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Religion in Science Fiction (6): Doctor Who

Contains spoilers for certain episodes of both the new and old Doctor Who, and for the drama The Second Coming.

Dalek My earliest encounter with science fiction was hiding behind the sofa as the Daleks exterminated an entire race with effortless brutality. I was three years old. That serial was Genesis of the Daleks, and the year was 1975.

Doctor Who is the longest running science fiction show in the world, having aired continuously from 1963 to 1989, as well as being successfully revived in 2005. It's also the most successful children's science fiction show ever made, not to mention the most successful British science fiction series of all time. The show concerns the adventures of a time traveller known only as the Doctor who flits around in time and space with various companions in a small blue box known as the TARDIS, which outwardly appears like a police box (an emergency call box common in the 1950's) owing to a permanent malfunction in its chameleon circuit. A man of science, he eschews violence, preferring to use his wits to overcome any problem – he is that rarest of things, an action hero who prefers intellect to weaponry.

First played by William Hartnell from 1963 to 1966, the Doctor was originally portrayed as an enigmatic yet charming old man, a scientist from an unknown other world with an irascible temper who travelled from one time period to another, alternating between historical stories (which bordered on educational) and far future adventures. When Hartnell left the show in 1966 the writing team came up with a novel way to keep the show going: the Doctor belongs to an alien race which is capable of regenerating in the face of death. So at the end of the fourth episode of “The Tenth Planet”, Hartnell's Doctor transformed into Patrick Troughton's Doctor, and the show went on. To date, the Doctor has regenerated nine times, having been played by ten different actors, with an eleventh on the way. During Troughton's time as the Doctor the character's backstory was significantly expanded, and the name of his race was used for the first time: Time Lords.

The Daleks (pictured above) are almost as old as the Doctor himself, having first appeared in the second of the show's serials. The genocidal alien pepperpots were created by writer Terry Nation, who also penned the aforementioned “Genesis of the Daleks” (widely considered one of the greatest Doctor Who serials) and was to go on to make the cult series Blake's 7. As iconic as the Doctor's TARDIS, the Daleks are mutant creatures whose metlalic exterior is merely a housing for the beings inside, who feel little but hate and are bent on universal conquest. That which they cannot control, they “exterminate!” I was far from the only kid hiding behind the sofa from these monsters – The Economist suggested it was a British cultural institution as firmly engrained as tea-time. During the 1960s the Daleks were so popular that the phrase Dalekmania! was coined, and two Dalek feature films (starring Peter Cushing as the Doctor) in 1965 and 1966 were made, both adapting Terry Nation-penned serials to the big screen.

“Genesis of the Daleks” was near the beginning of Philip Hinchcliffe's run as the show's producer, and also near the start of Tom Baker's stint as the Doctor – the actor who portrayed the character the longest, over nine years and 173 episodes. Hinchcliffe's era was a highpoint for the show. Not since the peak of Dalekmania! had Doctor Who enjoyed such ratings, pulling in 12 to 16 million viewers every week. The secret of the shows of the late 1970's was a shift towards a darker, more adult-feeling tone, influenced by the low budget ‘Hammer horror’ movies  of the 1960's and early 1970's and the work of Nigel Kneale (the creator of Quatermass). However, despite ratings success these episodes attracted considerable criticism from self-appointed guardian of British morality, Mary Whitehouse, who famously called Doctor Who “teatime brutality for tots”. After Hinchcliffe stepped down, the show was to return to a somewhat more family-friendly tone, but its popularity went into decline over the next three Doctors, and the show was eventually cancelled in 1989 having suffered through ever-declining budget and increasingly ropey special effects, not to mention the certain doom of being scheduled opposite the hugely popular British soap opera Coronation Street.

But that wasn't the end of the Doctor's story. One of the many people influenced by the Hinchcliffe/Baker era of Doctor Who was writer Russell T. Davies, and in his scripts for the controversial drama series Queer as Folk about the lives of three young, gay men in Manchester's ‘gay village’, Russell includes numerous references to the classic sci fi show. Footage from “The Pyramids of Mars” is shown on TV in one scene, the prop for the Doctor's robot dog, K-9, is used as a plot device, and in one episode a leading character brings home a man for sex who, upon discovering a copy of “Genesis of the Daleks” on video, begs to watch that instead. In September 2003, the BBC's Head of Drama, Jane Tranter, invited Davies to revive Doctor Who, and although nervous in the face of such a daunting task, he couldn't refuse such an opportunity.

With Davies at the helm, the show returned to TV in 2005 with an updated look and feel, a special effects budget that “matched the imagination of the writing”, and it has since enjoyed both critical and popular success, returning Doctor Who to its rightful place as the premier British science fiction show. The Davies-era (2005-present) also marked a radical change in the show's attitude towards religion.

In Doctor Who's original run, religion most commonly occurred in the context of a pulp-novel cult – a group of faceless minions under the thrall of a charismatic but power-mad leader who is striving to summon great evil, aid an alien menace, or bring about the end of the world, as in “The Daemons”, “The Masque of Mandragora”,Image of the Fendahl” and “The Stones of Blood”. Alternatively, religion was seen as a primitive tribal impulse as in “The Power of Kroll”. Very occasionally, a religious group was shown respect, as in the case of the Sisterhood of Karn in “The Brain of Morbius”, but even then the Doctor's rational, scientific mind is contrasted – he sees their Sacred Flame as nothing more than natural gas. There is even a ‘religion versus science’ thread in“Meglos”, in which the Deons seek to control the populace through religion and are pitted against the Savants, who use the Deon's sacred artefact as a power source.

