Monday, April 08, 2013

Cult-TV Theme Watch: Cults

The word “cult” refers to a religious movement or group whose rituals, beliefs, or practices might be judged bizarre by society as a whole.

I use the term “cult” an awful lot on this blog, partly because it denotes the fact that this site doesn’t (typically) discuss mainstream productions, and partly because “cult” is part of a term (“cult TV”) that is frequently searched on the Internet.

Of course, some people will tell you that the term “cult” is pejorative, and that such a descriptor diminishes the production which is described.  This may indeed be true, though I don’t consider the adjective cult pejorative.

But cults -- odd and sinister religious or spiritual movements -- have indeed appeared prominently throughout television history.

Doctor Who (1963 – 1989) has probably featured more than its fair share of cults during its long run.  In the early 1970s serial starring Jon Pertwee, “The Daemons,” for instance, the Master (Roger Delgado) masquerades as the Magister, the head of a pagan cult attempting to conjure the demon, Azal.  As The 

Doctor is quite happy to prove to Jo (Katy Manning), however, Azal is not a demon and does not derive his power from magic.  Instead, he is an alien being with more advanced science than that known by man.  The whole serial pits human superstition -- in the form of the cult -- against the Doctor’s enlightened rationale for science.

Another Doctor Who cult -- the Sisterhood of Karn (featured in the Tom Baker serial “Brain of Morbius”) -- is depicted as a Time Lord ally, and one in possession of the mystical “Elixir of Life.”  It too seems an unholy blend of mysticism and science.

In Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979 – 1981), the first episode produced after the theatrical pilot, “Awakening” was titled “Planet of the Slave Girls.”  It involves a charismatic leader, Kaleel (Jack Palance) with the capacity to mesmerize his flock.  Such is his cult’s belief in him as Leader that the cult-members die upon Kaleel’s touch.  This episode may have been inspired by the 1978 Jonestown incident, which also involved a cult following.  The nine-hundred deaths at Jim Jones’ community occurred on November 18, 1978.

The short-lived series about an island in the Bermuda Triangle where all time-streams cross, The Fantastic Journey (1977), featured an episode called “An Act of Love” which served as indictment of religions in general and cults, specifically.  Here, a colony built near a live volcano routinely performed human sacrifices in the hopes of quieting the mountain.  At the end of the episode, Roddy McDowall’s Jonathan Willaway told the cult priestess: “You are trying to make deals with volcanoes."  Then he tells her, very directly, to take her people from the time zone and "leave superstition behind."

In the Chris Carter series, Millennium (1996 – 1999), Scientology was ridiculed as a cult called “Selfosophy” in the Darin Morgan episode “Jose Chung’s Doomsday Defense.”  In this case, those involved in the cult were instructed to purge themselves of all negativity, and buy-up every last copy of their guru’s science fiction novel.  You may recognize the historical antecedents for this story *ahem.*

A fertility cult -- shades of The Wicker Man (1971) – appeared in rural America in the Smallville episode (“The Harvest”), and agent Scully (Gillian Anderson) found herself trapped with dangerous cult members in another small town in “Road Runners.”  In this episode of The X-Files, the cult-members worshiped a strange, possibly extra-terrestrial worm that burrowed inside the backs of human beings. That was a fate Scully only narrowly avoided.

An episode of Ben 10: Ultimate Alien also saw humans worshiping (the living…) head of Vilgax as some kind of Cthulu-like deity.

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