Horatio

Horatio
[Photo by Jacquelyn Griffin)

Monday, May 22, 2017

Spirits in Prison: A Sermon on 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21

A Sermon on 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21
April 23, 2017
St. Bartholomew’s Church


In Robertson Davies’s novel The Manticore, David Staunton, a Canadian criminal defense attorney, has reached a turning point in his life, after his father’s mysterious death. His father, a business tycoon and former Governor-General of Canada, drove his car off of a pier, with a round stone in his mouth, and drowned in his car.
David’s father had spent the earlier part of that day with an old friend, a schoolmaster, and a new friend, a world-famous magician. The stone had been given to him by his old friend, who identified the stone as one that back when he was a small boy, David’s father had thrown at his old friend, who dodged it, and a woman walking by was struck by it. She went into labor, and the child she gave birth to grew up to be the magician.

After his father’s death, David interrupted the closing act of the magician’s last show of his Canadian tour, a brazen head that would answer audience questions, by asking out loud who had killed his father. As the brazen head answered, David fled the theater, and accused himself of being mad, and needing therapy. He finds himself guilty, and describes all this to the Jungian therapist he sees as his punishment for causing a scene. His analyst suggests that the best way for them to proceed is for him to lay out his life like a legal brief—to plead his case. She explains to him that he should “let it be a brief for the defense; you will inevitably prepare a case for the prosecution as you do so, for that is the kind of court you are to appear in—the court of self-judgment. And Mr. Justice Staunton, will hear all and render judgment.”

David doesn’t want to be his own judge, and asks his analyst if she can be the judge. She refuses, saying “I will be an interested spectator, and…a figure that appears only in military courts, called Prisoner’s Friend. And I shall be an authority on precedents, and germane judgments, and I shall keep both the prosecutor and the defence counsel in check. I shall be custodian of that constant and perpetual wish to render to everyone his due.”

We all of us have to appear in our own courts. We all have to reach conclusions about our own conduct, and to come to grips with those times in our lives when we feel that we have failed, or, worse, done the wrong thing knowing it was wrong. And if, like me, you’ve been raised in a tradition where God is held out to us as our judge, and as the only righteous judge, you may be, like David Staunton, assuming that righteous judge will be very severe.

Your own inner judge may be like David’s “Mr. Justice Staunton,” severe, harsh, all in the name of righteousness. But as David’s doctor reminds him, “a judge is not supposed to be an enemy of the prisoner.”

In today's Gospel, Jesus doesn’t promise us a judge who will be strict and severe with us. He promises us an advocate. In fact, the Advocate, with a capital “A.” And that Advocate, we are explicitly told, is the Holy Spirit itself. Likewise, in the the Epistle, taken form the First letter of Peter, we are told that Jesus “was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which he also went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah.”

Now these two passages have provided grist for an uncountable number of theological mills. The Advocate or the Paraclete has been the subject of whole books, and today’s passage from First Peter has tied up in knots some of the best theologians in the Western tradition; Both St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas westled with it, and in each case it’s frankly like watching a kitten with a ball of yarn. Lots of logic chopping, and sudden movement, but a bit of a mess at the end of the day. Martin Luther just gave up, admitting “a wonderful text is this, and a more obscure passage than any other in the New testament, so I do not know for certain just what Peter means.”

So obviously, I can’t give you a simple, authoritative interpretation of either of these texts. But that doesn’t mean these passages have nothing to say to us. Various books of the Bible resound again and again with rhetoric of judgment. But these readings give us good news, when we’re up against our own courts of judgment, and an insight into what God’s judgment is like.
In First Peter, we are confronted with not just an obscure scriptural text but with an uncomfortable one. For one thing, it presupposes the existence and reality of hell. You know, where, as Jesus himself said, "where the worm diet not, and the flame is not quenched. Hell.

Wait a second, we think, hell? Our living God, our teacher Jesus, is threatening us with what the Anglican novelist Susan Howatch once called “the eternal wienie roast?” How can God love all His children, and condemn some unknown number of us to everlasting suffering?

But in fact our reading from Peter today does mention hell, depicting Jesus, between the crucifixion and the resurrection, going to hell, where he “made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah.” This is what’s known as the Harrowing of Hell, the release of souls from hell.

Augustine and Aquinas get tangled up in the questions of how the release of prisoners in hell could mesh with God’s justice, or how the dead can be saved, but ultimately they agree on one thing: Jesus didn’t go to hell to crow over those who were condemned. And he wasn’t taking a victory lap. Jesus went down in some manner to break the chains of hell.

Now just stop for one minute. Never mind whether you believe in hell, or in God sending the wicked to it. Remember hell got its start as the land of the dead, a mythological depiction of the state of death itself, all the way back to The Epic of Gilgamesh, where the dead are depicted as dirty, bedraggled birds chained in place with nothing but dust to drink, and earth to eat.

The point is, in Peter’s telling, the sacrificial love of God, as represented by Jesus does not give up on us, not even after our death. Not even after, under all the theological constructs Peter would have known, there could be no hope. Even then, God wills to save us, to redeem us.

Which brings me to Susan Howatch’s story of the sheepdog trials, in her novel The High Flyer. Howatch recounts a sermon in about judgment, and what it means. She writes that “You can’t talk about judgment without talking about justice—and justice is the other side of love. If we love someone, we want justice for them. We don’t want them to be treated unfairly, we want them to be treated with love and understanding.” Echoing Davies, himself an Anglican, Howatch reminds us that “people so often think of judgment as something severe, but a great judge will weigh up the good points as well as the bad; a great judge will see that real justice is done.”

And so the sheepdog trials. As she tells the story, a man and his little son on vacation in the Lake District see a sign directing them to sheepdog trials. You know, an open-air exhibition of the skills the dogs need to herd sheep, and the best dog receives a medal. The little boy wants to see them, so the father takes him. When it’s all over, the little boy is confused: Where’s the jury, where’s the prosecutor? Shouldn’t the judge have a big bench?

Of course, it’s not that kind of trial. Not at all.

Howatch suggests that God is like the judge of the sheepdog trials, not like an old school hanging judge. And, she concludes that judgment is the process of being loved and healed by our maker after the tempests and traumas of life, “because nothing in the end can separate us from the love God, nothing, of that I’m quite sure.”

Before we accuse her of sentimentality, let’s remember that her last line is a paraphrase of St. Paul, in Romans chapter 8, where he avows that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Let’s also remember that Peter believed that, God doesn’t give up on us on either side of the grave.

And finally, let’s remember that Jesus himself tells us that you are precious enough to God, we are precious enough to God, that God will be your Advocate, our Advocate, as well as our judge.

In our own court, and in God’s we are not undefended. In fact, the judge is the defense counsel, the Prisoner’s Friend—the authority on precedents, and germane judgments, who keeps both sides in check, and strives for both justice and mercy. The judge who remembers that justice is the other side of love. And who loves us far too much to give up on us.

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Game of Drones: The Snows of Terror, Sentence of Death, The Keys of Marinus



Oh, as usual, dear. The Snows of Terror has the makings of a passable story, and even intermittently works. Very intermittently. It's set in a winterscape very like the North in Game of Thrones, albeit with enough of a budget to buy a cup of Bovril, and the primary antagonist, a trapper who seeks to rob and kill Ian and Altos, and rob and rape the women, presents a threat made all the more credible by its mundanity. (Of course, the sexual politics are reprehensible, but then, that happens more often than we'd like to admit on Game of Thrones, come to that). Admittedly not ideal children's fare, but, hey, nobody is slowly dying of radiation sickness, so we have that going for us.

The problems are pretty simple: First, Ian and Barbara each grab the Idiot Ball and give it a good, long, loving squeeze in this one. Then they do it again. Then again. And then we get a reprise of the most dull portion of The Daleks--a scene where Terry Nation tries to build suspense by making us watch a group of characters, one at a time, cross a chasm.

Welcome to--The Snows of Terror!

OK, the plot, such as it is, goes like this: A trapper named Vasar, who clearly did not attend the educational institution named for him, rescues Barbara and Ian from teh cold, feeds them, and then, while salaciously eyeing Barbara the whole time, gets Ian to leave her with him while Ian goes searching for Altos. Ian sells this travel dial for some furs, and leaves. Barbara, clearing the table, finds the segments of the keys that have been found (wasn't this Sabetha's chain?) and three travel dials. Does she close the door, and try to make a plan? No; she asks Vasar about the chain, and how he got it.

Vasar decides to attack Barbara there and then. It's clearly uncomfortable for both actors, and Vasar seems almost relived when Ian and Altos (he found him, and discovered that Vasar has secreted away Sabetha and Susan) overpower him, after Barbara unbolts the door. They leave--no, really--the keys, the travel dials and Sabetha's chain in the drawer of the table, compelling Vasar to lead them to the cave where he secreted Susan and Sabetha.

Who are now freezing to death, so they go deeper into the cave, Crossing a fragile rope bridge, where they find the key, albeit inaccessibly frozen a massive block of ice, with some frozen knights, and turn back to find their friends have found them. Barbara and Altos cross the rope bridge; Ian grabs the Idiot Ball, and does so too, leaving Vasar behind--oh, he cuts the end of the rope bridge and buggers off home.

I'm sure that was meant to be a shock, but I actually went, "well, ja," and then tested ny recollection of German swear words. (Mem to self: Brush up.)

