Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Mark 8: 22 - 33


and he cometh to Bethsaida; ; 
and they bring a blind man unto him, 

and besought him to touch him
and he took the blind man by the hand, 
and led him out of the town; 
and when he had spit on his eyes, 
and put his hands upon him, 
he asked him if he saw ought.
and he looked up, 
and said, "I see men as trees, walking."
after that he put his hands again upon his eyes, 
and made him look up: 
and he was restored, 
and saw every man clearly.
and he sent him away to his house, saying, 
"Neither go into the town, 
nor tell it to any in the town".


Out on the lake, Jesus pronounced his disciples to be deaf and blind. And the first thing that happens when they get back to the land is that he heals blind man.

But for the first time, Jesus powers appear to be fallible. He tries to heal the man and it doesn't work. So he has another go; and on the second attempt the blind man is healed.

Some people conclude that this is a primitive passage. The historical Jesus must have been something more like a shaman or a wizard -- performing rituals which sometimes worked and sometimes didn't. Or, at any rate, that's what the very, very early Christians thought he was like. The later Church cleaned up the stories so that merely touching Jesus clothes produced an instantaneous transfer of miracle-juice. But that only poses a new question. Why did Mark present the raw version of this miracle but clean up the others so they fitted in better with the official, theological idea of Jesus? 

We are trying to read Mark on his own terms. How does the two-stage healing fit into his story?

"Well, in a very real sense, each time Jesus does a healing it is slightly different; and helps us see that God's ways are above our understanding, and that he resists any attempt to systematize him; and that he regards us all as individuals and ministers to us in the way we personally need."

I think we can do better than that. But we will have to get there by an indirect route. 

In the story, the blind man is brought to Jesus by some friends. And in the story the friends of the blind man believe that Jesus's touch will heal him -- in the way that it healed the woman with the bleeding problem, and brought Jairus's daughter back to life. So this isn't a "primitive" story. The people in the story know about the other healings. This particular story is different for some reason. 

We have been told that wherever Jesus goes he is been followed by people who just want to touch his clothes, or be touched by him -- that the roads are now lined with such people. But in this particular case, Jesus takes the blind man away by himself, and performs some kind of medical procedure. He spits in his eyes, and touches him: the man says he can see a little bit, but very imperfectly. Jesus  touches his eyes. This time the man can see perfectly. It's very similar to the story about the deaf man in the previous chapter. Jesus took him away from the crowd; performed a procedure involving saliva; spoke special Aramaic words; and he could hear again. 

The idea of deafness and blindness permeate the first half of Mark's Gospel. On four different occasions Jesus has concluded his teaching with the phrase "If any man hath ears, let him hear". He deliberately frames the parables so that "seeing, they may not see, and not perceive; and hearing they may not hear and not understand". And a moment ago, when the disciples couldn't understand the numerological meaning of the loaves, he told them they were deaf and blind. 

And then, this happens: 




And Jesus went out, and his disciples 
into the towns of Caesarea Philippi
and by the way he asked his disciples 
saying unto them, 
"whom do men say that I am?"
And they answered
"John the Baptist
but some say, Elias 
and others, one of the prophets."
and he saith unto them, 
"but whom say ye that I am?" 
and Peter answereth and saith unto him, 
"thou art the Christ."
and he charged them that they should tell no man of him.


There was an old pulp hero called The Shadow. He probably inspired Batman. In the first novellas he is very mysterious indeed, popping out of the darkness to save his agents from the forces of Crime and disappearing into the night. After about a hundred episodes, there was a special story called The Shadow Unmasks in which we finally learn his secrets. (He is an aviator named Kent Allard who crashed in Tibet and learned the secrets of mesmerism from the mystics there. If you thought he was Lamont Cranston, that's because you have only heard the radio version. I digress.) For several decades more, this was the established backstory: most readers didn't know of a time when the Shadow's identity was mysterious. Something very similar happened to Doctor Who.

Clearly, it would frivolous to the point of sacrilege to suggest that this following passage could be subtitled "Jesus Unmasks." 

Caesarea Philippi is about 40 miles north of Nazareth. It's the furthest Jesus has taken the disciples. The conversation happens "by the way" -- while they are still on the road. But it also seems to have happened "by the way" in a colloquial sense. This isn't a major teaching session. They are talking on the road, and suddenly everything comes to a head. 

Big questions often come up that way. Thank you for dinner. I enjoyed the movie. Oh, and while I think of it, would you like to marry me? 

The disciples' answer is the same as Herod's. The people are saying that Jesus is a prophet. This is no trivial claim. A prophet is someone who God talks to. Prophets wrote the Bible. Moses and Elijah were prophets. Prophets get to tell kings when they mess up. It's just about the biggest thing a human being can be. And the people don't just think Jesus is any old prophet. They think he is a super-prophet. Maybe a recently beheaded prophet come back to life. Maybe an ancient prophet come back to earth. 

All right, says Jesus. That's what the people are saying. But what do you think? 

Peter comes right out and says it. "You are christos". 

We can easily miss the force of this. We are prone to think of "Christ" as a surname. Mark introduced his book as "The Gospel of Jesus Christ"; people who follow Jesus are called Christians. But apart from that opening rubric, the word "Christ" has not been used before in Mark's Gospel. Demons have called Jesus "the son of the Most High" and Jesus has referred to himself as "son of Man". But Peter is the first one to call him Christ. 

Christos comes from chrio, to anoint. It is a direct translation of the Hebrew mashiach: the one who has been anointed. There is no mundane or secular sense in which Peter could be using the word. The only people who get anointed are kings. The mashiach is the king who is going to arise at some point in the future and make Israel Top Nation. We usually render it messiah, but that makes everyone think of Life of Handel. Or possibly Life of Brian.

Mark's Gospel is very old. The idea of it being dictated directly by the historical Peter is a bit romantic, but 60 - 80 CE seems to be the consensus date. 30 - 50 years since Jesus lived and died. The early date puts it as close to Jesus as we are to Bill Clinton's first term"; the late date puts it as close to Jesus as we are to Watergate. It may not be reportage; but it's too ancient to be folklore or legend. There has not been much time for Christian Theology to develop. 

