Monday, 27 August 2007

Taboo or Not Taboo?

When reading a novel or watching a television drama, do you find yourself second guessing what the author of the piece might be getting at? For example, if you know that the writer has certain political leanings, do you think when you hit upon a scene, “Ah, I think he’s making a point here”?

Sometimes it’s pretty obvious that a writer is deliberately attempting to influence the reader/viewer/listener. The 21st century version of Doctor Who is moulded and shaped by Russell T Davies. He is a prolific and much respected scribe and what he has achieved with Who is remarkable. But he’s also a staunch atheist (on record saying he would like to see all religion banned) and a keen promoter of homosexual rights.

Have these themes found their way into Doctor Who? They surely have.

In the second episode of Series One, “The End of the World”, as a shuttle approaches a huge space station, an announcement is broadcast forbidding the practice of religion. Later in the same episode we witness the Holy Order of the Repeated Meme, which is a clever pun on what Davies believes religious attachment to be (no doubt influenced by the writings of one Professor Richard Dawkins). And in the final episode of that season, “The Parting of the Ways”, when the Daleks have harvested Earth’s waifs and strays and developed religious feelings, the Doctor says they have inherited the stink of humanity.

Viewers with religious feelings of their own might be troubled by these sentiments.

With regard to homosexuality, the first obvious attempt at planting the concept in the minds of the children watching is the scene in “The Parting of the Ways” where Captain Jack, about to go off into war against the Daleks, kisses Rose on the lips, and then kisses the Doctor in exactly the same way.

In the Series Three episode “Utopia”, Jack is seen to chat up a girl, then a man, then a blue insect creature! The anything-goes approach to sexuality and relationships is sprinkled discreetly throughout. In “Gridlock”, the Doctor jumps onto a campervan occupied by an elderly lesbian couple, and then onto one inhabited by a humanoid cat and an ordinary woman – with their kittens occupying a straw basket. In “42”, Martha asks one of the male characters if he has a girlfriend. When he replies in the negative, Martha inquires if he has a boy friend.

Now, some would say this is a fine thing, that equal rights are being promoted – while others would be disturbed by what is being sown in young fertile minds.

Of course, whenever RTD is challenged about preaching atheism or promoting homosexuality, bi-sexuality, and sex between different species to his impressionable viewers, he laughs raucously and suggests that the question itself is outrageous.

Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t.

But now, as I publish stories of my own, I find that some readers see in my work patterns of thinking and philosophies being expounded. Or do they…?

Readers do tend to read between the lines.

A much respected university lecturer told me he admired the way I pre-empt the great ordeal Gezz, Malcolm and Luke would later face in Century Lodge by in the first instance showing Malcolm having to overcome his fear of the foreboding railway bridge. He thought the bridge and the fear associated with it was a metaphor for what was to come. I had to tactfully explain that no such device was at work. The disused railway and that low bridge really exist. They are from my own childhood. Malcolm’s reaction to the bridge mirrored my own at that tender age. It was as simple as that.

On another occasion, I had a literary talent scout read Century Lodge in the hope that she would recommend me to a big name publisher. The lady in question took great exception to the apparent statement made in the book, that religious families are good and wholesome and that non-religious families are less so. She also had a problem with me “lecturing” the reader about the dangers of smoking cigarettes.

I felt obliged to explain one or two things.

First of all, while I was deliberately contrasting Gezz’s family with that of Luke’s, I was careful in constructing the characters to make sure they were not stereotypes. So, Gezz’s parents have got rid of their television, but Gezz goes round to Luke’s to watch Grange Hill. Gezz’s mother is very devoted to her religion and regards the Luke’s family as uncouth, but Gezz’s dad chooses to watch the movie Blade Runner with Luke’s dad because they have a shared interest in science-fiction.

It was my intention to expose Anne (and the reader) to conflicting information. Having a religious family, a secular family, and a boy with independent philosophies seemed the best way to show it.

