Thursday, April 29, 2010

God's Healthcare Plan

In retaliation against Obama-care, Pastor Steven Anderson comes to the rescue as our insurance agent for God's Healthcare Plan. This is a free plan, assures the good pastor, requiring payments for doctor visits only: "It's not an HMO. It's not even a PPO. It's not even a health savings account. This is God's Healthcare Plan, which will do you better than all those things combined."

What is this biblically-based healthcare plan? In his sermon Anderson outlines it as follows:

1. Physician qualifications. The only doctors on the "approved" list in God's Healthcare Plan are those who believe in God. Meaning these physicians believe they are treating human beings made in the image of God, and not animals. "I am not a mammal," booms Anderson. "I'm not an evolved ape or an orangutan. Doctors who believe that human beings are part of the animal kingdom should give up their license and become veterinarians."

2. "Not for the healthy." God's Healthcare Plan covers visits to the doctor only when you're sick, per Mt 9:12/Lk 5:31. "I'm not going to lie to you about what this plan covers. It doesn't cover visits to the doctor when you're well. The only time you need the doctor, according to the Bible, is when you're sick. You don't need well-baby visits, routine check-ups, or physicals."

3. No vaccinations. God's Healthcare Plan does not cover any vaccinations. "God said not to touch anything unclean," insists Anderson. "He said that any kind of waste product, any kind of feces, should never be touched. Injecting germs into your bloodstream, and aborted fetuses, and feces -- that's not covered under God's plan."

4. Preexisting conditions. In contrast to Obama-care, there are certain preexisting conditions that will exclude you from God's Healthcare Plan.
(a) Sodomy. "Homosexuals, sodomites, perverts, queers, and transvestites are excluded from God's Healthcare Plan. They would be too much drain on the system because of all the horrible health problems that come with homosexuality. We shouldn't have to pay for that, and so in God's Healthcare Plan they're not included." Sodomites receive in themselves that "recompense of their error which was meet" (Rom 1:27), which means they're getting exactly what's coming to them in their body for what they do. "Sodomite reprobates are rejected from the plan, rejected God's coverage."

(b) Promiscuity. According to Prov 5:8-11, fornicating with harlots will result in your "flesh and body being consumed", thereby excluding you from God's Healthcare Plan.
5. The healing power of the Word. Prov 4:20-22 explains that God's word can bring health to your flesh, if you follow the advice found in God's word. Prov 3:7-8 makes a similar point: following God's word will bring health to your body.

6. More red tape. Under God's Healthcare Plan there is an additional step besides referrals. Before you even go to the general practitioner who will send you to a specialist, you need to pray to God to ask for help. II Chron 16:12 shows that Asa had a disease in his feet, got worse, and died. The reason for this, according to the text, is that he went to the physicians right away, before praying to God. "You shouldn't even take an aspirin without praying to God first," declares Anderson. The red tape of prayer cannot be cut through.

7. No fertility treatments. Fertility treatments and birth control are totally excluded from God's Healthcare Plan. Birth control pills involve silent abortions for one, and it is God who decides when to open the womb in any case.

8. No male gynecologists. Male gynecologists are excluded from the list of "approved" doctors in God's Healthcare Plan. The Bible says it's a sin for a woman to be naked before a man who is not her husband. "God's plan requires medical examinations to be done with decency and propriety."

9. Preventive Maintenance. The Bible has many "advisements" aimed at preventing illness.
(a) "An apple a day." God's Healthcare Plan encourages good nutrition so that you won't need the doctor. God-given food -- fruits, vegetables, grain, and meat, i.e. food mentioned in the Bible -- and not man-made/junk food -- corn syrup, alcohol, tofu, soda, and twinkies. (See further Anderson's List of Foods that will Help or Harm in Memorizing the Bible.)

(b) "Draw out the breast and give suck to your young." According to Lam 4:3, even the sea monsters (giant whales) give suck to their young ones, unlike the ostrich in the wilderness (cf. Job 39:13-14) which is hardened against her children, burying them in the dirt and forgetting about them. Like the sea monsters, mothers should stay at home and feed their babies from their own body, and not be like ostriches who let nannies dispense inferior formula. (cf. I Pet 2:2)
So there it is. I don't know about the rest of you, but I stand in awe of the wisdom coming out of Arizona these days...

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Top Films of 2009

It's that time of year again, when after catching up on DVD releases, I'm ready to rate my film picks from the previous year. The top five were no-brainers, while the others fall in loosely descending order.

1. Inglourious Basterds. Quentin Tarantino is back -- the old Tarantino, that is, who showed how excessive dialogue can be so wildly entertaining, characters most impressive when sophisticated, bad-ass, and absurd all at once, and in general how to make cinematic art out of the preposterous. This film is easily his best since Pulp Fiction, and makes us look at ourselves as Nazis as we cheer along with Fuhrer at so much carnage on screen. Reviewed here.

2. The Road. Post-apocalyptic survivalist, and bleak in the way only Cormac McCarthy novel adaptations are, in which marauding cannibals overshadow lone protagonists and nothing promises to get better. Viggo Mortenson plays a father who will do anything to save his son, even shoot him as a last resort to spare the kid rape at the hands of the baddies. The ending panders too much to those preferring tidy closure, but it's a small quibble on my part, and it actually just follows the book.

3. The Hurt Locker. Richly deserving best picture (though I would have preferred Inglorious Basterds), and Kathryn Bigelow's best work to date, even better than her vampire picture, Near Dark. It's also the best film about the Iraqi war, with some of the best suspense scenes ever shot. Neither anti- nor pro-military, but respectful, it's a sobering lesson in what bomb deactivation squads go through in their tours of duty.

4. Splice. The premise here is something Cronenberg could have come up with, and the product evokes Lynch's Eraserhead -- an effective blend of flesh-horror, sexual horror, and science fiction. The success of the film has largely to do with how our sympathies constantly shift gears as Dren evolves and even mutates gender. The infant Dren is playful and vulnerable; the grown (female) Dren who seduces Clive (and almost stings him to death while copulating with him) is a bit more ambiguous; the male Dren who rapes Elsa a complete horror. This was my surprise pick of the year, it seemed to come out of nowhere.

5. The White Ribbon. I count this the most disturbing film of the year in a subterranean way. It's set in a north German village during 1913-14 and spotlights an aristocratic estate where everyone lives well but rot on the inside from repression and joylessness. A pastor over-punishes his kids for the most trivial offenses -- even non-offenses -- and turns a blind eye when he learns that they're probably responsible for the murder of a villager, a barn fire, and other unspeakable acts. It's a film about hidden violence resulting from psychological cruelty.

6. Whip It! A coming-of-age sports drama that works surprisingly well, since it has the wisdom to not take itself too seriously, and allow the underdogs to lose in the end when it really counts. A great soundtrack, endearing characters, and edgy roller derby scenes set this way above pathetic '80s dramas like Karate Kid and Hoosiers. And Ellen Page is awesome as always. Reviewed here.

7. Last House on the Left. The inverse of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre of '03, this remake is a vast improvement over an abysmal original, though admittedly not without its faults. You can only do so much with a revenge film, but Eliadis pushes everything perfect up until the last 30 minutes, at which point a seriously film turns into a popcorn movie. The rape scene is the most upsetting I've seen in any film. Reviewed here.

8. Disgrace. A Cape Town professor takes advantage of his position to have an affair with a black student, then flees to his daughter's remote farm to escape the scandal, only to find tragedy when a trio of black youths brutally assaults them, and rapes his daughter. One of the attackers turns out to be related to his daughter's employee, and she actually considers marrying her rapist to minimize future conflict. A thoughtful film about apartheid that plays authentically at every moment.

9. Bad Lieutenant. I love watching Nicholas Cage play obnoxiously unhinged and out of control like the alcoholic in Leaving Las Vegas. This time he's a cop addicted to painkillers and gambling, a bully who abuses his power to supply his habits, and gets suspended and teams up with shady criminals. In the end, he stays true to being a police officer, though can't kick his drug habits. Wild fun, this one.

10. Halloween 2. Almost as good as the first remake, and the strength of this one is that it isn't a remake at all, but completely on Rob Zombie's terms. A character film as much a slaughterfest, especially in the way Laurie, her friend Annie, and Dr. Loomis have become damaged by events in the first film. Loomis in particular is worth the price of admission, having deteriorated into a completely vain and petty ass, treating people like rubbish, and getting in great zingers like "When I want your opinion, I'll beat it out of you!"

(See also: The Top Films of 2005, The Top Films of 2006, The Top Films of 2007, The Top Films of 2008, The Top Films of 2010, The Top Films of 2012.)

