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…


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!


Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens – Spoiler-free Review

Star Wars inspired my love of cinema.

I still remember going to see A New Hope Special Edition (a re-release) with my dad when I was about seven years old. I remember the day vividly, it was Easter time because I remember an egg hunt before it, I remember queuing outside my local cinema waiting to be let in…I even remember one of the trailers.

And I remember all this because Star Wars seared itself onto my mind. I adored every moment, it appealed to everything inside of me and, unfortunately for my family, from that day forward I was destined to be a geek. The seed was sown that slowly but surely gestated inside me.

The original Star Wars was the ultimate goodies versus baddies story – its simplicity spoke the language of a seven year old boy. Evil guy dressed in black, young good guy dressed in white; that’s really all I understood, I had no idea what an Empire or a rebellion really was, but I didn’t need to, I loved it.

I went on to love not only the rest of the original trilogy but even the prequels. Yes, now’s probably not the time for that can of worms but you can read a defence I wrote here.

For me, The Phantom Menace came out only two years after I saw the original Star Wars and so I hadn’t had time to decipher what Star Wars strictly was or strictly wasn’t, nor had I spent time pondering the history of Anakin or the Clone Wars. So I wasn’t really able to experience the disappointment many older fans clearly felt.

Equally, the prequels were as much Star Wars as the originals for me, there wasn’t a clear dividing line between Jar Jar, Naboo, Hoth and Chewbacca – it was one and the same. Even now, with as objective a mind as I can have, I still think the prequels are given way too hard a time. Sure they’re not perfect, in fact that’s an understatement, but there really are some great ideas in those movies and the real conviction of one man’s vision.

Anyway, this is a long way of saying I was excited for Episode VII. In fact so excited that I went to see it at a midnight screening with some Star Wars loving chums (at the same cinema, funnily enough, that I watched the original.)

The sense of joy when that big Star Wars logo flashed on the screen is second to none…I pity people who have never felt such geeky joy (poor folks, probably off having sex or something equally trivial.)

When the credits finally rolled I clapped with the rest – it was Star Wars, it deserved it. But what did I really think?

Well, on reflection, I think it was good. Not a stunning triumph nor a crushing disappointment, just good.

Good is a weird thing to write about. The internet loves hyperbole, everything’s ‘the best film ever!’ or ‘the worst film ever’. And with a movie as hyped and ‘important’ as Star Wars, that feeling is amplified.

But what do you say when a movie is just good?  Where’s the fun in that?

There are certainly some things about the movie I really enjoyed. In particular I LOVED the new characters. If the prequels truly failed at anything, I think their inability to create relatable, sympathetic characters was it. The Force Awakens is a breath of fresh air in giving us truly great characters to spend time with. In particular I love Rey (Daisy Ridley), who is a perfect female protagonist. Yes, she’s strong and independent and doesn’t need saving, but she feels incredibly real and relatable too.

Finn (John Boyega) is also a strong addition to proceedings with a back story that Star Wars hasn’t really explored before. The chemistry between Rey and Finn is so natural and organic (words you certainly wouldn’t be using about a certain Hayden and Natalie) that it’s a joy to watch.

I wasn’t particularly blown away by Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), he felt a little straight down the line and lacked the conflict of the other characters but I could see why that might be a draw for others.

The film also manages to keep the tradition of strong Star Wars bad guys alive with a brilliant turn by Adam Driver as the evil Kylo Ren. I wasn’t initially expecting much from this character, from his dark dress sense to his weird altered voice I was expecting a Darth Vader knock off, but instead he’s a genuinely complex villain who is both terrifying and engrossing all at once.

Also, gushing a bit now, I love BB8. The droids of Star Wars have always been lovable but BB8 takes it to the next level – he’s basically like a droid puppy and he had my heart in the palm of his hands (or the droid equivalent.) If anything ever happens to that little fella it’ll crush me!

On reflection all these new additions are rightly more important than the return of the original cast, apart from perhaps Han Solo. Seeing the original cast back was as goosebump inducing as I expected but it’s to the film’s credit that it’s the new characters I’m excited about going on a journey with.

This is even more impressive given that the film is so drenched in nostalgia. In fact, at times, you realise you’re watching a very, very expensive fan movie. Abrams, as always, doesn’t bring much in the way of his own style (although, on at least a visual level, he’s a more competent director than Lucas) but instead essentially makes a 21st century remake of the original Star Wars movie.

This is both to the film’s strength and its biggest weakness. In harkening back to the simplicity of the original, when Star Wars was more a swashbuckling adventure rather than an operatic tale of tragedy and redemption, the movie is able to just focus on entertaining – and entertain it does. In fact this is probably the funniest Star Wars movie yet, there are some great gags and witty lines.

But, in sticking so rigidly to the formula, the movie not only feels predictable but at times feels a little unambitious. I get that they’re going backwards so they can go forwards but each subsequent Star Wars film has largely expanded upon and dug deeper into the themes and narrative of the franchise so it’s jarring to take a real step back.

Equally its simplicity makes things (paradoxically) rather confusing from a plot perspective. I went into this movie feeling I was totally unspoiled (I didn’t know what was going to happen) and I left feeling almost equally unspoiled – there was very little plot (bar perhaps one major event) that truly could be ruined.

It’s frustrating that you get no sense of who or what The New Order are, how the New Republic functions and what role The Resistance exactly plays. Sure, I get that everyone’s terrified of going down the prequel route of talky pseudo-politics (which I happen, for some unbeknown reason, to love) but it makes it hard to invest in a story where you can’t get a handle on the stakes.

Again, I know this is an attempt to emulate the simplicity of the original (which so appealed to me as a child) but unfortunately the Star Wars universe is too much of a beast to be simple now. In the original Star Wars you had an evil Empire ruling the galaxy and a rebel resistance fighting back. Simple. Now you’ve got the remains (?) of an evil Empire fighting a resistance that has some sort of government in place but you’re not sure where, and you’re not sure who are really the underdogs.

On top of that there is some absolute nonsense about a map to Luke Skywalker which is so silly and lacking in any form of logic I’ve removed it from my mind.

All things considered you end up with a movie that is the absolute antithesis of the prequel trilogy. It’s got likable characters that are full of heart and natural chemistry, but all the big ideas, themes and endearing pompous have been scraped back to help people recapture the experience they first felt watching the original movie.

And, frankly, it’s not as good as the original. The structure is a bit off, the climax is a bit disappointing – in fact, despite a very good lightsaber battle, it’s probably the weakest climax to any Star Wars movie. There’s nothing to match the original Death Star trench run, if anything the space battles here are at their weakest. It really makes you appreciate just how solidly structured the original movie was.

The biggest compliment I can give to this film though is I’m excited to see the next one. If the plan of this first movie was to introduce likable characters who we’re going to go on adventures with then it succeeds. And I hope with a strong director like Rian Johnson we’re going to get a deeper more complex instalment much like The Empire Strikes Back was to A New Hope (could you imagine a Star Wars movie as tense and as masterful as ‘Ozymandias’– wow!)

And so, all things considered, you’re left with a movie that’s good. It’s fun, it’s endearing, it’s got heart but it doesn’t do anything particularly new and its hazy plot hinders engagement. Not the best film ever, not the worst film ever, just good. But sometimes good is good enough.

And that final scene…chills!