Children’s pop culture and subversive mythifying

I’ve got children’s pop culture and the subversive use of religious imagery on the brain today, and I’m not sure what to do with it.

Yesterday, as I was going through Star Trek: The Animated Series — which I am enjoying, BTW, because I approach it with the same sort of low expectations with which I approach at least half the original series, and sometimes the stories are actually rather good — I came across the episode ‘The Magicks of Megas-Tu’, in which we learn that the Devil is basically just a friendly, misunderstood alien, and so were the people who were persecuted in Salem, Massachusetts (and elsewhere?) for being “witches”, etc.

Hence, the final line of dialogue goes to Spock, who tells Kirk (as per the images below) that “this would be the second time Lucifer was cast out, and, thanks to you, the first time he was saved.”

Heavy echoes of the original series episode ‘This Side of Paradise‘, which ended with McCoy saying, “Well, that’s the second time man’s been thrown out of paradise,” and Kirk replying, “No, no. This time we walked out on our own.” And heavy stuff for a Saturday morning cartoon, even one based on a sci-fi series.

Then there is The End, the 13th and final installment in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, which I finally got around to finishing last night.

Warning: There be spoilers here.

Suffice to say there is a rather climactic moment, at the end of the penultimate chapter, that involves a tree, a snake, and an apple. The key sentence states: “The snake slithered through the gap in the roots of the tree, and whatever the serpent was thinking, it was quite clear from the sibilant sound that came hissing through the reptile’s clenched teeth that the Incredibly Deadly Viper was offering the Baudelaire orphans an apple.”

And the catch is: the snake is friendly, and the apples have the power to heal the orphans of a deadly poison that has been spread by Count Olaf. So, while this is not a direct contradiction of Judeo-Christian mythology like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy or the Star Trek episode mentioned above, it is a turning-on-its-head of an image that is pretty central to that mythology. A motif that represents something bad in orthodox Christianity represents something good in Lemony Snicket.

This is not the first time that I have noticed material in the Lemony Snicket books that is questionable from a religious POV. At least two books — I forget which two, though I think one was The Unauthorized Autobiography — refer to a “Cathedral of the Alleged Virgin”, and the 10th book, The Slippery Slope, ends with a quote from Algernon Charles Swinburne, who “was widely regarded as a very good poet, although some people think his writings about religion were a little too mean-spirited.”

I can handle this stuff, of course. But stories like these are made for children — and now that I have a couple tykes of my own, I find myself wondering how to handle their exposure to such things.

About Peter T. Chattaway

Peter T. Chattaway was the regular film critic for BC Christian News from 1992 to 2011. In addition to his film column, which won multiple awards from the Evangelical Press Association, the Canadian Church Press and the Fellowship of Christian Newspapers, his news and opinion pieces have appeared in such publications as Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Bible Review and the Vancouver Sun. He also contributed essays to the books Re-Viewing The Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) and Scandalizing Jesus?: Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years on (Continuum, 2005).

