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Posts by Mike:
Ironically, the first Washington Irving story that the recently released preview of Fox’s upcoming Sleepy Hollow series made me think of wasn’t “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” but “Rip Van Winkle”–with liberal dashes of The X-Files and National Treasure thrown in. Throw in the “buddy cop” trope (all the way down to one black partner, one white–although at least we’ve got a co-ed team going here), and you’ve got yourself a spooky detective show that, admittedly, looks pretty derivative… but also potentially a heck of a lot of fun.
I can’t even really fault the corny tag line. Given the literary source material, have you got a better one? I think my favorite bit was Ichabod (who looks a lot more like a rugged hero here than he does in Irving’s original, or in the 1949 Disney cartoon) asks if there isn’t a law against ubiquitous Starbucks stores… The man may be new to our era, but he learns quickly!
There may even be some theological grist for sci-fi Christians’ mill when this series debuts. “The answers are in Washington’s Bible,” it seems. On the one hand, that’s a nice sentiment. We don’t look to the Bible for answers nearly enough–at least, I confess I don’t; your faithful mileage may vary. But on the other hand, do we really need to encourage more people to view the Bible as a cryptic code just waiting to be broken? As a miscellany of mystic esoterica, a volume only those privileged few in the know can understand?
We look in the Bible for answers because the Bible is the inspired, unique, authoritative witness to The Answer, Jesus Christ. I hope General Washington knew that! I pray we do, as well.
(Incidentally, for all the supposed reverence the Bible gets in impending apocalyptic scenarios like these, why can’t anyone on TV or in the movies remember the final book is titled Revelation–singular, not plural?)
When Sleepy Hollow awakes this fall, will you be tuning in?
“The Crimson Horror!” exults the Doctor at one point in the (brilliantly conceived and executed) flashback portion of last week’s adventure. “That’s a good name!” Not only is it a good name, it’s a good episode—the strongest in “series 7B” so far.
Its strength is due largely to the return of Madame Vastra, Jenny, and Strax. “The Crimson Horror” is practically proof of concept for a spin-off starring this trio. The Doctor doesn’t show up (at least, not clothed and in his right mind) until nearly seventeen minutes in, and I didn’t miss him. Nothing against Matt Smith, but Neve McIntosh, Catrin Stewart, and Dan Starkey prove more than capable of commanding audience attention—aided and abetted, of course, by Mark Gatiss’ sparkling script. As Strax, Starkey clearly relishes his lion’s share of the script’s snappiest lines, from counseling the use of “scissor grenades, limbo vapor, and triple-blast brain splitters… just generally” to threatening his horse with “summary execution.” I see validity in some long-time Who fans’ laments that the Sontarans have been “reduced” to comic relief; I’d probably feel the same were some future Star Trek series to turn the Romulans, say, into cosmic clowns. On the other hand, I can’t imagine tiring of this adamant and amusing warrior, nor of the Veiled Detective and everyone’s “favorite lock-picking” (and arse-kicking) “Victorian chamber maid.” Now that Torchwood has run its grim and joyless course, let’s see the Madame Vastra Adventures between future seasons of Who!
Taking the Measure of Mrs. Gillyflower
I wonder if Jenny’s moment as leather-clad action heroine (alongside a bowler-wearing leading man, no less) paid deliberate homage to Emma Peel? Certainly, Dame Diana Rigg plays a far different role here.
Mrs. Gillyflower is less a real character than a caricature—the embodiment of religion gone horribly wrong—but Rigg fully commits to the part, perfectly capturing the fevered and malicious self-righteousness of those whose misplaced eagerness for God’s judgment leads them to judge others. Only the brightest and the best for Sweetville!
If I thought sound theology would’ve swayed Mrs. Gillyflower, I might have pointed her toward Amos’ words of warning: “Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord?… Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?” (5.18, 20). It’s one thing to pray, as Jesus taught us, “Thy kingdom come.” It’s quite another to believe ourselves divinely chosen agents of purification, responsible for separating the wheat from the tares (Matthew 13.24-30) as we build the New Jerusalem by force (or far-fetched schemes involving baths of “repulsive red leech,” bell jars—was this a two-step preservative process?—and ballistic missiles). Arguably no early Christian lived with a more fervent eschatological expectation than did the apostle Paul, but even he demanded to know, “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God” (Romans 14.10-11). God save us from Mrs. Gillyflower’s smug, sinful arrogance!
How ironic that this episode aired in the weekend before Mother’s Day. The scene in which Mrs. Gillyflower renounces Ada (Rachael Stirling, in the most emotionally convincing performance of the night) with a mean-spirited misquotation of the Bard is heart-breaking. She also spitefully tells her daughter, “You know I cannot bear to look at sick people… There can be no place for people such as you. Only perfection is good enough…” In her mother’s eyes, Ada is nothing but a “clawing, slobbering” nobody who might as well share the crimson skin of the “rejects” washed down the canal.
Again, how different this sanctimoniously sermonizing, “Jerusalem”-singing moral crusader is from the God we know in Jesus Christ! Jesus looked at multitudes of sick people and “had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6.34). He restored health to the ill, sight to the blind, mobility to the lame. He chose those who are “weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1.27). Our divine judge is also our divine physician, who came, as another old hymn says, “softly and tenderly” calling “those who are sick,” spiritually and physically (Mark 2.17).
Through Isaiah, God asks the Jewish exiles, “Can a woman forget her baby, or disown the child of her womb? Though she might forget, I never could forget you… As a mother comforts her son, so I will comfort you” (49.15; 66.13, NJPS). Rhetorically, God’s question presupposes a negative answer; yet even if the presumably strong bonds of human motherhood do break, God promises, the compassion binding God to Israel will not. We can trust God to be a better mother to us than the best mortal mother—let alone such a miserable mom as Mrs. Gillyflower!
Do We See What She Sees?
In Western storytelling, blindness is frequently a symbolic condition. Ancient prophets and poets like Tiresias and Homer were (according to Hans Biedermann’s Dictionary of Symbolism, 1989; New York: Meridian, 1994) “portrayed… with an indication that they had been struck blind upon penetrating secrets reserved for the gods” (p. 42); and ever since, blind characters can often “see” truths sighted characters can’t. Sci-fi and fantasy fans might think of Dr. Miranda Jones (“Is There In Truth No Beauty?,” Star Trek), Spider-Man’s mentor Madame Web, Destiny of the Endless from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman graphic novels, or even Mama Odie (Disney’s The Princess and the Frog). (Thanks to tvtropes.org for a crash course in genre examples!)
Is Ada another such blind character who “sees” what others don’t? Her scenes with the red-stained Doctor remind me of the blind hermit’s encounter with the Creature in Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and cover much the same theological ground. Ada affirms to the Doctor that it is not good to be alone (see Genesis 2.18) and shares with him her “vision” of a future in which she is redeemed, confident that her mother’s “New Eden” has room even for the outcast. (Matt Smith’s physical movements in these scenes borrow more than a little from Boris Karloff, underscoring the parallels.) But I’m especially fascinated by the name Ada bestows upon the Doctor: “dear monster.”
This episode itself gives no suggestion that the Doctor is a monster. “Monster” is not a dominant way of thinking about the character; as Steven Moffat said in an interview from 2010, the Doctor is “a man who fights monsters but never becomes one.”
And yet… River Song cautioned the Doctor that he was becoming something monstrous in “A Good Man Goes to War” (6.7). In “The Wedding of River Song” (6.13), the Doctor, realizing he’d gotten “too big,” declared his intention to retreat to the shadows—and, this week, he describes his enemy as “hanging around, lurking in the shadows.” And don’t forget the implicit comparison of the Doctor and the “Crooked Man” two weeks ago, in “Hide” (7.9). In that episode, too, another young woman with special sight issued a warning about the Doctor.
Perhaps the now tiresome obsession with Clara’s identity is the real “crimson horror” this season, a red herring distracting us from the more pressing question must never be asked, the first question awaiting us us at the end of our inexorable slouch toward Trenzalore: “Who is the Doctor? Doctor who?”
Might Moffat and company be hinting that our beloved Time Lord is more monstrous than we have guessed?
What did you think of “The Crimson Horror?”
Except as noted, Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version. “NJPS” is the Jewish Publication Society TANAKH translation.
“Secrets protect us,” the Doctor insists to Clara in this episode. “Secrets keep us safe.” I don’t think this maxim always applies in real life, but scripter Steve Thompson and showrunner Steven Moffat should have heeded it before planning and producing Doctor Who’s latest episode.