I can't prove this. But it is the conviction I reach as I study the book. That I am reading something old; something primitive; something frighteningly close to the events; so close that awkward bits have not yet been smoothed out. Mark is speaking to a world which remembers Jesus;  a world where "who is Jesus?" remains an unsettled question.

Who do people say that I am? What is the consensus position? If you went out into the street and asked one of Mark's contemporaries what they thought of Jesus, what would they have said? I think that they would have still been saying that Jesus was John the Baptist, or Elijah, or one of the Prophets. Mark writes to correct what he sees as a popular misconception. His Gospel is not stating an orthodoxy, but throwing down a gauntlet. This is the good spiel that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God.


and he began to teach them, 
that the Son of man must suffer many things, 

and be rejected of the elders, 
and of the chief priests, 
and scribes, 
and be killed, 
and after three days rise again.
and he spake that saying openly. 
and Peter took him, and began to rebuke him
but when he had turned about 
and looked on his disciples, 
he rebuked Peter, saying, 
"get thee behind me, Satan: 
for thou savourest not the things that be of God, 
but the things that be of men."


We have talked about the word anistémi before. It means to "get up" or "stand up" or simply "get out of bed". When Jesus was first staying in Peter's house and we were told that he "woke up" very early to avoid the crowds, this was the word Mark used. It is perhaps understandable that the disciples didn't get this. "Waking up from among the dead" was not a familiar religious idea for them. 

We have also talked about the phrase "Son of Man". Jesus has used it twice before. It might mean "The Man"; it might be an idiomatic way of referring to himself ("this guy"); but it seems mostly to be a royal designation: the title Jesus uses when claiming exceptional authority. The Son of Man can forgive sins. The Son of Man gets to decide what you can and can't do on the sabbath. But now The Son of Man is going to be rejected and killed. 

I suppose that the announcement that Jesus was the Messiah caused some excitement among the disciples. Was there a moment when visions of Jesus on Big Herod's throne, ruling Israel with piety and a simple word-worker's wisdom danced through their heads? (With them, doubtless, as councilors and officers.) If so, the mood doesn't last more than a few seconds. The religious authorities will never accept Jesus as king. They are going to kill him. 

This is not quite news. The Pharisees have been against him from the beginning, and they have been planning to kill him since chapter 3. The announcement that he is King may make us think for a second that Jesus is going to win. But the message comes through loud and clear -- not couched in parables and analogies. He is not going to win. He is going to lose. 

There is some irony in the fact that, immediately after declaring him to be king, Peter starts to tell Jesus what's what -- to rebuke him. It's the same word that was used to describe the calming of the storm. Peter tells Jesus off. We don't hear what he said, but I suppose we can imagine it. He won't accept the idea that the person he has just declared to be Messiah is going to be killed.

So now it is Jesus's turn to tell Peter off. The English word "savour" is a bit of an odd choice here: it means "taste". The Greek word is phreneo: to think, or to have in mind. "You aren't thinking of God's things; you are only thinking of human things." 

If Jesus talks about bread, the disciples think he just means bread. If Jesus talks about kings, Peter assumes he just means kings. He takes everything as literally as possible. He can't see that there could be a different way of looking at things. Of seeing things.  

"Who does everyone else think I am."

"They think you are a prophet. A dead prophet come back to life; a legendary prophet come back to earth, or, well -- just a prophet. 

"Who do you think I am?"

"I think you are King."

"The religious bosses won't accept that. They will turn against This Guy, and kill him. But three days later This Guy he will stand up."

"No, no, no, your majesty. You read that bit wrong. That's not what happens to kings. Kings rule. They establish their thrones in Jerusalem and all the foreigners come and pay homage and..."

"Go away, Satan! That's what kings look like to humans. Not what kings look like to God..."

[continues]
I'm Andrew. I like God, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Wagner, folk-music and Spider-Man, not necessarily in that order. I have no political opinions of any kind.

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Friday, April 24, 2020

Mark 8 1-21



in those days 

the multitude being very great, 

and having nothing to eat, 
Jesus called his disciples unto him, 
and saith unto them,
"I have compassion on the multitude 
because they have now been with me three days 
and have nothing to eat
and if I send them away fasting to their own houses
they will faint by the way
for divers of them came from far."
and his disciples answered him,
"from whence can a man satisfy these men with bread here in the wilderness?"
and he asked them, "how many loaves have ye?" 
and they said, "seven".
and he commanded the people to sit down on the ground
and he took the seven loaves 
and gave thanks, 
and brake, 
and gave to his disciples to set before them; 
and they did set them before the people.
and they had a few small fishes 
and he blessed
and commanded to set them also before them.
so they did eat
and were filled
and they took up of the broken meat that was left seven baskets.
and they that had eaten were about four thousand
and he sent them away.


Stop me if you have heard this one before.

There is a big crowd. Jesus is in a "desolate place". The disciples have only a small amount of bread. Jesus blesses the bread; the disciples distribute it; all the people have enough to eat and there is plenty left over.

A few pages ago, we had the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Now, Jesus performs the same miracle again: the Feeding of the Four Thousand. This is not an editorial mistake; Mark has not accidentally included two versions of the same story. It is important part of the narrative that the same miracle happened twice. In a few verses, Jesus will refer to the two miraculous feedings as two different events. Five thousand and four thousand: the numbers are important in some way. 

The last time Jesus asked his disciples how many loaves of bread they had, they shamefacedly admitted "five". This time they rather proudly say "seven". That was another of Alec McGowen's laugh-lines.





and straightway he entered into a ship with his disciples, 
and came into the parts of Dalmanutha.

and the Pharisees came forth, 
and began to question with him, 
seeking of him a sign from heaven, 
tempting him
and he sighed deeply in his spirit, 
and saith, 
"why doth this generation seek after a sign? 
verily I say unto you, 
there shall no sign be given unto this generation"
and he left them, 
and entering into the ship again departed to the other side


No-one knows where Dalmanutha is. In Matthews's version, the incident takes place at Magadan, but no-one knows where that is either. After this encounter, Jesus goes to "the other side" of the lake and ends up in Bethsaida, but since no-one knows where Bethsaida is either, that isn't much help.

