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Sep. 7th, 2011

Prompted by green_maia's posts about MD and religion, and my own comments there.

My reaction to Immortal Sins in comparison to green_maia's, as well as other people's, made me remember a blog entry by Ricardo Pinto, where he talks about the Catholic themes he noticed in his writing despite being an atheist, and how differently Portuguese readers and readers from English speaking countries react to the violence in the Stone Dance of the Chameleon books (*). He remarks on the prevalence of the crucifix in Catholic countries as opposed to the plain cross used by Protestant Churches, and goes on to ask, 'How profoundly is a culture shaped, the minds of its children shaped, by the difference between these symbols? The contrast between the abstract instrument of torture and execution, and the instrument being demonstrated in use, viscerally, by having a man depicted on it suffering?', and concludes: 'And it seems that I am Catholic enough to have portrayed a unity between violence and redemption, between violence and love, that is immediately understood by people who have grown up with the crucifix and causes much more of a problem for those who have grown up with the plain, bare cross….'

I have no idea if this would hold up to scientific analysis, but I do find the idea interesting, and it made me think.

I wasn't brought up Catholic as such, my parents never went to church, although my mother still is a member of the Catholic church, whereas ironically my father, who left years ago, is a lot more interested in theology and philosophy. But Austria was, and in many ways still is, a Catholic country and it's impossible not to absorb your share of Catholicism. Like almost every child at the time (1972) I got baptised as a matter of course and consequently attended religious eduction class at school. First Communion was at the age of eight, and while my biggest concern at the time was that my mother wouldn't buy me white shoes to match the dress, you've necessarily become familiar with the story of the crucifixion by then. You'll probably have drawn pictures of it, which, if you really think about it, is... I don't really know what word I'm looking for. Weird? Macabre? If children drew that kind of thing unprompted and outside of a religious context, there'd probably be worried teachers and parents and counselling.

I had a children's bible, which I actually read, because I still remember the pictures, and preferring the OT, which was more like the Greek and German mythology my father used to read to us, to the NT, which I thought was a bit boring. I wouldn't describe myself as a spiritual or religious child, or even very interested in religion. Confession freaked me out completely, which is why I only ever went a bare handful of times, and I attended Mass only with the school at the beginning and end of the school year and whatever few other occasions there were. Did I believe in what we were taught? I don't really remember. Probably to an extent, but I don't connect any specific feelings, good or bad with it. It just was, unquestioned. Even in a public (i.e., not private or religious) school you'd have religious education class which you're only allowed to opt out of when you're fourteen (and I'm almost certain it was sixteen or seventeen when I went to school), and there was a good chance you'd be looking at a crucifix for the entire 8 - 12 years of your school career.

When I was 15 or 16, I suddenly became serious about religion, which in hindsight seems to come with the age, because my sister went through a similar phase, and is no more religious now than I am. Our religious education teacher had a bible class, which I attended, and ironically I missed confirmation because I was so serious about the whole thing that I wanted to do it ~properly~, in the right spiritual frame of mind, and kept putting off until atheism caught up with me and it was too late.

Which is to say, on the whole I was probably subjected to a lot more Catholic influence than Pinto, who only spent part of his childhood in Portugal before his family moved to the UK. Even if I became an atheist before I turned 20, by that time the mythology, the iconography, a certain way of thinking about certain issues were embedded in my brain on a so many levels that it's impossible to determine the real extent to which they shaped me. When I finally quit the Catholic Church a couple of years ago (excommunicating the people who helped a nine year old girl get an abortion after she'd been raped by her stepfather, while welcoming back the Lefebvrists was enough to overcome even my usual lethargy), I still felt a pang of guilt for a while, a sense of sudden emptiness, and even two years later being in a church still feels vaguely wrong, as if I shouldn't be there now. (And then I occasionally catch myself thinking that quitting didn't invalidate my baptism... *facepalm*) If at any point during the last 15 or more years you'd have asked me if I considered being Catholic part of my identity, I'd probably have laughed and shaken my head, but apparently I'd have been wrong. And I only ever knew the reformed brand of Catholicism after the Second Vatican Council, and had no pressure put on me by anyone, nor any personal unpleasant experiences; I'm not sure I even want to imaging what sort of damage the kind of Catholicism that used to threaten hell and damnation wreaked in the minds of children.

