Sunday, January 08, 2012

on Cylon "resurrection"

My friend Andy in Japan writes:

I had a thought this morning, and immediately thought of asking you. Since my twitter account is a bit dusty, and perhaps slow, I thought I'd email. About religion and Battlestar Galactica. Since you're the Go To Religion Guy™ (with a new edition of his book out... it's out, right?), I thought I'd ask you.

- The Cylons in BSG were "physically indistinguishable" from humans.
- The Cylons could have their "souls" re-inserted to new bodies, over and over, as needed when "death" occurred.
- How did the "re-incarnation" meme fit into the mythos of the show? Were the Cylons a 3rd wheel to the human ideas of 1-or-Many gods? I mean, I caught the first 10, and last 10, episodes, which seemed to brush over some of the larger issues, in favor of plot advancement.

Can you fill in the blanks for me?

It's hard to talk about Cylon resurrection without also talking more generally about how the series as a whole deals with death and the afterlife. I don't recall that the series explored the post-mortem realm in depth; series creator Ronald D. Moore teased out, for as long as he could, the ambiguity of whether there were any divine forces at work. We don't really learn the truth about the divine until the very last episode-- and even then it's not obvious as to whether the deity is worthy of worship.

Among the humans, Laura Roslin has a few visions in Season 4 that indicate the possibility of life after death: during an episode in which her visions are triggered by the jumps of a Cylon base ship, she sees (1) one possible scenario for her death, and (2) a vision of the priestess Elosha, who was killed early in Season 1. In another episode, "Faith," Roslin has a vision of a river, a boat, and her mother standing on the far shore. At the time these visions occur, we viewers have no idea whether to interpret them as metaphorical, psychedelic, or literally true.

Among the Cylons, resurrection (reincarnation, really) was a practical alternative to the afterlife, since it allowed a Cylon that had been "killed" to "download" into a new body. Permanent death was also possible, though, if a Cylon got killed while too far away from a "resurrection ship." But the Cylons apparently put all their eggs in one basket when they created a single resurrection "hub" that was the source of all their resuscitative powers. Once that got destroyed in Season 4, all the Cylons were doomed to die (although we have no idea how long a Cylon can actually live; they seem incapable of aging, unlike the Final Five Cylons (who were from the first Earth, and who had mastered biological reproduction).

We don't learn much about Cylon metaphysics. Certain themes are repeated throughout the series, especially the idea that the Cylons are monotheistic, unlike the polytheistic human colonials (with Baltar as the prominent exception). The Cylons themselves suspect that their "hybrids," who are fused into the core of every base ship, are somehow in mystical contact with God and/or other levels of reality. Base ships may be the source of some of Laura Roslin's visions, since she was on one when she experienced them. Baltar's "Head Six," who turns out to have been a sort of angel, gives Baltar hints that God is loving (an idea I dispute in the above-linked essay) and has a plan for humanity. Cylons also firmly believe (along with the humans) that the drama of life is eternally repetitive: "All this has happened before, and will happen again."

While metaphysics and religion are pervasive themes throughout the series, the characters don't spend that much screen time exploring any of these topics in depth. We, the viewers, are left with hints and glimpses, and must make our own inferences-- which was Ronald D. Moore's stated intention. Cylon resurrection is primarily viewed in material terms, as it involves the streaming of data from one body to the next. But the theme of "life after life" ties into the metaphysical conviction that we are all caught up in cycles of eternal return.

One quirky final note: Cylon resurrection is an unpleasant process. The Cylon fighter nicknamed "Scar" comes back angrier and angrier every time, and the Cavil Cylons have expressed how disagreeable it is to die and be reborn. The writers may have been hinting that, with each successive resurrection, something is lost in translation. Perhaps Cylons can't resurrect indefinitely.

I do hope you get the chance to watch the series from beginning to end. It saddens me that you've seen only the first and last ten episodes. The series was, arguably, at its best in the middle-- especially as it moved from Season 2 to Season 3. The rescue of the colonists on New Caprica is not to be missed. (Those episodes also feature a fat Apollo!)


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