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Peter Jeffery on the Handwriting of the Mar Saba Document

Of all the nails in Morton's Smith's coffin, handwriting analysis hasn't been pounded home, and doubtfully ever will be. I've always been leery of such analysis, which is why I've avoided blogging about it over the years, and even in my review of Gospel Hoax I barely mentioned that part of Stephen Carlson's case. Recent analyses both for and against Smith don't exactly reinforce reliability here. As a forensic method, handwriting analysis has been handled cautiously by the courts in recent decades, and it seems the answer to Secret Mark will remain in the content of Theodore's letter itself, which of course points to a plain conclusion.

Peter Jeffery has written a five-point response to developments on the handwriting front, and his last makes the same point about the primacy of the letter's content over handwriting style.
"Since the handwriting cannot be earlier than the 17th century (the date of the book in which it was found), no graphological analysis can prove that the Mar Saba text was composed in ancient times. Those who think it a forgery have based their arguments mostly on content, and among them there is general agreement on the features that point to a modern origin: the text was constructed by re-using words and phrases from the canonical gospels and Clement’s authentic writings, the general picture of the Alexandrian church and its practices looks more like the fifth century than the second, Clement’s advocacy of lying seems inauthentic and references modern debates, the hints of ritualized homosexuality seem to assume a modern sexology, Smith’s own account of his discovery is demonstrably deceptive, the many apparent jokes uncannily resemble Smith’s own sense of humor. Those who consider the text ancient, on the other hand, completely disagree with each other as to its origin and interpretation. Does the Secret Gospel pre-date or post-date canonical Mark? Why the secrecy? Are the sexual innuendoes actually present or not? What are the Carpocratians actually being accused of? What is the meaning of Salome’s expanded role? Before they declare victory, those who would place the document in the second century need to face such questions instead of ignoring or minimizing them, and come to some level of consensus on a compelling interpretation that shows why their dating makes the most sense."
And to all the above must be added Hunter's Mar Saba novel, and the fact that Smith's "discovery" confirmed his scholarly views already published, some just months before.

The Daleks: Looking Back

Last week I spotted the Den of Geek's Top 10 Dalek Stories posted in anticipation of this season's reboot of the creatures. They've come a long way since their genesis on Skaro, and I too want to celebrate. Unlike the Den of Geek, I'll have to ignore the Hartnell-Pertwee eras, because I'm not as familiar with those stories and most are still unavailable on DVD. But since the stories from Tom Baker to Matt Smith total 11, there's no point to a top 10 list, so I'm simply going to rate the 11 episodes in descending order, from the crown jewels (1-4), to the very good (5-6), to the worthy (7-8), to the mediocre (9), to the stinkers (10-11).

And because I'm obsessed with body counts these days, I'm throwing in that bit of trivia too. The numbers represent people we see getting killed onstage, not necessarily the total killed in the story. For instance, in Genesis of the Daleks, there are thousands of Kaleds killed by the Thal rocket, and just as many Thals exterminated by the Daleks in the war; but we don't witness all that. At the end of Dalek we learn that about 200 of Van Staten's employees were killed; we saw a tenth of those exterminations. Resurrection of the Daleks is legendary for having the highest (onstage) body count in the history of Doctor Who, let alone a Dalek story. Needless to say, a high body count doesn't necessarily a good story make, though it's often a good indicator that the Daleks are being taken seriously like they should be.

1. Genesis of the Daleks. 5 jelly babies. What can't be said for this classic? It presents the bleakest and darkest image of war ever seen in the history of Doctor Who. It introduces the Naziesque character of Davros, and develops him brilliantly across six episodes. It has one of the most famous and compelling character moments for the Doctor, as he agonizes over whether or not to commit genocide on the Daleks -- his argument being that killing an intelligent lifeform would make him no better than they, and future worlds will become allies because of the Dalek menace. That many of us disagree with the Doctor only makes his alien way of thinking more fascinating. The conclusion is superb, as the Doctor fails in his mission: he's unable to either destroy the Daleks or alter their genetic engineering, but he knows, as he assures Sarah, that "out of their evil must come something good". No Dalek story can ever hope to beat this one.

Doctor: 4th (Tom Baker)
Setting: Skaro, c. 5700 BC
Body Count: 32

2. Dalek. 5 jelly babies. The first Dalek story of the new series (thankfully not written by Russell Davies) is a character piece above all, with a lone Dalek survivor of the Time War eliciting opposite emotions from The Doctor and Rose. Unlike Sarah who had ages ago urged him to obliterate the entire race, Rose has to stop him from blasting the last Dalek to bits, as it acquires feelings of compassion from her DNA. The Doctor's rage and Rose's empathy play off each other beautifully, and it says something about the script that a single Dalek is able to terrify more than many hordes of them do in other inferior stories. Rightly hailed as the best Dalek story of the new series, and a stroke of genius. In the space of only 45 minutes we are made to feel what it really means to be a Dalek, and that kind of transcendence is rare in Doctor Who.

Doctor: 9th (Chris Eccleston)
Setting: Utah, 2012
Body Count: 21

3. Revelation of the Daleks. 4 ½ jelly babies. Morbid and gruesome, even for Doctor Who, and one of the most original scripts penned in the history of the show. Like Genesis it's more a Davros than Dalek story, and we get to see him in full control for the first time since he created the Daleks, now cultivating a new breed of Imperial Daleks from preserved cadavers on a mortuary planet. All that remains of him now (or so it seems anyway) is his head, preserved in a life-support vessel from which he gleefully watches over everyone in the comfort of his laboratory, orchestrating events with three times the amount of cunning and sadism we saw back in Genesis. I adore this story, and the only thing preventing a 5-rating is the incredibly annoying character of the DJ.

Doctor: 6th (Colin Baker)
Setting: Necros, c. 4610
Body Count: 12

4. Remembrance of the Daleks. 4 ½ jelly babies. Dalek civil war comes to Earth, and at the engineering of the Doctor no less, who is at his most manipulative thanks to the Cartmel Masterplan. The pacing is flawless, and Davros is commendably held in reserve until the final episode. If Genesis contains the Doctor's most compelling character moment, Remembrance features his most jaw-dropping, as he decides to annihilate Skaro. Far from being squeamish about wiping out a race of xenophobic killers, he has come to believe that the destruction of an entire solar system is worth an attempt to cripple the Daleks. There is the flawed bit about Daleks dependent on a battle computer for logic (they were never creatures of logic until Destiny of the Daleks, on which see #9 below), and the brief reintroduction of this trait prevents the story from getting a 5-rating. Otherwise it's near flawless.

Doctor: 7th (Sylvester McCoy)
Setting: London/Skaro, 1963/c. 4660
Body Count: 10

5. Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways. 4 jelly babies. The Daleks find religion, and their god is as fearsome as Davros. The drama of this apocalypse revolves perversely around reality TV, where on a satellite orbit people are forced to play games and losers get vaporized. There are awesome sights here -- zillions of levitating and flying Daleks, chanting horrible mantras in defense of the Dalek God, "WORSHIP HIM!", "DO NOT INTERRUPT!" -- but held at a 4-rating due to the whacking plot holes. Most obvious being when the Daleks invade the station, which they no longer need, to stop the Doctor. Since they are melting entire continents on Earth, they could do the same to the station. But that wouldn't allow the Doctor to face the moral dilemma demanded by RTD's script: use the delta wave and kill the Daleks, but also every form of life on Earth; or let the Daleks live so that they can kill every form of life on Earth, which is exactly what they're already in the process of doing by melting continents. Aside from blunders like this, the story is fantastic.

Doctor: 9th (Chris Eccleston)
Setting: Satellite Five, 200,100
Body Count: 5

6. Army of Ghosts/Doomsday. 4 jelly babies. This is a Who-fan's wet dream: the two most popular villains, Daleks and Cybermen, invading Earth, and then fighting each other to see who's best. The first time I saw this, the appearance of the Daleks caught me way off-guard; the cliffhanger to the first episode is classic genius. And I love this Cult of Skaro: four elite Daleks with names, designed to think as the enemy thinks, and whose authority supersedes even the Dalek God who died in the previous season finale. A great moment is when the Cyberleader proposes an alliance with the Cult, is refused, and demands: "You would destroy 5 million Cybermen with four Daleks?" Reply: "We would destroy 5 million Cybermen with one Dalek. You are superior in only one respect: you are better at dying. This is not a war, this is pest control." As apocalyptic as Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways, and just as good, though similarly weighed down by certain RTD'isms.