OK, they go in to the chamber and find a way to melt the ice, while Ian and Altos build a bridge. It needs to freeze into place. As soon as the ice melts, they grab the key--and the knights awake and give chase. Susan crosses the bridge, and the others follow her lead (yay Susan!). The TARDIS party cross one by one, and leave the cave, after Ian cuts the ropes. They go to Vasar's home, break in (Vasar makes a play for the Idiot Ball, by not bolting the door, the schmuck). The knights start cutting their way in, Vasar gets stabbed, we're off to the next destination, and--

Ian is knocked unconscious. Frankly, on this episodes showing, it suits him.

***

Sentence of Death is a lot better--a taut little kafkaesque legal thriller, where Ian is charged with the murder of the man who was trying to steal the missing key--in league with the Doctor. The burden of proof is squarely reversed, with Ian required to prove his innocence beyond a reasonable doubt. He decries the laws that so reverse the burden of proof, and the missing Doctor at last turns up.

The Doctor is far better in this episode than we have seen him. He's outraged at the injustice of Ian's pre-conviction, wily wrangles an adjournment, and Cooley sends each of the characters about their task: Sabetha and Altos to do legal research, Susan and Barbara to accompany him to the scene of the crime, and Ian--Ian must trust him.

The "reconstruction of the crime" scene is really well done, the Doctor earning his imperiousness by his mind's racing with ideas. He works out the identity of the killer swiftly, and sends Barbara and Susan to try to elicit some details. Thanks to a bold challenge by Susan, it works, and the Doctor uses Sabetha to startle the killer into revealing himself at the trial. (Hartnell is absolutely on fire in these courtroom scenes--much fewer line fluffs, much more crisp delivery. With the right material, he is nailing the part.) When he is killed in turn by his confederates, the tribunal resumes--

--and the plot goes belly up. Rather than have the Doctor pursue his almost successful line of defense, Susan is kidnapped, Ian is hastily threatened with death, even though the prosecution case is a shambles.

Oh, Terry. So bloody close to a classic.

***

The Keys of Marinus

Another excellent actor in a guest role (he was in the previous episode as well; Donald Pickering, who was such a superb Dolly Lomgestaffe in The Pallisers, and suffered through Sylvester McCoy's first story as the Doctor, Time and the Rani, plays the prosecutor, graciously complimenting the Doctor, who is downcast. The TARDIS crew and Altos and Sabetha come close to finding Susan, but miss the clue, and leave. And then Barbara realizes that one "innocent" knew more than was possible, and Barbara leads a rescue of Susan. The Doctor sets a trap for the remaining conspirator:
TARRON: Kala's made a full statement. She's named her accomplice.
DOCTOR: Ah. Then you can stay the execution.
TARRON: No, I can't. Kala's sworn testimony states that the man she was working with was Ian Chesterton.
DOCTOR: Impossible!
BARBARA: But she's lying.
TARRON: Yes, I have doubts myself. She's a vicious, dangerous woman, but just doubts aren't enough to ask for a stay of execution. They'd need positive proof.
SUSAN: What about that man who called on the phone thing? I heard him tell her to kill me.
TARRON: Did you recognise the voice?
SUSAN: No.
DOCTOR: What else did he say?
SUSAN: Oh, nothing much. Just that he'd collect the key later and then pick her up.
DOCTOR: Collect the key. Ah, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! Yes, yes. You understand? The villain that planned all this, the one who planned this whole affair, is now planning to collect the key! What a wonderful opportunity it gives us to catch him red-handed. And to release Chesterton!
(later, the room is dark as a figure enters and unlocks the cupboard. It removes the mace and is immediately pounced on by two Guardians who were hiding behind the desk. The Doctor turns on the lights and removes his hood)
DOCTOR: You!
TARRON: Call the prison.
(Later, Eyesen has been taken away and Ian released. The Doctor opens the mace to reveal)
SUSAN: The key!
IAN: How did you know it was there, Doctor?
DOCTOR: It had to be. I knew it all along. Until we knew the culprit, the information was no good.
TARRON: Everyone and everything that went in and out of that vault was checked. Everything except this mace.
So they all head back to Arbitan.

Who's dead of course. (Do try to keep up, as Missy might add.). The Voord, in their bat-gimp suits, with Teletubbie head ornaments are in control. And daft enough to think that a black latex bat/gimp suit with a hood ornament can pass for George Coulouris. It doesn't, and Ian slips the Bat-Arbitan a fake key:
(The Doctor is untying Sabetha and Altos)
DOCTOR: So when Yartek gets the final key, his power will be absolute.
ALTOS: Yes, with the aid of the machine he could control us all.
DOCTOR: And our impulse to leave this planet would be destroyed.
SABETHA: That is true.
SUSAN: Altos, Sabetha.
(happy greetings all round)
DOCTOR: You heard about Arbitan?
IAN: Yes. We met the man who's usurped his place.
DOCTOR: Give me the key. We must have it destroyed.
SUSAN: Ian gave it to him.
DOCTOR: What! You gave it away?
IAN: I gave him a key. Sabetha, you remember that fake key? Barbara found it on the idol.
BARBARA: I remember.
IAN: That was the key I gave him. This is the genuine key.
DOCTOR: My dear boy!
SABETHA: We must go quickly. Leave the building.
IAN: Why?
ALTOS: Yartek may put that false key into the machine at any moment. If he does, it will set the machine in motion, but once it feels the full force of the power, it'll break under the strain.
IAN: You mean the machine'll blow up?
ALTOS: Yes.
DOCTOR: There's not a moment to loose. Come on!

The machine, which would have preserved peace on Marinus by inhibiting violent emotion explodes, taking the Voord with it. As he leaves, the Doctor comforts and counsels Sabetha:
DOCTOR: I'm glad to have this moment alone with you, Sabetha. I want to speak of your father. You know, he was a very wise and brilliant man, and I know how you felt when you learned of his death.
SABETHA: His life's work destroyed.
DOCTOR: No, no, I wouldn't say that. His work will go on, only not quite in the same way. But I don't believe that man was made to be controlled by machines. Machines can make laws, but they cannot preserve justice. Only human beings can do that. Now I only hope that you'll carry on his good work, please. Goodbye. Bless you, my child.
(The Doctor enters the Tardis)
I've said several times that Doctor Who was a different show when it first aired than the one we watch now. That show, which has run ever since had its pilot in Marco Polo. Its leading man, who was a character actor, has found the part, and the Doctor as you know him today, and as I know him, has taken the stage.

The TARDIS and her pilot know who they are. The adventure is begun.

Monday, May 15, 2017

"Put the Candle Back": The Acid Sea, the Velvet Web, The Screaming Jungle



I'm not going to lie; the first episode of the story collectively known as The Keys of Marinus damn near led me to skip the whole thing. The first scene, with the TARDIS party exploring a glass beach bordering on an acid sea (Susan nearly loses her feet by going paddling in it), augured well, but then as the travelers explore a huge edifice, the exact same revolving wall stunt as famously depicted in Young Frankenstein above is used no fewer than 4 times, and is meant to be thrilling and suspenseful each time it's employed.

Strange men in bat-themed rubber suits stalk the TARDIS party, and--

Oh, it was dreary beyond words.

Then, we are given an exposition dump by a tragically wasted George Coulouris as Arbitan (who is then subsequently tragically wasted, getting knifed by a bat-suit). In the exposition dump, we are told:
DOCTOR: Yes, yes. I want to know more about this planet. Your technology, you say, reached its peak over two thousand years ago?
ARBITAN: Yes, and all our knowledge culminated in the manufacture of this. At the time, it was called the Conscience of Marinus. Marinus, that is the name of our planet. At first, this machine was simply a judge and jury that was never wrong, and unfair. And then we added to it, improved on it, made it more and more sophisticated so that finally it became possible to radiate its power and influence the minds of men throughout the planet. They no longer had to decide what was wrong or right. The machine decided for them.
DOCTOR: I see. And in that case it was possible to eliminate evil from the minds of men for all time.
ARBITAN: That is exactly what happened. Marinus was unique in the universe. Robbery, fear, hate, violence were unknown among us. Yes, yes, for seven centuries we prospered, and then a man named Yartek found a means of overcoming the power of the machine. He and his followers, the Voords, were able to rob, exploit, kill, cheat. Our people could not resist because violence is alien to them.
(A Voord is eavesdropping on all this)
IAN: But surely by this time this machine had become a great danger to you? If it had fallen into the hands of the Voords, they could have controlled Marinus. Why didn't you destroy it?
ARBITAN: We always hoped to find a way of modifying it and making it again irresistible. So instead of destroying it, we removed the five key microcircuits.
IAN: What did you do with them?
ARBITAN: One of them, I kept. There it is. (points up) The other four were taken and put in places of safety all over Marinus. Only I know where they are, and now the time has come when they must be recovered.
BARBARA: Well why don't you simply make new keys?
ARBITAN: The keys are very simple, but the microcircuits inside are very complicated. A permutation of numbers and signals that would take a thousand years to unravel. And besides, since the keys were hidden, I have worked on this machine and modified it, so that when they're replaced
DOCTOR: When they're replaced it would mean that your machine is irresistible and you can overcome and control the Voords again.
ARBITAN: Yes.
IAN: Surely there must be someone you can send for these keys?
ARBITAN: Through the years all my friends, all my followers, have gone. They have never returned. Last year I sent my daughter. She has not come back. All I have now to comfort me is the distant echo of her voice, the imagined sound of her footsteps. But now your coming's brought new hope. Oh yes, yes, you must find the keys for me.
Yeah, good luck. The travelers return to the TARDIS, only to find they can't get in--an invisible field prevents their entry. After an improv exercise straight out of Mummenshanz (Susan's field is further out from the TARDIS than everyone else's; Hartnell prods his with his walking stick, with weary air of resigned disgust that almost saves the scene), Arbitan's voice is heard saying he'll let them in if they bring him the keys, and he's really quite sorry, but--no, he's not either. They accept the watch-like travel devices that let them jump from place to place (but not time to time, so not vortex manipulators), and the assignment.

