Contains spoilers for both the original 1978 Battlestar Galactica and the 2003 re-imagining, up to and including spoilers for the final episode.
In 1968 one of TV's most prolific executive producers, Glen A. Larson (who went on to make Magnum, P.I., The Fall Guy and Knight Rider and numerous other programmes), was working on a new idea for a science fiction show. The show, originally called Adam's Ark, was intended to transplant Bible stories into space. Larson worked on it for some time under the mentorship of Gene L. Coon (one of Gene Roddenberry's colleagues), but could not get the project greenlit. However, the success of Star Wars in 1977 changed attitudes towards science fiction and the show went into production in 1978, originally planned as a series of TV movies, although after the first a standard episodic format was adopted. That show was Battlestar Galactica.
Larson is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and Mormon scripture formed the basis for the show's premise. The Book of Mormon tells the story of Lehi, a prophet living in Jerusalem shortly before its destruction by the Babylonians. Lehi lead his family and a band of refugees across North Africa to the Atlantic coast, where they build boats and crossed over to the Americas – the ‘promised land’. In Battlestar Galactica, the survivors of planetary genocide by the robotic Cylons form a “ragtag fugitive fleet” and cross space in search of the fabled Earth – their promised land. Other Mormon-themed touches in the show include the colonial government being known as The Quorum of Twelve (the name given to the leadership council of the Church of Latter-day Saints), and the use of Kobol as the place where the gods live – a distortion of Kolob, which in Mormon belief is the greatest star in the universe and the dwelling place of God.
The show suffered from budgetary problems. After its million dollar TV movie opening, ABC and Universal closed the purse strings tightly, forcing the show to constantly recycle special effects shots from the original TV movie and cut corners in almost every aspect of production. After just one season of twenty four episodes, the show was cancelled. An attempt to revive the show two years later, premised on the idea that the Galactica makes it to 1980s Earth, failed miserably, suffering from numerous problems including a lacklustre re-casting, and a bad time slot that required the show to limit acts of violence and shoehorn educational content into the scripts. Fans remained loyal to the original series however, and it retained a following for years to come. There were numerous attempts to revive the franchise, but none came to fruition.
In 2003, Universal Television decided to give the show another chance, and Sky1 and the Sci-Fi Channel put together a production team, lead by Ronald D. Moore and David Eick. Moore was a veteran sci-fi writer who had worked on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine (and briefly on Voyager), having had considerable influence on the development of the Star Trek franchise, particular the Klingon race. Almost all of the modern elements of Klingon culture originated in Moore's writing, earning him the nickname “the Klingon guy” inside Paramount.
Moore's writing has always been of an excellent standard, and has only improved as his career has progressed. Particularly impressive is his ability to stand outside of the cultural clashes over belief and non-belief and ‘comment from the sidelines’. A favourite quote of mine in this regard is from the Deep Space Nine episode “Once More Unto the Breach”, which also starred John Colicos who played Baltar in the original Battlestar Galactica show. Bashir and O'Brien are arguing about how Davy Crocket died, and turn to Worf to break their dispute. Worf declares: “You are both wrong. The only real question is whether you believe in the legend of Davy Crockett or not. If you do, then there should be no doubt in your mind that he died a hero's death. If you do not believe in the legend, then he was just a man, and it does not matter how he died.”
Raised a Catholic, Moore says he “...looked into various Eastern religions, and now I've settled into a sort of agnosticism,” and noted in an interview with Wired that he always felt that religion was conspicuous in its absence in Star Trek. “You can deal with religion more aggressively in science fiction than you can in a contemporary show,” Moore noted. “You get a pass because everyone agrees it's not Christianity or Islam or any of those things we're so freaked out about. Even though it is.” Moore has explained that, like all great fiction, the new Battlestar Galactica is “about us... about what we go through today in our society and political structure.”
At the beginning it did not look good for the new show, which began as a mini-series. A test screening produced some of the worst ratings ever, and the company doing the testing reported: “Nobody likes these characters, we see no reason this should ever become a series, it's too dark, it's too scary.” However, the mini-series had already been filmed and so, with a certain sense of fatalism, the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica was aired. To everyone's surprised, the ratings were good and the show was an instant critical success. A regular series was commissioned soon afterwards.
Although Moore was aware of the Mormon influence in the original show, he did not draw from this theology for the new series, noting:
I was aware that Glen had used Mormon influences and how he had created the cosmology, but I'm not that familiar with Mormon belief or practice so it was kind of like whatever was in the show is what I was dealing with. I essentially looked at the original series as mythos and the way it dealt with religion in sort of a global sense.
The extent to which religion was to become integral to the new show came as a surprise. In the screenplay for the mini-series, there is a discussion between the new Baltar (now played by James Callis) and one of the new human-resembling Cylon models known as ‘Number Six’ (Tricia Helfer), and as Moore was writing the scene he had Six say out of the blue “God is love”. He says of this moment: “I literally stopped because it was an interesting thing for a robot to say. And I didn't know what it meant, and I didn't really have an understanding of what larger place this could go, but I really liked it, because it wasn't something that I was used to seeing in science fiction when you're dealing with androids and robots. So I kept it. But it was just a small reference in the show.”
However, when he handed in the first draft, he got a note back from a network executive who said “Well, that's a really interesting thing for a robot to say”. The script already had a lot of parallels and allegories that alluded to the ‘war on terror’, and the approval of the network opened the door to provide a sense of religious fanaticism to the Cylon's drive to eradicate humanity. Moore states: “I grabbed that, because you're not used to getting that kind of note from a network executive, and said: sure, I can do that. And so, from that point on, the show took a fundamental turn where that became part of our myth.”
