Film, religion, TV

Shocking similarities between geek culture and religious fundamentalism

What do Superman and God have in common?

Well, I’m sure many have written a dissertation on such a question, but one obvious answer is they both have obsessive fans – geeks and fundamentalists.

As someone who grew up in a pretty fundamentalist Christian background and then went on to become a massive geek, I’ve noticed some pretty startling similarities between the two groups.

Here are a just a few…

 

Bizarre obsession with continuity

Christian fundamentalists often speak of ‘The Bible’ as if it’s one homogeneous text – something can be ‘biblical’ or ‘un-biblical’ depending on ‘what The Bible says.’

Of course, one is likely to think such a thing when you believe all scripture was inspired by God himself, but as we learn more about the context of the many texts of both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, we understand an obvious truth – each one was written in a specific time and place, with specific intentions.

It’s believed a lot of the Old Testament was written during the Jewish Exile to Babylon, and so the narrative focus on the Israelites being God’s chosen people is understood to be a wonderful story providing a strong image for the Jewish people struggling with a national identity.

Equally, each of the gospels were written at different times for different audiences which explains the varying portrayals of Jesus in each. It is really quite startling to contrast the differences between the human Jesus of Mark who dies on the cross asking ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’, to the God-man striding across the Earth in the Gospel of John.

Indeed, a better way to understand the Bible is not as one book written by one author with one intention, but instead put together (over a much greater period) a bit like Doctor Who. The classic sci-fi TV show began in 1963 in black and white, with a grumpy old Doctor who tried to cave the head of a caveman in during the second episode. But it changed radically across the course of its history, The Doctor becoming a recorder-playing clown, then a suave aikido-practicing gentleman who was trapped on Earth. And all this was before he became the iconic Tom Baker!

Importantly, the mythology kept on evolving. Initially The Doctor was just a wandering alien, perhaps the last of his kind, but then it was revealed he had a species. His first regeneration was explicitly linked to the powers of the TARDIS, but the second regeneration was down to the Time Lords. The Daleks were initially creepy lone survivors on a near-dead planet, before they became all powerful conquerors.

Trying to suggest there’s one consistent mythology to Doctor Who is a fool’s errand – it was written by different writers, for a changing audience over more than 50 years. But this doesn’t stop fans trying, pointing out ‘X contradicts an episode from over 30 years ago.’ In much the same way, it would do the fundamentalist good to acknowledge that contradictions within their Holy Scripture (which can be found not just across books, but also a mere few passages apart, such as how many animals God instructed to be taken on the ark) shouldn’t be explained away, but accepted as the inevitable outcome of an ever-evolving mythology across a library of fascinating texts.

 

Missing the spirit of the text

It is quite amazing how many racist and/or sexist Twitter users have the face of a superhero as their bio pic.  Aren’t superheroes about human decency? It’s extraordinary that any Star Trek fan could complain about a black lead. Isn’t the whole point of Star Trek an absolute egalitarian society? And recently, isn’t it crazy how Doctor Who fans have complained that from Christmas the next Doctor will be played by a woman? Doctor Who, as well as being about compassion and doing the right thing, so often preaches the necessity of change and the dangers of not letting go of the past.

It often seems fans completely miss the point of the characters and shows they idolise.

In much the same way, it is absolutely bizarre than any Christian could support Trump, who aims to make it harder for the poorest in the United States to have access to basic rights like healthcare and education. Wasn’t Jesus’ whole point that we should be reaching out to the poor and outcast in our society, and that the Kingdom of God will be the inversion of today’s reality? Yet Trump had a huge amount of support from Evangelical Christians.

It appears both fundamentalists and geeks could do well to look at the spirit of the texts, shows and characters they dedicate so much time to.

 

Problematic views on women

It’s sad but true that geek culture has some real issues with women. Of course this was shown clearly with the man-babies crying about the casting of a female Doctor (which I have talked about at some length here), but it’s equally manifested in the way fans reacted to the last two Star Wars movies having a female lead.

I remember reading lots of commentators responding to the Rogue One trailer saying ‘ANOTHER female lead.’ I know right, two out of eight movies – CRAZY!

Gaming culture is also particularly bad, with ‘bros’ talking about ‘girl gamers’ not being ‘real gamers’.

Again, this parallels fundamentalists across all the Abrahamic religions, who are often uncomfortable with female leadership. It is absolutely ridiculous that the Church of England is still arguing over female bishops. Why on Earth would a God (who, if he/she exists at all, would almost certainly be genderless) care about what genitals you have? That seems a far more human concern.

The lesson from this one is simple, geeks and fundamentalists both need to grow the fuck up and stop being so sexist.

 

The Golden Age

One of the defining traits of fundamentalism is ‘The Golden Age’ of the religion. This tends to extend both backwards and forwards in time. Once there was a golden age where the religion was practiced perfectly and, soon, there will be a future where the religion is once again practiced perfectly. Only now, at this specific moment, are the hard times.

This thinking is rife across all kinds of geek fandom. Star Wars might seem a slightly unfair example because the originals really were ground-breaking and hugely influential cinema, but the response to the prequels (and, in some circles, the newer movies) was always a bit blinkered, as if the originals were flawless with Shakespearean dialogue and unrivaled acting (they weren’t!)

Clearer still is Doctor Who fans who constantly hate on current showrunner Steven Moffat. They’ll complain endlessly that the Russell T. Davies era was the golden age of the show and it’s never been as good since, often forgetting the times when the Davies era wasn’t all that great (I mean no-one really liked that Daleks in Manhattan two-parter did they?) And, in perfect parallel to the fundamentalists, they project all their hopes on the upcoming showrunner, Chris Chibnall, for a new golden age of Doctor Who. It is inevitable that, within the first two or three weeks of the next series, they’ll be pining for the golden days of Moffat.