The location doesn't matter very much. They are back in Galilee, somewhere near the lake. Jesus feeds another crowd; gets into a boat; travels some distance; and gets out. Some Pharisees ask him a question; he won't answer it. Instead he gets back in the boat and goes away again. Mark is building up a picture of what the Galilean ministry was like. Jesus criss-crosses the lake, doing miracles and arguing with Pharisees.

What do the Pharisees mean by a sign? They know that Jesus can do miracles -- they just object to him doing them Saturday mornings. They know he can cast out demons -- they just aren't sure of who gave him the authority to do so. The want some sort of additional sign; a sign from heaven; a sign which would prove something. 

But what do they need proof of? Up to now, Jesus has avoided making direct claims. He has kept his identity largely a secret. They can hardly be saying "Prove to us that you are the Messiah!" because Jesus hasn't yet claimed to be so. They can't be saying "Prove you are the Son of God!" because only the demons know that he is.

But Jesus has insinuated that he is somehow above the law -- and certainly above the Pharisee's own teachings. He has said in their hearing that he can change the rules about the Sabbath if he wants to; that people don't have to fast as long as he is around; and that he himself has the authority to forgive sins. So perhaps that is all they are after. Prove to us that you have the authority to do all this stuff. Tell us definitively who you are claiming to be.

Why does Jesus refuse? Is he stating a general principle: "I offer no proofs to anyone", or a more specific one "I offer no proofs to Pharisees."

Jesus has consistently tried to keep his miracles quiet, but lots of them -- the healing of the woman with the issue of blood; the healing of the man with a withered hand -- have been done in public. People know that he can do this stuff. 

Jesus says that he is not in the business of giving out signs. Not right now. Not to the present generation. It must follow that the miracles of Jesus are not to be taken as signs. One is tempted to write "they are not significant". If you want to know who Jesus is, you have to look elsewhere. Evangelists who tell us to trust Jesus because he healed cripples and lepers are have evidently not read this passage.






now the disciples had forgotten to take bread, 
neither had they in the ship with them more than one loaf.

and he charged them saying 
"take heed, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, 
and of the leaven of Herod"
and they reasoned among themselves, saying, 

"It is because we have no bread."
and when Jesus knew it, he saith unto them, 
"Why reason ye, because ye have no bread? 
perceive ye not yet, 
neither understand? 
have ye your heart yet hardened?
having eyes, see ye not? 
and having ears, hear ye not? 
and do ye not remember?
when I brake the five loaves among five thousand, 
how many baskets full of fragments took ye up? 
they say unto him, "twelve."
"and when the seven among four thousand, 
how many baskets full of fragments took ye up?" 
and they said, "seven."
and he said unto them, 
"How is it that ye do not understand?"


"It is because we have no bread" say the disciples, who have messed up on this front twice before. And again the audience laughs.

I think the laugh may give us a way in to this very obscure story. The disciples have witnessed two amazing miracles of feeding -- two reruns of one of the Prophet Elijah's best stunts. And the main thing they have taken away -- the thing they are still fretting about -- is "Silly us! How incredibly embarrassing! We keep misjudging the catering arrangements!" It's like they've spotted the least important thing and made that the whole point of the story. And that's quite funny. How could anyone be that silly?

The Pharisees and (although we have not heard very much from them ) the Herodians are different Jewish sects; both expecting a new Jewish King but disagreeing about who is is going to be. The Pharisees are hoping for a bona fide descendant of David; the Herodians, more realistically, want to see the dynasty of Big Herod restored.

Leaven is yeast. At the feast of Passover the faithful eat matzos, bread made with no yeast. The Torah has a lot of instructions about not allowing yeast to get into places where it isn't meant to be. For a whole week around Passover you aren't allowed to have any of the stuff in your house; and bread made with yeast can't be sacrificed to God under any circumstances ("Go and sin!" says the prophet Amos "And then sin some more! And while you are at it, sacrifice some yeasty bread to God, why don't you?") So Jesus is alluding to the practice of searching and cleaning houses of every trace of yeast before Passover. A small bit of yeast gets into everything. If you let even a speck of yeast get into a cooking pot then the whole stew is unclean. So the message is not very obscure. "Search very carefully for anything related to the Pharisees and the Herodians. Even a tiny amount will make you impure."

The disciples don't understand what Jesus is on about, and say so. Jesus reminds them of the two miracles of the loaves. He particularly draws their attention to the numbers of a loaves involved, and the numbers of fragments which came back. They don't understand. And neither, I have to admit, do I. 

Aha. Laughed at the disciples for missing the point? Not so clever now, are you?

Five loaves shared between five thousand people left twelve baskets of left-overs. Seven loaves shared between four thousand left seven baskets. That's a ratio of 1 basket to 417 people in the first case, and 1 basket to 571 in the second. In the first case, each individual got one one thousandth of a loaf of bread, or approximately 0.8 grams each; in the second each person got about one six hundredth of a loaf, or maybe 1.4 grams.

This doesn't help. 

But maybe there is some general point: the less you have to start with, the more is left over? God prefers to work with limited resources? Bread goes further if you add fish to it?

Perhaps we should be reading the numbers magically. Allegorically. Five loaves represent the five books of Torah; seven loaves represent the seven days of creation. So the first miracle is about the feeding of Jews, and the second is about the feeding of the whole universe. Twelve baskets represent the twelve tribes of Israel; seven baskets represent the Amorites, the Hittites, the Jebusites, the Hivites, the Perizzites and the Girgashites who Jacob's descendants kicked out of the Promised Land. (Paul talks about the Israelites defeating "the seven nations", as if that is a number we ought to know about.) It is certainly true that in the troubling story of the Cyro-Phoenician woman, Jesus healing power is likened to bread. But the point of that story is that the pagans are going to get to pick up abundant, plentiful scraps -- not that they are going to go somewhere else and have a feast of their own.

And what does any of this have to do with yeast?

