Thursday, July 27, 2006

The Second Coming

"You should see Russell T. Davies' The Second Coming," Niall Harrison told me. "It's about a man who thinks he's the second coming of Christ, and he really is. It's good."

"Erm." I said.

My reservations had something to do with the obvious ridiculousness of the premise, but also with my general distaste for the way mainstream, secular fiction tends to treat religion and the idea of God. At the far ends of the spectrum are those whose work is primarily intended to preach and convert--the Tim LaHayes and Philip Pullmans--and they are easily dismissed. At the center, however, one more of than not discovers a wishy-washy, feelgood approach that I, for one, find more dispiriting than any amount of religious or anti-religious fanaticism. Joan of Arcadia is a good example--it posited a God so benign, so pleasant, that he or she seriously had nothing better to do than help a teenage girl forge better relationships with her parents and teach her Valuable Lessons, and who reveals themselves to a chosen person--a prophet--in order to perform random kindnesses and minor improvements. A paltry god, bereft of wonder and grandeur. Especially given Davies' well-advertised atheism, I expected The Second Coming to, at best, offer an easily-digested New Age peace-and-love message. At worst, I expected it to present a mean parody of the story of Christ.

What I got, instead, was one of the kindest, most affectionate, and cleverest examinations of the question of faith in the modern world I've ever seen (which, admittedly, is damning with faint praise given how limited the field is). Steve Baxter (Christopher Eccleston) is an amiable but aimless slob who has spent the better part of twenty years working the same dead-end job and hanging out at the same pub with the same people. He's also the son of God, and when a two AM kiss from his best friend awakens that knowledge within him, he starts a planet-wide revolution. Announcing himself by turning night into day within a crowded Manchester football stadium, Steve informs the people of the world that the time has come for a third Testament. "It's finally happened," he tells them. "Heaven is empty, and hell is bursting at the seams." If the Testament isn't produced and delivered with a set number of days, Steve promises, the world will come to an end.

What's most impressive about The Second Coming is that given a premise so rife with avenues of discussion, it deftly and intelligently comments on so many of them. When Steve flippantly points out to an excited Catholic priest that while some members of the Church have been trying to get people to listen, others have been "shagging choir-boys," the priest angrily retorts "every day someone is laughing at us, every day someone tears us down, and you're doing the same." It's a two-minute conversation that both distills and offers a starting point for an hours-long discussion, but the story itself keeps going. Shouting over his shoulder to that same priest (a character who sadly disappears soon after), Steve points out that the Church has no more authority than any other religion on the planet--in the wake of his arrival, they have all been rendered defunct. But Davies also recognizes that religion is as much a matter of culture and history as it is of faith--more so, in fact. It'll take a great deal more than irrefutable proof of one religion's correctness to wipe away millennia of religious persecution, holy wars, discrimination, prejudice, and injustices, and Davies understands this. In an essay about Davies' writing for Doctor Who, Paul Cornell recently pointed out the benevolence and the harshness with which Davies examines closed, obsessive groups. He was speaking of fannish obsessions, specifically in the recent Who episode "Love & Monsters", but Davies first extended that keen yet affectionate insight to religious obsession in The Second Coming. His people remain human even in the face of the divine, and their reactions to it are humanly diverse and irrational (compare that diversity with Philip Pullman's approach in the His Dark Materials novels, in which everyone who believes in God is evil in exactly the same way). Davies manages this without dragging God down to our level--his divinity, even clothed in the flesh of an ordinary Joe, is still divine.

Ultimately, The Second Coming isn't Steve's story. Christopher Eccleston's performance is winning and convincingly numinous, both when addressing the multitudes and in his private moments (Eccleston and Davies seem to have carried over a great deal of Steve's humanist attitudes and frenetic mannerisms when creating the ninth Doctor, which just kills me), but the story doesn't linger long on the dilemma of a god in man's body--the situation is what it is, and Steve accepts it unquestioningly. In fact, 'unquestioning' is a good general description of Steve's attitude, and at around the halfway point, the narrative recedes from him and starts paying closer attention to his aforementioned best friend, Judith (an excellent Lesley Sharp), the significance of whose name, I am mortified to admit, completely escaped me until about 20 minutes before the miniseries' end.