There is some positive portrayal of religion during Jon Pertwee's run as the third Doctor. The producer in charge of the show prior to Peter Hinchcliffe, Barry Letts, is a Buddhist and brought a little of this influence into the Pertwee serials. In the serial “The Time Monster”, Letts influenced writer and colleague Robert Sloman to show the Doctor as “semi-enlightened” – able to see the universe more clearly than most, but still possessing personal flaws, an idea delivered by a revealed backstory concerning a hermit back on the Doctor's home planet of Gallifrey, who was something of a mentor to the Doctor. In the final Pertwee episode, “Planet of the Spiders”, a Buddhist meditation retreat forms a major location for the story, and the aforementioned hermit Time Lord appears as a central character, telling the Doctor shortly before his regeneration: “The old man must die, and the new man will discover to his inexpressible joy that he has never existed.”

Under Davies' influence, however, Doctor Who developed a rather blatant anti-religious stance. Before coming to the show, Davies had written another controversial drama called The Second Coming, in which Steve Baxter, played by Christopher Eccleston, discovers he is the Son of God and has only a few days to find the Third Testament and prevent Armageddon. The story concludes with Steve's friend and lover Judy (the Judas character of the piece) lacing a meal with rat poison, and telling Steve that the Third testament is “the closing of the family business”, contending that arguments over God has led humanity to evil, and that the absence of an afterlife may scare people into living properly. Steve thus commits suicide, destroys heaven and hell, and everyone lives happily ever after. The story is blatant ‘atheist scripture’. Davies was to bring Eccleston with him to Doctor Who, casting the talented actor as the ninth Doctor.

The digs begin small. In the second episode, “The End of the World”, a tannoy announcement states “Guests are reminded that Platform One forbids the use of weapons, teleportation and religion.” By the end of the first of the new seasons, however, Davies goes for the ecumenical jugular: the Daleks, which had previously been revealed as destroyed, are resurrected through the re-engineering of human DNA. In a weird misunderstanding of genetics, this somehow gives the Daleks twisted religious leanings, and they embody the Emperor Dalek as a god, using phrases such as “worship him!” and “do not blaspheme!” The Doctor comments: “Driven mad by your own humanity. You hate your own existence” – a criticism atheists sometimes level against Christians, in the vein of Nietzsche's arguments against Christian morality. It's a callow critique of religion, and something of an insult to the Daleks: having originally been envisioned by Terry Nation as “Cosmic Nazi's” they were already fanatical, fundamentalist and genocidal: the adding of religion to this mix is wholly unnecessary.

One screenplay in particular warrants critical scrutiny: the 2007, Davies-penned episode “Gridlock”. In this episode, the Doctor (now played by David Tennant) and his companion visit a city billions of years in the future. The populace are trapped on a sealed motorway caught in a perpetual hovercar traffic jam, where it takes years to travel a mile or so. The travellers are trying to get to their idyllic destinations, but all of the exits are closed – there's nothing but gridlock. At the bottom of the motorway, degenerate crab monsters known as Macra prey on any car that strays too close. The travellers ease their frustrations with “mood patches” (drugs) and by singing religious hymns, like “The Old Rugged Cross”. Outside the motorway, the city is deserted – all the people long since wiped out by a ‘Bliss’ drug. An ancient entity, the Face of Boe, is keeping the motorway running, and ultimately gives his life energy in sacrifice to open the motorway, letting the hovercars escape into the blue sky to the tune of the hymn “Abide with Me”. Everyone lives happily ever after in the city above.

Although this story allows for many different readings, I believe that Davies has constructed this tale as another piece of ‘atheist scripture’. When I first watched the episode, I was surprised by the scene where Martha sheds a tear upon hearing the motorists sing the hymn. Davies sympathising for practitioners of religion? Yes, sympathising, but not empathising. The motorway, I contend, is intended to symbolise the trials of life, and the people trapped in it turn to ‘false hopes’ (in Davies judgement) like drugs or religion – the promise of an afterlife represented by the idyllic destinations (such as Brooklyn, “where the air is clean and pure”). Like Steve Baxter in The Second Coming, the Face of Boe sacrifices himself to free everyone from their prison, allowing everyone into the techno-utopia above.

Not many critics share my reading of this episode, and most dismiss the idea of the episode as a religious allegory for various reasons. Jack Graham's account is particularly lucid, and I agree that it doesn't work as a religious allegory – perhaps because Davies wrote this as a nonreligious allegory. For me, this is emphasised by the inclusion of the Macra, who first appeared in the 1967 serial “The Macra Terror”, starring the inestimable Patrick Troughton as the Doctor. In this story, a colony is overtly happy and ordered, but is secretly controlled by the crab-like Macra, who use the humans to mine the gas they need to live, and demonise anyone who claims to have seen a Macra. This is a 1960's-flavoured dystopian fantasy about totalitarian control (compare George Orwell's Ninteteen Eighty Four). The ‘devolved’ Macra in “Gridlock”, I am claiming, symbolise the ‘devolved’ (in Davies view) Christian church, which he presumably sees as once having exerted the same kind of totalitarian control over humanity as was seen in “The Macra Terror”. The story is about escaping that ‘horror’. Davies has said that “Gridlock” is one of his favourite episodes – given his beliefs, I can see why!

But despite Davies repeated desire to punch religion in the figurative groin, the new Doctor Who's relationship with religion ends up being far more complicated and nuanced. Consider that “Gridlock” is an episode that Christians have almost universally adored (one US church gave it an award). How can this be? Because a Christian facing this episode doesn't see the same symbols that (I believe) Davies placed here to form an atheist parable. Instead, they see the story working as a religious allegory and, provided one doesn't take Davies own beliefs into consideration, it actually works quite well in this role. And to add to the irony, many militant atheists dislike the episode for showing Christianity surviving billions of years into the future. Here we have an intended atheistic fantasy that Christians love and (some) atheists hate!

