Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Theological Delights (and Disappointments) of Battlestar Galactica

If you haven't yet seen the first episode of the second part of Battlestar Galactica, season 4, and you don't want any of the surprises to be spoiled, don't read this essay, which gives it all away. And, by the way, the anticlimactic (non-)revelation that Ellen Tigh is the "final Cylon" is not the biggest, or most important revelation of this episode!

The reason I love the original Battlestar Galactica series is not because I was charmed by the fatherly Lorne Greene as commander Adama, nor because of the drama (it had some truly amazing dramatic moments, but was highly inconsistent and generally B-rated), nor the cheesy villainy of John Colicos as Baltar, nor the coolness of the clinkety clankety Cylon centurians and their deliciously demonic robotic overlords ("by your command!"). The reason I love the original series is because of the not-so-subtle references to Mormon theology scattered throughout by the series' Mormon creator Glen A. Larson. The original series includes, among other things, the not-so-veiled allusion to Kolob (the sun closest to the planet where God resides) and Mormon beliefs about the twelve tribes of Israel, as well as references to "eternal marriage," the downfall and career of Satan (played in an over-the-top performance by Patrick Macnee of The Avengers), and the belief that "as man is, God once was; as God is, man may become."

The new, Sci-Fi-channel-produced update of the old series (with much higher production values) seemed to have purged the series of most of its old Mormonisms, despite the fact that the original series' producer was kept on as a consultant. But the series did not lose its quirky spiritual and theological undertones, something that kept me coming back for more, even as the plot seemed to be fraying in the third and fourth seasons. My main beef with the series was the same that I have with so much of American television. If the series supposedly portrays the struggle of the entire human race for survival, then why does the human race look mostly like white, middle class Americans and a few racial minority tokens? It actually makes things worse that "the black planet" (Geminon) also happens to be the most religious planet. That having been said, I have generally enjoyed the series and found the latest installment, the 74th episode where "all was revealed," generally satisfying. I am actually looking forward to re-watching the series again from the beginning (I've purchased all the DVD's), having seen something of where the end is going.

Here, in a nutshell, is my take on the theological framework of the new Battlestar Galactica. The humans created the Cylons. The Cylons evolved to become so similar to the humans in every way -- physically, emotionally, and spiritually -- that they became virtually indistinguishable from them. The Cylons were still different in significant ways -- they appear to have trouble reproducing in the same way as humans. And they also can't seem to emulate the endless genetic diversity of humanity which makes every human a unique individual, completely different from every other human. There are only twelve Cylon-humanoid "models" which are, as it were, endlessly cloned off of each other.

The Cylons "have a plan," which initially the humans in the series (and we the viewers) believe has to do with annihilating the human race. The humans, making a desperate plea for survival, head for Earth, the location of the lost "13th tribe." When they arrive at earth, they discover the remains of a nuclear holocaust that has destroyed all sentient life on the planet. But among the remains, they discover proof that (and here's the big reveal...!) the "13th tribe" consisted not of humans, but of Cylons.

So... This presents the intriguing notion that we the residents of Earth are not in fact true humans, but merely copies of humans that have been programmed to believe we are human. This is, in other words, an interesting reiteration of the old gnostic concept of humanity as "image" of the divine. The plot notion that a Cylon colony on earth evolved to become like their human creators is also interesting compared to the Mormon concept of humanity evolving into godhood, though again has more gnostic overtones, given that the Mormon conception includes the notion that humans are literal off-spring of God, not clumsy "images" or "creations" hacked off by lesser divinities.

It turns out that the Cylon plan all along might not after all have been to annihilate humanity, but rather to shatter human complacency, to force humans to embark in a joint quest to find planet Earth, where a full amalgamation of creators with created might take place; to force their creators to acknowledge the joint destiny that rightfully unites creators and created...

I'm intrigued.

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