Watching this week’s episode was an exercise in how weird it is to watch TV in the 21st century. By which I mean: how strange it is to follow a story for which you have been exposed to many spoilers. As much as I complained about series 5 and 6 in last week’s Doctor Who post, one thing I appreciated in an “isn’t that such a witty critique on modern culture” kind of way was River Song’s constant awareness of the danger of spoilers. I suppose this comes with the territory of time traveling. Or indeed the internet. Although I would have been perfectly happy with River Song’s never appearing again after the two-parter Library episodes in series 4,* the spoilers-theme keeps rearing its ugly head.
This episode was narrated by Amy Pond as if it had happened in the past. My memory may be faulty, but I can’t remember this happening (throughout an episode, I mean, not just as introductory sentences at the beginning of the episode as in series 6) since Rose’s last two episodes in season 2.** I suppose in A Town Called Mercy, you had that unnamed little girl narrating it, but that had more the feel of another nod to the spaghetti western style of filmmaking. In The Power of Three, Amy’s amiable recollection of ‘a year in the life’ was, to me, an indication that she knows something we don’t, that the end is near – in itself, a spoiler.***
In the last few episodes, Rory has seemed remarkably less mopey about the Doctor’s presence in their lives. Whereas for quite some time he seemed unable to do much more than rag on the Doctor for being an interruption in their life – quite right, given that Amy was kind of giving Rory the run-around whilst she got over her infatuation with the Doctor! – he seems to have got to a place where he is much more enthusiastic about travelling in the Tardis. Not that this means he won’t plainly bring up the choice looming before the Pond-Williamses of which life they will live for the long term. When he wasn’t running around in his underpants in this episode §, Rory seemed to be achieving generally badassery in the fields of nursing, tea-making, responsible couple chat, and discovering secret portals to alien ships orbiting the earth. Is there room in the Tardis for a companion who is both bumblingly endearing, practical and also as competent as Rory has become? Doubtful. Donna Noble got too competent and look what happened to her.
Stepping back from the character development of this episode a bit, I wonder what it would be like to watch DW – or any show for that matter – without sort of knowing what was going to happen. I found out sometime last month or the month before that the Pond-Williamses only had five or six episodes left. Most of the tech-savvy whovians out there will know this. I can’t help but wonder how much this influences the structure of the narrative. There’s not much of a possibility to be surprised by the departure of a character from a TV serial anymore, at least for those who follow even halfheartedly. §§ It seems that serials with revolving-door casts must content themselves with supplying their surprises in other places, given that the departure (or addition) of cast members will always be a matter surrounded by spoilers.
Despite the relative poetry of the Doctor’s description of his feelings for the Ponds in this episode, I can’t help but feel less attached than apparently he does to Amy & Rory. Time will tell, I guess, whether the tragic demise (disappearance?) of the Ponds will require tissues in Spitalfields.
* Sorry, Alex Kingston. You’re lovely, but just…no.
** Unsubtlety alert.
*** Although – did anyone else feel a little miffed on behalf of Martha ‘the Under-appreciated’ Jones, who had to deal with the Doctor becoming human for a year in 1914 and completely forgetting her? At least the Doctor has gotten better at valuing his companions.
§ Have the writers suddenly realised that they have a wider demographic watching this show than those who want to see Amy Pond’s unclad knees? Trousers-less Rory, nearly-shirtless Doctor (not to be confused with nearly-headless Nick)…I was almost expecting Arthur Weasley to start stripping at any moment but then I realised that the show is all about its ‘young peepul’ these days and wouldn’t that play hockey with the show’s ratings.
§§ All right, all right, I know I don’t follow Doctor Who halfheartedly, but most other bits of pop culture I follow, I do so with less enthusiasm.