The same kind of metaphysical ambiguity benefits the two part story “The Impossible Planet” and “The Satan Pit”, written by Matt Jones. In this story, the Doctor faces a creature which claims to be the Beast – the entity behind all myths of Satan or the Devil. It causes the Doctor to question his own beliefs in a marvellous scene by Tennant, and also produces a brilliantly eerie atmosphere throughout. These episodes far surpass the classic Doctor Who stories which cross supernatural horror with science fiction, one of which (“The Daemons”, another Barry Letts/Robert Sloman story) was the inspiration for this adventure– Davies stated that they wanted to create a “Russian doll” effect by wrapping the new story around the old. It's another tale that can be read in many different ways, and enjoyed by people from a variety of belief systems.

Under Davies' watch, the Doctor has transformed from an ingenious traveller into a ‘Science Messiah’ – and never more so than in James Moran's “The Fires of Pompeii”, which ends with a Roman family venerating the Doctor as a household god (even though Moran flatly denies any messianic intent, and I am inclined to belief him). But despite this atheistic vector working behind the scenes, the new Doctor Who continues to be enjoyed by Christians – the Anglican church has in fact recently studied Doctor Who with an eye to using its stories and symbols to teach Christianity. Barry Letts, who first introduced a hint of religion to the show, said of this bizarre intersection between faith and science fiction: “I think it’s inevitable because of Britain’s cultural heritage that a long-running programme about the fight between good and evil will have some Christian themes as a backdrop.” It's also worth mentioning that one of the writers on the new show is a Christian: Paul Cornell (who wrote the episode “Father's Day”) describes himself as “a Christian and a pagan”.

Just as we saw with Star Trek last week, Doctor Who works with a diverse set of belief systems because its underlying humanist morality is compatible with both faith and nonbelief. Davies metaphysics may be wildly far from Christian faith, but his ethics accord with it – his script for “The Last of the Time Lords” has a key scene during which the Doctor offers forgiveness for his old enemy the Master (a disappointing performance by John Simm, offset by the delight of seeing Sir Derek Jacobi as the Master two weeks previous). Forgiveness as the pivotal emotional crux of a story? There could not be a more quintessentially Christian theme.

I may not enjoy Davies anti-religious tub-thumping, but I applaud his magnificent reinvention of the Doctor Who franchise. I knew he had succeeded in his goals when I saw young kids on their summer holidays pretending to by Cybermen and Daleks for the first time in decades. This will be Davies final year as producer, as writer Stephen Moffat (who wrote “The Girl in the Fireplace”, perhaps the finest Doctor Who episode ever written), becomes showrunner in 2010 [I shared my thoughts on Moffat-as-showrunner two years later]. Davies and I may not have a single metaphysical belief in common, but we share a love of this incredible show. I suppose Davies is slightly too old to have shared my terror of “Genesis of the Daleks” in 1975, but I like to think that back in 1966, when he was three years old and “The Power of the Daleks” aired, he too was hiding behind the sofa.

Next week: Firefly

Visit the Religion in Science Fiction page for links to all nine parts.


Can There Be An Impressionist Game? (ihobo)

Over on ihobo today, my rather late Round Table entry, which is largely a discussion of why I failed to enter the Round Table this month. Here's an extract:

Can there be an impressionist game? Certainly, we could make a game with an impressionistic art style. But would it really be an impressionist game? I find myself doubting this. The essence of what we mean by “game” is a formal system, and the formal is precisely what impressionism was rebelling against. Perhaps we could make an interactive impressionist experience, and some might call it a game, but this for me falls short of the challenge of this Round Table.

BrainHex Beta

BrainHex Cross-posted from ihobo.

We are about to begin the Beta testing of the new International Hobo player satisfaction model, BrainHex. The model will be available for everyone to test how their brain responds to videogames this Summer, but we are currently looking for 50 individuals to try the sorter test and the information website and provide useful feedback about the experience.

If you are interested in participating in the closed Beta of this gamer test, please email this address and provide us with your own email address and we'll get back to you shortly with the relevant information. (If you have already registered for the Beta, there is no need to register again).

Thanks in advance for your assistance!


Behaviour as Addiction

Can all behaviour be understood as addiction?

I've talked a lot about dopamine recently, the “reward chemical” released in the brain when goals are achieved, or nearly achieved. All behaviours involve this mechanism – the decision centre (orbit-frontal cortex) and the pleasure centre (nucleus accumbens) form the basis of the biological circuit from which recurrent behaviours are generated. Since these are the same brain regions involved in addiction, is all behaviour addiction, on one scale or another?

Let me offer a disclaimer before I continue. Despite my interest in neurobiological explanations, I am not a behaviourist. Behaviourism claims that all forms of behaviour are explainable without recourse to concepts such as mind. I do not believe the evidence supports this claim. In fact, since language is clearly capable of altering behaviour, and the constructs of language are (I claim) part of what we consider the mind, I believe such assertions are void. Both hypnosis and related forms such as ritual magic and neuro-linguistic programming show that the contents of the mind can radically alter behaviour (not to mention “reality”!). It is important to remember that identifying the substructure of behaviour does not mean that these biological elements determine behaviour, just that they describe the underlying functionality.

What this question breaks down to is a language distinction between “behaviour” and “addiction”, which we can put another way: what is addiction? Putting aside physiological addiction, psychological addiction is another term for compulsion. Biologically speaking, a compulsion occurs when the decision centre overwhelmingly pushes for a particular outcome – that is, when a big hit dopamine has been attained in the past, the decision centre (which is closely tied to the pleasure centre) pushes for more of the same. This is why people become “addicted” to soap operas, videogames, gambling and so forth, any why we “can't put down” a book because “we have to know what happens next”.