Doctor 10th (David Tennant)
Setting: London, 2007
Body Count: 9

7. Resurrection of the Daleks. 3 jelly babies. Notorious for having the highest body count in the history of the show, this is a fun adrenaline ride that unfortunately involves messy plotting. The Daleks resurrect Davros to cure a virus that is crippling them, which is fine and well, but for all their insistence that "Without Davros, we have no future," they suddenly reverse themselves and try to have him killed when he starts taking control -- before he even finishes a cure. Their plan to immediately invade Gallifrey is another whopper, since they are at their weakest, and seems introduced only to provide a reason for their wanting to capture the Doctor alive. The human duplicates don't make much sense, and the way one of them breaks free of mental domination is horribly contrived. But with enough suspension of disbelief this action-packed story is rewarding, and shows Davros becoming increasingly volatile since the days of Genesis.

Doctor: 5th (Peter Davison)
Setting: London/Space Station, 1984/c. 4590
Body Count: 64

8. Victory of the Daleks. 3 jelly babies. A terribly rushed story (it should have been twice as long), this World War II piece sees Britain training an army of Daleks to be thrown against the Third Reich. Churchill gets a nasty surprise when they show their true colors, and quite literally: the resurrected race has a new caste system (red = drones, blue = strategists, orange = scientists, yellow = eternals, and white = supremes), and new plans for the post Time-War era which will undoubtedly come to fruition by the end of the current season five. The space battle between Britain's Spitfires and the Dalek ship is delightful (if a bit ludicrous), but the climax involving the neutralization of the android-bomb is too melodramatic. Alone worth the price of admission is the Doctor's fury as he assaults a Dalek with a spanner, surpassing even the Ninth Doctor's rage in Dalek. Not a stellar achievement, by any means, but quite enjoyable.

Doctor: 11th (Matt Smith)
Setting: London, 1941
Body Count: 4

9. Destiny of the Daleks. 2 jelly babies. A weak story to begin with, it sags under the weight of an unacceptable distortion. In contradiction to everything maintained throughout the Hartnell, Troughton, Pertwee, and early Tom Baker eras, the Daleks are suddenly portrayed as logical robots. No longer the cunning xenophobic blobs motivated by paranoia and hate, they are reduced to the equivalent of rational Cybermen, locked in perpetual war against another race of robots as they continually outthink each other. When the Doctor calls the Movellans "just another race of robots no better than the Daleks", that's more an insult to the Daleks than the Movellans. The resurrected Davros should have been ashamed to find them in this state. This is worlds away from the Naziesque terror of Genesis. Thankfully, after Destiny the theme of logic was mostly dropped (though it briefly resurfaced in Remembrance).

Doctor: 4th (Tom Baker)
Setting: Skaro, c. 4500
Body Count: 6

10. Daleks in Manhattan/The Evolution of the Daleks. 1 jelly baby. Miserably painful to watch, and one of the worst Who stories ever, let alone Dalek stories. Which is unfortunate, because the setting of New York during the Great Depression is greatly cinematic. The story is complete crap. The Cult of Skaro -- four elite Daleks introduced at the end of Army of Ghosts/Doomsday, designed to think like the enemy -- had incredible potential, but the idea of them trying to evolve into humanoid form was doomed from the start. Dalek Sec looks and sounds ridiculous. I was applauding when the compassionate Sec finally got exterminated by his mutinous colleagues; he was enough to turn me into a trigger-happy Dalek myself. Then there are the embarrassing pig-men. On top of all that, I've never seen so many terrible performances from guest stars. But just when you think things can't get any worse...

Doctor: 10th (David Tennant)
Setting: New York, 1930
Body Count: 16

11. The Stolen Earth/Journey's End. 0 jelly babies. A complete shower of piss. Not only is there nothing remotely positive to say about this story, it cannot be said to remain faithful to the essence of Doctor Who on any level. It's all fanwank and no plot. In the first half everyone is just trying to telephone the Doctor, ending in the mother of all cop-out cliffhangers (the Doctor starts regenerating but doesn't). The second part gets exponentially worse, with more cop-outs, mockeries of Rose's closure in season two, mockeries of Donna's character and fate, and (wait for it) a romantic duplicate of the Doctor who lives happily ever after with Rose. As for the return of Davros and the Daleks themselves, they're in almost every frame, but not there. Meaning they never feel threatening, they don't even kill anyone (save the indestructible Captain Jack), and are disposed of way too easily with a cloud of deus-ex-machina technobabble. Soulless in every way.

Doctor: 10th (David Tennant)
Setting: London, 2009
Body Count: 0

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Dunedin Closes Shop

I'm sorry to see The Dunedin School shutting down. I hope they change their minds about making the archives invisible. What's the point? They've done a lot of fine work and it would be a shame to see it evaporate. It's just plain Wrong.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Victory of the Daleks

After the season-four finale I never wanted to see Daleks again, let alone a comeback so early in season five. But breathe, everyone, it's okay: Russell Davies is gone, empty-headed fanwank left behind, and real plots back in form. Victory of the Daleks is a fun World War II piece that sees Britain training an army of Daleks to be thrown against the Third Reich, and a great homage to the Troughton classic, Power of the Daleks, which similarly involved the hate-mongers feigning servility to humankind whilst really working against them. The sight of Daleks gliding around Churchill's Cabinet War Rooms, carrying files on their sink plungers and bleating out subservient inquiries like, "WOULD YOU CARE FOR SOME TEA?" (click on the above photo), are hilarious and bring home how much I miss being entertained by the Doctor's most famous enemies. But while this is a good story, it could have been so much better.

Many reviewers have pounced on the biggest problem: that it's a terribly rushed episode and needed another to breathe. I almost hate to say they're right, because the last thing we wanted at this point was another Dalek two-parter. But they are. Never have I felt the constraints of the new series' 45-minute stories as acutely as in Victory of the Daleks. There's so much bombarding us that by the time we digest things, the plot has already turned with dramatic opportunities gone to waste. We needed more front time with the Daleks pretending to be humanity's servants, and to see a lot more devastation caused by the Blitz so we could be moved to sympathize with Churchill's need. The Daleks are essentially alien Nazis, and the idea of them being used against Germans in war-torn London is disturbingly ironic -- and brilliant. They would, as Winston insists, save lives. But we hardly feel the effects of the Blitz at all (unlike in The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances), and the Daleks show their true colors before we know it.

Speaking of those colors, I don't quite understand the anxiety over the new model and caste system (red = drones, blue = strategists, orange = scientists, yellow = eternals, and white = supremes). I'm actually rather impressed and looking forward to seeing how the rebooted race plays out. One thing that strikes me is that the Daleks tend to mirror the tone of their era in Doctor Who. The colorful breed would have been horribly out of place under Hinchcliffe -- the atmosphere of Genesis of the Daleks practically bleeds black and gray with its wasteland setting and gothic air -- but they seem ideally suited for Moffat who revels in dark fairy tales. Granted these new Daleks have a slightly plastic look, but it's not that bad.

As for Winston Churchill himself: he's fine enough, but easily the least impressive of the historical figures we've been treated to in the new series. Charles Dickens, Queen Victoria, Shakespeare, and Agatha Christie stole their shows, but if Churchill does that, it's only by teetering on the edge of caricature. (As far as I'm concerned, the new Daleks are the show stealers.) There are some fine moments between him and the Doctor, as when he pretends contemplating taking the TARDIS by force, and then later pickpockets the TARDIS key when hugging him farewell. But he's about fifty pounds heavier than the real Churchill, and doesn't get much time to push the drama of his strategic war plan before his Daleks abandon the war rooms for their ship hovering over Earth, and begin executing their real plan for the Earth's obliteration.

Which brings me to the preposterous space battle between the Spitfires and Dalek ship. The gravity bubble protecting the Spitfires I can buy; airplane pilots thrown into zero-g combat for the first time in their lives without any training I cannot. But since most of them end up getting blown to bits by the Dalek ship anyway, some level of credibility is saved, and believe it or not, I actually like this thrilling sequence. It gives us the delightful spectacle of British fighter planes becoming the equivalent of X-Wing Fighters attacking a Dalek Death Star. Mind you, I've always hated Star Wars, but somehow this all comes together and works in a Doctor Who context.

The climax after the Spitfire attack, however, is the weakest part of the story. The way the Doctor and Amy neutralize the bomb-android who is Professor Bracewell is way too melodramatic, though to be fair, the principle behind it isn't the crap some have charged. Since the Doctor is trying to get Bracewell's positronic brain to override its self-destruct program, Bracewell must be made to want to live, and so needs to be put in touch with his most affecting memories as a human being. Even allowing for this, I would have preferred the more grim resolution of Bracewell being taken on board the TARDIS and deposited on the Dalek ship to blow it up. Perhaps that wouldn't sit well with some of the new series writers, whose sensibilities can be on the delicate side, but this is Mark Gatiss we're talking about, and he was happy enough to let the character of Gwyneth sacrifice herself to destroy the Gelth in The Unquiet Dead. On the other hand, this is the first story of the season where we at least see people getting killed, so I'll stop complaining.

