce his Samaritan-like ways on the sidelines of the Time War in favor of aggressive intervention. Faced with the Sisterhood of Karn’s warning that the War threatens to destroy the whole universe, and told he has very little time left (cruel irony for a Time Lord), the Doctor chooses a radical reinvention of himself. With a swig of the Sisterhood’s elixir and a painful, rapid regeneration, he is “the Doctor no more.”
While we still don’t know the entire history of the Time War, the Doctor’s decision here strikes me as rash. We know already, from Christopher Eccleston’s first episode on, that it will have relentless repercussion, not only for the Doctor but also for his friends and enemies. He may feel, at this moment, that he acts (as we heard in the spring) “in the name of peace and sanity,” but he has sacrificed “the name of the Doctor.”
Scripture tells of many people who, faced with a choice between doing what is expedient and doing what’s right, choose wrongly.
At this minisode’s end, the Doctor doesn’t comprehend the consequences of the choice he’s made, any more than these people understood the consequences of their actions… or any more than we do when we choose to act in ways that betray our identity as God’s people. In Christ, God has claimed us to answer to the name “child of God,” but we are too often tempted to renounce that name, as the Doctor here renounces his.
Fortunately for us, God is always calling us back, ready, like the prodigal’s father, to welcome us home and to call us by our true name again. Only time will tell if the Doctor can win back his true name for good (though I suspect he will, of course). Perhaps the stories in which he does will serve as parables for us of how even our worst choices, with all their unintended negative consequences, cannot thwart God’s good purpose and sovereign will.
Let all God’s people say, “Allons-y, Geronimo, and Amen!”
Sleepy Hollow’s characters sell the show. The series’ command of historical facts is erratic, and “far-fetched” doesn’t begin to describe its rapidly mushrooming mythology. With lesser personalities portrayed by lesser actors, this show would be nothing but nonsense. The fact that so many viewers have instead immediately embraced it speaks to the strength of Abbie Mills and Ichabod Crane as protagonists we care about, relate to, and want to learn more about. The moving scene at the climax of this episode, in which Abbie and Ichabod are painfully saying their good-byes, proves that they are the heart of the series.
I worry, though, that the treatment of Ichabod in “The Sin Eater” risks distancing him from us. I don’t mean the revelation that, during his Revolutionary days as a loyal Redcoat, he oversaw the torture of Arthur Bernard (played by Tongayi Chirisa), a.k.a. “Cicero,” an emancipated black man who published a “treasonous” pamphlet advocating American independence. Discovering that characters grapple with flaws and past failures doesn’t necessarily make them less appealing. The exploration in earlier episodes of Abbie’s guilt for betraying Jenny, for instance, made her more complex and sympathetic. Now, however, Sleepy Hollow seems reluctant to let Ichabod wrestle with genuine guilt over a genuine failing. This rush to absolve him leads to some unsatisfying consequences.
“Cicero” and Sin
I studied a freeze frame of the title page of Bernard’s pamphlet as closely as I could. It appears to be a real publication entitled Plain Truth; Addressed To The Inhabitants of America, printed in Philadelphia in 1776. Its author did write pseudonymously, but under the name “Candidus.” Scholars, however, identify Candidus as James Chalmers, a Maryland loyalist who spent the pamphlet’s eighty-four pages rebutting Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. Chalmers builds to this conclusion:
Volumes were insufficient to describe the horror, misery and desolation, awaiting the people at large in the Syren form of American independence… [I]t would be most excellent policy in those who wish for TRUE LIBERTY to submit by an advantageous reconciliation to the authority of Great Britain… INDEPENDENCE AND SLAVERY ARE SYNONYMOUS TERMS.
(Even in olden times, folks knew how to SHOUT using ALL CAPS!)
In our world, Plain Truth wouldn’t have earned the wrath of the British Crown. In Sleepy Hollow, however, it ultimately leads Bernard to death, a death for which Ichabod has always held himself responsible. He believes if he’d acted sooner to help Bernard escape, the man would have lived.