So the reluctant travelers set out--and then Arbitan is killed, as hinted above, by a diver in a bat-themed gimp suit, who stabs with all the earnestness of Bobby Jindal.

We move on.

***

Things take an immediate turn for the better; Barbara, having preceded her companions, greets them from a Roman-style couch, garbed in Roman-style robes, queening it up, with serving women attending her every whim. Jacqueline Hill plays it to the hilt--Barbara is relaxed for the first time since Coal Hill, and grateful to have, as she thinks, fallen into the hands of a culture that desires only to please its guests. So, at any rate, she has been told by Altos, a young man, and Sabetha, who is the chief of the serving women. Susan wants a dress made from some of the fine bolt of silk Barbara has been given, and the Doctor wants a laboratory. Ian alone is skeptical, wondering when the bill will be presented.

In the morning, Barbara is horrified--all the beautiful objets d'art with which she has been surrounded are revealed as cheap, dirty stuff, her dress a simple shift, and the fine crystal dirty mugs. The other travelers look at her as if she's gone mad. Barbara flees, and evades Altos, who seeks to take her to the physician.

If, by the physician, you mean the lead of four brains, with tapered stalks supporting their eyes, that reside in bell jars and have enslaved the populace through hypnosis. (The effect is rather delicate, and not bad at all.) The brain declares that Ian and the Doctor will work for them, Susan will be trained as well, and Barbara--well. she knows the truth so hypnosis won't work on her anymore. Just kill her. And Sabetha, too, who didn't put Barbara under properly.

The rest of the episode is the Barbara Wright Show, as she circumvents Altos, rouses some vestige of independence in Sabetha, and is strangled by Ian, now fully under control. This last is disturbingly well done; William Russell goes after her pretty hard, and Hill fights back just as hard. She wins, and attacks the bell jar with a tool. This goes a little less well, as some of her blows are obviously ineffective. Still, Barbara operates on an old maxim of Harry Flashman's--keep striking until something breaks. She kills the brains, the peasants revolt (quite loudly), and Altos and Sabetha--agents of Arbitan (indeed, Sabetha is his daughter) join with the TARDIS crew going to the next of the four destinations. Except for the Doctor--he's off to the final destination...

Jacqueline Hill is the star of the episode, and carries it well. She even does the action hero stuff usually left to Ian, who is marginalized and then weaponized against her. Hartnell's Doctor is easily seduced by the lure of the perfect laboratory, and believes a battered old mug will help him fit the TARDIS. Hartnell sells the Doctor's greed for knowledge here, but, near the end of the episode, his cool decision-making. He's crisp throughout this one. Carole Ann Ford is quite good too, and William Russell sells both Ian's threat to Barbara and and his horror when he comes to.

***

The Screaming Jungle, though, dips back into mediocrity for most of its duration. Terry Nation has good ideas, but pads them out like he's writing for Dark Shadows. Oh, well. Susan arrives first, and is deafened by, you guessed it, the screaming of the plants. By the time the others join her, they've stopped, but Susan is in full scream mode. (A scream-off between Carole Ann Ford, Bonnie Langford, and Walter Koenig (yes, I mean it) would be a damned close-run thing.) Barbara finds the key (yay!) but disappears (boo!), and then Sabetha realizes it's a fake key (oh, crap.). So everyone else goes off to meet Barbara (in case she's used her travel device), except Ian. Who finds her, fights some plants, including one that looks a bit like Audrey. Barbra finds the key, based on an inspiration of Ian's, they teleport away, and--

Are freezing to death on a windswept mountain.

Bloody Terry Nation.

Here we go...

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Send in the Clowns: Rider From Shan Tu, Mighty Kublai Khan, Assassin at Peking



The above "making of" video regarding the filming of the seven episodes normally referred to under the title "Marco Polo" may be of interest to you; it was to me.

The travelers journey through the arid wastes of vast, empty, spaces--or as I like to think of them, Episodes 3, 4 and 5. That's a tad unjust on Episode 5. After a messenger brings the Khan's command to Polo that he must come at full speed to the Summer Palace, the caravan separates into two groups in order to try to avoid bandits (unsuccessfully, since Tegana was part of the planning party). The "bandit attack" staged by Tegana to seize the TARDIS is pretty good, with Ian and even the Doctor acquitting themselves pretty well in the swordplay (I think--the telesnaps aren't as helpful here as video would be).
Tegana, by the way, stabs his flunky to maintain his ambassadorial credibility. But then the dreary slog resumes (livened with some appealing maps).

But when they arrive at the Summer Palace, we get a whole new genre--Doctor Who comedy. Kublai Khan is a henpecked old man with gout. The Doctor, worn out from a breakneck faced march (ok, horseback journey), is himself hobbling around like a Crimean War veteran. The two old men bond over their ailments, and there's a quicksilver magic in the air that's been missing for too long. Hartnell is quite good at comedy; you can tell even without the video, his voice conveys his irritation, and then, subsequently, his smugness as he realizes he's winning much of Kublai Khan's money (and stallions. About 400 of them):
DOCTOR: My game.
KHAN: You're too good for us at backgammon. Tea?
DOCTOR: Please.
KHAN: Oh, that is our reckoning?
DOCTOR: Ah, yes it is, sire, yes.
KHAN: What do we owe?
DOCTOR: Er, thirty-five elephants with ceremonial bridles, trappings, brocades and pavilions. Four thousand white stallions, and twenty-five tigers.
KHAN: That's not too bad, so far.
DOCTOR: And the sacred tooth of Buddha which Polo brought over from India.
KHAN: Oh, that? What else? What more?
DOCTOR: I'm very much afraid all the commerce from Burma for one year, sire.
When the Empress leaves, the Khan discusses his grandfather Genghis,in such a way as to suggest that he doesn't share the Doctor's enthusiasm for her:
A trumpet sounds)
KHAN: Oh, the Empress. Hide it, hide it!
EMPRESS: Winning, my love?
KHAN: One wins, one loses, my dear.
DOCTOR: The great Khan is far too modest, my lady.
EMPRESS: You're not wagering are you? You know how it affects your gout.
(The Empress leaves)
DOCTOR: How charming.
KHAN: Charming indeed, and yet there are moments, old friend, when we wish our character were more like that of our lamented grandfather, Genghis. Did you hear of him?
DOCTOR: Genghis Khan? No, I didn't meet him, but I have heard of him. Yes.
KHAN: Oh, he was the warrior of the family. Nothing frightened him. We are the clan of the statistician and the administrator. Oh, she will be furious with me when she finds out what I have lost.
DOCTOR: Oh, then you've lost nothing, sire.
It's pretty much the Timelord and the warlord as The Sunshine Boys. Except they like each other.

Kublai Khan is pretty laid back about his losses, but accepts the Doctor's "royal gesture" (as the Khan calls it) to play one last game--all that the Doctor as once thus far against the TARDIS.

The Doctor loses, and walks away with a bill of the Khan's paper money as a "consolation prize." He doesn't seem too perturbed though, possibly contemplating a return engagement. Ping-Cho's husband-to-be, an old man she dreaded marrying, dies, and she elects to stay at court for a while (possibly fancying the gallant young rider who brought the Khan's command to Polo). Noghai, Tegana's lord, has encamped outside Peking, and the Doctor realizes that Tegana's plan is to kill Kublai Khan, disheartening his forces, and allowing Noghai to seize the Khan's domains.

The travelers break free, inform Polo, who bursts into the throne room--just in time to duel Tegana while the Khan--great administrator though he is--scuttles for safety. Marco is victorious, the Khan sets him free to go back to Venice--and the Doctor and friends slip into the TARDIS. We get one last joke from the Khan:
POLO: I'm sorry, my lord. I had to give them back their flying caravan.
KHAN: If you hadn't, the old man would have won it at backgammon.
All is forgiven, and the TARDIS is in flight again.

***

For all the longeuers in this story, this is where the show we know is fully present. (And, in fact, the longeuers persist pretty much throughout classic Doctor Who. For every The Dæmons, we get one The Ambassadors of Death--and even The Dæmons has some padding in it, if I'm being candid.) The Doctor is eccentric, sometimes charming, sometimes cantankerous; he's surprisingly competent when he needs to be. Ian is stalwart, the prototype for Harry Sullivan, except much more sensible. Speaking of sensible, Barbara is largely wasted here, but she stands bravely up to Polo on behalf of Ping-Cho, and seems to be captivated by the sights and sounds of an era and place that fascinates her. She's adjusted, enjoying where she can, and fighting where she must. Susan's friendship with Ping-Cho is nicely realized.

As to the guest cast, Derren Nesbitt plays Tegana with a sort of offhand confidence that makes him more intriguing than any scene chewing villain. He's a loyal vassal to Noghai, so deception, murder, theft--whatever. He's got a job to do. Mark Eden is a sympathetic, occasionally histrionic Marco Polo. As the story is framed by his narration, we have intervals of Marco being the viewpoint character, an interesting experiment.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Marco Polo If You Can: The Roof of the World/The Singing Sands/500 Eyes/The Wall of Lies



BritBox's excellent collection of the Hartnell era runs into a snag--the story collectively known as Marco Polo no longer exists. So, yeah, as they euphemistically put it, "unavailable," and who can blame them?