It is obviously true that Jesus is speaking spiritually and the disciples are obstinately understanding him materially. You would have to be very clueless indeed to read this passage and think that Jesus is telling us that if a Herodian gives us a matzo it might be ritually unclean. Preachers sometimes talk as if this misunderstanding is the whole message of the passage. "Jesus once spoke to his disciples about spiritual, metaphorical bread; but they misunderstood him and thought that he meant literal bread. And in a very real sense, isn't that often true of each and every one of us...."

But this doesn't explicate the passage one little bit. In what way does "Remember how much there was left over when I multiplied actual physical bread to feed an actual physical crowd?" lead to "In this case, when I say 'yeast' I am not talking about literal yeast"?

"When Jesus fed two huge crowds with hardly any bread, there was plenty left over. Once you have understood this, you will understand what it means to avoid Pharisee yeast." It makes no sense at all.

When faced with very difficult passages like this in Mark, I am tempted to "cheat" and see what Matthew made of them. But that doesn't help very much in this case. Matthew tells Mark's story pretty much in Mark's words, but he adds that the disciples eventually worked out that by "yeast" Jesus meant "teaching". And that's a good enough reading of Jesus remark about the yeast: avoid the teaching of the Pharisees as scrupulously as you would avoid yeast at Passover. But it doesn't bring us any closer to seeing the significance of the numbers of people involved in the miracles of the loaves. "Once the disciples thought about how much food went into doggy bags after the miraculous feedings, they understood that they should scrupulously avoid the teachings of the Pharisees." The allegorical readings are open to the same interpretations. "The two healing miracles contain a cryptic numerology which shows that God will eventually feed both Israel and the Nations: this tells you in what way the Pharisees' teaching is like yeast."

So: according to our normal procedure, let us simply observe that the literary or artistic effect of this passage is to be leave everyone baffled. The important thing to take away is not that Pharisaical teaching is yeast-like. The important thing to take sway is that Jesus keeps saying things that the disciples don't understand. And neither do we. And that makes Jesus angry:


"Do you not yet perceive nor understand? Do you have your heart hardened? Having eyes, do you not see? And having ears, do you not hear?"


Do you nor see? Do you not hear? The disciples are blind and deaf. Deaf and blind. And so are we.

And that sets up everything else which happens in this pivotal chapter.


I'm Andrew. I like God, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Wagner, folk-music and Spider-Man, not necessarily in that order. I have no political opinions of any kind.

If you are enjoying my essays, please buy me a "coffee" (by dropping £3 in the tip jar)

Or consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)

Thursday, April 23, 2020

12:10 The Timeless Children



WHERE IS HE THAT SAYS I PLAY THE VILLAIN?


The Timeless Children is not so much a story as a cop-out. 

There are fireworks. There are flags and lampshades that warn us that this is a really important story and the season climax. The space-opera gloss from last week is all present and correct. I liked the gun battle in the camp. I liked Ryan throwing the bomb as if it was a basketball. (I like the way he says “oh my days” rather than “oh my god.”) I liked the way Graham takes charge of the party of player characters on the space ship and comes up with scheme that is so crazy it might just work. I liked the huge crashed Chris Foss spaceship on Gallifrey. I liked the melodrama, the machismo, the one last cavalry charge into certain doom. Be swift, be brave, but most of all, be lucky! 

There is a great big hole in the plot. It is called the Boundary and it connects the story about the Cybermen quite arbitrarily with a story about the Master. It is guarded by an old soldier with robes and a staff played by Ian McElhinney. He speaks his lines in that understated thespian way that good stage actors used to have, managing to say minor lines under his breath but still letting us hear them. He puts one in mind of dear, dear Sir Larry playing Zeus. But most of all he puts one in mind of Sir Alec Guiness. If Doctor Who is going to do Star Wars it may as well go the whole way.

I wish we could have stuck with the gritty space opera and left the Master and the Time Lords for another week. I’ve always wanted to see Blakes 7 done with Cybermen in the Doctor Who universe. (Why do we describe a more down-beat version of an established character as “gritty” incidentally? Is there any such thing as a “smooth” reboot?) 

The Master is quite funny, but the whole “I am evil and I know I am evil” routine got old after John Simm. And Michelle Gomez. And Moriarty. And that Dracula thing. He shrinks the Lone Cyberman with his evil shrink ray and five minutes later says he wished he’d said “I’m going to cut you down to size.” He makes a fairly good evil joke at the Doctor, and then asks why she doesn’t crack a smile. He says “Are you sitting uncomfortably?” before expositing the backstory. Evil is performative; the Master is outside the script. But it removes any sense of him being a threat you need to take seriously. 

Having killed the main villain from last week, the Master gets control of the Cybermen’s floaty glowy mercurial artificial intelligence that they normally keep hidden in the brains of romantic poets. There was a decent comparison to be made between the Time Lord Matrix and the Cybermen’s Cyberium but no one makes it. I hope at some point we get a Cybermen / Sea Devil cross over so they can call it the Silurian Cyberium. It turns out that the Shrunken Cyberman had a Plot Device hidden inside of him that, if released, would wipe out all organic life. The humans already know about this Death Particle. Legends speak of it, apparently. You’d really think that Chibnall could come up with a better way of getting his plot coupon to the Doctor.

The Time Lords are all dead, but the Master is going to allow the Cybermen to convert the dead Time Lords into Cybermen. Which is a Bad Thing because Time Lords can’t die. There is, it seems to me, a tiny flaw in this reasoning, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. Earlier in the episode the Lone Cyberman was waxing maniacal about how he was going to remove the last bit of organic matter from his people and turn them into pure robotic entities. The Master, speaking again from outside of the script, complains that that would be a cliche because there are already lots of evil robots in the Doctor Who universe. This plot thread gets buried when the Master zaps the Cyberman. A pity. “Emotional Cyberman who wants to be a robot versus Emotionless Cybermen who want to stay a bit human” was a plot that could have gone somewhere. 

