28 February 2013

The Doctor Diaries II.2: "Tooth and Claw"

All-Pervasive Providence

Well, this episode did get my wheels turning! Besides the great speeches by Queen Victoria about wanting to hear from our loved ones who have passed on -- which are worth the price of the show on their own, by the way -- this story is causing me all kinds of mental trouble about two equal and opposite problems I have relating to PROVIDENCE.

Here's the situation. Without giving too many spoilers, I'll just say that the Doctor discovers that two guys, now dead, foresaw a terrible danger and set up a scenario for escaping from it. In other words, this plot is a retelling of the classic providence-prophecy-fulfillment story. There are many manifestations of this story in myth, legend, folktale, history, theology, fiction, and film throughout time. There is the simple prophecy-messiah version (like in The Matrix) and its inversion, the prophecy-doom story (think of Oedipus Rex). But then there is the more complex version, in which a person of high intellect, spiritual sensitivity, or both foresees a future situation and sets it up by his own actions, either to bring it about (if it is a great good) or to prevent it (if it is a great evil).

The Harry Potter series is an example: Dumbledore, it turns out at the end, foresaw everything and set it up by playing Harry, Snape, and others as his pawns. He even had to violate their personhood in various awful ways to bring about the eucatastrophic ending, taking advantage of their loves, their hates, their strengths, and their weaknesses to deploy them according to his grand plan.

Sherlock Holmes is another example, although his visions are usually retrospective: he sees what has happened, rather than what will happen -- but this frequently (not frequently enough) enables him to see what will happen next so that he can (sometimes) prevent a further crime or (nearly always) catch the crook. The Robert Downey Jr. films, while they were travesties of the Holmes character in just about every way, did play up the foresight aspect of Holmes's abilities: in the movies, Holmes would foresee a series of events in slow motion, then enact them at normal pace. This was, however, pretty much always just a nasty fight, rather than a mental game of chess.

Then there is the quintessential example in recent literature: A Prayer for Owen Meaney by John Irving. This strange, creepy, sprawling novel turns out in the end not to be sprawling after all: every last little detail was driving towards one end, one day, one event. Owen Meaney was a prophet who knew the date of the day he would day and knew the skills he would need to perform his last heroic deed on that day. So every experience, every piece of knowledge, every conversation, even, went towards making that day what he knew it had to be. He was the voice of God, telling everyone who knew him (and everyone who reads the book) that God exists and that God plans every last little detail of our lives for a Purpose.

But I don't think Owen Meaney was really about that, not really. I don't think it teaches a theological message so much as an aesthetic one. I think Owen Meaney is not about the power of God, but about the power of the Novelist. Within the story, we are led to believe that God told Owen Meaney everything he needed to know, and that God set up each event, all to prepare for the final scene. Yet it wasn't really God who did all that -- it was John Irving. So the book was really "about," in my analysis, how the novelist chooses each event carefully, crafts each conversation, and structures the relationships among plot elements to lead to the conclusion.

This is the same with Tooth and Claw: it wasn't the two dead characters (Sir Robert MacLeish's father, and Prince Albert) who figured out what would happen in the future and then crafted each detail to set up the events of that fateful full-mooned night: it was screenwriter Russell T. Davies. So again, this is not a TV show about God's providence or about humanity's great foresight: it's about the art of writing.

....which leads me to my two theological problems.

I. I have a really hard time believing in the seriousness of Providence when it is depicted in fiction, and yet I ['m supposed to] believe it in real life. I have a hard time believing in anything, from the fact that I exist to the fact that Philip Petit walked a tighrope between the Twin Towers to the fact that God exists. So it's no wonder I have a hard time believing in Providence in fiction, never mind for real. When I encounter a Dumbledore or an Owen Meaney, I'm awfully skeptical. I tend to think it's cheesy. I tend to think that "nature red in tooth and claw" makes for more gritty, manly, serious Art.

(That's the second time I've come across Tennyson's "In Memorium A.H.H" today--coincidence? or Providence?)

But I'm a Christian, and a "Reformed" Christian at that. I do believe in Providence. And that is my second theological problem.

II. I have a really hard time believing there is anything BUT Providence. I am more Calvinist than Calvin. I just don't see how there can be any such thing as Free Will. I find it impossible to wrap my head around the concept that God c/would make creatures so entirely separate from Himself that they could make decisions contrary to His will. I don't see how little Me can make any decision at all, in a metaphysically meaningful way. He's God. He knows everything; He plans everything. EVERYTHING.

Which means that my theological system makes Him responsible for evil. And that's a big problem. Not that there is any way to solve The Problem of Evil, even with free will. But I certainly have gotten myself into a doctrinal mess. And all that from one little episode of Doctor Who. Look what a well-trained mind can do. Maybe that's why they say ignorance is bliss -- maybe I should go back to just drooling over Benedict Cumberbatch and leave the cultural analysis to Slavoj Žižek.

No comments: