Religion and character in Battlestar Galactica

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From the start I loved the modern iteration of Battlestar Galactica. It was gritty and exciting, filled with passion and despair.

Somewhere along the line that went wrong. And the more I think about it, the more it highlights the centrality of character to every aspect of story telling.

You’ve got to have faith?

Religion exemplified the problem with BSG.

Psst, Starbuck, I think we might be caught in an allegory.
Psst, Starbuck, I think we might be caught in an allegory.

At the start religion played an interesting role. This was a sci-fi setting in which the characters had an old-fashioned faith. Their relationship with that faith, and how it affected their understanding of current events, gave them extra depth. I loved it.

But then faith slipped over into fact. The plot started being led by ancient prophecy and holy books. The role of religion in the show had taken a radical shift, and it was one that completely changed my understanding of the characters.

Subjectivity adds depth

When their religion was a subjective matter, a faith choice on which characters could legitimately hold differing opinions, it gave them depth. It was a layer of the world that added richness, nuance and variety to the show’s diverse collection of soldiers and refugees. It made them interesting.

Destiny removes agency

When their religion became an objective matter, driving the characters towards a pre-ordained destiny, it removed that depth and took away the characters’ agency with it.

As we saw that elements in the religion were objectively true it became harder to see belief in religion as a choice characters made. It also took away the possibility for divergent views. Now a character who didn’t agree with the religion was objectively wrong and being stupid.

Worse, the element of prophecy and destiny deprived the characters of control over their own fate. They were moving towards a pre-ordained future. The choice wasn’t theirs. They were less in control of their actions, and so less interesting.

This is why I almost always hate prophecies in fiction.

What a shame

This wasn’t everything that was good about the show at the start, or that went wrong along the way. But what it highlights is that plot or setting can change our understanding of characters, strengthening or undermining them. As both writers and readers, it’s something to look out for.

So, now that I’ve got you thinking, can you see other examples where the shape of the setting directly affects the characters in this way? Share some examples, help me think this one over.


Thanks to Joe Kawano for the question that inspired this post.

9 thoughts on “Religion and character in Battlestar Galactica”

  1. I couldn’t put my finger on why BSG fell flat for me in the end, but I think you’ve gone a long way toward explaining it. The only similar-ish incident that springs to mind is how quickly they dispensed with the original character concept for Thor in The Ultimates. I really wanted to explore how different characters related to something that was uncertain (if not downright unlikely), but instead they galloped straight into establishing facts.

    1. Good example. I hadn’t thought of Ultimate Thor, but he totally reinforces my thinking on this. Nuance replaced with a clumsy world-menacing plot. I was really disappointed with that, though the stunning visuals in the final battle helped make up for it.

  2. What I liked about religion in BSG was that the Cylons as reflections of humanity were both less and more than man. Their deep emphasis on the importance of God is, for me, highly relevant when many people seem allergic or phobic of any spiritual language that even touches upon traditional religious terminology. The objective truths that transpired did make the show into something else, and that is unfortunate. What began as a promising investigation of identity and ideology became a narrative device instead. Perhaps this was a necessary subservience to our established cultural filters.

    1. I think it may have been subservience to the writers’ perception of the audience’s cultural filters, rather than what we’d really accept. Or perhaps they never set out to explore the themes some of us read into the show, and ended up bewildered at the backlash.

      I’d forgotten that the Cylons also had an interest in religion, but it did add to that initial feeling of depth, and get away from the irrational/rational binary sometimes becomes the structure for presentations of religion. The machines, which we might expect to be rational, were as capable of irrational acts as anyone else.

  3. I don’t mind that the humans began to follow religious divinations as clues (or even plot coupons) on where to go, because that’s the sort of thing that humans do when they are desperate.

    But, yeah, the show would have been much better if the religious/spiritual angle would have been left ambiguous.

    1. You know, if they’d just been following the clues out of desperation and faith, rather than because they always worked, that would have made a really interesting plot. I’m filing that one away for later use.

        1. Definitely. You could explore faith, our relationship with the past, meta stuff about storytelling, even the way that traditions are based down by families and society, or all of it swirled together in a glorious social fantastical hodgepodge!

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