The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Friday, September 22, 2017

Doc Ballou: "A Holiday for the Doctor"/"Don't Shoot the Piano Player"/"Johnny Ringo"/"The OK Corral" [The Gunfighters]

It's one last multi-part tale,
With episodic names,
It's recovery after the fail
of undistinguished games.
Though the Doctor's time is ending,
and Troughton's coming soon,
Hartnell's dignity is mending
In The Last Chance Saloon.

The familiar theme music suckers us in; we're watching Doctor Who, traveling in Space and Time--but wait a second--the theme gives way (listen above) to a ballad, sung by Lynda Baron (she'll be back. More than once.) And we're led into a Western. But not any kind of Western; it's tongue-in-cheek approach inspired by the 1965 film Cat Ballou, which also uses a recurring musical ballad as a narrative framing device:

Notably, the "Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon" is much less bouncy than "The Ballad of Cat Ballou"; the story is dramedy, not full-fledged comedy. For a long time, this story had the unfortunate designation as the worst Doctor Who story ever. It's reputation has been reviving, as witness Sandifer and Neil and Sue Perryman.

Count me in with the revisionists.

After the flawed but interesting The Ark and the weak,deeply problematic Celestial Toymaker (Hartnell is literally silent and invisible through much of the story), the show surprises us with what I will defend as a stone classic. Here we see the Doctor and his companions spelunking through a comic Western, Cat Ballou style for the first two episodes, as the stakes slowly begin to rise. By the third episode, "Johnny Ringo," the comic sequences taking off Western memes are turning deadly serious.

Hartnell, stuck in the 19th Century west with a toothache, resigns himself to getting it pulled (I suspect knowing that the TARDIS could take him to even more primitive times and places, so he just gives up and goes with it), and staggers through the first episode unclear about Doc Holliday and his machinations. Anthony Jacobs is a conniving, witty Doc Holliday, but one who has some scruples; John Alderson provides solid support as Wyatt Earp (the Doctor keeps addressing him as "Werp" to the lawman's confusion). Earp is played straight, a stolid lawman, who wants to protect his friend Holiday but also the Doctor, who he is letting the Clantons think is Holliday (sort of a less ruthless version of Gene Hackman's Little Bill Daggett; he's ready to lie and break the law to keep the peace).

Steven and Dodo shine in this storyline--Steven starts off overly exuberant, donning ridiculously theatrical costumes, only to find himself forced to live out the real life consequences of a Western story. Meanwhile, Jackie Lane, whose pity for the Toymaker's earlier victims was the best thing about The Celestial Toymaker here gets to be funny, brave, and is paired well with Jacobs and with the excellent Sheena Marshe. Marshe is great, playing Kate as a Western stereotype at times, then showing us a real, wry woman within. Peter Purves manages the shifts in tone seamlessly. He's marvelous in the part, with double takes that are funny but in character, and his comic timing is excellent.

As things get grim, the whole cast up their game. The showdown, the inexorable march to bloodshed, began long before the darkening tone. From the very first bars of her ballad, Lynda Baron has been warning us how this will all end: Blood on the sawdust in the Last Chance Saloon. And yet it's shocking when it comes, a tribute to an excellent script, the regulars at their best, the excellent guest cast, and Rex Tucker's direction.

This is the last time you'll hear me refer to a "story arc" or "the story known as"; after The Gunfighters, there are no more individually-titled episodes in the classic series. I won't miss the long titles for these posts necessitated by respecting that convention. But I think I will miss the echoes of old-fashioned serialization--the original viewers had no idea when one story would end and another would begin.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Celestial Squire: "The Celestial Toyroom"/"The Hall of Dolls"/"The DancingFloor"/"The Final Move" [The Celestial Toymaker]

It's funny that I referenced Squire Trelane's parents in the last entry, because here we get a story that predates The Squire of Gothos (aired January 12, 1867) by eight months with a rather Trelane-like character (These episodes ran from April 2 through April 23, 1966). Also, in a small milestone, I was born the day after "The Dancing Floor" aired. So while my first encounter with Doctor Who is still decades off, we are now discussing a world I inhabit, and as we go on, the cultural referents the show draws on will increasingly be to the matrix (sorry!) that formed me.

In short, the backdrop I'll be increasingly looking at is the familiar, not the unknowable except for at second hand.

So, the main discussion about the story arc called The Celestial Toymaker nowadays is whether Phil Sandifer (and others, but Sandifer makes the best case) is right when he dismisses this story arc as irredeemably racist, and expels it, and The Ark from canon. Now, I admire Sandifer's work immensely--I've bought all of the TARDIS Eruditorum books he published, and in fact was a Kickstarter backer of the first three. But I have a few questions about his analysis on these two stories.

With The Ark, Sandifer describes the Monoids as "minstrel characters," pointing to Dodo's description of them as "savages" and describes the story as "a sickening, vile piece of racism and neo-colonialism that, while not wholly out of step with its times, was reactionary and nasty in 1966, and is only worse in 2011." Sandifer goes further and argues that in The Ark:
They're [the Monoids] incompetent because the whole point is that savages like them can never actually run a country, and we'd be fools to turn one over to them.

