Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Challenging the terror mindset

Battlestar Galactica
SciFi Channel series
RATING: ***1/2 (of 5)

There's never enough good science fiction on TV or in the movies, especially with today's trend of rehashing shows/movies from decades ago.
Battlestar Galactica, however, is one of the exceptions. The modern version deals with thought-provoking (and sometimes worrisome) ideas the original 1970s series lacked. It has interesting characters with very real human reactions (or, in the case of some of the Cylons, believably inhuman ones), none of them stereotypical. It has far more depth than the typical TV SF staple of things blowing up in space, despite being war-themed. And more.
Rolling Stone recently praised it for addressing a very timely concept -- what it's like to be in a society under seige by terror. I agree, the new BG does that well. But what RS doesn't mention is that the show is also an exploration of the seductive madness of messianic religion, particularly monotheism.
The bulk of the Cylons, you see, are obsessively salvationist; their single-minded belief in their one god's "destiny" for them to supplant natural humans makes many of them inhumane and gives them a worldview that justifies the massacre of billions of sentient beings. (The fact that the series starts with just this happening due to nuclear weapons is what makes it fit with this blog's theme....)
By contrast, the natural humans and a handful of Cylons who have had extensive contact with them are largely secular polytheists, although their whole space voyage is predicated on the semi-salvationist belief that a 13th tribe of humans escaped to Earth long ago. They seek Earth, but more importantly, they seek safety from the unpredictable but recurrent terror of the Cylon pursuit.
There's an obvious real-life parallel here in today's near-obsession with the "War on Terror," but we need to realize that the enemy symbolized by the Cylons isn't any particular religion, it's the fanaticism that comes from believing one way is the only way. We can see that in fundamentalist Islam, in dominionist Christianity, in theocratic leanings of any stripe, and even in some ostensibly non-theological political systems. In all such cases, the paranoid ideology has no outlet for doubt and therefore leaves no room for unforeseen occurrences or errors, instead attributing those to "sin," "treason," or something similarly bogus. The underlying common ground isn't belief, it's the distortion of belief into authoritarianism.
Sometimes, authoritarianism sneaks up on a society in the guise of reform or hope, but it's almost invariably a product of popular deprivation and desperation. In BG, that seems to be symbolized by Baltar's presidential campaign -- he promotes the idea of stopping at a newly discovered habitable but semi-desolate planet not because he really believes in it but b/c it's a winning political issue... and is promoted by his Cylon lover/alter ego Six.
Their relationship is itself interesting -- it's an example of natural or functional plurality on both sides. On Galactica, Baltar constantly talks to Six in his mind, while on Caprica, Six does the same with him... or, at least, versions of each other. (There's no evidence to indicate they're in contact in real-time, although they were before the war.) In both cases, the relationship is a rather uneasy one.
A different version of plurality exists in the other Cylons, who usually have one psyche sharing several bodies. Take Sharon (aka "Boomer"): Everybody thinks she's human, including herself, until she tries to assassinate Cmdr. Adama. After she subsequently gets murdered on Galactica, a ground crew finds her on one of the colony worlds and we see her having trouble fitting into Cylon Caprican society. In both of the latter cases, she comes to realize she remembers details from all three (and possibly more) "lives." That other-memory theme also exists in various SF, especially the Bene Gesserit characters of Frank Herbert's Dune series, although there it's serial.
As you might've guessed, the Cylons often look just like us. Unlike the old series, they aren't all clunky robotic lifeforms that speak electronically. The symbolism is obvious: not only is the "enemy" among us, the fact that some humans are willing to spare Sharon (and if she's capable of bearing a child, doesn't that make her human???) despite knowing she's a Cylon is a reflection of what we should be doing to deal with real-world problems. Curiously, Sharon and Six on Caprica come to the reverse conclusion -- that humans deserve to live.
Both sides do it for the same reason, one that real-life politicians often refuse to acknowledge because it threatens their concept of power: Relationships make people far less likely to kill each other. If we spent far more time, energy and resources on creating opportunities for people of different faiths and cultures to interact as equals, we'd see more of them become friends and there'd be fewer wars.
That may sound simplistic, but sometimes the simplest solution is the only one worth trying.


On a lighter note, I found a quiz on which scifi crew I'd fit in best with. It seemed appropriate given this subject, even though Galactica didn't rank as my best fit under their scoring system. (Had to delete the photo b/c it screwed up the layout of my blog):

You scored as Moya (Farscape). You are surrounded by muppets. But that is okay because they are your friends and have shown many times that they can be trusted. Now if only you could stop being bothered about wormholes.

Moya (Farscape)


Babylon 5 (Babylon 5)


Galactica (Battlestar: Galactica)


Deep Space Nine (Star Trek)


Millennium Falcon (Star Wars)


Serenity (Firefly)


Enterprise D (Star Trek)


FBI's X-Files Division (The X-Files)


Andromeda Ascendant (Andromeda)


SG-1 (Stargate)


Bebop (Cowboy Bebop)


Nebuchadnezzar (The Matrix)


Your Ultimate Sci-Fi Profile II: which sci-fi crew would you best fit in? (pics)
created with QuizFarm.com

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Blogger Clyo said...

Hi Jay,

Thanks for your astute comment on my "72 Names of God" post.

Also, I totally agree with your statement:

Relationships make people far less likely to kill each other. If we spent far more time, energy and resources on creating opportunities for people of different faiths and cultures to interact as equals, we'd see more of them become friends and there'd be fewer wars.

I don't think that's simplistic at all.

I think it's very wise - and true.


3/14/2006 12:47 PM  
Blogger MichaelBains said...

Hey now Jay

Hope you're well bud. I found something I think might interest you on a blog I frequent; Stardust Musings and Thoughts...

I know you're aware of Cargo Cults already, but that post made wonder how you've been. She's got a neat site for other reasons as well.

Hope yer havin' a Happy Spring man.

3/28/2006 9:01 AM  

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