Friday, March 27, 2009

Battlestar Galactica as Apocalypse

A week has gone by now since the series finale of the SciFi Network’s Battlestar Galactica, an epic television saga that stretched over four years and held my imagination captive, sometimes to the point of obsession.

In the first couple of days after the final episode, I was hesitant to admit even to myself that I felt disappointed. As I thought backwards over the series, I had so many unanswered questions and was frustrated that some things didn’t appear to make much sense, and I worried that what had seemed like one of the most complex and brilliantly thought out television shows of all time (especially during the first two seasons, with competing theologies and prophecies as a major plot element) had been rather carelessly wrapped up.

However, it suddenly occurred to me that when considered as an apocalypse, the finale was infinitely richer and more interesting. Now, what do I mean by that?

In modern English, the word “apocalypse” has come to mean “disaster,” especially relating to a cataclysmic vision of the end of the world. But in its Greek origin, it’s the “vision” that’s the apocalypse, not the disaster; literally, it just means “unveiling” or “revealing” – hence, the ancient literary work originally entitled Apokalypsis in Greek was translated into English as The Book of Revelation. The story told in Revelation is not “the end of all things,” but the passing away of the current state and the transition to a new and better existence; this is an archetypal theme that recurs across time and culture in human history, and can be found even in modern popular culture: classic examples would be Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings, as well as Richard Wagner’s four opera cycle The Ring of the Nibelung, which partly inspired the Tolkien saga. Battlestar Galactica has much in common with all of these stories.

In his preface to The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien was careful to insist that his story was not allegorical, but rather “applicable,” meaning that it was intended to be flexible enough to allow readers to find meaning however the tale resonated for them; hence, at its first publication many thought it was about the rise of Hitler, and in 2001 when Peter Jackson’s films began to come out, some people thought Sauron was Saddam Hussein and others thought he was George W. Bush; other authors have asserted that it’s a highly symbolic Catholic re-telling of John’s Revelation. Wagner’s Ring Cycle has the same advantage: vast tomes have been written discussing the political, economic, psychological, philosophical and autobiographical interpretive possibilities of the work. Viewed this way, the fact that Battlestar Galactica left many questions unanswered enhances the opportunities for finding individual and multiple relevances.

Despite claims to the contrary by many so-called literalists, the Biblical Revelation also (and intentionally) leaves many questions unanswered; though many insist that “the Bible is very clear on [fill in the blank],” even the most casual backward glance across history shows that Revelation, in particular, has been understood many different ways; still, the basic gist (after much chaos, everything turns out for the best) is (almost) universally recognized.

Battlestar Galactica most definitely cannot be said to be “allegorical” to Revelation, but it is so frequently and so overtly referential – episode 4.12 was even called “Revelations” – that parallels are inevitable. There are angels and symbolic beasts and holocausts, plagues and resurrections, even visions of destroyed and rebuilt cities. The show quite literally featured “a new earth” (Rev. 21:1).

Yet it is – ironically – in its eschatology that Battlestar Galactica most closely resembles Revelation. This may sound startlingly odd, given that BSG had no obvious redemptive savior figure or Rome/Beast character and dealt largely with two religious groups at war with each other (the quasi-evangelical monotheistic free-will Cylons vs the polytheistic predestinarian humans, with a smattering of atheists on either side), especially since members of both “sides” end up in the new Eden.

There are no saints in Galactica’s universe, but there aren’t any villains, either. All of the characters have flaws, but none of them can be said to be “bad.” Even the unscrupulous Gaius Baltar, who helped to usher in the initial cataclysm by giving the Cylons access to the security mainframe did so inadvertently; he thought he was doing Number Six a favor and never intended the consequences.

Baltar is a particularly interesting case; in the last two seasons, he was unsubtly depicted as a Christ-like figure, complete with Jesus-y hair, beard and a cult of followers who believed in his teachings. And yet he is clearly not a Jesus stand-in, not least because he doesn’t believe in God; whereas the biblical Jesus sacrificed himself for others, Gaius Baltar is first and foremost about self-preservation. Every choice he makes in the series, and all the consequences that follow, stem from selfishness and cowardice. He is the first to throw principle out the air lock.

This is significant because it underscores the important point that this is not a Christian allegory; if it were, it would alienate many viewers and restrict its applicability. Instead, it uses certain familiar references as a framework on which to hang a larger point, much in the same way that Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen has absolutely nothing at all to do with Nordic religion.

