Film, TV

Infinity War and the Marvel ‘lack of consequence’ problem

So you’ve seen Infinity War, right?

First of… *clears throat* ‘Holy fucking shit, that ending! Geez, did you just see that…Jesus!’

Right, now I’ve got that out of my system, let’s move on. Oh, and if you haven’t already seen the movie, stop reading and come back later. Unlike the Marvel universe, you can’t use a Time Stone to undo the consequences (burn!) of reading and frankly the film deserves to be experienced first-hand.

Still with me? Well, good, because Infinity War was pretty fun, right? An admirable smashing together of a whole bunch of Marvel properties that by-and-large works very well, assuming you know your Peter Quill from your Peter Parker.

But given that ending, and the various deaths racked up along the way, I want to ask a question. Does Infinity War solve the Marvel ‘lack of consequences’ problem?


Accusation: In most Marvel movies, there are very little consequences

The Marvel Cinematic Universe movies are so much fun. They’re dependable slices of blockbuster entertainment and even if you don’t love one of the movies, you’ll still probably have a good time with it nonetheless.

This makes it all the more frustrating that the MCU tends to have very little actual consequences. By that I don’t mean exclusively characters dying, although that is certainly part of it (oh, and ‘dead but not really’ fake-outs are the worst – Loki, Nick Fury etc.) No, stories can have huge consequences without it necessarily involving the death of a character. In fact, I would go so far as to argue Game of Thrones has literally used up all its ‘story progression by death’ and has come up unstuck in delivering storytelling not dependent on shock-death.

But the clincher is, the MCU very rarely has any form of consequence. Certainly there are some good character journeys over the course of the films (Tony and Steve effectively switching ideologies being one of them) and some of the solo films are exceptions (Guardians 2, in particular, lands a fantastic character death) but, largely, stakes feel huge but mean nothing.

Let’s go through a few examples. In The Winter Soldier, it turns out that SHIELD has actually been infiltrated by Hydra, an extreme Nazi cult. Doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. Ultron ends with a whole country being destroyed partially as a result of the Avenger’s actions, and it’s not really mentioned at the end of the movie. Civil War wants us to believe character relationships are damaged, but backtracks with Steve’s letter to Tony straight away.

None of it matters. Now, on occasion, stuff gets weight retroactively in a latter film – for example, the destruction of Sokovia has a huge impact on Civil War – but that’s not quite the same (more on this latter.) Most movies can’t rely on a sequel to give them meaning, and pretty much all good movies have immediate tangible consequences. That’s what gives them purpose.

So, the question is, in light of Infinity War, has this problem been solved?…

The answer is no, by the way, absolutely not. It actually makes things worse.


Is Infinity War the most inconsequential Marvel movie?

After a decade of being terrified to kill characters, Infinity War goes nuclear, killing Loki, Heimdall, Gamora, Vision and then a huge chunk of the other Avengers in one go.

Shit, boy! It’s like Marvel’s Red Wedding…apart from we know a whole load of it won’t stick. Spiderman, Guardians and Black Panther all have movies coming up so they aren’t gone for good. Straight away that undermines the ending. The funeral music credits, so powerful at the time, can’t help but feel like a gimmicky, weightless bit of audience manipulation rather than earned as a result of, you know, actually telling a good story.

The film has stones that can alter reality and reverse time. All the while those stones are around, nothing sticks, even if the film genuinely is committing. Are Loki and Gamora actually gone for good? If so, brave decision, I guess. But the film is crying wolf at the end, and so those deaths feel as temporary as every other.

There’s even a version of events whereby this could become the most inconsequential and pointless Marvel movie yet if it turns out they can rewrite time completely. If all the events of this film are undone then what on earth was the point?

Don’t get me wrong, I think the next movie will require sacrifice (Tony Stark basically has a target on his head the whole time now), but they can’t keep relying on subsequent movies to prop up the significance of the last. It’s bad storytelling.

And here’s the thing. Impossible, unbelievable stakes don’t need to be this empty and, to demonstrate my point, I want to compare Infinity War to an episode of the single greatest television show ever made – Doctor Who.


Infinity War and The Doctor

Although the most obvious episode to compare to Infinity War would be ‘The Stolen Earth’ (both stories involve aliens attacking, various different properties coming together and both have to juggle a huge amount of characters) I actually want to compare it to a slightly weirder episode, ‘The Pandorica Opens.’