I think he’s right! I thought it spoke well of him that, as Abbie’s conscience haunted her about her past sin, Ichabod’s refused to let him forget Bernard. But rather than give Ichabod an authentic chance for confession of sin and repentance, as Abbie was given in “For the Triumph of Evil,” Sleepy Hollow’s writers let him off the hook. Channeled through the Sin Eater, Bernard himself tells Ichabod, “My death saved your soul.” If he hadn’t died when he did, Bernard suggests, Ichabod might never have found his destiny. “Only you chose to see [your part in my death] as a sin,” Bernard assures him, “when all along it was your salvation.” Ichabod doesn’t need Bernard’s forgiveness (or, presumably, God’s); instead, he must forgive himself, because the Horseman feeds on Ichabod’s regret.
The conversation made me cringe. It reduces Bernard, an intriguing character in his own right, to someone defined almost entirely by his relationship to Ichabod. What’s more, because Bernard is black, it makes him a “magic Negro,” a stereotype I’ve discussed before. The “magic Negro” possesses secret knowledge and reveals it to white people in trouble, rescuing and redeeming them. “Magic Negro” stories apparently focus on a black character, but actually marginalize them. Bernard has been the victim of both slavery and imperialism—but we are told, in effect, it’s all good, because Ichabod Crane—our good white man who was an abolitionist and fellowshipped with Mohawks—needed Bernard in order to “find [his] way to [his] true home.” For a series that features so many actors of color in so many prominent roles, Bernard’s story seems a misstep, at best.
Perhaps Bernard was intended as a Christ-figure—certainly, his nobility and insistence on higher truth in the face of the abuse he receives from Ichabod and the other Redcoats calls to mind Christ’s similar composure and single-mindedness during his trial before Pilate—but the easy dismissal of Ichabod’s “sin” guts much theological significance from this story. Are there times when we must forgive ourselves? Absolutely, and the Gospel can give us the perspective and power we need in order to do so. But can all sin be addressed through self-forgiveness only?
Sleepy Hollow itself seems to know better. Earlier in this very episode, Abbie defined sin as “a transgression of divine law.” That’s an answer my own, Reformed tradition can certainly endorse; the Westminster Shorter Catechism, for example, defines sin as “any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God” (Q. 14). But are we really to believe Ichabod has never transgressed God’s law? Didn’t Ro’kenhrontyes (in “For the Triumph of Evil”) tell Ichabod, “Your sins aren’t mine to judge?” Is Ichabod, then, the only “judge” of his “sins?” Are we the only “judges” of ours?
We’d often like to think so. We would like to pretend that we’ve simply been mistaken, that we’ve been “beating ourselves up” over nothing, that we simply chose, wrongly, to see mistakes and imperfections as “sins.” But sin is more than a matter of self-condemnation. We deserve God’s condemnation. The good news is not that we have not sinned, but that God’s grace is greater than our sins—that when we sin, “we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2.1-2).
Dining on Death
If you believe any of the myriad theories that are floating around the Internet, the Freemasons must be involved in any generations-spanning conspiracy surrounding esoteric knowledge and spiritual struggle. I think it’s in their contract.
This week, the Masons finally reared their endlessly fascinating head in Sleepy Hollow. According to Abbie and Jenny, Masons are on the right side of the fight to avert the Apocalypse; they’re “the good guys,” along with the Knights Templar (another go-to group where centuries-spanning conspiracies are concerned; find some facts about them in Wendy Brydge’s recent post at her Seeker of Truth blog). Masons do count several Founders among their ranks, though not Edward Rutledge of South Carolina (who was the Declaration of Independence’s youngest signatory, but who only signed reluctantly).
Getting accurate information about secret societies and closed fraternities proved difficult—they are, you know, secret and closed—so instead I rooted around for background on this episode’s other central concept.
I found a fascinating description of sin-eating, a practice whose “roots are deeply buried in antiquity,” in a 1926 book called Funeral Customs, by one Bertram S. Puckle (the most amusing author’s name you’ll see today). Just as Sleepy Hollow portrayed it, the ritual is believed to effect “the transfer of a personality for good or for evil, by means of the consumption of certain food.” Unlike Henry Parrish, however, sin-eaters generally performed their services for those who’ve just died rather than those just about to. Eating a piece of bread and drinking a bowl of beer passed over the corpse, the eater took “upon himself the sins of the deceased, who, thus freed, would not walk after death.” (Sounds like ghost or zombie insurance.)
