Thursday, July 10, 2008

Faith on the BBC: Bonekickers & Doctor Who

Caught up with Bonekickers, the latest BBC drama from the creators of Life on Mars, via Iplayer last night. Despite getting panned from some quarters, I thought it was quite fun, and didn't feel got at as an evangelical Christian, despite the Times reviewers concerns. ("I am not a Christian, but if I were, the demonisation of evangelicals, not to mention the casual “miracle” pulled off by a splinter left by the rood in a nurse's finger, would make me cross")

The episode focused on an archaeological dig which had uncovered some dead Templar Knights and (possibly) a fragment of the Cross. A right-wing preacher used it to back his message of kicking non-Christians out of the country, one of his followers decapitated a peace-loving Muslim, and it all ended in a dramatic showdown in an underground cavern full of Roman crosses - the Templars not being able to decide which was the 'true cross', so they kept them all.

Mostly cobblers, though it's interesting that the standard Christian character has evolved. Back in the 70's it was the ineffectual and naive vicar (Dick Emery, Derek Nimmo), the Vicar of Dibley has killed off the 'trendy vicar' stereotype by showing that modern is fine, and now the extremist bible-thumper is the caricature of choice. There was an alternative though - there were 2 other characters with faith, one a nurse, reading the Bible at the bedside of dying patients, and the other the fresh-faced newcomer to the Bonekickers team, Viv. At one point Viv challenges Gillian, the bossy team leader, on her claim that all religions do is cause wars. 'God is in the small things and the quiet places', a line which recurs later and gets some sort of vindication.

I'm intrigued that following the Sunday School backdrop to Alex's character in Ashes to Ashes (as well as a Christian nutter episode, if I recall), we have another series from the same writers where one of the main characters has some kind of faith. It would have been easy to trash Christianity entirely, but the show didn't. And in Hugh Bonnnevilles brilliant character, there's a chance to roll out the one-liners, I love the one on the trailer for episode 2.

Compare and contrast Doctor Who, a show which by rights should be getting as much debate as the Matrix did over spiritual themes and worldview. There are plenty of similarities, from carbon-copy special effects (frozen bullets, light bursting out of the main character at the moment of his 'death'), to the blend of religious worldviews at the core of the plot. At one level Doctor Who is thoroughly humanist - the Doctor believes in the human race, and he keeps on saving it (and other species) and tries to help people get along. At another level it is thoroughly spiritual, as I've posted before.

The question the series finale left me with is: does the pagan or Christian worldview call the shots here? There is recurrent Christian symbolism - resurrection, exodus, eternal life, and so on. But there's a strong pagan current too: the Pompeii episode has the Doctor and Donna being enshrined as the houshold gods, and the finale played both with the notion of prophecy and of fate. Something has brought Donna to the point where she is instrumental in saving the universe, and though the Doctor doesn't believe in fate, he can't avoid the fact that the universe seems to be placing Donna at the centre of events. At the same time the talking squid Dalek Caan has a 'prophecy' (he's seen into the future through a rift in time) of the end of all things, and that 'one will die'. Caan is clearly cracked, but then so was Ezekiel.

Even more interesting, it played with the idea of two natures in one person. Twice. Doctor II had the Doctors mind, but was mortal. Donna was human already, got the Doctors mind into her own, but couldn't cope with it and had to be returned to her life before she met him. If you're a Christology lecturer, and want to explore the issues around the divine and human natures in Jesus, and how two natures in one person works, then you could have great fun starting the lectures with this........

Okay, it's all sci-fi hokum, and we shouldn't take it too seriously, but you never got this sort of stuff in Star Trek. The fact that the 'story arcs' (to use the jargon) in these series are prepared to play with spiritual themes is quite significant:

1. If you want to know what the visual media think of religion, don't bother with Songs of Praise, watch the dramas.

2. Spirituality and religion is no longer the property of the church or the experts. That means that everyone is happy to have a go, whether they have the slightest clue what they're on about or not. It's much more of a free-for-all, but it's much more alive than the days when all spiritual conversation was the property of the church, or new age weirdos. Spirituality is mainstream.

3. It is pick and mix: these things are brought in to drive a story, bring emotional impact, and to make the drama work. So they don't have the same integrity they do when they are part of the Christian (or another) narrative.

And it also means that there are 10m people in the UK who saw that last episode, where there's a conversation starter: "Donna or Doctor? do you believe in fate or just stuff just happen?"

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