If Infinity War thinks its stakes are high, ‘The Pandorica Opens’ is like ‘bitch, please. You killed half of all life in the universe? Well we’ve literally exploded every star and the universe itself has faded out of existence. Those are REAL stakes.’ Yes, seriously, the penultimate episode of Series 5 ends with the whole universe blowing up. Go big or go home, I guess!

So, presumably, this should exhibit all the same problems as Infinity War. The universe can’t stay blown up for obvious reasons, it’s going to have to be undone. But, far from feeling pointless, ‘The Pandorica Opens’ is a sublime bit of storytelling even before its excellent finale solves everything in a witty and cerebral way.


Because ‘The Pandorica Opens’ is about a lot more than the fate of the universe. There are important character moments between the Doctor and his companion, and between the companion and her husband that she forgot existed (who is also now a Roman Centurion, and also an evil plastic alien who doesn’t realise it…God damn, I love Doctor Who.)

It hinges on a fascinating question – ‘What monster is so feared in all the universe that it needs to be locked in the Pandorica?’ The answer turns out to be *spoilers* The Doctor. This isn’t just clever and shocking, it’s an insight into the theme of Matt Smith’s tenure – how The Doctor himself, with the best intentions in the world, can be seen by others as a monster and destructive force. Fear of him literally threatens the entire universe.

The episode ends with The Doctor imprisoned, the companion dead, the TARDIS blowing up and the universe ceasing to exist. Even though every single one of these is undone in the next episode, it’s actually about something greater than the obvious stakes – you can’t undo the character development or thematic exploration.

But if I asked you what is Infinity Wars about, I think you’d struggle to answer beyond ‘a purple alien wants to destroy half of everything’. There isn’t time for character development between the main heroes, so it’s a pretty surface level watch. The character explored the most is probably Thanos, and the biggest take away from him is maybe ‘crazy bad people sometimes think they’re justified’…but it’s all very flimsy. It’s relying on the shock factor of its deaths and stakes in a way the aforementioned Doctor Who episode just isn’t.

And the funny thing is, Doctor Who IS a TV series, ‘The Pandorica Opens’ IS a penultimate episode. This form of ‘all is lost’ storytelling is suited for television where you can find out the resolution next week. It sits uncomfortably in a movie that won’t get a follow-up for a year. (Although if Avengers 4 turns out to be a small, character driven piece exploring zany ideas on how to save the universe in the way ‘The Big Bang’ follows up ‘The Pandorica Opens’, all will be forgiven. Just saying.)


There are now less consequences

There’s still no evidence Marvel has learned its lesson when it comes to consequences and frankly, that’s becoming increasingly frustrating. God damn it guys, just commit already! If stones can literally alter reality, things feel less at stake than ever.

But if this piece has been overly grumpy, I want to emphasise I had a great time with Infinity War. It’s great, stupid, magnificent fun and a cinematic experiment that we just haven’t seen before. And oh boy has it got us talking and speculating. I’ll be there on opening night for Part 2, so I guess it kind of did its job.

It’s just the lack of consequences that I think the Marvel movies really need to overcome. Without consequence there can be no meaning, and the whole point of stories, even dumb fun ones, is to leave the audience with something beyond pure plot.

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…


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!


Was Sherlock too complicated?

Anyone who has watched the recent episode of Sherlock, The Abominable Bride, will know that it wasn’t your standard Sherlock episode.

What was promised to be a special one-off episode set in the traditional Victorian world Arthur Conan Doyle had originally envisioned the character in soon became something a lot more complex – there were mind palaces, drug induced visions, dreams within dreams and continuity call backs aplenty.

Unsurprisingly the episode was pretty divisive, inspiring strong reactions from both camps of thought. Some were calling it a genius and cerebral piece of television, others were calling it utterly convoluted drivel.

I don’t mean to write a review myself (for what’s it worth I thought it was half brave, intelligent and ambitious, and half painfully self-aware and unnecessarily ‘meta’) but I do want to quickly give my two pennies’ worth about a question that has been raised, however.

Was Sherlock too complicated?

And I want to quickly discuss this point not only in regards to this series, but equally another series which I see frequently gets this complaint – Doctor Who, as well as explore the implications it raises for modern storytelling itself.

Both shows share the same head writer, Steven Moffat, so there is certainly overlap.

Of course the short answer to the question is I can’t really say. I’m in no position to confirm how confusing the average viewer found this particular episode, or any particular episode of Doctor Who, so it may well be, all things considered, that some episodes simply don’t work for the majority of viewers.