Despite some determined Googling, I can’t locate a certain interview I read around the time Moffat took the Doctor Who reins. I recall him making the point that the TARDIS is best understood as a device for getting characters quickly into an interesting story on the other side of its doors. I did turn up one quote to that effect, even though it’s not the quote I remember: Moffat told Under the Radar’s Mark Redfern in 2008, “Doctor Who is essentially about the Doctor walking out of the TARDIS’ doors and finding completely new stuff he doesn’t understand yet. That’s the paradigm Doctor Who story.”
If you happen to know the interview I’m thinking of, please steer me toward it. I’d like to make Moffat read it now. This week’s episode bolsters the argument that the best Doctor Who stories don’t take place inside the Doctor’s wonderful blue box.
And I do think the TARDIS is wonderful. Creative writing and convincing acting in the face of the BBC’s 1963 budgetary constraints yielded an enduring sci-fi icon. Even when I wasn’t a Who fan, I recognized the TARDIS as surely as I did the Millennium Falcon or the starship Enterprise. Now that I am a fan, I appreciate this bigger-on-the-inside (or “smaller on the outside”) imaginary achievement even more. I smile whenever I hear those groaning engines. I may have teared up (ahem) when that “something blue” materialized on the dance floor at Amy and Rory’s wedding in “The Big Bang.” And, of course, I can no longer think about the TARDIS apart from Neil Gaiman’s bizarre but beautiful episode, “The Doctor’s Wife.”
But even Gaiman’s script—which gave us the TARDIS temporarily made flesh, for heaven’s sake—exercised restraint instead of yielding to the temptation to take viewers on a bona fide TARDIS tour. Yes, we saw Amy and Rory running through a few of its corridors, but Gaiman (and, at the time, Moffat too) understood that no small part of the TARDIS’ appeal is that viewers furnish its fantastic interior for themselves.
A friend with whom I regularly watch Who has decided that the show is “a radio play for the eyes.” In his opinion, Who works best when it simply suggests something startling and surprising and then, like audio dramas of yesteryear, trusts the audience to fill in the rest. I don’t completely agree with his assessment, but I appreciate its wisdom.
I enjoyed the glimpses we got of the TARDIS’ observatory and storied swimming pool. I liked the small touches that harkened back to Who history both recent and not-so: the Doctor’s “cot,” the umbrella (no question mark-shaped handle, but surely a tip o’ the bumbershoot to Sylvester McCoy), and especially the snatches of dialogue from Susan, Ian, the Ninth Doctor, and Amy. I’ll even admit I liked the Doctor’s Jorge Luis Borges-worthy library. As a bibliophile who works with rare volumes, how could I not? I don’t know whether the bottled Encyclopedia Gallifrey hails from classic Who, but it’s an eccentric and enchanting detail.
As the episode wore on, however, dragging us ever deeper into the TARDIS, both the plot and my patience with it fell apart. Hearing that the TARDIS is powered by a perpetually exploding star on the verge of becoming a black hole, for example, could have been quite exciting; looking at it was not. Speculating about what the mysterious engine room of this marvelous, living machine must be like allows space for mystery and wonder; seeing the Doctor and Clara move through mechanical debris suspended against a sterile, white background crowded those reactions out. And while I know that Thompson’s script offered some attempt at an explanation as to why our heroes found themselves in a holodeck-like environment at one point, even after two viewings, I couldn’t tell you what that explanation was.
“Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS” falls flat, in part, for the same reason Steven Spielberg’s 1980 revision of Close Encounters of the Third Kind doesn’t quite work: no creative team can show an audience an alien ship’s interior that will be as incredibly, outrageously out-of-this world as the one it’s seeing in its imagination. After this episode, the TARDIS seems less real to me, not more. Keeping its secrets would have kept that illusion safe.
Continued Clara Confusion
I still feel sorry for Jenna-Louise Coleman. As a regular cast member she is stuck playing a character who is far less interesting than either of her previous roles on the show. The Doctor tells the Van Baalen brothers Clara is “the salvage of a lifetime” (a phrase which raises all kinds of red flags about how the Doctor views her relationship to her), and their hand-held sensors register her “sass,” but all we see for ourselves is, once more, a pretty face for the Doctor to rescue. (Well, in her burning-alive future state, not so pretty, but you know what I mean.) In previous weeks, Clara has shown a few moments of true agency, but here, her contribution is a completely passive one. She isn’t even allowed to read the message seared into her palm once it’s completely legible.
Since this episode fails Clara on the characterization front, does it at least advance the ongoing mystery of her identity? No. Instead, it retreads the movement seen in “The Rings of Akhaten” and “Hide”: the Doctor obsesses over Clara’s secret, is rebuked for it, and accepts (though not really) that she is simply herself. Coleman convincingly plays Clara’s bewilderment at the Doctor’s angry explosion (“What are you? A test, a trap?”), but the Big Friendly Reset Button at the episode’s end ensures that this emotionally strong moment she and the Doctor share will have no repercussions for Clara going forward.
Unless, of course, it will. As Gregor Van Baalen’s experience demonstrates (more on that in a moment), some chance remains that this episode’s events will stick with Clara to some degree. She may remember that the Doctor has seen her die twice, and that memory may finally push her into some engrossing character development. Would she continue to feel completely safe around someone in whose company she has already twice perished?
The most interesting “Clara moment” this week is, of course, not really about Clara at all, but about the Doctor. (Oh, well—it is his show, after all.) In one corner of that huge, leather-bound, clasp-fitted tome chronicling the Time War, Clara sees the Doctor’s name. “So that’s who,” she says, suggesting that his name holds some inherent significance for her. Is it a name we, too, would recognize if we saw it? Or is Clara’s understanding contingent upon her experiences to this point, in any of her various incarnations? Will her memory of knowing the Doctor’s name remain, despite the Big Friendly Reset Button? Will she recover it on her own—or (as I suspect) will it be forced from her on the fields of Trenzalore, “at the fall of the eleventh, when no living creature can speak falsely or fail to answer”?
A final thought: I can’t shake the feeling that this episode began its life as being far more about the Van Baalen brothers than about either Clara or the Doctor. Ashley Walters as Gregor, Mark Oliver as Bram, and Jahvel Hall as Tricky deliver strong performances, leaving me wanting to know more about these characters’ past and future. Envy and rivalry are common enough among siblings, but the dynamics at work that allowed Gregor and Bram to convince Tricky that he wasn’t even human indicate some serious family conflict, familial strife that would rival any of the feuds found in the pages of Genesis, from Cain and Abel through Jacob and Esau to Joseph and his brothers. Joseph’s brothers sold their little brother into slavery, but Gregor and Bram steal Tricky’s very identity! That’s harsh.
UPDATE: I neglected to mention (after I went and promised I would) that I was pleased by the fact that, even though Gregor does not remember his time aboard the TARDIS, the experience has changed him. His assertion in the penultimate scene that he still has some shred of decency struck me as a lovely character moment (and, of course, suggests that Clara may experience a similar lasting affect from this week’s adventure, remembering, not that she has a shred of decency–she has already shown she has much more decency than that–but that she has learned the Doctor’s name).
“I just want a brother beside me!” Tricky laments at one point. I think everyone’s cried that lament, at some point. When we’re scared, in pain, lost, grieving, confused, alone—we want someone beside us, someone like us but also, perhaps, bigger, stronger, more capable; someone like a big brother in whom we can place our trust, someone who can promise us that we will be all right, even if we currently aren’t. No human brother can completely fill that bill, not all the time, but “Jesus is not ashamed to call [us] brothers and sisters” (Hebrews 2.11). Our “big brother” doesn’t give us false identities, but restores to us our true ones, declaring, “Here am I and the children whom God has given me” (2.13).
What did you think of “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS”?
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version.
I don’t count either of Neil Cross’ Doctor Who scripts among my favorites, but they make me think!
In his “Who Review” of Cross’ first episode, “The Rings of Akhaten,” Ben Avery took issue with the Doctor’s speech about the Queen of Years’ unique value, a speech that was, for me, that episode’s highlight. Ben argued:
This is humanism at its richest and fullest… and saddest… Everything in the universe is special. Everything in the universe is unique. Everyone who has existed, does exist, or will exist can lay claim to the same level of value. But the question is: who does the valuing? Who appreciates the value? The Doctor? Perhaps. In the real world, though, the only hope that comes from the idea that “everyone is special and unique just like everyone else” is if you have someone (perhaps Someone?) who can appreciate the value… The empty universe of the atheist and the humanist, ultimately, is one in which human life has very little value compared to everything else…
While I agree with his theological conclusion—namely, that humanity’s value ultimately rests in the truth that God values us (Psalm 8)—something about how Ben put his point bothered me. I’m unsure what my reaction’s all about (and Ben was patient and let me litter his site’s comment field with attempts to articulate it), but it may be this question:
Are the Christian’s and the humanist/atheist’s claims about humanity’s worth mutually exclusive?