Fortunately, as the rather good reconstruction embedded above demonstrates, that doesn't leave us entirely without expedients. Reconstructions take one of two forms--new animated efforts to overlay the still-extant soundtrack (preserved by fans taping the shows as they aired!)or using the "tele snaps" that were taken during filming to create a sort of montage that captures something of the feel of the original.

It's an aesthetic choice, but I prefer the photographs. Seeing Ford, Hartnell, Hill, Russell, and the guest cast is meaningful to me in a way that a cartoon of them would not be. So--we continue:


*****

There's an absolutely lovely moment in "The Roof of the World" that is the most "Doctorish" I have seen Hartnell to date. The situation is dire: after the brief moment of happy camaraderie that ended The Brink of Destruction, things go agley--another TARDIS component is broken, depriving the travelers of heat, the mountain is so high that it lacks air enough for the Doctor to function, and night is closing in.

Rescue has come in the form of Marco Polo and his caravan, on his way to Kublai Khan, along with the warlord regina, who, in defeat, is come to make peace. Reluctantly, and still looking for a way to reverse his defeat.

Anyway, Marco, who wants to go back to Europe, decides to give the Doctor's "flying caravan" to the Khan, to barter for his freedom. The Doctor sputters in outrage and betrayal at his erstwhile rescuer:
POLO: I intend to. This time, I shall offer him a gift so magnificent that he will not be able to refuse me.
IAN: You mean to give the Doctor's caravan to him?
POLO: Yes.
DOCTOR: You're mad.
POLO: You can make another.
DOCTOR: What? In Peking, or Shang Tu?
POLO: You do me an injustice, Doctor. I will not leave you stranded in Cathay, just as I did not let you die on the mountain. No, you will come with me to Venice and make another one there.
DOCTOR: Oh, you think so, really? Oh no. Oh no.
IAN: Marco, it's impossible.
POLO: Surely, for a man who possesses a flying caravan, all things are possible?
IAN: No. We need special metals, materials, things that don't exist in Venice. I'm afraid you don't understand all the problems involved.
DOCTOR: And neither do you, young man.
POLO: Well, travel home by ship. We trade with every port in the world. It may take you longer, but you'll get there eventually.
DOCTOR: Eventually. He doesn't know what he's talking about. The man's a lunatic. Ho.
POLO: No, Doctor, desperate. There are many men who are jealous of the Polo influence at court, and the Khan suffers from an affliction for which there is no cure.
BARBARA: What's that?
POLO: Old age. If he dies, I may never see Venice again.
DOCTOR: Well, that is your problem, not mine.
POLO: I have just made it yours, Doctor.
BARBARA: But you do see Venice again, Marco, I know you do.
IAN: What makes you so sure that the Doctor's caravan is a suitable present? The Doctor is the only one who can fly it.
POLO: I told you about the Buddhist monks. They will discover its secret. A caravan that flies. Do you imagine what this will mean to the Khan? It will make him the most powerful ruler the world has ever known. Stronger than Hannibal. Mightier than Alexander the Great.
IAN: Marco, you don't understand.
POLO: I refuse to listen you to any more. My mind is made up. Your caravan goes with me to Kublai Khan.
Marco sweeps away, and Barbara helps him to a chair.

And then--the Doctor laughs. Not hysterically, but just at the ridiculousness of it all--how can he explain to Marco Polo why "returning" to Europe won't allow him to build a new TARDIS? The multiple leaps of cognition the explanation would take--he guffaws, he wheezes with laughter. He's frustrated beyond bearing, but can't help but see the funny side of it all. And Hartnell nails it. It's the best long sustained laugh this side of Leo McKern in "Fall Out":
DOCTOR: Oh well, what a mess.
SUSAN: Grandfather. Grandfather.
DOCTOR: Yes. Go by sea, he says.
SUSAN: Why are you laughing? He means it.
BARBARA: Doctor, he's serious.
DOCTOR: I know he is. Yes.
SUSAN: What are you going to do?
DOCTOR: [overcome with laughter] I haven't the faintest idea.
It's a moment Tom Baker could have brought off, and maybe Matt Smith, but it's all Hartnell.

The rest of these three episodes feels rather like a Tom Baker era story, albeit of the slightly "meh" variety. Susan makes a friend, Ping-Cho, who is being brought to the Khan's court to marry a 75 year old man (hmm...that's the Khan's age...) Tegana plans to kill Polo and seize the TARDIS, and Susan and Ping-Cho get caught in a sandstorm. But they're ok. Except Tegana has cut the water gourds, and we're in the middle of the Gobi Desert too--and the Doctor has fixed the TARDIS, but they-

Oh, forget it it. Look, it's simple: Tegana is out to kill Kublai Khan, and thinks he can use the TARDIS together. Like a 13th Century Wile E. Coyote, he keeps setting traps for (1) The TARDIS crew; (2) Marco Polo; or (3) both. So far, none of them has erupted.

Yeah, it's a traditional runaround, my least favorite aspect of Doctor Who.

One nice moment again--the Doctor dresses down Marco, deriding him as "You poor, pathetic, stupid savage." His laugh now is cutting and scornful. There's a lot of fat in these episodes, but there's good stuff too.

Monday, May 8, 2017

"As We Learn About Each Other, We Learn About Ourselves": The Edge of Destruction/The Brink of Disaster



Susan with Scissors, no reason to run,
moots demon possession might have begun.
She slashes at Ian, at Barbara she'll thrust,
and yet it's the teachers the Doctor can't trust.

Susan with Scissors, can't bear to draw blood,
hieratically hiding, grasping for good.
Grandfather's goading sends Barbara to bed,
the Doctor examines--does he hope that they're dead?


Yeah, a children's show. I think I understand the English character better just from watching these 13 episodes already. So after visiting the State of Nature, then nearly dying of radiation sickness, and discovering the joys of fighting the good fight, the Doctor and his companions are knocked about, and wake up in the dimly lit ship. Barbara staggers out, blank-faced, confuses, and greets the unconscious Ian as "Mr. Chesterton." Only when she finds the Doctor on the floor, and starts tending to his injuries does Barbara begin to wake up. Ian awakes, I suppose you could call it, but acts like he's been lobotomized. Susan drifts in, and starts screaming in pain. Until she doesn't. No, she's off again.

Then Ian goes looking for water (Susan had left on the same errand, but she's been paying with a very long, very sharp, pair of scissors. When Ian manages to get a pouch of water, he brings it to Susan--

Who is posed, hip jutted out, hair wild, face set and lacking in all feeling, like a hieratic Egyptian statue. Carole Ann Ford, who has been successfully playing Susan as a teenager, was in fact 24 when The Edge of Destruction aired, and you see it here. She's not credibly a child, or even in her early teens. The suddenly adult Susan is disorienting, as is the whole episode.

Because Susan slashes at Ian, and then, in a frenzy, stabs her own bed, again and again.

Things only get weirder from here.

The TARDIS is acting oddly; the doors keep opening and closing, the controls don't work. The crew turn on the scanner, only to see a series of pictures--which they realize are photos--on the scanner. So the Doctor try to determine what has gone wrong. They find nothing is wrong with the TARDIS, but the doors keep opening and closing, and Ian warns Barbara not to let Susan know what's going on. As Susan is listening the entire time, this leads her to be suspicious of Barbara. Draped in black, the Unearthly Woman pulls the scissors on Barbara threateningly. Barbara manages to disarm her, and they go to the console room. The Doctor has a theory:
DOCTOR: Trying to confuse me, eh?
IAN: What are you getting at?
BARBARA: Look, why don't we just try and open the doors and see for ourselves what's outside?
DOCTOR: What is inside, madam, is most important at the moment.
(they are now lined up across the console - Doctor and Susan versus Barbara and Ian)
BARBARA: Inside?
IAN: But you've just been telling us that the only people inside are ourselves.
DOCTOR: Precisely. I know now who's responsible. You are. You sabotaged my ship.
BARBARA: We didn't even touch your ship.
IAN: (overlapping) What are you talking about?
DOCTOR: You're the cause of this disaster. And you knocked both Susan and I unconscious.
BARBARA: Don't be ridiculous. We were all knocked out.
DOCTOR: A charade. You attacked us.
IAN: Absolute nonsense.
DOCTOR: And when we were lying helpless on the floor, you tampered with my controls.
IAN: But you checked everything yourself and you couldn't find anything wrong with it.
DOCTOR: No, sir. We checked everything. You and I.
BARBARA: But why would we? For what reason?
DOCTOR: Blackmail, that's why. You tried to force me to return you to England.
This is, for Miss Wright, the last straw. She gives the Doctor a full-tilt boogie the Reason You Suck speech:
BARBARA: How dare you! Do you realise, you stupid old man, that you'd have died in the Cave of Skulls if Ian hadn't made fire for you?
DOCTOR: Oh, I
BARBARA: And what about what we went through against the Daleks? Not just for us, but for you and Susan too. And all because you tricked us into going down to the city.
DOCTOR: But I, I
BARBARA: Accuse us? You ought to go down on your hands and knees and thank us. But gratitude's the last thing you'll ever have, or any sort of common sense either.
It's been a long time coming. And, as Jacqueline Hill delivers it, it drips with long-stored up venom.

[Weirdness ensure; the Doctor tries to break the tension: Drinks all round!]