 

Silly differences

It’s amazing how religious followers can have so many beliefs in common but still see each other as ‘opposed’. You see it in Catholics and Protestants most obviously, but I’ve been in Evangelical churches who are quick to question whether some other set of Christians are ‘real Christians’ and ask if they are ‘really saved’.

This again is reflected in geek culture.

‘If you like the Star Wars prequels, you’re not a REAL Star Wars fan.’

‘They only liked Doctor Who because they fancied David Tennant.’

Guys, can’t we see what unites us rather than pick up on the smallest of differences?

 

Both geeks and fundamentalists spend too much time thinking about imaginary characters

As both a geek and someone slightly theistic leaning, this one is just me being facetious.

 

Most are nice people

For all the negative similarities, I think it’s worth pointing out the most obvious similarity – both are given a bad reputation by the vocal minority of dumb followers/fans.

Most religious people, even fundamentalists, want to practice their religion in peace without imposing it on the lives of others.

Similarly, most geeks watch these shows and films because they enjoy them, and don’t log-in to internet forums to complain that it’s the ‘worst one ever’ or to vent their anger at the latest bit of casting.

Both groups could benefit from some of their most vocal members just….shutting up…

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TV

5 reasons why a female Doctor is exactly what Doctor Who needs right now

By the end of Christmas Day, The Doctor will officially be a woman (none other than the fabulous Jodie Whittaker.) I was ecstatic when I heard the news, another genius bit of casting for the show, but not everyone agreed. Unsurprisingly the casting of the first female Doctor proved to be somewhat controversial, with a few fans saying they’ll never watch the show again (they almost certainly will, but that’s beside the point!)

I personally don’t really understand it. How can you watch a show about a two thousand year old, shape shifting, time travelling alien with two hearts but find switching the gender of the character the thing that kills your suspension of disbelief?

Quite frankly, I think the casting of Jodie Whittaker isn’t just acceptable, it’s exactly what the show needs right now. Here are five reasons why:

 

1. Doctor Who needs change

I love Doctor Who, more than I should really (in fact I even argued that it’s as good as any religion, and I was only half-joking), but even I would say the show has felt a little…’stale’ the last few years. Don’t get wrong, Capaldi has been great and there have been some really amazing episodes with incredible thematic depth way beyond what should be expected of a Saturday teatime TV show, but the ratings have been in decline. It’s not doing bad by any means, but it’s some way away from the highs of the Russell T Davies era.  And again, I don’t think that’s because of the quality of writing, so much as the ‘new’ incarnation of Doctor Who is now twelve years old, and has had the same creative team behind it for the last seven years. No matter how good the writing has been, it feels like the show has had the pedal fully to the floor but is still only going at 50mph for the last few years.

Doctor Who’s biggest strength is it’s basically an anthology show. Unlike Game of Thrones, Doctor Who is largely designed so anyone can watch an episode at any time and still get something from it. But also unlike Game of Thrones, it can’t rely on the momentum of an on-going story to bring people back each week. So, if people start to think of Doctor Who as ‘same old, same old’ (a term that featured in the trailer for Series 9 for some reason known only to the BBC marketing department), they’re not going to tune in.

The new creative team next year, headed by Chris Chibnall, will almost certainly give the show an organic ‘freshness’ that it hasn’t been able to artificially generate, try as it might have with Series 10. Again, I don’t think the show will necessarily be better, but it will feel new once more.

But what better way to tell the audience that this is not business as usual than by casting a female Doctor? With the news making the front pages today, the show feels more in the public consciousness now than it has since the 50th Special in 2013.

 

2. It only makes sense

Steven Moffat might not have cast a female Doctor, but he’s certainly done his fair share in making the mythology of the show ready for a woman lead.

One of his first lines for the show as head writer was having the newly regenerated Matt Smith question whether he was ‘a girl’. He then added the line about The Corsair (another Timelord) being a female in one of his regenerations to a Gaiman script, and in Series 9 he showed a balding, middle-aged male Timelord regenerate into a black woman…gee, do you think he was trying to tell us something?

Of course his ultimate move was casting a female Master. If everything else was just lip service to the idea of a female Doctor, casting Michelle Gomez as Missy was a test-run…and what a success it was! Gomez owned the role and being a woman didn’t detract in the slightest. It was almost audacious to have her and John Simm (the previous incarnation of The Master) appear in the same episode for the recent finale but there was no need to fear, they totally felt like the same person (at least in the same way all The Doctors have when they’ve met.)

With hindsight the speech The Doctor gave to Bill in the penultimate episode about Timelords rising above humanity’s petty obsessions with gender works as a beautiful build up to the reveal we had yesterday.

In fact, Moffat didn’t just make the idea of a female Doctor compatible with the show’s mythology, he essentially made it a plot hole to not mix things up. If The Doctor can take any form, any colour, any gender, then why does he keep appearing as a white man?

Moffat claims he didn’t know who the Thirteenth Doctor was, but The Doctor’s reply to The Master questioning if the future ‘is all girl’ with ‘I do hope so’ certainly suggests Moffat had a sense of the show’s future….

 

3. Representation is important

Finally it looks like mainstream entertainment is beginning to realise they don’t need white male leads to be successful. Just look at the most recent two Star Wars films – both had a female lead and Rogue One, in particular, had a really diverse supporting cast as well. The recently released Wonder Woman has also shown just how much of an appetite there is for female-lead superhero movies.

Things certainly aren’t moving fast enough (I’m looking at you MCU – God knows how many films and they’ve still all been lead by white guys!), but it does feel like the cultural zeitgeist is changing.

I love Doctor Who and everything it represents (I’ve been proud of the show’s portrayal of Bill’s sexuality this series), and casting a woman Doctor feels like tapping into the mood of the time. That’s not ‘political correctness’ by the way, just the simple acknowledgement that ‘white male lead’ doesn’t have to be the default.

