That’s the Bit I Have Trouble With (Tentacles of Doom)

tentacle imageThree bishops visit Craggy Island to upgrade the local Holy Stone of Clonrichert to a Class-Two Relic. Wanting everyone on their best behaviour, Ted manages to brainwash Jack into learning a few stock phrases. Meanwhile, Mrs Doyle is rendered blind after a dog steals her contact lenses. On the way back from the ceremony, the group diffuses: Ted is left with the weak-hearted Bishop Jordan, Dougal with the doubtful Bishop O’Neill, and Jack with the intense Bishop Facks. The following interactions destroy each bishop in a series of mishaps.

Looming large over the proceedings is the Holy Stone itself. It was first mentioned aloud in the first series finale, “Grant Unto Him Eternal Rest”, where Ted and Dougal enthusiastically tell Sister Monica that they have seen it 300 times. They offer to visit the stone with her before she leaves the island, but this plan falls apart with Jack’s apparent death. Since this episode was the first written, and features little Craggy Island world-building besides, it seems the Holy Stone idea was one of the earliest textural concepts conceived for the show. It’s treated as the closest thing the island has to a tourist attraction, with Dougal proudly showing off an “I saw the Holy Stone of Clonrichert” souvenir comb. Throughout the first series, we can also see a Holy Stone calendar on the wall near the television – it’s never shown up-close, but it appears to depict the stone as a dolmen. By the time it finally appears in “Tentacles of Doom”, it’s become a small lump of rock on a stone pillar, presumably to facilitate what Jack does with it later on. Throughout the second series, a new calendar illustrating the redesigned stone is displayed prominently by the priests’ living room window.

This unparalleled level of background gives “Tentacles of Doom” a strange momentousness. Finally, after numerous episodes building towards the stone, and one actively teasing it, we get to see it for ourselves. The sense of culmination is reflected in the characters’ behaviour, with Jack learning to discuss religion (after a fashion) and Mrs Doyle declaring the triple bishop visit the more important day of her career. We also get the iconic scenes with Ted teaching Jack to say “Yes” and “That would be an ecumenical matter”, allowing him to navigate any religious conversation at a pinch. (The latter line, a suggestion by former producer Geoffrey Perkins, has gone on to become one of the show’s most quoted. A third line, “Temptation comes in many guises”, was considered but eventually dropped.)

In “Grant Unto Him Eternal Rest”, the stone was described as having a “general kind of holiness”. One of its miracles is giving Dougal either a “great sense of serenity” or a “great buzz”. In “Tentacles of Doom”, the stone’s holiness collapses to a rather more specific and unusual form, with Ted suggesting that it is being upgraded because an Englishman who touched it last year grew a beard. As the bishops perform the ritual on the stone, they ask that God “bring healing” to anyone who passes within two and a half to three feet of it (at His discretion).

Yet there’s always been something not quite right about the stone. That it lies at the heart of Craggy Island’s economy is dubious honour enough, but that’s not all. As Ted quietly informs Monica, the stone was moved from the (fictional) town of Clonrichert in County Fermanagh because it was doing poor business, so its very presence on the island is a mark of greed. This is not its natural place. Its upgrade is associated with an Englishman growing a beard, and neither Englishness nor rapid hair growth have positive connotations within the world of Father Ted (see “Competition Time” and “New Jack City”).

In a sense, the stone can be seen as a symbol of the declining Church – old and venerated, but more than a little withered and silly. On the other hand, its backdrop (when we finally see it during the upgrade) invokes a sense of primal vastness; a bastion of newfangled monotheism intruding upon the heart of an ancient, tremendous vista. This scene was recorded at the Cliffs of Moher, one of the country’s more stunning locations, later to be used for the hiding place of Voldemort’s locket Horcrux in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. (Now there’s a crossover idea.)

In reality, a Second-Class Relic (the correct term) is an item used or worn a saint. A First-Class Relic is either an item directly associated with Jesus Christ or part of the body of a saint, and a Third-Class Relic is merely an item which has been touched by one of the higher relics. Ted’s claims that a Class-One Relic would have to be capable of miracles in the order of resurrection, time-travel, or dinosaur cloning are difficult to parse – it’s not quite clear if he’s simply inventing these examples to seem knowledgeable, or musing on actual miracles which have been reported in the show’s world. (We do know that Jack came back to life – perhaps Father Hernandez’s time-travelling video player can be implicated.) The system of “upgrading” shown in the episode has no basis in reality, and represents a fanciful, almost cartoonish conception of what bishops actually do. This thread continues with the religious conversation the bishops hold with the priests – specifically one about how strongly to involve the lay community in the upgrading process. It’s positively childlike stuff, and the writers acknowledge it’s indicative of their own limited knowledge of religion – Father Ted is not a research-driven show. What is simply an oversight in our universe becomes enshrined in the show’s material reality, with Church officials gathering to hold poorly thought-out discussions on superficial topics. There’s something fundamentally magical about the logic that powers this world. (Linehan points out that the Church in Father Ted plays a similar role to the FBI in Twin Peaks: a vast organisation that employs the heroes, its presence consequently looming over every episode, but whose actual internal mechanics and motivations are both shadowy and largely irrelevant.)