Victory of the Daleks falls neatly and cleanly into the "enjoyable romp" category: 3 stars, not as good as the Dalek stories in seasons one and two, but vastly superior to those in three and four. It's worth recapping how well the Daleks have fared in the new series (for further reference see my full ratings):
1 Dalek -- 5 stars
1 Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways -- 4 stars
2 Army of Ghosts/Doomsday -- 4 stars
3 Daleks in Manhattan/The Evolution of the Daleks -- 1 star
4 The Stolen Earth/Journey's End -- 0 stars
5 Victory of the Daleks -- 3 stars
And since the Daleks' plan was to reboot themselves into something new and improved, I've no doubt we'll be seeing them again this season...

Rating: 3 stars out of 5.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Word For the Day: "Spitballing"

It's a slang word I'm fond of using, but sometimes draws blank stares. Based on the Urban Dictionary (see here and here), spitballing involves any or all of the following:

• tossing ideas around with little expectation of them coming to pass
• making harmless jibes or attacks; making weak accusations
• suggesting loosely, often going against common logic
• shooting ideas out in the open, potentially causing oneself to look like a dunce

Render unto Caesar

Happy tax day to everyone. And remember what "Render unto Caesar" really means.

Beyond Suspicion, Beyond Doubt: Secret Mark Put to Rest

Francis Watson's "Beyond Suspicion: on the Authorship of the Mar Saba Letter and the Secret Gospel of Mark" can be taken as the final part of a remarkable sleuthing trilogy that began with Stephen Carlson's bombshell, The Gospel Hoax, and Peter Jeffery's psychoanalytic tour-de-force, The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled. The trilogy convicts Morton Smith beyond doubt as the forger of Clement's letter, just in case you were too blind to accept the obvious after reading Carlson.

Many of Watson's arguments complement those developed by Carlson and Jeffery, but extend to new developments. Here are the five high points of the article.

A. The Inappropriate Response to Theodore

Clement's letter supposedly answers Theodore's questions about the Carpocratian version of Mark's gospel, but as Watson explains, the reply is inappropriate on every level (see pp 146-147). Theodore wants reassurance that the Carpocratian gospel is a perversion of the canonical Mark, but Clement's emphasis is on the fact that it's mostly true aside from the remark about Jesus and the young man being naked. "The authentic Secret Mark is only slightly less prurient than the falsified one" (147). Theodore is then instructed not to correct the Carpocratians on this point. "He must resist the temptation to parade his new text-critical knowledge" (ibid), and must continue to deny, even on oath, that Mark ever wrote a secret gospel. On top of that (and as Charles Murgia outlined decades ago), Clement goes to considerable lengths to inform Theodore what he already knows. These red flags show that
"The real intention of the letter is evidently to disclose the existence and content of the Secret Gospel, not to respond appropriately to Theodore. If that is the case, however, then Clement's role as revealer of the Secret Gospel is parallel to Morton Smith's as its discover. Clement's text aims not to assist the embattled Theodore but to divulge the shocking fact that the Carpocratian claim about the two versions of the Gospel of Mark is largely true. There is indeed a Secret Gospel, and the addressee must come to terms with it. That is also the message of Smith's two books on the Secret Gospel. Clement is concerned to establish the authenticity of the Secret Gospel, and that is also Morton Smith's concern as he labors to establish the authenticity of Clement. What Smith argues about the letter is what Clement argues within it." (p 148)
In other words, Smith was projecting onto Clement his own project.

B. Dependence on Papias

Watson demonstrates that Clement is dependent on Papias with the same ease and persuasive power that Andrew Criddle wielded in proving that Clement sounds too much like himself to be true. "It is all too easy to imagine a modern author gratefully availing himself of Papias' assistance as he laboriously crafts his pseudo-Clementine fictions" (p 151), in contrast to (the real) Clement's account of Markan origins as preserved in Eusebius -- where echoes of Papias are discernible, but not abundant.

C. Morton Salt Revisited

By far the most amusing aspect of Clement's letter is the hoaxer's signature which puns the tradition of Mt 5:13/Lk 14:34-35: "For the true things being mixed with inventions are falsified, so that, as the saying goes, even the salt loses its savor." Stephen Carlson exposed this confession, pointing out that adulterated salt was unknown in the ancient world, free flowing salt being a modern invention -- of Morton Salt. Watson suggests an even looser connection between the "falsification of truth" and the corruption of salt, since the word "falsification" itself implies "forgery". And since, originally, a "forger" was simply one who worked at a forge, "another word must now be employed to differentiate the sinister figure of the 'forger' from the innocent and useful worker at the forge" (p 153), namely, the smith. The full confessional signature of "Morton Smith" has now been exposed.

D. Clement's Letter Validating Smith's Views

What has most astounded me in the Secret Mark controversy is that, prior to Stephen Carlson, no one picked up on the fact that Smith published ideas connecting Clement and "the mystery of the kingdom of God" (in Mk 4:11) to sexual immorality (in T. Hagigah 2:1), and that he published them before his alleged discovery in 1958. Watson takes this further, showing how Smith had already believed (by 1955) that Mark censored offensive material out of his gospel, some of which he thought common to Mark and John, and that there was a secrecy tradition (of esoteric mysteries and sexual immorality) extending from Mark back to Paul and Jesus, to which he finally (in early 1958) connected Clement as a witness:
"Before Smith left for his visit to Mar Saba in the summer of 1958, many of the elements that comprise the letter to Theodore were already present in his published work. These elements do not simply recur in Smith's interpretation of the letter, as one would expect; rather, they are embedded within the letter itself." (p 160)
And as if this weren't enough to close the case against Smith...

E. The Two Mysteries of Mar Saba

Saving the best for last, Watson compares the circumstances surrounding Smith's expedition to Mar Saba with the fictionalized adventure related in James Hunters' obscure 1940 novel, The Mystery of Mar Saba. The novel, as we know, is about a forgery at the Mar Saba library -- quelle surprise -- exactly where Smith "discovered" Clement's letter, and the parallels are so transparent they're embarrassing. Both documents are preoccupied with death, burial, and removing stones from tombs. Both associate, in good Johannine fashion, Joseph of Arimathea's tomb with a garden, and extend the idea to another tomb in another garden. Both flirt with the figure of Nicodemus, who "came to Jesus by night" just as the young man did in the Secret Gospel, and who is supposedly the author of the Mar Saba text in Hunter's novel. Watson is perhaps putting it too kindly when he writes:
"Had The Mystery of Mar Saba been first published in c. 1975, the analysis presented here would show it to be heavily dependent on The Secret Gospel (1973), both in its account of the immediate circumstances of the discovery and in the rationale, content, and construction of the controversial Greek fragment. But The Mystery of Mar Saba was first published in 1940, eighteen years before the second Mar Saba 'discovery'. There is no alternative but to conclude that Smith is dependent on the novel, and that he himself is the author of the fragments of the Secret Gospel of Mark together with the pseudo-Clementine letter in which they are embedded." (p 170)
As I've said before, it's really this that puts the issue beyond doubt. If Hunter's novel had been spotted by biblical specialists long before 2001, a lot less people would have been duped, and Secret Mark would have been put to rest before scholars like Koester ran wild with it and made a monster that, incredibly, can't be let go. You can throw out everything else as far as I'm concerned -- the Morton Salt signature, the homoerotic overtones aligning with Smith's orientation, the Anglican Paschal liturgy invoked by the resurrection symbolism and white cloth, the hyper-Clementine and hyper-Papias language, the way Clement speaks to modern concerns instead of answering Theodore appropriately, and even the fact that Secret Mark vindicates Smith's published views -- all of that is damning enough. But you can argue around The Mystery of Mar Saba novel only by becoming the willful fool.

And so it ends. For good. We bid Secret Mark a final farewell, even if in admiration for Morton Smith's genius -- and admiration that, for my part, can only increase the more scholars like Scott Brown persist in denial. Their rejoinders at this point should simply be ignored.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Why Does "No One Die" in Steven Moffat's Stories?