After everyone is in bed, the Doctor checks Barbara and Ian to see if they are awake; they aren't. he goes silently to the console, feels someone s there, turns around, only to have a pair of hands encircle his throat and....

TWANG OUT

[No, not really. Still, roll credits!]

The Doctor knocks Ian (dazed as he is) down, more recriminations result, the Doctor decides to expel them from the ship. Barbara persuades Susan she and Ian are innocent, the TARDIS freaks out, and Barbara puts all together: the TARDIS is trying to communicate with them, there's a fault that will doom the ship.

The Doctor realizes his error, and they try to think what the ship is trying to tell them. The Doctor realizes the source of their danger:



They fault is the "Fast return" switch, which is stuck. They fix the switch, all is well.

Yeah, I know. Pretty underwhelming.

But there's more--The Doctor is nervous about his abuse and threats; Ian lets him off the hook. Fade to black.

If the episode had ended here, it would have been a surreal epic fail. But no, we see the Doctor try to make peace with Barbara:
DOCTOR: I'd like to talk to you, if I may. We've landed on a planet and the air is good, but it's rather cold outside.
BARBARA: Susan told me.
DOCTOR: Yes, you haven't forgiven me, have you.
BARBARA: You said terrible things to us.
DOCTOR: Yes, I suppose it's the injustice that's upsetting you, and when I made a threat to put you off the ship it must have affected you very deeply.
BARBARA: What do you care what I think or feel?
DOCTOR: As we learn about each other, so we learn about ourselves.
BARBARA: Perhaps.
DOCTOR: Oh, yes. Because I accused you unjustly, you were determined to prove me wrong. So, you put your mind to the problem and, luckily, you solved it.
SUSAN: Grandfather, we're going out now.
DOCTOR: Oh, please, yes. Do open the doors, will you?
SUSAN: Are you coming?
BARBARA: Yes.
SUSAN: Good.
DOCTOR: Oh, by the way, Susan has left you some wearing apparel for outside. You know, we have a very extensive wardrobe here.
BARBARA: Yes, she gave me these.
DOCTOR: Yes, I think they're rather charming. We must look after you, you know. You're very valuable. Yes.
(He helps her on with the coat, and offers his arm)
DOCTOR: Shall we go?
And now the pieces click into place. The Doctor has found what he was missing--friendship with his companions. He has learned to respect them, and to value them.

He has learned that, contrary to his own understanding of the TARDIS--"my ship can't think!" he declaims earlier--that it can.

****

The next episode is, in a way, the pilot episode of the show we watch today. Doctor Who long ago ceased to be what this first spate of episodes was--a story about an irascible man, his peculiar granddaughter, and the two stowaways who he kidnapped into danger. That show was more bleak than Doctor Who has ever been since, because the darkness came from the protagonist, and not from the dangers he faced.

The Doctor has learned to fight for a cause when he must. He has learned to value more than his own convenience, even his own safety. Finally, he has learned how to be a friend. And to want friends.

We're off and running.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

A Quick Check In



For readers, regular, and, er, occasional. Yes, let's go with that. Occasional.

I admit it, this blog has been a bit moribund of late. Between new professional opportunities and challenges, and a desire to increase my distance from some old themes, that now feel a bit outworn, I felt I had increasingly little to say that you might enjoy.

And then the idea of an extended project on the blog came to me--Anglocat in the TARDIS, the new tag and project. The plan: Blog the earliest episodes of Doctor Who, the ones I never got to see, and see how long I can lope after the old show.

I'm doing my best to find serenity and recreation here. Oh, the sermons will keep coming, and maybe some theology, and the occasional frolic and detour. But I want to write for pleasure, which means returning to Taffy Was A Welshman and, for pleasure and relaxation--this.

Hop on board; we're going to prowl through all of time and space!

"My Truth is in the Stars": The Ambush\The Expedition\The Ordeal\The Rescue

Dalek: What we need for life means death for the Thals.
The Doctor: You could live in the city, and the others could. But why do you have to destroy? Can't you use your brains for right?
Dalek: Only one race can survive!
The Doctor: What are you planning?
Dalek: We wish to escape captivity; go out and rebuild the planet Skaro. Our oxygen distributors will be subjected to waste radiation by the ejector capsule.
The Doctor: Nothing can live outside if you do that, nothing!
Dalek: Except the Daleks!
The Doctor: When do you intend to put this into operation?
Dalek: Now.
The Doctor: [fuming] This senseless, evil killing...!


A funny thing happens on the back nine of this story--everybody grows.

The Daleks go from being cold, unpleasant beings who will do anything to secure their safety, to almost the stuff of legend. Indeed, this story began Dalekmania, and one can see why. The Daleks in these episodes become almost the menace we know from modern Who. The change is gradual--at first, as I mentioned last time, "e don't know about them--clearly not friendly, but not necessarily evil--they could be paranoid survivors of a nuclear holocaust"; well, that changes over these four episodes. They begin by luring the Thals into a trap, subsequently declare that "The only interest we have in the Thals is their total extermination," and then they deny that irradiating the planet would be, as the Doctor calls it, "sheer murder," countering "No! Extermination!"

The Doctor pleads for sanity, "But you must listen to reason! Please, you must!" But the lead Dalek replies, "Without radiation, the Dalek race is ended. We need it as you and the Thals need air."

Right there, the balance still hangs for a moment; the Dalek cannot conceive of a solution for both, and so may be choosing what it deems to be the lesser of two evils--but no; the other Daleks join it, and in a semi-circle, we hear their metallic vibrato voices ring out together: "Tomorrow, we will be the masters of planet Skaro!"

The Daleks have, in episode 6, arrived at last.

Susan has recaptured her quickness--when Ian (in the Dalek casing) is about to be rumbled by a real Dalek, Susan screams, and does her little damsel-in-distress act, but this time she winks roguishly at her grandfather, and gets the two "Daleks" cooperating so that the real one forgets its suspicions of Ian. For the rest of the episodes, she's clever, vibrant, alive. Carole Ann Ford is great here--she rises to Susan's enhanced role.

Ian is Ian--compassionate, well-intentioned--but he also shows a manipulative side, goading the Thals to reject their absolute pacifism, and to defend themselves. Interestingly, he has qualms throughout the exercise, but he is quite formidable.

Barbara continues bravely, and finds herself drawn to one of the Thals (who is just as drawn to her). Jacqueline Hill does a remarkable job of portraying both Barbara's fighting her fear, and forcing herself to be brave, and her developing interest in Ganatus.

And the Doctor? This is the first time we have seen him morally outraged. Up until now, he's been self-seeking, running from the Tribe of Gum, from the Daleks, prepared to abandon Za (hell, prepared to up and kill Za, for that matter). He's been willing to abandon the Thals, Ian and Barbara, Susan, even--anything to save himself. (It's a little disturbing how Flashman-like the Doctor is in these first few outings.)

But that ends here. The thoughtless brutality of the advances Daleks has stirred something in the Doctor. He's not running away this time. He stands and fights. Not entirely successfully; after disarming the Daleks' surveillance cameras, he's so busy preening that he disregards Susan's warnings, and they are captured. But he has learned how to fight for something other than himself.

He's not quite the Doctor yet, though--when the Daleks are dying, and beg for help, he coldly replies "Even if I wanted to, I don't know how." It falls to Alydon, the Thal leader, to say what the Doctor will say so often in the future: there should have been another way.

****

It's odd to watch a 54-year old serial on its own terms. This seven-parter only drags a little, in the penultimate episode, with Ian's party rollicking about in the caves for what feels like an entire season. (It's 15 minutes, in fact). Even that is leavened by Jacqueline Hill's acting. When Barbara has to jump across a pit, and then swing herself to safety, Hill portrays scared-but-fighting-it better than I've ever seen it done. She makes the whole sequence credible.

The fifth episode is even better, with the TARDIS crew making the old can-we-spring-Ian-before-the-lift-carrying-the baddies-gets-here routine gripping. In the last episode, there's a certain amount of chaos, and what exactly causes the doom of the Daleks (Oi, Chibnall--I've copyrighted that one!) is a little unclear. But the crew's farewell to their Thal friends, especially Hartnell's wistful rejection of their request that they stay and join in building a new Skaro, is moving. "I was a pioneer once, among my own people," he says, happy for the first time we have seen him.

He's not quite yet the Doctor, as I said.

But he's almost there.

Monday, May 1, 2017

"If They Call us Mutations, What Must They Be Like?" (The Dead Planet, The Survivors, and The Escape)



Barbara Wright, in sensible shoes,
runs past radioactive refuse,
frightened, perhaps, but still polite,
Barbara keeps all her ethics in sight.

Barbara Wright, in a Mary Quant dress,
won't turn blind eye to the Doctor's mess.
She'll help her friends to unhouse a mutant,
But might tonight of tea be refusant.



Unlike the very nice crisp, clean version of The Daleks I'm watching on BritBox, the above clip is a bit fuzzy, and missing a piece; never mind, it gives you some of the basics. Here is the upshot:

1. The Doctor remains deceitful and selfish--he lies to Ian, Barbara, and Susan to create an excuse to visit the unknown, seemingly dead city, while Ian and Barbara want to flee the strange planet they have landed on. Rather than persuade, the Doctor falsely clams the "fluid link" is broken, and that it needs fresh mercury for the ship (as the TARDIS is mostly referred to here) to fly, and the Doctor leads his crew cross the jungle to the strange city....oh, well, at least he doesn't try to bash anyone's head in (yet).