Puckle also reports:
Professor Evans of the Presbyterian College, Carmarthen, actually saw a sin-eater about the year 1825, who was then living near Llanwenog, Cardiganshire. Abhorred by the superstitious villagers as a thing unclean, the sin-eater cut himself off from all social intercourse… [living] in a remote place by himself, and those who chanced to meet him avoided him as they would a leper… [O]nly when a death took place did they seek him out, and when his purpose was accomplished they burned the wooden bowl and platter from which he had eaten…
It’s not clear whether other people abhor Henry Parrish. John Noble expertly plays a man who has voluntarily withdrawn from society, burdened by his inexplicable ability. I wonder whether we’ll learn if Parrish’s value at the time of death has made him, too, a man reviled the rest of the time—a scapegoat, one might say (see Leviticus 16.21-22).
I initially thought the idea of a Sin Eater was about as far away from Christian theology as one can get. Certainly, Christians don’t believe sins can be mystically transferred from one person to another, through gastrointestinal or other means. But then I realized we aren’t strangers to the idea of one who willingly bears others’ infirmities and carries their diseases, who is wounded for their transgressions and crushed for their iniquities, “from whom others hide their faces” (see Isaiah 53.3-5).
Is Jesus the ultimate Sin Eater? In some sense, he’s the exact opposite. He’s not the eater, but the eaten. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life,” he promises, “and I will raise them up on the last day” (John 6.54). Some Christians take his words literally; others, symbolically or spiritually; still others strive simply to trust those words’ truth without figuring out their “how.” No less an intellectual than John Calvin declared, regarding Christ’s real presence in the Lord’s Supper, “I will not be ashamed to confess that it is too high a mystery either for my mind to comprehend or my words to express… I rather feel than understand it” (Institutes, IV.17.32). Whatever Jesus meant, he meant that we feed on him in order to be “severed from the Horseman” of Death.
And yet… The idea of the Sin Eater made me think of one of my favorite visions of the future God has in store for the world. The prophet Isaiah foresees the day when God will host a bountiful banquet “for all peoples,” a feast “of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear” (no counting calories in the age to come). But the main dish on this miraculous menu, is not served by God to us, but eaten by God for us: “he will swallow up death forever” (Isaiah 25.8).
Maybe the notion of the Sin Eater is a glimmer of the truth that sin, death, and evil are not destined to consume us, but to be themselves consumed, completely “swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor. 15.54).
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version.
The Mercury Theatre on the Air’s presentation of The War of the Worlds—H.G. Wells’ seminal alien invasion novel, brilliantly adapted as a series of “breaking news” announcements by playwright Howard Koch—is the stuff of modern American legend, not only for its effectively hair-raising format (I still shudder when I hear the heat-ray fry the poor people of Grovers Mill to a crisp) but also for the panic it caused among those who, for whatever reason, failed to realize they were listening to a drama rather than a documentary. It’s true, as Slate magazine explained this week, that the broadcast-induced frenzy was far smaller than later generations came to believe (mostly because print journalists, already panicked at the hit their circulation and ad revenue were taking at radio’s upstart hands, were eager to highlight the new medium’s problematic potential). Even so, Welles’ broadcast remains a defining moment for not only science fiction but also America’s relationship to its media. Both NPR’s Radiolab and PBS’ American Experience are exploring The War of the Worlds’ legacy this week, and I encourage you to listen and watch both programs.
I’ve told my fellow sci-fi Christians of my affection for the “panic broadcast” before. This year, I wanted to alert you to some brand-new audio dramas commemorating its diamond jubilee. Aural Stage Studios recently sponsored a contest seeking original audio dramas, no longer than 15 minutes, inspired by Wells’ and Welles’ tales of terror from the Red Planet. The rules stated, “Productions must include all of the following elements: arrival inside a meteorite; tripods are used for locomotion; massive destruction; natural biological solution.”
Had I known about this contest, I might have gotten over my dislike for the microphone, written a script, and rounded up some friends to record an entry! Alas, I didn’t; but I have enjoyed listening and re-listening this week to each of the three winners, and I commend them to you, too.
