Monday, May 19, 2008

Who's bullshit is this? A new mystery at the heart of BSG

A nephew of mine graduated from college and it was commencement weekend here. As a result, starting last Friday night, the house was crowded with relatives and then through the rest of the weekend my time was taken up with them, (I saw "Iron Man" and went to commencement parties), so I wasn't able to use the normal time slot I'd set aside for blog writing on BSG. And in addition to that, I could only watch one showing of this episode, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," and that while it was talked over by several relatives.

The result is that this is not a coherent review of the episode, instead what I'll do is continue to add to this review by reviewing other reviews that get linked by The Battlestar Galactica Blog Carnival, "So Say We All." That way I can catch up with what happened on this episode later.

Some questions that I'll be trying to answer in the coming week are:

1) Why did Athena shoot Natalie?

I was left really baffled towards the end. What's going on with Athena and her daughter? Why did her daughter fill a notebook with crayon drawings of the blond 6s? Did I miss a clue? And why is Athena so freaked out about it that she shoots the 6 called Natalie, the least blond of the 6s? It has something to do with the Opera House Visions, but what? Does Athena see a 6 and Baltar stealing her daughter in that vision?

2) Who's bullshit was Natalie preaching to the Galacticans?

In this episode Natalie, one of the Cylon 6s, made a speech to the Quorum about the impact that the possibility of death has had on Cylon society. From what I was able to gather she argued that the Cylons had suffered in developing their individual and social identities due to the fact that they didn't have to face death before the civil war. She said something to the effect that, I paraphrase, "In our civil war we watched our people die and we learned that in order for our existence to have any value we needed to have mortality."

I'd like a transcript of that speech because right now my impression is that it's utter bullshit. The question, the new mystery, is just who's bullshit is it? Is this the Galactica writers preaching what they really think, or did they put that bullshit into Natalie's mouth in order to later argue against it?

One clue to the fact that the writers know its bullshit is that Natalie gets shot and thus her whole claim to the value of death is one she'll have to face herself. Would she really rather die? We'll see how she faces death because, judging by the previews, she's not dead yet.

However, this is old and oft repeated bullshit we've been given as a serious philosophical view in hundreds of movies and books for a long, long time. What Natalie said has already been said by fantasy writers like Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Stephen King and so many others, telling us to go gentle into that good night and not rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Natalie's speech seemed to echo the elven sentiment, the realization that a finite life can press the mind toward something meaningful, that death is a blessing, found in Tolkien's Silmarillion: "But to the Atani I will give a new gift."

Those Men with the greatest understanding treated death as the Gift it was originally intended to be, and when their time came gladly gave themselves up to it. We see this, for example, in the earlier Kings of Númenor, and Aragorn also accepted the Gift at the natural end of his life. For most Men, though, the Gift was tainted by Morgoth, and they came to fear it rather than embrace it. This fear reached its peak in the later years of Númenor, where even the long life given to the Númenóreans was not enough, and wise men did all they could to try to escape death altogether. In the end, this desperation led to Númenor's destruction when Ar-Pharazôn led a battle fleet to the Undying Lands, falsely believing that they held the secret of everlasting life.

Views like this show up in a lot of vampire tales, "The Mummy," and "Pirates of the Caribbean" too. The curse of immortality is that one is trapped here, unable to escape and move on. The curse works by shear irony: every worldly thing is given, power, immortality, but it does not satisfy.

However, thinking there is something to move on to, on the other side of Baltar's river, is not accepting death. It's what Ernst Becker would call "The Denial of Death." One of the ways that death shapes our thinking is the lengths some people go to deny it. This makes a few people dangerously delusional. Muslim terrorists apparently flew planes into a couple skyscrapers thinking they would get an immortal life in paradise with 72 virgins.

Natalie's speech was the kind of thing that immature religious people, who actually deny the reality of death, say in order to sound like grown up atheists. Some who say it, as apparently Natalie and Tolkien, actually do think that when they die that they'll really wind up on the other side of Baltar's river hunting ducks with Mike Huckabee.