I affirm God created humanity in God’s own image (Gen. 1.27). I also accept the scientific hypotheses underpinning the Doctor’s “stardust speech.” Both narratives speak to the fact that something exists, that we live, when existence and life were not foregone conclusions. I think the “how” of the “stardust speech” and the “what” and “why” of Genesis go hand-in-hand. And while the “how” by itself is incomplete, I find myself appreciating it as beautiful, so far as it goes, and loathe to label it “sad” and “empty.” It doesn’t say all that needs to be said—but it says something that very much does need to be said, in a world where we seem all too quick to dismiss and devalue one another.
Cross returns to the theme of humanity’s value in “Hide.”
Most of this episode was über-Gothic parody—the lightning! the thunder! the candles! the mansion on the moors! the “ghast”!—and much of the rest was an extended trans-dimensional race against time that made little sense, even after repeated viewings (Emma opened the reality well for Clara and the TARDIS, is that it? And the TARDIS more or less just decided it could stand the entropic strain of the echo universe after all?). This week’s offering grabbed my attention when Cross revisited the question of what, if anything, makes human beings special.
“We all are ghosts to you,” Clara says to the Doctor, a blend of accusation and lament. “We must be nothing.” The Doctor reassures her that she has not reached the correct conclusion. “You,” he says—and I think he means “you” both singularly and plural—“are the only mystery worth solving.”
The moment reveals the heart of the Doctor’s obsession with Clara’s origins. In her admittedly unusual way (showing up, not unlike trapped time traveler Hila Tacorian, at various points throughout history), Clara personifies something true of all human beings. We are all, not ghosts, but mysteries to each other. I’m not saying we can’t ever really know another person… but even the people we know best in this world do remain other. We are not them. They are not us. Even with parents and children, spouses, best friends, there always remains a degree of distinctiveness that can’t be overcome.
Far from being bad news, our distinctiveness means there is always more to learn about each other, always more to discover, to appreciate. We do not live in relationship with someone and, after a certain point, decide that we’ve got that unique individual who really exists all figured out. Instead, we continue the relationship. We live and interact and love. We reveal more of ourselves to them; they reveal more of themselves to us. Maybe this is what the Doctor means when he advises Emma and Professor Palmer, “Hold hands… and don’t let go. That’s the secret.” It is not good that any of us should be alone (Gen. 2.18).
The Doctor, of course, never really practices what he here preaches. Because he is so thoroughly alien and alone, he will never “solve” humanity. Of the creature in the pocket universe—identified, intriguingly, with the nursery rhyme sobriquet “Crooked Man” in the credits—the Doctor says, “Every lonely monster needs a companion,” apparently oblivious to how his words might apply to himself.
This episode reminded me that the Doctor is, in many ways, a tragic figure. He is a “crooked man”—not evil, but bent, malformed. Emma is right: that “sliver of ice in his heart” keeps him from being fully trustworthy, not because he is malicious, but because he refuses to “hold hands and not let go.” He isn’t honest with others—remember River Song’s first rule about the Doctor? Speaking of River, he didn’t really marry her—he was “a Doctor in a Doctor’s suit,” and he withheld his name from River at the moment it should have been demanded from him. He doesn’t keep in touch with past companions—except when he tried to, with Amy and Rory, and he’s not likely to want to put himself in so vulnerable and painful a position again. Yet “holding hands and not letting go” demands vulnerability, and the possibility of pain.
On the other hand… the Doctor delights in humanity. He still announces to any and all threats that the Earth and its people are under his protection. He may never “solve” the mystery of humanity, but for all that he doesn’t fully engage, he also never fully withdraws. For him, humanity is the only mystery worth trying to solve, even if that solution can never fully be reached.
So it is with us. We are mysteries to each other, and, often, to ourselves! The only person to whom we are not a mystery is our Creator. Only by God are we “fully known” (1 Cor. 13.12). Only God can ascribe value and worth to us on that basis.
For our part, until we no longer see as in a mirror, dimly, we must count each other valuable simply because we are here, with each other, in this world that didn’t have to exist but does. We must hold hands and not let go. We must live in the mystery. And that, I think, is not empty or sad, but deep and rich, and worth much.
So, the first official clip from Star Trek Into Darkness beamed down today. Apparently it is not (yet) embeddable, but you can watch it here:
Given that this sequence is excerpted from the preview of the film’s first nine minutes released with IMAX prints of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey back in December, I assume Spock somehow survives–if, in fact, he is even in any real danger–Spock “dying” early on in the film is, of course, reminiscent of the opening sequence of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Given that Quinto’s Spock directly quotes a line from that film in this scene (rather clumsily, too, I say–the screenplay is trying too hard), I wonder “if we’re playing out that scenario now.” Perhaps Starfleet has decided that the newly-minted Captain Kirk really does need to face a no-win scenario?
The environmental suits (?) Kirk, Uhura, and Sulu are wearing are kinda funny looking, but do evoke those used in “The Tholian Web.”
I like McCoy’s dead-on observation that, in this point in Kirk and Spock’s relationship, Spock would no doubt let Kirk perish. It would, apparently, be the logical course of action. I also like (assuming this is a real situation of jeopardy) that Kirk is ready to let the Prime Directive hang. Very true to established Trek form.
UPDATE: It just occurs to me… I wonder if that’s actually how things will pan out? Prompted by the final trailer, I speculated that Kirk might be meeting his maker (no, not Gene Roddenberry!) this time around… What if this is a bit of foreshadowing? It would be none too subtle, but it would work.
What do you think?
What happens when visitors to two of literature’s most famous fairylands cross paths? And what happens when visitors from those other worlds start crossing over into our own? Writer Ben Avery (from our fellow Christian geek podcast and blog, Strangers and Aliens) and artist Casey Heying tell the tales in The Oz/Wonderland Chronicles (from Buy Me Toys; collected in trade paperbacks, 2011-2012), an ambitious, intricately plotted, lushly illustrated fantasy epic.
Both Daniel and Mike had been intrigued, separately, by the project. Together, they offer SFC readers their take on the meeting of marvelous places and people that Avery and Heying have created.
Do you feel these stories represent Oz and Wonderland well?
Dan: I honestly have not read any of the Oz books, though I have read both Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. I have seen numerous depictions of both fantasy lands, from the classic MGM Wizard of Oz to Disney’s animated Alice in Wonderland. In many ways, Avery and Heying provide a more coherent Wonderland than Carroll’s originals; his books are such a chaotic jumble that an author has a lot of freedom when repackaging and extended the basic source content. With Oz, I really only have the MGM movie to base any strong opinions on. I applaud the authors for not just using the characters that everyone knows, but using this series as an opportunity to introduce us to unfamiliar Oz characters like Hungry Tiger and Jack Pumpkinhead. If anything, the authors introduced me to the world of Oz beyond Judy Garland.
Mike: Well, as long as we’re confessing… I’ve never read any Lewis Carroll! My only knowledge of Wonderland comes from seeing bits and pieces of Disney’s animated Alice. I do now feel motivated to read the originals, having read Avery and Heying’s take on them. But I can attest that these creators’ Oz credentials are impeccable. They weave all the major literary denizens of Oz into their tale, plus quite a few minor ones. Only a reader of Baum’s books would think to include the Kalidahs, for example, or to summon the big blue dragon Quox. Avery and Heying also manage to sneak in subtle allusions to the MGM movie (for instance, I loved the Scarecrow’s mangled recitation of “E pluribus unum” as he is being re-stuffed with his brains!). After my disappointment with Disney’s new Oz movie, I was ready for a really good Oz story. Oz/Wonderland definitely delivers!
Do these stories conform to canon?