As for the smoking issue, I do not believe that the scenes in which Gezz and Anne try a cigarette lecture the reader in any way. If they make the reader think twice about starting smoking, that can only be good. If they make adult readers feel awkward about their own smoking habit, then I cannot apologise. They probably feel awkward when their children come home from school and tell them about the posters they’ve seen depicting tar oozing from blackened lungs or list the lethal ingredients of cigarette smoke. Should the school apologise for showing their pupils these things? Hardly.

The feelings of guilt and shame experienced by Gezz reflect those of my own. When I tried smoking, I couldn’t wait to get my clothes into the washing machine and have a shower – mostly because I was terrified of my mother picking up the foul odour from me.

Recently, a reader in Germany got in touch, first to tell me easy Century Lodge is to read (and that’s a great compliment from a person who does not read English as her first language), and then to tell me how disturbed she was by the implication that Gezz’s family is better than Luke’s because Gezz’s family is religious. What fascinated me was how this reader was re-evaluating her own family life as a result of noticing the differences between the families in my novel.

And maybe that’s the crux of it. The readers are applying what they read to their own lives. And that is a tremendous thing for an author to contemplate. They are made to think by what they are reading.

I advised that my new German friend read the book to the very end before she drew any conclusions. She did so, and about two thirds of the way through it, sent me an email reporting she had been “happy to spend an afternoon at Luke’s house” (and thus seeing more closely what makes those characters tick).

Of course, there is another thing at work here too. Dennis Potter once said it is sometimes the job of the writer to make people think about things they don’t want to think about. I find this interesting. Have I touched a raw nerve in some of my adult readers? (I say “adult” because no child has ever complained about the way I depict characters, nor have they accused me of lecturing them). Am I making atheists think about God when they would prefer to forget him? Am I raising awkward questions about God that religionists find disconcerting? Are the smokers angry with me because I’m pointing up their addiction?

I’m not setting out to make anyone feel uncomfortable, but I am intending through the character of Anne to ask questions. Maybe some don’t want them asked.

As for my reader in Germany, she cannot wait to get her hands on Anne Droyd and the House of Shadows, and she’s bringing her copies of Century Lodge and Feeling’s Unmutual with her to the UK for me to sign when I attend the Tripods gathering in Brighton on Saturday 22 September.

It’s a privilege to affect people so profoundly, but I am now inclined to think twice before reading too much into the writings of others.


C P Leigh said...

Interesting post, Will.

This subject is one I have considered long and hard. As a writer I am constantly attempting to write 'outside of myself'. That is to write characters that do, think and say things that are entirely unlike me. However, I've noticed that at plot pinch points I often write from my perspective, as if it is me in the scene.

We are all a product of nature (our genetic predisposition) and nurture (our formative upbringing). So our view on life, mores, morals and opinions are very much the product of who we are.

Therefore, I can hardly blame RTD for including anti religious and pro alternative sexuality themes in his writing.

What concerns me is that millions of young kids will be influenced by what they view on Dr Who. It will become part of their 'nurture' and therefore shape who they are. Anyone who is writing entertainment aimed at the younger demography must consider the incredible influence and impact of their writing.

For the media to portray an alternative view as normal is always dangerous. History is ripe with examples of the damage that can do. From the Crusades to the Nazi uprising.

Very often what starts out as the view of a few individuals, becomes trendy, fashionable, until we get to the point that anyone even expressing a view against the idea is viewed as an outcast.

Only 40 years ago homosexuality was illegal in the UK. Now it is illegal to discriminate against such people, quite rightly. But how far will it go.

In 1932, Hitler was arrested at the Munich Putch and imprisoned. In 1938 the "Enabling Act" was passed making him a dictator and it illegal to even discuss Nazism in a negative context.

I am in no way linking the Nazism and alternative sexuality, but it does demonstrate how quickly something that is believed in by a few, can become mandatory for all.

Every writer, TV producer, program and film maker has to be aware of how influential the media is, and our own heavy responsibility.

