July 14, 2005

YOU MEAN YOU WEREN'T ROOTING FOR THE CYLONS ALL ALONG?:

'Battlestar' goes where we are now (Suzanne C. Ryan, July 14, 2005, Boston Globe)

A terrorist attack has people on the run. A computer virus threatens to undermine the survivors. Meanwhile, enemy forces are mingling undetected among the rank and file, planning genocide in the name of their god.

Those could be today's headlines. In fact, they're some of the story lines on television's most unlikely hit, ''Battlestar Galactica," which begins its second season tomorrow night at 10 on the Sci-Fi Channel.


Reality: a special effect: "Battlestar Galactica," a sophisticated remake on Sci Fi Channel, tackles hot-button issues. (Lynn Smith, July 2, 2005, LA Times)
An out-of-the-blue, world-altering attack. Nuclear weapons. Suicide bombers. Tortured prisoners. Faith-based policy.

Sound all-too familiar? The post-9/11 culture, in all its scary ambiguity, gets the full treatment in — of all places — outer space as the surprisingly sophisticated remake of "Battlestar Galactica" begins its second season July 15 on the Sci Fi Channel. A marathon of Season One, the cable channel's highest-rated series in its 13-year history, will start at 10 a.m. Wednesday.

Created in the charged and confusing months of early 2002, the show has managed to energize viewers on both sides of the political debate through its portrayals of inconsistent leaders and unresolved, high-stakes conflicts. In the process, it has also revolutionized science fiction on television, elevating a genre that is often dismissed as cheesy escapist fantasy into the ranks of the most serious prime-time dramas. Indeed, the new "Battlestar Galactica" has won over fans of the original dubious about a remake as well as television critics who like its relevant social and political themes as much as its military hardware and sexy Cylons.

According to "Galactica" co-creators Ron Moore and David Eick, the goal for the show was to create naturalistic, multidimensional characters as opposed to the squeaky clean heroes of traditional sci-fi TV. Rather than advancing any particular political agenda, Moore said, the characters act on the basis of their own deeply flawed natures.

This "Battlestar Galactica" is "designed to make you think, to make you question strongly held beliefs," he said. "Good people can make bad decisions and bad people can make good decisions. I mean, life is much more complicated than it's usually portrayed on television."

Provoking viewers to the edge of discomfort, Eick said, the show also asks, "Are you rooting for the right side?"


Born-Again 'Battlestar': Drawing from Mormonism, Roman polytheism, and even Buddhism, the reimagined sci-fi TV series is steeped in religion. (Ellen Leventry, BeliefNet)
While fans of the original series may notice some changes to familiar characters—Starbuck is now a woman and the Cylons no longer look like toasters—the truly devoted will also note a change in the show’s theology.

Theology?

That’s right. Amidst spaceship shoot-outs, bizarre love triangles, and sketchy political maneuvering is a great deal of theology and religious reflection in the show’s writing.

Debates about sin and redemption? "Battlestar" has ‘em. Philosophical inquiries into religio-political motivations? Got those too. The idea of the legitimacy of the soul? The battle between monotheism and paganism? Holy lands and prophets? Check, check, and check.

But that’s really nothing new for the “Galactica” series.

Unbeknownst to most viewers, “Battlestar Galactica” has been steeped in religion since its very inception. First pitched by uber-producer Glen A. Larson as a series of Bible stories set in space called “Adam’s Ark,” the reworked “Battlestar Galactica” was also influenced by another religious book: the Book of Mormon. A member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Larson borrowed plot points from his faith's sacred texts.

"'Battlestar Galactica' and the Book of Mormon both start from the premise that civilization is either about to be destroyed or has just been destroyed and that there’s this remnant, this ragtag fleet that is preserved,” explains Jana Reiss, author of “What Would Buffy Do?” “The story of the Book of Mormon is set in the time frame of the destruction of Jerusalem. The prophet Lehi has a vision of the destruction of Jerusalem and was able to get his family out in time.”

There are many other similarities between the show and the Latter-day Saint scripture. While not purely a Mormon concept, the idea of the “Lost Tribes of Israel”--that ten tribes of Israel were "lost" to history after they were exiled--plays an important role in both the religion and in the show. “The idea of there being these other civilizations that have the gospel is a main tenet in Mormonism,” notes Reiss. “There is this idea, in the show, that Earth will be this colony that they don’t have a record of but they believe it exists.”

Additionally, on the original series, the ruling colonial governmental body was known as “The Quorum of Twelve,” the name given to the top leadership council of the Church of Latter-day Saints. Perhaps the most obvious parallel between Mormonism and the show is the Kolob/Kobol connection. Continues Reiss, “Kobol on 'Battlestar Galactica' is where the gods live and in Mormonism Kolob is supposed to be the greatest star in the universe and is the dwelling place of God."