In reviewing The Beast Below, I registered my concern over Steven Moffat's aversion to killing people off in his stories, and that this formula had better dissolve fast. I notice that John Bensalhia has the same complaint:
"Steven Moffatt never seems to want to bring anybody to a sticky end. Reinette [The Girl in the Fireplace], Billy Shipton and Kathy Nightingale [Blink] meet natural ends. River Song and her buddies [Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead] apparently meet horrible ends, but they then end up in a cheesy afterlife scenario. Last week, Dr. Ramsden [The Eleventh Hour] met her maker offscreen. And this week [The Beast Below], again, (sigh) everybody lives. Even in the light-hearted Graham Williams years, characters got killed by angry stones, aging time accelerators and shaggy Mandrels, so there's really no excuse for not killing off at least one supporting character."
Actually, The Girl in the Fireplace and Blink are flawless stories, because in context the natural deaths of the characters are more tragic than getting bumped off by any aliens. The Doctor watches Reinette grow from child to adult and forms a romantic attachment to her, and so when he returns thinking he's going to take her as a TARDIS companion and finds her dead, it's truly heartbreaking. As for Shipton and Nightingale, they actually are killed off by aliens: the weeping angels. Getting sent back in time to die naturally in the past is precisely how they are killed in the present, and I should say -- at least from one point of view -- that's a worse fate than getting blown away by a Dalek-gun.

Season four's Silence of the Library/Forest of the Dead is when the Moffat-rot set in, for here Bensalhia is right: the afterlife epilogue in the matrix is cheesy, and it trivializes River Song's sacrifice. The refrain she parrots, "Everyone lives," becomes a lame trope copycatting what worked fairly well in season one's The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances. In that story, everyone getting saved at the last minute was presented as something truly exceptional ("Just this once, Rose, everyone lives!"), and it followed hot on the heels of enough tragedy (Dalek and Father's Day) that we hardly even noticed the exception. But season four and (so far) five show Moffat increasingly uneasy with blood on his hands -- something classic Who was never squeamish about.

This isn't about satisfying our blood lust, by the way. It's about good drama, pure and simple. Doctor Who has always been about saving the world from lethal menaces, and when people don't die, the stakes feel pretty low. One reason the Hinchcliffe era remains so golden owes to all the horrific and hideous death scenes that infuriated Mary Whitehouse. The early Tom Baker years were so dark that victories really felt like rewarding payoffs. Good doesn't come cheaply. It's no accident that the best stories of the new series involve heavy body counts -- Dalek, The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit, Human Nature/Family of Blood (though even these are rather lame compared to what we were treated to in the lightest years of classic Who!).

I'm glad to know I'm not the only one worrying. In an interview the question is posed directly to Moffat, undoubtedly on behalf of many fans: "It seems like hardly anyone ever dies in your episodes. What is your reasoning for that?" This is his response:
"There wasn't a reason. It's a big old coincidence that it happens, as many times. And I'm trying to work out when blood is first on my hands (in the series). It's in the first episode, though it happens off screen. Someone gets offed, and people do get offed this year. It's not a strategy — you couldn't keep that going, you'd be insane. I was a bit astonished when I realized I'd done it. I think there's another episode I've done this year in which nobody dies. But it's not the plan. Maybe I'm just not that dark. Who needs dark, it's dark!"
I'm not sure if this is subterfuge or not, and I'm not even sure what is being said in the last line. Is Moffat justifying himself by saying, "Who needs the show to be any darker? It's dark enough as it is." Or is he chastising himself a bit by saying, "Doctor Who admittedly needs more darkness, because it's supposed to be a dark show." I sincerely hope the latter.

I don't want to leave anyone with the impression that Moffat is doing a bad job overall, for as we know, he's been by far the most creative writer of the new series and brilliant in serving up the scares. And again, I really don't have a problem with the stories he penned in seasons one, two, and three. Even the season-four library story was perfect until the thrice-damned epilogue copped out on us. Let's hope season five isn't undone by any more cop outs, and pray that we see stakes being raised, sacrifices which mean something.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

From Hallucination-->Resurrection?

Ken Pulliam has a post defending the hallucination theory behind the gospel resurrection accounts. At one point he cites apologist William Lane Craig's objection to that theory:
"Subjective visions, or hallucinations, have no extra–mental correlate but are projections of the percipient's own brain. So if, as an eruption of a guilty conscience, Paul or Peter were to have projected visions of Jesus alive, they would have envisioned him in Paradise, where the righteous dead awaited the eschatological resurrection. But such exalted visions of Christ leave unexplained their belief in his resurrection. The inference 'He is risen from the dead,' so natural to our ears, would have been wholly unnatural to a first century Jew. In Jewish thinking there was already a category perfectly suited to describe Peter's postulated experience: Jesus had been assumed into heaven. An assumption is a wholly different category from a resurrection."
Noting that Tom Wright has objected similarly, Pulliam replies with two counter-objections:
"First, there was a lot of diversity among Jewish beliefs in the first century. There were the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, as well as others. There were also sects and cults that had incorporated various Greek ideas into Jewish theology. To maintain that the Jewish belief in the afterlife was monolithic in the first century is mistaken."
I would point out that while it's true that afterlife beliefs weren't monolithic, there is no documented precedent -- among any groups -- for one individual (messiah or otherwise) to be resurrected prematurely. The apologists do have a valid point here, though it's a very limited point. On which see further.
"Second, the concept of the resurrection seems to have entered Jewish theology during the exile and is found primarily in the Hebrew writings after that time, namely Daniel and 2 Maccabees. Many scholars believe this belief in the resurrection was adapted from the Persian religion of Zoroastrianism . The concept of the resurrection in Jewish theology arose as a way to explain how God would vindicate the martyrs. Initially, it seems that Jews who believed in a resurrection expected only the martyrs to be raised... Since Jesus would have been viewed by his followers as a martyr, it would have been natural for them to think that he would be resurrected."
It wouldn't have been natural at all, because again, there was no precedent (as far as we know) for anyone -- messiah, martyr, prophet, whatever -- to be prematurely resurrected before everyone else at the end of the age. To reply, as Pulliam does, that the disciples already believed they were living in the end is incredibly greasy, begs the question, and puts the cart before the horse. Paul's argument that Jesus' resurrection was the first fruits came as a consequence of dramatic revisionism, not a natural outgrowth of what was in place. But this, of course, leaves open the possibility that the disciples were simply wild inventors.

It's a plausible enough idea. Lack of precedent is generally no obstacle to invention and creativity, and apologists like Craig and Wright are on quicksand to rely on a lack of precedent when this point is unqualified. We know that religious people make wild claims all the time, and that apocalyptic movements find creative ways of coping with dashed hopes in order to survive. As Dale Allison often puts it, "rude reality reinterprets expectations". A classic case is the spiritualization of the prophecy of the temple's destruction in John 2. When your dreams are broken, you latch onto something else, no matter how far-fetched.

The problem is that it's highly unlikely the disciples' dreams had been broken. In their minds, based on everything taught to them, their leader's death wasn't even a mark of failure. The crucifixion would have demoralized them -- naturally -- but ultimately been taken as part of the apocalyptic drama. As Pulliam himself points out, Jesus had braced them for such tragedy: they were already living in the end times, on the brink of the tribulation, and suffering/death had to precede the apocalypse. The shame and scandal of the crucifixion would have put them, as Allison says, "emotionally down but not theologically out". In the absence of contrary evidence, we must assume they would have gone on hoping for the apocalypse and resurrection of the dead, at which point they would have been vindicated and resurrected along with their martyred savior. Jesus' martyrdom does not constitute a failed expectation, and that is why apologists like Craig and Wright, despite themselves, are right. It's not that revisionism is itself unlikely; we know that it is. It's that there was no need for revisionism, because as far as the disciples were concerned, things were still going "as expected".

For this reason, primarily, I believe in the historicity of the empty tomb. Craig and Wright are actually correct in claiming that visions alone wouldn't have yielded the resurrection belief (if not for the reason they think). But an empty tomb coupled with visions/hallucinations could well have forced the issue, and it apparently did.

Archaic Mark Put to Rest

As Tom Wasserman says, we've known it was a forgery for years now, but now the verdict is final.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Beast Below (AKA: The Last of the Starwhales)

It's fair to say I've been in a foul mood over Doctor Who for a long time now. After enduring the shower of piss that was The Stolen Earth/Journey's End, and then the tedious dross meant to tide us over until the arrival of season five (four episodes spread out over 2009, oxymoronically called "specials"), I was wondering if I would ever feel the magic again. I've been feeling it this season, and as magic is supposed to be received: like a child (cf. Mk 10:15/Mt 18:3/Lk 18:17). Steven Moffat knows children, how to cast them, and what buttons to push to make their fears become ours. The season is shaping up to be a dark fairy-tale like Alice's Adventures in the TARDIS. At the same time, I was somewhat let down by The Beast Below for failing to deliver the goods promised in the opening sequence of the story.