The Cybermen and the Rebels come from a serious world we might almost believe in. They speak the same language, literally and metaphorically, as Ryan and Yaz. The Master is a clown; a trickster; a wild card in the deck; he knows he is in a story and loves the fact that he’s got cast as a baddie. So, obviously, when he incorporates the Cybermen into his plan, the Cybermen are going to become ridiculous. The bigger and more apocalyptic the plan, the more risible the Cybermen need to appear. The Master isn’t really going to destroy the universe by releasing the Particles of Death. He is going to destroy it by parodying it and making it ridiculous so no-one can believe in it any more. 

Since Season 2, everyone has been working really hard to make the Cybermen scary; and the last time we saw them they were properly dark. So obviously, when they are turned into unkillable dead Cyber Time Lords they acquire high collars, with a lace-style pattern worked into the metal. And robes. When did Cybermen ever wear clothes before? When the ultimate villains come on stage, the audience titters. The Master’s victory is complete.

Graham tells Yaz that she is amazing, strongly signalling that she is going to get killed. (She isn’t.) The Doctor decides to use the miniaturised body of the Lone Cyberman and a bomb to unleash the Particles of Fatal Death to kill the Master and all the Cyber Time Lords (who are, if you have been following this, unkillable.) 

The Master is delighted with this because it means that the Doctor is (all together now) just as bad as him. The Doctor chickens out at the last moment, reasoning presumably that if someone pointed out a child to her and told her that the child would grow up totally evil she still couldn’t kill the child. So the Jedi Knight shows up and commits hari kari while the Doctor runs away. Everyone goes home in various TARDISes. A mysterious lady in a bridal outfit [check this. Ed.] appears in the TARDIS to set things up for the holiday special and the Doctor is left going “what, what, what” like she always does. 

There is a twenty minute digression in which the Master narrates some guff about the origin of the Time Lords to the Doctor, but you can skip that part because it doesn’t affect the plot in any noticeable way.


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I said I was going to give up thinking about Doctor Who after the desecration of William Hartnell’s corpse in Twice Upon a Time; and nothing in series eleven made me regret the decision. Series twelve was a notable improvement. I found the holiday camp one and the America one perfectly watchable. The one with Lenny Henry, the one with the Romantic poets and the one with the rhinos I thought were positively good. Only the one with the dead birds and the one with the evil aliens who feed of negative emotions were properly unwatchable. The closing two-parter is funnish but is predicated on a cop-out and some not ultimately interesting fanwankery. 

So if anyone cares, on a scale of 1 to 5


Spyfall 1 ***

Spyfall 2 ***

Ocean 55 **

Nicolas Tesla’s Night of Terror **

Fugitive of the Judoon***

Can You hear Me *

Praxeus *

The Haunting of the Villa ***

Ascension of the Cybermen ***

An Untimely Child **







Wednesday, April 22, 2020

12.9 Ascension of the Cybermen


NOW I'LL NEVER KNOW IF I WAS RIGHT

I remember the thrill when Earthshock first came out. Lots of science guys getting killed in a series of caves; a great big final-frame reveal that the Cybermen were behind it: new, glossy, post-Star-Wars versions of the Cybermen. Nathan-Turner reputedly refused to put the Cybermen on the cover of the Radio Times. What the story lost in ratings it won in legacy. Doctor Who fans of a certain age all remember the thrill of that final image. Chris Chibnall is a Doctor Who fan of a certain age. 

1982 was quite late to be trying to look like Star Wars: but Doctor Who was always good at riding the last wave but one. John Nathan-Turner’s new fibreglass Cybermen were glossy and violent and the video effects now ran to zap guns which zapped convincingly. Since Doctor Who had always looked shabby, glossy was a good thing to be. In retrospect, Earthshock turned the Cybermen into Stormtroopers. Into canon fodder. Into an infinite stream of extras in silver suits being bumped off by the Warrior Robot or by extras with golden crossbows. It didn't matter.  Adric died in the final episode and the theme music didn’t play. What happened in between I can barely remember.

Ascension of the Cybermen is firmly in the tradition of Earthshock. This is Doctor Who as action movie; Doctor Who with added gloss; Doctor Who with the best special effects the BBC can muster, which these days means pretty good. 

There are at least three styles. The seven-ordinary-people who are the sole survivors of the human race look like they came out of a late 70s BBC sci fi series for grown-ups. Out, indeed, of Survivors. They have grav rafts and grenades and wear wooly hats. The TARDIS team are incongruous, but only a bit incongruous, in this punky world. They have technology, rather than gadgets and plot devices. Graham has changed back into a realistic grown up human being, who has more or less grasped what the neural inhibitor system, is for, and does a good job of explaining it back to the natives, and therefore the viewers. 

The Cybermen themselves, when they come, come from Star Wars rather than Terminator, flying in formation with pretty computer game targeting computers. 

The idea of flying Cyberheads is a misstep. There is no special reason for the drones to be head-shaped: they are just there because the viewers might want to see some Whovian furniture. But the Cybermen themselves, when they show up are rusty and battlescarred and the Lone Cyberman, from last week, is still nasty and cruel and treacherous rather than cold and calculating. 

I must admit that I lap this kind of thing up. We all talk about speculative fiction and sci-fi as a respectable literary genre; but we all got into it for the big space ships and zap guns and baddie robots. 

There is some fabulous imagery: the first shot of the great big shiny Cyberman on the Cyberman troop ship made me grin; as did the scene of millions and millions of Cyber soldiers marching as to war. And I loved it when the spaceship flew through the debris of thousands of dead Cybermen. 

It is tremendous fun that ordinary people who dress like truckers and treat their spaceship like a caravan get to pass through space cyber graveyards and find themselves wandering around cyber troop carriers. It is tremendous fun that sci fi technology looks shabby and lived in and is allowed to seem almost ordinary. This is what was so riveting when Star Wars came out; a very long time ago; even before Earthshock. Doctor Who is being quite unoriginal; even quite retro. But it is being it very well indeed.