I’ve learned a new word recently. Or rather, I’ve been attempting to get in with a family of words. The root is the Hebrew word* for chaos: tehom. The context for this new word has been the work of Catherine Keller, professor of Constructive Theology at Drew University. The idea of being a professor of Constructive theology is mildly intriguing, especially because my general assumption is that all professors/lecturers in theology are indeed constructing theology as a part of their life’s work and lecturing to that effect. This may not be the sense in which Constructive is meant, and if any readers have illuminating clues to this mystery, please feel free to share them. **
Job descriptions aside, Keller’s Face of the Deep has been my introduction to chaos – at least in terms of Torah and theology. Genesis 1:1-2 constitute her starting point and indeed her ending point as well; ‘When in the beginning Elohim created heaven and earth, the earth was tohu va bohu (formless and void), darkness was upon the face of tehom (the chaos/deep), and the ruach elohim (breath of God) was vibrating upon the face of the waters.’ Those of you who are familiar with my intrigue surrounding the concept of time won’t be surprised that I dig the idea of endings and beginnings overlapping, especially when their overlapping creates such a rich current in which to do Christian theology.
Interestingly, as I write this post I am sitting in a coffeeshop which (I hear tell) has something to do with Christians *** and in the corner in which I sit, I am surrounded by not fewer than ten moderately abstract paintings of waves / the sea. It seems that as a source of inspiration for artists and/or Christians, the sea is not likely to lose its allure. Nor should it, says Keller, not when the first two verses of Genesis, the grounding for Jewish and Christian cosmology establish ‘the chaotic depths’ as that place in which the spirit of God is not just present but generative. Constructive, even.
Keller advocates a ‘tehomophilic’ or chaos-loving theology for those who would exist honestly and consistently within a ‘Judeo-Christian’ tradition. Running away from a way of thinking and speaking about God which values chaos, darkness or the unknown, she argues, not only conflicts fundamentally with this rich and cherished origin story, it works to undermine its far-reaching transformative hope for creation (expressed in the most ‘orthodox’ of Christian theologies today).
I see a couple fantastically important points in Keller’s work thus far (still working my way through it) and a couple bones of contention. I’ll deal below with the points of agreement and the contentious bits in a future post.
Firstly, I love that a tehomic / tehomophilic theology affirms presence and absence. With all her emphasis on darkness and unknowing, digging around in the creation myths of the ancient near east, and validation of chaos (by definition that which can’t be predicted), you might think that her work is just a wordy way of doing apophatic (‘negative’) theology. Held dearly by the contemplative tradition, apophatic theology sees the importance of nothing; of approaching that scary, dark place where one simply cannot see God, where doubts have been laid bare, questions asked and it is up to God to answer them. And usually, apophatic theology reflects, God’s answers are neither immediate nor readily apparent.
Though I’m sure Keller would go along with most of the above, her theology comes at the problem of God’s presence/absence from another angle. She argues against a creation ‘ex nihilo’ or ‘from nothing’ in the classical Christian sense, contending that such a doctrine cripples God & alienates God from creation (both the act of creating and the material of creation), and that we “owe the invention of the creatio ex nihilo to a strong form of gnostic monism.” For those of you not geekily ensconced in theology – this is a REALLY IMPORTANT POINT. Keller and other important feminist and ecological theologians writing today are always being shouted at for being ‘gnostic heretics’ because, their opponents argue, God needs must be Separate and Apart and Holy and Complete. If God suddenly becomes too much ‘about’ creation, then aren’t we just making God & creation one and the same.
What proponents of creatio ex nihilo have overlooked is that such an idea makes God into an intellectual creator, rather than a material creator. If God simply thinks up creation and voila! there it is, there is no place for the ruach (breath or spirit) of God; there is no place for Jesus unless Jesus is also an ‘idea’ of God. Creation becomes an unreality. But a God who tangoes with chaos in creating – that God is both present in all the material of creation (because it’s always being created and God as creator has to be there) and absent, because of the unpredictable unknownness of chaos. God’s spirit is the actress in that always-creation (what evangelical Christians might choose to refer to as ‘transformation’) and Jesus, by his life and death and resurrection, is its midwife.
Which brings me to my second point of agreement with Keller: (2) A tehomic / tehomophilic theology is feminine as well as masculine. Keller works hard to identify and validate the repressed divine feminine in various ancient creation myths with which, any mature Christian theologian mustrecognize, the Genesis account shares its imagery, metaphors and worldview. What is important to see here is that it’s notjust the Genesis / Judeo-Christian account which fundamentally fears the feminine, demonizing it alongside sexuality in general and female sexuality in particular. I won’t fully overturn this kettle of fish here.§ If you want to read more, contact me & I can give you some good places to start. But it is vital to realize that the ‘editing out’ of the feminine seemed to be a universal tendency in the ancient world.