In fact, even being nice to them - giving them more power like speech and weapons - is wrong. The Monoids deserve to be a race of servants, because that's all that savages like them are good for. And when, at the end of the story, the humans are ordered to make peace with the Monoids, one does not sense that it will be a peace of equals, but rather the return of the Monoids to being a well-treated servant class.
I have to say, I don't see the story quite this way. Dodo is clearly wrong when she calls the Monoids savages--they are able to communicate with the Guardians, albeit not by voice, and they mourn their losses with dignity, and don't join the revenge seeking crowd of Guardians out to kill the Doctor, Dodo and Steven. The Commander tries to ensure that they are treated with respect, and their second-class citizenship reflects poorly on the Guardians, who are riding for a fall. The Monoids in the latter two episodes are corrupted by power, and overweening and overconfident--just like the Guardians in the first two episodes, they are riding for a fall. The thing seems to me more a reflection on the corrupting influence of unchecked power--we see that the Commander's efforts to retain some equality between human and Monoid will not outlast him, but that's because the younger generation of humans lacks his understanding of its importance. It's more Planet of the Apes than The Birth of a Nation.

The Toymaker, though--what about this character? Sandifer is right about the double meaning of the word "Celestial" to refer to Chinese people as well as its more common meaning of or pertaining to the heavens, In his Anno Dracula, Kim Newman appropriates Fu Manchu under the title "the Celestial." So, yes, that and the robes support the designation of the storyline as racist. But Michael Gough does not play him in any kind of "yellow face" makeup, or change (as far as I can see) his normal clipped tones in playing the part. The Toymaker, a bored, alien immortal, has adopted a persona that amuses him--not unlike the ersatz Trelane, the Squire of Gothos. (I wonder if Lafcaido Hearn was in the mind of the writer, as well as Fu Manchu?) Just as the Doctor has adopted the persona as a Victorian gentleman-scientist, when in fact he is an alien, of unknown origin in either time or space--he and the Toymaker are presented as opposite numbers, enemies who are only now squaring off against each other.

Of course, none of this stops the Toymaker from being at least in part a racist caricature--while John Dorney commented on Sandifer's post, he wrote one of the Big Finish revivals of the Toymaker, and was "ashamed to admit that I wasn't aware of the double meaning of the word 'Celestial' and had just thought of the 'cosmic' meaning. Oddly, in the script the character was simply named 'The Owner' throughout (Charley was also listed as 'The Girl') and the word 'Celestial' never appears (he does refer to himself as 'The Toymaker' at the end, as does the Doctor). Although this is not done as a result of any delicacy (as I'd no knowledge of the dual meaning," the original episodes aired in a period when the last Fu Manchu novel was less than a decade old. So it might have been intended, just as it was decades later by Newman, to signify or at least suggest, Chinese and not cosmic.

Neither the Monoids nor the Toymaker, any more than Trelane, are human. Sandifer may well be right--the Monoids could be a neo-imperialist parable. Or they could be a study in the corruption of power, as the Guardians themselves are. Or--and here's a thought--it could all be a refinement on the Eloi and the Morlocks in Wells's The Time Machine, but in less extreme form (which could, of course, be a point in Sandifer's favor--are the Eloi and the Morlocks racist? Or are they, as Wells seemed to intend, a depiction of mutual degradation through a class system? Note that, in Wells, both are decaying--the beauty of the Eloi is undermined by their physical and mental fragility, the Morlocks are increasingly debased over time as well.

Fiction bears the hallmarks of its age, though, and both stories could well be racist despite better intentions than Sandife sees in either.


The Celestial Toymaker is not good Doctor Who, I'm afraid whatever it's racial politics. The games are tedious, especially the waste of the Doctor on the silly "trilogic” game. But it's not as bad as Sandifer suggests in its storyline because of a feature he neglects: Dodo's mercy. This is a story in which a seemingly all-powerful being will keep the Doctor unless Steven and Dodo win their games, arbitrarily set up by the Toymaker before the Doctor wins his "trilogic” game. The competition liven up things a bit; Steven and Dodo are first set against the Clara the Clown, the Queen of Hearts, and Mrs. Wiggs (Carmen Silvera, of 'Allo 'Allo fame) and the Joey the Clown, the King of Hearts, and Sgt. Rugg (Campbell Singer). Silvera is especially good, and Singer has some funny moments. But that's not what got me. In each case, Dodo's compassion is moved--these are, she believes--and the narrative supports her--victims of the Toymaker, who have become dolls, playing cards, whatever the Toymaker wants them to be, by losing when, like Steven and Dido now, they first arrived in the Toymaker’s domain. Their efforts to win, and obtain their freedom move her, making her less ruthless than Steven in the competition. Stevrn denies this, viewing them as mere constructs of the Toymaker, and yet, as Dodo points out, each time they lose it’s because of a human weakness. She pities these souls lost to the Toymaker. It's the one thing that adds a frisson and a feeling of risk to the story. They could be as we are, the playing cards and dolls seem to say.

There is, if you squint, a ghost story in The Celestial Toymaker, and only Dodo sees it. And the ghosts may be hungry, but they are also tragic.

Monday, September 18, 2017

"Damn You All to Hell": "The Steel Sky"/"The Plague"/"The Return"/"The Bomb" [The Ark]

So we're back--for this story--to BritBox, with its nice, crisp copies of the episodes in question, and, yes, it's a relief to be granted a reprieve from recons, helpful though they are.

Aired in March, 1966, The Ark has two great ideas at its core, but only one gets any traction. The first idea, that of the "sleeper ship" voyage gone awry, dates at least back to A.E. Van Voght's Far Centaurus (1944), and this story arc bears some generic resemblance, but actually is more reminiscent of "Think Blue, Count Two" by Cordwainer Smith, published in 1963. (In point of fact, Robert Godard postulated just such a "colony ship in 1918, but as that manuscript wasn't published until 1972, it's de trop for our purposes.) There, as here, the millennia that have passed (though not, in The Ark, due to the voyage (not too long under way, expected to take 700 years), but rather to the TARDIS's usually long time jump from the end of The Massacre) have created problems of comprehension and of lost knowledge posing a risk to the voyage's safety. And of course the notion that the common cold could be deadly to the higher evolved beings dates back to Wells's War of the Worlds (1897), though, of course, in that novel it defeats the otherwise unstoppable Martians. (The Martian's last signal, "uless") has stayed in my mind since I first read Wells as a boy.)