There is a separate, unrelated story. It is set in Ireland. We know it is Ireland because everything is green. Jonathan and Martha O’Kent find a foundling boy and bring him up as their own. Everything is ordinary. He goes to school and learns how to stack hay with a pitchfork and joins the police. Weirdly, he is shot and falls off a cliff but is uninjured. The story overlaps with the main plot only through Watchmenesque segues. When Brendan is poorly, and his mother sends for the Doctor, we cut straight to our Doctor fighting the Cybermen. There is no hint as to how the two stories relate: whether we are watching a dream or a flashback or a story. The characters are nice enough that it doesn’t matter all that much. The main story is relentless grim and explodey; it is quite pleasant to cut to an inset story where the land is green and the people are pleasant. At the end the boy, now an elderly cop, is strapped into an electric chair at the back of the Garda station. Which is not so nice. 

If you can fall off a cliff and get better you are probably a Time Lord, although we rather pointedly didn’t see the orange fireworks which normally come out of someone’s head in a regeneration scene. The Doctor and the Master didn’t grow up in 1950s Ireland, so far as we know. So my money is on this being the Doctor’s long lost son. The people frazzling his mind at the end must be other Time Lords, for some reason.

The Master has always been a bit of a Pantomime villain; a bit of a cartoon-strip baddies. Nothing against Pantomimes; nothing against cartoon strips; but he is the kind of baddie who is bad because he is bad; and Sacha Dhawan's characterisation is very clownish and quite meta. He falls into the quite realistically drawn space opera in the last half minute and says "Nice entrance!" for all the world like Lord Flashheart. Like Missy, he knows he's in a TV series; he knows this is all made up. 

Apparently, everything is going to change and nothing is ever going to be the same again. So we're back to the set ups and unanswered questions that have been driving this series. Why is the Lone Cyberman so important? Why is there a logically impossible extra Doctor? What news does the Master have which is going to rock the Doctor’s world quite so comprehensively. And what on earth does this have to do with an Irish cop who came to a sticky end a few decades ago?

Will the season wrap-up be able to answer all these questions to everyone’s satisfaction?

SPOILER: No.


NOTE: When Ravio tells Graham that he is strange, Graham replies “Excuse me, I am the most normal bloke you are ever going to meet.” But there is a false start, and he very distinctly says “Excuse me, I am the D….” Under other circumstances, I would say that this is a set-up for a very clever twist. (Remember Matt Smith’s jacket in Time of the Angels?) But his worst enemy would never accuse Chris Chibnall of subtlety.



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Monday, April 20, 2020

The Seeds of Doom


Doctor Who was at it’s best when it was most like Doctor Who. Seeds of Doom is as much like Doctor Who as Doctor Who ever got

The set up is pure Quatermass. Scientists at an Antarctic Base discover two frozen space-eggs. The first space-egg hatches, infects one of the scientists and turns him into a monster. The first episode ends with him trying to strangle Sarah-Jane Smith. There is a lot of strangulation in this story. A lot of punching and kicking and neck-twisting as well; not to mention a Molotov cocktail and an airstrike. The Doctor himself is seen weilding a gun, a sword, and some military strength weed-killer.

There is a twist. A beautiful, bonkers twist. The space-eggs are vegetables: literally seeds. The seeds of Doom. They would have been the seeds of Death, but Patrick Troughton had already bagsied that one. They look a lot like giant horse-chestnuts.

And back in London there is an insane, camp botanist who lives in a mansion and is much concerned about cruelty to Bonsai trees. He sends two of his goons to the Antarctic. They steal the unhatched egg and take it back to England. By the end of episode three it is menacing Sarah-Jane with one of its tendrils. (Sarah-Jane spends a lot of this story being menaced.) In the event, one of the two goons gets infected and turns into a plant man; and then a giant cabbage. By the final story it is so huge that it is towering, Cthulhu-like over the the mansion, bursting out of doors and windows. (Like Camelot, it is only a model, but it is a pretty good model under the circumstances.) In the end, UNIT sends in an airstrike and destroys it. But not before the Doctor and the thugs and the botanist and some civil servants and an endearingly dotty old artist have done more running around, getting captured and escaping than is strictly decent.

At six episodes, it doesn’t feel padded: two episodes of The Thing (this was before The Thing) followed by four episodes of Little Shop of Horrors (this was before Little Shop of Horrors). It’s a structural masterclass: the threat escalates in each episode, from a pod which might potentially hatch in episode one two a house-sized plant which is going to throw out thousands more pods in episode six. Each episode races towards a gruesome cliffhanger. Of course Chase has got a conveyer belt which runs waste material through giant rotating blades to produce fertiliser; and of course Sarah ends up tied to it. Of course the baddies leave Sarah tied up in a power-station with a time bomb rather than just shooting her.

It’s Saturday, it’s six o clock, and it’s Doctor Who. Dum-ba-da-dum, dub-ba-da-dum, wooo-weee….




Season 12 began with the Brigadier summonsing the Doctor to Earth. The Doctor wasn’t happy; but he showed up. He offered to give Sarah-Jane a lift back to London in the TARDIS, but got distracted: he eventually ended up on an alien planet where they just happened to be making evil robot doubles of Sgt Benton and Harry Sullivan. He offered to take Sarah-Jane home one last time, but they ended up in a gothic castle in a different galaxy.

But now, here is the Doctor, sitting in the office of some British government bureaucrat. The Brigadier must have called him back to earth right after he left Karn. He isn’t happy: but he’s come.

And this is pretty odd: because in Planet of Evil he was talking to demonic anti-matter beings on their own terms; and in Brain of Morbius he was dealing with Time Lord enemies and in Pyramids of Mars  he was telling Sarah-Jane forcefully that he was a Time Lord.

He’s cross when the Brigadier treats him as an errand-boy; but he’s equally cross when the Time Lords send him on a mission of utmost importance.

It’s like: the Doctor is debating with himself about who he wants to be from now on. I am a Time Lord: don’t treat me like a Time Lord. I work for UNIT: don’t treat me as if I work for UNIT.

And in retrospect, we can see that the programme is still arguing with itself about what kind of a programme it should be from now on. Are we going to carry on watching Doctor Who stories in which ladies run around quarries being menaced by monsters and rescued by an eccentrically benevolent alien? Or is it going to be about high-concept fantasy, full of horror-pastiche and the mythology of Gallifrey?