Fans of The War of the Worlds won’t want to miss this trio of imaginative, engaging, high-quality audio dramas. Listening is free, and these forty-five or so minutes are the perfect way to mark a true genre milestone.
No new Sleepy Hollow episode in the week of Halloween? That’s so wrong! Oh, well. We can still visit our favorite “haunt.” Washington Irving, America’s first true “man of letters,” immortalized it in his short story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1819). Irving’s Sleepy Hollow is, like Halloween itself, a liminal experience, straddling the threshold between fact and fantasy: “There was a contagion in the very air that blew from that haunted region; it breathed forth an atmosphere of dreams and fancies…”
But Irving’s tale isn’t a ghost story.
I first heard about the Headless Horseman from the back of a cereal box. A real, honest-to-goodness 45 rpm record was pressed into the cardboard. You cut it out, put it on your turntable, stuck a penny in the center so the thing wouldn’t go spinning off, and listened.
That ghost’s crazy laughter curled my kiddie blood and kindled my young imagination something fierce!
But there’s nothing supernatural about Irving’s original story. No, the narrator never directly tells us that Brom Bones, the “rantipole” (what a great word) who is Ichabod’s rival for Katrina’s hand, plays the part of the Horseman to scare the superstitious schoolmaster away. If we fail to miss that inescapable conclusion, however, we’re as deserving of derision as Ichabod is.
Irving’s Ichabod is not the “tall, dark, and British” stud on Fox’s hit series. He’s absurdly tall and scrawny, with “hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves” and “feet that might have served for shovels.” He’s vain, gluttonous, and smug. He woos Katrina mostly because he wants to inherit the “almost unimaginable luxury and splendor” of her father’s estate.
The 1949 animated Disney production The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad captures Ichabod’s intolerable essence. From his ungainly appearance to his insufferable superiority complex, Disney’s Ichabod is as unpleasant as Irving’s. (Only the fact that Disney’s Ichabod croons in Bing Crosby’s smooth tones, rather than the nasal whine Irving describes, is incongruous.) When I sat down with my kids to watch this cartoon, for the first time in decades, I was surprised to find myself rooting against him!
The cartoon ends with an exciting rendition of the famous horse race to the footbridge, and the image of the Horseman hurling a flaming jack-o’-lantern at Ichabod is indelible. But the cartoon, generally faithful to Irving’s story (even preserving a fair amount of his text in Crosby’s narration) insists on suggesting that maybe the ghost of a headless Hessian spirited Ichabod away.
Not a chance! In Irving’s story, Ichabod deserves to be bested by Brom because Ichabod represents what the narrator dislikes about the relentlessly forward march of nineteenth-century America.
Between Yesterday and Tomorrow
In Irving’s story, the narrator praises Sleepy Hollow for being a place where “population, manners, and customs remain fixed,” contrasting “the great torrent of migration and improvement, which is making such incessant changes in other parts of this restless country.” The narrator loves Sleepy Hollow because, for all its’ residents fascination with things that go bump in the night, it’s an oasis of stability and security as the rest of America rushes headlong toward the western horizon of modernity.
That’s certainly where Ichabod’s set his sights. He wants to marry Katrina and set out “with a whole family of children… for Kentucky, Tennessee, or the Lord knows where.” The itinerant teacher thinks he’s better than the people of Sleepy Hollow and can’t wait to leave them. In that sense, Brom Bones does Ichabod a favor by scaring him into a sooner departure date!
Almost two centuries after Irving wrote his story, America still struggles to balance respect for the past with anticipation of the future. Christians face this tension, too. We must both remember God’s great deeds for us in the past and not “remember the former things, or consider the things of old,” lest we fail to notice God’s “new things” springing forth (Isaiah 43.18-19, NRSV).
“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” isn’t a ghost story, but presents a potentially harrowing prospect. Will we be so focused on the future that we, like Ichabod, scorn our heritage? On the other hand, will we remain so rooted in the past, as are the literary citizens of Sleepy Hollow, that we succumb to the “drowsy, dreamy influence” of nostalgia? The narrator admires the village for being a Twilight Zone-ish Lake Wobegone, but God doesn’t call Christ’s Church to live that way! Instead, surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses who’ve gone before us, we must wind our way, like the Tappan Zee river, between the shores of past and future, toward the city God has prepared.