But what this story really reminds me of, as if the clip up top didn't give it away, is Pierre Boulle's Planet of the Apes, not filmed until 1968 (also de trop, accordingly), but published in English under the title Monkey Planet in 1963, so it could have influenced the script. Possibly. The Ark is a bit of a mashup--the colony ship carrying micro-reduced humans and their servants, the Monoids, at first welcome the travelers, showing them a partially built (up to the knees) statue of a human being that they work on to keep the importance of their mission to preserve all life on Earth (about to be consumed as the Sun becomes a gas giant). The welcome turns sour though, when the mission is endangered by Dodo's cold, to which the Ark's pilots (Guardians) and Monoids alike have no immunity. The humans are divided in their response--some, like the Commander and his daughter, believe that the rapidly spreading plague was accidentally transmitted by Dodo, and that the Doctor, Steven and she are well-intentioned, as well as being the best hope for curing the plague, and the mob, goaded on by the second in command, Zentos:
Zentos: I invoke the special galactic law against them. Hold them, take them into custody and later they will be made to answer for the crimes that they have committed.
Steven: Oh, listen to us!
Zentos: Take them away!
Mellium: What about my father?
Zentos: He may well die. But then again, so might all of us. In which case it was pointless leaving.

Steven: That unfortunately tells me only one thing.
Zentos: What's that?
Steven: That the nature of Man, even in this day and age, hasn't altered at all.You still fear... the unknown like everyone else before you.
. The silent Monoids merely seem grieved for those of their number who succumb. The Commander, aided by his daughter Mellium, countermands the credit and sentence of execution of the Doctor and his party. The Doctor experiments on Steven, finds a cure, and all is seemingly well. The travelers leave, and....

...the TARDIS reappears in the colony ship, 700 years later, shortly before the landing on the new planet. The bridge of the ship is largely abandoned, weeds and vines allowed to infiltrate, and the completed statute--

Has a Monoid's head.

Well, you can see the similarity--once the docile, silent animal-like servants, the Monoids are now the masters, keeping a few Guardians around simply to enjoy being served. Not entirely dissimilar to Boulle's novel, if rather different from the film. (Though one wonders if the use of the statute to indicate visually the radical shift that has taken place in The Ark had any influence on the similar use of the Statue of Liberty at the end of the 1968 film Planet of the Apes. Probably not, but interestingly prophetic, no?)

The Doctor, Steve and Dodo (now wearing Ian's tabard from The Crusade, for no adequately explored reason, though it does suit her), try to inspire a revolt, but fail:

The Monoids intend to bring their own kind only down to the planet, and leave the humans, both awake and preserved, onboard the Ark, which is set to explode 12 hours after the Monoids leave.

It is only with the help of the natives of the planet, invisible, incorporeal beings with extremely strong telekinetic powers, and the fact that the Monoids begin falling out among themselves, that peace is, uneasily restored. The Refusians, or perhaps we should call them the Deus Ex Machina, or even Trelane's parents (no, they're still a year off), have readied the planet for the colonists--it needs life, they think--but will only allow the humans and Monoids to stay if they make peace. With the humans in the ascendancy again, they agree to live as equals with the Monoids.

It's interesting that the Monoids come off rather well in the first half--they are dignified, and do not join in the mob against the Doctor and his companions, but are genocidal in the later half. Of course, their more cruel leaders are all dead by the end, and the Monoids remaining to be revived are from the era of the first half, so there is hope for peace. Maybe.

Not for the Doctor, though. As the TARDIS lands, with both Steven and Dodo modeling new, psychedelic clothes (Jackie Lane as Dodo pulls her off; Peter Purves somewhat less so), the Doctor disappears, his disembodied voice warning them that they are under attack....

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Alone Again, Naturally: "War of God"/"The Sea Beggar"/"Priest of Death"/"Bell of Doom" [The Massacre]

[The late-blooming flower of this story]


We know this much is true:
King Charles IX of France, under the sway of his mother, Catherine de Medici, orders the assassination of Huguenot Protestant leaders in Paris, setting off an orgy of killing that results in the massacre of tens of thousands of Huguenots all across France.

Two days earlier, Catherine had ordered the murder of Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, a Huguenot leader whom she felt was leading her son into war with Spain. However, Coligny was only wounded, and Charles promised to investigate the assassination in order to placate the angry Huguenots. Catherine then convinced the young king that the Huguenots were on the brink of rebellion, and he authorized the murder of their leaders by the Catholic authorities. Most of these Huguenots were in Paris at the time, celebrating the marriage of their leader, Henry of Navarre, to the king’s sister, Margaret.

A list of those to be killed was drawn up, headed by Coligny, who was brutally beaten and thrown out of his bedroom window just before dawn on August 24. Once the killing started, mobs of Catholic Parisians, apparently overcome with bloodlust, began a general massacre of Huguenots. Charles issued a royal order on August 25 to halt the killing, but his pleas went unheeded as the massacres spread. Mass slaughters continued into October, reaching the provinces of Rouen, Lyon, Bourges, Bourdeaux, and Orleans. An estimated 3,000 French Protestants were killed in Paris, and as many as 70,000 in all of France. The massacre of Saint Bartholomew’s Day marked the resumption of religious civil war in France.