When Sarah-Jane woke up in Solon’s lab she briefly thought the last three episodes had been a terrible nightmare. Planet of Evil, Pyramids of Mars, and Brain of Morbius have been very unlike Doctor Who stories. And now the Doctor is back in some Whitehall office, with his feet on the desk, playing with a yo-yo, pretending that he is reluctant to save the earth from yet another alien invasion. It’s like the rest of the season never happened. Normal service has been resumed.


Tom Baker has changed his mind; again, about what kind of Doctor he wants to be. He gives a very straight performance: there are few grins and few Shakespearean flourishes. One feels that “What you have done could result in the total destruction of all life on this planet” should have been delivered with more menace — or perhaps with inappropriate levity. By episode six he is being actively nasty; shouting at people and telling them to shut up. Perhaps Tom himself is bored by the script. But in a funny way this seems to work in the story’s favour. The Doctor isn’t scared of the Krynoids in the way that he was scared of Sutekh. They are, in the end, only big plants. But he is perturbed and worried by them: like a Doctor who has been called in to deal with a serious life-threatening but eminently treatable illness. Only when being threatened by Scorby, the mercenary thug, does he start to grin, and to be more than usually annoying.

“Okay, start talking!”

“Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had perfect pitch…”

He comes across as a cheeky schoolboy who is about to get thumped; the childish, grinning, silly Doctor is an act to patronise and annoy baddies. (Minor baddies: the ones he has contempt for.) It is a shame that this deliberately annoying persona is going to become his entire personality as the series progresses.

From the beginning, this Doctor has mostly kept his outdoor clothes — hat, coat, scarf — on indoors. In this story he wears them when walking around the South Pole, even though everyone else is wearing specialised cold weather gear. At one point he disguises himself as a chauffeur: he puts a long black coat over his own coat. The scarf sticks out below the hem. It is ridiculous, but it is wonderfully ridiculous, the sort of ridiculous that little boys love.

Since the Christopher Eccleston reboot, the Doctor has carried a quiver of get-out-of-jail-free cards: the sonic screwdriver; the psychic paper; the TARDIS itself. The Fourth Doctor makes little use of that stuff. He doesn’t need to. He is perpetually jumping over walls; hurling himself through skylights; disarming bad-guys, even wielding weapons. His get-out-of-jail-free card is being the Doctor. If he is tied to a chair with a gun pointing at him that is only because at this moment he chooses to be so.

No TARDIS; no Brigadier; no familiar monsters. This is Doctor Who without any Doctor Who icons. Tom — floppy hat, baggy coat, long scarf — is the icon now. He defines what Doctor Who is. Doctor Who used to be bigger than any one actor. Tom Baker is already irreplaceable. He is ushering in a golden age; but he is also going to kill the programme.



A big chunk of Terror of the Zygons took place in a wood panelled library belonging to the Laird. Pyramids of Mars was mostly set in Prof Scarman’s wood-panelled stately home. And here we are in Chase, the mad botanist’s mansion. In memory, it all merges into one endless game of hide and seek through the stately homes of England, with giant vegetables and Egyptian mummies and the Loch Ness monster lurking around every corner.

There are scenes in the non-specific civil servant’s office and there were scenes in the chief astronaut’s office and there were rooms in a spaceship thirty thousand years in the future which looked very much like someone’s office.

And quarries: representing alien planets and the Antarctic and sometimes actual quarries.

The same scenes. Over and over. Nothing looks too alien. But we know: the milkman is an android and the laird is a Zygon; the plants in the greenhouse will strangle you and the oversized conker will wipe out all life on earth.

It has been said that Doctor Who is about putting the very, very strange alongside the very, very ordinary. That is certainly where it ends up: but that is not where it starts. It starts with the defamiliarization of the ordinary. These are the labs and classrooms and streets and pubs and villages that you might walk down in your everyday life. These are the sorts of stately homes that you might visit on a Sunday afternoon with a National Trust handbook in one hand and a bottle of ginger beer in the other. (Chase gives the Doctor and Sarah a guided tour of his mansion before trying to kill them.)

This is a children’s programme. This is what a child’s world is like. Ordinary things are strange and terrifying. Grown-ups may turn into monsters at any moment. They threaten to burn us at the stake and grind us down into fertiliser and we don’t understand what we did wrong. But for all we know a phone box or a wardrobe might contain something wonderful.

What was it G.K Chesterton said? Doctor Who doesn’t teach us that botanists sometimes throw pretty ladies into grinding machines. It teaches us that there is usually a way to escape from them.



I don’t have a problem with people who take Doctor Who seriously. I take it pretty seriously myself. But I am constantly amazed by people who take it literally. It is about as sensible to talk about a Doctor Who Universe as it would be to talk about a Monty Python Universe.

Look at Harrison Chase. As a human being, his almost inconceivable. As a piece of fiction he is one of the most morbidly funny ideas the series ever came up with.

He’s a James Bond villain. He lives in a posh mansion. He is surrounded by thugs and flunkies. He says “Why am I surrounded by idiots!” and “Guards, guards!!” and “Nothing can stop me now!”. He tries to mash first the Doctor and then Sarah into fertiliser and he positively enjoys doing so. “Your death will be agonising but mercifully swift” he says. No Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.

Is he motivated by power, or world domination, or wealth or ideology? No. What he is interested in his flowers. He’s a collector. He wants to have rare blooms which no-one else has. But he seems to sincerely love his flowers. He thinks that hybrid strains are unnatural and that bonsai trees are cruel. By the end of the story, he is sitting in his greenhouse in a lotus position, ranting about the green and about how animals are usurpers on the earth. He’s quite poetic in a way. At one point he is said to be insane: at another point he is said to be possessed by the krynoid (which is hard to justify in terms of anything resembling the actual plot). But he basically just marches to the beat of a different drum.

Quite often I find myself typing that a villain or some Alienses want to take over the world because they are Doctor Who monsters and that is what Doctor Who monsters do. Chase is very much better than that. He prefers plants to people. He is cold-bloodedly interested in finding out what would happen if Keeler turned into a giant vegetable and he quite likes the idea of the human race being extinctified.