For me it is all about choice. Opinions should only be expressed as what they are, never as fact. Show the alternatives, good or bad in your view and let people make their own minds up.

Will Hadcroft said...

Some interesting and controversial views here, CP.

Initially I was in two minds as to whether I should let them go up on the site unedited, but I believe I understand the point that you are making when you liken preaching a philosophy to young impressionable minds to what the Nazis did when they ruled Germany. You are pointing up how extreme and radical philosophies can become when left unchallenged (feel free to correct me if I have misunderstood your point).

I also chose to publish your comment because I believe in freedom of speech, provided that the commentator is not setting out to offend. I do not believe that you are.

For me, the problem is not RTD’s atheism or homosexuality, but that he may be using Doctor Who as a platform to indoctrinate the viewer. You and I can reject or embrace what is presented based on our preferences and world view. I’m sure some teenagers can too. But I don’t like the idea of eight-year-olds being pumped with propaganda for the sake of it.

On the subject of homosexuality, because I’m inclined to believe what the Bible claims about itself – namely that it is God’s Word written through human penmen – I have to accept what it has to say about gay sex. According to the Bible, the primary purpose of sexual intercourse is to produce children (the fact that it’s rather enjoyable is a bonus!). Because of this, the God of the Bible views same sex intercourse to be contrary to what He originally intended for human relationships.

I’m told some atheists take a similar view, that Nature has determined that we reproduce through the sex act, and so procreation is the purpose of the sex act.

However, it’s a basic truth that some individuals develop no romantic attachments to members of the opposite sex whatsoever, but they do develop strong feelings for members of the same sex.

There are those who deny that these emotions are real (claiming that homosexuals are “just perverted”), but, since I experienced a same sex crush during early pubety, I do believe that homosexuals genuinely feel the way they claim to.

Some people reason that because God designed the human race, he in effect made some us homosexual.

But this idea is contrary to what the Bible teaches. As far as scripture is concerned, humankind fell from perfection when it took an independent course and rejected God’s sovereignty. He has allowed us to go it alone, but purposes to restore his creation to how he intended it to be once it is clear we are unable to govern ourselves successfully without him.

Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that we are now leaving in the Last Days of this present human ruled system and that the restoration of God’s purpose is imminent.

To serve Jehovah God in the way he wants to be served means to accept his sovereignty and put his will ahead of our own.

Homosexual people are welcome to study the Bible with the Witnesses and attend their lessons at the Kingdom Hall. But if the said individual came to believe what he/she was being taught was indeed the truth and as result wanted to become one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, it would mean making a choice. Live a life of celibacy (the individual would not be expected to become heterosexual) and be baptised as a Witness.

Continuing with a gay relationship would mean that they could not become Witnesses. I imagine that those who go through this process must agonise over the decision (of course, if you don’t believe in the Bible and the Witness doctrine, then, obviously, there would be no issue at all).

With all of this in mind, I confidently claim not to be homophobic. I do not possess an unreasoning dread of or hatred for homosexual people – but at the same time feel I must acknowledge that one cannot worship the God of the Bible in the way he wants to be worshipped and practice homosexual intercourse as well. It really is one lifestyle or the other with no compromise at all.

In the office where I work there are at least two gay people that I know about. One of them I never talk to, simply because I have never worked with him. The other is a lesbian girl with whom I’ve enjoyed a bit of banter. She’s a very likable person, and I always engage her.

One particular man who worked in my office for a few months turned out to work part-time for Big Finish Productions, the independent company licensed by the BBC to make original full cast radio plays of Doctor Who. It was my job to train him in his work on my team, and because of his background and my writing, we hit it off straight away.

By the time he left to take up a full-time position with BFP, I had grown very fond of him. He is one of the most genuine, kind hearted people I have ever known.

So, while I stand by the Bible principle, this does not mean that I dislike homosexual people.

I do dislike television writers using their medium to indoctrinate young children.