Friday, 20 June 2008

Smash the television set? Dr Who and catholic values

Last Saturday I was reading John Senior's book, The Restoration of Christian Culture, whose main advice seems to be to smash your television set and read the great books of the past instead.

Now I don't normally watch much TV. But there are a few shows that can tempt me to break out of my news only regime. One of them is classic Sci Fi show, Dr Who.

So when on Sunday, someone alerted me to the availability of Dr Who's Season Four, not yet shown on Australian TV...temptation, temptation! Fortunately I'm running up against my download limit, so temptation has largely had to be resisted. I'm planning on a binge once I finish exams!

I have to admit though that as a general principle, while Senior's notion has some attractions, personally I find books much more dangerous than tv.

Both are really forms of escapism with some potential to stimulate thought - but for me at least, books are far more addictive, because once I start reading one, I find it very hard to put down. Accordingly, I identify strongly with St Jerome, who, after a warning dream, dumped his copy of Cicero out of his backpack lest it lure him into hell!

Television (even in the form of DVDs and internet accessible shows), on the other hand is generally neatly compartmentalised into episode-sized chunks. And there is so little on worth watching on the live networks, and most of that is on after my bedtime anyway, so it is relatively easy to restrict it to the odd hour now and again (and we all need to relax after all)!

The case for watching some tv...

In any case, Dr Senior notwithstanding, I do think there are a few good reasons for lay people at least to watch at least some television (beyond the news).

First to know what we have to confront in terms of the culture. I'm not advocating a regular diet of Big Brother or whatever the latest fad is, but an occasional glance to see whether that tv chef really is as awful as he's being made out to be might be important in terms of engaging people on their own terms when it comes to evangelization.

Secondly, given that people do watch this stuff, we need to find ways of counteracting it - for example by protesting against those shows that violate the bounds of acceptable behaviour, and supporting shows that do offer positive values, or explore issues in a serious way.

Most importantly though, television today has reached a degree of sophistication that make at least some shows at least as thought provoking as a great novel in my view.

House MD, for example, got a positive write up from a Vatican-linked commentator last year. Similarly, the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, as well as being a gripping saga which makes an intriguing play on many religious motifs, is in my view one of the most sophisticated and challenging analyses of the ills of contemporary society and the moral dilemmas of our time.

Dr Who

Dr Who, even in its relaunched form, I have to admit, is not quite in this category of sophistication. It has a nice dry sense of humour, and some good acting, but it is good clean escapism not really claiming to be anything more than that.

All the same, I have been intrigued by the way the 'relaunched' series generally seems to operate very firmly within a catholic moral framework, making use of catholic principles to work through the various conundrums the Doctor faces.

And it makes some rather cute pokes and plays on some theological ideas. In the 2007 Christmas special for example (yes Dulcie, I did get sucked in to watching some of the new stuff!), there are robots who look like angels, called the 'heavenly hosts' (they are supposed to provide information to those who request it). But when they remove their halos to reveal stubby horn-like protuberances (and start using their halos to kill people!) we are given a salutary reminder that angels, whatever their appearance, can be good or bad!

Then there are the Slythereen, the aliens from the very first series (recently repeated on ABC2). When I originally watched it, I had just finished reading some moral theology lecture notes stating that our bodies are not ‘mere dress’. Then, there they were, literally hanging their human 'body suits' in the closet (in the Cabinet Room of No 10 Dowling Street, they'd been busy taking over England).

The Slytherin, you see, had faked a rather stagey crash-landing that destroyed Big Ben, and then proceeded to try and take over Britain by pretending to be the Prime Minister (and assorted overweight hangers-on) fighting the evil alien invaders. Their game plan was to stymie the fight against the invaders at the source, starting by neutralising all of the alien-fighting experts (and of course it might have worked if it weren't for the Doctor!).

The Slytherin’s masquerade, however, is made faintly ridiculous by their constant farting (a little matter-exchange problem with their body suits apparently). And they all look forward to taking off their body suits, so they can hunt in their true form...