In classic Doctor Who historical fashion, the TARDIS lands the Doctor and Steven in the middle of all of this. The Doctor goes to meet a scientist, instructing Steven to lie low. Of course he doesn't. He gets involved in trying to prevent the massacre, even trying to intercede with the plotting Abbot of Amboise, thinking he is the Doctor (as he's played William Hartnell, we can have some sympathy for Steven--they are dead ringers. Steven's efforts fail, and he is hiding in the apothecary's shop with Anne Chaplet, a servant of the Abbot's caught up in all the plotting who has been with Steven for the last half of the serial. The Doctor insists that Anne run home, or to her aunt's. He refuses to take her with them, despite Steven's anxiety on her behalf and Anne's own fear.


The Doctor and Steven watch the massacre from the TARDIS scanner, deploring their inability to change history. Steven seethes over the Doctor's abandonment of Anne, and tells the Doctor that wherever they land, he's getting off:
STEVEN: Surely there was something we could have done?
DOCTOR: No, nothing. Nothing. In any case, I cannot change the course of history, you know that. The massacre continued for several days in Paris and then spread itself to other parts of France. Oh, what a senseless waste. What a terrible page of the past.
STEVEN: Did they all die?
DOCTOR: Yes, most of them. About ten thousand in Paris alone.
STEVEN: The Admiral?
STEVEN: Nicholas? You had to leave Anne Chaplet there to die.
DOCTOR: Anne Chaplet?
STEVEN: The girl! The girl who was with me! If you'd brought her with us she needn't have died. But no, you had to leave her there to be slaughtered.
DOCTOR: Well, it is possible of course she didn't die, and I was right to leave her.
STEVEN: Possible? Look, how possible? That girl was already hunted by the Catholic guards. If they killed ten thousand how did they spare her? You don't know, do you? You can't say for certain that you weren't responsible for that girl's death.
DOCTOR: I was not responsible.
STEVEN: Oh, no. You just sent her back to her aunt's house where the guards were waiting to catch her. I tell you this much, Doctor, wherever this machine of yours lands next I'm getting off. If your researches have so little regard for human life then I want no part of it.

True to his word, Steven storms out. A young woman, Dorothea Chaplet, enters the open TARDIS door, thinking it really is a police box, and eager to report an accident. Steven charges back in, warning the Doctor the police are coming. They take off, with Steven uneasy about the young woman, until he and the Doctor each find a source of comfort in her presence:
STEVEN: Doctor, how could you?
DOCTOR: What else could I do, dear boy? You don't want a couple of policemen aboard the Tardis do you? You know, you're the most inconsistent young man? Just now you were telling me off for not having that Chaplet girl aboard!
STEVEN: Ah, that was different! This is no joyride you know. You may never get home again.
DODO: I don't care.
STEVEN: What about your parents?
DODO: I haven't got any. I live with me great aunt, and she won't care if she never sees me again.
DOCTOR: There now, you see? All this fuss about nothing. But don't you think she looks rather like my grandchild Susan?
STEVEN: You forget, I've never met your granddaughter.
DOCTOR: Oh, no, no, no, no, of course not, no. Yes, but she does you know. What is your name, child?
DODO: Dodo.
DODO: It's Dorothea, really. Dorothea Chaplet.
STEVEN: Chaplet? Yes, but you're not French, are you?
DODO: Don't be daft. Me granddad was, though.
STEVEN: Doctor, it's not possible is it? Chaplet? Anne's great, great
DOCTOR: Yes, yes, it is possible, my boy. Very possible. Welcome aboard the Tardis, Miss Dorothea Chaplet.


It's funny how well historicals come across in recons. Maybe it's because they're so less dependent on spectacle than the more future-based or sic-fi storylines, but the most watchable reconstructions of lost stories that I've seen throughout the Hartnell era have been the historicals.

The Daleks' Master Plan is clearly undermined by the loss of the physical performances of its cast, as the few surviving episodes show. The Doctor's cool effrontery in stealing the Terrarium Core, Kingdom's icy ruthlessness in hunting her brother and his comrades down--seeing these moments makes you confront the vitiated nature of what's left. As I said last time, Marsh's voice alone makes her death scene horrible to watch, yet impossible to turn away from. Imagine if we had more than mere telesnaps.

Well, The Massacre, or The Massacre of St. Bartholomew's Eve doesn't have anything in it that suggests such a loss. It's an interesting experiment: the first "Doctor-lite" story, but unlike previous stories where the Doctor would be off for an episode to give Hartnell a rest, here the Doctor disappears partway through the first episode, only to reappear well into the fourth an final episode. The Doctor is is missing for the bulk of the story--but William Hartnell is not; he plays the Abbot of Amboise, a ruthless persecutor of the Huguenots, albeit not as bright as he thinks he is. The Abbot is very different from the Doctor, showing that Hartnell was capable of more than one kind of performance. He's stern and gruff, but rather like a sergeant who has made errors that compromise the mission, refuses to accept that they will have any consequence. Steven, seeing the Abbot, thinks he has found the Doctor, only to watch the Abbot's murder. After his efforts to help avert bloodshed, Steven returns to the apothecary shop where the Doctor had intended to go.

This story arc comes with a sting in its tail; the Doctor, his friendship with Steven strained by the events of The Daleks' Masterplan, sees it shattered by his readopting of his old dictum that "you can't change history--not one line!" (intriguingly suspended recently), finds himself alone in the sterile white confines of the TARDIS. The old man broods:
Even after all this time he cannot understand. I dare not change the course of history. Well, at least I taught him to take some precautions. He did remember to look at the scanner before he opened the doors.

Now they're all gone.

All gone.

None of them could understand.

