Coincidences, Priests And Other Nightmares


I seem these days to be haunted more than ever by coincidence. Perhaps it’s a sign of advancing age: the number of things I think I know have begun to loop back in on each other. Maybe someone in a dark matter dimension is trying to send me urgent messages, a la the movie ‘Interstellar.’

But here, as in the movie, I can’t help wondering why the messages are so difficult to decipher. I mean, if these pan-dimensional beings are as smart as their mastery of multiple dimensions might suggest, why haven’t they figured out the need to seriously dumb things down for my benefit?

The art writer and polymath John Berger has suggested that nature is full of coded messages, but that these messages aren’t necessarily intended for us, and are therefore beyond (or even beneath) our understanding. Ok, but why should we be able to sense them, however imperfectly, in the first place? What possible reason is there for such flawed perception, other than the purpose of gently steering us all towards insanity?

I once dismissed the great Polish film maker Krystof Kieslowski’s ‘Three Colours Red’ as being far too driven by coincidence. Kieslowski explained in a later interview that he believed fervently in coincidences, that he wasn’t sure what they meant but knew they were always at work, beside and beneath the reality we think we know. I was sniffy about all this before. I’m not any more. They’ve just been happening far too often.

Once, during a heroic bout of insomnia, I tried putting myself to sleep by recalling the names of all the 92 teams who had comprised the English Football League when I was a boy (I have a funny head for such things, it’s probably why I can’t sleep).

I managed all but four particularly obscure clubs, and those four were all mentioned by name in a sports broadcast later that morning. Another head bender involved a key moment in Thomas Pynchon’s novel ‘V’ and an old Apple Mac I used to own, but I’m not going there yet. It’s just too mental.

Coincidence struck again only this week. I’d discovered the old 1980 series ‘The Martian Chronicles’ in one of those online vaults of the TV undead. I’d seen the show as a child. In most respects, it’s very much of its time, but it does contain some beautiful ideas, including one of the very best imaginings of a completely alien culture ever attempted on TV or film.

I was struck then and now by the peculiar intensity of Fritz Weaver’s performance as a Priest who comes to Mars both to save souls and find the Martian version of Christ. Only a day or two after watching the episode online came the news of Weaver’s death. Ok, he was 90, but still, you see where I’m going.

Weaver, of course, was primarily a stage actor (he loved Shakespeare and man can you see it even in his TV work) who nevertheless became a familiar presence through many supporting parts in film and TV. His distinctive features and style made him a sort of distant uncle, an eccentric yet mostly charming presence who came to call every couple of years or so.martian-chronicles_fritzmonk

He was the scientist who accidentally creates a new form of computer / human hybrid in ‘Demon Seed.’ He appears on ‘Frasier’ as a high camp old man of the stage, and he features as Miles O’ Brien’s hilariously inept Cardassian defence counsel on Deep Space Nine.

Interestingly, there’s a scene in The Martian Chronicles which must have been pretty taboo busting at the time, and which might even raise a couple of hackles today.

The Martian race is mostly extinct, but was telepathic and lives on through the odd straggler and occasional mental echoes in the minds of the humans who have displaced them.

A Martian’s appearance and identity will change in response to the very powerful desires of the humans around them. They’re a race of alien Zeligs if you will. A fugitive Martian finds his way into Father Peregrine’s (Weaver) church in a human settlement. There, the intensity of Father Peregrine’s desire to meet his Saviour forces the Martian to take on the appearance of Jesus Christ, complete with crown of thorns and bleeding hands.

Father Peregrine’s Jesus pleads with him for release. “Don’t look at me. I am not he.” He says maintaining the form imposed on him by the Priest is killing him. With desperate reluctance, Father Peregrine agrees. He looks away, and Jesus disappears.

The part of Jesus in The Martian Chronicles is played by an English actor named Jon Finch, and if quantum voodoo turns out to be true, and there are an endless number of parallel universes slightly to the west of reality, then there must be a goodly percentage of these in which Finch is the biggest star in the world.

He seems to have been the ultimate nearly man of megastardom. Finch’s most famous role was in the unexpectedly raunchy and creepy late Hitchcock movie ‘Frenzy,’ in which he plays a man wrongly accused of being a rapist and murderer. Fantastically, he actually turned down the chance to succeed Sean Connery as James Bond in the early 70’s, and the part went to Roger Moore instead. Look him up online and try and imagine how that would have been different.

His brushes with greater fame didn’t stop there. He was the original choice to play Kane in Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien.’ Kane is the guy who has an alien erupt from his chest in one of the most shocking scenes ever committed to celluloid. Finch was cast but had to drop out after two days because of a diabetic attack, and the part went to John Hurt instead.

The scene in ‘The Martian Chronicles’ is short, but Finch brings all the necessary charisma and pathos to what must have been a very challenging proposition. As with many actors that history seems to have forgotten, you wonder what might have been. Finch died in 2012.

I sometimes think it would be nice to visit these parallel universes in which things turn out differently. Maybe I’ll find one in which Mars is home to a rich and complex culture, humans only visit it under strictly controlled conditions; I was one of the privileged few, and during the course of the visit, the Martians explained what all the coincidences mean and also cured my insomnia.

They say it is important to dream.



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