Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Main Range 061. Faith Stealer by Graham Duff (September 2004)

Faith Stealer, a pun on Brian Friel’s 1979 play Faith Healer, is the one and only audio drama written by Graham Duff, another interesting catch in Big Finish’s 2004 stable of all-new writers. Duff is, of course, best known for the purely comedic – such as script-editing Alan Partridge’s Alpha Papa or, indeed, playing a silly role in Nick Briggs’ Exile – but this fact belies his obvious influences, namely science-fiction, horror and dark surrealism, which tend to be imprinted on everything he does (see: Dr Terrible’s House of Horrible). His career thus resembles that of Mark Gatiss, though with an even more solid balance of both lovingly parodic spoofs and ambitious renderings of the genuine article with something of a preference for weighty themes and a lot of ideas.

Faith Stealer fulfils both edicts, and kicks off the fourth season of Paul McGann and India Fisher stories into the bargain. Duff’s script sees the Doctor, Charley and C’rizz arrive in an Eden-like setting alive with the whoops of alien birds (really solid production, by the way). The Multihaven is another good, high-concept setting (with its skyline of “churches, temples, towers, spires, domes, cupolas…”, its gardens and its lakes), following Zone Eutermes, Light City and Scherzo’s blindingly white glass tube in its otherworldliness. The Doctor theorises, again, that this is merely a scientific observation experiment, a “Circus Maximus with the survival of the holiest”. Another strong element is the lucidity accumulator (“an old clothing cabinet” on the exterior) is bigger on the inside, “with innumerable proportions and moods” – a clear parallel to the TARDIS.

I still find The Creed of the Kromon’s back-history for Conrad Westmaas’ under-developed C’rizz irritatingly melodramatic, but what’s done is done, so the writers may as well acknowledge it. Thankfully, we get some of our first proper treatment thereof in the form of some persistent and traumatic flashbacks. Although it’s a shame this PTSD-type plotline comes two stories removed from Kromon, it does suit the religious backdrop of the story well, given the emphasis on guilt and repentance (even the Doctor gets to indulge in a spot of self-doubt). Duff puts C’rizz through the emotional wringer in his confession scenes, in his plot with the broken-minded Bishop Parrash, and in his treatment in the de-faith centre; it works well. The scene in which Charley and the Doctor realise they know very little about their companion is a good way of addressing the still-noticeable gulf between them. McGann and Fisher are good here, but this story allows more focus on Westmaas’ performance, and it’s all the better for it, feeding well into the arc about striving to do better based on past guilt.

What obviously distinguishes Faith Stealer from a majority of Doctor Who stories is its treatment of religion. I’m not a person of faith, but have had a lot to do with it. My father’s area of expertise is inter-faith relations, and thus I have a great deal of interest in how different creeds and religions are able to exist alongside one another (“it’s almost unheard of for two opposing faiths to co-exist, never mind forty-seven”). Generally speaking, religious devotion in this particular programme is a thing of fear (The Face of Evil), or at best something misguided which happens to bind people together (Gridlock).

Duff takes a different route; one might almost call it the Monty Python technique. It’s a pretty obvious thing to say, but Faith Stealer is very, very funny. This is in itself something of a surprise in the Divergent Universe (all its stories so far have been nigh-on humourless, only two of which were for a good reason), but it works precisely because it is so refreshing. The scenes at the Multihaven Gate are great fun, but in Duff’s capable and highly imaginative hands serve a potent purpose, demonstrating what a plethora of different belief systems there are. Lann Carder’s 23rd Church of Lucidity is at points an utter hoot, and “so much lucidity!” a beautifully comic yet sinister repeated gag. It’s as good as “We are not fools!” from A Good Man Goes to War in its painfully earnest, yet eminently mockable, conviction. In turn, Bishop Parrash’s Kabari faith deifies a versatile, popular product (a “market leader” which has replaced water, because “water evaporates”). Duff’s inventiveness, and his ability to blend comedy and horror, extends to all the fictitious faiths – the Bakoans, for instance, worshipping their eternal hymn, allowing the building to reverberate with their soothing song; the Church of Serendipity, praising Whoops the Great Neglecter and “revelling in chaos for its own sake”; the list of unsubstantiated miracles; Director Garfolt’s pseudo-science de-faith centre with all its anxiety levels, grotesquely distended remorse nodes and undesirable mental accretions is a nice jab at faith healing and other dubious medical practises.

Reminding me of Diana Rigg’s Olenna Tyrell, Tessa Shaw does a great job as the Bordinan, “monitoring the balance of beliefs and actively encouraging the diversity of faiths that make up the city” (and pleased to see Duff gives us a significant female religious leader – her successor, Jebdal, isn’t bad either). A significant element of the Multihaven is its treatment of religions as relatively impermanent things, as a competitive market (“some kind of spiritual Stock Exchange”) within which “conversion is brisk” – it’s easy to jump from one another because the messages are generally surface-level, and without a spiritual leader, believers are very quick to jump ship. Religion here is the ultimate opiate (if we’re aping Marx’s famous aphorism), the ultimate sanitised take on life – and if your zeal gets too much, “there’s always the de-faith centre.” Great stuff. There is, naturally, a more sinister element to it all: chanting in unison, strength in numbers, can be incredibly spooky, and the way in which Miraculite, the faith-stealing substance, leaves its victims brain-dead, shambolically shuffling from one place to another like sleepwalkers, passing through this world with no sense of having opened their minds to it, and indeed committing terrible crimes for that very reason, is a strong indictment of religion’s negative effects. The disciples will not wake, will not open their eyes. It’s worth returning to “so much lucidity!” – it really is a terrific phrase, illustrating both what religion can promise and what it fails to deliver. Lucidianism’s catchphrase becomes a meaninglessly repeated slogan, twisted into different context, devoid of the meaning it professes to illumine. All creeds involve self-negation of one kind or another, and Lucidianism’s leader, Laan Carder, is only the religion’s dream.