And what an opening sequence it is. Moffat immerses us right away in the unsettling world of the Starship U.K. from a classroom child's perspective. Timmy gets a bad grade and is banished from using the elevators to get home, but he takes one anyway. What happens inside is horrifying: a video starts playing of a young girl reciting ominous poetry, warning to "expect no love from the beast below"; the Smiler on the opposite wall spins its head 180 degrees, facing out a hideous contortion of demonic rage (see upper right photo); and the elevator floor slides open to reveal a hellish pit below. As he falls, Timmy's screams are reminiscent of those of the victims in Gridlock and Planet of the Ood -- perfect segues into the sting and thundering Doctor Who music, promising a roller-coaster ride of terror ahead.

That ride doesn't come, however. The Smilers may be scary looking, but it never goes beyond looks. They don't kill anyone and are way too easily disposed of by Her Majesty, the cavalierly pistol-slinging Liz Ten. In fact, in this story -- and in what is becoming an alarming trope in Moffat scripts -- "everyone lives". For all of Moffat's brilliance in serving up the scares, he has as an astounding aversion to killing off significant characters. This is something classic Who was never squeamish about. Moffat did give us tragedy in two stories, The Girl and the Fireplace (Madame de Pompadour) and Blink (Kathy Nightingale and Billy Shipton), naturally his best to date. Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead would have been as good if not for the afterlife scenario which trivialized River Song's sacrifice. In The Beast Below no one comes to any harm at all, and frankly, after the opening sequence, we never feel like anyone is in much jeopardy.

Though to be fair, that is somewhat the point, because the Smilers ultimately serve the Queen without her knowing why or how. The beast below is the true victim, a starwhale held captive and tormented so that it will keep ferrying the ship through space. The British people are victims of their own decisions more than anything, made every five years in the voting booths. Videotapes explain that Starship U.K. runs not on engines but by harnessing the power of a tortured starwhale, and each person votes either to forget this horrible truth and live on in ignorance, or protest the truth -- which, with enough votes, will supposedly put an end to the beast's suffering (and leave Britain stranded among the stars), but in fact gets the voter fed to the whale below. (The Doctor and Amy landing in the beast's mouth, drenched in putrid feculence, is a priceless scene.) But the brilliant twist comes at the end, when it is revealed that the beast doesn't even need to be tortured to carry the starship. It began doing so voluntarily, as the last of its kind unable to bear the screaming of Earth's children dying from the solar flares. It loves children and refuses to harm them, meaning that all children who have fallen into the pit are still alive. That's a cop-out, mind you, but at least feeds into a certain theme of the story.

For The Beast Below works on two levels, one as a political fable about society kept in ignorance, if democratically by their own choice, and two as a metaphorical commentary on the Doctor's nature. The last of the starwhales allows Amy to understand the Doctor better, and more polysemously, than previous companions. The way Moffat milks a philosophical purpose out of the whale like this will undoubtedly offend some viewers as crass, but I actually think it works well; the end revelation plays authentically.

And the best part of this revelation is that it is indeed Amy, not the Doctor, who ends up saving the day. She sees the similarities between Time Lord and beast -- both the last of their kind, both committed to helping others out of an alien compassion -- while the Doctor is caught up in helpless fury as he works to destroy the whale on humanity's behalf. Smith conveys contemptuous arrogance remarkably well, as he lambastes Amy for trying to spare him making the difficult choice, culminating in his frustrated holler of rage, "Nobody talk to me! Nobody human has anything to say to me today!" This puts us immediately in mind of the brusk and ineffectual Ninth Doctor who so often (70% of the time) was more a problem than a solution. This flawed aspect of the Time Lord is something we haven't seen in a while; the Tenth Doctor was more a self-mythologizing superhero (we got an exceptional dose of his fallibility in Midnight). If the opening sequence is the best part of the story, the epilogue is a close second: the Doctor tells Amy, "You could have killed everyone on this ship," and she replies, on near equal footing, "And you could have killed a starwhale." Welcome Amy Pond.

It should be noted how much this story mirrors Full Circle, which was unique in the Tom Baker years for having no villains (as in this story, people are their own worst enemy), and the same plot ingredients: cyclic patterns of a society going nowhere, unethical treatment of other species, and collectively willful ignorance. Both involve plot twists and surprising revelations, and while The Beast Below lacks the layered complexity of the E-Space classic, and refuses to show us the beast killing anyone (unlike Full Circle's marshmen), it is daringly impressive nonetheless.

In sum, The Beast Below marks a successful movement into a season which is taking us down the rabbit hole. Provided we start seeing some actual body counts, and soon, I have confidence in where we're going.

Rating: 3 stars out of 5.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Ultimate Doctor Who Quiz

I created a Doctor Who quiz for Facebook, but Doug Chaplin suggested that I also blog it for benefit of those who are averse to installing Facebook applications. If you want to take the test on Facebook and see your grade right away, go to The Ultimate Doctor Who Quiz. If not, see below. Answers will be forthcoming sometime next week.

1. Which Doctor never worked with UNIT?

A. The sixth
B. The seventh
C. The ninth
D. The tenth

2. In which of the following does the Fourth Doctor not help a planet's natives by leading a revolution?

A. The Sun Makers
B. The Androids of Tara
C. The Power of Kroll
D. State of Decay

3. Who was the most ineffectual Doctor -- that is, the most unable to save the day in so many stories?

A. The second
B. The fifth
C. The sixth
D. The ninth

4. Complete the analogy for the afflictions suffered by the Doctor immediately following a regeneration.

Multiple Personality Disorder: Hypermania: Homicidal Mania: Coma::

A. Sixth: Fifth: Fourth: Third
B. Fifth: Fourth: Sixth: Third
C. Third: Fourth: Sixth: Fifth
D. Fourth: Third: Sixth: Fifth

5. Which stories are renowned for, and received protests over, scenes of graphic torture?

A. The Sontaran Experiment and Revelation of the Daleks
B. The Deadly Assassin and Revelation of the Daleks
C. The Deadly Assassin and Vengeance on Varos
D. The Sontaran Experiment and Vengeance on Varos

6. In the case of two Doctors, their last season is renowned for re-attaining greatness over the mediocrity of immediately previous seasons. Who are they?

A. The third and fourth
B. The fifth and sixth
C. The fourth and seventh
D. The fifth and tenth

7. Which of the following contains an anomaly?

A. Rose, Smith and Jones, Partners in Crime
B. The End of the World, New Earth, Utopia
C. The Unquiet Dead, Tooth and Claw, The Shakespeare Code
D. Love and Monsters, Blink, Midnight/Turn Left

8. Which TARDIS companion never saw Gallifrey?

A. Sarah
B. Leela
C. Romana
D. Adric

9. Which Doctor went against the Daleks more than once?

A. The fourth
B. The fifth
C. The sixth
D. The seventh

10. Who was producer of the TV program over the course of four Doctors?

A. Philip Hinchcliffe
B. Graham Williams
C. John Nathan-Turner
D. Russell Davies

11. Which Doctor commented as follows, in regards to kids stealing food from the rich? "I'm not sure if it's Marxism in action or a west end musical."

A. The fourth
B. The seventh
C. The ninth
D. The tenth

12. Complete the analogy.

Frankenstein: Dracula::

A. The Brain of Morbius: State of Decay
B. The Sontaran Experiment: State of Decay
C. The Sontaran Experiment: The Face of Evil
D. The Brain of Morbius: The Face of Evil

13. In the new series (seasons 1-4), which is the only season to have no stories set on a planet other than Earth?

A. One
B. Two
C. Three
D. Four

14. Which of the following stories does not involve a time-traveling paradox?

A. Father's Day
B. The Girl in the Fireplace
C. Blink
D. Turn Left

15. In The Eleventh Hour the Doctor tells Amy, "Do everything I tell you, don't ask stupid questions, and don't wander off." Which Doctor says something similar to which companion?

A. The fourth to Leela in The Face of Evil
B. The fourth to Romana in The Ribos Operation
C. The fourth to Adric in Full Circle
D. The fifth to Peri in Planet of Fire

16. Complete the analogy. These are the reasons for departures of TARDIS companions.

Stranded in parallel universe: Marriage: Death::

A. Rose: Leela: Adric
B. Rose: Peri: Adric
C. Donna: Romana: Adric
D. Rose: Peri: Turlough

17. Which of the following both involve parallel universes?

A. Inferno, New Earth
B. Inferno, The Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel
C. The Android Invasion, New Earth
D. The Android Invasion, The Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel

18. Complete the analogy involving a mythologically evil foe.

Egyptian: Norse: Judeo-Christian::

A. Pyramids of Mars: The Key to Time: The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit
B. Image of the Fendahl: The Key to Time: The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit
C. Pyramids of Mars: The Curse of Fenric: The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit
D. Image of the Fendahl: The Curse of Fenric: The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit

19. Who said the following, in response to a flattering comment about being witty? "Slightly witty, perhaps. I shall contain my wit, in case I do you further injury."

