2010-03-10

Battlestarry-Eyed: Mixed Messages

Last post we identified the issue causing me grief in wrapping my mind around Battlestar Galactica: a conflict or dissonance between the narrative genres of science fiction and myth, and a clash between their associated religious genres of discourse, atheism and supernaturalism respectively. At first I intended merely to point out this discord and remark upon the difficulty it presents to an audience. However, in the course of writing last week's remarks it occurred to me the conflicting genres of discourse may have some implications worth fleshing out here.

What is the meaning of a story split between these two genres of religious and narrative discourse? Moreover, what is the significance of the stalemate those two genres ultimately reach? Or is it really a stalemate at all?


One way to regard such a split story is as a contest of sorts: pitting atheistic science fiction against miraculous myth to see which prevails. If we take such a view of Battlestar, our conclusions in response to the above questions may become rather sinister. If Battlestar is meant to portray this kind of contest, it is one between tired, cynical, and weak polytheism which has given way to atheistic empiricism, and strong, vital, and aggressive monotheism that seems to be supported by the miraculous and supernatural occurrences which become more and more significant over the course of the series. In a word, it's a contest in which science (fiction) and empirical agnosticism or atheism lose to monotheistic supernaturalism.

Especially given the original Battlestar Galactica's connections to Mormonism, this is an implication not to be overlooked. I find it a troubling one in light of the prevailing conflict between certain religious and scientific discourses in America at present. However, I emphatically disbelieve this is a message Battlestar's producers meant to convey, even if their series does endorse, or better, encode a view putting the supernatural on par with the empirically observable.

From the beginning, Battlestar has addressed political, cultural, social, religious, ethical, and other questions in a multivocalic, thoughtful, lots-of-grey-areas kind of way. The series considered many contemporary issues — torture, homosexuality, assassination, racism, terrorism, cloning — always in a way meant to demonstrate there are no simple black-and-white answers to such things. In a sense, this sort of not-so-simple take on the world is the fundamental premise of the series, manifest in the figure of the Cylon antagonists. The Cylons are not simply evil robot overlords, but very human robots who begin to question whether the whole evil overlord thing was the right thing to have done. Ultimately the series' real antagonists are not the Cylons themselves, but the sum total of all the characters' obstacles in understanding and coming to terms with one another. There are no absolute enemies in Battlestar: many Cylons join the human Colonial fleet and settle with the human survivors on the new Earth. Even the less-than-cuddly Cylon centurions agree to let the humans and humanoid-model Cylons be, and disappear off into unknown space.

The point is Battlestar always takes care to make its points thoughtfully and thought-provokingly, eschewing simple or absolute judgments. Because this is so, I believe it would be inappropriate to conclude that the same producers meant us to take the series as some kind of shallow triumph-of-monotheism-over-science narrative.

What, then, can we make of the conflict of genres and the fairly conclusive observation that supernatural and possibly monotheistic myth basically bests science-fictional empiricism? Ultimately we must each make of that what we will, keeping in mind Battlestar isn't the kind of series to pass absolute judgment on any of the questions it poses. My own take is rather unflattering: in part, I suspect the resort to the supernatural became a way to tie together and finish off a truly massive epic story collapsing under its own weight. The mythic narrative elements got the show off the hook of having to account for many of its mysterious and compelling characters and plot points. Of course I don't know to what extent the producers had the whole series' storyline planned out beforehand, but I get the impression they may've been running with it for some time, and found themselves carrying an armload of weird baggage which a purely empirical science-fictional narrative would've had some difficulty dealing with.

Additionally, while I've made much of how multivocalic the series tended to be, the final episode's comment on contemporary American decadence, delivered by Head Six and Head Baltar, struck me as quite a hammer blow. The producers seem to have decided to use the end of the show to very deliberately deliver a direct and strong message about the direction our society is heading. The supernatural elements of the narrative certainly lend themselves to making that point.

Perhaps the main thing to take away from these musings is this: narrative encodes messages, whether deliberately or not. When narrative discourse is coupled with religious discourse, we should be attentive to the implications of that combination, and avoid taking any story at face value alone.

The medium is the message. So say we all.

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