If I had one concern about casting a female Doctor, it’s that I love the role-model Doctor Who offers to young boys – he’s a hero who isn’t remotely defined by his physical strength, but by his intellect and his heart(s). But hey, we’ve had twelve male Doctors, let’s share our hero. And besides, perhaps the message that gender doesn’t really matter at all and is largely irrelevant is better anyway!

 

4. Think of all the interesting questions it raises

Will we have our first proper male companion? (I love Rory and Jack, but they were never the main billing, let’s be honest.) That would mix things up! Or will we have our first all-female TARDIS team? That would be exciting too.

And how will they handle The Doctor’s sexuality (so much as he/she has a sexuality)? Although The Doctor is often shown as being at arm’s length from sexual desire, there’s no doubt that his relationships with Rose, Madame Du Pompadour and River Song all had a romantic element to them. Will a female Doctor feel the same? Will she be a lesbian? Is the Doctor bisexual? Does his/her sexuality change when they regenerate? Do these labels even matter anymore?

The casting has opened up the floodgates to a whole load of interesting questions for the show to explore.

 

5. We get Jodie Whittaker!

Frustratingly, all this talk of whether there should be a female Doctor has almost overshadowed the fact that Jodie Whittaker is a damn good actor. In Broadchurch she gave an anchored performance whilst having to portray such extremes of emotion – I always thought she was overlooked in many ways, with all the praise going to the equally brilliant David Tennant and Olivia Coleman.

But sometimes a casting just feels ‘right’, and this certainly does to me. As a fan, I can’t think of a male actor I’d rather have play the role, and that’s really all that matters in the end – the best actor got the part.

And hopefully, in a few decades time, when some geeks of the future look back at previous Doctors, the fact Jodie Whittaker was the ‘first female Doctor’ will be a mere footnote, a piece of interesting trivia, and ultimately she’ll be judged on her performance.

 

The last episode of Doctor Who ended with the Twelfth and the First Doctor both certain they don’t want change. This is something I’m sure a lot of fans will be able to empathise with at the moment, even more so than usual. But, I’ve got a feeling The Doctors are going to work through their issues…and the future of Doctor Who is going to be just fine. I can’t wait!

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Philosophy, Politics

A few brief thoughts on the recent terrorist atrocities

It’s been an awful few months for our country. Men, women and children have lost their lives. The number of victims might be counted, but the pain of the families who lost someone will never be quantifiable.

I was in two minds whether to write anything on this at all – in the face of such tragedy, words can seem so glib and, really, what is there left to say? What can be said at all? But I’ve decided, for my own catharsis and for the very few readers who find their way to this tiny pocket of the internet, I’m going to share some brief thoughts.

We hear a lot that ‘the terrorists won’t win’. And, if you believe that these terrorists have any sort of long-term political goals, that’s probably right. Western Democracy is never going to curtail to the whims of an oppressive death cult.

Some may say, however, that the terrorists’ goals aren’t even that sophisticated – their intentions are merely to cause harm, destroy lives and stir up fear. And in that way, I guess, they kind of can win…but only because their goals are so pathetic.

The truth is, if you are determined to go through with it, devastating lives is easy. Most of us have access to a car or a kitchen knife. If we so choose, any one of us could go out there and cause unthinkable pain. Such a cowardly act only works, however, by exploiting the trust of our civilisation. We are a free country, we have entered into a social contract to trust each other – our streets aren’t designed to stop us causing harm because basic human respect for life is assumed. That’s how a free society works. Only a coward would abuse that trust and take innocent lives. Destruction is easy, pathetic and weak.

What is difficult, and what these terrorists have absolutely no capacity to do, is to build…and just look at what we’ve built. We have a welfare state to protect the poor and vulnerable in our society. We have a National Health Service to look after the sick, regardless of wealth. We are a country made up of different ethnicities, cultures, and religions. What’s more, we don’t merely tolerate these differences, we celebrate them as one of the things that make us great. And it’s not always easy. Sometimes it’s hard to show love. Sometimes we disagree about how best to do it.

But, as a country, we have public servants who go beyond the call of duty to protect and heal us. We’ve produced policeman, paramedics and civilians who, in the face of unspeakable danger, risk (and, in some cases, lose) their own lives trying to save others. Not, it must be said, for any gain or reward, but simply because they couldn’t bear to stand by and watch another human suffer. It is through the actions of these people that we catch a glimpse of the divine.

On Sunday night, Manchester held a concert to celebrate unity and love, in memory of those who had lost their lives. This concert was set-up by a 23 year old pop star, herself deeply affected by these events, who did what little she could to help a city and a nation heal. This concert raised over two million pounds, as ordinary people volunteered their money to help others in need. And what was so cathartic about the concert, beyond just the outpouring of love, was to see people having fun, caught up in the music. There’s a reason these terrorists have no regard for art and music – it’s because they’re acts of creation, and all a terrorist can do is destroy. Creativity itself becomes glorious defiance. Whereas terrorism is an act of deep jealously and emptiness, and in that small way I almost pity them.

It’s important to be critical of ourselves. To create a just society is so much harder than causing destruction. It’s vital to recognise our flaws, our hypocrisies and our deep, dark moral failings. But it’s equally important to, once in a while, take a look at just how far we’ve come. Just look at what we’ve built. We’re protectors of each other. We are creators. We are artists. We are free. That’s how we win.

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Philosophy, Politics

“Say ‘Strong and Stable’ again. I dare you, I double dare you motherf**ker”

One of the things that has struck me most about politics of late is the continued reliance on repeated phrases (perhaps a rather ironic statement for a blog using Pulp Fiction as the inspiration for its title).

Project fear

Strong and stable

He’s unelectable

For the many, not the few

Britain must live within its means

The system is rigged for the rich

Brexit means Brexit

Chances are everything I’ve quoted above will be familiar to you. Some may find them irritating but I think they’re significantly more problematic than mere irritation. Not only do they remove all nuance from a discussion but, at worst, I think they highlight a contempt for the electorate and, even more shockingly, they actually work (in all the wrong ways)!