Following the original show the Colonial refugees believe in a pantheon of gods (modelled after the Greek gods), while in an original touch the new Cylons profess a belief in a single, unitary God – or at least, most of them do. The sinister Cavil, effortlessly played by Dean Stockwell, takes a far more sceptical view, stating at one point: “Supernatural divinities are the primitive's answer for why the sun goes down at night... At least that's what we've been telling the others for years. Can't really prove it one way or the other, of course.” One of the more fascinating elements of the Cylon culture is that they spend a tremendous amount of time pondering metaphysical questions such as whether as machines they can claim to have a soul – the kind of theologically-tinged discussion that is normally completely alien to science fiction shows.
Baltar and Six provide much of the focus for the expression of religious concepts within the new Battlestar Galactica. Both begin or end up as traitors to their races, and both have – quite mysteriously – mental constructs of the other who appear in their heads and guide them, or mislead them, providing some of the most fascinating and ambiguous elements of the storyline. Yet both are fated ultimately to play a pivotal role in the destinies of both the human and the Cylon races. Baltar, whom Moore has said is his favourite character in the show, swings wildly from one belief system to another until near the end he has almost completely abandoned his detached rationalism and has taken upon a mysticism he doesn't really understand.
In an early episode he decries: “Adama, listen to reason. You could drift forever in search of what? A planet that may be the myth of half-drunken star voyagers who came back to die here?” Later, he announces in response to Adama's accusation “how dare you defile the holy crypt!”: “Do you think I believe in all that primitive superstition?” But as he finds him trapped between two worlds – reviled by the humans and a disposable novelty to most of the Cylons – his views become gradually more theological. When D'Anna (Lucy Lawless) tortures Baltar for information he doesn't have but which she is unshakably convinced he does, he attacks her faith: “You can’t help asking yourself how God can allow death and destruction and then you despise yourself for asking... The truth is if we knew God’s will we’d all be gods, wouldn’t we?”
Finally, in the pivotal showdown during the finale of the series, Baltar faces down Cavil in a theological debate:
Baltar: I may be mad, but that doesn't mean that I'm not right. Because there's another force at work here; there always has been. It's undeniable. We've all experienced it. Every one in this room has witnessed events that they can't fathom, let alone explain away by rational means. Puzzles deciphered in prophecy. Dreams given to a chosen few. Our loved ones, dead, risen. Whether we want to call that God or gods or some sublime inspiration or a divine force we can't know or understand, it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter. It's here. It exists. And our two destinies are entwined in its force.
Cavil: If that's true, and that's a big if, how do I know that this force has our best interests in mind? How do you know that God is on your side, doctor?
Baltar: I don't. God's not on any one side. God's a force of nature, beyond good and evil. Good and evil, we created those. Want to break the cycle? Break the cycle of birth, death, rebirth, destruction, escape, death. Well, that's in our hands, and our hands only. It requires a leap of faith. It requires that we live in hope, not fear.
In the finale, many of the mystical questions are answered in a manner that surprised both people of faith and non-believers. The mental avatars of Baltar and Six are revealed to have independent presence, appearing in modern New York pondering “God's plan”, while noting that “it hates being called that”, while the mystery of Kara Thrace's resurrection is revealed as being entirely mystical, and left for the individual to interpret. Religiously-minded individuals were stunned at these metaphysical concessions to the idea of something beyond materialism, while anti-religious atheists were up in arms in the indignant edges of the blogosphere – even though, quite frankly, prophecy and mystical dreams had played an integral part of the storyline from the beginning and something preternatural was certainly required to account for this. It was another of those not-so-rare cases of the dogmatic-corners of the atheist community behaving like a fundamentalist religious subculture – a few angry individuals decrying a story because it did not concord with their personal metaphysical beliefs.
Yet the belief system in the new Battlestar Galactica does not concord with anyone's beliefs – it was, throughout the run of the show, a framework to allow the complex issues of faith, belief and scepticism to vie with each other in social, political and personal contexts. Robert Thompson of the Centre for the Study of Popular Television (quoted in a beliefnet article) has expressed fascination for the diverse attitudes towards the show:
What's so interesting is to see how different viewers respond to the show... On one message board, one person had been very upset about the anti-Christianity of [the show], while another one fired back that this was an anti-Muslim program. The very porousness of the show with regards to how people interpret it is actually a very healthy thing. In a culture where we are so programmed into thinking of spiritual and religious things in these incredibly simple-minded, fundamentalist ways, the level of ambiguity that a show like Battlestar Galactica allows in is a healthy thing... [it] really tweaks some of these very large questions and issues in a way that much more serious programs don't.
Other commentators have been similarly fascinated with the show's relationship with religion, and the audience's reaction to that. Nick Street has wondered if the fans of the new Battlestar Galactica will be “...the progenitors of what will likely become new and radically media-intensive religious movements that are emerging in an age of rapid technological change and remarkable spiritual flux.” In effect, he proposes that by throwing open the metaphysical debate in narrative form, Moore and the other writers on the new show have opened the door for wholly new attitudes towards spirituality and belief to evolve, via the discussions over the intentionally ambiguous elements of the storyline.
Throughout its history, the Battlestar Galactica franchise has had a unique position in narrative media, offering an interface between religion and science fiction quite unlike any other. Although religious elements provide a mere background prop to the original show, under the leadership of Ronald D. Moore the new series has delivered a brilliantly ambiguous mythology, open to interpretation by each individual in their own terms. It is the essence of good storytelling to reflect the nuances of our own societies in fiction, and in its willingness to enter the cultural battlefield of religious belief without commitment to any specific position it shows a bravery far in excess of most entertainment television.
Next week, the final part: Star Wars
Visit the Religion in Science Fiction page for links to all nine parts.