Battlestar Galactica and the Question of Humanity
Several years ago we ordered basic cable. The prospect of having 60 channels at my disposal was nice, but I knew I would never visit most of them. The amount of time I would be spending with the Golf Channel could be measured by the seconds it would take for me to quickly hit the channel button after realizing I had stumbled upon it and my only interaction with the Home Shopping Network was going to be in my attempts to keep my wife away from it. But one channnel I was excited about was the Sci-Fi Channel. Now, to be honest, I have never been a real big fan of science fiction. I much prefer the horror and fantasy genres. However, the sci-fi channel dabbles in those as well and I was looking forward to all of the wonderful programming I could sample.
A few years later, I realized the Sci-Fi channel was among my least-watched channels. Aside from the Twilight Zone marathon on New Year's Day, I stayed far away from it. This is because the shows they typically put on there are mind-numbingly awful. The acting and writing rival that of daytime soaps while the special effects are often on par with sci-fi offerings of the 1970's. Half of the monsters look like bad imitations of the Sleezaks.
In this wasteland, however, is one particularly bright, shining light. The new incarnation of Battlestar Galactica. Good science fiction stories are often inherently religious in the sense that they pose the big questions about ultimate meaning, purpose, and identity. In this sense, Battlestar Galactica may be the most religious show on television today. One of those ultimate questions that it bandies about regularly is the question of humanity. What does it mean to be human? To have a soul?
The catalyst for this discussion are the Cylons. For any BG newbies, the storyline goes as follows. Human beings created machines to serve them. These were called Cylons. However, the Cylons rebelled and a great Human-Cylon war erupted. Eventually a truce was declared and the Cylons left. Forty years later they return and, in a sneak attack, destroy virtually all of human civilization. Just under 50,000 human survivors remain, traveling through space looking for a safe place. The real kicker is that the Cylons have evolved. They created a new line of Cylons who are indistinguishable from humans. They hunger, sweat, bleed, feel pain.
This new breed of Cylon insists that they are alive, that they have a soul. Thus the stage is set. What constitutes a soul? What defines life? The humans insist that the Cylons, for all their fleshly simulations, are merely "toasters" with effective window dressing.
Recently in a class I am team-teaching called "Religion, Media, and Youth Culture," we watched two episodes of BG: "Flesh and Bone" and "Downloaded." These two actively address this question and even appear to provide something of an answer. For there are two Cylons who appear to be almost more human than Cylon - Sharon and Number 6. The question is: what makes these two different? In fact, at the end of "Downloaded," these two Cylons are trapped underground as the result of an explosion. When their Cylon search party finds them, one of the Cylons says, "They're alive!" Sharon and Number 6 reply, "Yes, we are!"
Battlestar Galactica's answer to the question of what makes one human appears to be love. What marks these two Cylons as different is that each learns how to love a human being and in that act also learns mercy and compassion. Throughout "Downloaded," the Cylons, who are strict monotheists (more on that in the next post), keep saying "God loves you" to each other. Then as one Cylon is about to kill a human, the Cylon comments, "God loves me." Whereas the Cylons keep talking about themselves as the recipients of love, they seem incapable of showing it. Except for Number 6 and Sharon, who alone among the Cylons, have learned to give love rather than receive it. That is what appears to identify genuine living (perhaps even the soul) on Battlestar Galactica.
Now, I say "appears" because I have only watched the first 2 seasons of the show and it is possible that season 3 may turn all of this on its head. That is one of the intriguing things about this show: that it actively seeks to complicate everything you think you know to be true. In fact, in my next two posts I intend to look at how this show embraces moral complexity with respect to both religion and politics and how that says something profound about the state of popular culture today.