It’s one thing to say that, "this is how things are, we die and it effects how we view life," but it’s another thing entirely to say "this is how things should be because death is a gift that gives life meaning, value and/or purpose." And that is what Natalie and Tolkien, and many others, seem to be saying.

Death doesn't give life value, meaning or purpose. Life actually has far more than one purpose, value or meaning and they are all up to you. Death does nothing but put a limit on your choices for finding purpose, value and meaning in life. Transhumanists, like Max Moore, call people like Natalie and Tolkien "deathists."

In our world such views line up with the thinking of thanatophiles like Leon Kass and Francis Fukuyama who would argue that radical life extension will cause serious social problems. They might even be right. But avoiding the problems isn't the only factor determining policy. We aren't going to get rid of cars and other technological innovations because of pollution, environmental destruction, and the squandering of natural resources. We are forced to find other solutions that allow us to keep our cars and cell phones and electric lighting. Right or wrong, if people could chose not to die, they would. I would. I say find other solutions to problems caused by those choices because we're solving the biggest problem of all.

The whole purpose of life, to the extent it has one singular purpose, is to avoid death. We don’t seek out death. It comes to us unbidden, and we unwilling participate when we have no remaining alternatives. And because we, in our current state of technology, can not defeat death we invent the suicidal self-destructive and romantic sophistry required to think death is a good thing. However, when talking social policy we're usually talking about other people's death, not our own. Many deathists can be hypocritical about that. Consider people who chose to die in order to end their suffering from cancer and other such incurable conditions, many deathists like Leon Kass don't support Jack Kevorkian.

If choosing not to die were one of the available options, I'd choose it, providing I saw a prospect for some good living ahead. I'd love to have Cylon technology protecting my life and mind. I'd rather be paying for that than for life and health insurance. I'd even give up ever having children for that kind of immortality if we couldn't escape from this planet for the stars and over population became a problem. However, all we can do today is thwart death imperfectly by giving the next generation more tools than we had.

It's not because I'm one hundred percent certain there is nothing coming after death, though this seems the most likely possibility, but rather that I've got zero confidence in people who say there is more. You see, the thing about dying is you only do it once and there’s no changing your mind afterwards. As long as I live death is a possibility even with Cylon technology even though it might get harder to die. So, I wouldn't trust a deathist like Natalie any farther than I could throw the the Great Pyramid of Khufu.

3) Are Starbuck and Helo supposed to be morons?

Starting off this episode there was a big minute or two of drama centered around the fact that the Cylon basestar jumped into the middle of the fleet before the poo-barge did and almost got blown up by the Galactica. They had tried to jump at the same time but the poo-barge had a techno glitch and came in late.

Ummm... Why didn't they have the poo-barge go first and tell them the basestar was coming? Even jumping together would require Helo having that explanation. Why not explain that there is a basestar coming and why you shouldn't shoot at it.

Did I miss something? Was there a good reason they thought they should jump together?

Oh dear, I feel like I missed an important episode because I was so busy and distracted this weekend. More than half the reviews linked at the blog carnival seem to have begun with the word "wow," whereas I probably would have used the semi-word "wha??" and clearly I needed to pay closer attention but I didn't have enough attention to give.

Updates are coming... stay tuned.

Thanks to a comment from M, and the Battlestar wiki, I now have that transcript of Natalie's speech to the Quorum:
"In our civil war, we've seen death. We watched our people die. Gone forever. As terrible as it was, beyond the reach of the Resurrection Ships, something began to change. We could feel a sense of time. As if each moment held its own significance. We began to realize that for our existence to hold any value it must end. To live meaningful lives we must die, and not return. The one human flaw, that you spend your lifetimes distressing over - mortality - is the one thing...well, it's the one thing that makes you whole."

Some of the arguments in the comments section below have to do with whether this is bullshit, and if not, what does it mean. Note that the two people who are saying it means something, MB and M, don't agree about what it means.

