Science fiction author Philip Purser-Hallard looks at faith in an increasingly futuristic world.
2006 was a mixed year, as far as mining television science fiction programmes for their theological significance was concerned.
After the apocalyptic finale of the 2005 series, Doctor Who seems to have lost interest in this kind of philosophical complexity.
Its focus has shifted the character of David Tennant’s Doctor, to the extent that when Satan himself turned up in a two-part story, more screen-time was given to the Doctor realising he’d been wrong about something than to exploring the colossal metaphysical implications.
Even when Doctor Who’s grown-up offspring, Torchwood, deployed gospel imagery in its season finale, there was no sense that it might actually mean something.
The now-immortal Captain Jack may have sacrificed himself to save the world from the depredations of Satan Jr, risen from the dead after a few days, paused briefly to forgive the disciple who betrayed him, then ascended into heaven with a suspiciously familiar ‘vworp, vworp’ noise… but for all the thematic significance they were given, these could have been events in an (admittedly rather surreal) soap opera.
At present, British TV SF consists of Doctor Who, its spin-offs and, optimistically, Life on Mars.
Fortunately, the ever-present US imports have thrown up a series with far more depth – a ‘West Wing in space’ which examines contemporary politics, and the religious issues from which they are increasingly inseparable, in the parabolic mirror of science fiction.
This series is, rather unexpectedly, the modern remake of Battlestar Galactica. However, those of you who remember the 1970s version, with its naff invented vocabulary, glam-rock stylings and cute robot dog (T’sk! Doctor Who would never stoop so low…) will find little to groan at in this gritty, grim and uncompromisingly brutal tale of refugees and their oppressors.
This new Galactica is the story of a civilisation on the run from an enemy of its own creation. The humanoid robots known as Cylons have rebelled against their masters – as robots in SF are wont to do – but have enjoyed more success than most, destroying the twelve human worlds in an interplanetary holocaust.
The human survivors, forced to escape in a fleet of spaceships headed by the titular Battlestar, follow a polytheist religion. There’s some doubt as to whether the President is receiving genuine visions from the gods, or whether her goal of searching for the promised land – a planet called ‘Earth’ – is a deluded one.
Cylon the Zealot
The Cylons by contrast are monotheists, believers in a creator God who has abandoned his human creations for their wayward robotic children – although they’re diverse enough to include one or two atheists as well. This is the programme’s real stroke of genius: of the two sides, it’s the religious fanatics threatening the very fabric of human society whose culture is the more familiar.
In terms of their real-world significance, these elements shift frequently and freely, as do the viewers’ sympathies. In the storyline playing out on Sky One as I write, the Cylons have occupied a human colony, oppressing the terrified populace.
As one of their number puts it, ‘If we’re here to bring the word of God, then it follows that we should employ any means necessary to do so… Fear is a key article of faith, as I understand it.’ In reprisal, the good guys have resorted to such atrocities as suicide bombings.
It’s difficult to imagine any other American TV series – certainly any set in the so-called ‘real’ world – facing the reality and consequences of US foreign policy quite so unflinchingly, and in such unambiguously religious terms. This is the sort of thing that science fiction should be all about.
• Doctor Who
• Battlestar Galactica official site
• Battlestar Galactica at Sky One
• Battlestar Galactica fan site
• Philip Purser-Hallard
• It’s been unreal
• Santa Claus conquers the Martians
• Through An Orbital Mirror, Darkly
• The Shape of Kingdoms to Come