While developer and executive producer Ronald D. Moore did not intentionally move away from the original show’s basic Mormon cosmology in the current incarnation, he chose not to expand upon it.

“I was aware that Glen had used Mormon influences and how he had created the cosmology, but I’m not that familiar with Mormon belief or practice so it was kind of like whatever was in the show is what I was dealing with,” concedes Moore, who also worked on the “Star Trek” franchise. “I essentially looked at the original series as mythos and the way it dealt with religion in sort of a global sense.”

Taking inspiration from a post-9/11 world, the religious universe of the new "Battlestar Galactica" is as diverse and as complex as our own.

The refugee humans, the Colonials, are polytheists in the mold of the Romans and Greeks, while their creations, the mechanical Cylons, have a strict belief in a singular God and in the soul, and are on a mission to eradicate the non-believing humans.

“I sort of assumed that the Colonials would have a belief system and figured it would probably be polytheistic, that seemed to be what they referred to in the original,” explains Moore. “But it wasn’t really until relatively late in the game that I sort of randomly gave the Cylons a belief system.”

“I was in the middle of creating the characters and I was working on some lines for Number Six (a Cylon character) and I thought it was interesting if she professed a belief in God, in a single God.” Inspired by the theme of the rise of monotheism in the Western world and how it came to displace pagan religion, Moore decided to delve deeper.

“There came this notion of this outside monotheistic belief of the one true God that could not tolerate others, that started to drive out pagan worship and that fit very nicely with what we were doing with the show.”

Among the show's human beings, there are those who believe in the gods, the Lords of Kobol, and those who are atheists. The most spiritually complex of the humans is President Laura Roslin, played by Mary McDonnell. The only high government official to survive the apocalypse, she begins to take on the role of a “born-again” prophet/oracle. She experiences visions brought on by medication used to treat her aggressive breast cancer and attempts to lead the remnant fleet to the holy land known as Earth.

While we see subtle acts of devotion on the human side, it is the religious zeal of the Cylons that drives the show.

When not busy hunting down the last of the twelve tribes of man, or trying to convert those who can help them, the Cylons spend much of their time musing about metaphysical matters: the nature of their souls and the legitimacy of their claims, as machines, that they possess souls at all.

“The Cylons in the show focus on the soul; they firmly believe that they have a soul. …Human beings have souls given by the gods, and Cylons have a soul given by their one true god and that has to be just as valid,” says Moore.

This led Moore to flesh out the character of Number Six, a domineering, gorgeous, blonde Cylon who is the personification of the Madonna/whore complex (played by former Victoria’s Secret model Tricia Helfer, left). Forever trying to win the love of atheist Dr. Baltar, the human who unwittingly helped the Cylons destroy mankind, she vacillates between seductress and fire-and-brimstone preacher. Number Six incessantly tells Baltar that he must believe in God, that God has a plan for him, that he must repent, while simultaneously leading him to the bedroom. Now that’s a missionary position!

“It seems so far that the Cylons are almost a caricature of robotic evangelicalism,” says Reiss. “It could be that the writers are trying to make a statement that this is what happens when evangelical Christianity runs amok, the militant nature of it. If that is the statement they’re trying to make I find that very sad, that’s a caricature of evangelicalism. On the other hand, I’m willing to say it’s probably more complex than that.”

“I think that the clash between a polytheistic culture and a monotheistic enemy helps to moderate somewhat the parallel that the show seems to draw with the current conflict between the Western world and Islamic fundamentalism,” says a reader on Televisionwithoutpity.com’s message boards. “By giving the Cylons the 'good' kind of religion and the humans the 'backward' kind, it makes the parallel less clunky and simplistic.”

And while it certainly seems that the Cylons could be painted with the broad strokes of Christian or Islamic fundamentalism, another Cylon on the show, Leoben Conoy, espouses seemingly Buddhist beliefs when revealing, during an interrogation, he’ll be “reincarnated” in an exact duplicate.

Moore concedes that the belief system of the Cylons encompasses aspects from Christian fundamentalism, Islamic jihad, and even Eastern concepts, but says that he still really hasn’t “sat down and defined the theology of the Cylons.”

But that’s the beauty of “Battlestar Galactica.” It provokes discussion without giving definitions, without giving answers.


-INTERVIEW: The Souls of Cylons: Ron Moore, executive producer of Battlestar Galactica, talks about the theology behind the Sci Fi Channel series. (Interview by Ellen Leventry, BeliefNet)
People are really noticing the dichotomy between the Pagan and the monotheistic themes. It strongly parallels the rise of Christianity and the demise of paganism in the Western world.

