Sunday, June 22, 2008

Russell Davies: Godspeed and Good Riddance

After Turning Left last night, it's almost time to say good-bye to Doctor Who for the season, and bid a more permanent farewell to the man who single-handedly resurrected the program four years ago. Russell T. Davies has earned a place in the hall of fame beside his classic predecessors (Letts, Hinchcliffe, and Nathan-Turner), but I honestly don't know whether to weep or rejoice now that he's stepping down. He's taken Doctor Who to new heights, but also all-time lows. He's given us poignant tragedy, but then plenty of soap-opera. The worst of the classic era seems Edenic in comparison to some of his pedestrian fluff. Give me The Android Invasion, Underworld, and The Horns of Nimon over Aliens of London, The Runaway Bride, and Partners in Crime any day of the week.

In mainstreaming Doctor Who, Davies' strength has been his liability. A fan on Outpost Gallifrey put it this way:
"The problem with Russell Davies' vision of what Doctor Who should be is that he's too in thrall to the likes of Joss Whedon [Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly]. The season-long story arcs, the sometimes overblown emotional content, speaks of a show which is working to someone else's formula. The classic series was not (and still isn't) like anything else on TV. Maybe there was a bit of a Nigel Kneale influence to some of the stories but otherwise Doctor Who for all of it's original 26-year run was a lone voice in TV land, completely unbeholden to whatever was current in sci-fi TV. And I think that's how it's retained so much of it's resonance today, because as a great man once said 'the only way to never go out of fashion is to never be in fashion in the first place.'

"The thing that stands between old Who and new Who is the balance of plot and character. The old show was always about plots, whereas Russell Davies -- for better or worse -- has made it, like Buffy before it, a strictly character-led show. By making the show about the characters of the Doctor and his companions rather than the exciting adventures in time and space that they have, Davies has made a rod for his own back because all you ever hear now is 'Will Eccleston come back for a multi-Doctor story? When is Rose coming back? How many episodes till we see Martha again? I hope David never leaves!'. This kind of thing is the polar opposite of what viewers in the classic era experienced; even when very popular actors like Liz Sladen or Tom Baker left, the talk was always about what exciting things were coming next rather than mawkish eulogising for what was being lost."
If that doesn't characterize the trailer for next week's season finale, I don't know what does (this trailer excites me more). It makes me wonder if Davies' era will ultimately stand the test of time. If Steven Moffat gives us less story arcs and characters to pine for in future seasons, I won't complain.

How do I feel about Russell Davies? I suppose the same way Queen Victoria felt about the Doctor at the end of Tooth and Claw, when she rewarded him with a knighthood and banished him from Britain on pain of death.
Queen Victoria: By the power invested in me by the church and the state, I dub thee, Sir Doctor of the TARDIS. By the power invested in me by the church and the state, I dub thee, Dame Rose of the Powell Estate. You may stand.

Doctor Who: Many thanks, Ma'am.

Rose: Thanks. They're never going to believe this back home.

Doctor: Your Majesty, you said last night, about receiving a message from the great beyond. I think your husband cut that diamond to save your life. He's protecting you even now, Ma'am. From beyond the grave.

Queen: Indeed? Then you may think on this also: that I am not amused. Not remotely amused. And henceforth I banish you.

Doctor: Sorry?

Queen: I have rewarded you, Sir Doctor. And now you are exiled from this empire, never to return. I don't know what you are, the two of you, or where you're from. But I know that you consort with stars and magic, and think it fun. But your world is steeped in terror and blasphemy and death, and I will not allow it. You will leave these shores, and you will reflect, I hope, on how you came to stray so far from all that is good, and how much longer you may survive this terrible life. Now leave my world! And never return!
There's a polarity that helps illustrate my feelings. Thank you, Russell, for bringing back my favorite TV show and injecting it with new vision, fresh ideas, and emotional resonance. You've brought joy and moved me in ways I never thought Doctor Who could possibly do. And damn you for dumbing it down to the lowest common denominator. Godspeed and good riddance; it's time for new blood.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Glorious Psalms

Amy Cottrill has written a new book on the psalms (HT: Jim Davila), focusing on their imprecatory dimension:
"'These are people that believe God cares about their pain and suffering enough that in order to relieve you, God will kill the enemy,' she said. 'The psalmist isn't just expressing pain, he wants something done about it. The prayer is: "God, kill my enemy."'

"Psalm 109 calls for curses upon the enemy: 'May his days be few; may another seize his goods! May his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow! May his children wander about and beg; may they be driven out of the ruins they inhabit! May the creditor seize all that he has; may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil! Let there be none to extend kindness to him, nor any to pity his fatherless children!'

"In Psalm 58, the writer calls for the enemy to be punished: 'The righteous will rejoice when he sees the vengeance; he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked.'

"'This is very bellicose literature,' Cottrill said. 'It's very violent. They are asking God to go kill their enemy.'"
Another juicy one is Psalm 137, which declares "how blessed will be the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks!" As I noted in my analysis of a fundamentalist pastor's sermon on Romans 11, theologians have struggled for centuries to reconcile a God who commands people to love their enemies with the same who says kill and curse your enemies. But a pastor like Steven Anderson sees no contradiction. He adores the imprecatory psalms. From that sermon:
"Boy, the book of Psalms is one of the greatest books in the Bible. The most doctrinal, fantastical. I love the book of Psalms. If you notice that David will sometimes pray destruction upon people. He'll actually pray for people to fall, and pray for people to be killed, and pray for people to be destroyed by God. And he'll tell God, 'Forgive not their sin'. He tells God to damn them to hell. Okay, you may not have read that; you need to increase your Bible reading, okay? You need to read the book of Psalms a lot more. Theologians call these psalms the imprecatory psalms. 'Imprecate' means to curse. Okay? And they're basically a curse like this: 'Let their table be made a snare.'

