The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood

The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood feels more like classic Doctor Who than anything seen before in the new series, tapping into how everyone remembers the Pertwee era to be, and virtually every reviewer has pointed this out. But no one seems to appreciate the equally distinctive Colin Baker feel, with protracted torture scenes and luminescent underground sets; I must confess that Vengeance on Varos was more on my mind than Pertwee’s encounter with the Silurians, who this time around look more human than reptilian when their masks come off. This is a compliment, mind you, since I like more about Colin Baker than most, and less about Pertwee than many. If that sounds ambiguous, rest assured this is a good story in a season that, amazingly, hasn’t yet produced a single dud.

The minimalist setting is a welcome reprieve from the usual noise, involving only four characters besides the Doctor, Amy, and Rory. Our heroes step out onto the Welsh countryside in the year 2020, where they find blue grass, an isolated drilling project, and become fast involved in strange occurrences. Corpses have been disappearing from undisturbed graves, and it doesn’t take long to catch on that the body snatching is coming from below the earth. We aren’t fully exposed to the underground threat until Cold Blood, which allows The Hungry Earth to breathe and unfold like a Sherlock Holmes mystery, and I’m hard pressed to say which half is more impressive: the first for its haunting graveyard site, or the second for the alien underworld.

As in the Pertwee classic, the story takes a tired cliché and turns it on its head. The alien invaders aren’t really aliens but “Earthlians” who have as much claim to the planet as humanity. Having evolved on Earth millions of years ago, these homo reptilians had reached the point of advanced civilization before a (supposed) apocalyptic catastrophe drove them to seek shelter underground, waiting in suspended animation for the disaster to blow over. This time it is a drilling project that awakens them from their slumber, and they retaliate by abducting the drillers in preparation for war. They manage to snag Amy, despite the Doctor’s furious attempt to keep her from being pulled underground, and before she knows it she’s on the dissection table. But it’s when the Doctor is later screaming and writhing in agony under decontaminaton that we really feel the ghost of Colin Baker. The new series hasn’t gone to places like this — save in Dalek when the Ninth Doctor got tortured by Henry Van Staten — and it’s ironically fitting that such disturbing treatment occurs at the hands of “aliens” who are most like humanity.

And even for the good: The Silurians are complex in their politics, certainly not all warmongers, and enough of them want peace that the Doctor is able to engineer a negotiations session for terms of coexistence. The bargaining table is of course doomed from the start — abruptly dissolved when it is explained that the Silurian hostage has been killed — but fascinating for what it reveals about the Doctor’s political compass. In contrast to Vampires of Venice, where he refused to allow even one city to save an entire species, and in most cases where his conscience must carry the weight of aliens he destroys on humanity’s behalf, here he bends over backwards to put Silurians on the same playing field with homo sapiens. “From their point of view, you’re the invaders,” he lectures the drillers in exasperation, and he’s obviously right.

The underground realm is wonderfully realized with its luminescent reds and greens, and by this point in the season I feel like I’ve fallen completely down the rabbit hole. The abundance of “Alice” cues haven’t exactly been subtle, but in The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood we go literally down. Moffat has put a lot of thought and planning into his fairy tale, and the entire season is shaping up to be a work of art. It’s also worth mentioning that we’ve gone through 70% of it without a single bad episode. Usually by this point in a Davies season I’ve dished out a few 1- and 2-star ratings, but this year, so far, remains free of lemons.

I can’t close this review without mentioning Rory’s death, which I didn’t see coming by a long shot, especially given the Doctor’s repeated insistence that “no one dies here today” (the contrapositive of the Moffat trope, “everyone lives”). Fully expecting an undramatic feel-good climax, I got the rug jerked out from under me not once, but twice, with the murder of the Silurian hostage (which of course ends the peaceful negotiations), and then of all people Rory. Moffat actually had the balls to kill off a TARDIS companion (eat that, Russell Davies), and although I think it’s pretty much a guarantee that Rory will be coming back in the finale (with all the Doctor’s talk of rewriting time), we haven’t been treated to the spectacle of a companion dying since Adric. Amy gets in an emotional performance as the Doctor yells at her to keep Rory alive in her memory, which she is tragically unable to do. The crack in her bedroom wall remains a wildly pervasive menace, and I can only imagine the implications of the TARDIS fragment left in the Doctor’s hands as the trailer for the next episode kicks in…

Rating: 3 ½ stars out of 5.