Mike: While I can’t speak to Wonderland’s continuity (or even if such a concept applies in the world of the Mad Hatter), Baum himself didn’t overly worry about “canon” in Oz, so Avery and Heying are in good company with their selective approach to the backstory of Oz. They are certainly more careful than many Oz authors and artists have been. The text pages involving Cap’n Bill and Dorothy, for example, mimic the look of a chapter from the actual Oz books, right down to the headpiece (though Heying’s line drawings are far more subtle than anything John R. Neill provided). Avery’s script sticks to the basic, overarching plot of Baum’s Oz tales—Princess Ozma assumed her rightful place on Oz’s throne; the Wizard returned, as did Dorothy, who eventually brought Aunt Em and Uncle Henry with her; and select other folk from our world continued to cross over—but then deviates from Baum by establishing a kind of mass exodus from the fairyland, beginning with the Wizard. It’s a necessary change, not only dramatically, but also thematically—but I know we’re going to talk about that in a bit.
Dan: There have been so many versions of these stories that I question if I even know what canon is anymore. I do believe that Avery and Heying have researched the original stories, various adaptations of them (such as the MGM film), understand which elements are available to for them to use and which ones are legally barred from their world, and have introduced characters like Hungry Tiger that come from the source material but have not been in the public eye. I could easily see The Oz/Wonderland Chronicles as a sequel to the Judy Garland movie since we have all of the key characters from that film extended into the future.
I also appreciate that they have gone beyond Oz and Wonderland. The roommates are examples of characters mined from other literature, even if they cannot be called by their familiar names. Even Mae Mannering, the main character from volume 2, has a rich literary origin. Sadly, it took a conversation with Ben Avery to make her origin clear to me!
Mike: Interesting. I saw the blurb on the cover of the first trade—“Movie studios take note”—and I’d buy my ticket right now if such an adaptation were announced! Do you think it would also serve a mass audience well as a sequel to either of Disney’s Alice efforts?
Dan: I don’t think Disney would frame it as a sequel to the animated Alice in Wonderland, but I can see how elements could be incorporated into a program like Once Upon a Time. Or (cough, cough) maybe other studios could look to these tales as an alternative to Snow White’s adventures in Storybrooke.
What did you like the most?
Mike: I liked so much, it’s hard to choose just one aspect! Frankly, as much as I enjoyed both collected volumes, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed seeing Jack Pumpkinhead and Scraps the Patchwork Girl cross over into our world. This development appealed to me in part because Heying does a first-rate job of bringing these iconic Ozites to life (I’d swear I saw Scraps move before my eyes, right there on the printed page), but also because the concept is so wonderful: Jack wants to discover why everyone who comes to Oz from Earth eventually wants to go back, and is convinced that Earth, not Oz, is the “land of wonder.” It’s a delightful inversion, and the creators pull it off magnificently.
Dan: I really enjoy the fact that Alice and the roommates are X-Men fans (confirmed with Ben Avery). And, going beyond the X-Men, I really did enjoy Jack Pumpkinhead and the Cheshire Cat exploring our world in volume 2. I love that Jack and I are both fans of James Bond and Star Wars. Unsolicited story pitch: I would love to see Jack channel Bond in Oz! Patchwork Girl could be his Bond girl!
Mike: Agent Pumpkinhead, Licensed to Spoil.
Dan: I like the Wizard. Where is the merchandise so I can buy his baseball cap? This Wizard to me is an action hero with guns blazing. And honestly it is an interpretation of the Wizard that I would have never considered.
Mike: Yeah, me neither, and that’s one thing I’d take exception to—but, again, getting ahead of myself!
Dan: Krutack! (Does that ever get old?) After the dismal version of the Wizard that we saw in Oz the Great and Powerful I really enjoy this man of action who takes that con man’s place.
Mike: For what it’s worth, Oz redeems himself pretty quickly in the Baum books—and (if The Marvelous Land of Oz, the second book in the series, is taken as the “official” backstory) from a lot worse than just being a con man.
Dan: Wait your turn, Poteet! I also have to say, I liked the Wheelers. Their visual presentation was really well done because it seriously creeped me out as I read through the volume. I do not like scary, and they really scared me. I cannot think of anything else from a comic that gave me the creeps like the Wheelers did. So please no one come at me with wheels as hands. I will probably run away. And my scream may be high pitched!
What did you like the least?
Dan: I occasionally found the art distracting and confusing in volume 1. For example, at times I had difficulty distinguishing the roommates. They all looked very similar to me. Additionally, in one sequence with multiple frames on the page, Alice changes in my eyes from a blonde to a brunette who looks somewhat like her roommates or Dorothy, To be fair, in volume 2 I thought the roommates were more distinct. And as I write this I am reading a DC title in which an African-American character has turned Caucasian for a two-page spread.
Volume 1 left me wanting to know more about the roomates’ true origins. The bios at the back dropped some clues, and, in volume 2, we get even stronger hints from Avery and Heying that there is more to thse young ladies than meets the eye. Is Suzie really Susan from Narnia?
Dan: Well, you don’t know that for a fact, do you?
Mike: I suspect legal issues prevented them from spilling the beans on Suzie. I can’t imagine she was intended as anyone else.
Dan: I am just saying that perhaps there is still more to come.
Mike: I hate to say it, but my major dislike was the art, as well. As you said, it is often quite inconsistent. I intensely dislike the way Heying draws Dorothy as a child—she is not supposed to be some spectacularly beautiful child in Baum’s books, but Heying has drawn her as really quite ugly.
Mike: Well, maybe this was a deliberate thematic choice, given the revelation at the end of the first volume, but I found most of the art featuring Dorothy quite unappealing. I also felt a little put off by the occasional “cheesecake” quality of adult Dorothy and Alice (although this quality showed up more in the pin-ups and variant covers by guest artists). Don’t get me wrong, it’s no Lost Girls—it’s quite mild, and it even plays into a subplot in the second volume.
Do you see spiritual applications in this story?
Dan: Wow! Where to begin? I found tons of spiritual applications, intentional or unintentional, in this title (unlike, say, Guardians of the Galaxy #1, which was somewhat of a spiritual wasteland). Perhaps the real difference here is we are reviewing two full arcs instead of one issue; the authors have room to setup and tell their complete story.
A really evident theme to me is sacrifice, which numerous characters do. For example, Glinda the Good Witch is never seen as the traditional happy, pretty blonde lady in a glittery dress. You will find that she has been transformed into a very different form, inconveniencing and sacrificing herself in order to provide protection to her friends. Jack Pumpkinhead sacrifices a symbol of his sentience to another character since this symbol was a luxury for himself but essential to the other. And, for me, the most striking example was the Wizard. I mentioned earlier this Wizard was an action hero. And a hero he is, putting himself into the midst of dangerous situations where a likely outcome would be his own death. This is a stark contrast to the recent Disney Wizard. That Wizard, at the moment of truth, is away from the most pressing action. He allows others to physically stand against the evil threatening the land of Oz. This Wizard puts himself into a position of physical danger where he could easily, and perhaps does, offer the ultimate sacrifice. And as we see more of the Wizard’s story in volume 2, we really come to see how much he has given up for those he cares about. These are just a few characters who put it all on the line for another.
Of course, as Christians we are familiar with this story, the story of one who took the burden of our problems (or sins) and paid the cost (died) in our place. Sacrifice is a theme that should resonate with us as it is one we have a history with, a history in which sacrifice freed us to walk tall despite the fact we do not deserve that right. As 2 Corinthians 5:21 states, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (ESV). That is a big gift, a gift we did not deserve, and one we should not be shocked to find throughout literature, including graphic novels.
Mike: Your comments reminded me of one “dislike” I had with the story. I agree that Avery and Heying’s Wizard is infinitely preferable to James Franco’s, but I do not see Baum’s Oscar Diggs as someone who would come in, guns a-blazing, not even to save another. I may be forgetting some example of the Wizard’s gunplay from the texts, but, as I recall, Baum’s Wizard was a smart man who always sought a smart solution out of his various scrapes. In the first book, he used his intelligence to be a humbug; but in later volumes, he was equally as smart, only now he used his wits to help, rather than deceive. He becomes one of Glinda and Ozma’s most trusted associates and friends. In Oz/Wonderland, however, most of the time we see the Wizard, he is shooting off round after round of ammunition. I objected to this characterization, and for that reason found it appropriate that his upswept locks of hair (original to Neill’s illustrations) grew more and more to look like devil’s horns.
Dan: Still, Mike, you’d agree that sacrifice is a major spiritual theme in Oz/Wonderland?
Mike: Absolutely. I’m not saying it’s a major flaw with the work (and, since the Wizard’s gunplay is all directed at malevolent fantasy creatures, that’s probably mitigating circumstance enough), but I think it bears some closer reflection than it gets in these pages.
