2010-03-03

What The Frak, Indeed

In my very first post I alluded to Battlestar Galactica as a possible topic for discussion here. I've been listening to the recently released soundtrack to Razor and The Plan, and with that putting Battlestar on my mind, the day has come to talk about my favorite TV show.

Unlike our long series of posts on Magic: The Gathering, our discussion of Battlestar Galactica will be something of a one-off, as it turns out I really only have one central point I'd like to make about the series. Accordingly, I'm not going to start out with an attempt to re-cap or summarize the show's four seasons, and must assume some familiarity on the part of my readers. If you don't want to risk having the show spoiled, don't read on.

I'll say again: spoiler warning. Ye have been warned.


Battlestar has been fascinating from the religious studies point of view since pretty early on in the series. The first thing one notices are the opposing religions of the human colonists and their Cylon enemies: human polytheism (with a familiar Greek pantheon) and Cylon monotheism (smacking of well-known Abrahamic exclusivity). As it turns out, this disagreement over the number of prevailing deities seems to prove relatively inconsequential.

What ultimately caught my interest most were the questions I found myself still asking after the bizarre series finale, which left dangling a number of equally bizarre chains of events running through the whole show. I'll limit myself to the three most major issues which seemed to me to be left unresolved:
  1. What the frak was the deal with Starbuck?
  2. What the frak was the deal with the hallucinations of Six and Baltar (called "Head Six" and "Head Baltar" by the producers, as they evidently only appeared in the heads of the real Baltar and Caprica Six)?
  3. What the frak was with the role of prophecy?
Let us review each of these briefly:

Starbuck dies, her Viper destroyed before Apollo's eyes, only to reappear later in a brand new Viper, with no memory of her death and mysteriously packing the signal of a homing beacon which will allow the Colonial fleet to find Earth. While that turns out to be mostly a bust, Starbuck finds the wreckage of her Viper and her own charred corpse (dog tags and all) crashed in the middle of a field, at the precise location of the homing signal. Without any explanation of this weirdiousity, she goes on to produce coordinates which will lead the fleet to a new habitable planet to make their home, and there she promptly vanishes without a trace when Apollo turns his back on her for a moment in the middle of a conversation. My response: "what the frak?"

Baltar begins seeing hallucinations of his erstwhile Cylon lover as soon as he gets in the transport which rescues him from Caprica. We know they're hallucinations because the point was very clearly made that the ship could carry only so many people, and that with Baltar on board (in place of one of the pilots, Helo) she was at maximum capacity and couldn't fly with an additional person's weight. It's also quite evident nobody else can see Baltar's own personal Six, though he can not only see and hear her, but seems to enjoy a full sensory awareness of her occasional presence (and hilarity ensues). Head Six tells Baltar she is an angel of the one true god, sent to guide him in performing a divine mission, and eventually, despite his scientific inclinations, Baltar grows quite comfortably into this prophetic role. What's more, eventually Caprica Six, the actual model Six who beguiled Baltar, herself begins to hallucinate her very own Baltar, who behaves very much like Baltar's Head Six. After patiently enduring season after season of this mysterious madness, I was deeply disappointed when no explanation came for Head Six and Head Baltar's existence. On the contrary, the final scene of the final episode sees Head Six and Head Baltar traipsing inconspicuously through our own modern Manhattan, half a million years after the events of the series, remarking on the similarity of our decadence and advances in robotics to those of the Colonies an aeon before. My response: again, "what the frak?"

Finally, several characters exhibit what appears to be genuine prophecy in some form or another of the course of the show. Colonial President Laura Roslin receives visions and draws on the human polytheists' Prophecy of Pythia to interpret humanity's situation — though she's accused her visions are due to the use of a known hallucinogen administered to treat her cancer. Starbuck turns out to have been painting images of the peculiar, colorful space storm, the so-called Eye of Jupiter, into which she is drawn and apparently dies. Upon her miraculous return, she possesses some innate sense of the direction in which the fleet should travel to reach Earth, and later she ultimately decodes coordinates to reach the new Earth from musical notes represented by a drawing produced by the human-Cylon hybrid child Hera. The Cylon model Two, Leoben, also seems to have some prophetic visions of Starbuck's role which lead to his perverse obsession with her. Meanwhile, Laura Roslin, Caprica Six, and the Cylon model Eights Boomer and Athena are all involved in some kind of recurring shared dream of the child Hera running through the mysterious opera house of Kobol, which seems somehow to portend the future of the human and Cylon races. I could go on, but suffice it to say that all in all there are an awful lot of prophecies and visions whose significance never become fully clear, and whose provenance is never transparent. My response: initially inclined toward "fascinating," but I'm gonna have to go with "what the frak?"