2. He does, however, lead them into a radiation poisoned atmosphere, and each of our heroes begins to sicken. This ain't Teddy Ruxpin, kids!

3. Inside the city, strange, metallic creatures seize the TARDIS crew, and imprison them. As they sicken these strange metal creatures--called DALEKS, if you can imagine--send Susan out to retrieve some drugs from the other survivors of the Neutron War a half millennium before, what the Daleks conjecture to be a dreadfully mutated version of their old foes, the Thals. (Mostly, this holds up in continuity, but not entirely--no Kaleds who become "Daleks," just the Daleks and the Thals.).

4. Susan meets one of these Thals, and is awestruck at how "perfect" he is.

5. Susan returns (with the Thal's magic anti-radiation drugs (one set for the Daleks, the other to be smuggles to the Doctor, Ian and Barbara). The Daleks find both sets, but let the travelers have theirs anyway. Susan pens peaceful message to the Thals, and is returned to the others. Aware they have been bugged, and something is amiss, they deprive their warder-Dalek of power by cutting off its access to the floor from which it derived the static electricity that keeps it in motion, and they remove the mutant within the casing. Amusingly, the penny drops for the Doctor when Ian thinks of dodgems.



That Moffat--what a swot!

Like Clara in The Witch's Familiar, Ian hides within the Dalek, and Susan leads her "captor" out, while the dispossessed mutant writhes on the floor...

****

Good, right?

Rubbish, I've told you everything that happens but nothing of importance about the three episodes that make up the first half of the story arc normally called "The Daleks." Nothing.

The first episode continued the character-based drama of the preceding four episodes, An Unearthly Child and 100,000 BC. The Doctor can be said to thaw a little--a distraught Susan is more than he can handle, and he rather awkwardly, almost sweetly, asks Barbara to help by talking to her. When his deception is found out, he's like a naughty boy trying to brazen it out. Hartnell is quicksilver here--stern authority one moment, the next, Tom Sawyer, caught out. He's really quite good.

Ian's anger at the Doctor is more evident in these episodes than in the prior story. He blames the Doctor for leaving earth in 1963 hastily, as well as in 100,000 BC, preventing them from being able to choose a return point with any accuracy. Susan is vacillating between two registers--clever alien girl, and terrified child. Carole Anne Ford is trying, but the writers are tilting more toward Damsel in Distress (she screams like Bonnie Langford will, a generation later) than "character."

Barbara--she's beginning to be magic. She's afraid, and tired, but doesn't give up. Her courage and common sense run out at times, but mostly she finds her center. Jacqueline Hill is, thus far, the best actor on the program--she creates, sometimes with very little help from the script, a three dimensional character reacting is a credible way to incredible events. She is the emotional and moral core of Doctor Who, so far a sort of English Everywoman, who refuses to let standards down despite her terror. No wonder she inspired a little sub-Betjeman-style verse from me.

The Daleks themselves--in the second episode, "The Survivors," we don't know about them--clearly not friendly, but not necessarily evil--they could be paranoid survivors of a nuclear holocaust--and that's just how they're written. Their character as that against which the Doctor defines himself is not yet present--they are not yet the great nemesis they will become. They're less powerful, but, by episode 3, the base metal is showing through.

(The less said about the Thals the better).

But the world building of early Doctor Who is astonishing. The first episode is almost leisurely n pace, especially as the travelers discover the fragile beauty of a world murdered by its denizens. Carole Ann Ford is superb in these scenes, her wonder at the beauty of a perfectly preserved, brittle flower, more than any other moment, makes this ash-heap of a planet, destroyed by nuclear war, real--and tragically lovely.

Again, Doctor Who is being strikingly gutsy and dark here. The Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded in October 1962; these episodes aired a little over a year later.

Confronting children with the specter of Armageddon?

Why not, Verity Lambert seems to have reasoned--the politicians just have.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

"Fear Makes Companions of us All": Doctor Who--The Cave of Skulls/The Forest of Fear/The Firemaker

Barbara Wright: [to the Doctor] Why? You treat everybody and everything as something less important than yourself.

Dr. Who: You're trying to say that everything you do is reasonable and everything I do is inhuman. Well, I'm afraid your judgement's at fault, Miss Wright, not mine. Haven't you realized that if these two people can follow us, any of these people can follow us? The tribe might descend upon us at any moment.


I don't remember where I ran across it, but there's a fan theory that the Doctor and the Master are in fact the same entity, with the Doctor representing the later, more civilized regenerations of the Time Lord. (Admittedly, not all that far off from the planned end game for Delgado's portrayal of the Master). Well, the best canonical evidence for the theory is the storyline beginning with An Unearthly Child and continuing with these three episodes.

In all the episodes I've viewed so far, the Doctor is affable on the surface (as his default), but condescending, manipulative and selfish. He tricks a frightened Ian into grasping an electrified TARDIS console--in order to leave the Doctor and Susan alone, like the Doctor says he wants--threatens to abandon Susan, if she won't leave 20th Century earth, and, in these three episodes, manipulates the cavemen to get what he wants (OK, mostly to be left alone), tries to murder a injured caveman, and is generally snarking about in the background while Ian and Barbara (oh, and usually Susan) try to help. (Shades of the Master's perfect response to the Brigadier's demand on how to cope with being at ground zero of a forthcoming nuclear explosion: "You could take the usual precautions...sticky tape on the windows, that sort of thing").

No, the Doctor is, at this point, at best an antihero. Far from his "never cruel or cowardly" ethos, the Doctor has moments of both in this introductory serial. If there's a hero to be found, it's Ian, with Barbara playing the moral conscience of the group of travelers.

Ugh!

There's a reason why most discussions of "An Unearthly Child" spend most of their time on the superbly effective first episode. It's tight, economical, well acted, and pretty creepy at moments. Then we go back to the Age of the Low Budget Cave Dwellers. The choice of warfare between cavemen as an initial storyline was a peculiar one, in that it's hard to think of a way to frame a prehistoric story in really compelling way, particularly when it's being shot in a small studio with early 1960s resources.

And yet, even if you (like me) hate the whole caveman drama genre, it kinda works.

Kind of.

Partially because as children's TV goes, this story is pretty dark--the Cave of Skulls is just that--filled with skulls caved in by crude weaponry. The first world the Doctor's magic box visits is literally Hobbes's State of Nature, a time "where every man is enemy to every man," and life is "solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short."

The cave-people look duff, but the notion of a nascent society, just slowly beginning to contemplate more than bare survival, unable to understand mercy or compassion is an interesting concept, and the main guest actors successfully sell it. (Partially because the cast is really quite good, out of place though the actors are--to give one example, Eileen Way, who plays the thankless role of Old Woman (really) was a major theatrical performer. How'd they get her?) Also Waris Hussein and Douglas Camfield direct the hell out of this thing. No budget, no real props, no effects worth a damn--and something else they didn't have: anything to lose.

There's a reason Verity Lambert was a legend. Hussein and Camfield make almost all of it work, even 54 years later. (Except the "climactic" fight between Kal and Za. Yeah, not so much.)

The story postulates that having reached self-consciousness, the human race has not yet found a way to understand feeling, or affection--they're too busy trying to not get killed, and self-awareness seems to have inhibited them. So it's genuinely interesting that the nicest of the people the TARDIS party meet, Za and Hurr, are completely thrown when the TARDIS crew save Za's life when he's injured in pursuing them (so they can teach him how to make fire and win leadership of his tribe against his rival, Kal--whom Za let stay with the tribe when his tribe was, seemingly, wiped out by cold). In other words, Za had a rudimentary twinge of mercy and spared the man who would become his rival, and yet he can't understand Ian's sparing him.

Za learns from Ian that "Kal is not stronger than the whole tribe," and the wheels start turning in his mind; he becomes a leader in fact, and not just the loudest bully. But he breaks his word to the travelers--he will not let them leave. He shows a little uneasiness at this--he expects them to be pleased with the meat and fruit he brings them, and wants these clever strangers to stay, but still has no appreciation of freedom, or of a word given, So the TARDIS crew have to find their own way out. They escape not because of the Doctor, but because Susan has the germ of an idea, and Ian perfects it.

And yet the Doctor is not entirely useless--he handily fakes Kal out and gets him to reveal (by pulling out his bloody knife) that he has killed an old woman of the tribe (in fact, it's Eileen Way as "Old Woman," but you probably guessed that), and then the Doctor whips the tribe into an angry mob to drive Kal out.

The Delgado Master could hardly have done better.

Also, while Ian, Barbara, and Susan are trying to find a way to save Za, the Doctor tries to bash his head in with a rock, to resume the escape. Caught by Ian, he unconvincingly stammers an excuse, which, William Russell's performance makes eminently clear, does not fool the young mathematics teacher.

That's more Ainley Master, really.

The Doctor does have a few sympathetic moments--he comforts Barbara by thinking up a job for her to do, leading to the famous epigraph to this post, he apologizes to his three companions, blaming himself for their predicament. (Actually, only partly correct: The Doctor is abducted by Kal, who knocks him unconscious, but Ian, Barbara and Susan launch what really has to be the Worst. Rescue. Ever.

Yes, worse than this:



An eccentric story that should not have worked, but does. Doctor Who comes out punching above its weight.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Classic Who: The Beginning [An Unearthly Child]



Courtesy of BritBox, I am doing the sort of beginning to end view of classic Doctor Who (1963-1989) I always wanted to. Oh, there's a bunch of unavailable episodes and missing episodes too, but as a long-time fan of the show, I only have seen the Pertwee Era through Sylvester McCoy, and now I can make serious inroads into the Hartnell and Troughton eras, of which I've only seen isolated stories.

