Tuesday, October 21, 2008

On Battlestar Galactica

NO ONE IS MORE surprised to see a post about science fiction on TWR than the already cranky staff here at TWR. But, here it is: the first and probably the last entry about a science fiction text, unless, of course, you count Lost. But, that's another story.

This story is about Battlestar Galactica--the remake of the 1970s TV show, the remake ridiculed on last week's The Office, the remake beloved by geeks and non-geeks alike (though, I think, more by geeks, as indicated by the photo on the left)--and its provocative stance on religion. Very few television shows deal with issues of religion in complex ways. Programs like 7th Heaven and Touched by an Angel sentimentalize spirituality and the supernatural; they don't really explore its contradictions or look at how religion shapes cultures. Friday Night Lights, oddly enough, may do the best job of this on network TV in exploring the degree to which religion forges behavior, cultures, and attitudes.

The most interesting plot point of the new BG is the tension between the fundamentally different religious systems as held by the two warring civilizations: the humans and the cylons. Within the weltanschauung of the humans (with whom we are supposed to identify--they are looking for earth and may be our ancestors) the cylons are merely machines. The humans believe the cylons are incapable of rational thought or valid spiritual beliefs--in part because the cylons were created by humans. But, the cylons evolved; in fact, they sort of out-evolved the humans. They are more advanced, in many ways, despite their machine-ness. The humans are humans with all of their human flaws, their human desires, and their human beliefs.

Interestingly, though, one human belief on the show is the unwavering certainly in many gods; whereas the cylons believe in only one true omnipotent god. And thus, in the vast frontier of space (yes, it is all too familiar), a religious war is waged--monotheists against polytheists.

What's not familiar is the alignment of those beliefs. Within the narrative trajectory of the story, we find ourselves, of course, rooting for the humans, who seem to embody many of the standard characteristics of mainstream Christians. They pray, there are holy books, they ask for forgiveness, and they tend to ignore the gods except in times of distress. It's just that they pray to many gods, instead of, you know, just one.

On the other hands, the cylons make as part of their fundamental modus operandi the enactment of God's vision and design. In other words, the machines--who can appear ruthless and anti-human (even anti-American)--are more devout, more holy, more Christian than the humans.

Adding to this tension are other plot lines that come straight out of the Bible: a search for a promised land, a miracle baby that seems to embody the hope for the future, prophets and visions, temples and scriptures. To its credit, the show doesn't sympathize with the humans over the cylons. Both races are equally noble and ignoble. Similarly, the show doesn't indicate which system of belief is "correct," though much more time is devoted to the human polytheism. In fact, one of the annoying sci-fi traits of the show is to have the humans utter phrases like "oh my gods!" or "gods damn the cylons," rather than the singular noun. The human polytheism and its normalcy gets coded and recoded again throughout the show.

What will be fascinating is to see how the writers reconcile the ultimate destiny of the two races--will it have anything to do with one or many gods? In other words, the show poses the same question Columbus, Cabot, Cabeza de Vaca, and many early Pilgrims asked not only each other but their own god--who is right? Those who believe in many spirits, or us, trained to rely solely on one?

1 comment:

  1. With all the online chatter about the theology of BSG, its surprising how little is mentioned of Jewish influence. TWR writes that the humans embody the characteristics of mainstream Christianity—surely meaning of the American variety. Ellen Leventry, on Beliefnet, traces the show back to its Mormon creator, Glen Larson. She also describes the Buddhist and Roman polytheist influences brought into the show, in its current incarnation, by executive producer Ronald D. Moore. But surely we must at least make note that the show’s central issues—living in exile, and resisting annihilation—are fundamentally Jewish characteristics. Furthermore, the insistence of the cylons that the humans give up their belief system in favor of more developed beliefs, resembles current Christian/Jewish relations. And President Roslin’s mysticism and reverence of scripture resemble Kabbalistic experiences more than any Christian equivalent. How could these obvious parallels go so unnoticed?

    See Leventry’s article: http://www.beliefnet.com/Entertainment/Movies/2005/05/Born-Again-Battlestar.aspx?p=1