It’s hard to say for certain – perhaps the Audience Appreciation Index (used by the BBC to find out an audience’s reaction) can give us some view on that – but I do want to explain why I get a bit frustrated when people quickly run to the ‘it’s too confusing’ criticism.

Let me begin by stating something which I think is beyond doubt, Steven Moffat is a great writer. I’m not arguing everything he does is perfect (he’s certainly got quirks that annoy me as a viewer) but he has lead two major shows that continue to be two of the most popular programmes on TV.

There’s no denying that he, with Mark Gatiss, has created a juggernaut with Sherlock which continuously receives both critical acclaim and love from mainstream audiences, and even if you preferred Doctor Who under Russell T Davies, there’s still no getting away from the fact that Moffat has helped the programme stay fresh and interesting to an often huge TV viewership. Plus many of the episodes he wrote during the Davies era are considered some of the best Doctor Who stories of all time.

I say this not because I think Moffat particularly needs defending, but I do tire of people not giving his recent episodes the benefit of the doubt – quickly rushing to terms like ‘too confusing’ and ‘convoluted’ in a way that doesn’t seem particularly reflective or thoughtful.

And here’s where we run into a snag. What people want from a TV program is going to vary. Some people might want to sit down and watch an episode with their mind switched off (or at least not majorly engaged), or periodically in the background whilst they check their phone, and still feel rewarded without giving it much thought.

I myself am something of another extreme – like any good film, I’ll happily watch an episode of television again if I think it will both be enjoyable and enrich my understanding of the narrative. I make no bones about it, I watch almost every Doctor Who episode at least twice and I do find the second time often illuminates some of the blanks I had when I first watched it.

Neither approach is right or wrong, but it does highlight how television works for different people. And I do really want to stop short of saying that if you are in the former camp, and don’t want to overthink an episode, that you’re in the wrong – ultimately it’s entirely possible that an episode might truly be too complicated for the audience it’s meant to be servicing.

But I do often wonder in the case of this particular Sherlock episode, and often in the case of Doctor Who, if the criticism is a bit too quick to be used.

Taking this Sherlock episode into account, I personally don’t think there was anything that was beyond reasonable comprehension. In fact, a lot of it was clearly signposted from the very beginning (and, frankly, after you watched the opening long catch-up on what happened in the last three series of Sherlock you probably should have twigged this wasn’t going to be completely standalone.)

In terms of potential confusing things, there was:

  • A mind palace, a conceit that should be familiar if you’re a regular Sherlock fan. In this instance the mind palace happened to be a Victorian setting, heightened by a drug overdose.
  • A connection between the dream world and the ‘real world’ Sherlock we know. Sherlock was imagining himself solving an old case to try and get answers for a current case.
  • There was a dream within a dream. This was probably the most complex bit (if Inception taught us anything it’s that dreams within dreams really catches people out.) But the use of this wasn’t simply a convoluted twist (as I admittedly first thought) but actually a way of showing Sherlock’s raw, powerful and confused psyche.

Sure there are questions to be asked, but nothing there strikes me as something incomprehensible. I certainly found it easier to follow than when I first watched Inception (which seemed to try its absolute best to shake off the audience’s understanding.)

And, as mentioned, I don’t think most of the plot twists and convolutions were aimless or there simply for twist’s sake – they added clarity to either the plot or the character of Sherlock.

In many ways it parallels with a recent episode of Doctor Who called Heaven Sent. This saw a grief stricken Doctor trapped in a castle being chased down by a veiled monster. That episode also had mind palaces and used the conceit of the episode to dig deeper into the psyche of the Doctor than we’re usually allowed – and again there was a cry from many that it was ‘too complicated.’

Regardless of the fact that Heaven Sent was a far better, tighter piece of TV than The Abominable Bride, I would consider both to be daring, brave, wholly unique pieces of television that are layered, complex and respect the audience’s intelligence.

And I really think television is now the best place for populist entertainment that can also be thoughtful and reflective. Whilst cinema will always have its art house movies, the big populist blockbusters are often very dumb and unambitious.

I love, for example, the Marvel movies. They have great actors, great characters and often reasonably sharp scripts, but they almost always end up with a big brawling third act where all sense of story and theme is abandoned for spectacle. Equally whilst JJ Abrams’ The Force Awakens may be heartfelt, it takes almost no risks at all with its story and simply repeats beat for beat the plot of the original movie that came out in the seventies.