There could have been a point to all of this: a moral message about preserving the rainforest or being careful with industrial insecticide or taking your crisp packets home after a picnic. But somehow “plants versus animals” takes the place of political or moral ideology. It’s just us vs them: we are the animals and they are the plants. Chase is a classical villain but instead of being a Nazi or a Communist he’s a plantist. It’s completely bloody mad but it works.

The story is surprisingly character-driven. The characters may not be deep or psychologically believable; but they are autonomous human beings, rather than neatly packaged parcels of plot device. Scorby is a thug and knows he is a thug and knows he is good at being a thug. When the Doctor points out that he is working for a loony, he replies “When it comes to money, Mr Chase and I are of the same religion”. (The Doctor misattributes the quote to Franklin Adams: it is actually one of Voltaire’s.). He talks about having been a mercenary and knowing how to take care of himself: he switches sides in the final episode. “Can I rely on you?” says the Doctor? “For the moment” Scorby replies. The civil servant Dunbar passes secrets to Chase in return for money because he has been passed over for promotion; he turns against him (and risks his life) when he realises he is a psychotic lunatic and not just a plant thief. Keeler is a scientist who likes working with Chase’s plant collection and is scared of Scorby.

Even Amelia Ducat, who is quite obviously there as space-filling comic relief, has her own little motivation: she’s an artist; precious about her paintings; cross that Chase hasn’t paid her; and thinks that it is fun to “do her bit” and play at being a spy on behalf of the government. She is sometimes said to be a tribute to Lady Bracknell, but she’s a lot more like Miss Marples: the superficially harmless old lady who everyone underestimates. The Oscar Wilde connection comes from a single line: when Sarah says that they found one of her paintings in the boot of a car — a Daimler — she replies “The car is immaterial.” But surely it is Mrs Ducat who is wittily quoting a line from a famous play?


Speaking of superficially harmless old ladies…

Mary Whitehouse complained about the violence in this story. It was the molotov cocktail she objected to. The following year she would claim her biggest scalp, and force the BBC to cut the drowning scene out of Deadly Assassin, bringing the Hinchcliffe era and Tom Baker’s original characterisation of the Doctor to a premature close.

But she does have a point: this story is very, very violent.

There is something quite morbid about the preoccupation with executions and execution-style killings in what is still ostensibly a children’s programme. In this season the Doctor has been put into a gas chamber, threatened with being burned at the stake (twice), tied to a stone cross with a bomb next to it; put into a casket and fired into space. Quite possibly BBC guidelines felt that “I will leave you tied to the railway lines and wait for the train to squash you” was less violent and more in keeping with wholesome family entertainment than “I will shoot you with my gun or stab you with my sword.” Doctor Who is meant to be scary: Jon Pertwee always said that kids liked being scared. And this sort of thing generates suspense; it allows the viewer to contemplate Sarah’s fate for a few minutes.

One feels that the villain is being sporting; giving the Doctor a fair chance to come along and spoil his plans. And, indeed, that the writers are being lazy. It is relatively hard to think of a peril which arises naturally from the story and an escape which follows logically from the peril. Much easier for a baddie to put everyone in a death trap because he’s a sadist, or just because it is the sort of thing which baddies do.

Scorby sneers “You shouldn’t have long to wait,” before leaving Sarah in the room with the time bomb; Chase smiles “I imagine they won’t mind a few minutes delay,” when an urgent appointment prevent him from having the Doctor and Sarah shot. (He says that he is having them “executed” and points out that a former owner of the estate was also executed — presumably for being a Catholic in the sixteenth century.) It makes me wonder.

It was barely a decade since the last hanging in England; one of the last Frenchmen had has head chopped off a few weeks after this story went out. Was there a kind of nostalgia for the carefree days of pre-meditated killing? Or a subtle message that hurting someone in cold blood was something only a plant worshipping psychopath would ever stoop too?

Episode 3 starts with a close up of Sarah’s unconscious face after being blown up in the antarctic. It ends with a close up of her equally helpless face as she is held down next to a hatching krynoid. Of course, the Doctor arrives in a shower of broken glass and saves her.

Villains have to be cruel and heroes have to be kind. If the hero is a boy and the hero’s best friend is a girl — and they have to be one or the other — then the boy is probably going to spend quite a lot of time rescuing the girl from peril. But in the 1970s, nearly all stories had boy heroes with girl sidekicks; so you could easily run away with the idea that girls’ main purpose in life was to be menaced by baddies. Terrance Dicks, god bless him, was only partly wrong when he said that you can’t push too hard against the genre. Sarah may have been imagined as a liberated career-woman, but she still ends up tied on a conveyer belt moving towards the revolving saw. That’s the kind of thing Doctor Who is. It helps a great deal that Elisabeth Sladen can act: and conveys to the audience that she is afraid in proportion to how scary the situation is. She is never just a damsel in distress. She hardly ever screams.

Jon Pertwee pointed out that the reason Doctor Who appeared so high up Mary Whitehouse’s list of “most violent shows on television” was that the Viewers and Listeners Association included “binding” — tying up — in its tally of acts of violence. And in Doctor Who goodies were being tied up by baddies every five minutes.

I don’t think that the BBC was providing early evening audiences with bondage scenarios at any conscious level. Although they did openly admit that some adult males watched Doctor Who in order to ogle pretty ladies, and that the writers sometimes played up to this. “Something” they would say of any new female casting “for the dads.” But the emphasis on Sarah-Jane’s helplessness is striking. The Seeds of Doom is not Fifty Shades of Grey. But it may be an example of the kind of thing which Fifty Shades of Grey is a sexualisation of.


Season 12 had run from January to May 1975; Season 13 returned at the end of August, having only been off the air for three months. There was another three-week break for Christmas, and the series continued until March. Which is as much as to say: Doctor Who was on TV for 45 of the 62 Saturdays between January 1975 and March 1976. It was part of the day-to-day texture of British TV — of British life — in a way that no modern programme could ever be. There was not yet any such thing as a Doctor Who fan: but everyone watched Doctor Who. And the role no belonged irrevocably and definitively to Tom Baker. Jon Pertwee already felt like part of a long-vanished world.





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