When I watched Immortal Sins... I absolutely loved it, and there was something more that I only managed to put into words when I wrote the comment in response to green_maia's entry: it felt familiar.

Even though I grew up in completely different circumstances, Angelo was a character I could relate to, and while I can't say I ever consciously struggled with sexuality vs. religion, I still could understand his guilt. The iconography felt familiar. I loved the echo of the Pietà image, and it didn't bother me in the least, partly I guess because there's plenty of (for lack of a better word) homoerotic religious art from the Renaissance to the present. Or more generally speaking, if you grew up at a time when Hermann Nitsch was still an object of controversy and hadn't become completely mainstream yet, RTD's occasional use of religious imagery is really quite tame in comparison. And while the scene where they killed Jack over and over again was hard to watch the first time, I didn't react to it in the way I'd have reacted to a random scene of violence, and this brings me back what Pinto wrote: with the religiously influenced iconography even the cruelty of it, the brutality of it and the suffering, felt, in a way, familiar.

And something else felt familiar too: Jack's anger. People of my generation, especially if they grew up in a big city rather than a village, on the whole probably won't have felt the worst of the suffocating and oppressive effect Catholicism can have in small communities. I do associate becoming an atheist with a memory of a sudden feeling of freedom, but as I said, I was lucky enough to grow up without pressure in this respect, and I don't really have any kind of personal bitterness. At the same time, maybe mainly through films and books and art the awareness of a struggle and rebellion against a conservatism that was largely embodied by the Catholic Church is still part of the country's collective consciousness. And this is why I think it's impossible to call the episode offensive without recognising the basic truth of it, because this (if not worse) is exactly how until very recently the Church, Catholic or otherwise, regularly fucked up the psyche and lives of gay men and women, and in many places continues to do so.


* * *


There's a second part to this ramble, which is about how I lost my faith and the religious themes in DW. Looking at the example of my sister, it probably would have happened anyway, but I still remember the first crack in my more or less unquestioning acceptance of the whole belief system. The son of a teacher at my school had an accident and as a result was in coma, and once during Mass we were praying for his recovery. I still remember how afterwards I started to think about how profoundly unfair it would be if God actually helped the boy specifically because of our prayer, because then what about all the people who didn't have an entire school to pray for them? Not long after that I started studying archaeology and ancient history and became aware of how obviously religions are shaped by the societies that produce them, even if they in turn also influence them, and that was that, but I still do remember that first crack, and while the line of reasoning may sound childish now, the underlying issue is still my main problem with the concept of a personal god.

I've been moving towards agnosticism over the years because atheism is in the end also a leap of faith considering how little we still know about the universe, but looking at the state of the world I find the concept of a God who occasionally will chose to interfere in some human lives, but not in others, intolerable. I can deal with the injustice of coincidence, I can deal with the knowledge that human nature can be, and often is, very ugly, but I absolutely can't deal with the idea of a God who could (and in some cases even does) prevent suffering, but choses not to for some mysterious reason of his own. There is a passage from The Brothers Karamazov that stuck in my memory although I've forgotten most of the rest of the plot since I read the book years ago, and that is the chapter titled Rebellion, where Ivan Karamazov gets into a theological discussion with his brother Alyosha, and (essentially) says he can't and won't tolerate or accept a God whose plan includes the suffering of innocent children.

And this is part of the reason why I love WoM so much, because for me this is what Adelaide rejects: she (like Judith in The Second Coming) personally profited from the Doctor's actions, he saved her life, but she looks at the wider picture, and realises not just that as a consequence of her being saved other people might die, but that in front of her stands someone who would keep making these decisions, who had all the power, and she decides that the price is too high. And she is brave enough, and strong enough, and proud enough to tell him, 'No', even if she has to sacrifice her life to make that point. There will still be suffering and death, but at least there will be no (quasi-)god, playing around with human lives and deciding who gets to live and who gets to die.