The Hollywood Studio System produces films designed by committee, and whilst I enjoy them as much as the next guy, they simply are rarely able to produce anything that thought-provoking or original. That’s why when a film like Inception came along people heaped praise on it, even despite its flaws.

Television, however, seems able to offer populist drama that doesn’t require us to completely switch off our brains, and writers like Moffat are at the forefront of using that power to write experimental and, often, divisive stories. The last few episodes of Doctor Who alone have had an underlying meditation on loss, grief and letting go. Equally this episode of Sherlock was many things, but I don’t think safe is one of them.

And if a little confusion is what we need to suffer to have stories that aren’t simply cookie-cutter replicas that serve you absolutely no more than you expect, then I think it’s a price worth paying.

It’s because of this I find the ‘it’s too confusing’ criticism a little bit frustrating. Not because it’s definitely not true, it’s entirely possible that when writers experiment with themes, narrative structure etc. they’ll lose the simplicity, but because the criticism rarely takes the time to acknowledge that it’s confusing precisely because it’s daring, bold and ambitious.

Would a Sherlock episode set in Victorian London without any modern connection have been more enjoyable? Perhaps, it’s an entirely fair view which I have some sympathy with. But it would also have been incredibly easy for the Sherlock writers to have given us that.

The fact they gave us something weirder, more experimental and damn near art house should at least be acknowledged as a positive – even if we ultimately aren’t satisfied with the end product.

Because, I think, that’s where I stand with The Abominable Bride. I don’t think it entirely worked, I think at times it was too self-aware and at places I would have preferred a more straightforward mystery. But, do you know what, I could get that anywhere – TV has no shortage of detective dramas. The fact we got something so much stranger I simply can’t help but admire.

As I say, perhaps the episode was too confusing for the average viewer. That may well have been the case.

But can we at least acknowledge, when we use this as a criticism, that often this isn’t because of poor or incomprehensible storytelling but because it’s a unique piece of artistic work that may well be too strange and ambitious for its own good – but for God’s sake, let us celebrate the ambition!

Philosophy, religion, TV

Is Doctor Who as good as any religion?

Humanity is just one tiny little speck in a vast and uncaring universe.

Humans are also awesome and capable of amazing things.

This is the message of Doctor Who distilled into its purest form.

With the release of the series nine trailer, now seemed as good a time as any to finally write up this idea I’ve had, knocking around for a while, that Doctor Who is as good as any religion.

First things first, let’s make no bones about it, I’m a geek – can’t help it, in my blood. I’m drawn to geeky things. I love Star Wars, I love superhero movies, I enjoy fantasy…you get the picture!

But there’s something special about my love for Doctor Who that transcends my simple enjoyment. It feels deeper, stronger and more important. In fact the closest thing I can describe it to is the relationship I’ve had with Christianity. It’s almost like a religion.

Wait, wait, don’t click off just yet… I know it sounds mad. It’s a Saturday evening kid’s TV show. Yes, I know that! And look, I’m not about to argue that I really think there’s a 900+ year old alien flying around saving our lives or suggest that we set up the sacred church of the TARDIS.

I want to deal with exactly what religion is and exactly why I think Doctor Who fits that mould.

To get to that point though, we’ll need to take the slow path (if you get that reference then I love you) – we must first begin by identifying two fundamental aspects of the show.

The morality of Doctor Who

Most of us are pretty familiar with the Doctor – he’s an ancient alien who travels around in a blue box and often ends up saving the day. If you need a refresh, this is as good as any:

At first The Doctor might appear just like any other generic superhero – a powerful being that shows up, beats the bad guys and moves on. And, in a way, that is kind of what happens…but the Doctor is so much more than that.

We often hear talk about how there are very few good role models for women, which is absolutely true. But, thinking about it, many of the role models for men aren’t that great. Take the Marvel movies, for example. These are kind hearted movies with moral characters at their centre. Each and everyone of those heroes, however, are in some way defined by their strength and each are quick to use violence.

The Doctor is different. He isn’t physically strong or agile, he’s a pacifist who abhors violence and almost always looks for the peaceful option. His super power, if he really has one, is his intelligence. To my eyes that’s one hell of a role model for young boys! In fact it’s a hell of a role model for us all.