And yet, the same neurobiological events occur when we fall in love, when we want to see our friends, when we go to aid someone... are these compulsive behaviours? To some extent they can be. But there are far more chemicals at work than just dopamine in these scenarios, and that creates considerable blurring of the lines. We compulsively put another coin in the slot machine because the decision centre assesses “it could payout at any time” (although of course, those who tend towards the Rational temperament the dominance of the decision centre tend to have a model of the world which denies this conclusion, and thus become unable to enjoy many forms of gambling). But when we impulsively decide to leap to someone's aid, the decision centre is not the most active voice in our biological heads – the force of compassion is not rooted in “addiction”, even though it is rewarding and therefore trips similar mechanisms as well.

Compulsive behaviours (psychological “addiction”) occur when the mind is unable or unwilling to resist the desire to act that the decision centre is demanding. The mind can overrule this impulse – but it has to have good reason to do so. Thus if our friends or family convince us we have a gambling habit, we are able to temper the compulsive need to wager by our sense of duty to our community – ironically, we create a conflict in the decision centre between one reward (winning) and another (pride). Support groups similarly attack these problems by creating a community to act as a counterbalance.

Compulsive behaviours come into being principally in two ways: to combat pain, or via the apparent innocence of the action. In the case of the former, pain can be physical or emotional: the serotonin crash of loneliness, in particular, leaves people vulnerable to all manner of “addictions” – anything to drown out that sense of abandonment and emptiness. This has become endemic in modern societies for various reasons. In the case of the latter, when a particular activity is either neutral or positive it can be difficult to balance against it, and thus those prone to compulsive behaviour fall into behavioural ruts. Someone who compulsively washes their hands, for instance, is acting in part out of a rationalised need to reduce the risk of infection – that motive is valid, it is only the rate of incidence which becomes excessive, and this is hard to balance out unless the individual can see or be shown how this is negatively affecting them.

Thus, even if we accept the simplification that “all behaviour is addiction” it would be fairer to say that “all behaviour results from competition between addictions” (but remember, this is a gross simplification of the facts of the matter). The only way to combat an “addiction” is with another “addiction”– one can overcome dependence on narcotics by creating dependence upon community, one can overcome dependence on massively multiplayer games (with their heady cocktail of game rewards and illusory community) in similar ways. Indeed, I see little difference between (say) a marijuana habit and a World of Warcraft habit... introverts are just as at risk for “addiction” from one as the other, although cultural hostility to “drugs” may serve as a better defence against the former than the latter. (But note, I do not believe that either of these “addictions” is necessarily disastrous, and certainly neither represent anything close to the greatest social problem we face).

The technological profusion of the past century has created innumerable possibilities for “addiction”, while simultaneously our communities – our principle defence against excessive compulsion – have become eroded by the rise of urban living, an infrastructure obsession for cars, and (in many countries) the decline of local religious communities, which have arguably failed to adapt to the changing needs of society. There are an estimated 11 million heroin addicts in the world. There are 47 million McDonald's customers each day. There are more than 625 million car drivers. I find it curious that only the first of these numbers causes significant concern.


Religion in Science Fiction (5): Star Trek

Contains spoilers for the original Star Trek and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and minor spoilers for other Star Trek franchises. There are no spoilers relating to the new Star Trek movie.

StarTrek No television show has had greater influence on science fiction than Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek, which has given rise to six different TV series and eleven feature films. Sold to TV executives as “Wagon Train to the stars”, Roddenberry told his friends he was creating a modern version of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels – stories that would work as an exciting adventure story on the surface, but as a morality tale on a deeper level. Although the original series was cancelled in 1969 after just three seasons due to low ratings, it enjoyed tremendous support from science fiction fans and over the years that followed worked its way into popular culture. When the Harve Bennett Star Trek films, starting with Wrath of Khan in 1982, successfully revived the fortunes of the franchise it paved the way for new TV series based upon the original show.

The highest rated of these spin-off TV series was Star Trek: The Next Generation, which was set seventy years after the original show and featured an entirely new cast, although four of the 1960's Star Trek stars were to guest on the show and its movie successors. The pilot episode aired in 1987 and pulled in 27 million viewers, while the finale seven years later attracted 27.8 million viewers – the most-watched science fiction TV finale of all time. Roddenberry was personally involved in establishing the new format, but his declining health led to him handing the reins over to Rick Berman two years later.

Overtly, Star Trek: The Next Generation is quite secular in its approach, with its morality (delivered during its first two seasons in a painfully clumsy manner) being a coupling of humanist ethics and the political notion of Westphalian sovereignty, known in Star Trek terms as the Prime Directive. Yet the series and its successors enjoy tremendous support from religious fans, particularly Christians. A likely reason for this is that the ethics of secular humanists and modern Christians concord to a great degree; as the philosopher Charles Taylor has noted, they are “brothers under the skin”, having emerged over the centuries from the reform of Latin Christendom.

Thus, despite and because of the absence on-screen references to the religious affiliation of the characters, it is perfectly possible for the viewer to imagine religion playing a part in the lives of the crew of the Enterprise off-camera. So a Catholic Trekkie might imagine Deanna Troi, the half-empath, half-thesaurus ship's counsellor, taking a trip to a holodeck confessional after a particularly unhelpful day on the bridge, and telling her virtual confessor that she feels “guilt, shame, remorse”. This capacity for the viewer to fill in the metaphysical gaps allows both atheists and theists to connect to a common ethical stance in the shows (although those who sway more to a neo-Nietzchean morality tend to find the incessant moralising and hand-wringing utterly infuriating!)