The destruction of nuance

One of the most interesting parts of the George Orwell classic ‘Nineteen Eight-Four’ is the refining of the existing language by The Party into a new language – ‘newspeak’. Doing this was to, among other things, make nuance and opposition to The Party’s ideology linguistically impossible. Strange as it may seem, I do think there are lessons to be learned from this, applicable today.

Of course it would be a paranoid overstatement to suggest that our politicians are intentionally trying to enforce a new, ideologically motivated language on us but our reliance on repeated shorthand really can be damaging to intelligent discussion. These phrases may well begin as a catchy hook or an expedient way of getting the point across, but when overused they descend into vapid responses.

For example, we all remember ‘Project Fear’ as a much trotted out rebuttal to pretty much any claim that leaving the EU could be damaging. It essentially was meant to imply that the claim was scaremongering and intended to frighten us into voting remain. Even when expressed in full, it hardly seems the most direct response to any particular argument made against leaving the EU, but by dumbing down the response to a mere two words, ‘Project Fear’, it became an unwarranted defeater – shutting down the real debate straight away.

Equally overused and repeated phrases can cause us to think of complicated ideas simplistically. One that jumps out at me is the often repeated phrase ‘we need to balance the books’ or ‘Britain must live within its means.’ It’s obvious what this phrase is trying to convey – at a time of economic hardship we can’t be spending money frivolously. It’s also the logic used to support austerity and the cutting of public funding.

I’m no economist, I frankly have no idea how one goes about getting a country out of debt, but it seems clear to me that talking about the country’s deficit as if it’s a household budget is grotesque oversimplification. In a great article on austerity from 2015, Paul Krugman makes this point:

‘When John Boehner, the Republican leader, opposed US stimulus plans on the grounds that “American families are tightening their belt, but they don’t see government tightening its belt,” economists cringed at the stupidity. But within a few months the very same line was showing up in Barack Obama’s speeches, because his speechwriters found that it resonated with audiences.’

Whilst speaking of national debt as if it’s a household budget might be relatable and understandable, it actually conveys very little of the complexity of global economics and risks doing more harm than good. I don’t pretend to know whether austerity actually works, but it feels wrong to justify it by using a false analogy for the sake of simplicity.

We have to remember language really does matter, in fact one could argue that a lot of philosophy and critical thinking is really just trying to understand and agree on definitions. When you remove pretty much everything from a sentence so it’s just a trite soundbite, it becomes almost impossible to really dissect the point that’s being made – it’s simply a sentiment expressed in an inappropriately shortened away.

And it’s in this way I think there’s a genuine comparison with ‘Newspeak’ which was created to convey large sentiments in completely inflexible language – the speaker loses the capacity to speak with nuance and therefore the ability to reflect critically. In our case, politicians willfully choose to use such wording and voluntarily become linguistically bankrupt.

Utter contempt

This brings us to our next question; why do politicians and the media use such language? Well, it’s because they believe it’ll work.

Frankly, Theresa May’s constant reliance on repeating the words ‘strong and stable’ feels to me like contempt for the electorate – she really must think we’re stupid. Don’t get me wrong, I know political parties need a hook and have an image they want to portray, but they really have gone beyond that this election, repeating the phrase ad nauseam with the subtlety of a Michael Bay movie.

And let’s be honest, that mantra really isn’t an accurate reflection of May’s leadership so far. At best it’s a projection of what the Conservatives want to achieve, at worst it’s an overcompensation because far from being ‘strong and stable’, the complete opposite is true. Only today she made her ninth u-turn, this time on a manifesto policy that is only four days old, prompting Michael Crick to ask if Mrs May was in fact ‘weak and wobbly’. Mix that with the fact that her recent dinner with Jean-Claude Juncker reportedly left him ’10 times more sceptical’ about Brexit, and it’s quite clear that strong and stable is good PR, but far from reality.

But it actually works!

Unfortunately politicians and the media rely on these nonsense shorthands because they do actually seem to work, at least for some of the electorate. Anecdotal as it may be, I’ve seen (and spoken with) many people who say they’ll be voting Theresa May, and who can’t help but use either the words ‘strong’ or ‘stable’ when explaining why. These brain-worm of words get into our heads and, when heard enough times, are hard to shake  – I’m sure a psychologist could write an interesting piece as to why.

Another example of repeated phraseology that works was the constant reporting of the media that Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable. Now look, I don’t like conspiracy theories and I think reports of ‘media bias’ can be a little simplistic – often the media is simply giving the readership/viewers what they want. Neither am I a full blooded Corbynite – I’m generally favourable to him but I’ve yet to be convinced he’s the saviour of the country some of the left think he is.

But it seems undeniable to me that even if it were the case that Corbyn was unelectable from the moment he took leadership of the Labour party (a claim it would be hard to empirically show), the constant repetition of ‘Corbyn is unelectable’ becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Best not vote Corbyn because he’s unelectable…I think we can all see the flaw in that logic!

What to do

No party is immune to using annoying soundbites or repeated phraseology in a way that hinders real political and intellectual discourse.

We as voters should always, however, be on the lookout for such things.

My own approach – the minute I hear a phrase repeated profusely, a soundbite that won’t go away or an idea that everyone simply seems to accept, I refuse it all together on those terms. Instead, build up what is trying to be conveyed using proper language, then critically examine that claim against the available evidence.

Let’s not let slogans, soundbites and phraseology dumb down the level of debate in this country. We deserve better.

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Film

Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 – the best MCU movie so far? (spoiler free)

I’m not ashamed to say I, along with many others, wept at the end of Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2. Yep, I cried during a Marvel movie…the one about talking raccoons and baby trees no less. The general tone of a Marvel movie isn’t hard to predict, largely a lot of laughs and a little bit of ‘that’s awesome’ thrown in, but tear-jerking…I wasn’t expecting that!