What further defines The Doctor is his motivation. Unlike most superheroes he doesn’t appear motivated by duty or obligation (although, being an ancient alien who we know very little about, his motivation is not always clear), he does it because he cares deeply about humanity. The Doctor loves humans, although he can’t always show it. Importantly his love is never portrayed as weakness, it’s the thing that makes him great.

With the companion, time after time we see The Doctor fall in love (largely not in a romantic sense) and face heartache after heartache, but he can’t help himself – The Doctor loves human beings. Not only that, he loves life. The Doctor doesn’t travel because he wants to be a hero, he largely shuns the title, he travels because he loves exploring and discovering.

To The Doctor all life is precious and he delights in it. Just look at his joyful reaction in The Doctor Dances when he realises he can (on this rare occasion) save everybody.

In essence, The Doctor is probably the most upstanding hero you can imagine – on the surface, at least, he makes Captain America look like The Punisher.

But the genius of the show is it never gives The Doctor an easy pass. We are often shown that The Doctor is wrong, that his power can be dangerous and that he is always fallible.

In fact even when doing good for the most right of reasons, the show still calls him out on how dangerous he can be. Just take a look at this scene where River (his wife, sort of…long story) scolds him for becoming such a force to be reckoned with in the universe. Villains are so terrified of him that to some the word ‘Doctor’ comes to mean warrior.

The Doctor is kept on the good path because his morality is ALWAYS in question and he’s only ever one slip away from making a terrible choice. Unlike with questioning the morality of Batman, where you’re thinking ‘yeah, no shit he’s morally dubious. He beats up poor people at night’, questioning The Doctor’s morality resonates more because he really does always try and do the right thing.

It’s a reminder to us all that we should always be questioning our morality and never feel satisfied we have all the answers.

So The Doctor is a good man, undeniably, but he is flawed, fallible and dangerous.

The universe of Doctor Who

What I love about Doctor Who is it’s a gleefully optimistic programme. It believes in the good of humanity and in our power to do the right thing, it believes in love and it believes in morality. Good almost always wins out in the Doctor Who universe.

But the genius of Doctor Who is that it doesn’t take place in a Disney like universe where everything is quite nice anyway. In fact the universe of Doctor Who is quite brutal – there are whole races of aliens who seek just to exterminate and destroy other living beings.

It’s a common complaint of the Moffat era (not entirely unfounded) that people don’t die. In actual fact, of course, people die all the time in Doctor Who. Most episodes feature entirely innocent people dying and their death attributed no meaning.

The power of this is Doctor Who’s optimism isn’t contrived or manipulative. All the good happens against the backdrop of a universe very much like our own – cold and indifferent.

You can see this clearly in the way the show treats humanity. We’re shown, time and time again, to be mere specks in a greater universe. The show sticks to a secular understanding of life in which our existence is an accident and our lives ultimately, perhaps, pointless.

But then, in perfect juxtaposition, humanity is shown to have great value. We’re immensely important to The Doctor and the way we live our lives truly does matter. The fact that we ascribe significance to things where there is none is not treated as misguided, it’s positively celebrated. Watch this scene as The Doctor celebrates our demarking of birthdays and Christmas. The universe, he reminds us, is beautiful…but only if there’s someone there to see it.

When you take a step back, Doctor Who is actually something of a love letter to humanity – albeit one that recognises our insignificance and our flaws. And think about how rare that is – an awful lot of film and TV focuses on humanity as corrupted beings, on our weaknesses and our potential for immorality. To have a show that sees the good in humanity is, in my view, to be celebrated.

So how is Doctor Who possibly a religion?

You may have followed me so far but have no idea how I’m going to make a leap that Doctor Who is as good as a religion.

Firstly, I would argue that the main driving force behind a beneficial religion is not a focus on truth claims but on narrative. This is something I think mainstream Christianity has certainly began to recognise.

The significance of the Gospel really isn’t in how it correlates to actual historical events but instead in how the story allows us to understand ourselves and our relationship with God.

This may sound slightly wishy-washy but an honest assessment of history would need us to relegate at least some of the Gospel accounts to story. For example, does anyone truly believe that the bodies of the saints were raised as stated in Matthew 27:52-53? Did the temple curtain really rip? Isn’t this instead better understood as eschatology, soteriology and beautiful, powerful imagery?

I remember one of my friends once didn’t like it when I described the Genesis account of creation as a myth. Isn’t the term ‘myth’ a bit derisive? In my mind, however, myth is in no sense meant as an insult. The Hebrew Scriptures are full of powerful and long-lasting stories that to a certain extent help us understand what it means to be human.