In WoM RTD got it right, whereas the implications of Gwen's speech in Day Five of CoE are so horrible that I've wondered if the whole thing isn't, intentionally or not, a step towards the final deconstruction of the Doctor/God theme. The children they were going to hand over to the 456 had nothing to do with 1965 or the whole mess, and if the Doctor could save them, but allows them to suffer because humanity's behaviour disgusts him ('turning away in shame')... then we're back with Ivan Karamazov and the whole theodicy argument. It's clear what RTD tried to do, but he was right in the first place, the fiction of the Doctor and the big man-made tragedies are irreconcilable and incompatible, certainly if they're historical, but even if they're fictional like the events of CoE. If it worked in Fires of Pompeii, then only because the tragedy of Pompeii is two millennia old and history this far removed has become something akin to mythology in most people's minds.




(*) Which, btw, I cannot recommend enough. They're not flawless, but IMO deserve more recognition than they got.

Comments

( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
topaz_eyes
Sep. 8th, 2011 04:26 am (UTC)
In WoM RTD got it right, whereas the implications of Gwen's speech in Day Five of CoE are so horrible that I've wondered if the whole thing isn't, intentionally or not, a step towards the final deconstruction of the Doctor/God theme.

In the context of RTD's Who-verse, I think it is a step towards that final deconstruction. Certainly it's a logical progression. At heart the problem was actually very similar for Gwen and Adelaide: will the Doctor intervene on their behalf, and should he? The difference is in how the respective narratives approached the question, depending on whether they were believers in or skeptics of the Doctor.

I think Gwen's speech in CoE portrayed her as a believer in the Doctor's myth. Everything she knew of him she heard from Jack, except for that vanishingly brief interaction with him in "Journey's End". But Gwen-the-believer reluctantly had to acknowledge the Doctor wasn't going to intervene this time. She then excused his lack of action, to justify it to herself. She couldn't know what he really thought, because he wasn't there. She could only assume what he thought. So I think the speech in CoE was Gwen's crisis of faith wherein she had to face the fact that only humanity could save it from itself. (I think it's important too, that both Gwen and Jack lost faith and gave up the fight at the beginning of Day 5. Agent Johnson kept the fight going by believing in herself and the greater good.)

In contrast, I think Adelaide's actions towards the Doctor from their first meeting portrayed her as a skeptic. He was an intruder in her domain, who at first refused to tell her anything about the situation. When he finally explained why he couldn't intervene, she accepted her fate. Then when he changed his mind, she actively rejected his interference, and held him accountable for his actions the way Gwen couldn't, because Gwen knew only the Doctor-as-myth. Adelaide had the advantage of dealing with the Doctor-as-man.

I can't accept the concept of a supposedly omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent being who chooses whom to save, either. It's interesting how Adelaide's rejection of the Time Lord Victorious in WoM mirrors Gwen's speech in CoE. Both recognized that the Doctor could indeed choose. Except Gwen accepted it and subsequently lost faith, while Adelaide rejected it and died firm in her beliefs.

It's clear what RTD tried to do, but he was right in the first place, the fiction of the Doctor and the big man-made tragedies are irreconcilable and incompatible, certainly if they're historical, but even if they're fictional like the events of CoE.

I think this is why CoE works so brilliantly in counterpoint to WoM. They look at the same question from 2 different angles and reach the same conclusion.

(As an aside, there's a debate in some circles whether MD and Moffat's Who take place in the same universe anymore. The Doctor's "final death" in S6 takes place on April 22, 2011, within MD's time frame. One could argue the Doctor isn't affected by the Miracle because he's alien. Consensus appears to be that Who and Torchwood now operate in parallel universes.)

(Also, sorry about the tl;dr.)
solitary_summer
Sep. 8th, 2011 07:18 pm (UTC)
No apologies necessary — thank you for reading and commenting!

I think on an in-character level Gwen simply substituted the Doctor for the God in whom she'd already lost faith during her time in Torchwood because in this situation she needed some explanation why no one would help them. But the basic thought process remains the same, and it fits the character, because Gwen's faith seems to have been rather uncomplicated and unquestioning. (Now Ianto, on the other hand, so ready with his apocalyptic bible quotes... I wonder.)