Judith is determinedly atheistic, not only in the face of undeniable miracles performed by Steve, but in spite of being repeatedly accosted by demons--humans who have given in to fear and despair and been possessed by Steve's opposite numbers. Judith is a doubter and a questioner--she starts out trying to find a rational, scientific explanation for Steve's miracles (only to be confronted by the fact that at the core of any scientific explanation she will eventually discover something not of this world), and later attempts to bargain Steve down from godhood. "I believe that something's happening. I believe that you're psychic or Martian but I don't believe you're the son of God," she tells him. Once she accepts that Steve is divine, Judith still asks questions: what happens if Steve doesn't find the third Testament? Why won't he perform miracles indiscriminately? And, most importantly, is the measurable, provable existence of God in our lives really a good thing? Ultimately, Judith's atheism is a question of ideology, not faith. She is brought to believe in the existence of God, but not in the wisdom of bowing down to him.

It's Judith who finally realizes what the third Testament is, and what Steve has to do in order to save humanity, but Davies puts his own heartbreaking yet fantastic twist on the story. Steve has to die, of course, but instead of establishing it, his death will mean the end of the whole system. Heaven and hell will stop. The angels and the demons will go away. Humanity will be left to its own devices. Davies isn't the first to write such a story, and it's not at all uncommon for anti-religious fiction to posit the existence of God, if for no other reason than that there are only a limited number of narratives that can be wrung out of 'but really, there's nothing there.' For the most part, however, such stories presume that God is malevolent, or at the very least ineffectual. The Second Coming is the only atheistic story I'm aware of in which God is both benevolent and wise. Recognizing that his system is irreparably broken, that the loss of faith that is leaving humanity vulnerable to the predation of demons is incurable, God sends his only (well, second) son to us to die in order to free us from a cosmology that we have outgrown. In the end, we are told by a character being interviewed in the story's epilogue, at the moment of Steve's death, we were all believers. It's a curiously joyous ending, in that it offers us the best of both worlds--we know that we were created by a loving being, but we also don't have to live up to its rules and demands--while at the same time describing the death of something wonderful.

To a fantasy reader, the story of The Second Coming is recognizable in another guise, as a tale about the departure of wonder (and to take a harshly atheistic approach, there really shouldn't be a difference in the way we perceive stories about magic and stories about divine miracles). In modern fantasy, it's more common to see fiction about its return--Crowley's Little, Big, Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell--or fiction that denies that wonder ever existed--Miéville's Bas-Lag novels--but intelligent authors of all stripes recognize that wonder comes at a price, and that its removal is also costly (unintelligent authors pretend that wonder and reason can coexist peacefully). The Second Coming is the only work of modern fantasy I'm aware of (and I'm sure there will be plenty of readers ready to offer their own examples) that ends with the removal of wonder.

In the miniseries' final scene, six years after the events it describes, Judith runs into Johnny, a sad and lonely man who had been possessed. Johnny is still sad and still lonely, but at least entirely human, and he comments to Judith that for months after Steve's death he expected some return, a miracle or a sign that the son of God wasn't entirely gone. So did I, Judith responds, but there never was one, and she now believes there never will be--"That's exactly the thing I got rid of. Do you think I was right?" Johnny leaves without answering. For all that it respects the opposing view, The Second Coming is unabashedly biased--as much in its premise as in its conclusion. There are plenty of people in the world--perhaps the majority--who feel God in their lives, who don't see themselves in Davies' middle-class, modern Westerners, and who would be horrified at the thought of all humans being stripped of their immortal souls. So it is to Davies' credit that he at least invites us to ponder what we lose with Steve's death and that, in spite of agreeing with it, he gives us the option of arguing with Judith and Steve's decision.

13 comments:

Niall Harrison said...

I would have sworn I left a comment last night. Bah.

Great post--I hadn't made the distinction myself, but you're absolutely right that one reason it works so well is that God is Good. Now I just have to get around to buying another copy so that I can watch it again ... although I'll probably just end up depressed about how much better it is that Doctor Who. :p

The Second Coming is the only work of modern fantasy I'm aware of (and I'm sure there will be plenty of readers ready to offer their own examples) that ends with the removal of wonder.

Well, I immediately thought of 'Great Work of Time', and of the two of us I'm not even the Crowley-phile. Although if you want to be picky, that's science fiction.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I'll probably just end up depressed about how much better it is that Doctor Who.