Ms. Anastasopoulou Stapled to the Wall

I’ve made my position clear on the reliability of certain handwriting experts, but for those who put stock in Ms. Anastasopoulou’s “exoneration” of Morton Smith, Jason Staples has a good critique. From his blogpost:

“Put simply, BAR’s handwriting analysis concludes that, all things being equal, based on the handwriting excerpts in his notes, etc., Smith couldn’t have simply sat down and copied out the Mar Saba letter. But this isn’t the proposed scenario at all! Rather, if Smith indeed forged Secret Mark, he would have worked through the Greek carefully for quite some time, checking and re-checking everything to make sure he had it perfect. Then he would have chosen a specific Greek scribal style to learn—preferably something that would be difficult (but doable) and distinct and traceable to the right timeframe. Then he would spend however long it took to learn this special style, making sure to use the right tools for the job (no ball point pens or #2 pencils for this kind of practice), ultimately practicing the Mar Saba letter in its entirety numerous times, likely memorizing the Mar Saba letter in the process, down to each accent, to make sure he could produce it without having to copy it from another sheet… In the process, of course, his overall Greek fluency wouldn’t have improved much, as he would be operating within such a small language base. Nor would his Greek block writing (with a pencil or ball-point, no less) have improved or changed much, since the two scripts are so extremely different. (For example, my Hebrew block characters haven’t changed a whole lot since I started writing in Hebrew cursive some years back; if anything, they’ve gotten clumsier.)”

Chilton on Gnosticism

Via Jim Davila, Bruce Chilton on the gnostics. From the article:

“Neo-Gnosticism [is] a modern revival greatly encouraged by the discovery at Nag Hammadi. In co-opting these ancient sources, the neo-Gnostics are unlike their ancient counterparts. They want to embrace the earth, while Gnostics often shunned the earth; they don’t wish to be elitist, although many Gnostics claimed to be a class apart from humanity at large. Above all, neo-Gnostics want to insist on the gender-equality of women with men. Those are aims I happen to agree with, but you need to cherry-pick Gnostic sources and ignore a great deal of what they say to make that picture work as an account of the Nag Hammadi library.

“Gnosticism has yet to be evaluated in the light of its own sources because two prejudgments have stood in the way of fair reading. One prejudgment dismisses Gnostics as heretics, in the tradition of Cyril of Alexandria. The other imagines that, because Gnostics were repressed by the Orthodox, it must be that the Gnostics themselves embraced diversity. Neither of these pictures is plausible.”

Chilton covers dualistic (wisdom as an hysterical divinity) and non-dualistic (wisdom as divine personification attainable by believers) versions of ancient gnosticism, as well as radical revisionist (villains like Cain and the serpent turned into heroes, Jesus laughing from Gologotha, etc.) and neo-Platonic versions, any of which can intersect with the others. Point being to remind ourselves that ancient gnosticism was as complex as orthodoxy.

The New Yorker on Jesus

From the May 24th issue of New Yorker: “What Did Jesus Do? Reading and Unreading the Gospels”, by Adam Gopnik. It takes Crossan’s ideas of egalitarianism a bit too seriously, but does have good things to say, and is well written. I like this part lending to the “Big Bang” theory of high Christology in the early Christian movement:

“Paul’s divine Christ came first, and Jesus the wise rabbi came later. This fixed, steady twoness at the heart of the Christian story can’t be wished away by liberal hope any more than it could be resolved by theological hair-splitting. Its intractability is part of the intoxication of belief. It can be amputated, mystically married, revealed as a fraud, or worshiped as the greatest of mysteries. The two go on, and their twoness is what distinguishes the faith and gives it its discursive dynamism.”

Amy’s Choice

Doctor-lite stories have a curious track record. Love and Monsters remains the most divisive story of the new series, Blink the most popular, and Turn Left the triumphant last gasp of the Davies era before a bad finale brought it to its knees. Amy’s Choice isn’t Doctor-lite, but it may as well be, strutting with the same determination to ignore the rules and throw something bizarre at us, only this time with the Doctor getting his usual screen time. It’s by far the weirdest story of the new series, and in a good way, as if David Lynch had been commissioned to write under the name of Simon Nye. Needless to say, if Lynchian dreamscapes don’t work for you, neither will Amy’s Choice, and judging from nasty reviews circling the web at the moment, that seems to be the case for many Doctor Who fans.

