This post begins what will be an on-again off-again series of reflections on the relationship between the theologies that are present in the Battlestar Galactica universe and those that are in our own world.
This post will take a little set-up to get to its point, mostly because I want to set everything in context for those present (and future) readers who may not be familiar with the whole mythology of the BSG universes of 1978 and 2003.
For readers who are unfamiliar with BSG, the current series, which is airing on the Sci-Fi network, is a “reboot” of a 1978 series that was created in the wake of the original Star Wars film. The show’s creators wanted to make a “space opera” that was like Star Wars, but which also had some distinct features.
Even though more than a decade had passed since it had been written in 1968, the producers appeared to be drawing on ideas from a hokey book called Chariots of the Gods?, in which it was posited that the technologies of ancient civilizations were, in fact, given to them by visitors from other worlds. Religions, then, were said to have originated in ancient encounters with aliens.
Tweaking this concept a little farther, the creators of the original Galactica imagined that – rather than aliens – the travelers from across the stars were, instead, the first humans, who settled the Earth as a sort-of “colony.” In the world of the first Galactica, those first humans became the basis for religious thought throughout time. Thus, the opening montage of the first series included these words:
There are those who believe that life here began out there: far across the universe. With tribes of humans, who may have been the forefathers of the Egyptians, or the Toltecs, or the Mayans. They may have been the architects of the great pyramids, or the lost civilizations of Lemuria or Atlantis. Some believe that there may yet be brothers of man who even now fight to survive somewhere beyond the heavens…
This nicely set up the first series, which was about the near destruction of mankind, and the efforts of a small, remaining remnant of our “brothers” to find Earth, which was supposedly a lost colony of humans.
The first series, however, had a very high view of humanity. Humanity was betrayed by bad guys (a race of robots called the Cylons), because it was too trusting. Furthermore, in the end, humanity was sure to survive because – as episode after episode pointed out – we are much too noble, clever, inventive, and determined to ever be completely wiped out. Plus, even on the run, humanity apparently had an endless supply of hair care products, which kept the late seventies hairstyles of the cast members looking suave for week after week.
In 2003, however, Ronald D. Moore, a TV producer with considerable sci-fi background, turned the tables on this concept. When he re-created the series, Moore chose instead to emphasize the questionable moral character of humanity. In Moore’s series, the Cylons are not some mindless alien race. They are a form of life that was created by humanity itself. When the Cylons rebeled, and there is a strong indication they did so because they had been mistreated, there was a great war and they were cast out of society in a very uneasy armistice.
I don’t think the symbolism here is very difficult to understand, but I’m going to spell it out anyway, because it will be important to this series: the Cylons represent all of the problems that we create for ourselves as humans. You name it – the environment, war, poverty, weapons of mass destruction, racism. These atrocities can’t just be committed and then set aside and forgotten.
Thus, in what I think is the monolog that defines the series, Adama (played by Edward James Olmos) speaks these words to an audience at what was supposed to be a de-commissioning episode for the Galactica, a large battleship:
Why are we as a people worth saving? We still commit murder because of greed, spite, jealousy. And we still visit all of our sins upon our children. We refuse to accept the responsibility for anything that we’ve done. Like we did with the Cylons. We decided to play God, create life. When that life turned against us, we comforted ourselves in the knowledge that it really wasn’t our fault, not really. You cannot play God then wash your hands of the things that you’ve created. Sooner or later, the day comes when you can’t hide from the things that you’ve done anymore.
Soon after this speech, a Cylon plan to avoid extinction by preemptively striking out against humanity – wiping out humanity in one, sweeping act of genocide – is revealed. Armageddon arrives in all of its horror, and a nuclear holocaust descends on humanity.
In the wake of this destruction, the question that is posed by the new series, from day one is this: is humanity even worth saving? And, if so, why?
The central characters are not heroes. They are human. They are addicts. They are consumed by their hatred and contempt for each other. They are sexually irresponsible. They are dishonest. They are unforgiving, yet desperate for their own redemption. They are self-centered, even in the midst of an apocalypse. And they are together, on the run – trying to find some way to get along just enough to avoid the relentless pursuit of the Cylons.
Far from being a noble, admirable race that is fighting an external evil, humanity is on the run from a situation that it brought on itself.
But what is fascinating about the series to me is how religion is being played out in this context. Present among humanity (as well as the Cylons – more on that later) is virtually every form of faith that you can find on Earth. And everyone is trying to make sense of what is going on in light of these various faiths. Far from relying on a hokey book to create a mildly interesting plot point in a routine space opera, the new BSG is exploring the central questions of human existence in the context of religion.
And, of all of the central questions, the most important one is this: is there really any hope for us?
Coming up next: a quick survey of world religions in the Galactica universe.