I think this is why CoE works so brilliantly in counterpoint to WoM. They look at the same question from 2 different angles and reach the same conclusion.

I agree. It's one of these instances where you can really see the ideas develop across shows.


I think this is a fascinating subject, and I really wish there were more discussion about it, but on the whole I get the impression that people either dislike the religious themes in DW because they don't think they suited the show and the character, or dislike them because they find them offensive on some level, or simply aren't interested. I really don't have the time now, but some day I'm hoping to write something about the religious themes in RTD's writing...

Re. Alternative universes... Well, there's the explication for Jack's time line... ;)

I'm really curious how MD will end, and how it'll tie into all this. I know I complained a bit, but I'm genuinely sad this is going to be the last episode... I'll miss it.
topaz_eyes
Sep. 8th, 2011 09:15 pm (UTC)
I think a lot of people who despised the religious themes actually misinterpreted them. They thought RTD glorified Ten as a quasi-religious figure, but missed (or possibly ignored) how RTD immediately deconstructed it afterward. So they got RTD's point that it was inappropriate, but not RTD's reason why it was.

mannaplowsk has written some brilliant meta on religious themes in DW, mainly about Martha. Which makes sense, because S3 had the most overt religious comparisons. Jacob at Television Without Pity has also looked at religious themes in DW. I'd love to see what you think.

MD's not perfect by any means, but I can't wait to see how MD ends. Jack's clearly at the centre of the Miracle, and has to end it--will he die, will he live but become mortal, or will he stay immortal? I dearly want him to survive so he eventually becomes the Face of Boe, but I'm also steeling myself for Jack's permanent death.
solitary_summer
Sep. 8th, 2011 10:41 pm (UTC)
I've read mannaplowsk's meta about Martha, and I remember someone mention TwP, but going through the site I can't find anything, and google isn't helpful either. Is it in the forums, or do you maybe have a link?

I dearly want him to survive so he eventually becomes the Face of Boe, but I'm also steeling myself for Jack's permanent death.

I'd hate for Jack to lose his place in the DW mythology, but... it's RTD. Who knows what he'll come up with this time. Gah. If he's going to kill Jack, it had better be a brilliant story, or I'm going to be a bit cranky.
topaz_eyes
Sep. 9th, 2011 05:17 pm (UTC)
Here's a link: http://www.televisionwithoutpity.com/show/doctor-who/recaps.php

Scroll down about half the page to Jacob's recaps. He also covers The Second Coming as part of the mythos. Be aware though, they are *long*.

Jack won't lose his place in DW mythology. Moffat's said he'd love for Jack to return on DW. I think there's a way they can do that easily enough. (Though you can bet Moffat will have rebooted Jack so he can stay away from the religious/mortality themes.)
solitary_summer
Sep. 9th, 2011 11:35 pm (UTC)
Thank you!

I know Moffat originally wrote Jack, even if from what I understand RTD (mostly) created him, but I'm not sure I want him rebooted on Moffat's DW, not after CoE and MD...
(Deleted comment)
solitary_summer
Sep. 9th, 2011 07:22 am (UTC)
Of course not! :)

Edited at 2011-09-09 07:23 am (UTC)
butterfly
Sep. 9th, 2011 11:28 am (UTC)
Here via a rec from green_maia.

I love this post. I'm also an atheist, so I enjoy the way that RTD takes the lid off religion/faith and pokes at it to see what makes it tick. My path to atheism began with an intense dissatisfaction with churches arguing that God's will was something that I personally considered a less-than-ethical path and that's the sort of thing that, yeah - what, really? God is less ethical than I am and contains more hate and judgment? That's a terrible God. Certainly not worth worshiping. That's where I started, with the idea that the God being presented to me by the churches that I knew was not worthy of being worshiped. So, first I went out on a search for a 'good' God but ended up at the conclusion that no God at all made much more sense in context of the universe.

So, yeah, I love RTD's deconstructions of faith and religion. Back in S3, when 42 first aired, I compared Martha's reaction to getting the TARDIS key to that of an acolyte at worship.

