Once lambasted as a prime-time "Star Wars" knock-off, "Battlestar Galactica" has been reincarnated as an edgy, moody human drama. A "reimagining" of the original 1978 series, the current incarnation follows the survivors of the "twelve colonies of man" as they search for the mythical planet Earth following an apocalyptic sneak attack by the Cylons, a mechanical race created by human beings.
Brought back first as a mini-series in 2003, the show debuted on the Sci Fi Channel in 2005 with 3.1 million viewers, making it the network's most-watched premiere. Airing on Friday nights, the show is currently in repeats with the second season scheduled to begin in July.
While fans of the original series may notice some changes to familiar characters-Starbuck is now a woman and the Cylons no longer look like toasters-the truly devoted will also note a change in the show's theology.
That's right. Amidst spaceship shoot-outs, bizarre love triangles, and sketchy political maneuvering is a great deal of theology and religious reflection in the show's writing.
Debates about sin and redemption? "Battlestar" has `em. Philosophical inquiries into religio-political motivations? Got those too. The idea of the legitimacy of the soul? The battle between monotheism and paganism? Holy lands and prophets? Check, check, and check.
But that's really nothing new for the "Galactica" series.
Unbeknownst to most viewers, "Battlestar Galactica" has been steeped in religion since its very inception. First pitched by uber-producer Glen A. Larson as a series of Bible stories set in space called "Adam's Ark," the reworked "Battlestar Galactica" was also influenced by another religious book: the Book of Mormon. A member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Larson borrowed plot points from his faith's sacred texts.
"'Battlestar Galactica' and the Book of Mormon both start from the premise that civilization is either about to be destroyed or has just been destroyed and that there's this remnant, this ragtag fleet that is preserved," explains Jana Reiss, author of "What Would Buffy Do?" "The story of the Book of Mormon is set in the time frame of the destruction of Jerusalem. The prophet Lehi has a vision of the destruction of Jerusalem and was able to get his family out in time."
Additionally, on the original series, the ruling colonial governmental body was known as "The Quorum of Twelve," the name given to the top leadership council of the Church of Latter-day Saints. Perhaps the most obvious parallel between Mormonism and the show is the Kolob/Kobol connection. Continues Reiss, "Kobol on 'Battlestar Galactica' is where the gods live and in Mormonism Kolob is supposed to be the greatest star in the universe and is the dwelling place of God."
While developer and executive producer Ronald D. Moore did not intentionally move away from the original show's basic Mormon cosmology in the current incarnation, he chose not to expand upon it.
"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," concedes Moore, who also worked on the "Star Trek" franchise. "I essentially looked at the original series as mythos and the way it dealt with religion in sort of a global sense."
Taking inspiration from a post-9/11 world, the religious universe of the new "Battlestar Galactica" is as diverse and as complex as our own.
The refugee humans, the Colonials, are polytheists in the mold of the Romans and Greeks, while their creations, the mechanical Cylons, have a strict belief in a singular God and in the soul, and are on a mission to eradicate the non-believing humans.
"I sort of assumed that the Colonials would have a belief system and figured it would probably be polytheistic, that seemed to be what they referred to in the original," explains Moore. "But it wasn't really until relatively late in the game that I sort of randomly gave the Cylons a belief system."
"I was in the middle of creating the characters and I was working on some lines for Number Six (a Cylon character) and I thought it was interesting if she professed a belief in God, in a single God." Inspired by the theme of the rise of monotheism in the Western world and how it came to displace pagan religion, Moore decided to delve deeper.
"There came this notion of this outside monotheistic belief of the one true God that could not tolerate others, that started to drive out pagan worship and that fit very nicely with what we were doing with the show."
Among the show's human beings, there are those who believe in the gods, the Lords of Kobol, and those who are atheists. The most spiritually complex of the humans is President Laura Roslin, played by Mary McDonnell. The only high government official to survive the apocalypse, she begins to take on the role of a "born-again" prophet/oracle. She experiences visions brought on by medication used to treat her aggressive breast cancer and attempts to lead the remnant fleet to the holy land known as Earth.
While we see subtle acts of devotion on the human side, it is the religious zeal of the Cylons that drives the show.
When not busy hunting down the last of the twelve tribes of man, or trying to convert those who can help them, the Cylons spend much of their time musing about metaphysical matters: the nature of their souls and the legitimacy of their claims, as machines, that they possess souls at all.
"The Cylons in the show focus on the soul; they firmly believe that they have a soul. .Human beings have souls given by the gods, and Cylons have a soul given by their one true god and that has to be just as valid," says Moore.
"It seems so far that the Cylons are almost a caricature of robotic evangelicalism," says Reiss. "It could be that the writers are trying to make a statement that this is what happens when evangelical Christianity runs amok, the militant nature of it. If that is the statement they're trying to make I find that very sad, that's a caricature of evangelicalism. On the other hand, I'm willing to say it's probably more complex than that."
"I think that the clash between a polytheistic culture and a monotheistic enemy helps to moderate somewhat the parallel that the show seems to draw with the current conflict between the Western world and Islamic fundamentalism," says a reader on Televisionwithoutpity.com's message boards. "By giving the Cylons the 'good' kind of religion and the humans the 'backward' kind, it makes the parallel less clunky and simplistic."
And while it certainly seems that the Cylons could be painted with the broad strokes of Christian or Islamic fundamentalism, another Cylon on the show, Leoben Conoy, espouses seemingly Buddhist beliefs when revealing, during an interrogation, he'll be "reincarnated" in an exact duplicate.
Moore concedes that the belief system of the Cylons encompasses aspects from Christian fundamentalism, Islamic jihad, and even Eastern concepts, but says that he still really hasn't "sat down and defined the theology of the Cylons."
But that's the beauty of "Battlestar Galactica." It provokes discussion without giving definitions, without giving answers.
"What's so interesting is to see how different viewers respond to the show," remarks Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "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."
"The show is really supposed to be about us," concludes Moore, the show's developer/producer. "It's really about what we go through today in our society and political structure. Hopefully, the show is able to examine those things from a different perspective without making it as simple as 'the Cylons are Al Qaeda and Laura Roslin is George Bush.' We try to make it more complex than that."
"I think [the show] gives you an easy reference into how an entire culture, or entire group of people, can believe in something so fervently that seems so unfathomable," Moore adds. "Religion is used in various guises, in things good and evil."
Frank talk about religion is still a dicey topic for entertainment, according to Syracuse's Thompson. "'Battlestar Galactica' gets away with it because it's happening on another planet, in another time."
"For all of its kind of modest television, Sci Fi Channel sort of thing," continues Thompson, "'Battlestar Galactica' really tweaks some of these very large questions and issues in a way that much more serious programs don't."