Not even my little Susan, or Vicki.

And as for Barbara and Chatterton. Chesterton. They were all too impatient to get back to their own time. And now, Steven.

Perhaps I should go home, back to my own planet. But I can't. I can't.
The Doctor doesn't respond with anger, here, but with sorrow, and a bit of guilt that he seems to be tamping down. This moment was never intended, of course, to be what it became, but it's part of a triptych: it leads naturally to The Fires of Pompei and to The Girl Who Died. Absent this moment, you don't have the Tenth Doctor's yielding to Donna's entreaties, and the Twelfth Doctor rejecting the old dictum, without becoming The Time Lord Victorious.

Because the end is a cheat--Steven's return make no sense; Dodo's running away with them just happens out of the blue (what happened to that little boy hurt in the accident she was so grieved about when she bounced into the TARDIS). As so often happens in early Doctor Who, the candy-coating is put on for the sake of the children, but we adults watching know where the story really ends.

An old man, alone, abandoned by all the friends he finally learned how to make.

Grieving his impotence in the face of tragedy.

And remembering its cost.

Monday, September 11, 2017

After the Fire

After the fire, the fire still burns
The heart grows older but never, ever learns
The memories smolder and the soul always yearns
After the fire the fire still burns.

I can't do another September 11 post. Just can't, not the way I used to, not after last year's post.

Somehow, the 15th anniversary was a watershed for me. The events of that day ceased from being the present recollection recorded (as we lawyers say) to being history.

Graven in my mind and heart, mind you, a part of the matrix that forms the person I am today, no doubt. But that person isn't the man who saw the towers fall on TV, only to be evacuated from Reagan Airport, joining a parade of stunned Americans who were, briefly, refugees in their own land. Time has passed him by.

The WTC was my neighborhood for 8 years. The shattered Borders Bookstore at the base of the complex, one of the few storefronts visible from outside the fencing after the collapse? Found a bookmark from it just last month. A frisson ran through me. A fragment of a time long gone.

I know people who were actually in danger that day, unlike myself, and knew one man who died. I lived through the Opéra bouffe version of 9-11, and I damned well know it. As to the main event, I'll never forget, and it's always a part of me, but it's a established fact, not a present reality. It's history--my own history, but a given now.

Like all wounds, the passage of time has not left it open. The gash is now a cicatrix.

I will always miss the younger me, 35 years old, with a false but very convincing sense of a Pax Americana. Terrorism was something you read about elsewhere--Oklahoma City didn't change that, and the 1993 WTC bombing somehow didn't either.

So we live in a different world now. Our special immunity is gone, and we carry on.

Just like New York City did in the wake of the disaster, come to think of it, with the stench of death and ruin in the air.

I remember parking on the top of a garage I often used, with abandoned ash-covered cars, their owners among the lost, with the remnants of the reek that disfigured my city still tangible.

We went on.

We go on.

We remember.

After the fire, the fire still burns
The heart grows older but never, ever learns
The memories smolder and the soul always yearns
After the fire the fire still burns.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

“Love is the Fulfilling of the Law” A Sermon on Matthew 18:15-20; Romans 13:8-14

[Delivered at St. Bartholomew's Church,
New York City, September 10, 2017]

Around the time of Jesus, there were two notably different schools of legal thought within Judaism—the House of Hillel, and the House of Shammai. Hillel himself died, we believe, in about the year 10 of the Common Era, or what we in Church used to call, AD—meaning after the birth of Christ, even though that was slightly off.

Hillel and Shammai debated each other throughout their careers, and, according to W.F. Albright and C.S. Mann, by the time of Jesus’s ministry, “the differing outlooks of the two great legalists Shammai and Hillel had in the course of half a century hardened into schools of interpretation, often in violent opposition to each other.”[1]

My old boss, Jerry Lefkowitz, once told a story about these two great sages. A pagan, considering converting to Judaism, asked Shammai to explain all of Judaism to him, while standing on one foot. Shammai waved him away.

The pagan continued on until he saw Hillel, and asked him the same question.

As Jerry retold the story, Hillel raised one foot, and quickly answered, “The substance of Judaism is to love thy neighbor as thyself. All the rest is procedural. Now you must go and study the procedures so as to be able to accomplish the substance.” [2]

I tell you this story because today, Jesus gets into the procedures. And because of that, it’s all too easy to lose the substance. Which I think helps explain a little matter you may have recently heard about, the Nashville Statement.

In case you missed it—and we’ve only had three hurricanes, a surprise avoidance of a possible government shutdown—oh, and potential nuclear war with North Korea--sharing the spotlight with this story, so really, I can understand if you did—let me explain.

An organization of self-professed Evangelical Christians called the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood has released a document it calls . It’s accompanied on their website by the Danvers Statement of 1987.

The Nashville Statement[3] is a series of affirmations and denials of conservative dogma regarding homosexuality and transgendered individuals, mostly statements we have heard before in the course of the Anglican Civil Wars.

The Danvers Statement enshrines male headship as God's will for all.[4] That is to say, it holds that all souls are equally precious in the sight of God, but that mean and women were made to “complement” one another by their very bodily design. Under this so-called “complementarian theology”, men are called to practice a “husband’s loving, humble headship,” and women are called to “intelligent, willing submission.”[5]

The Nashville Statement reaffirms the Danvers Statement along the way, stating “that divinely ordained differences between male and female reflect God’s original creation design and are meant for human good and human flourishing.”[6]

Then it gets to the real business in hand: its signatories DENY (in all caps, by the way) “that sexual attraction for the same sex is part of the natural goodness of God’s original creation." They then AFFIRM (again, all caps,) “that sin distorts sexual desires by directing them away from the marriage covenant and toward sexual immorality— a distortion that includes both heterosexual and homosexual immorality.” [7]

And now we get to the Church discipline part. The emphasis is in the original:
WE AFFIRM that it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism and that such approval constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness.