Truthfully I’m not really sure what I was expecting. The first Guardians movie is my favourite of the MCU movies largely because it strays a delicate line of irreverent humour and absolute emotional sincerity perfectly, with a tonal dexterity that other Marvels tend not to have. Equipped with a killer retro soundtrack on top of that (which informs the emotion of the film as well as simply being great fun), the original flew its way straight into my heart.

The trouble is, a sequel to a movie that was essentially lightening in a bottle was always going to be difficult. On the one hand, if the sequel simply doubles down on the elements that work well in the original it’ll almost always be met with the accusation of diminishing returns. On the other, doing something completely different might risk losing the charm of the original and alienating the existing fanbase.

James Gunn, however, finds a steady compromise between the two approaches. Vol. 2 certainly does bring back everything people loved from the original (namely the humour, tone and retro soundtrack) bigger and better than ever before. As Baby Groot dances around to ELO’s ‘Mr Blue Sky’ during the opening as the Guardians fight a big tentacled monster, it’s pretty clear we’re in familiar territory (and, quite possibly, operates as a simple metaphor for the film’s focus throughout.)

Yet Vol. 2 does offer new experiences as well. This time around the team are broken up into smaller groups to pursue their own individual stories, which gives everything a slightly different flavour. It’s also a deeper and more personal movie than the first, with clearer and more thoroughly explored themes. It’s not quite The Empire Strikes Back or The Godfather Part II of sequels, but it’s certainly not a simple re-tread either.

It’s helped by different characters taking centre stage. Certainly Peter Quill is still the main character and it’s ultimately his story, but it does feel even more of an ensemble piece this time. Yondu, in particular, is given a lot more to do than in the first movie and I imagine he may well end up being many people’s favourite Guardian after this. New character Mantis is also an adorable addition to the team, forming a genuinely moving relationship with Drax – despite being the complete opposite in many ways.

Speaking of adorable, Baby Groot is insanely fucking cute. He really does steal the movie and just a tiny change in his expression can (and will) break your heart. As Guardians Of The Galaxy does best, Baby Groot isn’t just an opportunity for laughs (and merchandise), but actually works really well with the film’s focus on family and parenting.

The plot could be accused of being a little on the slight side. In fact it’s very much like an early series Star Trek story played out over two hours, but to say much more would be to enter into spoiler territory. I do think this gives us one of Marvel’s better villains, which is admittedly faint praise. It’s not quite Loki standard, but it’s a bit better than a lot of the other disposable villains Marvel has gotten through (Malekith, Ronan, Whiplash etc. )

There’s also mercifully little connection to the MCU at large, in fact I think this might be the most standalone Marvel movie yet. Whereas even the first Guardians movie was burdened with The Collector and explaining the infinity stones, Vol. 2 is given free-reign to tell the story it desires free of interference. Even the five (yes, five!) post-credit sequences don’t really inform on the MCU at large. Ironically, however, the little we do learn of Thanos (the MCU’s ‘big bad’) in a brief but powerful conversation between Gamora and Nebula actually does more to build him up as a horrific villain than all the hints and appearances of Thanos in the entire MCU to date. But this mention isn’t forced, it’s entirely organic to the story and very much important to the theme of family that Vol. 2 orbits.

The film also looks gorgeous. It’s an explosion of vibrant colours, psychedelic and vivid. For those who sometimes think Marvel movies look a bit bland (I mean I enjoyed Civil War, but did it have to be SO grey?!), then Vol. 2’s delightfully garish colour palette will be welcome (and it looks like we’ll be getting more of this beauty in the third Thor outing!)

Vol. 2 certainly isn’t perfect. By breaking up the team and focusing on the individual storylines it loses some of that leanness and simplicity which gave the first outing such a wonderful source of momentum. Equally, a cynical viewer might say some of the scenes exist to serve the soundtrack, rather than the other way around (parts come close to feeling like a music video). I also think a little more could be done with the sci-fi action aesthetic. I know the movie always has its tongue firmly in cheek (there’s an alien race who fly spaceships as if they’re arcade machines) and that’s all part of the fun, but I did sometimes wish for a little more weight to the space battles just so the action set-pieces don’t feel so disposable.

But the reason this isn’t a deal-breaker is no-matter how weightless the action may seem, James Gunn realises this and always keeps the characters front and centre – their journeys are what give weight throughout. And I really have to applaud this movie for ending in such an emotional and kind of downbeat way (yes, back to the weeping). When you think about it, nearly every MCU movie (with very few exceptions) ends in a way which could be summed up as ‘the hero’s ready to kick ass in the next movie’. That isn’t the case in Vol. 2, which instead ends on a moment of entirely earned emotional poignancy.

It’ll be interesting to see what the status of Marvel movies will be once the MCU reaches its inevitable end. Whilst most of the movies are good (some, indeed, are excellent), they are a bizarre blend of film and product, the likes of which cinema hadn’t really seen before. Marvel movies can virtually act as advertisements for future installments (Iron Man 2 and Age of Ultron being notable culprits for this.) When there is no future, so to speak, will these films stand up as something that can be watched at any time (something I’d feel comfortable replying positively for in the case of The Dark Knight and the first two Raimi Spider-Man movies) or are they so of the moment that they will eventually fade into obscurity, like filler episodes of a TV show?

It’s hard to say, but I do believe that if any of the series are going to standout then it’s going to be the Guardians movies (based on the first two, at least.) They transcend the MCU in many ways, and operate on a total different level of quality. Largely free from the shackles of being an advertisement or having to reference events of earlier movies, they are able to be their own thing and do genuinely feel like the work of a visionary director as opposed to a studio committee. The ending of Vol. 2 really reaffirms my faith that this series has the maturity and freedom to tell its story with absolute integrity to the plot and characters, rather than service a franchise.