  • Anonymous

    Please allow me to introduce myself
    Im a man of wealth and taste
    Ive been around for a long, long year
    Stole many a mans soul and faith
    And I was round when jesus christ
    Had his moment of doubt and pain
    Made damn sure that pilate
    Washed his hands and sealed his fate
    Pleased to meet you
    Hope you guess my name
    But whats puzzling you
    Is the nature of my game
    I stuck around st. petersburg
    When I saw it was a time for a change
    Killed the czar and his ministers
    Anastasia screamed in vain
    I rode a tank
    Held a generals rank
    When the blitzkrieg raged
    And the bodies stank
    Pleased to meet you
    Hope you guess my name, oh yeah
    Ah, whats puzzling you
    Is the nature of my game, oh yeah
    I watched with glee
    While your kings and queens
    Fought for ten decades
    For the gods they made
    I shouted out,
    Who killed the kennedys?
    When after all
    It was you and me
    Let me please introduce myself
    Im a man of wealth and taste
    And I laid traps for troubadours
    Who get killed before they reached bombay
    Pleased to meet you
    Hope you guessed my name, oh yeah
    But whats puzzling you
    Is the nature of my game, oh yeah, get down, baby
    Pleased to meet you
    Hope you guessed my name, oh yeah
    But whats confusing you
    Is just the nature of my game
    Just as every cop is a criminal
    And all the sinners saints
    As heads is tails
    Just call me lucifer
    cause Im in need of some restraint
    So if you meet me
    Have some courtesy
    Have some sympathy, and some taste
    Use all your well-learned politesse
    Or Ill lay your soul to waste, um yeah
    Pleased to meet you
    Hope you guessed my name, um yeah
    But whats puzzling you
    Is the nature of my game, um mean it, get down
    Woo, who
    Oh yeah, get on down
    Oh yeah
    Oh yeah!
    Tell me baby, whats my name
    Tell me honey, can ya guess my name
    Tell me baby, whats my name
    I tell you one time, youre to blame

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07395937367596387523 Peter T Chattaway

    Heh. Yeah, I was thinking of that song, too. :)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02552984147798120208 Fr. Justin (Edward)

    Short answer (to how do we handle it): Without fear.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06403255764384760662 Betty

    Dude, you’d never seen the cartoon series?! That’s a serious lapse in your sci-fi background, my friend.

    It actually is well worth watching, though, and I really need to get it on DVD, myself. Some of the episodes are really surprisingly good. (Or at least so I remember them; it has been a while.) Others, of course, are, um… not. “The Infinite Vulcan,” for example. It’s like someone sat down and thought, hey, there ought to be a “Spock’s Body” to go with “Spock’s Brain!” *rolls eyes*

    As far as “The Magicks of Megas-Tu” is concerned, I think it borrows heavily from Clarke’s Childhood’s End, among other things. I suppose it is subversive, but, as will probably come as no surprise to you, I’m all for that kind of subversiveness. I loved that final image of the Lemony Snicket, too. (And, yes, it is oh, so much better than anything in Pullman.)

    Personally, if I had kids I would be very, very glad to know this kind of fare was out there for them and would encourage them to watch it. It’s stuff like Veggie Tales that I’d be worried how to handle. :)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07395937367596387523 Peter T Chattaway

    Dude, you’d never seen the cartoon series?!

    Not really, no. I have vague memories of seeing an episode, once, in which a phaser is set to explode so as to open an escape route, but I’m halfway through the series on DVD and I haven’t come across it yet.

    Some of the episodes are really surprisingly good.

    I agree. ‘Yesteryear’ is an interesting elaboration on Spock’s troubled childhood, and ‘The Terratin Incident’ is very much in the spirit of some of the more fantastical episodes of the original series (‘Wink of an Eye’ comes to mind in particular), yet the very premise of the episode (The Incredible Shrinking Man in space) would have been impossible to film with the effects and the budget that the original series had, so it plays perfectly to the strengths of animation.

    And ‘One of Our Planets Is Missing’ is kind of like the bridge between the original-series episode ‘The Doomsday Machine’ and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, isn’t it?

    As far as “The Magicks of Megas-Tu” is concerned, I think it borrows heavily from Clarke’s Childhood’s End, among other things.

    Ah, yeah, I could see that. Clarke goes beyond the whole alien-looks-like-the-devil thing (which Gene Roddenberry already did with Spock) and suggests that the aliens in that book were effectively mistaken for demons once upon a time, just like Lucien, doesn’t he?

    Personally, if I had kids I would be very, very glad to know this kind of fare was out there for them and would encourage them to watch it.

    So might I, actually; it’s just a question of when and how.

    It’s stuff like Veggie Tales that I’d be worried how to handle. :)

    Hmmm, I don’t have a policy on how to handle Veggie Tales, yet, but I suppose I’ll need one!

  • Pingback: Gods from outer space: the good, the bad and the silly


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