A. Charles Dickens
B. Queen Victoria
C. William Shakespeare
D. Agatha Christie

20. If you had to bet on four Daleks or millions of Cybermen going to battle against each other, who's going to win?

A. Daleks kick ass! They could wipe out the Cybermen with a single Dalek, let alone four.
B. Cybermen rule! With such numbers on their side, how could they lose?

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Old Ideas Meme

Doug Chaplin didn't tag me, but I like his old ideas meme:
"Name one idea that used to be seen as a key Christian theme, but is nowadays regarded as either irrelevant or outdated, although you think it still has a lot to offer. In two sentences say something about why you selected this, and why it should be recovered or renewed."
For me it's the doctrine of atonement. In even its most brutally medieval manifestation, we learn positively from the way in which satisfaction, penal substitution, and ransom redemption interweave and take us into the eye of a paradox where wrath and mercy become one. While I believe this doctrine deserves to be transcended (the highest form of forgiveness is free forgiveness that doesn't require any give-and-take in between), it involves a truth about the human condition that can't be overcome so easily. People care deeply about issues of honor and justice, even if true enlightenment demands that we check them at the door. The doctrine of atonement is a blanket of security which affirms our need to do the right or honorable thing, while beckoning us to higher wisdom.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

The Eleventh Hour

I was hoping that Steven Moffat would do away with these invasion-of-earth season openers, but aside from regenerations, it doesn't look like miracles happen overnight. That being said, The Eleventh Hour fares much better than the stories by Russell Davies which introduced a new companion -- even Smith and Jones whose plot it copies: an illegal alien disguised as a human, pursued to Earth by other alien authorities, around a hospital setting. We get shades of the atrocious Runaway Bride (the opening scene with the Doctor hanging outside the TARDIS as it careens uncontrollably over the London skyline), and the classic Christmas Invasion (the end confrontation, about planet Earth being "defended" before the Doctor sends off the Atraxi). Homage is felt everywhere. But where Davies used Rose, Smith and Jones, and Partners in Crime to dumb down to the lowest common denominator, Moffat respects our intelligence, and, rather astoundingly, manages to deliver a real crowd-pleaser.

Let's discuss the story's major high point: the new Doctor himself. Matt Smith assumes the eccentric role with ease, and I've no doubts he'll be as good as Tennant if not better. I felt I was in good hands the moment he emerged from the crashed TARDIS all frazzled and said to Amy, "Do everything I tell you, don't ask stupid questions, and don't wander off." That's more bite than we're used to with Tennant, and reminiscent of Tom Baker who routinely barked condescension at everyone. Tennant was very good, of course, but by the end of his stint had become too domesticated for my liking. The eleventh incarnation is unsettling even at his most homey. My favorite scenes are at the beginning when he ungratefully spits out every piece of food given to him by the seven-year old Amy, and then tries solving the mystery of the crack in her bedroom wall -- the crack, of course, being a rift to an alien jail cell -- by ordering her this way and that. It's great stuff.

And the character of Amy Pond shows promise in a way that previous companions did not. Unlike Rose Tyler, Martha Jones, and Donna Noble, she doesn't come with dysfunctional family in tow. This is such a relief I can hardly convey it in words. While I certainly acknowledge that Rose's family was ultimately put to good use, especially with the dramatic involvement of Pete Tyler, the Jones and Noble families were more extraneous, and by the end of their respective seasons had become thoroughly irritating. Moffat gives us Amy sans parental baggage, breaking with at least a significant part of the Davies formula.

In place of kitchen sink soap opera, Moffat substitutes tempus fugit drama for which he has become renowned in stories like The Girl in the Fireplace and Blink. As in the former, the Doctor establishes a close connection with a young girl, leaves suddenly thinking he'll be "right back", but returns many years later to a grown woman who believes she had imagined him as a child. Amy, as a result, has baggage, to be sure -- she's seen plenty of shrinks to help cope with her "imaginings" -- but it doesn't need the watered down supplements of family melodrama.

On whole The Eleventh Hour remains what it is: an invasion of earth story in which the Doctor saves the entire planet in the space of twenty minutes, and by (of all things) using a laptop to spread a global virus. But it's an incredibly fun ride, as addictive as The Christmas Invasion, drawing us back for repeated viewings almost against our will. And the ending is pure magic, as we see the new TARDIS interior through the eyes of Amy Pond, and are left just as awed.

Rating: 3 ½ stars out of 5.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Doctor Who: Season Five

Readers may recall back in the spring of 2008 I tried predicting my ratings of the fourth season episodes of Doctor Who. I didn't do too badly, though got a few surprises; see Goodacre and Rosson at Doctor Who. I'm going to have a go at it again, but this time in a single rolling post, supplanting my predictions with brief reviews as the episodes air. I will also provide longer reviews of each story in separate blogposts.

1. The Eleventh Hour. 3 ½ stars. Feeling like a leftover of the Davies era, this season opener fares significantly better than previous ones which introduced a new companion, even Smith and Jones whose plot it copies: an illegal alien disguised as a human, pursued to Earth by other alien authorities, around a hospital setting. There is enough Moffat influence to offset the Davies feel, such as the Doctor returning to a much older Amy (shades of The Girl in the Fireplace), and Prisoner Zero being a more fearsome creature than the Autons, Plasmavore, and Adipose combined. It remains what it is -- an invasion-of-earth story in which the Doctor saves the entire planet in the space of twenty minutes -- yet an incredibly fun ride demanding repeated viewings.

2. The Beast Below. 3 stars. Here are smiles that would give your grandmother a heart attack, the entire British kingdom crammed on a starship searching for a new home, and a beast lurking beneath to eat protesting citizens. This story works on two levels, one as a political fable about society kept in ignorance, albeit democratically by their own choice, and two as a metaphorical commentary on the Doctor's nature. The "Last of the Starwhales" allows Amy to understand the Doctor better, and more polysemously, than previous companions. And she gets to save the day, as the Doctor is caught up in helpless fury as he works to destroy the whale on humanity's behalf. We haven't seen Time Lord fallibility like this since Eccleston, and it's refreshing.

3. Victory of the Daleks. 3 stars. A rushed episode that needed another to breathe, but a fun World War II story that sees Britain training an army of Daleks to be thrown against the Third Reich. Churchill gets a nasty surprise when they show their true colors, and quite literally: the new and improved Daleks have an intricate caste system (red = drones, blue = strategists, orange = scientists, yellow = eternals, and white = supremes), which will surely be fleshed out later in the season. The space battle between Britain's Spitfires and the Dalek ship is ludicrous but thrilling, and the Doctor's fury as he assaults a Dalek with a spanner surpasses even the Ninth Doctor's rage in Dalek. Not a stellar achievement, by any means, but a fun ride.

4. The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone. 5 stars. This two-parter is to Blink as Aliens is to Alien: bigger, longer, more. The weeping angels are back in droves, faced off by an army of priestly soldiers who aren't nearly as equipped as they think. Like Ripley, the Doctor understands the menace better than anyone, though not always quite enough, and the angels have some alarming new tricks, like breaking peoples' heads open in order to reanimate their consciousness. In terms of suspense, I haven't been kept on the edge of my seat so much since the Ood closed in on the space crew back in The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit -- and as in that story the body count is high. Amy is in deep trouble, and when on death's door she cries out in a pitifully broken voice, "I'm scared, Doctor," our Time Lord hero callously retorts, "Of course you're scared, you're dying, shut up." Amusingly, when all is said and done, she wants to jump in the sack with the Doctor and fuck his brains out. Not quite as good as Blink, but as close as can be expected, and a crown jewel of the new series.

5. Vampires of Venice. 3 stars. Vampires return to Doctor Who in a gothic period piece, and the result, while hardly groundbreaking, is fun. The plot is distinctly linear, from the opening as the school of Calvieri welcomes innocent ladies into its monstrous breeding (feeding) program, to the climax which involves an apocalyptic storm of tidal waves, concluding rather lazily with the Doctor saving the day by climbing a tower and pushing a few buttons. Amy's fiance Rory joins as a TARDIS companion, and the love triangle between the three characters reminds of how effectively Sarah was used in School Reunion by putting Rose's relationship to the Doctor into perspective, and calling into the question the way the Time Lord eventually discards his companions.

6. Amy's Choice. 5 stars. Feeling like Doctor-lite, this story struts with determination to ignore the rules and throw something bizarre at us, only this time with the Doctor getting his usual screen time. By far the weirdest story of the new series, and in a good way, as if David Lynch had penned it. It finds the Doctor, Amy, and Rory flicking back and forth between two scenarios, one of which they are told is a dream they are sharing, the other reality. To die in the dream will cause them to wake up in reality for good, and to die in reality will cause them to really die; so they must choose wisely. The choice, however -- Amy's choice -- ultimately boils down to a choice between the Doctor and Rory, and it comes together splendidly. A work of art.