The secular veneer successfully conceals Roddenberry's own views on religion for the most part, although critical analysis repeatedly shows up an anti-religious thread in the shows he was involved in. Yvonne Fern (wife of the original show's producer Herbert F. Solow) interviewed Roddenberry shortly before his death, and challenged him on his position in respect of religion. She asked:

You're liberal and tolerant – about racial equality, abortion, homosexuality, women's rights, sex, all the popular issues – but when you meet up with, say, a Baptist, for example, you will unhesitatingly condemn him to oblivion. You choose your points of tolerance very carefully. It seems to me that when you say you've evolved beyond something, that's just another way of saying that whatever you are beyond, or think you are, is by definition inferior, that your views are superior.

Roddenberry replied:

I never meant to give that impression. If I did, then I will correct it. I condemn charlatans. I condemn false prophets. I condemn the effort to take away the power of rational decision, to drain people of their free will – and a hell of a lot of money in the bargain. Religions vary in their degree of idiocy, but I reject them all. For most people, religion is nothing more than a substitute for a malfunctioning brain.

This antagonism towards traditional religion manifests itself in the original Star Trek show by means of a recurrent plot concept – that of the ‘false gods’ story, in which god-like entities (quite often super-computers) are destroyed or unmasked. This plot appears in numerous episodes of the original show including “Return of the Archons”, “The Apple”, “The Paradise Syndrome”, “And the Children Shall Lead” and “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky”. Of these episodes, “Return of the Archons” is the most explicitly hostile to organised religion: an “all-seeing, all knowing” entity known as Landru deploys people known as lawgivers (priests) to absorb people into “The Body”, a repressive telepathic collective. Kirk and Spock reveal Landru to be (surprise!) a super-computer, and defeat it by the infamous “non-sequitur” plot device whereby the computers of the future are strangely prone to self-destruct when delivered contradictory information. The episode was based upon a story suggested by Roddenberry himself.

Yet religion does manage to creep into the original show's corners. In “Balance of Terror”, we see that the enterprise has a chapel containing various religious symbols, including a cross. In “That Which Survives”, a lieutenant has a traditional Hindu bindi symbol upon her forehead. In “The Empath”, Dr. Ozaba quotes from Psalms. In “Who Mourns for Adonis” Kirk notes: “Man has no need for gods. We find the one quite sufficient.” And most bizarrely, in the episode “Bread and Circuses”, the Enterprise visits a planet which has a society which parallels ancient Rome but with twentieth century technology. Not only does McCoy state that the crew represents many beliefs, in the conclusion of the episode it is discovered that the “sun worshippers” of Magna Roma are actually son worshippers, that is, followers of Jesus: as Kirk comments at the end of the show: “Caesar ... and Christ; they had them both...” It's a finale impossible to imagine in a modern science fiction television show.

When the franchise was handed over to Rick Berman and Michael Piller in the summer of 1989, it began to alter its attitude towards portraying religion. The most marked break from ‘Trek tradition’ came with the creation of the next TV series, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, set on a space station orbiting the planet of Bajor (which first appeared in the Next Generation episode “Ensign Ro”). The Bajorans are portrayed as a deeply spiritual people with a religion drawn from many influences, including Hinduism with which it shares in common a “Festival of Lights”, and the name for a Bajoran priest – Vedek – is resonant of the term “vedic” referring to the Vedas, a Hindu sacred text. Nana Visitor became the first Star Trek star to portray a character of faith (unless one counts Worf's sketchy relations with Klingon religion), in the role of Major Kira Nerys, a quick-tempered former terrorist who constantly faces conflicts between her religious beliefs and her duties.

Bringing religion into the forefront of Deep Space Nine had a number of notable effects. Firstly, it undermined to some extent the ability for individuals to project their own metaphysics into the gaps of the show, since by showing an alien religion, it tended to demonstrate more clearly that the Federation is largely absent of religion. However, this is more than compensated for by the greater depth and breadth of themes that the show was thus able to explore – Star Trek's capacity to take on the social issues of the day and project them into a science fiction was greatly enhanced by being able to tackle both religion and spirituality, and this allowed for stories that showed the treacherous interface between politics and religion.

An example of this is the first season finale “In the Hands of the Prophets”, which focuses on a conflict between Vedek Winn, brilliantly portrayed by Louise Fletcher (best known as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), and Kieko O'Brien who runs the school on the station. The gods of the Bajoran religion, known as “The Prophets” are encountered by station commander Benjamin Sisko in the pilot episode, and interpreted in typically scientific terms as “wormhole aliens”. Vedek Winn thus accuses the school of blasphemy by teaching that the Prophets are merely trans-dimensional beings. Fletcher's role worked so well in this episode she was to return as a recurring character throughout the show, her political machinations never falling into cartoon villainy, but instead showing a highly believable religious malleability, always able to make her religion work for her benefit. As Jimmy Aiken has observed, she is even able to deliver the line “Heretic!” in a later episode with absolute aplomb – something few TV shows could plausibly facilitate!

The Prophets themselves are something of a mixed bag. At their worst, especially in later episodes, they descend into a ridiculous ‘good gods versus evil gods’ pastiche which repeatedly falls flat, as in episodes such as “The Reckoning” which tries to set up a climactic show down between the Prophets and the ‘evil Pah Wraiths’ but always feels terribly hokey. However, at their best, their existence as entities who exist outside of time, and do not understand linear time, creates an eerie atmosphere which plays well in episodes such as “Image in the Sand” and “Shadows and Symbols” (the opening episodes in the show's final season) and provides the set-up for “Far Beyond the Stars”, widely considered to be one of the finest Star Trek episodes ever aired, in which Sisko has an intense vision of his being a black science fiction writer in 1950s New York City, facing intense prejudice from the editor and owner of the pulp magazine he works for.

