On Gods & Cylons

Jennifer and I have been watching Caprica on DVD, the prequel series to Ronald Moore’s reimagined Battlestar Galactica. I’m intrigued by where the show is taking its mythology, having the sentience of machines originate in conscious programs of two disembodied teenage girls who have only a slight idea of what has happened to them.

I appreciate Moore’s treatment of religion as a serious subject, and it was his influence (I think) on the last few seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine in particular where religion was taken seriously. I always found Gene Roddenberry’s combination of materialism and triumphal humanism to be both insufferable and unrealistic. Much better was Moore’s darker vision of the human future — one in which our essential human problems aren’t solved because they aren’t really soluble.

But as much as BSG was interesting, its treatment of religion generally fell flat. For Moore, I think, religion was an attempt to deal with naturalistic phenomena (like Bajor’s prophets as entities residing in the wormhole), a way to introduce the magical and supernatural as part of the story, rather than about meaning and sacred story themselves. I found machines believing in One True God to be an interesting idea, and the implications of sentient, God-worshiping machines with a morality and ethic derived from that belief to be an idea worth exploring. But Moore and his people didn’t do the job real well.

A couple of things were missing from the religious vision.

  • It didn’t seem like sacred story mattered much. I got no sense that the sacred stories of the colonials were anything other than “real” history, as opposed to “serious myth.” In fact, aside from some convenient prophesies (Pythia) and a really neat map of Kobol’s capital city (why?), I got no sense from the show that religion for either the Colonials or the Cylons were stories that told them who they were. Moore and his writers stole from several polytheistic mythologies, and they could have run wild with stories of gods and goddesses and heroes and the leaving of Kobol and the settling of the colonies. (As a founding myth, the last bit would likely have been the most important to the colonials, since it would have told them the most about who they are; why would the twelve tribes of Kobol have even cared that a thirteenth tribe went in another direction?) Most intriguing would have been the stories Cylons told themselves, how they would have mythologized their rather short history as sentient machines and given their existence individual and collective meaning. 
  • There was an utter lack of curiosity among both the Colonials and the Cylons. It always struck me in BSG that the human beings never seemed really interested in the fact that the Cylons were utterly devoted to the worship and service of One True God. It may be that, because of the events in Caprica, and the low regard the Colonials held monotheists, that they already knew of and dismissed Cylon monotheism without a thought. But this was never alluded to during the course of the series. It is strikes me as strange that no human being ever asked the Cylons, “Why do you believe?” or “How do you know what God wants?” Not really. Even given the nature of the disaster, someone would have asked — Baltar never really asked Six and Adama could have asked Boomer but never did. The Cylons never engaged in much contemplation either, never really asked “how do we know what God’s will is?” Maybe it was so obvious to them, but Cavil’s semi-cynicism was not the same as contemplative inquiry. 
  • Where was revelation? The show’s monotheism was also a stunted monotheism, basically a series of ethical injunctions distilled philosophically. It’s more like the monotheism of the Greeks or the henotheism of Sol Invictus, based on human reasoning about who and what God might be. And not God’s revealing God’s-self. There was no revelation, no overwhelming experience of God, no encounter. I don’t think the temple on the algae planet, Kara Thrace’s mandala, the Bob Dylan song, Virtual Six and Virtual Baltar (of Virtual Kara) really count. There was no “evidence” that God loves, and I’m not sure the notion that God loves God’s creation can be distilled logically or rationally. There was a lot about God’s will but little encounter with God to determine what that will actually was. Revelation wasn’t even really alluded to, and that’s all that would have been necessary. I don’t really get a sense as to why the monotheists believe — their faith, aside from a place to ground their objection to the hedonism of the Colonial order, makes little or no sense. Overall, in the context of the BSG universe, God was a machine, and a barely conscious machine at that, acting only to make sure Colonial and Cylon could get to Earth so that Hera could become the mother of humanity. 
We’re about halfway through season 1.0 of Caprica, and the treatment of religion might change, though I doubt it. I don’t know if the BSG mythology has legs for another redoing (I have an idea bouncing around in my mind). Partly Moore’s treatment of religion is so disappointing because he made the mystical experience so central to the show. And yet the human beings didn’t do much time considering what it was they had just experienced, or showed from previous examples that they could contemplate mystical experiences. I like the way Moore ended BSG. But it also left me unsatisfied. Without stories of meaning, it makes perfect sense that Cylons and Colonials could plop themselves down on Earth 100,000 years ago and leave no trace (save language and genes) because they would have done nothing to preserve any of the stories that told them who they were. Especially the story of how they came to be there, together, in the first place. This is what troubles me. Even over 100,000 years, something of this story would have survived in myth or the deep recesses of memory.