Structurally speaking, the episode is immaculate. The first two thirds largely maintain a singular perspective, carefully laying the pieces for the climax. Once we reach the Holy Stone itself, the narrative splits into three paths, like a beam of light which has encountered a prism – another flash of the stone’s unearthly power. (There was a subplot in which the bishops asked Ted to write a theological paper, with Ted accidentally staying up all night typing a list of people who aren’t priests; the writers excised it after filming because the episode was overrunning and it didn’t really connect to any of the other storylines.)

The opening vignette sets the scene thematically, with Ted and Dougal discussing ghosts on a stormy night. (Ted is reading Secret Love, the memoir of Father Michael Cleary’s illicit partner – one wonders if he’s pondering Cleary’s suspicious similarities to Bishop Brennan, or simply thinking about Polly and living vicariously through Cleary’s experiences.) The lighting and wind, which change to create a horror-film atmosphere as Ted recounts his story of a creaking noise which turned out not to be a ghost, are a source of comedy, but the moment is still a strangely sombre one – appropriate to foreshadow Jordan’s doom. Along with the second half of “Grant Unto Him Eternal Rest”, it might be the show’s only truly gothic moment – a bit of a pity, as gothic Father Ted is thrillingly weird. The idea of doubting the supernatural is also introduced here, and goes on to become a major theme in the episode.

Bishop Jordan, a gentle and thoughtful old man, is an exceedingly rare example of a truly positive portrayal of the Church within the show. He shares Ted’s fundamental goodness, but none of his pettiness and angst – a man with no regrets, secure in his faith, he’s the kindly elder clergyman Ted could one day become. Jordan is also, significantly the first Father Ted character to die. (We never find out if the dancing priest actually died, remember.) In retrospect, it’s a little uncomfortable to watch the character parallelled with Dermot Morgan’s Ted succumb to a humorous heart attack, in the same way it’s uncomfortable to watch the 1997 Simpsons episode where Homer visits the World Trade Center. The moment where Ted disregards Jordan’s musings on death so that he can rush off to the toilet is vaguely sad – there’s a sense that Ted could have learned something very important from him.

Bishop Facks is a strange hybrid, combining all of Jack’s irritability with actual Catholic beliefs. The writers have said that Bishop Brennan is Jack’s nemesis, but Facks seems like a more accurate mirror of how a devoutly Catholic Jack would have behaved, right down to the occasional cryptic military references. Though Denys Hawthorne might very well have based his performance on George Hook, he’s also somewhat reminiscent of the younger Jack we saw teaching students in the “Grant Unto Him Eternal Rest” flashbacks – vigorous, energetic, and frightening. (A scripted scene draws another connection, with Facks revealing that his good friend Father Cave was taught by Jack in Saint Colm’s and still has vivid memories of him – cut to a priest covering himself in explosives and stepping through a door, revealing walls covered in photos of Jack as we hear a detonation – a Drumshanbo massacre redux, basically.) As it turns out, Jack has no time for religious pundits, especially those who can match his own abrasiveness – no-one infringes on his territory, even obliquely. Snapping under Facks’s shoulder-tapping insistence on “straightening out the media”, Jack seizes the Holy Stone and attacks him with it, lodging it in a rather uncomfortable place. In other words, Jack defeats the primary agent of conservative Catholicism using the primary symbol of the very same faith; a strange but effective neutralisation.

As we can see by Ted’s calendar, the bishops’ visit occurs on the 1st of May. In Irish culture, this date is associated with Bealtaine, a pagan feast marking the beginning of summer. Still, it’s a sinister and portentous episode for most of the characters – the only one who ultimately seems in tune with the day’s more traditional meaning is Bishop O’Neill. He and Dougal do not mirror each other as strongly as the other duos, apart from sharing a general unsuitability for clerical work. Despite being left alone with Dougal, O’Neill manages to escape the dark fate of the other two bishops, and is the only character who actually benefits from the episode’s events. He has been having doubts about his vocation, and in one of the show’s more satirical twists, it’s Dougal’s puzzled remarks on Catholic belief that push him over the edge. Combining Dougal’s childlike yet incisive wisdom with his own rational mind, O’Neill become enlightened, freeing himself from the shackles of religion. In the final scene, we encounter the reborn Eddie O’Neill, bishop no more, decked out in stereotypical hippie attire, a pagan sun symbol hanging around his neck. He makes the escape Ted never could, but Ted fails to understand this, instead feebly asking him to reconsider. Eddie runs off to join a gang of weed-smoking hippies in a van which looks like it drove out of some pop version of the 60s – it retrospect it seems almost like a prescient coda to their short-lived follow-up sitcom. Sometimes it’s the small comforts that count for the most.

Perhaps the Holy Stone is less a symbol for the Church that for Craggy Island itself – destroying those who wander within its reach, but leaving its own eternally untouched, like men trapped in the eye of a hurricane. Today the capricious forces which govern this world have brought the priests face-to-face with the men they might have been. In response, the priests destroyed them, shrugged, and moved on. Ironically, the only one to escape corruption or violation was Ted’s own counterpart, Bishop Jordan: God looked down, judged him worthy, and took him away. If there was any doubt that Ted and the other priests were too entrenched ever to leave Craggy Island, it ends here.

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