Dan: Another spiritual lesson is that there are some battles that cannot be won but they must not be lost. I think as the church we often feel this tension. As we look at issues like famine, poverty, and the environmental pollution, we probably feel like we cannot win these battles. But even if we alone cannot beat these problems, as a church we cannot lose these battles and we must battle on. We must remember that we do not fight these battles alone. First, we fight them as the united church so we fight as group not individuals, strengthening our power in these battles. Second, as ambassadors of God we battle with the Father’s power and authority. Yes, we may feel like we cannot win, but we also cannot lose. We must remember, brothers and sisters, that we are instruments in the reclamation of this Earth, and our victory is already ensured. As confusing as Revelation can be at times, I often find strength in this verse, “Then I saw ‘a new heaven and a new earth,’ for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea” (Rev. 21:1). We may feel like we are losing, but the scoreboard already shows our victory.
Mike: I like where you’re going with that, Dan, and I think Oz/Wonderland also addresses God’s victory over death. The crisis driving the first volume is Dorothy’s inability to accept and move beyond Uncle Henry’s death. Her grief assumes an incredibly complicated form! The Wicked Witch taunts young Dorothy for even entertaining Aunt Em’s quotation of Ecclesiastes, that for everything “there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven,” including “a time to be born, and a time to die” (3:1-2, NRSV). But Aunt Em was right to turn to that Scripture for consolation, and Dorothy eventually learns that truth, too. I found it pretty powerful to be reading Oz/Wonderland in the Easter season, because Christians have not only the kind of stoic philosophy of Ecclesiastes to draw on when confronted with death, but also and more importantly the promise that we will share Jesus’ Resurrection: “For he must reign until he has put all enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor. 15:25-26, NRSV).
Of course, the promise of eternal life doesn’t take away the pain we feel when our loved ones die. Dorothy wasn’t wrong to grieve Uncle Henry. But she was wrong to grieve as one without hope (see 1 Thess. 4:13). Christian faith offers a remarkable hope—and “a sure and certain hope,” as so many funeral rites put it—in the face of death.
I love what the Heidelberg Catechism, a sixteenth-century Reformed statement of faith, has to say about the hope the risen Christ gives:
Even as I already now experience in my heart the beginning of eternal joy, so after this life I will have perfect blessedness such as no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no human heart has ever imagined: a blessedness in which to praise God forever (Q/A 58).
Dan: I liked volume 1 but I loved volume 2. I would hold it up against anything I have read in the Fables universe. I love that volume (even with its excessive gun play, Mike!), a story that has a new lead allowing the authors to explore areas outside of the traditional Oz and Wonderland models. I really enjoy that they brought Jack Pumpkinhead and Cheshire Cat back, but this time exploring our world. And any graphical complaints I have about volume 1 do not exist in the follow-up.
Do yourself a favor, friends: read volume 1 so you can jump into volume 2! I have also read the Prelude volume, which features a new original lead character and the very interesting Mr. Raven. At this point, Ben Avery is probably saddened that I have his contact information since I have politely asked (demanded) volume 3. I really want to see where this story, especially the storyline involving the Wizard and Mae, goes from here.
Mike: I do, too. I plan to pick up the Prelude as soon as I can. I’m impressed to hear (but not surprised) that it, too, is both like and unlike all that has gone before. Oz/Wonderland is one of the most creative things I’ve read in comics in some time, and it deserves to be read by any fan of either fantasy land, or smart, strong, character-driven fantasy in general.
Dan: Please, Avery and Heying, give us more!
That next month’s Star Trek Into Darkness features acts of terror is not news, of course, but I can’t help watching the scenes of make-believe urban violence showcased in the film’s third (and presumably final) trailer without thinking of yesterday’s all too real violence in the streets of Boston.
“Let’s Go Get This S.O.B.”
As I write this post, no one knows who is responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings. Ignorance, however, never stops immediate calls for vengeance, as even casual scans of social media today reveal. Fortunately, I’ve also seen plenty of calls to prayer for the victims, as well as praise for the first responders, physicians, and good Samaritans who were on the scene or in nearby hospitals, from Christians and other people of goodwill alike. Please do pray for the people of Boston, as well as those in any city anywhere in the world who face violence.
When this new Star Trek bows at the box office, I suspect our nation’s latest encounter with terror will inform how viewers receive such moments as Kirk exhorting his crew to “go get this [s.o.b.]” Out of context, it’s impossible to know whether Kirk is, as it seems, issuing a heated call for payback–which have seldom found a place (on heroes’ lips, anyway) in previous Trek–or a fervent call for true justice, which would be much more in line with the Federation’s ideals (let alone biblical morality). I suspect the former, but we shall see.
This trailer twice features Admiral Pike’s line, “I believe in you, Jim.” We haven’t heard this bit of dialogue before. Again, context will be key; but here, it serves to soften the rebuke of Kirk that precedes it, featured in previous publicity. Bruce Greenwood’s Pike was a highlight of the 2009 film, and I’m glad he’s returning for this second adventure. He seems to be serving as Kirk’s mentor, offering not only the wisdom of experience but a hope for Kirk’s future. He is the apostle Paul to Kirk’s Timothy, confident his protégé will live up to his (God-given) potential. Have you been fortunate enough to have a “Captain Pike” in your life? If so, who?
If Benedict Cumberbatch’s John Harrison is the new continuity’s version of Khan (and not only his physical prowess but also the starship stand-offs we witness here, more than a little evocative of Star Trek II, make me think this likely), then we are obviously still in for an exciting and visually spectacular ride. I still contend the filmmakers should be taking advantage of the “Abramsverse” to really and truly go where no Trek has gone before, but I accept that they may see the realities of the marketplace demanding a more cautious approach.
Finally, the trailer makes me think that the much-speculated-about character death, should it come to pass, will be, not Spock (as a Trek II template would seemingly demand), but Kirk himself. The text cards read, “Beyond darkness comes greatness.” Kirk’s increasing isolation throughout
this trailer, considered alongside Pike’s repeated statement of belief in him, as well as Harrison’s haunting question from previous trailers–”Is there anything you wouldn’t do for your family?”–leads me to wonder if Kirk’s apparent character arc will take him from the free-wheeling, devil-may-care, Kobayashi Maru-beating swashbuckler of the ’09 film to a man whose “solution” to a no-win scenario involves him demonstrating for his crew, his friends, that great love about which Jesus spoke–and which, of course, he himself demonstrated for us.
Again, we shall see! What do you think of the trailer? Are you excited for Star Trek Into Darkness?
Not even the Doctor can make the specter of war too much of a romp.
(As ever, “TARDIS Talk” treats everything officially aired through the most recent episode as fair game, so here there be spoilers!)
I know the Ice Warrior is an old Doctor Who monster, but I haven’t seen any of its previous appearances, and I deliberately chose not to study up. I didn’t want possible continuity concerns standing in the way of what I hoped would be (based on the clip I did watch beforehand) an exciting, even amusing adventure. If you’re looking for praise or blame regarding how the current series reintroduced this classic adversary, I don’t have any to give.
On his own terms, I did like Grand Marshal Skaldak a lot. While I wouldn’t call his characterization “rich,” both Mark Gatiss’ script and the amazingly talented Nicholas Briggs’ voice-acting save Skaldak from being a one-note “monster of the week.” As he remembers standing by his daughter in battle, singing “the songs of the old times, the songs of the red snows,” Skaldak is genuinely sympathetic. When he grabs Lieutenant Stepashin with those wonderfully creepy claws of his and repeats, with disdain, the hawkish officer’s talk of a “cold war” and “mutually assured destruction,” he is satisfyingly menacing. His refusal to bend (as many of the Time Lord’s foes seem to) before a verbal barrage from the Doctor at the episode’s climax—“Which of us shall blink first?”—sold him as a battle-hardened warrior, driven by pride, anger, and grief, all at once. If fact, I think this alien embodied the costs of war far more effectively than any of the episode’s human characters, and I wouldn’t mind seeing him return.
Speaking of underdeveloped human characters, I was disappointed by David Warner (Time After Time, TRON, Star Treks V and VI, among other genre credits). My wife had to explain to me that the Professor was attempting to distract and calm Clara during the “Tell me about yourself” scene; either the acting or the writing were so sloppy, or a combination of the two, I suspected he was interrogating her for some nefarious purpose to be revealed in a last-act twist that never came. An amusing enthusiasm for Duran Duran and Ultravox does not a complete character make.