The tendency towards a greater willingness to deal with religious issues continues in the following series, Star Trek: Voyager, which frequently deals with questions of spirituality (although rarely in the context of recognisable religions). This show also features the first openly spiritual human to appear in a Star Trek show in the form of Robert Beltran's Chakotay, although as Bernd Schneider has pointed out his religion comes across more as a “conglomerate of New Age rituals” rather than as anything palpable. There are a number of interesting perspectives on spirituality explored throughout the show's run, including the idea of the Borg having a “religion of perfection”, although it also falls into more traditional Star Trek territory with episodes such as “False Profits” and “Distant Origin”, a Galileo-esque story which offers nothing new, but is at least an entertaining tale.

One final aspect of the connection between Star Trek and religion should be addressed in closing: the intensity of fandom the franchise has fostered does itself border on the religious. Trekkies and Trekkers may not consider their dedication to be religious, but sociologically it is at least a nonreligion (like Marxism), as Michael Jindra has observed in a detailed account published in the journal Sociology of Religion in 1994. Jindra concludes:

ST fandom does not have the thoroughgoing seriousness of established religions, but it is also not mere entertainment. This interplay of seriousness and entertainment, I argue, is a sign of its vitality. The communities, both symbolic and geographic, that are formed by ST fandom are evidence of the ongoing sacralization of elements of our modernist culture that express hope in the future. It is a phenomenon that relates to deep-seated American beliefs about the nature of humankind, the world and its future, and encourages the practices that parallel religious processes of codifying, forming a community and developing institutions to guide its practices.

Thus, in an ultimate irony, Gene Roddenberry's anti-religious humanism ultimately resulted in a new form of humanist nonreligion, one in which his own faith in the future potential of humanity has been taken up by legions of followers – both religious and otherwise – who believe in the dream that mankind might yet “boldly go where no-one has gone before”.

Next week: Doctor Who

Visit the Religion in Science Fiction page for links to all nine parts.


Shameless Plugs

A few plugs for things that are going on, or games that are out there in the ether:

  • Chico of Nongames is looking for "people who have "worked on any interesting independent game/webgame/mod with an artistic approach" or "on any interesting piece of art (film, pictures, hypertext, fiction, music etc) made with videogames". Leave comments on the relevant post at his Nongames blog if you can help!
  • My longtime sparring partner Daniel Boutros has a new game out on iphone called Trixel. It's available now on the iphone app store, and offers a satisfying pattern-matching puzzle play, which reviewers are praising for its replayability. I found it strangely compulsive, and it plays radically differently in timed mode to its puzzle mode.
  • Raph Koster drew my attention to Daniel Benmergui's artlet Today I Die. A really novel mechanic drives the play of this one, although players may take a while to discover the meaningful game actions. Definitely worth a look if you're into art games.
  • Speaking of Raph, Metaplace is now at open beta.
  • And lastly, Chris Chappell wrote to me to tell me about the play Adventure Quest, which "combines vintage graphics and 8-bit music with live acting to evoke the world of '80s adventure gaming". It sounds brilliantly surreal! It's at the Brick Theatre in Brooklyn on June 6th, 17th and 24th and July 4th.

Religion in Science Fiction (4): Stargate

Contains spoilers for the TV show Stargate SG-1 and its DVD movie spin-off The Ark of Truth.

Stargate_SG-1_cast In 1992, the German director Roland Emmerich made the rounds of the major Hollywood studios trying to get a new project off the ground. Emmerich was to go on to direct some of the most successful ‘Big Budget B-movies’, including Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow, but his attempts to sell his idea for a “Chariots of the Gods”-style science fiction romp, in which an Egyptologist helps the US military activate a dimensional gate that takes them to a far-away world, were largely unsuccessful. Hollywood was sceptical of science fiction in the 1990s, as with very few exceptions (such as Terminator 2 and Robocop) the genre had bombed since 1982's E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial. Emmerich's secret weapon was the new special effects technology of computer generated imagery, which the following year was to drive Spielberg's Jurassic Park to box office success.

MGM eventually bankrolled Emmerich's movie for $55 million, which was a relatively high budget at the time, and Stargate hit the box office in 1994, going on to make $196 million worldwide. (By comparison, Kevin Costner's Waterworld, which was also released in 1994, cost $175 million to make, and grossed $264 million).To offset the cost of the movie, MGM licensed the rights for the movie to US cable channel Showtime, which was looking for something that could help bring up its subscriber numbers, and felt that a science fiction movie spin-off might do the job. MGM brought in Outer Limits writers Brad Wright and Jonathan Glassner to work up the show, which was tinkered with significantly from the original movie in order to work in the new format.

One of the biggest changes between the movie and the show was the casting of the male lead. Kurt Russell's melancholy military colonel Jack O'Neil was morphed into Richard Dean Anderson's wise-cracking Jack O'Neill (with two l's) – mostly because the MacGuyver star requested more comic leeway than Russell's version of the character. Anderson also insisted the show work as an ensemble cast, so that he wouldn't be required to carry the story single handedly, as had been the case with MacGuyver. Thus both Amanda Tapping's Sam Carter and Michael Shanks' Dr. Daniel Jackson become the main providers of plot devices (using techno-babble and quasi-historical puzzle solving respectively), while Christopher Judge's alien Teal'c seems to be afforded the dubious honour of being tortured every other week for no other reason than to prove just how damn tough he is.