WE DENY that the approval of homosexual immorality or transgenderism is a matter of moral indifference about which otherwise faithful Christians should agree to disagree.[8]

In other words, to disagree with the Nashville Statement’s condemnations, and the complementarian theology based on male and female biology on which it is based, is to put oneself outside the boundaries of orthodox Christian belief. It is, they say, “an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness.”

Now, I trust you have worked out that I agree with not a single word of either of these statements. Including "and" and "the." But beyond disagreement, I want to point out to you that this so-called “speaking truth in love”[9] in the name of Biblical fidelity is itself neither pastoral nor biblical in its approach.

It’s not pastoral because it simply applies abstract principles to every case, demanding adherence based on the authority of a sacred text on the assumption that there is only one right way of being, for all of us to conform to. The Council knows what's best for you, even if your experience of your own life says different.

It's also based on a foundation of selective storytelling, assuming that there is such a thing as biblical manhood that is modeled for us by (of all people) Adam, and one of womanhood modeled by Eve (of all people). You know, the pair who, in as Evangelicals like to remind us, "in Adam's Fall, we sinned all"?

So why them? Why shouldn’t women look to Jael, or Deborah, who judged Israel with as much authority as any male judge? Or Mary of Bethany, who neglected her domestic duties to learn from our Lord, and received his approbation for it: "Mary has chosen the better part," Jesus , "which will not be taken away from her?" (Luke 10:42.)

Why shouldn’t men look to , or the young Solomon, or Jacob (who was guided by his mother, and labored to win his wife)? Or St. Joseph, who resolved to protect Mary against disgrace before he had any reason to believe in her innocence?

The wide variety of women and men you can find in the aptly titled Holy Women, Holy Men are not reflected in the writings of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.

More importantly, neither is the amazing diversity of women and men living today, now. The people to whom the Council seeks to minister, but whose own experiences and stories it refuses to acknowledge. You can’t minister to a historical figure. You can only be there for a living breathing person who stands before you, and whose needs and essence matter to you. The Council’s approach forbids that, preferring abstract constructs to God’s children.

And, by the way, what about Galatians 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus."

So it’s not just unpastoral, it’s also unbiblical. Not just as to its tenets, but as to its method. How does Jesus tell us, in today’s Gospel reading, that we should approach theological differences?

Answer: He doesn’t. The steps outlined in the Gospel reading are not intended to be used to settle differences of opinion; they are invoked, in the NRSV translation we use, only “if another member of the church sins against you.” In another words, a brother or a sister acts unjustly toward you, specifically against you. And the translation doesn’t make much difference; the Authorized Version, the King James, limits it to if another Christian “shall trespass against thee”; Albright and Mann translate it as applying if your brother or sister “sins against you”, as does pretty much every other reputable translation I can find. And Albright and Mann go on to tell us that the purpose of this procedure is to encourage reconciliation, and only in the last resort treat the offender as a “Gentile and a tax-collector”—that is, non-member of the community and a sinful one at that.

And by the way, how are we as Christians supposed to treat Gentiles and tax collectors? Not abusively, s inferiors or enemies. Not as people without value. They remain our neighbor, as the parable of the Good Samaritan forcefully reminds us.

So by declaring that all who disagree with their position on sexuality and the proper roles of women and men as, effectively, non-Christians, the drafters and signatories of the Nashville Statement are deploying a concept of community discipline meant to reconcile those members of the Christian community who had harmed their sisters and brothers in Christ with those whom they had injured into a debate-ending superweapon. “You’re no longer a real Christian,” they declare, as if this reconciliation process imparted such authority.

It doesn’t, of course.

And even in cases when we are sinned against, it’s not meant to be invoked lightly. Today’s reading ends at verse 20. In the very next verse, the very next sentence, Peter asks Jesus “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus says to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” The emphasis on forgiveness is even stronger in the King James; Jesus answers, “I say not unto thee until seven times; but until seventy times seven.”

In other words, the very next passage makes it pretty clear that rejection of fellow Christians is not to be done lightly.

And, just in case the point hasn’t been made clear enough, the rest of the chapter consists of Jesus telling the parable of the servant whose own debts were forgiven, but would not forgive those he was owed, cautioning us to not just forgive, but to forgive your brother or sister from the heart.

We have to mean it, not just do it.

Paul, like Jesus, tells us that “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” He goes further, and, in an echo of Jesus’s own words says that the commandments “are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

So never mind the Nashville Statement. Pay it no mind. Forgive its authors and signatories, and hope that they do better.

Because what does the Bible say to gay people? You're a loved child of God.

To transgendered people? You're a loved child of God.

To women? You're a loved child of God.

To men? You're a loved child of God.

To the authors and signatories of the Nashville Statement. You're still a loved child of God.

Anyone else who feels rejected, damaged, lost? You're a loved child of God.

The rest is all about responding to that love, and relationship with God.

Or, as Jerry Lefkowitz might say, the rest is procedure.



[1] W.F. Albright & C.S. Mann, THE ANCHOR BIBLE, vol 26 MATTHEW, p. cxiv (1971).

[2] Jerome Lefkowitz, “The Taylor Law, Discrimination and Nontenured Teachers,” Labor Law Journal, Sept. 1969, 575, 575 (Chicago, CCH 1969). The story as given by Jerry is a variant of Talmud Shabbat 31a. See 1 THE BABYLONIAN TALMUD: TRACT SABBATH (Michael L. Rodkinson. tr. (1903)).