Liam Cunningham conveys appropriate gravitas as the submarine’s captain, even if his bearing and beard do both overtly channel Sean Connery in The Hunt for Red October. I may be wrong, but I think Connery’s character also begins a crew-rallying speech with the phrase, “Comrades, you know our situation.” If only this sub’s crew had burst out into a rousing Russian number! On the other hand, I liked the moment when the captain, knowing full well the answer, asked whether Skaldak wouldn’t smell the Doctor as a solider. We don’t get many reminders that Matt Smith’s Doctor, just as much as Tennant’s and Eccleston’s, is a living casualty of warfare (although he did himself just give us one last week).
“Well, I don’t smell of anything, to my knowledge!” Jenna Louise-Coleman continues to deliver nice moments as Clara. I am glad the Doctor, albeit after much pushing from Clara, affirmed her for volunteering to be the one to speak to Skaldak. She may, as she pointed out, have been the only remaining choice, but she accepted that reality with an eagerness to serve I’m not sure many people would muster in such a situation! Unfortunately, as the episode wore on, we saw her yet again shoehorned (unsuccessfully this time around) into stereotypical companion mode (see the aforementioned “Tell me about yourself” scene: why should this person who so recently demonstrated fearlessness now be showing fear?). She’s also given an Amy Pond moment (seemingly inspired by Amy’s “talking down” of Bracewell in “Victory of the Daleks” [5.3], another “historical” military episode) as she appeals to Skaldak’s feelings about his dead daughter. Whether she would have succeeded remains unclear, since Skaldak’s fellow Ice Warriors arrive at that moment—yes, the episode established early on that he signaled for them, but their timing still felt convenient and contrived to me.
I didn’t find “Cold War” to be either as exciting or amusing as that advance clip made me think it might be (the Doctor bursting out of the TARDIS onto the panicked bridge of a sinking sub and shouting, “Viva Las Vegas!” is still a great bit, though). It was a skimpy forty-five minutes—surprisingly so, considering that the threat of nuclear war between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. felt quite real, sometimes even inevitable, in the early 1980s. It did to me, anyway. I was 11 years old in 1983, the year a Soviet interceptor shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007, and the year ABC aired The Day After miniseries to great controversy (and big ratings). Fears about mushroom clouds didn’t dominate my childhood, but they occasionally overshadowed it. Seeing the tension of the global superpowers’ standoff enacted in microcosm between Skaldak and the Doctor didn’t help me think about those years any differently, or suggest any new insights into their deeper meaning.
That might be asking too much of even Doctor Who, however. What new insights into the threat of war can there be the human race hasn’t already been shown, at great cost and with deep pain? How differently do we need to think about war when we already know what a sinful waste it is, no matter how justified we think any particular conflict might be?
And for those who are people of faith, as we continue to live when wars and rumors of wars persist, what new wisdom could possibly add to or eclipse the ancient, godly wisdom passed on by the psalm-singer: “Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it” (Psalm 34.12)? What more do Christians need to hear than the call of our Lord to live as peacemakers, “for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5.9)?
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version.
That was the question I pondered standing in the dealers’ room at my first con, way back in 1987. I’d only been a “Trekker” for about a year, and I’d had no idea there was so much stuff out there relating to my new enthusiasm. The convention was a modest but well-run affair—“Genesis Khan” (clever name, yes?), inRaleigh, North Carolina—without even one guest of honor, but its dealers’ room was amazing. Action figures, video cassettes, costumes, commemorative plates, trading cards, comic books, statuettes, books, records… and old calendars, one of which an eager dealer was trying to convince me to buy.
“It’s from 1979,” she told me (perhaps she assumed I couldn’t read the calendar’s front cover). She added, after a beat, “The year The Motion Picture came out” (perhaps she’d forgotten she was at a Star Trek convention—did anything else of note happen in 1979? Duh!). When I still didn’t jump at the chance, she made her final pitch: “Sometimes people take old calendars around to conventions and collect the stars’ autographs.”
That comment electrified me. “Trekkers” collected signatures, too? I didn’t buy the calendar—four dollars was too rich for this eighth-grader’s blood—but I had a brief vision of going from con to con, hobnobbing with William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, gathering wonderfully personalized inscriptions. How cool would that be?!
Nearly three decades later, I am lucky enough to have a few Trek autographs (I’ve mentioned my Takei and Koenig sigs before; I’ve also got Mark Lenard, Marina Sirtis, and even—ta da!—Sir Patrick Stewart, thanks for asking), but I never became a heavy-duty Trek autograph hound.
In fact, compared to some people, I never became a really serious Star Trek collector.
That’s not to say, of course, that I don’t have plenty of Trek stuff (and assorted other genre stuff, too—some of the “toys” on my desk at work are illustrated here). I own the Original Series and TNG, Deep Space Nine and all eleven films. I have CDs of most of the movie soundtracks. My shelf of Trek books is smaller than it in its heyday, but what with episode guides, Shatner and Nimoy’s memoirs, a trivia game book, and a handful of fiction (including—shameless plug alert—my own appearance in Star Trek: Strange New Worlds II—still available as an e-book, makes a great gift), I don’t lack for Trek-related reading material. Every December I look forward to breaking out my Hallmark Star Trek Christmas ornaments, and from time to time I squeeze the plush tribble stashed in my nightstand to hear its electronic chirp.
What’s in Your Barn?
So what does my collecting, modest though it is, have to do with “The Most Toys?”
In its first act, this episode seems like it might be, as was the previous week’s “Hollow Pursuits,” another satire of sci-fi fans. After all, the villain of the piece, Kivas Fajo (played by Saul Rubinek), is an inveterate collector, and collecting is a large part of many fans’ activities. Fajo, of course, is also a thief, which I don’t believe most fans are; and he specializes in the expensive and unique to a degree I don’t think most fans can. But I know I can relate, on some level, to his desire for the next “really cool” thing, and I confess I’ve shared, at times, his belief that security and worth can be found in what I own.
I suspect most people have a streak of Fajo in them, frankly—if not about genre toys and trinkets, then about something else. The cars we drive, the clothes we wear, the computers we use… The temptation to identify ourselves with what we own, even to idolize it, is nothing new. Qohelet the Teacher gained a wisdom Fajo never possessed, for he ultimately realized his “great possessions, more than anyone who had been before [him] in Jerusalem,” were only so much “vanity and a chasing after wind” (Ecclesiastes 2.7, 11). And Jesus warned us that “life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12.15). He told a memorable parable about a wealthy fool who stored up all kinds of treasure for himself, building ever-bigger barns in order to store all his stuff, only to find that his riches couldn’t make him “rich toward God” (12.16-21).
I can’t claim to have mastered materialism’s pull in my life. Every time I catch myself muttering about “so much junk” in my house, I feel a stab of guilt. Everyone should have such problems. How dare I regard what I own with contempt, when so many have so little? How dare I even consider adding even more, instead of sorting and simplifying?
The things we own can, if we’re not careful, keep us from recognizing our dependence upon God. That’s why Jesus commands us to store up treasures not on earth but in heaven, by living a life of prayer and self-denial and giving rather than getting (see Matthew 6.1-20). Our hearts will be where our treasure is, he tells us (6.21)—and, as Saint Augustine knew, our hearts can only ever find peace and joy when they are with the God who fashioned them.
In the last scene of Act I, Fajo takes Data, his newest acquisition, on a tour of his collection, one priceless inanimate object after inanimate object (well, one animate object, the lapling—a painfully obvious hand puppet from a production standpoint, but thematically important as further proving Fajo’s selfish objectification of other living beings), gathered and preserved for Fajo’s “appreciation” alone. In the first scene of Act II, however, we watch Geordi and Wesley “tour” Data’s quarters, regarding the few personal possessions of their presumed fallen colleague and friend. Each object accrues meaning from Data’s interpersonal relationships: the Shakespeare volume given him by Captain Picard; the deck of cards and poker chips used in the crew’s weekly game; the medals—“some of Starfleet’s highest honors,” says Wes—Data earned in the service of others; and (reprising its appearance from “The Measure of a Man”) the holographic portrait of Tasha Yar. Even the unfinished painting on Data’s easel isn’t really only about its painter: Data took up the hobby as part of his continuing quest to connect with the human race. Viewing this transition from Act I to Act II on home video—without the intrusion of commercials trying to sell us more stuff—viewers can appreciate the clear contrast. Fajo views material objects as an end in and of themselves, existing solely for his benefit. The Enterprise crew knows that material objects matter only when they enhance life together, only when they can be freely given and received.