The other major BSG character who serves as a referential Jesus is Kara Thrace, better known as “Starbuck.” She literally dies, is resurrected and leads the people to salvation, though even she does not know it or understand her role. She is, in many ways, the anti-Baltar: though also obviously a flawed and broken person in many respects, she is deeply spiritual and militantly principled, willing to risk everything, her life included, in the pursuit of what she believes to be right; she goes on faith. But Kara Thrace is not a God stand-in, either; she’s a stand-in for us, as is Baltar. In the same way that humans and cylons and Wotan and Alberich and Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker are initially held up as opposites but are revealed to have much in common, they represent the inherent complexity of individual identity.

As an allegory Battlestar Galactica would make no sense because there are no direct correlations; yet the series derives many layers of meaning from overt references. Consider that, in their own ways, Starbuck, Baltar, Number Six, Roslin, Apollo and Hera are all referential Jesus figures. (Recall especially the episode where Apollo, the son of the top authority in the fleet (Apollo is also the son of Zeus), is floating in cruciform in a lake, that Roslin is a “dying leader” and Hera is a “miraculous birth” both foretold by prophecy, and that Number Six was given Jesus’ place in the famous “Last Supper” parody photo.)

So what to say about the finale itself? Bearing in mind that things can be referential without being allegorical, ultimately Battlestar Galactica presents us with a hopeful, redemptive vision akin to the 21st chapter of Revelation’s “new Jerusalem.”

Masterfully, BSG viewers were led to assume from the initial miniseries that the saga would end at Earth, and were then flabbergasted to arrive there half-way through the fourth season only to find an uninhabitable post-apocalyptic world. We stood with the characters on what appeared to be the Brooklyn waterfront, gazing at a ruined and deserted Manhattan skyline and wondered, now where?

Like many things in the biblical Revelation, it doesn’t seem to make literal sense that we stood in a nuked-out New York City two-thousand years gone and then a few weeks later arrived at a different place that is explicitly shown to be Earth, but 150,000 years before the present day. But Admiral Adama explains to us, “Earth isn’t a place, it’s an idea.” Similarly, I’m not sure we are meant to believe that the “new Jerusalem” is literally a city that will descend out of the clouds.

The “new earth” isn’t the spiritual end of the road, either. We know this because Anders says farewell to Starbuck with the words, “See you on the other side,” and because Laura Roslin finally dies upon reaching “the promised land.” (See, with “applicability” you can be both Moses and Jesus and simultaneously neither!)

Despite this emotional denouement, the overall mood of the final scenes is hope-filled. As in Revelation, where the tree that spans both banks of the river that flows from the throne of God grows leaves to be used “for the healing of the nations” (22:2), cylon and human have recognized their common origin, put aside the mutual injuries of the past, and committed to a new way of living. They, like the people of Nineveh, discover that prophecy doesn’t mean you throw up your hands and surrender to inevitability, it means that you respond. We are told over and over again in Battlestar Galactica that “all of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.” In the final episode, the characters collectively decide to break the cycle, and thus achieve their redemption.


kr said...

'Sounds like it was a doozy ... I feel like I should offer you congratulations somehow ...

but anyhow, welcome back ;) ... not that my schedule can handle it, but I hope you write more soon :).

Russ said...

Greetings from foggy (at the moment) Cabrini Boulevard in Washington Heights.

I missed you - welcome back and don't be a stranger. I thought I'd never say this, but I need more cat pictures!

bookworm088 said...

Well said, my friend. This is one of the best pieces on BSG I have ever read. Definitely will be RSS-ing you!

Robert said...


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Hot said...

Wow WHAT a piece on BSG. Brilliant! You have my mind racing! It's hard to find people who are as appreciative and aware of the full weighty diverse content of this "show". I found your ongoing comparisons with elements of Christian religion particularly interesting. I, being a "lapsed" Catholic, lost interest in religion a good few years ago. However, I've grown to learn that people who discover religion on their own rather than being born into it often understand it more profoundly, so I appreciated your perspective. In fact, i've always wondered at the existence of religion at all, it not being something I have found I ever subscribed to or could actually bear entertaining in my life so far but which continues to be the most powerful element of the human condition to this day. I think BSG is actually an exploration of this in a way - the play of man, his creations, and the creations of his mind in an operatic arena of the grandest scale. Aw... I could chat forever about this, but anyway, just wanted to share my appreciation of your fantastic and provocative BSG words.
Also glad to see your a Tolkien enthusiast! Fantastic taste there. Always interesting to find similar souls in the cybersphere!

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