I adore Amy’s Choice. I’m confident that posterity will judge it a classic. The story finds the Doctor, Amy, and Rory flicking back and forth between two scenarios, one of which is a dream they are sharing, the other reality. They are told, by a mysterious figure called the Dream Lord, that to die in the dream will cause them to wake up in reality for good. To die in the real scenario will cause them to, well, really die. One takes place inside the TARDIS which has gone dark and freezing as it hurtles towards a cold sun. The other takes place five years later in the village of Ledworth, with Rory and Amy happily married and pregnant; the Doctor is visiting them, and they are confronted by a group of zombie-like elderly people who can barely walk but are hell-bent on murder. Our three heroes must agree which scenario is the dream, and allow themselves to be killed in it, in order to escape the Dream Lord’s puzzle.

The tricky ground where dreams and reality blur is difficult to tame without waxing cliche, and make no mistake, Amy’s Choice treads over familiar pastiches. On top of that, the “arena” situation has been worked over in plenty of science fiction dramas, in which protagonists are forced by an omnipotent power to solve puzzles and fight for their lives. But Nye makes it all work by subordinating the material to the love triangle between the Doctor, Amy, and Rory, and to the final revelation of the Dream Lord’s identity. This climax is crucial to the story’s success, but for reasons that escape me has upset many viewers. The Dream Lord isn’t a rival or enemy of the Doctor (like the Master or Celestial Toymaker), but rather the personification of his darkest feelings and doubts, even his self-loathing (sort of like the Valeyard). His insults paint the Doctor as woefully insecure about being abandoned by Amy, call into question his motives for taking on a young companion, and skewer him for the callous manner in which he treats his friends. It doesn’t take the Doctor long to recognize his inner demon and hurl the contemptuous self-indictment: “I know who you are — there’s only one person in the universe who hates me as much as you do.” Brilliant. I don’t understand the clamor for a more traditionally Manichean foe; going that route would have trivialized if not killed the story.

Nor do I understand the complaints about the psychic pollen, described by the Doctor as “a mind parasite which feeds on everything dark inside you, gives it a voice, and turns it against you”. (I love his flip answer to Amy, who demands to know why the pollen didn’t also feed on her and Rory. “Oh, the darkness inside you pair, it would have starved to death in an instant; I choose my friends with great care.”) Though of course, one follows the other: if one objects to the Boethian nature of the Dream Lord, the pollen must be condemned as well. But again, the fact that the true villain of the story is the Doctor’s shadow-self is what makes the story work.

As for the secondary villains, the old pensioners work extremely well. That they are aliens underneath is classic Doctor Who, but they are quite menacing apart from this, even without the tongue-like protrusions which blast people to ash. Watching the Doctor and Rory take on these decrepit old ladies is hilariously grand — surely only a viewer with a dull imagination (or, admittedly, a less perverse sense of humor than mine) could fail to be amused by the sight of feeble grandmas getting whacked by crowbars and thrown off the roofs of houses. That’s solid entertainment.

The visuals are superb and work dynamically in contrast, as we shuffle back and forth between an idyllic countryside and a darkened TARDIS. The former exudes a wrong tone from the start, precisely because everything seems “too right”, and the latter becomes increasingly horrifying as our three heroes become covered in frost and barely able to speak or move — and is there even such thing as a “cold star”? Both scenarios are disturbing and off-kilter, and it’s hard to decide which could be real.

Amy’s choice is, of course, ultimately a choice between two men: the fantasy hero from her childhood, and her less than impressive fiancee, who turns out to be the more impressive one after all. She sees the truth of this only when Rory is killed (in the Ledworth scenario), and, lashing out at the Doctor who is unable to save him, decides to kill herself in turn irrespective of whether or not she is dreaming. That the TARDIS scenario turns out to be a dream too is a nice twist that I didn’t see coming, and makes sense given that a Dream Lord wouldn’t logically have power over any reality. But it also suggests there was a never a “right” choice Amy had to make. Her preference for Rory is based entirely on how she feels in a certain moment. She confronts her devotion to two very different men in a particular now just as the Doctor must face his own demons. The story is ingeniously introspective, a welcome rarity in Doctor Who, and in my opinion a work of art.

Rating: 5 stars out of 5.