If this insight sounds familiar to Christians, it’s because the early church knew it, too: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need… And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (Acts 2.44-45, 47). I’m not claiming there’s a direct, causal connection between the primitive church’s economic practices and its growth—but Luke’s undoubtedly idealized portrait of the apostolic community may still offer insight to those congregations and denominations struggling with decline. To what extent might the church’s lack of growth be linked to its grip on its possessions? How might we open ourselves anew to the Spirit’s activity if we acted as though we really and truly believed that, instead of having possessions ourselves, we the church are the possession of God?
Of Data and Daniel
For all its critique of the materialistic mentality of acquisition, however, “The Most Toys” is, as so much of the best Star Trek is, a morality play. Larry Nemecek, in his TNG Companion, describes it as an “interesting story from a spec script that pushed Data to the brink of murder for a logical reason.” I wonder how much of the spec script made it to the screen; judging only from Nemecek’s comment, I’d be willing to bet a good deal did. I remember being surprised by the episode’s ending when it first aired, but I’d forgotten how inexorably it builds toward that conclusion.
As Fajo’s captive, Data struggles to hold on to his identity, while Fajo attempts to remake Data in his own image. Data refuses to wear the clothing Fajo provides—until Fajo dissolves Data’s Starfleet uniform with acid, banking on the fact that “decency is the rule of your Starfleet training.” Data refuses to sit in the chair where Fajo wants him to sit—until Fajo threatens the life of Varria (Jane Daly) with the “more than lethal… vicious” Varon-T disruptor. When Fajo wants Data to interact with Palor Toff (Nehemiah Persoff), he absolutely refuses, remaining resolutely mute and motionless, even allowing Fajo to knock him to the floor.
Data’s resistance to Fajo reminded me of Daniel and his friends in the Old Testament. Among the citizens of Jerusalem deported to Babylon when King Nebuchadnezzar besieged the city, Daniel and the three other young men (somewhat ironically, best known to us by their Babylonian-imposed names of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) remained loyal to the God of Israel even in the face of pressure to acculturate into life at the Babylonian royal court. They observed a kosher, vegetarian diet, yet “appeared better and fatter than all the young men who had been eating the royal rations” (Daniel 1.15). Daniel refused to stop praying to God, a transgression of a royal decree that earned him his famous overnight stay in a lions’ den, from whose hungry mouths God saved him (see Daniel 6). Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego also loyally worshiped God rather than the king, boldly declaring that even if God chose not to deliver them from the fiery furnace, they would not worship false deities (see 3.16-18). Like captive Data aboard Fajo’s ship, these exiled Hebrew youth could enjoy the best of material living in the Babylonian court—like Data, they could be “catered to, fawned over… cared for as never before,” their “every wish fulfilled”—but they turn their back on such temporal gain in favor of spiritual blessing. They remain obedient to God’s covenant with Israel, observing the laws and traditions that mark Israel as God’s “treasured possession out of all the peoples… a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exodus 19.5-6).
Data doesn’t act out of religious conviction, but he does choose to hold on to the unique identity conferred on him by his creator, an identity he has reinforced through his service in Starfleet. He will not, as Fajo wants him to, “adjust [his] program to accept reality” (reality as Fajo defines it).
Of Data and Duty to Neighbor
Data does run up against his programming’s limits when Fajo murders Varria. Data has been, he says, “designed with a fundamental respect for life in all its forms, and a strong inhibition against causing harm to living beings.” At the same time, he is “programmed with the ability to use deadly force in a cause of defense.” Fajo’s actions make it clear that, as laughable as he is in some ways, he is serious in his threat to kill again unless Data complies with his wishes: “There’s always another Varria.” Brent Spiner proves his excellence as, through subtle facial expressions, he conveys Data’s internal struggle before declaring, “I cannot allow this to continue.” And Data pulls the trigger.
I regret the creative team arranged matters so that Data shoots Fajo at the exact instant that, unbeknownst to him, the Enterprise’s transporter beam is locking onto him and whisking him away. Watching Data wrestle with the consequences of having taken a life—though not an innocent one—would have been fascinating. Would killing Fajo have been morally justified?
Jesus spoke what I read as absolute prohibitions against killing. He called his followers, so far from resisting evildoers, to turn the other cheek, and taught that anger is, in God’s eyes, equivalent to murder (see Matt. 5.21, 38-41). He warned that those who live by the sword will die by it, and preached that we must love and pray for our enemies that we may be children of the Father in heaven (see Matt. 26.52; 5.43-45). But as you already know, quoting Bible verses, even red-letter words from Jesus’ own lips, don’t settle any argument. While I don’t think Christians generally have any business taking life and death into their own hands, does that mean there are never situations in which faithfulness to God and love of our neighbor mean using force, even deadly force? Are there never times when Christians who are in a position to stop a manifest threat to innocent life must say, with Data, “I cannot allow this to continue?”
Sixty-eight years ago this week (April 9), Protestant theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged by the Nazis at Flossenburg for his part in a conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler. (Americans liberated the camp 11 days later.) While it is true he wasn’t planning to be the one to pull the trigger, Bonhoeffer actively aided resistance to Hitler, clandestinely conveying information to the conspirators from his work in the Nazi Office of Military Intelligence. A man of great learning and great faith, Bonhoeffer was of course aware of the conflict between Jesus’ call to peace and his support of what all involved anticipated would be a violent and bloody coup. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy summarizes Bonhoeffer’s argument for his actions, from his book Ethics, in this way:
The demand for responsible action in history is a demand no Christian can ignore. We are, accordingly, faced with the following dilemma: when assaulted by evil, we must oppose it directly. We have no other option. The failure to act is simply to condone evil. But it is also clear that we have no justification for preferring one response to evil over another… We must not refuse to act on our neighbor’s behalf, even violently, for fear of sin. To refuse to accept guilt and bear it for the sake of another has nothing to do with Christ or Christianity… The risk of guilt generated by responsible action is great and cannot be mitigated in advance by self-justifying principles. There is no certainty in a world come of age. No one, in other words, can escape a complete dependency on the mercy and grace of God.
Few of us, God willing, will find ourselves facing the kind of dire decision that Bonhoeffer faced. But none of us can avoid the call to responsible action of which Bonhoeffer spoke. As Martin Luther wrote in his Small Catechism, God’s commandment against murder is not only a negative prohibition—“Thou shalt not kill”—but also a positive injunction: “We should fear and love God that we may not hurt nor harm our neighbor in his] body, but help and befriend him in every need and danger of life and body.”
What needs and dangers do those around us—in our neighborhoods, in our schools and workplaces, in our congregations, in our nation and world—face that we, striving to live as responsible disciples of Jesus Christ, simply cannot allow to continue? And what are we willing to do and to risk, trusting in God’s mercy and grace, to make them stop?
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version.
The Doctor takes on an “old god” by telling a new story—one that may not be as opposed to “the old, old story” as many people think!
(As ever, “TARDIS Talk” treats everything officially aired through the most recent episode as fair game, so here there be spoilers!)
I apologize for this tardy “TARDIS Talk.” I try to watch an episode at least twice before committing comments to paper, but real life prevented me from revisiting “Real Clara”’s second episode as quickly as I would have liked.
Had I written about the show after a single viewing, I likely would have focused on the fact that it felt like a retread of “The Beast Below” (5.2), at times beat for beat. I know “Beast” divides fans, but I immensely enjoy it, more with every viewing (probably a half-dozen to date). So when “Rings” seemed to be ripping it off, I wasn’t pleased.
Consider: the Doctor, eager to show his new young, female companion some astonishing venue, lands the TARDIS (following a brief appreciation of the destination from afar) to a busy, alien society’s marketplace. He and the companion are quickly separated. The companion soon befriends a much younger girl who offers tantalizing clues about a great, hidden mystery. The young girl is in some kind of peril and cries, her tears acting as a catalyst for the Doctor and the companion’s involvement. The mystery they must solve centers on a large creature around which the society is (knowingly or not) organized. Resolution occurs only after the Doctor uncovers the truth about that society’s connection to the creature, which leads to a dramatic emotional outburst (complete with mention of the Time War). When the Doctor’s intervention proves insufficient, the new companion proves her worth by making up for what is lacking in the Doctor’s sufferings. Order is restored, and the bond between the Doctor and the companion is cemented. (“Rings” even commits the same kind of scientific groaners as does “Beast”: for example, how do the Long Song’s sound waves—let alone the Doctor and Clara on their space moped—travel through the vacuum of space? Not even a throwaway line about an atmospheric bubble thrown to us this time!)
