Monday, April 25, 2016

God, Man, and Battlestar Galactica

The original series unashamedly pinched imagery, and technical design, from Star Wars
Audiences old and geeky enough to remember the original Battlestar Galactica from 1978, or its frequent syndicated re-airings throughout the 1980s, must’ve shared my astonishment by one element of the 2003 remake. Though the core premise survived the 25-year hibernation, I admit being shocked when the title warship leapt beyond the confines of known space to discover a universe filled with… nothing. This marked reversal signifies profoundly altered expectations about humanity’s place in the universe.

When the Galactica and its dirt-streaked flotilla ventured into space in 1978, it encountered worlds brimming with life. Nearly every storyline (there were seventeen stories across twenty-four episodes) featured an encounter with some new alien species. These included a Vegas planet, a medieval planet, and a Cold War planet with a population driving pickup trucks. The revived series, by contrast, features encounters with no life more advanced than trees. This re-envisioned universe is functionally unorganized.

Dr. Robert L. Strain, writing in Perlich and Whitt, attributes this reversal to an abandonment of “the American frontier myth.” There’s something to this: American science fiction has always had an element of Manifest Destiny embedded within it, an enduring desire to strike up trade where civilization exists and, where it doesn’t, to establish colonies. Though writers like Asimov and le Guin have vocally rejected American exceptionalism, they’ve tacitly redistributed that triumphalism onto humans in general.

But that doesn’t really explain BSG’s transformation. Both in its original incarnation and the reboot, Galactica’s fleet never establishes new colonies; it merely hopes to rediscover that one distant outpost forgotten my mapmakers. Even in the original, the Galactica never particularly wanted to conquer indigenous peoples or resettle their homelands. Indeed, they minimized contact with alien races wherever possible. Dr Strain’s frontier metaphor only stretches so far. Both shows actually represent a different operant myth.

The reversal, rather, represents changing expectations about reality itself. Original showrunner Glen A. Larson conceived a universe enjoying sufficient widespread organization to create, not only life, but intelligence. Self-observant wisdom, in Larson’s vision, is this universe’s norm. The revived universe is chaotic, random, and human intelligence is the exception. Structure is something humans create, not something we take for granted. Larson’s universe is planned; the revived universe is flukish. Only the humans themselves remain constant.

The revived series had an ultimately semi-hopeful conclusion,
but only after showing us a sterile, industrial-shaded universe first
It’s tempting to attribute the difference to God—as we would from early revived episodes. Larson, a devout Mormon, considered a benign God and a life-filled universe, both precepts of LDS doctrine, so self-obvious that he could assume his audience shared that supposition. At various points, space gurus lecture characters on transcendent topics blending Mormon dogma with post-Beatles “Eastern” mysticism. Larson produced to entertain a spiritually hungry America, which took God’s pervasive existence for granted.

The 2003 relaunch couldn’t assume such. Though the pilot miniseries mentions priests and religious order, and early episodes feature religious visions, they’re made ambiguous at best. Is President Roslin actually having visions, or merely drug hallucinations? Is Baltar wrestling an angel like Jacob, or does he have a microchip implanted inside his skull? But considering how the relaunched series resolved these questions theistically, the debate is functionally only contrived. The reboot ultimately accepts God too.

Our reversal, then, isn’t whether God exists; it’s whether God can be taken for granted. A theistic universe, in Larson’s telling, makes a decent launching point for science fiction adventure, and a spiritual thread ties everything together. Twenty-five years later, God’s existence, and a purpose-driven universe, makes the show’s ultimate conclusion. God, gods, or godlessness feud throughout the series, culminating ultimately in more questions than answers. The conclusion seems finally theistic, but actually resolves little.

Note that, at the resolution, Adama keeps narrating events to Roslin’s grave. Like Richard Feynman, Adama rejects theism, but cannot accept that his beloved no longer exists. He represents contemporary America, where “No Religion” has become the second-largest religious identification. Like the “Spiritual but Not Religious” crowd, Adama cannot believe beyond his senses, but cannot abandon structure either. Stranded between belief and nihilism, he finally embraces neither, an ever-shifting chameleon, much like the audience ourselves.

We might observe, cynically, that neither BSG universe is truly atheistic. Writers impose “theological” decisions upon events, a reality that bothers postmodern critics like Roland Barthes. But even that addresses our issues: the universe we observe is never random, but filtered through our perception. Theistic or non-theistic explanations never describe what really happens, but rather our ability to see it; therefore the debate cannot resolve. Our place in the debate matters more than its resolution.

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