Battlestar Galactica: All along the WatchtowerBy Bobby Neal Winters
"No reason to get excited", the thief he kindly spoke
"There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke
But you and I, we've been through that, and this is not our fate
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late".
It is rare to get any sort of depiction of religion in the popular media wherein religion is taken seriously by the characters and where it is an integral part of the story. Whatever its failings, Battlestar Galactica does that. Religion is taken seriously by the characters and it is integral to the story. There are hairs to be split, important hairs, but for those who are interested and have the patience, there is something of a reward waiting.
I am not very learned in the way drama is usually classified, so please be patient with my characterization. Battlestar Galactica is a post-911, science fiction, war, soap opera. The soap opera is not just tacked on at the end. The creators of BS-G have embraced the concept and use many of its motifs: amnesia, false deaths, confused sex, adultery, troubled pregnancy, and stolen babies. This is off my main theme, but I don’t want any of you getting into BS-G without being aware of its soap-operatic nature. I’ve watched General Hospital, All My Children, and Days of Our Lives back in the day (as well as Hill Street Blues and the like) and have periodically sworn off of them, saying never again. If you’ve made a similar vow, I’ve now warned you.
The post-911 characterization is important to my theme, however. Battlestar Galactica is set within a society in which quasi-Greco-Roman polytheism is the established religion. The society has at some point in the past created robots to be servants and soldiers. The robots--called Cylons--were sentient and rebelled. After a war, there was an armistice. Following an extended period of peace, the Cylons returned and attempted the genocide of the human race.
The Cylons are monotheists.
There monotheism and the nature of the attack on the prevailing human society is heavily influenced by the 911 experience. The Cylons are portrayed as worshipping One True God. Having a moral arbiter gives them a very black and white view of right and wrong. While my ignorance of Islam prevents me from comparing the religion of the Cylons with Islam in its multitudinous varieties, I believe it was the intent of the creators of BS-G to invite comparison.
By way of contrast, while there are pious folks among the polytheistic humans, most have a faith that is shallow or superstitious or both. The elite are portrayed as either being atheists or practical atheists for the most part. It is here, of course, we come closest to a true representation of religion in modern western civilization.
Beyond the religion of the humans, BS-G also presents a religion/metaphysical framework (the language is escaping me) that is true within the framework of the story. While it is not made fully explicit, it is undeniably there. There is a God within the story’s framework. The question is left open whether this God is natural or supernatural. There were things said which give me the suspicion that the God of BS-G exist within the natural universe as opposed to being above the natural universe. (This is one of those fine hairs I promised you.)
The True Religion within the reality of the series appears to be an amalgam of liberal Judeo-Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam.
Having mentioned the natural vs Supernatural dichotomy, the religion of BS-G tends towards those elements that appear to be more supernatural, perhaps with an eye toward giving them a naturalistic interpretation. That having been said, what is notably missing is much of a connection between religion--whether of the humans, the Cylons, or the True Religion of the series--and sexual morality.
Everybody on the show has sex with everybody else without much input from their religion. The putative-supernatural entities are no exception to this. When individuals are untrue, there is concern about possible repercussions because of jealousy; there are concerns with breaking oaths; but there are no expressions that this is simply wrong, not even by the Cylons who supposedly view morality in black and white.
There is an honest moment in the series with regard to abortion. After the attempted genocide by the Cylons, the human population is down to about 50 thousand. It has been stated that if the human race is to continue to exist then there must be babies. A pregnant member of a strict fundamentalist sect then comes seeking abortion. Leaders within that sect are seeking to block it.
Then an interesting sequence of events occurs. The president, who is brilliantly portrayed by Mary McConnell, vows her support for a woman’s right to choose and allows the abortion. It is then pointed out to her the dire need for babies within their dying civilization and that she will lose political support from her constituents if she sticks with her position; she therefore switches her position. Her opposition immediately takes the opposite side and uses it, and other issues, to win the election.
To me, that particular pericope might be the most honest of the show.
BS-G likes to present black and white lines between good and evil and then gray them out in subsequent episodes. This is one place where we see the post-911 world we live in and the worldview of the Old Testament come into an odd alignment.
BS-G appears to take pains to get things right for the eyes of our current veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. We are shown scenes of egregious torture and we are shown “enhanced interrogation.” We are given the opportunity to ask the question of whether there is a difference and what the difference would be. We are given situations wherein the only choices are between bad alternatives and worse ones.
BS-G and its prequel, Caprica, which only lasted a season, also raise philosophical questions on the nature of existence, identity, and personhood. The Cylons are persons but not humans. They are persons because they are sentient and self-aware. They are not humans even though they have DNA which cannot be easily distinguished from human DNA and can interbreed with humans. They are not human because they are artificially created and not initially born of humans. Yes, indeed, I did promise you a lot of fine hairs to split.
This series is not for everyone. If any of this seems interesting, I would suggest Netflixing the first five episodes or so just to see. One or two is not a large enough sample.
And, it is a soap opera. Don’t say you weren’t warned.