Len Neighbors' blog post on this episode has a nice paragraph on viewing BSG:
The real power of this religious debate as a storyline is that it destroy's the audience's birds' eye view. Up until the middle of season three, we were perched on high like clockmaker gods, watching what had been set into motion, knowing who was what. Sure, there were little mysteries here and there, even some big ones, but none like this. For the first time, we're stuck in the same place the characters are: picking a side to believe in as a matter of faith. We might know what the characters on both sides of the debate are doing and saying, but we don't know what's true, and what's not.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Faith in the Heart of Darkness

The Galactica blog carnival is now posted here.

This last Battlestar Galactica episode, "Faith," was a pretty good one. I can see how things are shaping up now, and while the writers have certainly made some choices I would not have made, in a universe that doesn't work the way I think our universe works, it's still going to be an interesting ride that is rich in insight into the human condition.

The poo-barge mutiny pretty much ended by doing exactly what I said in my last review, and what I said was:

Starbuck and everyone else on the poo-barge was, in my opinion, being stupid in another way. Starbuck could have avoided the mutiny simply by approaching it more cautiously. Instead of jumping everyone in the poo-barge over to the basestar, she could have used a viper to scout out the situation first, thus get some more evidence of this Cylon civil war and the state of the basestar.

Starbuck, if she had been listening to her crew should have seen the mutiny coming. Good captains need to be aware of their crew's attitudes. Once she lost Helo, she should have known she had to negotiate and explain her next moves far more carefully. She was more plugged into her "crazy" visions than into her crew. She was a terrible captain, a Captain Ahab obsessed with a white whale, a Captain Bligh in "Mutiny on the Bounty," and Humphrey Bogart's character, Queeg, in "The Caine Mutiny." I was so glad to see Helo standing up not just for what was morally right as he had in the past, but this time for the crew's life and simple common sense. It's a dimension to his character I approve of. Starbuck could only have led religious fanatics in her state of mind, not rational men and women.

Too many people in Starbuck's crew were beginning to think she was a Cylon and/or crazy. Helo had been standing up for her, hitting one guy and threatening him with a gun to shut up his mutinous complaints. He did everything he could to avoid the mutiny alternative because he'd have to take command. But he couldn't allow her to risk everyone because he agreed, deep down, with the most of the rest of the crew. Starbuck finally did come to her senses and negotiate a solution they could all live with, but only after Anders shot Geata in the leg.

One difference from the solution I proposed was that Starbuck took a larger ship, a raptor (I didn't even know they had a raptor with them), and several others, Athena, Leoben, a red-shirt and Anders, with her instead of going alone in a viper with a camera. Helo and most of the crew stayed behind on the Demetrius with a clock counting down to the last moment before they had to jump back to the Galactica.

Next they cut to a brief scene with Tory and President Roslin, but I'll pick that up later because I'm going to un-shuffle the two stories told in this episode. I'll stick with Starbuck's until it's finished, then pick up Roslin's story.

They did approach an answer to why Starbuck is having her all too correct instincts, gut feelings and visions. In my last review I had said:

... Starbuck, however, has no good reason to put her trust in her old enemy, that known liar, Leoben Conoy. It's just her crazy instincts that she has for no good reason which, because of the set up, I know she's right to go with.

In this episode they gave us a disturbing possibility: Starbuck is a Cylon led by the "music" that is connecting all the Ood, er, I mean Cylons. A possibility suggested by the character I trust the least, Leoben Conoy. But one thing is for sure, Starbuck's painting was prophetic. She saw a scene from her painting outside her raptor's window. There seems no other explanation possible to me, Starbuck is plugged into a "mystical" source of information about "fate" and the future. The nature of this information source is still unclear (Leoben wants to call it God) and it still presents logical and continuity problems for the universe the writers have created, as I said in my last review (whether God is feeding her the info or not), but I'll try to pick up on the problems this presents later in another deeper analysis of the Galactica universe in a new post that takes all the episodes I remember into account.

Just prior to Starbuck seeing the scene from her painting, Leoben was telling everyone that, "God's plan is about to be revealed." Starbuck is getting her crazy vibe again and saying "This is it... I can hear it." Leoben says, "The music vibrates in all of us," Anders reacts with recognition (he heard Dylan's "All along the Watchtower") and if my memory serves me, Leoben turned to Athena and said, "She's one of us." Starbuck sees the scene she painted and says, "This is what I was meant to see." Then Starbuck laughs a really, to me, crazy, disturbing laugh. She's enjoying her sense of power, but she's not questioning whether the power is really hers. She's just trusting her visions, letting them lead her.