The next time we see the Guardians it will be in the eagerly anticipated Infinity Wars, teaming up with the Avengers. Whilst it’ll certainly be a treat to see them there, it doesn’t feel necessary – if the Guardians never crossed-over it wouldn’t matter a bit and that’s why these movies work so well, the continuity connection is an added bonus, not a pivotal part of their appeal.

With James Gunn having just confirmed he’s signed up for Vol. 3, we know these wacky bunch of space misfits are in good hands. I, for one, can’t wait to see what they get up to next.

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Philosophy, religion

Fumblings in the dark (or the appropriate response to the limitation of human reason)

Imagine, if you will, waking up in a pitch black dark room. You don’t know where you are or how you got there, nor can you see what’s in the room because of the darkness. You fumble anxiously for your phone. You need a light source. Finally you hold the phone up, but the light is weak, barely illuminating what’s in front. You have absolutely no idea where the room ends.

Here’s a question for you; what’s at the end of the room? Presumably you’ll think the answer’s obvious – ‘I have absolutely no idea.’

Now, imagine the same scenario but this time you wake up with your friend, Doris (yes, Doris…it’s my thought experiment and I’m allowed to have anachronistic names.)
“Don’t worry,” she says, noticing your heavy breathing. “It’s quite alright.”
“How can you be sure?” you ask.
“At the end of this room is a little lamp and, sitting right next to it, a really cute little kitten. You’ll love it.”
You breathe a sigh of relief.
“Oh, thank goodness. How do you know all that?”
“I just do,” shrugs Doris.
Your body begins to go cold as the hope slowly drains.
“What do you mean ‘you just do’?”
“I have faith,” Doris replies.
“But you’ve got no evidence,” you say, staring into the dark abyss.
“No,” laughs Doris, “that’s why it’s called faith, silly.”
You shake your head, unable to believe what you’re hearing.
“Besides,” she continues, “do you have any reason to think there isn’t a really cute kitten at the end of the room?”

In this scenario, do you think Doris is being sensible in her assertion? Let’s come back to this later.

 

The limitations of reason

“I know one thing; that I know nothing”, the famous Socratic paradox goes. Indeed if there’s one thing we can be reasonably sure of, it’s that we know very little. And I’m not even talking about the big questions, think of all the many known facts you have no knowledge of. Think of everything in biology, chemistry, physics, geology, history, geography, astronomy etc. that you don’t know (of course most of the things you don’t know, you won’t know you don’t know.)

It’s likely that each of us, as individuals, know considerably less than even 1% of everything that IS known. Isn’t that humbling? Sometimes we’re so used to our own bubble that we forget how DEEPLY ignorant we really are as individuals. It’s for this reason that I believe so strongly in the necessity of experts when it comes to beginning to make sense of the world, even if appealing to authority is hardly foolproof. In a world of growing egos, ever more elaborate conspiracy theories and stupid world leaders, the collective good that comes from trusting people specialising in a field and becoming informed experts really is at threat.

But, deeper still, there are questions to which reason simply doesn’t seem to offer an answer. Is there a God? What happens when we die? Does life have a purpose? These ideas ask questions beyond the physical and are, perhaps by necessity, outside the capacity of either the scientific method or human reason (unless you’re clinging onto the ontological argument for dear life, but I’m guessing most of you aren’t.)

It’s absolutely necessary that we accept this limitation – there is no point in pretending otherwise. In this way we are like that person trapped in the darkened room unable to see what’s at the end (and of course, we don’t have the liberty of being able to walk up and take a look for ourselves.) But so few of us actually act in this way – instead will fill this gap of knowledge with gods and demons, ghosts and spirits, meaning and purpose. We ‘do a Doris’, so to speak.

 

Is this a responsible reaction to the limitations of human reason?

Regardless of whatever motivates us to fill these gaps, the question becomes is it responsible to do so? In the case of Doris and her cute cat, do you think she is right to believe in the moggy at the end of the room? Presumably not, because there is absolutely no reason to think there is a kitten there.

And what of Doris’ reply, that there is no evidence to the contrary? Well that doesn’t seem satisfying either, you could come up with just about any theory (there’s an alien, an old man, a rocking horse, a T-Rex etc.) and the same would still be true. As is widely agreed, the burden of proof is always on the person making the claim, batty old Doris in this case. If Doris can’t justify her belief in the cat then she can’t expect others to believe her.

It’s because this all seems so obvious to me, that I find it hard to understand why rationalists and those who ask for evidence are so often portrayed as arrogant. There’s a definite imagining of the stuffy-old sceptic who thinks he knows everything. In fact I watched The Conjuring 2 recently (which I rather enjoyed, even if it has cost me a few hours sleep) and they portray the academics who don’t believe in hauntings as closed minded fools who arrogantly refuse to look beyond their noses. But this is all very misleading.

A true sceptic or rationalist is not assuming they know everything at all, quite the opposite in fact. They are simply asking for evidence of these claims in much the same way you would ask of evidence from dear old Doris. In fact if Doris is really convinced of her claims and judges you for not believing them, it is actually Doris who is extremely arrogant, as she is making the claim that she knows something extraordinary that nobody else has been able to prove. It’s her making the big claims about what’s at the end of the room who is presumptuous, not the person simply asking for some proof.

And so, it seems to me, in the face of the limitations of human reason, the answer is not just to plump for whatever belief system you fancy, but to stop and humbly acknowledge we simply don’t know. What’s at the end of the room? I don’t know.

Now, that’s not to say that everybody’s view is suddenly equal. In the case of Doris, her prediction is very specific and therefore more likely to be wrong. Just in the way that saying there’s another living being in this room gives greater probability to her claim than specifically insisting it’s a cat, the same is also true when talking of a God –‘ there may be a conscious designer of the universe’ is more probable than talking about a specific God who has a problem with homosexuality or shellfish (of course in both cases you’d still need a reason to make any sort of claim like this at all.)

