15 March 2013

The Doctor Diaries II.8-9: “The Impossible Planet” and “The Satan Pit”

Too Much Metaphysics

I asked for metaphysics, and heck did I get metaphysics! Whewie! These are the best two episodes yet; no others are even in the competition, by my standards. The writing, the story, the ideas, and the character development in these two are just off the charts. “Off the scale!” to quote himself. There are way too many great things to say about these episodes, so I will limit myself to two: (1) True Myth and (2) the Open Ending.
So, these two episodes are basically a retelling of one of the most important themes in Perelandra. Perelandra is the celebrated second novel in C.S. Lewis's so-called “Space Trilogy,” better known as the “Ransom Cycle.” The idea of “true myth” was essential to Lewis's conversion to Christianity; he wrote about it in an important letter to his friend Arthur Greeves and again later in his spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy. I've written about it here. Inklings scholar Holly Ordway talks about turee myth in>in this podcast
. Several people talk about the idea in this article on C.S. Lewis.

Lewis explored this idea most fully, as he often did, via fiction. On Malacandra, Ransom met a creature he took to be the original of Cyclops; on Perelandra, he met a dragon, mermaids and mermen, and finally Mars and Venus themselves. He wondered, “Were all the things which appeared as mythology on earth scattered through other worlds as realities?” (Perelandra 45). He proceed to develop his theology across other planets, embodying it in characters, events, and landscapes.

Here is a conversation from “The Satan Pit”:
The Doctor: You get representations of the horned Beast right across the universe in myths and legends of a million worlds. Earth, Draconia, Vel Consadine, Daemos... The Kaled god of war, the same image, over and over again. Maybe, that idea came from somewhere. Bleeding through, a thought of every sentient mind...
Ida Scott: Originating from here?
The Doctor: Could be.
Ida Scott: But if this is the original, does that make it real? Does that make it the actual Devil?
The Doctor: Well, if that's what you want to believe. Maybe that's what the Devil is, in the end. An idea.
Without bothering about the silly theology in the last line (that the Devil is “only” an idea; cf. The Great Divorce), just take a look at that theology of True Myth right there! Isn't that great? The idea that there “really” is a Devil, trapped on an Impossible Planet, generating all of the myths and doctrines about him all across the universe. Then later on, when The Doctor talks to The Beast, here is their exchange:
The Doctor: If you are the Beast, then answer me this: Which one? Because the universe has been busy since you've been gone. There are more religions than there are planets in the sky. The Arkiphetes, quoldonity, christianity, pash-pash, new judaism, Saint Claar, Church of the Teen Vagabond. Which devil are you?
The Beast: All of them.
The Doctor: Then you're... what? The truth behind the myth?
The Beast: This one knows me.
In other words, Yes. This Beast is the truth behind all the legends, myths, and teachings about The Devil. Which, of course, means either that “The Devil is Real” or that “There is no 'devil,' only this alien on which the legends are based.” Rose asks the Doctor that question at the very end of the episode, and he refuses to answer.
Ida Scott: But, Doctor, what did you find down that? That creature; what was it?
The Doctor: I dunno! Never did decipher that writing. But that's good! Day I know everything—might as well stop.
Rose: What do you think it was? Really?
The Doctor: I think...we beat it. That's good enough for me.
Of course, if they killed the Devil, that opens up all kinds of theological questions, and maybe messes up the story. But it doesn't mess up the story, actually, because of...
In this era after the age of suspicion of meta-narratives, of the slippery nature of texts, of indeterminacy and relativisms and pluralisms galore, it is not surprising to encounter a story with an open ending. There are lots of those. There are even books that offer the reader alternative endings, such as the over-praised Life of Pi. So it isn't surprising that “The Satan Pit” ends inconclusively. I mean, the plot ends conclusively: our heroes win, and those of the good guys left alive go home happy. But the idea is left indeterminate—which I propose to you is the best way it could possibly be left. If the show has decided this Beast was indeed exactly and precisely the Christian Devil—then how could they kill him? That would wreak all kinds of havoc with the theological implications of the story. If the Devil died, would sin come to an end? I suppose not; humans are pretty good and thinking up and acting out sins on their own without diabolical inspiration. But the Christian story has a specific plot that involves the Devil's defeat at the end of time. That wouldn't work in a story about a Time Lord, now would it? The Doctor had a hard enough struggle dealing with the concept of before time; I don't think he would survive an encounter with after time. And if the Devil were not the Christian Devil, that would take away from the character' s mythic power. It would reduce him. So the screenwriter, Matt Jones, was wise to leave that part of the story undecided.

It was also wise to leave the Doctor's beliefs open, I think, from a story point of view. It would be another story all together if The Doctor became a Christian (!) and went around promulgating the Gospel. That could be wildly amazing, done right, but it would be something else again. Here's the conversation he has with Ida Scott about faith. She says she was raised “Neo-Classical” (which is hilarious, by the way). He replies:
The Doctor: Neo-classics. Have they got a Devil?Ida: No, not as such. Just, um... "the things that men do."
The Doctor: Same thing in the end.
Ida: What about you?
The Doctor: I... believe. I believe I haven't seen everything, I don't know. It's funny, isn't it? The things you make up—the rules. If that thing had said it came from beyond the universe I'd believe it, but before the universe... that's impossible. It doesn't fit in my rules. Still, that's why I keep travelling. To be proved wrong.
And then when he meets The Beast, he tells it, “I accept that you exist. I don't have to accept what you are, but your physical existence, I give you that.” But he refuses to decide what or whom he has seen. He refuses to close down on one interpretation. As sad as that might be for a real person whose soul I care about, it's a good choice in fiction.

No comments: