Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Doctor Who: Aliens of London and World War III

"Aliens of London" and "World War III," episodes 4 and 5 of season one form one two-part episode focusing around another grave threat to planet Earth.

The earth has been covertly invaded by a family of aliens intent on sending the world into a nuclear war, effectively wiping out the human race and turning the earth into a radioactive rock which can then be sold to scavengers from across the universe.

The special effects are perhaps less than special, and the directors seemed to love their shot of the aliens unzipping their human costume foreheads to allow the alien to emerge.  The effects were actually somewhat humorous, akin to the early seasons of Buffy, but I digress.

This episode had less to do with the intersection of scifi and religion, so I will keep it short.

We learn a little more information about the Doctor.  In "Aliens of London." Specifically, we learn that he is around 900 years old.  How does he look so young?

We do get some interesting insights in "World War III" about the psychology of the Doctor.  He is asked to promise by Jackie, Rose's mom, that Rose will be safe, a promise he is reticent to make, and in fact never does.  This desire to keep Rose safe, and his apparent knowledge that he cannot guaranty her safety, seems to paralyze the Doctor and keep him from acting.

In the climactic scene, Rose, the Doctor, and Harriet Jones, MP Flydale North, are trapped in the Cabinet room at Downing Street.  The Family Slitheen (the aliens) are about to gain control of nuclear weapons to destroy the earth, and the Doctor knows what he must do, but he cannot because it means putting Rose's life at risk.  It is an interesting ethical moment, where the Doctor cannot bring himself to trade the life of Rose for the lives of all humans (including Rose, himself, and Harriet Jones, MP Flydale North).  At this point, trapped by guilt, or at least possible future guilt, Harriet Jones, MP Flydale North must intervene, take control, and command the Doctor to execute his plan which consists of firing a missile from a British submarine with a target of Downing Street.

It is interesting  that now, in two consecutive episodes (counting 4 and 5 as o episode) we have guilt as a primary motivating factor for the Doctor.  In both cases, submitting to that guilt would have disastrous effects.  In "The Unquiet Dead" it is the Doctor's guilt which causes him to act to bridge the Rift and he almost succeeds in condemning humanity to death, and here,  in "World War III" his (future) guilt keeps him from acting, which would similarly lead to the condemnation of humanity to death.

Doctor Who: The Unquiet Dead

On two episode 3 of season 1 of the Doctor reboot for the episode entitled "The Unquiet Dead."


This episode was rife with intersections between scifi and religion.

The year is 1869, the place: Cardiff of Wales.  Charles Dickens is performing in Cardiff and gets caught up in the adventures of the Doctor and Rose.  The problem: ghosts appear to be invading the dead and causing them to walk about.

Dickens plays the consumate man of the enlightenment, a believer in science and only what he can see, taste, touch, feel, and smell.  He sees his lifelong work as dedicated to eradicating superstition in order to fight for social causes.  His world is decidedly unenchanted.  Thus, as he is swept into this adventure of ghosts and zombies, he is at first skeptical, but becomes a convert by the end of the episode after the evidence is undeniable.

Another interesting character is the introduction of Gwyneth, a servant at the undertaker's house.  I say "introduction" because this is the same actress who plays Gwen in the Doctor Who spinoff, Torchwood. I think that the two must be connected, but as I have only watched a few episodes of Torchwood, that I cannot say for sure.  But, the similarities seem to big to ignore: same actress, similar character name, the location of Cardiff, the Rift (more on that below).  Gwyneth has the "sight," an apparent psychic ability.  She can see into Rose's mind.

Enter the Rift, a weak spot in space and time, allowing certain things to slip through.  The "ghosts" of course are not ghosts at all, but a species of alien, all but wiped out by the time war (The war of the Time Lords, of whom The Doctor is the last).  These "gaseous" beings are looking for bodies, and through the "medium" Gwyneth, are able to communicate their plight to the Doctor and his compatriots.  The Doctor, always rushing to the rescue, intends to use Gwyneth as a doorway to lead the aliens to take human corpses as their new bodies.

