Ethan has encouraged me or maybe even teased me a couple times to blog Buddhism themes in the sci-fi TV show Battlestar Galactica, and clearly it’s something he thinks about too. Ok, maybe I should accept my nerdy karma and go with it. Yesterday some of us in Portland went to see the final season of Battlestar at a local theater. The theater projected the show on the big screen with hundreds of rowdy nerds eating pizza and drinking pitchers of beer. The episode was shocking and at times a complete hush fell over the crowd; we looked on in utter disbelief and i though ‘holy frak!’ a few times. Without commenting on or spoiling the current story arcs, I thought I could talk about Buddhist themes generally and where i think it is inconsistent with Buddhist views. It’s one of the few shows on television with an explicitly religious narrative.
If you haven’t seen the show, a very brief primer: it’s in space. a group of humans are being chased in ragtag spaceships by cylons – their cybernetic and now murderous progeny – who are hell bent on wiping out all of humanity. the humans have an ancient religious text describing a place called Earth that thousands of years ago was settled and now they’re following breadcrumbs to find it and find refuge.
Battlestar is one of the few shows on TV to include religious themes, plus a subversive critique of the war on terror, and perhaps only gets away with it as science fiction. Ellen Leventry reviewed Battlestar’s connection to Mormom cosmology for beliefnet three years ago and in that she mentions some buddhist topics. What strikes me most however is not the conflict between polytheists, monotheists, and atheists, but rather how the very identity of the main characters are called into question frequently. This is because the cylons have sleeper agents, who are indistinguishable from humans until they are “switched on”, and a common theme for the characters on the show is their own questioning if they are human. And this asks us the similar question, are we more than our memories? If we were to wake up one day and discover that all our beliefs about ourselves were in question, what would that be like? Or in Buddhist terms, are we really “me” or are we a collection of aggregates, completely interdependent with our situation and environment?
There are more familiar Buddhist ideas included. The cylons reincarnate, by downloading into new cybernetic bodies when they die, and there is a sense conveyed by mystical “hybrids” that we are all trapped in an endless cycle like samsara with no ultimate refuge found in our schemes. But there are also themes involving destiny and prophesy, implying to me a kind of determinism that the Buddha I think would have frowned about. With determinism, there is no free will and therefore no path based on practice. While the present moment arises from reasonable causes and conditions, and our choices are strongly influenced by habitual mind, we have a choice. The future is not set in stone.
Another theme is fear. The cylons fear the humans, and vice versa. This fear manifests as a wish that the other would just disappear, as in the initial story arc of the cylon’s plan to destroy humanity. Isn’t this the typical response to fear of the “other”? The idea of working with the fear directly and leaning in and understanding the “other” seems so much more work than erecting walls or declaring war, or even just growing a tall hedge between you and “that” neighbor. I think the show does explore how aggression as a path doesn’t ultimately work and the characters have had a chance to evolve. But I don’t want to spoil any major details.
The most Buddhist theme to me is still the groundless feeling that your identity might be an illusion. And if you happen to be a cylon, that your very notion of mind might be more collective or your memories mixed with your peers. That’s not unlike how I see my identity now – a mix of cultural norms and opinions and family karma and my own choices. And within the show, loyalty and a sense of identity as a group are also mutable. A character in the show might have a best friend for years, who suddenly is a cylon, but that doesn’t make them necessarily evil. This has been masterful, I think. The show has been brave enough to transcend false dichotomies of good and evil and explore groundlessness and play with it.
Ok, I’d love to hear what you think, and please no serious spoilers in the comments. Thanks!