Women "Saved" Through Childbearing (I Tim 2:15)

What did the deutero-Paulinist mean by “a woman being saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty” (I Tim 2:15)? Lynn Cohick, Women in the World of the Earliest Christians, pp 138-140, lists four possibilities without taking sides.

(1) A woman will successfully endure the birthing process if she meets the stated conditions.

(2) A pregnant/childbearing woman is delivered, not from death, but from the restriction against teaching and the use of abusive authority (I Tim 2:12). Alternatively, the woman is Mary, who as the counterpart to Eve, reversed the damage of the Fall by giving birth to the messiah; thus a pregnant/childbearing woman is delivered from the effects of Eve’s sin. In either case, the woman is delivered or released from certain constraints.

(3) A childbearing woman has an assurance of spiritual salvation – a polemic against abstinence salvation which denigrated having children and other things related to the “material world”.

(4) A childbearing woman has an assurance of spiritual salvation – an endorsement of Roman modesty codes, which demanded repercussions for adultery and promoted higher birthrates, in effect discouraging abortions.

The pastoral letters are a bit outside my comfort zone. Anyone care to weigh in on the options?

Dangerous Dreams: Inception and Amy’s Choice

Two amazing trailers were released this week for a movie and TV show dealing with the nightmarish power of dreams: Christopher Nolan’s Inception and Doctor Who’s Amy’s Choice. I’m chomping at the bit for both.

In Inception the character played by Leo DiCaprio apparently works as a “subconscious security” agent for a classified project that takes place in human dreams. The new trailer suggests that he actually breaks into peoples’ dreams in order to steal their ideas while they’re sleeping. Not much is clear beyond that, but the visuals are mighty impressive, it looks suspenseful as hell, and I’m expecting it to be the film of the year as much as The Dark Knight was in 2008. And Ellen Page is in it, so that’s a major bonus. It hits theaters on July 16. See the trailer here.

Meanwhile, just around the corner (i.e. this weekend) awaits the Doctor Who episode called Amy’s Choice. It seems to be about a figure called the Dream Lord who has invaded the minds of the Doctor and his companions, putting them in a horrific dream that runs parallel to an equally grim reality. In one, they are in a nightmarish incarnation of the TARDIS, and in the other, they are in a “village that time forgot” surrounded by sinister looking grandmas and grandpas. Which is the dream and which is real? They can escape these scenarios only by dying in either one of them — preferably, obviously, the dream scenario, for to die in reality is to really die. See the trailer here.

Vampires of Venice

After a 21-year hiatus, vampires return to Doctor Who, and in a fun period piece. While it’s not as good as the gothic historicals of the Davies era, it’s blessed with a sparkling comedic script that would have made Graham Williams proud and stands as a fine example of how levity and dread work together when done right.

But by way of preface. In reviewing State of Decay, I noted my wariness of vampires given the contemporary deluge of excrement like Buffy and Twilight. If the aristocratic Dracula model has been overused, the bubblegum teen version is offensive beyond words. Vampires, in my opinion, should be brutally savage (e.g. From Dusk Till Dawn, 30 Days of Night), though obviously the R-rated breed isn’t suitable for a family program. State of Decay actually did astonishingly well by the aristocratic model, and The Curse of Fenric even better with sea vampires that were products of human evolution caused by pollution. Venice goes a more radical route, with vampires that aren’t really vampires, but rather alien fish monsters who want to drag Venice under water and call it home. It works pretty well, though a part of me wishes the myth wasn’t stripped away to this extent. There’s always a scientific explanation for the supernatural in Doctor Who, but State of Decay and Curse of Fenric pulled that off without giving up on the vampire concept entirely. Still, I applaud the originality.

As we’ve come to expect in these period dramas, the real agenda is the story at hand, and seasonal story arcs take a back seat. The plot is distinctly linear, from the opening as the Calvieri school welcomes innocent ladies into its monstrous breeding (= feeding) program, to the climax which involves an apocalyptic storm of tidal waves, and it develops nicely over the course of a 45-minute running time. There is the business of “the silence” which caused the fish-aliens to seek refuge on Earth — and which we suspect will be explained by the season finale — but aside from that allusion, this feels like the most self-contained story of the season so far. Like Amy and Rory, we’re meant to be on vacation and just take in 16th-century Italy, the subterranean corridors, the horrors lurking behind shadow and flame… and the Doctor’s exuberant inability to take this stuff with the seriousness it deserves.