"Now is he just praying that on anybody he doesn't like? Absolutely not. The Bible says that we're to love our enemies. And to do good to them that hate us. And to pray for them which spitefully abuse us and persecute us. We're not to pray bad things on our enemies. We're supposed to pray good things on our enemies. We're supposed to bless our enemies. But there are people who are the enemies of God.... Those kind of people are the bad guys. Okay, those are the ones that are evildoers, that God said he hates."
In other words, love your personal enemies, but hate certain groups of people (for Anderson that means gays especially).

Cottrill takes a more academic view of things. It's not that the psalmists distinguished so neatly between "these and those" kind of enemies. They just thought of God as a warrior: "Most mainstream religious people do not think of God as a religious warrior, [but] the psalmists did. To them, God is all-powerful, but God is also very personal, very close. They definitely feel they have access. Sometimes they barter with God, saying, 'If I die as a result of this suffering, who is going to praise you?' That's a pretty bold view."

Her book is called Language, Power and Identity in the Lament Psalms of the Individual.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Secret Mark after Fifty Years

Stephen Carlson mentions the upcoming SBL session on Secret Mark. It should be a lively one.
SBL 24-97 Synoptic Gospels
1:00 PM to 3:30 PM
Room: Room TBD - Hotel TBD

Theme: Secret Mark after Fifty Years

Mark Goodacre, Duke University, presiding

Birger A. Pearson, University of California, Santa Barbara, "The Secret Gospel of Mark: A Twentieth-Century Fake" (20 min)

Stephen C. Carlson, Duke University, "Can the Academy Protect Itself from One of Its Own? The Case of Secret Mark" (20 min)

Allan J. Pantuck, UCLA, "Can Morton Smith's Archival Writings and Correspondence Shine Any Light on the Authenticity of Secret Mark?" (20 min)

Scott G. Brown, University of Toronto, "Fifty Years of Befuddlement: Ten Enduring Misconceptions about the 'Secret' Gospel of Mark" (20 min)

Charles Hedrick, Missouri State University, Respondent (20 min)

Bart Ehrman, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Respondent (20 min)

Discussion (30 min)

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Goodacre and Rosson at Doctor Who

Mark Goodacre is reviewing each story weekly (or bi-weekly, for the double-length episodes), and I'll link to them as they appear. I'll list my own ratings beside his, but my full reviews will come all at once at the end of the season -- at which point we'll see how much of a prophet I am. So when all is said and done it will be like Ebert & Roeper at Doctor Who. Mark has to be Ebert, and not just because my last name begins with "Ro". Roeper tends to be the harsher critic.

Partners in Crime (4/5/08).
Goodacre: 4 ½ stars.
Rosson: 2 stars (as predicted).

Fires of Pompeii (4/12/08).
Goodacre: 3 ½ stars.
Rosson: 5 stars (higher than predicted).

Planet of the Ood (4/19/08).
Goodacre: 4 ½ stars.
Rosson: 4 stars (as predicted).

The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky (4/26/08 & 5/3/08).
Goodacre: 3 ½ stars.
Rosson: 2 stars (as predicted).

The Doctor's Daughter (5/10/08).
Goodacre: 4 stars.
Rosson: 2 stars (lower than predicted).

The Unicorn and the Wasp (5/17/08).
Goodacre: 4 stars.
Rosson: 2 ½ stars (lower than predicted).

Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead (5/31/08 & 6/7/08).
Goodacre: 5 / 4 ½ stars.
Rosson: 5 stars (as easily predicted).

Midnight (6/14/08).
Goodacre: 5 stars.
Rosson: 4 ½ stars (much higher than predicted).

Turn Left (6/21/08).
Goodacre: 5 stars.
Rosson: 3 ½ stars (higher than predicted).

The Stolen Earth/Journey's End (6/28/08 & 7/5/08).
Goodacre: 5 stars
Rosson: 0 stars (drastically lower than predicted).

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Be Quiet, Count the Shadows, and Run For Your Miserable Life

Like Mark Goodacre, I'm going to take a few moments to single out last night's Doctor Who story, Silence in the Library, as the best story of season four so far (even with part two yet to come). Writer Steven Moffat has proven himself again, and I'm delighted that he managed to craft this piece of horror around a planet-sized library.

Mark mentions the review from SFX which sums it up all right:
"After giving an entire generation of kids a phobia of statues with last-year’s Hugo-nominated Blink, Who showrunner elect Steven Moffat has now guaranteed they’ll also be sleeping with the lights on. The 'count the shadows' theme has the same elegant simplicity as Blink’s 'don’t look away', and Moffat once again shows he’s a master at mining maximum chill power from an unseen enemy. The Vashta Nerada may be faceless 'piranhas of the air' (aside from when they possess a spacesuit-clad skeleton), but no monster created courtesy of special effects could ever be as creepy as those which Moffat implants in your mind. To say they live in shadows all over the galaxy, even on Earth, might seem a little cruel to this planet’s more impressionable kids, but isn’t that what Doctor Who’s supposed to be about? The intriguing parallel plotline about the nameless little girl telling her psychiatrist Dr Moon (Colin Salmon) about the library in her head - or perhaps, as is hinted in the closing scenes, her world is fiction and the library reality - only serves to emphasise the episode’s claims to being the best of the series so far."
My official verdict will have to wait for the second half of the story next week, but it's a fair bet that Moffat has outdone himself with this one. Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead will definitely surpass The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances (season one), probably beat The Girl in the Fireplace (season two), and may even oust Blink (season three) as my all-time favorite. Moffat just keeps getting better.