I know. I listened to Davies' commentary for TSC, and of course I've been watching the Doctor Who Confidentials, and I just can't believe it's the same guy. He seems so much smarter talking about the earlier work, so much more in control of the creative process. When he's talking about DW, you get the sense that he's constantly thinking about the responses of others - how this will play to the kids, to the fans, to the network people. The greatest thing about TSC is that it treats its subject with respect but not reverence, and I'm now beginning to wonder whether Davies didn't have the nerve to go quite that far when remaking DW (which, again, just kills me).

And yeah, I would call "Great Work of Time" science fiction, but more importantly I'm not sure I see the departure of wonder. It is a story about loss - the loss of a more genteel, more comfortable, more gentlemanly way of life (at least, to the people on top, it would have seemed so) - but I wouldn't characterize it as a story about the loss of wonder. In fact, given that the protagonists are 19th century, Victorian rationalists, I'd say that "Great Work" has more to do with the departure of reason in favor of our century's irrationality.

Niall Harrison said...

If I remember rightly, TSC had a hell of a time finding a network; it was commissioned by Channel 4 (which broadcast Queer as Folk), but they pulled out (not sure if this was at the script stage or after filming had started), and it ended up on, of all places, ITV (which is probably the most conservative UK broadcast channel, and the one you'd least expect to see showing something like TSC). It wouldn't surprise me that he became sensitised to how people would respond to his work after that. I haven't ever watched Confidential, but I have got the sense that Doctor Who is trying to play to all audiences, and that that is sometimes to its detriment.

Now, of course, Dark Season is also out on DVD ...

the loss of a more genteel, more comfortable, more gentlemanly way of life (at least, to the people on top, it would have seemed so)

IIRC, doesn't the story go to some lengths to make its British Empire actually a good place? I'm sure there are comments saying how they dealt with/were dealing with the racism and prejudice of the old order, and building something better. But the wonder I was referring to was the wonder of possibility--the end of the story closes off other worlds, forever.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I think I read something about Dark Season just recently, maybe on your flist. Kate Winslet is in it, right?

Going back to "Great Work of Time", it is true that the secret society was trying to do away with the dark underbelly of the British empire, but at the same time I think they were protecting the old order. I don't think Crowley went into great detail, but the impression I got was that they were getting rid of any overt ugliness, but keeping the stratified mindset (no hassling of black people, but still keeping them out of medical school - stuff like that). I may be reading more into the story than is actually there, though.

But the wonder I was referring to was the wonder of possibility--the end of the story closes off other worlds, forever.

I'm not sure I see that, unless you mean the series of ever-improving (and, as we discover, ever-stagnating) worlds that the secret society creates, and which collapse in on themselves at the story's end. Even before we discover that those worlds are headed for a full stop, however, we know that they're intended to prop up a static system. I can't think of anything less full of possibility.

Niall Harrison said...

I believe Dark Season was Kate Winslet's first tv role, in fact. I saw a couple of episodes about a year ago when I happened to be somewhere with access to the BBC Children's channel, and it was ... weird. But it seemed to hold up ok, so I'm going to get the dvd of the whole thing.

Great Work: I think our differences here hinge on what you think of the world the Otherhood is trying to preserve. Yes, it's colonialism extended into the fourth dimension--but it seems to me it's also presented as a better world than the one we got. World War I was reduced, World War II didn't happen at all, there was no holocaust; there is greater peace and greater prosperity. It didn't seem static, eiter. Yes, the Otherhood are preserving the British Empire, but they are doing so by ensuring that the Empire progresses, changes, and improves with the times. So my feeling when reading the story was much like my feeling about the Apollo program: they did it for all the wrong reasons, and in many of the wrong ways, but look at what they did.

Certainly there's a strong element of wish-fulfillment about this, but then that's the point--it's not a plausible history, it's one that has to be maintained, and it's that act of maintenance that, in the end, proves to be untenable, because it involves monumental hubris. But it still means that, for me, there's a genuine sense of loss and diminishment at the end of the story: not only is the world we live in not what it could be, it's literally not what it was. During the story, history can be changed--can be fixed--and after it, it can't.

I see the end of The Second Coming in a similar way, in that it also features something beyond everyday life that eventually has to be put away, leaving only everyday life behind.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Yes, the Otherhood are preserving the British Empire, but they are doing so by ensuring that the Empire progresses, changes, and improves with the times.