It could, of course, be argued that religion is an easy target, and that many of its real-life ludicrous excesses are not all that much sillier than those presented here (for instance, John Calvin said in 1543 that there were enough ‘alleged’ pieces of the cross on which Christ was crucified to build a ship from, and the copious relics across the globe competing in authenticity make a mockery of themselves). But in the manner of the best treatments of religion (and yes, I stick by The Rings of Akhaten for doing a good job on this score), Duff isn’t completely vicious. The Bordinan (unconnected to any religion though she technically is) and members of the other minor religions are drawn positively, and Lucidianism is very deliberately a distortion of true religions. Faith Stealer is more about people’s natural proclivity to be gullible and intellectually exploited than it is an attack on any one religion in particular. The answer to this powerful, negating force is quite naturally self-belief, asserting one’s own existence, realising the illusion of the closet (and note the very careful Narnia echoes here, as Duff refutes Lewis’ take on reality) and stepping outside of it into the real world. Graham Duff’s script is daft but serious, simple but complex, a Monty Python comedy in which Descartesian philosophy beats the theocratic tyranny of an incorporeal mind leech. What’s not to like?

Other things:
Stephen Perring makes a welcome if brief return as the ever-ubiquitous Kro’ka.
The Church of the Tourists is a great little gag, “Bloody Tourists!” made me laugh, and the fact that the religion catches on within minutes the (admittedly inevitable) icing on the cake.
“Who says a religion has to have a spiritual dimension? My faith is about practicalities.”
“Brought back from dreams? But that’s impossible.”/“Lucidity made them tangible. Belief made them real.”
“Two children met in the desert and began to argue who worshipped the correct god. Their argument continued for many days. Others arrived and joined the debate, and members of increasingly diverse religions began to appear. A shantytown sprang up, a place where contrasting beliefs could co-exist. Today, the Multihaven’s population is in the region of 6,000, and, as of today, we can boast 47 different practising religions.”
“Kabari is not divine, it’s handy!”
“Do you have any trouble with cults preying on the vulnerable?”/“That’s what cults do.”
“The hymn is in praise of the hymn. Music that appreciates itself…deity and ditty in one.”
“When you’ve met as many gods as I have, there’s a tendency to become a shade blasé.”
They have Welsh accents in the Divergent Universe? I suppose if they can have the variety of English ones we hear, it’s no great leap in suspending our disbelief a little further.
“I am Miraculite and all shall live in me.”
The Doctor left his TARDIS Locator in the TARDIS. Whoops – but I like the subplot about how the TARDIS might be hidden here. Good it’s not been forgotten. We get a good old TARDIS explosion in Part Three, too, “shattered into infinite shards”. It is interesting how much more interesting it can make the plotting when the Doctor doesn’t have a TARDIS to fall back on for jiggery-pokery.
“I am not completely without my flaws, you know. I’d hope they added to my natural charm.”
“Good Lords!”
The TARDIS is described as a “recurring miracle” and an “intermittent fault”. Hehe.
“The thing I’ve noticed about power is it’s ever so abuser friendly.”
“Paper comes from the Paper Drawer, worshipped by the Sacred Paper People.”
 “You just need care and attention from attentive carers.”
“Whoops the Great Neglecter: as he neglects, so shall he dislodge.”
“Lann Carder. This is an unexpected… visit.”
“What about the spoon? Thousands converted, before they realised it was just a spoon.”
Venusian aikido! Except it hurts the Eighth Doctor’s hand.
“What’s wrong with her?”/“Nothing.”/“Pity.”
“Their minds are burnt out. Eyes that have stared directly into the suns will never function normally again. I fear the same may be true here.”
“I think you’re a good friend who’s going through a difficult time. I also think you’re a good friend who seems to enjoy trying to throttle me.”
“Sometimes, in a situation like this, you have to climb into the belly of the beast and swim around in the gastric acids.”
“Belief without proof, Charley. The foundation of all faiths.”
“May your way be strewn with obstacles!”/“It invariably is.”
“I’m afraid the One True Way turned out to be a dead end!”
“I was witnessing miracles before you were even born. I’ve seen a rushing river turned to stone. I’ve met a dwarf who towered above me. I’ve seen a dead man rise up and eat a light lunch.”
“I’m a worm. I beg your forgiveness.”/“No, you’re not a worm. I’ve seen worms. You’re not one.”
“Well come on then, there’s only a few times like the present!”
“O ye of too much faith.”
“I think it’s time we came out of the closet, don’t you?”

2 comments:

  1. Another great quote: "I'm done with blind faith. I'll do whatever you ask without question" :)

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    Replies
    1. Yes! That is a good one. Though I clearly missed it on first listen...

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