This is of course highly offensive to Rose who has a sense of propriety and reverence for human corpses which the Doctor clearly does not share.  Here the Doctor clearly asserts his superior morality, in a "my way or the highway" attitude.  He plays off of Gwyneth's "faith" in her "angels" (read ghosts/gaseous aliens) to achieve his ends of providing salvation for these aliens.  He seems more driven than usual, clearly feeling guilty that it was the war of his people that had decimated this alien population.

As the climax approaches, and Gwyneth begins to bridge the gap in the Rift, it becomes clear that these aliens, called the "Gelf" are not so innocent.  They turn from angel-like creatures, to demon-like creatures, bent on earth's destruction as they will use human bodies as vessels to take physical form.  The night of the living dead commences as Rose, the Doctor, and Dickens are forced to run for their lives.  It is Dickens who comes up with the solution: fill the house with gas to draw out the creatures from their host.  This works and then Gwyneth uses a match to light the gas-filled house and destroys the "Gelf."

Couple of notes: As the "Gelf" begin to come through the Rift, they are shouting "Praise be the Doctor," in a first possible reference to the Doctor as some sort of divine being, maybe.

Sacrifice:  Once again it is a human, Gwyneth, who sacrifices herself to save the day, and she only does this after she is dead (how?  Don't ask!).  But she is in this situation because the Doctor pandered to her "faith" in her "angels."  The Doctor shows little, if any, remorse for his actions.  He pushed for the alien crossing to assuage his own guilt, yet takes little or no responsibility for the fact that he was just flat out wrong.  If the show is going for portraying the Doctor as a divine, or semi divine figure, then he is certainly a flawed God.

Finally, in an interesting conversation, Rose notes the difference between humans and the Doctor.  Humans see time in a line and can only experience a specific moment in time "once."  The Doctor, on the other hand, can experience any moment at any time, over and over if he pleases.  I was reminded of Augustine's contemplation of God and time.  God, being "eternal" does not see time as humans do, but being outside of time, he views all times simultaneously.  Though there is a clear difference between Augustine's conception of God as "eternal" and the Doctor's ability to travel through time, the implications are perhaps similar.  The Doctor has a fundamentally different experience of time.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Doctor Who and Religion

This April I will be giving a lecture at the Chowan University interdisciplinary symposium.  The theme of the symposium is: "A Pop Culture Society."

I have chosen to do my lecture on the intersection of science fiction and religion, specifically, Doctor Who and religion (I refer you to James McGrath's blog, Exploring Our Matrix, for one who has been thinking of this intersection of Doctor Who and Religion far more than I have).  To that end, I am beginning a rewatch of the series, starting with the reboot in 2005.

I watched the first two episodes last night, and I have a couple of comments that I want to get down.  First, let me say, this, and following posts of the sort, will serve more as notes to me than as complete coherent essays.  Let my three readers be warned.

Episode 1, "Rose" is where we first meet the Doctor and form some impressions of him.  He is a mysterious character.  He appears out of nowhere, well, actually out of some sort of magical blue box called the Tardis (Time and Relative Dimension in Space).  This Doctor, who only goes by the name "The Doctor" appears to be an alien with advanced technology.  He has a "sonic screwdriver," which, up to this point, appears to do two things, unlock and lock doors, and to disrupt radio signals. His Tardis also is able to move through space and time to wherever and whenever the Doctor wills. His technology seems to be "magic" to the eyes of humans.  This seems to be an example of Arthur C. Clarke's third law, which states, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

The Doctor, besides having advanced "magical" technology, also appears to have further capabilities.  In an interesting conversation with Rose (his human companion) the Doctor states that he can feel the earth rotating on its axis, and revolving around the sun at 67,000 miles per hour, falling through space.  Though the Doctor is aware of such awesome realities, he is also a giddy, goofy, good humored person.

The Doctor is also quite condescending to humans.  At one point he points out how stupid and childish they are, yet also notes their tremendous potential.

