By Manon C. James
Dark is a Netflix drama, produced in Germany and dubbed into several languages, including English. It is based in a fictional (but recognisable) town of Winden in Germany. As the title suggests, it is a dreary place, with a nuclear plant and a threatening forest (Forests are sinister places in German mythology). It starts off as a seemingly normal drama (IMDb calls it a ‘family saga’) exploring the lives of four families, with affairs, conflicts between teenagers and their parents as well as tragic events. However, it soon develops into part murder mystery, part sci-fi time travelling drama and the fact that it is so difficult to categorise in terms of genre is one of the aspects that makes it so compelling. It is also very, very complicated, and on the internet there are fan sites with spreadsheets, family trees, and mind maps in order to explain what is going on. But do not let this put you off – ultimately concentrating on watching it properly (putting away the phone!) is very rewarding. I am not normally a fan of science fiction, but this series is one of the best things I have seen on TV for a long time. What follows is relatively spoiler free in terms of events; however, the themes throughout all three series will be discussed.
The religious themes in the series are obvious. Names of key characters are self-consciously biblical – Adam, Eva, Jonas, Noah, Mikkel (Michael), Martha… British audiences who are used to sympathetically drawn comedic clergy characters will find Noah the minister especially creepy. A St. Christopher’s necklace is a prominent symbol in the series as is the Trinitarian knot (which I will explore later). As the name suggests, the series is about evil and power, but instead of straightforwardly being about good conquering evil, we are left unsure about who is good and who is bad. Time travel also opens the possibility of being able to right wrongs, and much of the drive of the narrative is in attempting to stop certain tragic events, including various versions of an apocalypse.
We catch glimpses of this event and the aftermath, and its dehumanising and devastating consequences. However, there is a question over whether it can be averted, and whether by allowing one apocalypse we can avert other catastrophes (I am being vague here in order not to give away too much of the plot). This is one of the strengths of the narrative – it is genuinely thought provoking and raises questions about whether we can in fact act for good when we do not have all the information.
However, the series is lacking in a sense of spirituality (deliberately) despite all the religious imagery, which adds to the ominous tone. The scenery and portrayal of people is stark and violent. There is no beauty and very little kindness. Trust is often broken (for example between children and parents when they encounter versions of each other at different ages during time travel). Transformation is towards evil, not towards good. The one key relationship between Jonas and Martha is problematic though there are glimpses of connection and affection. The sinister music, and unattractive, dingy homes and a forest again adds to this bleak tone, and when places are lit e.g. the hospital, school and nuclear plant, the light is harsh and often flickering. The very few demonstrations of faith or prayer seem to come out of desperation and pain rather than comfort or a relationship with the divine. In fact, God is a particle, and power – not a person. However, one theme is dominant, and that is the love of parents for their children, and the importance of family connection, but this is less about unconditional love and more about loyalty and bonds, a force which compels them to act, rather than affection. There is very little humour – arguably the final episode has some hints of comedy which brings some relief.
Even if spirituality and an attractive sense of the sacred is missing, the one area where Dark raises interesting theological questions is in its treatment of the Trinity as a controlling metaphor. More recent Western Trinitarian theology has explored the potential in the doctrine to recover a sense of connection, inclusivity, and a renewed appreciation of the Holy Spirit. An example of this would be the feminist theological emphasis on the Trinity as providing a more attractive and empowering theology of God for women. The Trinity as a doctrine moves us away from a male autocratic God and towards relationship and mutuality. For example Hannah Bacon writes:
Because the Trinity depicts God as always-already in a relationship of mutuality and exchange with the other, as internally loving and internally relational, God need not be used as a means of supporting a phallocentric system in which the other is downtrodden or unrealized. Instead, the other is affirmed as mutual partner, as subject, and is thus invited into communion with the divine. (Bacon 2007 p.234)
Similarly, Volf (1996) in his first edition of Exclusion and Embrace proposes that the Trinity draws us away from binaries and therefore an understanding of gender and sexuality which leads to patriarchy and the imposition of heterosexuality as norm. In recent theology, Trinitarian theology can provide the basis for developing theologies which promote human empowerment and human relationships which are life-giving and not socially or religiously prescribed.