Have you seen Verizon’s current “Star Wars meets Halloween” commercial yet?
I’m not here to shill for Verizon, but I do want to tell you to add The Sci-Fi Christian to your virtual trick-or-treating route this week!
From tomorrow until All Hallows’ Eve itself, each of our weird and wonderful writers (it’s up to you to decide who’s who) will have the cyber-porch light on, inviting you ring the bell and get a genre-themed seasonal goody. (No rocks–we promise!) We don’t want to give away any spooky surprises, but here are some sneak peeks…
We hope you’ll have fun making the SFC rounds. It’s guaranteed to be safe, entertaining… and possibly even spiritually enlightening now and then!
So put on that costume, stick fresh batteries in that flashlight, and grab that goody bag, because The SFC 2013 Trick-or-Treat is about ready to begin…
As this week’s arcane lore and secret history swirl around her, Abbie asks, “Are we all having the same conversation here?” She and we can be forgiven the question. Sleepy Hollow’s burgeoning mythology is now mining not only the Bible but also Dante and Milton, legends about King Solomon, and stories of the Knights Templar (is there any complex, centuries-spanning conspiracy those guys aren’t mixed up in?). The series is crafting a crazy quilt of fact, fable, and fantasy, and it’s all terrifically entertaining. Abbie may want to deal with “one story at a time,” but Sleepy Hollow’s writers aren’t afraid to gallop ahead at breakneck speed, trusting us to keep up.
Tea for Who, and Who for Tea?
I enjoy sorting through which details of American history Sleepy Hollow’s writers retain, and which ones they toss overboard like tea into Boston harbor. For instance, Ichabod’s observation that posterity “coined a more festive name” for the events of December 16, 1773 is funny and accurate. Until the 1830s, when rising populism rehabilitated its reputation, the “Boston Tea Party” was remembered more as a regrettable outbreak of mob violence than as a patriotic blow for liberty. George Washington deplored “despotic” taxation without representation and called “the cause of Boston… the cause of America,” but added, “not that we approve their conduct in destroying the tea.” (Of course, Sleepy Hollow says Washington countenanced Ichabod’s instigation of the whole affair, so what else would he say? “Cannot tell a lie,” indeed!)
On the other hand, Ichabod gives Abbie and Jenny the impression that a high tax on tea was the only factor that made the Boston Tea Party possible. It’s true, as Christopher Klein explains, that the British crown’s Tea Act left an unpopular three-pence-per-pound duty in place; however, the law actually lowered the commodity’s price. It gave the East India Company “a virtual monopoly on the American tea trade, allowing it to bypass colonial merchants as middlemen and to even undercut the price of smuggled Dutch tea, which was widely consumed… [It] directly threatened the vested commercial interests of Boston’s wealthy merchants and smugglers, such as John Hancock” and Boston brewer Sam Adams, whom Ichabod names as his ally. The protestors may have been motivated in part by high-minded principles, but their financial stake in smuggled tea also brought the tempest to a boiling point.
Solomon the Unwise
Éliphas Lévi’s 1860 text The History of Magic claims “the name Jehovah resolves into seventy-two explicatory names.” In these names, “the keys of universal science” can be found, and finding them is “the art which is called by Kabalists the Keys of Solomon… [The one] who possesses the Keys of Solomon can communicate with spirits of all grades and can exact obedience on the part of all natural forces.”
According to some legends, King Solomon did just that. The Testament of Solomon, a Greek text from the first to the third centuries of the Common Era, tells how the Archangel Michael presented Solomon with a magic ring: “Take, O Solomon, king, son of David, the gift which the Lord God has sent thee…With it thou shalt lock up all demons of the earth, male and female; and with their help thou shalt build up Jerusalem.” The source of this episode’s title, the seventeenth-century grimorie The Lesser Key of Solomon, catalogues seventy-two demons in Solomon’s workforce, and purports to tell readers how they, too, can enlist them. (Hey, good help is hard to find!)