If I were her I wouldn't be laughing. I'd be horrified. Starbuck hasn't thought clearly about the implications of what such prophetic visions really mean about the universe she lives in. Or, maybe she's lived with the idea of fate too long because of her religious beliefs? Yet, for someone who has that old Greek and Roman polytheism going for her it apparently doesn't include the old Greek phrase: "Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad."

Then Starbuck is knocked out by some spaceship debris, they cut back to the other story, then back again to Starbuck waking up with a bloody scratch over her right eye and a shattered raptor window. The raptor is now in some Cylon hangar bay and Athena is outside inspecting the ship when a hand from behind her touches her shoulder. Athena jumps and pulls a weapon, but it's a crowd of other 8s, her model, her clones, her sisters.

The other 8s tell her they're proud of her because "your the first to say no" to the programming. Then one of the 8s tells her that the 6s have been making mistake after mistake and might get them all killed and they want her help. Athena tells them "no," that they should to choose a side and stick to it, else they'll never know love and other stuff like that.

As Starbuck and the others are exiting the raptor they are met by one of the 6s and Starbuck says she wants to see the hybrid. At first the 6 refuses her, it would be too risky to let Starbuck into the nervous system of the ship, but Leoben talks the 6 into it and points out that they have to make this alliance and give Starbuck what she wants. They also need to plug into the raptor's jump capability because the basestar can't jump. Thus, Starbuck is taken to the hybrid.

The hybrid, laying back in her tub of milky goo, is babbling her mix of technobabble combined with vague and prophetic poetry -- call it hybridbabble. Starbuck can't make much sense of it, and neither could I. Leoben tells Starbuck to just let the words seep into her unconscious mind. Not me, I might pick up whatever analysis of the hybridbabble shows up on the Galactica forum I sometimes read, but I'm not even bothering to remember that incomprehensible word salad. It's not a game I like to play: Figure out the vague clues which are given to you by the game playing gods of the Galactica universe who actually do know the future because they created it; the writers.

Starbuck isn't going to stand around and listen to it either, she wants the hybrid unplugged so they can hook up the raptor's jump drive to the basestar's jump drive and get away from brother Cavil. When one of the 8s starts to unplug the hybrid, the hybrid starts to scream one long, loud tone. Then the 8 gets shot by one of the chrome toaster models. Then everyone else with a gun blasts the toaster. Hmmm... what was the toaster's problem? Did they forget to explain things to him?

The 8's blood drips into the Hybrid's pool and the hybrid reaches up and caresses Starbuck's face telling her that the three will give her the five that come from the home of the thirteenth, then she tells Starbuck that she will be the harbinger of death, bringing humanity to its end.

As the 8 lies dying on the floor, she reaches out to Athena for comfort. Athena starts to reach out to her but draws back, so Sam does the comforting instead. The 6 thinks that she's figured out the hybrid's words: D'Anna can recognize the final five Cylons, and those five can lead them to the home of the thirteenth tribe, which is Earth. So, that spoiler tid-bit about unboxing Lucy Lawless is probably true.

Back at the raptor in the hangar bay one of the 6s who is helping to connect the raptor jump drive to the basestar's recognizes the red-shirt (a character meant only to die) as the woman who once drowned her in a septic tank back on Caprica. The 6 then beats the red-shirt to death with a few punches. Anders wrestles the 6 to the ground and threatens to shoot her. Starbuck tries to talk him out of it, but another 6 kisses the first one good bye, literally, and then pulls the trigger for Anders saying "there is your human justice." There is no resurrection ship and she won't be coming back.

Finally, the whole basestar jumps back to the poo-barge just as Helo is about to jump back towards the Galactica. Thus begins and ends this episode. Next week the basestar and the poo-barge will be back with the Galactica judging by the previews.