After considerable reflection and a joint discussion with several colleagues during a Reed College Paideia class, I realized what troubled me about these issues is their incongruity. That is, while for the most part the series takes place in a recognizable, comprehensible, and very realistic world — and goes to great pains to avoid ever painting too simple a picture of social, political, religious, philosophical, or ethical issues — these bizarre and unexplained happenings do not fit within that apparently realistic framework. As such, they're difficult to relate to and accept as part of the story.

In terms of the study of religion, this is a problem of genres of discourse. A genre of discourse is like a category of conversation, or an arena in which certain kinds of talk and ideas are acceptable while others are out of place. To take an obvious example: modern science is a genre of discourse in which empirical evidence and logical reasoning are acceptable, while a fundamentalist Christian discourse accepts reference to the Bible and the ideas of the Christian tradition, and admits these things as acceptable ideas even in the face of empirical arguments against them (consider the ongoing 'debate' between Darwinism and creationism). In the context of scientific argument, you can't say chemicals react the way they do in obedience to a deity's will because there is no empirical evidence to suggest such a thing, while there is observable evidence from which one may glean understanding about how those substances react and why. On the other hand, in the context of fundamentalist Christian discourse it isn't acceptable to make a point on the basis of observable phenomena alone, though it suffices to observe that a biblical passage seems to contradict that point to dismiss it.

A conflict of genres of discourse arises, of course, when incompatible contexts are brought to the same conversation. Scientists dismiss the notion that a god created all living things literally in the manner described in the Bible because observable evidence shows the development of the world's organisms was a rather different affair. However, fundamentalist Christians will not accept an evolutionary account of biology because to do so would be to compromise the absolute unquestionableness of their sacred text. Such a conversation is less than pleasant for those involved because no middle ground can be reached when both genres of discourse cannot admit the other's equally inflexible view.

This kind of conflict can occur between literary or narrative genres as well. In the case of Battlestar Galactica, there is a parallel conflict between two genres of narrative discourse and their corresponding genres of religious discourse.

On one hand, the show is unquestionably situated in the narrative genre of science fiction. In this genre we as viewers are prepared to suspend our disbelief at apparently impossible feats of technological advancement such as faster-than-light travel or fully sentient artificial intelligence with the ability to download a whole consciousness from one body into another. These things are far beyond our present scientific understanding, and may not even be possible in any way but theoretically. However, since they are presented as scientifically possible we are able to accept such things as at least hypothetical possibilities, and they seem real and plausible within the science fiction discourse. (At least to a point: sci-fi narratives which fall back to using 'unobtainium' to fill gaping plot holes verge on the ridiculous.)

The narrative genre of science fictional discourse is paired with a religious genre of discourse: atheism, or at least very strong agnosticism. Since science fiction presumes the empirical worldview of modern science, it's at its best when it denies the existence of deities altogether, shows them to actually be powerful aliens, or at the very least just leaves them out of the picture. I'm thinking of Stargate's Goa'uld, and the episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which Picard reveals the sham of an alien using technology to pose as the godlike devil of numerous mythologies.

On the other hand, the only conclusion I've been able to reach regarding the unexplained parts of Battlestar mentioned above is they belong to another narrative genre of discourse: myth. In myth, the prevailing religious genre of discourse may be Jewish or Hindu or Shinto or whatever else, but the existence of deities and miracles is accepted in any case. In the context of myth, a resurrection to lead a wandering people to a new home is believable, and a mysterious disappearance when the task is done may be taken for granted; divine messengers wearing familiar faces to guide important characters are commonplace; and glimpsing the future on a regular basis is no big deal.

The conflict between the narrative genres of science fiction and myth, along with their associated religious genres of discourse, is clear in the bewilderment I know I was not alone in feeling when Battlestar Galactica finally came to an end. Basically, the show asks the viewer to accept two different kinds of stories at the same time. Battlestar puts you in a familiar, empirical world, then foists honest-to-god (pun intended) angels and miracles upon you once you're good and comfortable with the atheistic science fictional narrative environment. Expecting these incongruous elements to be explained or subsumed to the empirical narrative, one is instead confounded when ultimately the mythical narrative seems to win out over the science fictional one, or at least end up on some kind of strange equal terms with it.

While I said our discussion of Battlestar would be a one-off, we will nevertheless devote one more post to considering the ramifications of the conflicting genres of discourse identified above. In the meantime, feel free to keep wondering what the frak happened.

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