In this first episode, the Doctor's task is to save the unwitting humans from an alien threat in the form of living plastic which seeks to "devour" the earth as dinner.  Of course, the brilliant and technologically advanced Doctor is more than up for the task, with a little help from Rose.

Episode 2, The end of the world.

Few more clues as to the Doctor's identity.  We find out in this episode that the Doctor is an alien called a "Time Lord."  We find out that his planet was destroyed in a war, his planet passed "before its time."  We also find out that the Doctor is the last of the Time Lords, the only survivor of a war which destroyed his race. 

Perhaps more interesting is the Doctor's self revelation, when pressed by Rose as to who he is, the Doctor says that he is what he does, right here and now.  His identity is wrapped up in his present actions and that should be enough.  I was reminded of Yahweh's self revelation in Exodus to Moses, "I am who I am" or "I will be whom I will be."  I don't know if this was a conscious choice on the part of the show writers, but knowing where the show is going, it might be a possibility.

One last note.  Sacrifice:  The tree creature in this episode sacrifices herself so that the Doctor can save the day.  This becomes a recurring motif as the show goes on.  Many sacrifice themselves to save the day, but it is rarely the Doctor.

More to follow.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Add-On Gospel: What's Necessary

What's is necessary to your gospel?  Or to put it another way, how much of the Bible could be thrown out without any significant change to your gospel message?

This is a question that has been churning in my mind of late.  I grew up firmly planted in the evangelical world.  I was raised in an evangelical free church, was heavily involved in Young Life and Campus Crusade, and in college, I attended a charismatic evangelical baptist church.  The Gospel message I grew up with went something like this.  God created the world, but Adam and Even sinned and messed that all up.  For all have sinned. Because of that sin, we are liable to the judgment of God and eternal torment in hell.  But, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, born of a virgin, died on the cross, enduring God's judgment and punishment for my (and everyone's) sins.  Now, if I confess my belief in Jesus, ask forgiveness for my sins, and invite Jesus into my heart, I can be saved and enjoy eternal life.

So, what in the Bible is necessary to this message, and what is, as the title of this post proclaims, an Add-On?

Here are the parts of the Bible I see as necessary to that Gospel message: Genesis 1-3, the creation of the world and Adam and Eve's disobedience.  You can then skip the rest of the whole Old Testament as it does nothing to change the overall gospel message.  Then you must read Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2 to hear about Jesus' birth by a virgin.  You can then skip the bulk of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and merely read the passion narratives about the Death of Jesus on the Cross.  Then, you read John's Gospel and Romans for the theological explanation of Christ's death on the cross and there you have it.  There is your gospel message.  Everything else in the entire Bible is a mere Add-On.  Nothing else substantially changes the gospel message described above.

So, what difference does it make the Jesus was Jewish?  None!  What difference does it make that there was an entire narrative of the Jewish people starting from Abraham and moving on down through Moses, to the Judges, to the Kings, to the Prophets and to the Exile and Return? None! None of these things fundamentally change the gospel message.  And, perhaps most shockingly, what difference does one of the most fundamental Christian faith claims, the Resurrection of Jesus, make for such a gospel?  None!.  Here is how Daniel Kirk, who grew up in similar evangelical circles, says it in his book Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul?
"The story of salvation as I understood it did not need the resurrection in order for the narrative to come to its climactic conclusion.  All it needed was the cross.  So long as Jesus died for me, my soul could be in personal relationship with God.  The resurrection was, at best, a tack-on, perhaps an empirical validation that God had accepted Jesus' sacrifice."  (Page 44 of 228 in iBooks on iPad, but if you change the font size, the page numbers will change.  iBooks, and Kindle really need to address this problem of how to cite sources with some fixed pagination in their eBooks).
So, is this a problem?  Is it indicative of a major shortcoming of this evangelical gospel that so little of the Bible is necessary to preach the gospel, and that so little of the Bible really has any fundamental impact on the message of the gospel?  I tend to think it is.  What do you think?