RTD has the Doctor say it as Nine - "I would make a terrible God" - and then he goes and has the Doctor get tempted toward the power anyway (out of compassion and loneliness and pain) and prove that even someone as brilliant as the Doctor would not be good to have as your God.
solitary_summer
Sep. 9th, 2011 11:30 pm (UTC)
So, first I went out on a search for a 'good' God but ended up at the conclusion that no God at all made much more sense in context of the universe.

I could maybe accept the idea of a God who created the universe and then let it operate according to its laws without further interference, but in the end this seems too much of a compromise to be able to 'keep' God, but also keep him out of the whole complicated mess of ethical dilemmas that would arise otherwise...

Back in S3, when 42 first aired, I compared Martha's reaction to getting the TARDIS key to that of an acolyte at worship.

I remember 42 too vaguely, but this made me think about Gridlock (one of my favourite episodes), where Martha says she puts her faith in the Doctor to save her, rather than God... Then by the end of the season it is she who basically saved the universe, and after another season we have Adelaide who rejects being saved at the price of (essentially) Ten turning into some sort of God. That's quite an arc, really...
sensiblecat
Sep. 10th, 2011 08:17 am (UTC)
I think the Ninth Doctor (I think it was) summed it all up when he said he would make a very bad god. RTD basically seems to be saying that nobody would want to be God, except for some pretty dubious reasons. S2 was all about the Doctor running as far as he could from any possibe God-like behaviour (I think it's interesting that the one time he does get drunk on that kind of adulation is that cheesy scene in FH, and it's immediately followed by an anvilicious warning that the Ten/Rose party is almost over. Then S3 could be read as a deconstruction of the attitude and act of worship, played out in the parable of Martha's unrequited love. There's a Gethsemane moment in FoB when John Smith begs to have the whole cup taken away from him, and I think that when his plea falls on deaf ears that's the start of Ten's slow moral decline into despotism, culminating in the magnificent WoM.

The moment when she gets the key in 42 originally struck me as incredibly creepy, but on reflection I now see it as the low point of Martha's journey, the point when she's most completely powerless and surrendered to the idea of worshipping Ten. It's followed by her magnificent performance in FoB, when she is far more capable than JS/Ten, and from that point her arc is about her steady growth in confidence and self-determination until she can see Ten as he really is - an alien who'd weep for the Master before he'd recognise that she saved the world - and she can walk away from him.

I don't have time to go into the whole S4 arc right now but I think you see it clearly in FoP and the Ood episode - Donna knows it sucks to have to be a god, so she offers her hand on the switch, and the next episode is memorable for two main reasons - first the scene where Donna voluntarily rejects the supernatural power of hearing the song of the Ood in captivity, and shows the strength that lies in understanding ones limitations, followed by a resolution of the problem that doesn't actually involve any intervention from the Doctor, other than as catalyst. The emphasis in S4 is very much on the deconstruction of faith, with the terrible irony that by stripping Donna of her newly-acquired powers in JE the Doctor brings about his own moral collapse in WoM.
solitary_summer
Sep. 11th, 2011 10:12 pm (UTC)
that nobody would want to be God, except for some pretty dubious reasons

I'm not sure I'd call them dubious, because every time it's very understandable why he does what he does, or almost does. In RTD's writing the religious themes are always connected to the death/mortality theme, and every time Ten oversteps his boundaries it's because he can't bear death, or the prospect of death. For me the strength of WoM was that you could so clearly see what happened, how he was driven completely beyond the limits of his endurance, and you pity him, or at least I did, you understand him, and at the same time in the end you're completely on Adelaide's side, because what he became was immediately and obviously ugly and dangerous.

S2 was all about the Doctor running as far as he could from any possibe God-like behaviour

What about School Reunion? Nine definitely ran from any possible God-like behaviour; Ten on the other hand... He had that this controlling streak from the moment of his regeneration.

first the scene where Donna voluntarily rejects the supernatural power of hearing the song of the Ood in captivity, and shows the strength that lies in understanding ones limitations

From what I remember though, the problem was that she could do this, while he couldn't, and had to bear it.
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )

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