Was this about power? Partially. The slippery, uncertain darkness of femininity doesn’t bode well for warrior gods (or their peoples) attempting to establish territory, no matter how eager they are to beat their swords into ploughshares. But I choose a slightly less Marxist reading and say that the power dynamics are one part of larger psychological, sexual and ecological struggles that early religions were having, and those which I, as a Christian theologian in the company of all Christians, struggle with today. In an ancient context, the natural world was utterly terrifying – nowhere in the Hebrew scriptures is this more poetically expressed than in Job, §§ in God’s response to Job’s ‘why oh why was I ever created, a curse upon meeeee!’ moanings. It is fantastic to me that in a collection of books in which God is overrepresented by male images and certainly referred to with exclusively male pronouns, that this book, in a display of sheer force, God inhabits, extends and validates the tehom, the deep: a highly sexualized and unmistakably female miasma of images and language.
So was nature so scary because it lent itself more readily to female imagery? Yes, partly. Also, it was scary because it was scary! It was (and is) unpredictable. In a word, chaotic. This is why a theology which starts and ends with God’s spirit swirling within the depths of the sea is so important. Psychologically, it helps to bring us face-to-face with the paradox of God being familiar and other, and provides a mechanism for encountering these paradoxical angles of God’s nature in general. This includes God’s transcendence and immanence with regards to sex – the relative femininity (and masculinity) of which we ignore at our peril (not God’s). Finally, a creator God whom we can encounter with genuine contentedness as both our mother and father will help to reeducate us in our language around the creation as a whole. How do we live in a world filled worrying ecological behavior (or apathy with regard to ecology), including our own? So long as people of faith are spiritually and psychologically trained to abhor the feminine, our gynophobia §§§ will bleed into our ecology and become in many cases, a phobia of creation. Christians can either be afraid of (or neglectful of) creation because we are opposed to ‘paganism and mother earth,’ or we can treasure the feminised ways in which creation has been spoken of because we don’t fear speaking of God as female. This doesn’t mean that God and the earth are one and the same. Indeed, I would content that Jesus’ maleness offers and interesting if controversial corrective to the almost solely female language for creation / the earth…but that’s a topic for another day.
So that’s where I get along with Catherine Keller and her concept of tehom. I wish I were better versed in chaos theory (a la physics, not theology) and could reflect scientifically on her work. If this post hasn’t put you to sleep, I’d love your comments. Stay tuned for some critiques in the days to come.
* Yeah, I’m studying theology. Roll your eyes all you want. And yes, technically it’s the “ancient/biblical Hebrew,” but I think the context gives that away.
** Keller’s own notes on the matter: “This becoming theology continues a deconstruction of the paradigm and presumption of linear time: the bottom line of origin, the straight line of salvation history, the violent end of the line of time itself…this theology continues and attempt, necessarily from the inside of the biblical tradition, to heal that desiccating hope. As constructive work the present archaeology of ‘the deep’ becomes a tehomic theology.’ (Face of the Deep, xvii)
*** though they are curiously elusive, which I feel I should be gratified by but tend to find frustrating.
§ Read A.S. Byatt’s Possession carefully for women as the fish in said kettles, or perhaps leviathans. But do so drinking something nice like a big happy pot of tea or you might just get really depressed.
§§ Yes, even better than in the Psalms. I’m tired of Christians and their love affair with the Psalms. They’re like Weetabix. You have to give your stomach more than just Weetabix or you’ll either die of boredom or scurvy. Or maybe beriberi.
§§§ Keller would say ‘tehomophobia’ – fear of the chaos which is so often characterised as female, and “is never far from homophobia.” (Face of the Deep, 33).
Writing as someone who has not seen more than ten minutes of pre-Eccleston Doctor Who, I know it might seem a bit silly to rant about the ridiculousness, stratospheric amounts of cheese and bad plot devices, as I understand these were a dime -er, a tuppence? – a dozen in ye olde days of Baker et al. And maybe some day I will get around to watching but hey, life is short, and bandwidth is limited.