[5] Id.

[6] Nashville Statement, Art. 4.

[7] Nashville Statement, Art. 9.

[8] Nashville Statement, Art. 10.

[9] Nashville Statement, Art. 11.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Farewell to the Minister of Magic: Robert Hardy, 29 October 1925 – 3 August 2017

That's Robert Hardy as Siegfried Farnon and Peter Davison as his brother Tristan at the outbreak of World War II in All Creatures Great and Small, the well-beloved British series that first introduced me to him, and to Davison, too, come to think of it.

He died on August 3, and somehow I didn't see the news until today--in fact, I was looking him up to verify my recollection that he had played John Fothergill, the eccentric, aesthete, and innkeeper. (I have two of the books he wrote, one inscribed by him; he's worth a post of his own someday.) And yes, Hardy played the part, and did so brilliantly. It was but one role in a storied and multi-faceted career--from actor to Laird, to amateur historian, who authored what appears to be the definitive work on the longbow. On the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, it was Hardy, who had memorably played Henry V for the RSC in his younger days, who Westminster Abbey asked to read the prologue from Act IV of the play.

He was, by all accounts, a great Shakespearean actor--the 1960s edition of the Tragedies and the Histories I bought (when I was in my teens) from the long-gone Barnes & Noble Sales Annex was illustrated with photos from various classic productions; Robert Hardy featured in several.

Hardy's subtlety as an actor doesn't get enough praise; it's understandable in that he's primarily thought of by filmgoers as Cornelius Fudge, the Minister of Magic, from the Harry Potter films. Hilarious though it was, Hot Metal didn't call for much subtlety, either. And Siegfried was often played fortissimo, though there were wonderfully delicate moments, like that heading this post.

But watch him in The Shooting Party. Or, as I pointed out earlier this year, in "Edward the King", where he played Prince Albert:
Albert, in particular, is given a complexity he might otherwise have lacked by the quicksilver performance of Robert Hardy (most noted for his Siegfried Farnon in All Creatures Great and Small and more recently his performance as Cornelius Fudge in the Harry Potter movies). As the Prince Consort, Albert starts in a position of weakness (not unlike Matt Smith as Prince Philip in The Crown), but he obtains a modicum of power by using what would be in Victorian literature feminine strategies--he lets Victoria see that her tantrums have hurt him, he rejoices in the domestic, he even withholds intimacy (Victoria, the morning after a tantrum, plaintively reproaches him, "you didn't come to me last night.").

When their son Albert Edward (Bertie) is born, Albert plans a fanatically demanding, no respite, education for their son. It's portrayed as almost sadistic (Magnus's biography is more charitable) and the frustrated Bertie fails at it repeatedly. Albert keeps him to it, with terrible persistence. But Hardy keeps him from devolving into a Gradgrind. His affection for Victoria (and forgiveness of her outbursts), his enjoyment of their children, gives him a likability that makes clear that his mistreatment of Bertie is not out of cruelty, but misplaced zeal.

Later, when Bertie is an adult, and Bertie has been caught in an affair with an actress (the first of many), the notoriously strait-laced Albert confronts his son. Albert respects Bertie's refusal to tell him who set up the party where he met his mistress, and puts the matter behind them. Instead of the martinet, we finally see the worried father, who gently admits that he has been so intent on training his son, that he has not provided the affection that Bertie needs. He anxiously seeks to reassure Bertie that he has been motivated by love, but admits his failure to articulate it. The two reconcile, with the focus not on Bertie's sins, but on Albert's.

It's an extraordinary performance, well matched by [Annette] Crosbie's more overtly histrionic masterpiece [as Victoria]. Hardy deftly underplays when she goes hard, but scintillates when he is with the children (other than Bertie). They match each other well.
So when I bid farewell to Robert Hardy--a little late, I admit--as the Minister of Magic, it's not to Cornelius Fudge; Hardy was Minister of Magic in his own right, long before he played that part.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Breaking a Blunt Instrument: "The Abandoned Planet" and "The Destruction of Time"

These two episodes are a mess, redeemed by some fine (if hammy) acting by Kevin Stoney, and the tragic death of Sara Kingdom.

That the Daleks' "allies" hadn't realized this late into the game that they were pawns, and pawns with very limited purpose, is a logical flaw in the script. But it does give Stoney a few last moments of increasing megalomania, and a perfectly earned death. One almost expects the Dalek Supreme to add "Shut up, already" as it orders Chen to be exterminated. To the last, he believes himself irreplaceable, immortal. There is even a great moment when Chen tells his fellow prisoners that Kingdom is coming out of loyalty to him, and when Sara confronts him, he promises her an appropriate reward.

Sara Kingdom's death--no; wait. She dies twice, really. First as Kingdom, then as Sara.

Kingdom was, as Ian Fleming described James Bond, "is a blunt instrument wielded by a Government Department. [she] is quiet, hard, ruthless, sardonic, fatalistic."

Kingdom dies when she realizes that her loyalty, which made her the blunt instrument in the hands of Mavic Chen, in whom she utterly believed, led her to gun down her own brother without a pause, without giving him a chance to explain, without a qualm. The instrument had been wielded, Bret Vyon was dead, the mission went on.

Until she found that the mission had been corrupted from the source, and her surrender of her humanity was not for humanity's benefit, but Chen's personal ambition. In Fleming's The Man With the Golden Gun (1965), Bond, who is captured by the Russians after his disappearance at the end of You Only Live Twice (1964), tries to kill M, having been convicted (brainwashed, in his case), that his own surrender of his humanity has been in a false cause.