The Bible lists many of Solomon’s areas of expertise—he was an avid amateur naturalist, for example, and a prolific writer of proverbs (see 1 Kings 4.29-34)—but it doesn’t say he ever dabbled in demonology. It does tell us he “loved many foreign women” who “turned away his heart after other gods” (1 Kings 11.1, 4).
I guess we could infer that Solomon, though world-renowned for wisdom, unwisely dabbled in the dark arts under the influence of these romantic entanglements—though I’m not eager to continue the all-too-frequent Christian practice of pinning the blame for men’s problems on women!
Instead of filling in the details of Solomon’s sin, we’re probably better served confronting and confessing the specifics of our own.
What or who do we let “turn away our hearts” from God? For some, it might be an unhealthy interest in the occult, but I bet, for many, the temptations are more mundane. Work. Food. Sex. Money. Relationships. None of these things are bad in and of themselves, but if we grow to love them more than we love the God who first loved us, they can become our own personal demons, and we’ll be laboring for them.
You’re not likely to find statues of nuns and angels in any Reformed church building, Dutch or otherwise! Even so, by setting this week’s climactic battle in a Christian worship space, the writers again highlight how evil mocks good. Moloch’s minions stage a blasphemous liturgy of “word and sacrament.” They read and pray over the Key of Solomon, instead of the Bible. They co-opt the baptismal font and make it, not the place of new birth in Christ through Spirit-filled waters, but a portal to hell that bubbles over with destruction and death.
While still posing as a piano teacher, Gunther the Shadow Warrior (a chilling performance from Carsten Norgaard) tells his student, “Always the left hand will save you.” The line isn’t just a performance tip; in this context, it’s a statement of hellish hubris. It’s not fair (as my wife, a “leftie,” often laments), but the left hand has long been associated with evil. The Latin word for “left-handed” even yields the English word sinister! Gunther has signed up to be one of Moloch’s long-lived minions because he’s convinced salvation can be found in serving sinister powers. He dies believing evil’s cause is “just,” its triumph “inevitable.”
Before he does, though, he calls Abbie by her first name. On the one hand, the moment is further mockery of God. Gunther’s insistence that Moloch is “inside” Abbie and Jenny, and speaking Abbie’s first name as supposed proof, is a false echo of God’s rightful claim on Israel: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine” (Isaiah 43.1).
The “left hand” of evil can never redeem! Instead, “strong is [God’s] hand, high [God’s] right hand” (Psalm 89.13). Even as Gunther spreads Moloch’s lies by speaking Abbie’s name, he is indirectly and unwillingly glorifying God. Why? Because Abbie’s first name is Grace!
To speak her name is to speak of God’s fundamental posture toward all creation, including sinful and fallen humanity. To speak her name is, in a sense, to speak God’s name—not subdivided into seventy-two mysterious monikers, but one irreducible identity: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness…” (Exodus 34.6). True, a God who “by no means clear[s] the guilty” (34.7); but a God who takes “no pleasure in the death of the wicked” (Ezekiel 33.11), and “who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2.4).
Why has Abbie chosen to use her middle name? “Abigail” means “my father rejoices.” We learned this week that Abbie’s biological father abandoned her, Jenny, and their mother. Did Abbie prefer that name as an unconscious expression of longing for her father’s joy—or, perhaps, as conscious testament to the joy her father figure, Sheriff Corbin, took in her? Or did she perhaps feel unworthy to be named Grace?
No one is worthy of God’s grace—yet God showers it on us in Jesus. To all who receive him, he gives “power to become children of God” (John 1.12), children of a heavenly Father who does rejoice over us.
I was fascinated that, in the episode’s next-to-last scene, Jenny finds poetic beauty in a psalm focused on vengeance (Psalm 94), even as Abby wrestles with, and is developing in, her ability to give and receive grace. Sleepy Hollow features Tom Mison as Ichabod first in its weekly credits, but this scene, together with the knowledge of her first name, confirms my sense that Grace Abigail Mills is really the show’s central character. Her journey to grow in grace is one we all share. The fact that grace comes first in her name makes me hope God’s grace will have the last word in the fictional world of Sleepy Hollow, even as it will, in God’s good time, in the real world.
All Scripture quotations from the New Revised Standard Version.