(Any idea where I can find the dreaded recons, y'all?)

So, to make the exercise more edifying, I'm watching only as I work out (yay, reason for fitness!), and will add some thoughts on each story as a recurring feature on the blog.

Tonight: An Unearthly Child

Properly speaking, the first episode is part of the larger story called by this title, or 100,000 BC. Improper speaking has its uses, however; I actually think that Phil Sandifer is right to break out this first episode from the larger story:
An Unearthly Child was rewritten by Anthony Coburn from an original script by C.E. Webber, and was reshot before transmission, both facts that I think serve to separate it in a meaningful sense from the three episodes that follow. Thus I, in a viewpoint that has essentially no credibility in mainstream fandom, opt to treat An Unearthly Child as a one-episode story preceding a three-episode story entitled 100,000 BC.)

An Unearthly Child is a simple character piece. Only four characters meaningfully appear - Susan Foreman, a teenage girl, Barbara Wright and Ian Chesterton, a pair of her teachers, and The Doctor, her cranky old grandfather. The story is mostly about Susan - the eponymous child lacking earthiness. Her teachers are at once enamored with her and scared of her. Enamored because she is a genius, and they know it. Scared because she is the wrong sort of genius. She knows things that people aren't meant to know. She speaks of the future - at times quite rightly. In a moment of inadvertent brilliance that makes this episode sing nearly 50 years later, she predicts the decimalization of British currency, though the writers could not have possibly known about it.

So this is where it starts. A mysterious Police Box, and a magical girl, and a mystery that two regular, unimportant people can't quite get over. A mystery that brings them out on a cold London night to 76 Totters Lane to try to find out where this girl came from. There, they meet an old man. Smug, superior, and unfriendly, he does not want them there. This is his mysterious girl, and his mystery.

And then it goes wrong. They force themselves past him, into the blue box, and fall out of the world and into another. It is another triumph of design in the show - a stark white of iconic 60s futurism would age gracefully into retro-futurism. And, of course, bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.
A long quote from another writer in what purports to be my own reaction. But Sandifer puts it very well. A few thoughts of my own:

1. The atmospheric opening, with the Delia Derbyshire version of the theme, complete with that really nifty middle eight, is both unlike anything else I've ever seen on Doctor Who, and yet somehow prophetic of the show as a whole. What with the foggy night, the helmeted policeman, and the dingy grey palate, we could be watching Odd Man Out, the morbid noir featuring--oh, right, that'd be William Hartnell. So right off the bat, we're off-balance. The Doctor in his first appearance (billed, as he would be for much of the old show's run, as "Doctor Who"), is everything Sandifer says, but he doesn't mention the hint of cruelty in the Doctor's electrification of the console, and stepping away from it to let Ian try to open the door. The Doctor is uneasy, afraid, and to cover his fear, he is mocking and derisive--almost all his lines are gibes at Ian and Barbara, and even Susan.

2. Or he's genuinely mean. We don't know, yet, not really. I mean, we're a grand total of 25 minutes into the longest serialized sci-fi show in history. Maybe the hints of fear and concern I'm reading into Hartnell's performances aren't really there--I could be retrojecting elements of the Doctor as he becomes into this maiden voyage.

We're in the land of C.S. Lewis; like Aslan, the Doctor isn't tame.

But he may--just may--be good.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Oh, as usual, dear....

A story in two parts:

1. Back in Kate Bush's heyday, I dated an avid fan, who sought to bowl me over with "Wuthering Heights."



'Myes.

2. Hadn't thought about the song since, but after a colleague at a conference vowed that any workout would be improved by listening to The Puppini Sisters, I tried an album of theirs off Apple Music.

Song no. 6:



It's rare for a song to make me laugh aloud, while actually admiring the artistry.

Their cover of I Will Survive was every bit as enjoyable, if you are, like me, a person of peculiar tastes.

Apple Music has their entire catalogue, I'm pleased to report.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Do Not Doubt, But Believe: A Sermon on John 20:19-31

[This is the manuscript of a sermon I delivered at the 5:00 pm service at St. Barts tonight. Unusually, I went a bit off-text on this one, as I thought the text was a bit too academic for a sermon. So this is more an essay that was extemporized into a sermon, and hopefully none the worse for that.]

Poor St. Thomas. Seriously, I mean it. There's a lot of theological meat in today's Gospel, but I can never resist speaking up for St. Thomas. St Thomas the Apostle, forever known as “Doubting Thomas,” gets a raw deal, I think.

Ok, sure—after Jesus’s death, he doesn’t believe the other apostles when they tell him that, when they were hiding in a house in Jerusalem, Jesus appeared to them.

But all they tell him is “we have seen the Lord.” It’s not like they give him a lot of detail.

Also, let’s point out that Thomas has been out and about, while they’re all hiding.

Thomas may not have been the most spiritual of the disciples, but he’s got courage. And in fact he’s pretty bright. Because when Jesus tells the disciples about the death of Lazurus, and that he is going to Lazarus’s family and then back to Jerusalem, Thomas is the only one who knows what’s coming next.

Grim but loyal, Lazarus says only, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (Jn. 11: 16)

So Thomas is skeptical of his ten friends, who are still hiding away, while he’s doing whatever needs to be done in the city.

And Thomas’s courage, and his loyalty, are rewarded. Jesus comes back for him, to make sure that he doesn’t miss out on the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Of course, like any teacher, he answers Thomas’s challenge. He says to him, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

Thomas doesn’t take him up on the offer. Instead, he answers him, “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus then says, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

That, in case you haven’t worked it out, is us. You and me.

We haven’t seen Jesus in the flesh. We’re two whole millennia removed from anyone who has.

So Jesus is holding out to us the hope that we can be blessed in a way one of his most loyal, brave disciples was not, simply because we have come to believe.

What does that mean?

In Alcoholics Anonymous, “come to believe” occurs in the Second Step -—we “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

But that belief isn’t just an abstract proposition. In Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, we are told that “coming to believe” requires more than that; prior intellectual embraces of God fail because “In no deep or meaningful sense had we ever taken stock of ourselves, made amends to those we had harmed, or freely given to any other human being without any demand for reward. We had not even prayed rightly. We had always said, “Grant me my wishes” instead of “Thy will be done.”

In other words, “coming to believe” means trying to live in accord with what we believe, not just holding it in our minds.

Ah, but what is it we must come to believe?

Well, we say the Creed every week. Is that what Jesus is referring to here?

Hard to believe. For one thing, it doesn’t actually tell us very much, does it? As Charles Gore pointed out ninety years ago, the Creeds aren’t actually a summary of what Christians believe, they just knock out, one-by-one, all of the early heresies that tried to downplay either Jesus’s humanity or his divinity.

Not either or, the Creed insists, but both. Always both.

So, no. Not the Creeds, then. Or, at any rate, not just the Creeds.

So we just believe in the name of Jesus. It’s an intellectual proposition—Jesus equals the Son of God, therefore we are saved.

We-ell, I certainly don’t disagree with that statement, but I have to tell you, a lot of people have adhered to that abstract article of belief, and done terrible things with it.

And on the flip side, many people who have never heard the name of Jesus, or who have encountered it only through the distorting lens of those who use it to justify the sort of domination system that crucified Jesus, may exemplify the sort of love Jesus taught and lived.

My go-to source for old-school Anglican orthodoxy, C.S. Lewis, wrote that “every prayer which is sincerely made even to a false god, or to a very imperfectly conceived true God, is accepted by the true God and that Christ saves many who do not think they know him. . . . In the parable of the Sheep and Goats those who are saved do not seem to know that they have served Christ.” [1]

So, I can’t help but think that there might be a little more to it than just intellectual adherence to the name of Jesus, or any intellectual concept for that matter.

No, I think we have to go all the way back to the very beginning of this Gospel to see what it is we must come to believe. Or, just maybe, how we must come to believe.

In the very first chapter of this Gospel, we are told that “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” (Jn 1: 12-13)

Right, that’s not exactly self explanatory, is it?

Maybe we need to dig just a little deeper.

The Fourth Gospel, traditionally attributed to John, the son of Zebedee, is sometimes a very challenging one. It has dense, theologically rich discourses by Jesus about His role as the Bread of Life, or the vine to which we—that’s right, you and me—are the branches.

John’s Gospel demonstrates what’s called a very high Christology, by which we mean it depicts Jesus as one with the Father, more consistently and more often than any other Gospel.

Add to this that it has been considered “the charter of Christian Mysticism.”[2] In saying so in his classic lectures on mysticism, W. R. Inge explained that “Christian Mysticism, as I understand it, might almost be called Johannine Christianity,” or rather that “a Johannine Christianity is the ideal which the Christian mystic sets before himself” or herself.[3]

This sounds pretty daunting, especially if when you think of mysticism the first thing that comes to your mind is Doctor Strange, the Master of the Mystic Arts, who is always battling all kinds of supernatural threats when he isn’t busy solving mysteries with Bilbo Baggins.