And just as an aside, the episodes showing the Blair-esq Prime Minister Harold Saxon, who turns out to be the Doctor's old Nemesis, the Master, have some priceless moments.

The problem of evil and suffering

Dr Who has always, of course, been about the good old-fashioned fight between good and evil, albeit in the form of evil aliens. The new Dr Who, however, has added an underlying theme of the problem of evil and suffering.

The Doctor, it must be said, is neither all-powerful or all-knowing, but he does have that little blue police box that can go backwards and forwards in time - so why can't he go back and stop some of the great horrors of history from ever happening, his companions ask?

The back story for the new series is that the Doctor is now the last survivor of his race, the Time Lords, who were wiped out of history by something the Doctor himself was forced to do in order to stop the Daleks from destroying all life apart from themselves. He didn't expect to survive himself - and suffers intense survivor's guilt as a result of his actions. Made all the worse by the fact that many years ago, the Time Lords sent him on a mission to destroy the Daleks before they began their mission of conquest - but the Doctor had baulked at committing genocide before they had actually done something wrong, and let them go.

There are of course no easy answers to the problem of suffering beyond its roots in our own propensity to sin and inflict the effects of that sin on others. The program doesn't shy away from this point.

The importance of family

And as a result of all that has happened to him, the Doctor seems to have gained a new respect for the importance of family for his companions - no matter how appalling, embarrassing and troublesome they might be - and we've met and kept in touch with the families of all three main companions so far.

In fact perhaps the most poignant episode of the whole show so far centred on Rose's (Companion No 1) desire to meet her Dad (Pete) who died when she was a baby. The Doctor takes her back in time, and, unable to help herself, she saves him, and the world starts to disintegrate around them.

That particular story works on a number of levels. First we learn that Rose's Mum, Jacqui, has painted a picture of Pete to Rose as the perfect husband and father,in fact 'the most wonderful man in the world' - when in fact he was a philandering conman, drifting from one failed get-rich-quick scheme to another. Nonetheless, he exemplifies a regular theme in the new Doctor Who, and that is that is good in everyone, and seemingly ordinary people are often capable of great sacrifice. There is also a lovely explanation of how everybody, no matter how seemingly unimportant, is a crucial:

“ROSE: But it's not like I've changed history. Not much, I mean... he's never gonna be a world leader, he's not gonna start World War Three or anything...

DOCTOR: Rose - there's a man alive in the world who wasn't alive before. An ordinary man, that's the most important thing in creation. The whole world's different because he's alive.”

I have to admit though that my favourite scene in this particular episode is the radiant happiness of the young couple who are trying to get married when they tell the Doctor all about how they met, and thank him for trying to save them. Their determination is nicely contrasted with the cynicism of the baby-boomer father of the groom who, when half the guests fail to turn up (swallowed by reaper-bat things), urges his son to rethink the whole thing, telling him ‘Maybe it's a Godsend. Gives you time to think. don't have to go through with it, not these days. Live in sin for a bit…In ten years time you'll turn round and say, "if only I could turn the clock back"!

Catholic principles for moral dilemmas

What I like most though has been the fact that the application of catholic moral principles has been the driving force for much of the drama.

In resisting an alien invasion, for example, what constitutes a legitimate response, what is going too far (just war principles)? In Season 1, for example, the Doctor lets a race of aliens go with a warning to sin no more (OK, so he doesn't quite say that, but that's the essential message) - but, corrupted by power, PM Harriet Jones goes ahead and wipes them out anyway, lest they come back. She comes to an untimely end. And is it acceptable to destroy the Earth, a planet full of innocent people, in order to save the universe from the Daleks?

These kind of issues keep coming back, over and over again. I'm pretty sure I've learnt more about the application of moral principles from thinking about some of these episodes than I did from the rather sparse examples given in my moral theology classes...

1 comment:

Roman433 said...

The New series of Dr who, does surprise you how moral it is, but like all things, it isn't perfect.
I can't wait for series 4 final.