An itinerant preacher and the founder of monastic orders for men and (with his sister Clare) women, Francis is especially honored as the patron saint of animals. In A People’s History of Christianity (HarperOne, 2009), Diana Butler Bass writes,
Francis is often depicted surrounded by birds and other small animals or, in a famous image, shaking a wolf’s paw… He never crushed worms or ants, and he fed bees wine and honey so they would not die in winter… Bonaventure, a later Franciscan theologian, wrote of Francis, “When he considered the primordial source of all things, he was filled with abundant piety, calling creatures, no matter how small, by the name of brother and sister, because he knew that they had the same source as himself” (pp. 137-38).
The hymn “All Creatures of Our God and King” is based on Francis’ “Canticle of the Sun,” a stirring call for the entire created order—sun and moon, wind and water, and every living thing—to praise God. And it may be heard often today or this weekend, as many congregations, of many denominations, invite their communities to special “Blessing of the Animals” services, not only to give God thanks for the special relationship so many people have with their pets but also to pray for wisdom and compassion as we humans seek to exercise responsible dominion over and stewardship of God’s good earth.
I confess, I’m not a pet person. My family owned a rather neurotic dachshund when I was a boy, and I haven’t wanted a pet since. But I know many pets mean a lot to other people—including, I suspect, more than one sci-fi Christian.
In lieu of our own “Blessing of the Animals,” here are five of my favorite pets from the science fiction genre. I would enjoy watching Saint Francis lay his hands on these in blessing!
5. Muffit II (Battlestar Galactica, 1978)
I’ve mentioned “Muffy” the robot dog (excuse me, daggit) as one of the sillier things about the original Battlestar. Apparently Ronald D. Moore agreed, finding nothing about Muffy worth reimagining. A new Boxey was in grim-and-gritty BSG’s first few episodes, but Muffy was M.I.A.
No question, this computerized canine was strictly for kids. But why should adults hold that against it? As I said, I’m not a pet person myself, I’ve seen animals bring out the inner child in plenty of grown-ups. Jesus told his followers they must “receive the kingdom of God as a little child” (Mark 10.15). Maybe we should see kids’ delight in dogs and other animals as a parable of the joy that will permeate God’s renewed creation.
(This potential parable breaks down if we think too hard about the fact that Muffy is, in fact, an artifice, one that Boxey—supposedly broken-hearted over the original, natural Muffit’s death in the Cylon attack on Caprica—is surprisingly eager to accept. Still, a child’s genuine, wholesome joy probably can’t lead us too far from the kingdom!)
4. K-9 (Doctor Who; first appearance: “The Invisible Enemy,” October 1977)
Whatever Muffy’s merits, Doctor Who had a robot dog first! Not originally intended to be a recurring character, the Doctor’s funny and fiercely loyal mobile computer quickly proved one of the most popular and iconic Companions ever to board the TARDIS. He has even starred in his own spin-off series!
(I wonder if Muffy’s jealous?)
K-9 is beloved for the same reason so many dogs, fictional and real, win people’s affection: his unshakeable loyalty. When the Krillitanes took over Deffy Vale High School in “School Reunion,” only K-9 could save the day, and he gladly did so, even though it meant he would perish in the process.
Of course, one advantage K-9 has over his fur-and-blood counterparts is that he can be repaired or rebuilt from scratch; I think we’re up to K-9 Mark IV in current Who continuity. But the fact that the Doctor can bring him back doesn’t make K-9’s sacrifices any less valid—there’s never any guarantee the Doctor will! K-9 exemplifies obedience, often better than we humans show obedience to God. I bet K-9 understands better than many people do Jesus’ parable of the servants who refuses a seat at their master’s table, insisting, “We have done only what we ought to have done!” (Luke 17.7-10). That’s why K-9 is exactly what the Tenth Doctor calls him: the ultimate “good dog.”
George Lucas hasn’t tampered, yet, with the big bad monster beneath Jabba the Hutt’s palace in any Jedi special edition. The Rancor is perfect as is, slashing and slobbering its way onto the screen in all its Harryhausen-esque stop-motion glory.