But that’s a movie, based on a comic book written in the trippy 1960s. What Inge means by mysticism is what he calls “the raw material of religion,” the experience of the immanence of the temporal in the eternal, and of the eternal in the temporal.”[4]

Or, put another way, it’s what some people make of those fleeting experiences we all get of the presence of God. Abraham Maslow documented them, and called them “peak experiences.” He described them as sudden “feelings of limitless horizons opening up to the vision, the feeling of being simultaneously more powerful and also more helpless than one ever was before, the feeling of great ecstasy and wonder and awe.”[5]

Mysticism isn’t about power, like Dr. Strange—it’s about perception. Openness to the fact that life isn’t just getting and spending, but, ultimately, about love, and that in the experience of love is the ultimate truth about not just our own lives, but the nature of God.

And how do we make this a part of our lives?

First, what we are called to believe is, as Jesus summarizes it, as we heard throughout Lent, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

But how can we love on command? I’ll steal a sentence from Steven Moffat: “Law isn’t an emotion—it’s a promise.” Like it says in the Second Step, we act lovingly—we try to walk in the path of Jesus. Always remember that the early church didn’t see itself as a structure of belief but as a way—it’s even called The Way, in the Acts of the Apostles.

And there is, I think, where we find the ultimate clue to what it is to come to believe.

This too:

Believe that you are loved. Don’t doubt it.

When you doubt it, because you will, don’t let that tear you down.

Coming to believe doesn’t mean perfect certainty. In AA, coming to believe can be pretty shaky, and still get the job done.

When you doubt it, because we all do from time to time, remember that when Thomas was too skeptical to believe the Good News at second hand, Jesus came back, just for him.

If and when you can make some quiet space to be silent in the presence of God, be open to those peak experiences. If they come on you on their own, remember it. Don’t dismiss them, let them reassure you when you’re depressed, or feeling isolated.

Because they are part of our experience, and, as the novelist CP Snow wrote, “it’s impossible to regret one’s own experience.”[6] So too we should be very reluctant to doubt our own experience.

So embrace that experience.

Most of all, if you haven’t had such experiences, if you are unsure, don’t be afraid you’ll be left behind.

Jesus came back for Thomas; he won’t forget you.

NOTES:

1. Lewis, C.S. The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume III: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy at 244-245 (2007).
2. William Ralph Inge, Christian Mysticism 44 (1899).
3. Id. at 44-45.
4. Id at 5.
5. A. Maslow, Religions, Values & Peak Experiences (1964).
6. C.P. Snow, The Sleep of Reason 149 (1968)

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Voltaire Wept

I can't think of a single subject I agree with Ann Coulter on, and, in fact, I think her ideas are abhorrent. She's not as dangerous as, say, Ayn Rand, who has found a way of justifying humanity's most base urges to many, but she's a glib bomb-thrower., and almost a living parody of everything tha's wrong with the Right.

Silencing her is not liberal. Or progressive. Or anything good.

In purely instrumental terms, it's counterproductive--it's a data point for those who claims the "left" (a unified group, right?) don't really believe in free speech, sure, but it's worse than that: It's a betrayal of what we hold dear.

If we really believe in the democratic republic created by our Constitution, then we have to believe in freedom for the thought we hate. And silencing by threat or force those with whom we disagree with, however evil we think their views, is a betrayal of the very premise of the Constitution--that We, the people, should choose what ideas to embrace or to reject.

I recently quoted Karl Alexander's novel Time After Time: "The first man to raise a fist is the man who's run out of ideas." I believe this; if violence and threats are the new response to thought that we hate, then we are saying something utterly damning about the state of our discourse and of democracy.

And admitting that we are out of ideas.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

When The Well Runs Dry: A Meditation on John 19:25b-28



[What follows is the text of my meditation given yesterday at St. Bartholomew's The Three Hours service for Good Friday. At the link, you can hear not only my meditation as delivered, but those delivered by St. Barts clergy and lay preachers. The meditations of my friends and colleagues are well worth your time.

It is an honor to be invited to participate in this service, and I am grateful, as always, to St. Barts, which has been my spiritual home for over a decade now.
]

“I am thirsty.”

Such a banal, boring sentence, normally.

But not here.

Not today. Not at the execution of Jesus of Nazareth.

We have heard him forgive his executioners. We have heard him promise the Repentant Thief that they will meet again, in Paradise.

We have heard Jesus entrust his mother to his beloved disciple, and the beloved disciple to his own mother. Out of the wreckage of the Jesus Movement, he has salvaged a family.

Then the hard one: We have heard him despair, crying out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Even in the extremity of pain, he is quoting scripture—Psalm 22. He still affirms that the God who watches him in this moment is his God.

He is still our teacher, our rabbi. Our Messiah.

But now this.


“I am thirsty.”

For the one and only time, Jesus comments on his physical state. But not on the pain from his wounds, or the exertion of keeping himself from going limp and suffocating as he hangs from the Cross.

It’s the thirst that gets under that serene confidence, that brings him to his one and only complaint through the whole bloody ordeal.

When I read this passage, Jesus always sounds a little surprised to me.

“I am thirsty.”

Maybe it’s unexpected that the normal routine needs of the body persist so far into these last hours. He expected mockery, he expected pain, he was even ready with an apt quote for despair, our rabbi was—but thirst?

Maybe the very normalcy of thirst makes him realize that this could still all end—he could be cut down from the Cross, he could still walk away from all of this—he’s still able to be thirsty, and yearn for some cool water.

Either way, that moment of thirst is so concrete, so not what a storyteller or myth-maker would focus on, that it feels completely authentic.

It’s the moment when we know there’s no miracle to come. There’s no escape, no happy ending—not this side of the grave, not yet.

Throughout this Gospel, Jesus has passed through the authorities’ efforts to capture him, he’s out-debated them, out-witted them, and just dared them to act against him.

And now they have, and, in worldly terms, Jesus has gone to the well once too often.

We’ve seen him, in this same Gospel, at Jacob’s Well, where he met the Samaritan woman. Jesus asks her for a drink, and she is surprised that he crosses boundaries of gender and traditional hostility to ask a Samaritan woman for a drink of water.

He says to her “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”

She asks skeptically where he will get this living water, with no bucket, and a deep well.

He tells her that “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

And then she wanted that living water.

But now, on the Cross, the man who offered the stranger, the Samaritan woman, living water thirsts for ordinary water to relieve his own pangs.

We have left behind John’s mystical discourse of living water and the bread of life.

We are in the world of harsh fact, of blood and iron.

You might say that this happened in our world. We can look around us and see injustices at home and abroad. We live in a world where a state will try to rush through a series of executions before the expiration date of the medicine made to save life that they will use to end it.

A world, in short, of blood and iron.

But we can’t blame it on the world; that’s a cop-out. Thirty years ago, I sat in a darkened theater and watched a movie called The Mission, about Seventeenth Century missionary priests in South America whose students are betrayed and sold into slavery by their government and the Church. The priests who stayed behind with the students are killed trying to protect them, some by taking up weapons, but others by standing with their students in prayer.

They all die.

The scene is watched by two men, an official of the Crown and a Cardinal. They react to the bloodshed differently.

The representative of the State tries to comfort the Churchman, reassuring him that “we must work in the world; the world is thus." But the Cardinal responds, "No, thus have we made the world. Thus have I made it."

The gift of God who offers living water is dry now, and his thirst will not be quenched until it is quenched in death.

On this day, at the foot of the Cross, it is hard—very hard—not to think of ourselves as trapped in that world of blood and iron. Thus have we made the world.

But before we surrender to that that bleakness, maybe we need to look at the response to Jesus’s confession of need, of thirst.

Where you would expect none, compassion stirs in some of the soldiers guarding the crucified. They give him a little of their own wine, It’s “a diluted, vinegary wine drunk by soldiers and laborers,” called posca, and its offered in a moment of kindness. [1]

Blink and you miss it. But think for a moment, and let it stay with you.

Hard men, living a hard life, in which cruelty was routine. A life, we could say, of blood and iron. Yet somehow Jesus touches them; compassion is awakened, and an unexpected, unlikely act of mercy lightens the darkness for a moment.

That act of mercy should remind us that the acquiescence in despair of “thus we have made the world” is a lie, after all.

Because we didn’t make the world; it isn’t ours to make.

It’s God’s world, not ours, and the men of blood and iron are not beyond redemption; they respond to Jesus’s need when they could have just mocked him, or, even easier, ignored him.

They aren’t blood and iron at all, but flesh and blood. God’s children, whatever kind of life they are living. And they are capable of being moved into a better life.

As they have just demonstrated.

As are those we fear, and those who seemingly are trying to fashion that world of blood and iron, and shackle us to it.

As are we.

Throughout his life, Jesus spread that most wonderful of diseases, a thirst for that living water. A thirst for a better world, for God’s world, not the defaced muddle we seem so often to make of it. He spoke of the blessing of a “thirst for righteousness,” even as he spread that thirst.

And so Jesus has answered his own question, “Am I not to drink of the cup the Father has given me?” He does it, in faith, even though in his case the cup is one of suffering and death. Now, in his last moments, Jesus “thirsts to drink that cup to the last drop, for only when he has tasted the bitter wine of death will his Father’s will be fulfilled.”[2] He has been faithful to the end.

But on the way, he has met with an unexpected affirmation that this death will be a catalyst that will reshape the world. His very executioners have shown that the Gospel—the Good News—of love, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, can banish the Gospel of Blood and Iron. The Sun has not even set on Golgatha, and already the first hints of the Easter sunrise are mixed with the dying of that light.

[1] Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John XIII-XX1 (1970) at 909 (Anch. Bib. Vol. 29A); William Temple, Readings in St. John's Gospel: First and Second Series at 368 (1945).

[2] Brown, The Gospel According to John, at 930.