One thing I've noted in this episode is that Katee Sackhoff's acting seems to be improving. Her craziness has become more subtle and eerie. When Starbuck first came back from the dead and was yelling, "You're going the wrong way!" it seemed a bit over the top and hammy. Gradually she's turned the volume on her emotions down and found new and subtle ways to act insane; the laughter at seeing a scene like her painting outside the raptor window, the subtle trembling of her lip when the hybrid tells her she's going to lead humanity to their end, the insane determination in every move she makes.

It reminded me of when I saw saw Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" with some friends for the first time. Me and the guys I was with were all struck by the scene where the character, Lance, had taken LSD and was throwing around colored smoke bombs to see their psychedelic prettiness as their swift boat made its way down a jungle river. One of the guys I was with said, "whoa! That guy knows what LSD does." We all agreed. We'd used the drug ourselves just a few weeks prior to seeing the movie and we'd seen that spaced out astonishment look on each other's faces. We knew the tense, awe struck feeling and were impressed the actor's ability to put that on screen.

Years later I would learn that Sam Bottoms, the actor who played Lance, had really done some drugs to mimic the effects of LSD, I think he said he used speed and marijuana at some point, but it was some drug I can't remember that he used while shooting that part of the movie. He couldn't have actually hit his marks and remembered his dialog if he'd actually done acid. But he also knew he couldn't produce the physical effects the drug has on the body without using a drug that got him close.

I am beginning to wonder if Katee Sackhoff is doing something like Sam Bottoms did. She actually looks physically wired, a bit tense, pale, pupils dilated, a touch sweaty (no, everyone on the poo-barge seemed sweaty). She seems physically different from how she looked before. Was she squinting as if the lights were to bright for her while all the other characters have their eyes wide open? Did they do some make-up around her eyes to make them look sunken?

As for the second story in this episode, it was much shorter, bittersweet and subtle. It begins with a bald President Roslin getting ready for a stay in the hospital and turning things over to Tory. Yikes! Tory the murderous Cylon has really gained Roslin's trust and will be "keeping a keen eye on whatever comes across her desk in the next few days" while Roslin is in the hospital. In the hospital Roslin meets another cancer patient, Emily. Emily gripes about her treatment and listens to Baltar on the radio. Baltar himself never shows in this episode, it's just his voice on the radio talking about some real religious beliefs this time -- about life after death.

Emily had some dream or visionary experience that has got her believing in what Baltar says about the afterlife. We get a brief and garbled taste of Baltar's radio sermon, "the undiscovered country... bask in the radiance of God's love... there is another realm... river that separates this world from the next..." Emily's experience had to do with that river and seeing her parents, husband and children on the other side. (Is the river that separates this world from the next supposed to be the river Styx? Will they ever mention the ferryman, Charon?)

Roslin tries to talk Emily out of it by saying, "Baltar's God is the Cylon God." Finally a character echoes what fans on the forums have been saying about Baltar's beliefs since his Head 6 started shoving that religion down his throat. Emily counters by saying "if he's the one true God, then he is everybody's God." Then Emily starts knocking the polytheistic Roman/Greek religion that most colonials seem to believe in by saying, "You don't really think the gods dress in silly costumes and live on some metaphysical mountain with Zeus handing out our fates? 'Here, you will be plumber, you will be a pilot, and you will see your husband and children killed in a nuclear blast and then live the next three years in some cramp and moldy quarters before a cancer starts eating your body."

"Those stories are just metaphors," Says Roslin. Is she lying? Is she trying to pretend to be more sophisticated than she really is? She sent Starbuck to retrieve a literal arrow in order to open a literal tomb of some "metaphorical" god to find the path to a literal Earth. That part of her belief system wasn't metaphor, it was as literal as a modern day fundy trying to use the the book of Revelations to predict the Jesus's second coming.

Before we get to Roslin's tears about her mother, let's recall what kind of character Roslin can be. Remember this scene from a past episode where Roslin reacts to the possibility of losing the election to Baltar by fixing the election:

Now that, Roslin, dear, is a metaphor.