The Rancor isn’t Jabba’s pet, though. (I think that position’s filled by Salacious Crumb.) No, it’s the creature’s keeper, named Malakili in the Expanded Universe, who clearly loves this beast. He weeps after Luke defeats the Rancor; and while the scene is intended to elicit laughs, couldn’t it also remind us that most everyone matters to someone? Malakili must feel that Luke, in bringing the pit’s portcullis crashing down on the Rancor’s neck, has brought his whole world crashing down, too. “A right-minded person cares for his beast,” ancient Israel’s sages taught, “but one who is wicked is cruel at heart” (Proverbs 12.10, Revised English Bible). By that standard, Malakili shines like a bright star in the dark, perverse world of Jabba’s court (see Philippians 2.15).
2. I-Chaya (Star Trek: The Animated Series, “Yesteryear,” September 15, 1973)
When Spock’s mother Amanda told Dr. McCoy, in the original Star Trek episode “Journey to Babel,” that the stoic, half-Vulcan first officer had a sehlat as a child, something she likened to a “fat teddy bear,” Bones couldn’t contain his amusement. Spock shut him up by informing him, “On Vulcan, the ‘teddy bears’ are alive, and they have six-inch fangs.”
Not until the animated episode “Yesteryear” aired did Trek fans see a sehlat. In order to correct a change in the timeline, Spock must use the Guardian of Forever to return to his childhood and, disguised as fictional cousin Selek, save his own life during a desert ordeal. He succeeds, but the time-space continuum exacts a price: his sehlat I-Chaya, who previously survived the incident unscathed, is poisoned when he leaps between young Spock and a feral le-matya, trying to save the boy. No antidote for le-matya venom exists. Young Spock must decide whether to put off the grievously wounded and suffering I-Chaya’s inevitable death, or let his cherished pet die in peace—a heartbreaking dilemma many real world pet owners have faced. Young Spock tearfully tells I-Chaya goodbye, and gains his first experience in accepting mortality. When older Spock returns to the corrected timeline, he tells Kirk, “One small thing was changed this time. A pet died.” “A pet?” Kirk asks. “Well, that wouldn’t mean much in the course of time.” “It might,” muses Spock, “to some.”
Like K-9, I-Chaya sacrifices himself for his master. His death, however, cannot be undone with a flick of a sonic screwdriver. It is a moment in which Spock learns something Kirk would tell Lieutenant Saavik years later in Star Trek II: “How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life.” Death is, no doubt, “the last enemy to be defeated,” as Paul teaches (1 Cor. 15.26); but, until God places it, finally and fully, under Christ’s feet (15.24), we must somehow make our peace with its inevitability.
1. Krypto (first appearance: Adventure Comics #210, March 1955)
I almost left Krypto off this list. It’s not because he isn’t awesome, because he self-evidently is (just ask Glen Weldon, author of Superman: The Unauthorized Biography). But can Krypto truly be considered a “pet” when he’s a superhero himself? Thanks to Earth’s yellow sun, the canine from Krypton is every bit as “super” as Superman. In fact, according to The Essential Superman Encyclopedia, he’s in some ways better: “Being a dog, Krypto had an enhanced sense of smell and superior hearing to his master.” (Hm… I wonder if here, at last, is a dog who could actually chase and catch his own tail?)
Krypto is one of the most persistent elements of Superman’s Silver Age legacy. Since Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC Comics has tried, several times, to send him to a permanent Doghouse of Solitude, but Krypto refuses to be sidelined for long. Last decade, he even starred in his own TV series (again, one wonders what Muffy thinks):
But for all Krypto’s doggy derring-do, Superman still considers Krypto his pet—but not merely that. So Krypto’s presence on this list reminds us that, while God granted humans dominion “over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Gen. 1.28), animals do not exist solely, or even principally, for our benefit. They deserve respect and care because they are living creatures—not created in the image of God, but still created—and because, by their very existence, they praise their (and our) Maker. Note how proud God is of the marvelous menagerie he parades before Job: mountain goats, wild oxen, the ostrich, Leviathan, Behemoth… God calls out beast after beast, exulting in each one’s unique glories, for each one glorifies him (see Job 38-42).
What sci-fi pets would you put on your list of favorites? What creatures of our God and King do you gladly call “by the name of brother and sister,” as did Saint Francis?
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version.