To say the Genesis account is myth is to allow it to explore the deep questions of what it means to be tempted, what it means to live in a world unblemished by evil etc. To insist it be read as history simply makes it a false account – we know that the world was not formed in six days. Ironically, it is in insisting that it be read as a literal account which takes away the power of the scripture.

And what of the resurrection? Did Jesus really rise from the dead? Does it even really matter? Don’t get me wrong, IF one can rationally argue for a miracle taking place then the resurrection is probably the one with the strongest defence (read something like NT Wright’s ‘The Resurrection of the Son of God’) but, ultimately, the deeper meaning of the resurrection transcends the actual truth claim. The resurrection showed that Jesus’ message did not die with him, that it could not be beaten by death and it lives on through the disciples and the Church.

So coming back to Doctor Who, what do we have? Stories. Narratives. Something with which we can use to question our humanity and our morality.

What Doctor Who really offers us is humanism, but it provides us with a tangible way to latch on to those ideas. Stories are, when push comes to shove, often more powerful and affecting than rational arguments.

We have The Doctor, perhaps the closest thing most of us could imagine to a God – he isn’t perfect but he loves, cares and stands up for what is right. He recognises humanity’s flaws but never gives up on us and still believes we all have value and meaning regardless. That is a worldview we can emulate.

This kind of use of popular stories needn’t be limited to Doctor Who (some have argued, for example, that superheroes are like the Greek myths of our time) but Doctor Who is the most powerful example for me.

In fact, could these kind of stories not be better than old Bible tales? The Bible is littered with ideas that don’t work in our time – for example, isn’t God’s massacre of the Egyptian children a war crime? Isn’t the notion of blood sacrifice horrific? Even Jesus said we should hate our families and compared a Syrophoenician Woman to a dog worthy of scraps. Note, I’m not saying these are what they seem on face value, in fact Jesus’ life besides these points is certainly one worthy of emulation, but it does prove how difficult it can be to use ancient texts as narratives for modern life.

Back to Doctor Who, the scene in The Rings of Akhaten (an unfairly maligned episode) where the doctor confronts a sun God is much more powerful if you imagine he is talking to the Abrahamic God (I can’t say for certain, but it looks likely this was the writer’s intention.) It’s a humanist facing off against the Abrahamic God mano e mano and the language is powerful.

“You think you’re a God, but you’re not a God. You’re just a parasite eaten out with jealously, and envy and longing for the lives of others.”

It certainly brings to mind that famous and controversial sentence from Richard Dawkin’s ‘The God Delusion’ where he describes God as the most unpleasant character in all of fiction.

You can watch the full scene here:

Wrapping up

I wrote this because, as sad as it may sound, Doctor Who really did help shape me as a person – at least in some small way. In my move from a fundamentalist background I saw the heart and soul of Doctor Who’s functional and inspiring humanism and as time went by it rang true with me more and more.

If religious power is in narrative, and if that narrative is to help us live as better human beings, then I suppose anything can form the basis of a religious movement – we just need to choose wisely.

Doctor Who seems as good as any religion to me!

Do you agree? Do you think I’ve lost my mind? Let me know in the comments below!

Philosophy, TV

Torchwood: Children of Earth – A Retrospective

Without any hyperbole I can honestly say that Torchwood: Children of Earth, a five episode miniseries that aired in 2009, is my favourite TV series ever. Having had a chance to re-watch it recently, I thought it would be enjoyable to write a retrospective on the series and the many issues it raises. I appreciate a series that aired nearly four years ago is hardly topical but my blog, my rules. I should warn you that there will also be spoilers so if you haven’t seen it, go and do so now. You won’t regret it.

Torchwood began life in 2006 as an ‘adult’ spinoff series from the much loved ‘Doctor Who.’ In honesty though, it wasn’t much good. Certainly the first two series had their moments, but for the most part it felt like that cringe inducing moment of adolescence we all go through where we feel very deep and mature, swearing a lot, perhaps with a cigarette in hand and not realising how much of a fool we really look. The series’ low points were an alien who survived on orgasmic energy (that actually happened) and a sexualised ‘cyberwoman’ (that actually happened too.) After the first two series I could hardly call myself a fan, and when a five part miniseries was announced I can’t say I recall being particularly excited. But then I watched it.