Maybe that's their intention, but it's certainly not what they accomplish, as we can see from the end result. And I'm not sure that their mistake is entirely one of hubris (although clearly hubris enters into it). The Otherhood make a trade - progress for stability. It's a choice that I can imagine making, although obviously it turns out to be the wrong one. And yes, there is a definite sense of loss at the end of the story, but I'm not sure it's the same kind of loss that the characters experience at the end of The Second Coming, which anyway is a great deal more hopeful than "Great Work of Time"'s.

I think the source of our disagreement is that I'm focusing on the end result of the Otherhood's efforts - a world that I find no more magical than our own and perhaps a bit less - whereas you're concentrating on their means. In that sense, I do see what you're saying about the removal of something fantastic from the world and the comparison to The Second Coming, although that's not exactly the example I was fishing for in my essay.

Graham said...

Niall sent me an email with a link to this post and the message: "This looks like a job for....Crowleyman!" I can't think who he meant, but I'll comment anyway. :)

First point: I read a paper at ICFA a couple of years ago arguing how frequently fantasy works end with gestures of renunciation-of-the-fantastic: The Tempest, HDM, Lord of the Rings, Little, Big, etc. I can certainly place The Second Coming with those works. Now, Great Work of Time: in sf (I'd argue) the fantastic is experienced as *possibility*, the possibility that the world is manipulable by those smart enough - and who are prepared to pay the price. The numbing finality of GWOT (as, differently, with The Girlhood of Shakespeare's Heroines) is that it so thoroughly shuts down possibility and leaves only a lamed shadow world...which is, precisely, ours. Crowley's ethical point in GWOT seems to me very clear: that no-one has the right to interfere in another's story (same as in Chris Priest), however good their intentions.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Oh God, I really did forget The Lord of the Rings, didn't I?

Any minute now, the geek police are going to knock down the door and confiscate my credentials.

(My defense, by the way, is that I was talking about modern fantasy - something contemporary to The Second Coming - but honestly I just never thought of it.)

I'd argue, though, that The Tempest and HDM are more accurately stories about specific characters renouncing the use of magic, not de-fantasizing their entire world (Little, Big is a curious choice in this context, given that it ends with the return of magic and the end of a scientific age).

GWoT: I think you've won me over, between you. I like your idea of the fantastic in SF being "experienced as possibility".

I'm totally calling you Crowleyman from now on, by the way.

Karen said...

This looks like a great series; thanks for calling it to my attention. (Must stop reading internet reviews, or I will spend the next decade perched in front of the television set catching up on everything good that I've missed.)

Anonymous said...

So much goes unnoticed, even when it's staring you right in the face and you're talking all about it.

Are you proud to take a bullet? Who will think to stop the trigger?

If I can hear you sing the song that I am singing......

ring any ears? scholapax@aol.com

revelshade said...

If I respond to a 3 year old post will I ever be read? Or am I talking to myself? Are you notified of all new comments or would you actually have to go back and look to find this late addition to the conversation?
Oh well. I found your blog in my bookmarks this morning with no memory of exactly when I was here before or how I was led here (happens now and then).
To the point - Is a novel published in the eighties modern enough? Moorcock's The War Hound and the World's Pain is about a damned (with a capital D) mercenary who is charged by Satan with finding the Holy Grail. Naming the work in this context spoils the ending for you but by all means seek it out anyway. It is not ambitious, but is mature and humane, a quality I value more as I grow older and more dependent on the goodwill of my fellows. It also has the virtue of brevity, unlike this post.

Anonymous said...

Hey Revelshade, it's not quite 3 years since you posted, but thanks for the book recommendation. :) Still have not found another who knows the song :( Spaghetti Frog says 'Hi' 8)

Anonymous said...

heh read the blurb on the War Hound & the World's Pain. heh, the holy grail.... My spaghetti pot was the holy grail, watering the tadpoles in the puddle in my driveway. Watering them until the little fish sprouted some feet and could hop away on their own. symbolilc in a way. Also I was watching Fisher King, the bit where Robin Williams is int he park telling the story of the fisher king and the grail, of the boy handing the cup of water to the king. At that moment a Fly was buzzing in my room, and I stood up and put out my finger, and as R.W. talked of the boy handing the grail to the king, the fly perched on my finger. The other day I had rescued a fly from the toilet. I agree with the premise of that book you suggest but the grail liberator is not rationality but compassion, empathy, and the maturity to take action and responsibility for it. That's it. That's the song. silent but lively.

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