Having seen “Rings” again, I’d argue these parallels still hold, but I find myself thinking that “Rings” feels more coherent than “Beast,” and also that it offers some different food for thought.
A Person, not a Puzzle
Last week I wrote that “people are more interesting as individuals than as puzzles to be solved.” Clara feels the same way! Her insistence that the Doctor treat her as herself and no one else was a welcome moment. “Rings,” unlike “The Bells of Saint John,” presents a Clara who really is her own person. Her backstory is established deftly; the script spends just enough time on her past so we can empathize with her loss of her mother, but not so much that we become maudlin about it. And “Rings” reinforces Clara as a truly kind and caring individual, someone we believe would follow Merry Galel (love that kid’s name) simply because Merry looked lost and in need of help.
The scene in which Clara gives the young “Queen of Years” courage by recounting her own childhood experience of being lost and found made me think of the apostle Paul’s discussion of consolation in 2 Corinthians: God “comforts us in all our trouble so that we can comfort other people who are in every kind of trouble. We offer the same comfort that we ourselves received from God” (1.4, CEB). In his original Greek, Paul uses forms of the verb parakaleo and noun paraklesis, both of which have a root meaning of, “to call alongside of.” Think about Jesus’ identification of the Holy Spirit as the Paraclete in John 14.16 et al.—the Spirit is our “helper,” our “comforter,” our “advocate,” because the Spirit comes alongside to encourage and strengthen us. Clara demonstrates that encouraging compassion and advocacy as she comes alongside Merry. (Hm, if you switch a few sounds around, the name “Clara” even sounds vaguely like “Paraclete”… No, I admit, I’m probably reaching at that point! Still… considering her so-far three iterations, Clara, not unlike the Holy Spirit, certainly seems to bloweth where she listeth!)
As much as I like Clara, I suspect she fits the stereotypical companion profile more than either Oswin or Victorian Clara do. Watching her sit on the stairs, another “girl who waited” for the Time Lord to show up, makes me remember to the passivity I felt from her last week. And while I like her initiative in “exploring” the bazaar (even if her involvement in Merry’s life has some unintended consequences—though I suppose involvement with other people always carries that risk), I find myself wondering what, if anything, we should make of the fact that her sacrifice of a valuable object saves Akhaten. I understand Clara’s offering of “the most important leaf in human history” (one of the nicest uses of a prop in modern Who) is a selfless gift. It is “in character” for her. But is she anything more than a selfless giver? While selfless giving, to the point of self-sacrifice, is undeniably a Christian virtue, following the example of our Lord, who gave of himself “to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Phil. 2.8), this episode seems to define Clara almost exclusively in such terms. Too often, in art as in life, women are expected to be always the ones who give, without complaint, even if “for the greater good.” I don’t want to see too many Clara stories in which she conforms to that stereotype.
“A Soul’s Made of Stories”
In “Bells” we saw people’s “souls” uploaded to the Great Intelligence’s creepy cloud. In “Rings” souls are once more at stake. This time, the people of Akhate (human and non-human alike—as a friend with whom I watched remarked, they’re very much a Mos Eisley cantina-esque bunch) are willingly offering their souls to feed the “Old God,” also known as “Grandfather.”
(Incidentally, since one of the few classic Who stories I’ve seen is “An Unearthly Child,” I had nerd excitement when the Doctor mentioned having been to Akhaten “once, long ago, with [his] granddaughter.” His line threw me off the scent, though; I spent much the first twenty minutes wondering whether the Old God might turn out to be the First Doctor! If, as River Song complained in “The Pandorica Opens,” old wizards in legends “always turn out to be him,” why not ancient dieties from creation myths?)
I liked the Doctor’s definition of souls as stories: “A soul’s made of stories, not atoms.” It turns out this sentiment isn’t original; the poet Muriel Rukeyser said much the same thing about the universe. But the Doctor’s version brings the point home in an intimate way. Our inner universe, our most immediate sense of identity, is composed of the narratives we hear and tell about and live out with each other and ourselves.
Christian faith takes seriously the formative power of story. This assertion will not strike any sci-fi Christians as breaking news, of course, but it never hurts to remind ourselves of the fact. A member of the weekly Bible study group in which I take part is fond of saying, “When we want answers from God, God tells a story.” We hear God’s story and, by faith and grace, come to see where we belong in it, and who we are, as individuals and as the community of God’s people, because of it.
Singing the Wrong Song?
Of course, as I’ve said before, there are good stories and not-so-good stories. Clearly, viewers are meant to conclude, as does the Doctor, that the story little Merry is living in accordance with, the sum of all the stories and legend and lore that her society has poured into her (I wonder how that works, exactly?) is a not-so-good story, to say the least! The story of the Old God would lead to Merry’s destruction and, as the Doctor says (in the script’s absolute highlight of a speech), “There is only one Merry Galel and there will never be another. Getting rid of that existence isn’t a sacrifice, it is a waste!”
I’m not a therapist, but I’ve heard some talk about a process called narrative therapy, in which patients are led to address their issues by reframing the stories they tell themselves about themselves. The Doctor practices a bit of narrative therapy with Merry:
Do you mind if I tell you a story? One you might not have heard. All the elements in your body were forged many, many millions of years ago in the heart of a faraway star that exploded and died. That explosion scattered those elements across the desolations of deep space. After so, so many millions of years, these elements came together to form new stars and new planets. And on and on it went. The elements came together and burst apart forming shoes and ships and sealing wax and cabbages and kings, until, eventually, they came together to make you.
The Doctor is right to impress upon Merry the miracle of her life (my word, not his). She needs to hear this truth of her precious existence and unrepeatable identity. None of what I’m about to say takes away from my commendation of the Doctor’s intervention. “Grandfather” is, as the Doctor calls it, “just a parasite,” obviously unworthy of Merry or the Chorister’s or anyone else’s service and worship.
I couldn’t help but feel, however, that the episode’s attack on this false god is ultimately, if not an attack, than a thinly veiled challenge to all religion (not unlike “The God Complex”). The script goes the Star Trek V route—“This is not the god of Sha Ka Ree, or any other god!”—but I infer from it an assertion that the Doctor’s “story” automatically and self-evidently trumps any story of faith. Why? Because the Doctor’s story conforms to scientific canons of truth. When Clara asks the Doctor whether, as the people of Akhaten believe, all life in the universe originated within their system, the Doctor gives a kind but unmistakable negative answer: “It’s what they believe. It’s a lovely story.” Lovely, but not worth building a life upon.
I don’t want to protest this point too loudly or too long. I don’t need my entertainment to reinforce my personal beliefs or my faith tradition. I’m not surprised that science fiction, of all genres, would privilege reason over religion. I won’t deny that stories of faith, including the Christian story, can and have been perverted into life-denying, soul-eating, parasites more deadly than “Grandfather” itself.
I would only add that it need not be so! Belief in God doesn’t have to preclude an awe in the face of the universe as it is; in fact, I think belief in God demands it! If we don’t, with the psalm-singer, speak in flabbergasted, gobsmacked tones to God as we “look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established” (Ps. 8.3), then we aren’t really worshiping the Creator. And, as the psalms also demonstrate, this sense of wonder in the face of the universe actually enhances, rather than diminishes, a sense of wonder in the face of humanity. The psalm-singer asks God, when confronted with the cosmos in all its beauty, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” (8.4). And yet God does! The same divine artistry on display throughout the universe is manifest in the marvel of humanity: we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps. 139.14). The biblical teaching that we have been placed only “a little lower than God… [and given] dominion over the works of [God’s] hands” (Ps. 8.5-6) is not, properly understood, cause for boasting, but only further impetus to praise.
Yes, the universe is vast and wonderful and astonishing. And, yes, every human life is valuable and unique, all the more so because we are—even through the process of stars sputtering into darkness before blazing again to new life—created in the image of God. These affirmations can be sung in the song of Christian faith, especially given that the God who fashioned it all also hallowed it all by entering into it in Jesus Christ (John 1.1-5, 14).
Why is it, then, that so many creative and intelligent people, such as those who bring us Doctor Who, think the songs of faith and reason, the stories of spirit and science, can’t coexist—no, more than that, can’t complement each other?
Friedrich Nietzsche is supposed to have said, “They would have to sing better songs for me to learn to have faith in their Redeemer; and his disciples would have to look more redeemed!”
Might stories like “The Rings of Akhaten” be posing a similar challenge to us sci-fi Christians today?
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version, except where noted “CEB” (Common English Bible).