So perhaps my earlier comparisons of Kingdom with Cathy Gale have been off base; she might better be seen as an inversion of Bond, whose seeming journey from M's "blunt instrument" into "humanity" is a false journey, further into darkness. By contrast, Kingdom's exact parallel journey is one from darkness into light. From the clipped, short tones of Kingdom, to a woman able to laugh, to smile, to see beauty, Kingdom dies and is reborn as Sara. Sara can be stern and tough, but can have friends, and pause to savor those friendships--hence my Cathy Gale analogy.

But then Sara dies. Ironically, she dies the same way Kingdom died--as a direct consequence of disobeying orders, this time the Doctor's orders to go back to the TARDIS with Steven:
DOCTOR: Now, both of you, back to the Tardis.
STEVEN: What about you, Doctor?
DOCTOR: Do as I say, quickly!
STEVEN: Go on!
(Steven grabs Sara's arm and drags her away. After a short distance, Sara stops and pulls herself free.)
SARA: Wait, Steven. We can't just leave him.
STEVEN: The Doctor knows what he's doing. At least, I think he does.
SARA: All we're doing is running to save our own lives. If anything goes wrong and the Daleks recapture the time destructor, we'll have failed for ever.
STEVEN: I know what you're saying. I'd go back too if I thought it would help. Whatever he's doing, he's doing because he thinks it's the best way. Now come on!


[As he hurries away from the control room, the Doctor meets Sara.)
DOCTOR: What are you doing here?
SARA: I came to help you.
DOCTOR: You must remember, my child, this machine is working. It's working slowly because its range is rather small at the moment, but it is working. Now, if you start to feel strange, you must let me know at once.
SARA: Yes, all right, but what about them?
DOCTOR: First, back to the Tardis. Is Steven not with you?
SARA: No. I came back that way.
DOCTOR: Hurry, my child, hurry!
As the episode casts its viewpoint back and forth between the Daleks, Steven watching from the TARDIS, and the Doctor and Sara's desperate effort to escape, Sara's fate unfolds:
[Kembel - Jungle]

(Steven reaches the safety of the Tardis and stumbles inside. Still clutching the time destructor, the Doctor leads the way back through the jungle but realises that Sara has fallen behind.)
DOCTOR: It's not far now. Sara!
(Sara is aging before his eyes.)
SARA: Keep going! The Daleks must be after us by now!
DOCTOR: The time destructor is
(His words are lost in the gale force winds)
SARA: You think I don't know?
(The Dalek patrol leaves the underground base and sets off in pursuit of the Doctor. Ahead, the Doctor does his best to help the increasingly infirm Sara struggle onwards, despite the ever-worsening environment.


(Meanwhile, Steven is pacing impatiently up and down. Not sure what else to do, he turns on the scanner.)
STEVEN: Nothing.
(Feeling helpless, Steven takes out his frustration on the Tardis console.)

[Outside the Tardis]

(The Daleks maintain their dogged pursuit. All around them the jungle is changing, plants withering and dying, lush foliage shrivelling up and turning to dust. Apparently unmoved and unaffected by the vast power of the time destructor, the Daleks continue to close in on their quarry. Yet the effects are taking a heavy toll on both Sara and the Doctor. Frail and weak, the old man stumbles onwards, all too aware that time is quite literally running out for his companion. At last they see the Tardis ahead but the Doctor can barely stagger a few more steps before he falls to his knees unable to go on. With a final desperate effort, Sara helps the Doctor up and they stumble a few short paces further before the Doctor falls again. The time destructor slips from his fingers, rolling away to lie just inches from his hand. Beside him, Sara pitches forward in the dust, unable to remain upright. She barely has the strength to open her eyes but somehow finds the will. She attempts to claw her way over to the time destructor.)
SARA: Doctor.
(The last of her strength gone, Sara falls and lies still.)
Even with only audio and telesnaps to convey it, Sara's extended aging and death is brutal. We don't know what it that the Doctor says that leads her to shout "You think I don't know?" with a touch of Kingdom's old brusqueness, but the emotion in Marsh's voice is searing. As I read it, it's her response to her own impending death. It hurts to listen to; I can't imagine what it was to watch, with actors like Hartnell, Purves and, especially, Marsh giving it their all.

She dies, because she couldn't let the old man face the danger alone. She dies, because she can't risk failure, and leaving the universe vulnerable. Sara gets her killed as much as Kingdom does. More so, really, because she could have watched from the safety of the TARDIS-the Time Destructor is wreaking havoc on the Daleks too. So she dies because she can't let a friend take all the risk without sharing it.

It's a dark ending, to a dark, and long, story. The Doctor tries hard to draw some meaning from it all, to even attempt a weak Merlyn's laugh. But Steven is having none of it, and, ultimately, the Doctor agrees:
STEVEN: I wish Sara could have seen the end.
DOCTOR: Yes, my boy, so do I. You know, Steven, the one thing that Sara lived for was to see the total destruction of the Daleks. Well, now it's all over. Without her help, this could never have been achieved.
(The Doctor notices something in the sand and reaches down to scoop it up in his hand.)
STEVEN: What is it?
DOCTOR: Millions of years of progress reversed back.
(The Doctor opens his hand to show Steven a tiny dead embryo.)
DOCTOR: That's all that remains of a Dalek.
STEVEN: Let's go, Doctor. I've seen enough of this place.
DOCTOR: Well, my boy, we finally rid this planet of Daleks.
STEVEN: Bret, Katarina, Sara.
DOCTOR: What a waste. What a terrible waste.
The series has never left us in so grim a place before. Where do we go from here?