That’s true. There was a book that I started reading about the one god driving out the many--the rise of monotheism in the Western world and how it came to displace pagan religion. Those themes were interesting to play with in the show: The dynamic whereby the pagan religious practices tended to be tolerant and tended to allow monotheistic beliefs within their own culture.

And then there came this came this notion of this outside monotheistic belief, of the one true God that could not tolerate others, that started to drive out pagan worship and that fit very nicely with what we were doing with the show. Because you had this apocalyptic moment of genocide which kicked off the entire series, of this Cylon culture that has this belief system in one god that is literally wiping out this pagan belief system and then is pursuing them across the galaxy. There was a certain resonance in history.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 14, 2005 12:00 AM
Comments

If evangelical supermodels showed up at my door and offered to sleep with me, I'd have a much better opinion of Christians.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at July 2, 2005 2:49 PM

Yes, but that's why we've such a dismal opinion of you.

Posted by: oj at July 2, 2005 2:58 PM

Say it aint so, OJ!

Posted by: Robert Duquette at July 2, 2005 3:45 PM

It's a really fun show.

Hot babes (especially Boomer), great space-battles and well-written, compelling characters.

Probably the best sci-fi on TV since Babylon 5 went off the air.

Posted by: Ali Choudhury at July 2, 2005 4:28 PM

i haven't seen the new show yet (but will give it a look-see); in the original series the cylons were clunky robots, are they humanoid looking now ? and what exactly is the point of a machine engaging in a sex act simulation with a human ?

by definition a machine can not have a soul -- it is inanimate. this was the central and fatal contrivance in the movie "A.I.".

Posted by: cjm at July 2, 2005 5:50 PM

Ron Moore was also behind Deep Space Nine, the best of the Treks, which also had a strong religious component and dealt with the question of ends and means, usually coming down on the side of the ends justifying the means.

I enjoy the new Battlestar Gallactica, although I find that I have no interest in watching the reruns. To answer cjm, there are Cylons that are all but indistinguishable from humans and one of these Cylons -- Ali's friend Boomer -- claims to be pregnant with a human/Cylon hybrid. If it weren't for the whole wiping out humanity thing, and the likelihood that the fleet with the human remnant was allowed to escape to lead the Cylons to Earth, the Cylons would clearly be the side to root for. The supposed metaphor to the GWOT, however, strikes me as pretty thin. Whether the human looking Cylons should be treated as sentient beings or toasters is an active question on the show. At the moment, captured Cylons are tortured without let-up and killed out-of-hand.

Posted by: David Cohen at July 2, 2005 7:42 PM

"tackles hot-button issues...relevant social and political themes."

Excellent, now I know to avoid it.

Posted by: Tom at July 2, 2005 8:30 PM

dc, thanks for the info. aside from rental cars, machines can't be tortured.

Posted by: cjm at July 2, 2005 10:57 PM

cjm:

They could be if they were self-aware, or even just had damage avoidance feedback systems that they couldn't control.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at July 3, 2005 6:28 PM

mh: you can program/design a machine to mimic life, but that is hardly the same thing as being alive. there is a profound and unbridgeable chasm between the animate and inanimate. i believe "Dark Star" covered this topic pretty persuasively :)

Posted by: cjm at July 3, 2005 8:30 PM

The theme of the "wonderfully tolerant pagans" seems to be part of the new mythology of the past, flattering Wiccans, goddess-worshipers and other assorted neo-pagans.

Of course, it requires forgetting the Roman Empire's requirement that all citizens and residents acknowledge Roman civic gods plus 300 years of Christian persecution plus the casually accepted practice of genocide and other delights.

Posted by: L. Rogers at July 14, 2005 11:11 AM

CJM -

Please never mention that film again - it is without a doubt the worst movie ever made.

Posted by: Shelton at July 14, 2005 12:13 PM

shelton: funny enough, it's the basis for "Alien" and for the uk series "Red Dwarf". i kind of like it for a 70's nostalgia thing, but i agree it's not a very good movie.

Posted by: cjm at July 14, 2005 1:52 PM

As opposed to "Dark City" which was a very good film. Much the same theme, except it was about what made a human what he is from an alien standpoint.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at July 14, 2005 2:07 PM

I've never seen Dark City - is that the William Hurt movie? I guess I should add it to my Netflix Q

Posted by: Shelton at July 14, 2005 4:29 PM

Oh and CJM I was referring to AI not Dark Star. Dark Star is a cinematic masterpiece compared to AI. Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can, and War of the Worlds were good but Spielberg will have to make a hundred more good films before I'll forgive him for AI.

Posted by: Shelton at July 14, 2005 4:37 PM
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