However, in Dark, the Trinitarian knot symbolises the never-ending loop of life, and this is seen as entirely negative. Human interconnectedness is not a positive thing as in feminist theology, and not about relationship (in the sense of being fully known and accepted) but about being inextricably linked to others in a damaging recurring spiral of events. Humans are destined to repeat their mistakes time and time again. Three also stands for the three stages of life – youth, middle age, and old age (in the series, Son, Holy Spirit, Father?) or naivety, innocence, and death. Eternity is not a blissful state but a place where humans are trapped forever in a Trinitarian loop.
This exploration of which metaphoric lens, whether dualistic or trinitarian, we use to look at Dark is a key theme in which the audience is invited to ponder. Both lenses or controlling metaphors are important aspects of the series. The opening kaleidoscopic credits, the Jonas / Martha relationship, tropes of good and evil (even if we are not sure which is which) all reinforce a sense of duality. However, Trinitarian symbolism and the prevalence of the number 3 raises all kinds of questions about whether the controlling metaphor is trinitarian or dualistic. I am not sure this is resolved.
This is resonant of a Christianity which has both approaches alongside each other. There is an emphasis on duality: light and darkness, spirit and flesh, Adam and Eve. However Christian theology is also messy and transgressive in a similar way to the world(s) portrayed in Dark, not just in its emphasis on the Trinity, but also, I would argue in its view of time.
Time is not simply linear for the Christian – there is kairos as well as chronos time. We also have different periods of time breaking in to each other in the Christian worldview. In part, this reflects its Jewish roots – key events are not just commemorated or celebrated but are re-enacted, for example in the retelling and reliving of the escape from Egypt in the Passover meal. Within the gospels and Acts (admittedly this is not described as time travel!), Jesus’ resurrection appearances and his teaching in the gospels about the Kingdom of God as a different sense of time (and power) breaking in to our own world has led to a worldview which is comfortable with the sense that we can live in different dimensions simultaneously. As Volf argues, Christians see themselves as members of two worlds, and as primarily citizens of God’s Kingdom as well as citizens of their own country (Volf 1996).
Ironically, in a series with so many Christian themes, there is no Christ figure. There is no one person as saviour trope (Jonas and Martha are very much a partnership or act as substitutes for one another) and although we do find out who the father is of one of the characters, this seems so minor in the narrative that this doesn’t seem to be the trope the writers are presenting. Although 33 is a key number in the series, this is mentioned as the number of miracles Jesus performed and as a number related to the anti-Christ. That this is the age that Jesus died is not mentioned at all. Is this deliberate?
Another major theme in Dark is various aspects of science and philosophy and in particular quantum physics. This has received great attention already on various fan pages and postings. A less popular theme for bloggers is the issue of human identity and although there is not the space here to explore this further I am left with the question of how are the characters recognisably themselves when we as the audience have to take it on trust that someone is who they are presented as. What is there left of a person when their story, their relationships and even their recognisable features e.g. faces have changed? What theology of the human person is represented here? One, I would suggest, that is uncomfortable and challenging for theologians.
In the end what we have in this series is a warped mirror image of Christianity. It is called Dark after all.
It does, however, challenge Christian theology with the question – how Trinitarian is our theology, even our Trinitarian theology, or are we holding on to a dualism in how we practice and speak theologically? And as a mirror, maybe Dark also reflects back to the Church and Theology that the idea of time travel or at least different worlds is more central to the Christian world view than we think.
Hannah Bacon (2007), ‘What’s Right with the Trinity? Thinking the Trinity in Relation to Irigaray’s Notions of Self-love and Wonder’Feminist Theology 15; 220.
Volf, M. (1996), Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness and Reconciliation, Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.
Manon C. James is the Dean for Initial Ministerial Training at the St Padarn’s Institute, Cardiff, Church in Wales. She teaches Practical Theology and Theology and Contemporary Culture and is an Anglican priest.