The show was a ratings success for Showtime, with the pilot receiving the channel's highest ever rating for a series premiere, reaching 1.5 million households. Wright and Glassner noted that had the show aired on a broadcast network it would have been canned after just a few episodes, but Showtime put no pressure on them to deliver “meteoric ratings”. Showtime didn't need a massive hit, they needed subscribers, and a well-received science fiction show was perfect for pulling in a particular crowd. Despite existing in a critical vacuum, the show was the most watched program on Showtime (movies included!) during the late 1990s.

Stargate SG-1 was a relatively expensive TV show to make, costing $1.3 million per episode, and to spread the costs it was syndicated on Fox, and later acquired by the Sci Fi channel, who continued to bankroll the show after Showtime decided to end their association with show after Season 5. Showtime's withdrawal from the project wasn't because the show wasn't pulling in adequate ratings, but rather that it could no longer pull in new subscribers to Showtime since at this point the show was available on other non-subscription channels. Although the production values increased as the show went on, the budget did not greatly change throughout its run, and in fact fell after the transfer to the Sci Fi channel, eventually ending up at around $2 million per episode largely as a result of fluctuations in exchange rates between the US and Canada (where it was principally shot).

The show flirted with cancellation year after year once the Sci Fi channel took over. Season six was intended to be the last, but at the last minute it was renewed – having become the channel's highest rated show, pulling in 2 million viewers and elevating the Sci Fi channel into the list of the US top 10 cable channels for the first time. Richard Dean Anderson took a reduced role in the later seasons as he spent more time at home with his daughter, and for the ninth and tenth season Farscape stars Ben Browder and Claudia Black were added to the cast to help boost interest in the show, which had a long tradition of recycling any actor with even faint links to other science fiction media.

Stargate SG-1 went on to become the second longest running science fiction TV show of all time (beaten only by Doctor Who), running for ten years and enjoying greater success than anyone expected, as well as spawning two spin-off shows. In the last two years, the ratings slipped from 2.4 million views to 2.1 million viewers. A spokesman for the Sci Fi channel attributed this to the audience using digital video recorders, which thus excluded them from the ratings calculations, and some fans may also have fallen away from the show after Anderson's role became reduced to recurrent guest star. But perhaps there were other factors in the decline of the show that have not been considered: did the later seasons alienate Christian fans?

From the very onset, Stargate had been tied up in an unsophisticated pulp-novel critique of religion. The villain Ra from the movie, and the Goa'uld System Lords in the show, position themselves as ‘Gods’ to their Jaffa slaves, demanding obedience. However, this portrays no aspect of real life religion, being rather a political situation – apart from being named after ancient Egyptian gods such as Apophis, Ra and Anubis, and the backstory that the Goa'uld pose as false gods to enslave technologically inferior races, there really is no distinction between the Goa'uld as “false gods” and the Goa'uld as megalomaniacal tyrants. Even with comparison to the role of the historical Pharaohs as gods (or rather, incarnations of the god Horus) this falls flat – up until the rise of modern democracy in the 18th century, all rulers were positioned in ‘the great chain of being’ which culminated in God (in Abrahamic societies) or the gods, but this was merely a traditional notion of hierarchy extended to its logical metaphysical conclusion.

Because the nub of the criticism at work was positioned against tyranny, and not religion per se, and also in part because the TV show frequently dabbled in quasi-religious themes, it enjoyed support from Christian science fiction fans as much as any other worldview. A key recurring theme of the TV show is Ascension, where an individual who has attained a sufficient level of knowledge and wisdom transcends their physical body and becomes an immortal being of energy. This metaphysical macguffin works well with almost any belief system: a materialist sees this as technological immortality (indeed, the Ancients in the Stargate SG-1 mythos used devices to ascend), a liberal-minded Christian sees this as an analogue of heaven, while Buddhists are even better catered for, since one of the paths to ascension is meditation and the search for enlightenment. The Ancients, now as beings of energy, will not interfere in the affairs of humans, which works in Christian theology as an expression of the a now-common solution to the problem of evil – the ‘free will defence’ of Alvin Plantinga, which states that the existence of evil does not contradict the idea of a wholly good God, if evil is seen as a necessary consequence of allowing free will.

However, in season 9 and 10, and the first of the DVD movies, a new enemy takes centre stage, replacing the Goa'uld and recurrent techno-foe the Replicators: the Ori. This race of Ascended beings is positioned as a long-time foe of the Ancients who are perfectly willing to interfere in human affairs, and position themselves as gods to their followers, granting quasi-magical powers and enslaving humanity via super-powered clerics known as Priors, who preach from the Book of Origin. It is almost impossible not to interpret the Ori as a paper-thin parody of Christianity.

Initially, the show tries to offset the anti-Christian threads of the final two seasons by having Ben Browder's character, Cam Mitchell, make reference to his Bible-thumping grandmother in an attempt to append a positive spin on Christianity to balance the Ori's satirical portrayal of organised religion as blindly destructive. This weak attempt at even-handedness rapidly falls by the wayside, and the show descends into an ever-greater cynicism about both Christianity in the specific and organised religion in general. There is a vague sense that as the show's writers' despair at the Bush presidency grows (an issue directly parodied in the episode The Road Not Taken), they blame the situation on the religious right the administration had manipulated to gain power. Thus the war in Iraq is interpretted as a religious war – a perspective that misrepresents the relationship between the Bible Belt and the United States armed forces.

Much of the shallow critique of Christianity occurs between Claudia Black's ex-Goa'uld host Vala Mal Doran – who takes over Richard Dean Anderson's role as comic relief in the later seasons and fulfills this role magnificently – and her Ori-worshipping husband Tomin. Vala and Tomin square off in debate after Tomin reads incessantly to her from the Book of Origin, with Vala accusing him of taking a bunch of stories about how to live well and using it as a justification for war and murder. The scene serves a narrative purpose – Tomin later witnesses a Prior blatantly distorting the meaning of one of the verses in the Book of Origin, causing him to question his faith – but it also reads as a clumsy attack on contemporary Christianity.