It’s also possible that certain claims become less likely in virtue of the absence of evidence. When Doris states there’s a kitten at the end of the room, it would eventually cause us to doubt her further if we never hear a ‘meow’ (or any sound at all.) Equally, whilst we can never say for certain that psychic powers don’t exist, the fact that no scientifically controlled experiment has ever produced evidence of psychic powers should cause us some suspicion. Absence of evidence might not be evidence of absence, but we should be alarmed when evidence we may expect to see isn’t there.

But, in many ways, they are nuances for a greater discussion. The simple point at this moment is the mature response to the limitation of human reason is not making something up, as Doris does, but instead remaining absolutely open to any possibility if the evidence presents itself. And, if the question is beyond the capacity of human reason, simply remaining agnostic altogether.

 

What about faith?

I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve been having an interesting discussion with someone about their beliefs and suddenly it becomes a dead-end. Why? Well I’m fascinated by what people believe (that’s part of the reason I did Philosophy and Theology as a degree) but I’m even more interested in why they believe it, I think that’s the much meatier part of the discussion.

Yet, when someone evokes ‘faith’ as an answer it stops the conversation dead. In fact, often it’s said with a satisfied smile, as if faith is a virtue I haven’t quite ascended to yet. But in truth, if your definition of faith is ‘believing something for no reason’, that’s not virtuous, that’s ridiculous. Sorry, but it’s true. Faith, when defined in such a way, is just a crutch to hold onto beliefs that you know rationally you should do away with.

It’s not surprising we fall into this trap of using faith in such a way. For some time ‘faith’ has been defined as ‘believing without reason’ by certain religious groups and people mistake it for a supporting tenet of organised religion (ancient and, therefore, wise.) But, in actual fact, I remain far from convinced that this definition of faith is something the ancients would particularly recognise. It’s a big topic for another day, but I can’t help but doubt that the use of the word in an ancient world, pre-enlightenment and the scientific method, would mean the same thing as it does today post those movements.

Even a brief glance at the use of the word in the Abrahamic religions shows it unlikely was used to denote blindly believing something, in fact it seems largely about ‘faith in God’, not ‘faith in God’s existence.’ That’s a clear distinction. If I said I have faith in my parents, for example, you would presume I’m talking about trusting their ability to deliver, not blind belief in their existence. Throughout most the Hebrew Scriptures it’s taken for granted that God exists, so faith is almost always about trusting in his word as opposed to trusting in his existence.

And indeed, in the New Testament, 1 Peter 3:15 says ‘Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have’. Presumably this indicates some kind of rational persuasion, not an insistence on blind acceptance.

I do plan to one day look at this issue of faith in MUCH more depth, but a brief skimming of the subject indicates that calling on ‘faith’ to defend belief without reason is not some virtuous religious tradition but likely a reasonably modern definition of the word, re-defined for a post-enlightenment age where the existence of God is substantially called into question.

The true definition of ‘faith’ throughout religious traditions is likely going to be a lot richer and a lot more beautiful than the tacky gift shop version that is often bandied around today.

 

Why does this matter?

When all is said and done, you may wonder why any of this matters.

Well, I think we’re encouraged today to have opinions on things, and pushed not to ‘sit on the fence’ (which, I think, is often a perfectly fine place to be.) Plus there’s a natural human inclination to attribute meaning and a narrative to our existence. But to begin to adequately form a worldview, we need to make sure the very building blocks on which it’s formed is sound, yet seldom do we invest time analysing them.

And this is not a conclusion by the way, it’s very much just a beginning. You might think, based on this post, that I’m totally agnostic, but that’s not strictly true, I actually have theistic leanings. But it’s so important to make clear (to ourselves, if no-one else) our attitude to reason, to its limitations and our approach to evidence, before we can even begin to start making a positive case for any particular worldview.

So in conclusion…we need to be humble inquisitors, not a Doris.

 

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Film

Why the prospect of Star Wars putting an end to the Jedi is so damn exciting

“I only know one truth, it’s time for the Jedi to end” says a much older looking Luke at the end of yesterday’s exciting teaser for Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. For all the beautiful shots of Rey’s training, and the compulsory whizz-bang final shots of the trailer, it’s Luke’s line about the Jedi which is actually the most exciting.

Why? Well, the idea of the Jedi having to end or at least significantly reform would be a really organic, thematic culmination to the entire saga. One of the criticisms people have of the prequels is that the Jedi aren’t very likable, they’re not exactly the peaceful monks hinted at by Obi Wan in the original movie. But I’ve always thought, ‘yeah, that’s the whole point.’

From the moment we meet the Jedi Council in Episode One, their arrogance is on display. Mace Windu, one of the highest ranking Jedi, immediately doubts Qui-Gon’s assertion that he had battled a Sith Lord on the basis that if the Sith had returned, the Jedi would definitely have known (in this case, he was completely wrong!) Obi Wan is met with similar resistance in Episode 2 when he asks the librarian in the Jedi Temple about a planet he can’t find in their records. ‘If it does not exist in our records’ she says, ‘then it does not exist.’  Again, if people want to doubt this was Lucas’ intention, he writes a scene in Episode II where Yoda himself explicitly calls out the Jedi for being too sure of themselves, even the ‘older, more experienced ones.’

It seems like quite a statement Lucas is making that Qui-Gon Jinn, the Jedi most sceptical and rebellious of the Jedi Council’s authoritarian stance, is the first to learn the path to immortality.