Children of Earth broadcast over five consecutive days and demonstrated what a truly adult science-fiction series was capable of. The premise was reasonably simple. One day every child in the world stops at the exact same moment. Then it keeps happening; only it soon becomes clear they are being used to communicate an alien message. Over the course of the series we realise they are being controlled by an alien race known only by the wave length they communicate on, the ‘456’, and this evil race soon make their demands clear; they want ten percent of the children of Earth or they will unleash a virus that will wipe out humanity. What makes the series so interesting is not the alien threat as such, but the effect it has on the human race. The ‘456’ are certainly horrific, in the end it is discovered that they want to use the children for ‘the hit’, they attach the children to themselves and use them as drugs, but what is even more horrifying is realistically portrayed human beings beginning to discuss how the ten percent should be selected.

Head writer Russell T. Davies, who was also at the helm of Doctor Who at the time, has always had such a beautiful way with words and every scene is a masterclass in effortless human dialogue. When Jack Harkness, played with surprising grit by John Barrowman, is scorned by his daughter as a ‘bastard’ for wanting to use his grandson to understand what is happening, we, as the audience, can’t help but agree with her. Equally when Ianto, played by Gareth David-Lloyd, opens up to his sister about his complex relationship with Jack, she replies, without a hint of malice; ‘Have you gone bender?’ I write a bit of fiction myself (although I usually keep that on the down-low, any unpublished writer risks sounding like a pretentious prick) and this is the kind of quality of writing I could only dream of one day achieving. Peter Capaldi, soon to be Doctor number…who knows what?, also shines as John Frobisher, a middle man set up as the fall guy by the Prime Minister; whose story comes to a tragic end when he takes his own life along with the lives of his family.

The real meat of the discussion, however, is in the difficult decision that faces the elected officials. Do they give into the ‘456’ and hand over ten percent of Earth’s children, or do they face humanities total extinction. What makes the writing so gripping is there really are no easy answers. In one of the most uncomfortable scenes I have ever watched, a group of politicians gather around a table and discuss how they will choose the ten percent. They toy with the idea of a lottery, but quickly exclude their own relatives. One politician suggests that the ten percent should be taken from the members of society who won’t contribute anything, who will spend a lifetime on the dole (I lied, this is a little topical given the buzz surrounding ‘Benefit Street’) and the others soon agree. The children from the schools at the bottom of the league table are selected. It is truly unsettling to watch, not least because it is not clear where your own view should lie. The politicians aren’t portrayed as evil, just deeply human with a combination of genuine concern for humanity mixed with intense self-interest. It is the ultimate utilitarian thought experiment, and it is truly horrific. A lesser series may have simply damned this decision, and for a while it looks like it is heading that way. The Torchwood team demand that they speak to the ‘456’ and stand up to it. However this results not only in the death of one of the team, but also many innocent peoples lives, after the ‘456’ unleash the virus into Thames House.

In the end the solution is much crueler. Captain Jack uses his own grandson to transmit the wavelength back at the ‘456’, killing both the alien and the boy, as his mother pleads with her dad to stop. In the end we are left wondering what the right choice was. Was Jack right to use his own grandson? It is in a way more selfless than the politicians who rushed to protect themselves, but could it not be considered even worse that he betrayed his family ties? Were the politicians right to put the needs of the many before the needs of the few, or would it be better if the whole of humanity died protecting their young? In one quiet moment Jack’s daughter ponders what sort of world would be left behind if people sit back and watch the aliens take the children. For me the dilemma closely parallels the discussion over animal experimentation where people are often at their most dispassionate and utilitarian. To what extent does the end justify the means? To what extent does the human race survive at the cost of its own humanity? There are no easy answers and the fact Torchwood doesn’t try and give any is what makes its growth into maturity recognisable.

It is not without moments of optimism, though they are few and far between, for example there is one scene where a group of men living on a council estate take up arms and fight against the army taking away the children. Although they are quickly crushed, it is interesting to see a group of stereotyped people given the chance to be heroes. This wasn’t the last we saw of Torchwood, it returned in 2011 with Miracle Day. It had an interesting premise, what if everybody in the world stopped dying, but it didn’t come close to the perfection of this series. Children of Earth is simply the most engaging, affecting, human and intelligent piece of science fiction I’ve seen and I will never stop recommending it to those who have yet to give it a go. Not bad for a franchise which began as a campy Doctor Who spinoff and which, in its second episode, showed a bouncer wanking of to an alien orgasming somebody into dust in a night club toilet (yes, that actually happened too!)