Let’s face it, though. Doctor Who has been almost entirely rubbish since ‘The Waters of Mars.’ As much as I’d like to blame this on Matt Smith (or better yet, Karen Gillan), the fact is that it was the sheer indulgence of the conclusion to David Tennant’s era (The End of Time two-parter) that seemed to send the show on its two-series-long slump. Perhaps it should be common sense that if you try to ‘up the epic ante’ during each series, or several times during a series, you’re soon going to run out of room, but the writers of the show seem to be infatuated with Bigger, Better and preferably More Explosions. *
With the exception of two episodes during series 6 – The Doctor’s Wife and The Girl Who Waited – I must say that the show was beginning to look like one of those things I would watch if I could be bothered.** This from the woman who single-handedly carried the DW virus to several key incubators in Houghton, New York, who have now spread the plague of geekdom around Newburg, Oregon, and Cincinnati, Ohio. At the beginning of series 7 I was fully prepared to start putting it behind me with other childish things, to start feeling more sheepish than proudly nerdy when mentioning, “Erm. Yes. Used to love that show.”
But – to use an exclamation which only could have originated in the aforementioned town in upstate NY – WHOA DANG, Series 7! Where have you been hiding all this time? I could write off The Doctor’s Wife as being the pen and brain of Neil Gaiman set loose on some Who-related themes. I could believe The Girl Who Waited to be an out-of-the-ordinary opportunity for Amy Pond to wear clothing on her legs and start to develop a character beyond somewhat spunky, definitely Scottish, far too la-tee-dah about her missing daughter. Three episodes in to series 7, however, and somehow all I can believe is that either series 5 and 6 were a lengthy ‘period o’ adjustment’ *** needed to endear me to Matt Smith or that the show’s creators have all been taking writing lessons.
Yes, the DalekGirl in Asylum of the Daleks was a bit annoying and we haven’t seen the last of her – unnerving. But clever clover, writers, erasing the Dalek shared consciousness of its memory of the Doctor! That’s on a level with the Star Trek re-vamp launching off into the freedom of a parallel universe.§ And Dalek zombies on a snow planet…ah, that’s almost too good to be true. True, the re-energization of the Pond-Williams marriage seemed to happen a little too quickly, but the little shot of the Doctor straightening his bow-tie as they snog to their hearts’ content after Amy has told him, “You can’t fix us like you fix your tie and make things all better!” was just the right amount of understatement.
And as if Dinosaurs on a Spaceship wasn’t good enough spoof of Snakes on a Plane in title only, we got to see Amy taking charge and being the character all the hype seems to think she is but rarely lets shine. She’s in charge of her own ‘companions’ whilst the Doctor and Williams Jr and Sr are off cavorting around with some (admittedly tedious and bitchy though undoubtedly entertaining for children) robots. At the end of this episode, my thought was, “When did Doctor Who get this dark?” Sending missiles off to destroy Senor Bad Guy? Having the ‘will I see you die or will you see me die?’ conversation? Whew.
And the darkness continued big time in A Town Called Mercy, alongside plenty of spaghetti-western spoofing. The last time I remember the Doctor pulling a gun on anyone was in The End of Time, as he fairly twirled around with a pained look trying to decide whether to shoot Rassilon or the Master. Ahhhhhngst. When, in this most recent episode, he dragged Dr. Jex to the edge of town and pointed a gun at him to keep him in danger, I was shocked. Add this to the timely and complicated discussions of war, what to do with war criminals, at what point guilt catches up with those criminals, and whether mercy is a real thing or an illusion: why, we haven’t seen such complex themes debated since, say…
…oh, I know! The Waters of Mars. §§
The only rather disappointing thing about this turn for the better in writing and characterization is the reality that the Ponds are in their last few episodes just as they were becoming likeable. §§§ And as intriguing as is the idea of DalekGirl, I wonder what the mid-series change in companion will do for the pacing of the series. Kudos to the writers, though, for taking a chance to make the show do what we all hoped Doctor Who was capable of: keeping us on our toes.
* This may be due to their infatuation with BBC America. I feel an apology coming on but will refrain as my country has enough to deal with at the moment.
** Kind of like the Great British Bake-Off, but with a TARDIS instead of a tent filled with mini Cath Kidston kitchens. Although I have no doubt that a TARDIS would contain a mini Cath Kidston kitchen.