7. The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood. 4 stars. Feeling like classic Who more than anything seen before in the new series, this story taps into how everyone remembers the Pertwee era to be, but with shades of Colin Baker too -- protracted torture scenes and luminescent underground sets. It takes a tired cliché and turns it on its head. The alien (Silurian) invaders aren't really aliens but "Earthlians" who have as much claim to the planet as humanity. "From their point of view, you're the invaders," the Doctor lectures his human friends, and actually manages to get the two races to begin negotiating for terms of coexistence before foul play kills hope for a shared planet. The death of Rory is a shocker, and Amy's memory wipe tragic, the most emotionally powerful scene of the season up to this point.

8. Vincent and the Doctor. 4 ½ stars. A character piece about a tormented genius who has visual acuity beyond the norm. It represents the final year of Van Gogh's life quite well, recreating various sites painted by the artist, the paintings themselves in arresting color, and his disturbing fits of manic depression. The theme of vision permeates every frame, as we learn that Van Gogh can see things others are blind to. On the literal level this plays out in the attack of the Krafayis, an invisible giant bird-reptile that Vincent fends off entertainingly with long wooden poles and armchairs, while the Doctor gets slammed against walls by its tail. On the deeper level, Van Gogh sees things in nature's midst and people's souls. The scoring at the end is a bit rubbish, but aside from that this is a powerfully affective story.

9. The Lodger. 1 star. Worse than pedestrian, playing like a garden variety sitcom, about a monster luring innocent victims up the stairs of a flat complex. The Doctor moves in to investigate and becomes far more involved with the personal affairs of his flatmate than the alien threat above, and it's never clear why he can't go up the stairs right away to deal with the problem other than to satisfy the demands of an empty script. The direction is barely adequate, the design uninspiring; the cast struggle bravely to deliver what is essentially a trivial love story. The set up of the staircase is promisingly sinister, but it delivers manure. The best thing about the story is the sight of Matt Smith naked from the waist up.

10. The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang. 4 stars. Like The Eleventh Hour, a guilty pleasure which effectively gives Moffat's predecessor the finger whilst feigning homage. The subtext essentially is, if you're going to raise the stakes to extreme heights, Mr. Davies, this is how you do it. The crack in Amy's bedroom wall proves to be the most successful seasonal story arc in the new series, and while there are certainly resets to be found here, they're not cheap, they come at a fair price, and there's solid emotional payoff. The Doctor's farewell to Amy as he prepares to sacrifice himself -- "You don't need your imaginary friend anymore" -- got me a bit choked up. Well done, Mr. Moffat; bring on season six.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Outside the Agitating Box of Galatians

Richard Fellows has a A New Theory on the Background of Galatians, which he calls "potentially the most important blog post that I have ever written", followed by Whose side were the pillars on? He argues that (A) Paul and the pillars both believed that Gentiles should not be circumcised, but (B) the agitators in Galatia thought Paul was really on their side -- that he had spoken against circumcision only out of loyalty to the pillars with whom he disagreed.

I should note that while I disagree with Richard's thoroughly argued proposal, my view is actually closer to (A) than most, in the sense that I think Paul and the pillars were at least initially on the same page regarding Gentile liberty. Including Gentiles in the people of God without converting them into proseltyes cohered with apocalyptic hope, and that's what was preached from the get-go in the Christian movement. But that formula wasn't going to work forever -- not with increasing numbers of Gentiles joining the church, and in a world where the apocalypse kept getting postponed; not in the face of increased pressure from wider Judaism on account of this. That's why Christianity started to mainstream around the year 49. In order to survive. (That's typical of millenarian movements, of course: they evole and change/update beliefs when the end fails to come.) So while there was an uneasy agreement between Paul and the pillars in Jerusalem (Gal 2:7-9), I maintain that the pillars broke the agreement (Gal 2:11-14), largely as a survivalist strategy.

And I emphasize that while Paul was rightly furious for being so humiliated, the pillars' about-face was an understandable move. I think of them as realists who were trying to keep Christianity viable within Judaism. Centuries of theologians and scholars have turned Paul into a lone, gun-slinging hero at Antioch, but perhaps there are no easy heroes here. Both Paul and James (via-Peter) acted out of legitimate concerns.

My reading can account for all the Pauline data as much as Richard's, though of course I don't see Acts as squaring so neatly with Galatians like he does. It accounts for the initial agreement at Gal 2:7-9 as much as the fallout in Gal 2:11-14. I'm not terribly impressed with Richard's claim that the Antioch incident "tells us nothing about the relationship between Paul and Peter, since even the best of friends can have a heated argument at least once". In the honor-shame world, one does not call attention to "whatever events prove one's case", certainly not a shameful confrontation like this between friends. Antioch was about treachery more than mere "hypocrisy", and it turned Peter and Paul into rival apostles.

I encourage people to read Richard's posts. They paint an opposite picture of the one I take to be accurate, but they show serious thinking outside the box, which of course is what we should always be doing as readers of the bible.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Jesus the Mistaken Jesting Apocalyptic

James McGrath tells us that when Jesus described the end of the world, and then told his disciples, "I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened" (Mark 13:30), it was the first April Fool's Day joke in history. So there you have it. Jesus wasn't wrong, he had his tongue planted firmly in cheek.

Biblical Cranks: A Review

Before I describe my own vital contribution to the achievement, simple modesty requires me to point out that Loren Rosson's Biblical Cranks, for all its flaws, merits more attention than would normally be granted to a scholar-wannabe's attempt to prove himself in the middle of a mid-life crisis. My own role in the book's creation simply owed to being in the right place at the right time.

In the summer of 2008 I arrived unannounced at Loren's apartment, passing through New Hampshire and wanting to catch up on arthouse flicks, not having seen my friend in months. Three full minutes after ringing the bell I looked in on a stranger: a bleary-eyed, emaciated skeleton out of Edgar Allen's Poetry. More stunning was the phantom's speech, incorporating obscenities every other phrase, as in, "Fuck, Leonard, like where the fuck you been, man, shit, man, thought you'd blown me off for good." I squinted; yes, this was Loren -- hideously distorted under bloodshot eyes, puffed cheeks, four-day stubble, and unkept hair that bore a passing resemblance to the mophead used on my kitchen floor.

Scarcely able to contain my shock, I allowed myself to be pulled through the doorway and pounded jovially on the back, when came the overpowering reek from his breath, the odor of which I judged to be gasohol. "Sit the fuck down, man, I'll get you some." I fell into a sofa stained by pizza sauce and various bodily fluids, and as Loren proceeded to mix a ghastly concoction of liquors (the "gasohol"), I wondered how in the nine hells he'd reached this state of affairs.

Serving me the gasohol in a filthy glass -- and knocking back what must have been his own eighth or ninth shot of the poison -- Loren confided that his latest project was a treatise on scholarly cranks of the bible. The unfamiliar names of Yuri Kuchinsky, Andrew Tempelman, Geoff Hudson, Eric Zuesse, Leon Zitzer, Robert Conner, James Tabor, and Ben Witherington III floated from his slurred speech, barely comprehensible around his bitter grievances against a world that failed to appreciate his talents. At the time I had only a vague notion of the scholarly crimes which could be laid at the feet of these people, not only because I don't read much in the field, but because Loren wasn't putting two sentences together around his self-pity: "Lenny, man, I can hardly blow my horn anymore, ya know, like shit man, just wanna get something done, man, but like, can't find my fuckin' voice, ya know..." He wasn't working on this book, just dreaming about it while his liver put in the overtime.

After tolerating forty-five minutes of this "speech", I gave it to him both barrels. What I said to Loren must remain forever confidential, but suffice to say that from that day to this he has managed to conduct himself like a responsible citizen and not a denizen of seedy brothels. Nor does he drench his conversation with vulgarity. He respects his liver. I only wish I had succeeded in deterring him from writing a tediously cheap diatribe against "scholars" who merit little if any attention. The world would be better served by Loren's ideas on the New Perspective instead of knocking down straw men. But at least he applied himself in front of the keyboard, and this book is the end result.

And despite its haughty tone and frequent lapses into ad hominems, ad hoc arguments, and ad nauseum exaltations of the Context Group, Biblical Cranks manages to keep its head above water at least some of the time. The sour vindictive chapter about Leon Zitzer should have been edited out of the book completely. No one has the right to treat another human being that way in print. That accepted, Loren's effort to show the dangers of a little knowledge is sobering: with "scholars" such as these, the world is in no short supply of conspiracy theories and apologetics -- and comic relief.