All of this flagrant nonsense comes to a head in the first DVD movie, The Ark of Truth, the title referring to an artefact built by the Ancients which can brainwash people into believing anything, provided it is true. Since the SG-1 team have already destroyed the Ori using another hokey plot device, Merlin's Sangraal weapon that nullifies ascended beings (which leads to a faintly amusing sequence of lines from Vala concerning whether or not these gods are dead, parodying Nietzsche's ‘death of God’), all they have to do is convince their followers that the Ori are not gods, which the Ark of Truth delivers on a platter. It makes for a rather anti-climatic conclusion to the Ori story arc, in which Julian Sand's Doci (the Ori high priest) breaks down in tears as he is indoctrinated in the ‘truth’ about his gods. Those with anti-religious tendencies may enjoy such a heavy-handed finale, but it plays as philosophically naïve and risks being quite insulting to a person of faith. (It is of course beyond the scope of a space opera like Stargate SG-1 to tackle the issue of what truth actually means in the context of a device that can brainwash people into believing ‘the truth’, but at least the moral implications of such an object are half-heartedly mentioned, even if they are eventually ignored).

Ultimately, none of this really matters. The beauty of Stargate SG-1 lies in its capacity to collide universe-saving, just-in-time rescues, with wisecracking heroes and over-the-top silly nonsense, and despite the early episodes' rather po-faced attempt at ‘serious’ science fiction stories, the show hits its stride as soon as it finds how to be ridiculous and melodramatic in equal measure. It's possible that the puerile critique of Christianity in the final seasons did alienate some fans of the show, but it's equally possible that the change in cast, or the previously mentioned technological shifts (including the increase of file sharing piracy) were a greater factor. Whatever the reason, ratings fell from 2.6 million in late 2005 at the start of season nine, to 2.1 million in 2006 – a rather marginal loss, but sufficient for the Sci Fi channel to pull the plug, handing the reins of the franchise over to spin-off show, Stargate Atlantis, which was cancelled three years later after hitting 100 episodes. A new show, Stargate Universe, begins airing this autumn, taking up the torch of a franchise that has enjoyed success on a scale no-one ever expected.

Next week: Star Trek

Visit the Religion in Science Fiction page for links to all nine parts.


Do You Enjoy Fear? (ihobo)

I'm looking for some help from players who enjoy feeling afraid. The post that went up on the ihobo site today entitled Do You Enjoy Fear? asks anyone who enjoys the experience of terror to complete the following sentence:

I love the feeling of fear and terror when...


Can I ask any blogger who doesn't mind posting calls for assistance like this to share the link? Thanks in advance for you help!


Collective Ignorance

When_Did_Ignorance_Become_A_Point_Of_View Why are large organisations so lacking in intelligence? On the surface, it would seem that having the minds of many individuals working together would produce a smarter super-organism, but in practice the reverse is almost invariably the case. The problem might be that neither hierarchical nor democratic command structures are effective at pooling knowledge and experience.

Imagine that each individual's knowledge, skills and experience could be shown as a cone of sight marking out a particular angle of a circle. Those with great proficiency mark out wide cones, inexperienced novices mark out narrow cones. (No-one, I suggest, would see more than, say, 180 degrees, since we all have our blind spots, and these are generally far bigger than it feels from our own perspective). Now consider the effect of hierarchy and democracy in terms of combining these cones.

A democratically organised team must win approval from all members. Thus instead of being able to combine all of its cones into one giant near-circle, the resulting cone tends towards the intersection of the other cones – the more people whose approval must be won, the narrower the cone. Together we are dumber than we are individually in this model of organisation. (No wonder that game developers that run on democratic principles rarely manage anything more than first person shooters, by far the simplest commonly deployed design template for a videogame). Add to this the likelihood that members on any given team are quite similar in their knowledge and experience and the problem can be further exacerbated.

Hierarchy compounds the problem: if approval must be won by people higher up a chain of command then even if the individual teams can pool their knowledge and experience successfully, the degree of competence that can be transferred is limited by the cones of those higher up. We're only as dumb as the stupidest link in the chain. (This is why bad management or intractable marketing can scupper the most promising proposal, although bad communication is another culprit in this regard). Combine this with the problem of the democratic team and it's a wonder anything worthwhile is ever achieved.

Instead of democracy, teams might consider alternative principles such as sociocratic consent, whereby rather than seeking the approval of everyone the process permits all reasonable objections to be considered. You can raise a complaint, which the team must discuss and address, but if you cannot coherently object your consent is tacitly assumed. By pooling potential problems, instead of attempting to intersect judgement, the resulting imaginary cone can potentially be made larger, rather than smaller.

Instead of hierarchical control whereby each successive step up the chain has greater power and influence (limiting success to the competence of those most remote from any given project), executive objections can be used to guide the process. Thus the marketing department (for instance) can raise its reasonable concerns as problems, but may not propose its own solutions. (Some kind of appeal process can further improve this approach).

Ivan Illich argued that many of the problems of our societies are rooted in the hierarchical structures of our schooling system, which prepares everyone to operate in similar structures in their professional lives. Against this, the communication potential of the internet offers us powerful new ways to organise ourselves, to flatten hierarchies, and to pool knowledge effectively. We are still a long way shy of fully utilising this potential.

Our companies and our nations are both hampered by collective ignorance. Breaking free requires new ways of thinking about how we co-operate.

The opening image is the cover to the book When Did Ignorance Become a Point of View?, by Scott Adams. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.