Well, I’ve only ever been able to see ‘The Exorcist’ as a comedy, and if you believe Martin Shaw in the BBC’s nutty new exorco-drama ‘Apparitions’, that probably means I’m possessed. Hey ho, we all have our crosses to bear (or rather, pitchforks). In my defense, the scene in ‘The Exorcist’ that first set me off is undeniably a bit nutty. It’s the one where the psychiatrists come and visit Regan. The bed’s levitating; a head’s spinning round; the wardrobe’s dancing; and the shrinks confidently declare that it’s all in her mind, with a positively surreal determination to deny reality that was really a bit too Monty Python for me.
Alas, ‘Apparitions’ – just watched on BBC iPlayer – wasn’t as entertaining. In fact, it left me feeling positively depressed. Martin Shaw is – as ever – elegantly smooth as an exorcist who bucks authority (in classic cop show style, his grumpy boss even demands his exorcist badge at one point – and of course Shaw pops up a couple of scenes later, exorcising away. I go my own way, dammit! Or, in his rather more priestly take on that particular cliche, ‘I can only promise to follow my conscience’.), in this opening episode dealing with a young girl, quite possibly the reincarnation of Mother Teresa (yup, that’s what seems to be going on), whose dad is possessed. And it’s the way that that possession is handled, and the show’s related condemnation of atheism, that left me feeling so bummed out.
So, let’s start with possession. Martin Shaw’s nemesis – the possessed dad – was, it transpires, taken ill in India, rushed to Mother Teresa’s hospital, and there baptised without his knowledge. This is the root of his problems; Shaw tells us that, if baptism isn’t followed by an acceptance of God, a void is created that demons rush into. And he backs this up with scriptural quotation, so we’re not just hearing this from him; we’re hearing it from the church. This isn’t opinion, the show makes a point of telling us; it’s doctrine. And, given that we’re told this by an experienced exorcist, in this dramatic context, it’s not just doctrine either – it’s fact.
So, what’s the problem? Well, it’s in a very reasonable objection that Possessed Dad raises. He asks about the Hindus and Muslims that are brought into the hospital, and is outraged that they should be forcibly converted. Of course, within the context of the show’s rhetoric, everything he says is false; presumably his outrage is intended to create in us, the credulous audience, a sense that in fact it’s rather good that these non-believers are getting forcibly Christianised. That’s well on the way to being rather offensive; but that’s not all. In the dramatic world that the show creates for us, the forcibly baptised are in fact empty vessels for demons. It’s unlikely that a Hindu or Muslim, unknowingly baptised, will then embrace a Christian God; and so they become the most fertile voids, wherein demons may dwell.
Ugh. And Ugh, too, to the show’s treatment of atheism. Earlier on, Possessed Dad’s daughter tries to convince a doubting Shaw that her dad is possessed. Her proof? Richard Dawkins books, ‘Jerry Springer – the Opera’ on the CD player, and so on. Atheism is here a direct path to damnation; thought independent of church dictat a sure road to destructiveness in this world (Possessed Dad ends the episode by nearly, it’s implied, raping and killing his daughter) and eternal flame in the next. Is this kind of boneheadedly authoritarian theology the kind of nonsense my licence fee is funding? I’m going to be on the phone to the Beeb tomorrow…
And I’ll have one final thing to complain about, too. Because this show really is putting across a theology of command, and that’s made very clear when we find out how Possessed Dad’s daughter was conceived. Her seed was sown on the day of Mother Teresa’s death; Possessed Dad and Mrs Possessed Dad were in Kensington Gardens, mourning the death of Diana. At least, Mrs PD was; Possessed Dad dragged her into the bushes for a quick one, ostensibly to celebrate Diana’s death but in fact to celebrate Mother T’s death. A fascinating moment, linking temporal and spiritual authority in a way not seen since the obsolescence of the divine right of kings.
So, all in all a bit of a waste of time, this programme. And (not wanting to rant excessively after the X-Files explosion below) I haven’t even mentioned the truly bizarre treatment of the show’s only gay character, an ex-leper who’s now almost a priest, until he’s cast out of the church and falls prey to the temptation to visit a sauna – ‘The Hot Room’ (because Hell’s, like, hot, and he’s going into somewhere like Hell! Good grief, I’m embarrassed to even type this stuff. Anyway…) – and as a result is flayed alive by a knife wielding demon who – we have earlier learnt – also hangs out outside the Vatican, selling the Italian version of ‘The Big Issue’. Hmm, casual – and clod-hoppingly literal – demonization of the homeless, too.
So, who’s this witless, propagandistic, two dimensional, utterly conservative nonsense aimed at? Well, certainly not people like me. I would say the deeply, narrowly religious, but I suspect that they’ll have turned off after the first five minutes, where we learn that -apparently – Mother Teresa spent the last few hours of life either under demonic attack, or actively possessed by demons. Right…
So I can’t see anyone really enjoying it (except, perhaps, for Martin Shaw’s mum, and she kind of has to), and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it. So why have I even written about it? Partially, because this kind of unpleasantly subtexted nonsense should always be dissected and exposed for the offensive cobblers that it is, and partially because I still can’t quite believe that something quite as witlessly regressive as this is being serialised on BBC1 at 9pm on Thursday nights. If nothing else, it should lay to rest the myth of the dominance of the liberal media – along with those other myths about intelligent media, challenging media, entertaining media and even just basically well thought through media.
And what now for me? Well, I’m off to get stuck into a script about a heroic crime solving heretic torturing demon fighting member of that wonderfully sympathetic organisation, the Spanish Inquisition – if I get it in front of whoever commissioned ‘Apparitions’, I’ll be a TV big shot before you know it…