Roslin may have faith in the colonial scriptures because of drug induced hallucinations giving her clues to finding Earth, but she doesn't really believe in an afterlife until maybe this episode, and even then it's a hopeful and iffy kind of belief. In this episode she tells Emily about her mother's death and how instead of the Elysian Fields promised by their pseudo-Roman religion she saw only a black abyss of nothingness. It brings Roslin to tears. Later, however, Roslin has a dream where she finds Emily and herself on a boat, then, looking towards shore they see their dead friends and family. Roslin turns back to Emily but she's not there, she's on the shore running up to hug her family. Then Roslin sees her own mother on the shore. "Not yet," she says. "I'm not ready."

I liked this part of the story best because, like last week's episode with Baltar reeling in Tyrol by getting his trust, it gives us some insight into the emotional reasons why people believe such religious notions that have less to do with mystical experiences and convincing theology and more to do with simple human trust and the human desire believe attractive notions. Roslin's only evidence was a dream, and she's not being hip to why people have dreams.

For example, there is a phenomena called "Dream Incorporation" that most of us have experienced at some time or another. It's where a sound from reality is heard in our dream and incorporated in some way. Another example would be when you are physically thirsty and your mind incorporates that feeling in to your dream, perhaps repeatedly drinking a large glass of water in the dream which never satisfies you. Now think of the things Roslin must have been hearing and feeling as she dreamed. When she woke up, Baltar was still preaching about the river and the afterlife, so she was hearing that while dreaming too. And Emily was gone when she woke and that meant Roslin must have heard of her death while asleep.

I have to wonder why the writers would include these skeptic's clues, that believers in mystical dreams probably wouldn't notice or take into account, as to how this particular dream was probably an induced wish-fulfillment fantasy? That is, why do that when Roslin lives in a world where she also has had clearly paranormal shared dreams with a 6 and an 8 Cylon in the Opera house and is also finding magical, mystical hallucination clues to Earth?

Maybe the writers don't understand how they've given skeptics these clues and just think, oh, it would be natural somehow that Baltar would be on the radio and Emily wouldn't just be newly dead in bed, but gone, without knowing what "natural" implies here.

Do the writers talk about the psychology of dreams in skeptical and mystical terms when they plot these stories saying, "Okay, this is a bogus wish fulfillment dream and this one is a genuine mystical experience" and then leave us to try and figure out which is which? One has to apply a large amount of skepticism to filter out the bogus visions from the real ones because the characters don't seem to be doing that for us. It makes for a complex show that is very demanding of the viewers. I'm not sure I'm up for it.

If they're doing this with full knowledge of what they're showing us, then there's a potentially darker, Cylon aiding, reading we can apply to Baltar's preaching on a pleasant afterlife and Roslin's dream interpretation. Consider, if there is no prohibition against suicide in Baltar's religion. Recall how Hamlet contemplates whether or not suicide is a morally legitimate action in an unbearably painful world in his famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy. There is a part of our history where Christian burial was denied suicides in all parts of England under the canon law. Hamlet explicitly fears that if he commits suicide he will go to hell because of the Christian religion’s prohibition of suicide. Such fear is part of the underlying complex moral considerations that interfere with Hamlet's capacity for action.

Now consider what life must be like crammed into those tin cans, eating algae every day, drifting through space uncomfortably while their numbers dwindle and human extinction approaches. Suicide might be an attractive out made more attractive by belief in a pleasant afterlife. Do the writers have the balls to go there? A suicide epidemic inspired in part by religion. Does the Scifi channel, home to shows like John Edwards talking to the dead and Ghost Hunters, have the balls to let them go there?

That's just the tip of the ice berg. In Richard Dawkins' 2001 article, "Religion's misguided missiles," we see an even darker side to afterlife preaching. If you promise people that death is not the end you can also get terrorists to fly planes into the World Trade Center. The natural assumption that people ultimately value their own life and will act rationally to preserve it is corrupted.

That's religion as a system of mind-control, our's honed over centuries, handed down through generations. The faith-heads don't like that elephant in the room; the devaluing effect that religion has on human life in the here and now.

Going beyond Dawkins' speculations there are some psychologists investigating real cults. I just saw a show on the National Geographic Channel called, "Inside a Cult," that looked at how Michael Travesser's cult, the "Strong City Cult," operated.