The love triangle between Amy, Rory, and the Doctor is a particular highlight, and not a surprising one coming from the scriptwriter who gave us the famous bitch-fight between Sarah and Rose in School Reunion. But Sarah wasn’t soap opera throw-away; she was used very effectively to put Rose’s relationship to the Doctor into perspective, and to call into the question the way the Time Lord eventually discards his companions. We see a similar dynamic in this story, as Rory makes the Doctor see how he takes his companions for granted while continually putting them in danger without a second thought. There is sexual tension too, and this breaks out in hilarious jokes, such as when the Doctor and Rory are fending off vampires with ultraviolet lamps, and Rory remarks that the Doctor’s “is much bigger than his”, to which the Time Lord groans, “Don’t even go there.” As for the character of Rory himself, he repeats the tired formula of a not very bright, and woefully insecure, beta male competing for his girlfriend’s attention, so I hope that he will come into his own as Mickey finally did in the wonderful Cybermen story.

Rather disappointing is the resolution of the Doctor saving the day by climbing a tower to deactivate the alien technology; period stories are usually more original than this. In The Unquiet Dead the Gelth’s gaseous nature was used against them; in Tooth and Claw the diamond carried by Queen Victoria was the key to drowning the werewolf in moonlight; and in The Shakespeare Code, the witches were banished by the power of a playwright’s words. Compared to all of this, climbing a tower to push a few buttons is pretty unimpressive, and it doesn’t help that this climax copies those of stories whose reputations get deservedly worse every year — The Idiot’s Lantern and Daleks in Manhattan/The Evolution of the Daleks. Lazy resolution aside, the script does carry some unexpected surprises. The scene with Amy strapped in the chair of woes, getting bitten by Signora Calvieri, saturated in an atmosphere of green light that seems somehow alive, is a cracker.

Vampires of Venice is no State of Decay or Curse of Fenric, but, unlike the victims of the Calvieri school, it manages to hold its head above water. That’s no mean feat given the subject matter; it takes courage these days to play the vampire card. The result is a savagely fun romp.

Rating: 3 stars out of 5.

Is Atonement Essential for Christianity?

Ken Pulliam asks if penal substitution theory makes sense, which I think may be the wrong question for Christians to be asking. Of course, not being a Christian, perhaps I shouldn’t opine. But there are Christians who seem to be able to live without it (or any atonement theory) easily enough, and on the basis of the bible itself.

A preliminary remark about penal substitution theory, however, which states that Christ died to satisfy the demands of God’s justice. It is biblically based, to be sure, but so are satisfaction theory (that Christ died to satisfy the demands of God’s honor) and ransom redemption theory (that God tricked the devil by offering Jesus as a payment, and Satan was foiled by the resurrection). It’s not terribly hard to shoot down a theory based strictly on justice (which is what Pulliam’s post is all about), but the bible on whole is more complex, and as we know, the demands of honor often oppose those of justice.

But must any of the three atonement theories be taken as essential for Christianity? Stephen Finlan rejects all of them, believing that the Incarnation is the central doctrine of Christianity, while atonement is something Christianity can and should do without. In place of atonement, he suggests the principle of theosis, whereby “the Word became man so that you might learn from man how man may become God” (see his Problems with Atonement, p 121). He emphasizes that he’s not advocating gnosticism; in his opinion, “those who teach that every person is as divine as Christ is (such as the gnostic gospel of Philip) lose sight of the Incarnation, and cannot really be called Christian” (ibid, p 4). He’s simply advocating what orthodox thinkers like Athanasius and Clement of Alexandria maintained, that people may be deified on account of the “the Word becoming man”. He writes:

Theosis has a biblical basis, and this should not be forgotten. There is the promise that ‘you may become participants of the divine nature’ (II Pet 1:4); there is the command to become perfect, Godlike (Mt 5:48); there are the prophecies of doing greater things than Jesus did (Jn 14:12) and of revelations yet to be seen (Jn 1:51). Theosis means each person incarnating divinity in his or her small way, inspired by the direct Incarnation of divinity that took place in Galilee and Judea.” (ibid, pp 121-122)

So perhaps, ironically, the bible carries within itself the seeds for transcending/rejecting atonement theories. In which case forgiving freely becomes divine indeed.