Another troubling element of the Jedi in the prequel trilogy is their entanglement with the political structure of the time. From the moment we find them they seem a lot less like ‘the guardians of peace and justice’ which exist independently from the state for the good of the state, and instead much more like galactic police enforcing the laws of the Republic. I mean why on Earth are the Jedi sent as negotiators to the Trade Federation in Episode I, if not for the purpose of intimidating their opponents? It’s this entanglement with the political structure that makes them so ripe for Palpatine’s manipulation – by manufacturing a war between the Republic and Separatists, of course the Jedi are going to get dragged into the war itself, becoming generals and soldiers.

Further still, Palpatine suggests to Anakin in Episode III that the Jedi actually don’t trust democracy and are ultimately planning to take over the Republic. It’s not something we, as viewers, really see much of but there is one troubling scene in Episode III which gives this point a slight legitimacy. Some top ranking members of the Jedi Council are discussing what happens if they need to remove Chancellor Palpatine from power by force. It’s then Mace Windu suggests that the Jedi would have to take over for a short time to ensure a smooth transition…a line of thought Yoda immediately calls out as being dangerous. What’s so rich about all of this, and why I think the prequels are extremely underrated, is that this is really grey stuff. Of course the Jedi aren’t planning on a state takeover, but it’s certainly possible that a well-intentioned seizure of power could be hugely corrupting for the Jedi.

And when Mace Windu does finally go to arrest Palpatine after finding out he’s a Sith Lord, he makes the call at the end of the fight that the Chancellor is too dangerous to be left alive. Windu is prepared to kill Palpatine in cold blood because he simply doesn’t believe the Senate is sufficient to deal with him itself – this is really chilling stuff. This also goes someway in explaining why Anakin ultimately comes to view the Jedi as evil – after hearing concerns from his father figure, Palpatine, that the Jedi are plotting a takeover, he sees a respected Jedi master about to abandon the Jedi code and the rules of the Senate to kill the leader.

All these issues paint the Jedi as flawed and, perhaps, terminally so. But their single biggest weakness, and the flaw that runs across both trilogies, is their absolute belief in asceticism – no romantic involvement and no acceptance of grief. In the prequel trilogy Anakin’s biggest flaw is he’s highly emotional (and highly reactive). He feels love, anger and grief in the way most humans do. But, having been largely raised by the Jedi, he is given no healthy way of dealing with those emotions – he’s simply told not to have them.

His romantic involvement with Padme is entirely innocent, by all accounts it’s entirely right for these two to be together. But, knowing the Jedi council will never allow it, it becomes a cancerous barrier between him and the Jedi, even between him and his best friend Obi Wan. There’s then that haunting scene after Anakin’s mum dies at the hand of Tusken Raiders and he, in a burst of rage, slaughters them all. Padme says to him ‘To be angry is to be human’ to which he replies ‘I’m a Jedi, I know I’m better than this.’ I mean, geez, how emotionally repressed must you be to believe that grief is wrong!

This ultimately paves the way for his fall to the dark side because of his premonitions of Padme’s death. Not only is he unable to confide in anyone because the strict rules of the Jedi prohibit his attachment in the first place, when he asks Yoda about the premonitions he’s simply told he must ‘let go of everything he fears to lose.’ And so, in some perverse way, Anakin’s turn to the dark side is partly him just embracing and accepting his humanity and emotions. Of course it’s the wrong answer, but the Jedi offer absolutely no healthy alternative.

These themes continue (start? Stupid Star Wars timeline!) in the Original Trilogy. Luke finding out Darth Vader is his dad is an absolute game-changer – everything becomes more personal for him. Yet Yoda and Obi Wan are disappointed that he found out, precisely because they believe Luke having any form of emotional attachment will be his weakness (yes, they’re still spouting that bullshit 20 years after it cost them everything!) Obi Wan even says that if Luke can’t kill his father then the Empire has already won.

Yet Luke refuses to kill his father or to give up hope that there is any good left in him. And we see, bit-by-bit, the harder Luke outreaches to Vader, tiny moments of Vader’s humanity are revealed. When Vader is lying helpless at Luke’s mercy, the Emperor is urging Luke to kill him and take his place. What’s interesting is that had Luke kept an emotional detachment as the Jedi wanted him too, this could actually have made his turn to the dark side easier. Instead, Luke throws away his lightsaber (in contract to Windu’s actions in Episode III) and sticks by the Jedi code. As Vader sees his son being tortured, still crying out for help, still believing in his father’s capacity for good, he finally gives in and saves his son, destroying the Emperor in the process. It’s through Luke’s humanity, not his dedication to Jedi traditions, that Vader is redeemed and Luke survives.

That’s why I always find it funny when people say there’s ‘no grey areas’ in Star Wars. I completely disagree. Star Wars certainly believes in right and wrong as absolutes, but it is far less clear (particularly in the prequels) who actually is operating under those labels.

And, back to the original title, why is the idea of getting rid of the Jedi so exciting? Well, up until now, I’ve enjoyed Episode VII just enough, and I really liked Rogue One, but they ultimately felt like unnecessary add-ons. Episode VII in particular just looked to be putting all the same pieces into play as the original Star Wars but to diminishing returns. But, if they do look to reform the Jedi (and that teaser line isn’t just a really early ‘refusal to the call’) then it would make this next trilogy an organic extension and, indeed, the necessary modern thematic climax to the proceeding two trilogies. Character’s following their humanity and allowing for that ‘grey path’ that isn’t polarised by ‘light’ and ‘dark’ could be really exciting.

For example, as interesting as Kylo Ren is, I always thought it was a bit much that ANOTHER member of the Skywalker dynasty (the second in three generations) has turned into a dangerous psychopath. Yet if that turns out to be the whole point, (namely that repressive Jedi training leads to a disproportionately high number of dangerous, emotional, angry young men – Siths – in the same way the Catholic Priesthood has lead to a disproportionately high number of sex offenders), that would make Ren’s story an organic and important addition to the Star Wars universe.

Needless to say, this has all got me hyped for the next instalment of that story that took place a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away…only have to wait until Christmas now!

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