One of the things they showed us were these young, fairly attractive girls that had somehow gotten it into their heads that God wanted them to get naked with Travesser and let him hold them. They insisted it was their own idea and that Travesser resisted at first. However, the psychologist found out that Travesser, the self-appointed messiah of the cult, had been writing memos to his followers about being naked before God, the memos seemed rather innocent and typical of churchy language, but the context shifted when you realized that Travesser had proclaimed himself God they knew what to do... get naked with Travesser. One 14 year old girl even pleaded that "God" have sex with her. I never would've guessed that God was a pedophile.

Because of the memos he couldn't really claim, "Well it was their idea! I didn't tell them to do it." He had planted that idea in his "spiritual" writings. So, Travesser, was arrested on sexual misconduct charges. He had even dissolved all marriages and families when people moved there so he could sleep with their wives.

Of course, I immediately thought of Baltar in the first episodes of this season when he found the presence of God in a young woman's breasts. When will we hear Baltar talking about "getting naked before God"?

Just as in Roslin's dream the power of suggestion, the basic building block for hypnosis, planting thoughts and desires into the mind, is at play here and in other cults. We were even given a hint that it plays a role in Starbuck's visions when Leoben told her to "just let the (hybrid's) words seep into her unconscious mind." The question is how big a role does this kind of hypnotic induction play? Can it explain all the mysterious and mystical events? I don't think so, but I'm not sure.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Sam Harris needs Research Volunteers

Sam Harris is preparing to run another fMRI study of belief and disbelief, and he is looking for volunteers to take part in the first larger and more comprehensive study of religious faith at the level of the brain.

There are four surveys posted online and the links to these surveys are on Sam's home page,

Sam especially needs Christians to respond, as one of the goals of these surveys is to design stimuli that a majority of Christians will find doctrinally sound.

Pass this information around.

Friday, May 2, 2008

The poo-barge mutiny begins

Find more Battlestar Galactica essays here: So Say We All: The Battlestar Galactica Blog Carnival, vol. 5

I have mixed feelings about this last Battlestar Galactica episode, "The Road Less Traveled." There were basically two stories told this time. The first story is the build up to the poo-barge mutiny, and the second story is about Baltar being a fisher of men and reeling in Galen Tyrol. I thought the first story, while dramatic and intense enough to be good viewing was also a bit sloppy, confusing and not that well written. The second story was more subdued, well written and emotionally real.

In the first story Starbuck is running purely on her crazy and improbable instincts and they lead her to finding a badly shot-up Cylon Heavy-Raider drifting through space and inhabited by Leoben Conoy (what are the odds of that?). Starbuck takes Leoben into the Demetrius and then starts falling for his line of mystical "bullshit." I'm putting quotes around the word "bullshit" because in the Galactica universe, with its weird prophetic hybrids and other magical mysteries, Leoben's lines might be true. But if someone were telling me about how when they look at me they "see an angel blazing with the light of God" I would start thinking this dangerous charlatan is out to make a sucker of me. And that would be so even if I didn't know Leoben's past history of lies and mindfraks when dealing with Starbuck.

Leoben and Starbuck are in such a strange mental place in this episode that I cannot relate to them and find their interactions confusing and emotionally unreal. I'm not sure how the Galactica writers are setting up the rules for their universe, but in this world the kind of lines uttered by Leoben are usually delivered by dangerous charlatans and mad men. Starbuck has no rational reason to trust Leoben.

Also, on the negative side, Leoben was occasionally just plain incoherent in his ramblings and I couldn't figure out what he was getting at. At least the rest of the crew on the poo-barge seems just as confused and suspicious as I do. And by the end of the episode, on the poop deck of the poo-barge after things have gotten pretty shitty for Starbuck, Helo was ready to mutiny because Starbuck wanted to jump the poo-barge over to a Cylon basestar. He won't let her risk their lives.

Starbuck and everyone else on the poo-barge was, in my opinion, being stupid in another way. Starbuck could have avoided the mutiny simply by approaching it more cautiously. Instead of jumping everyone in the poo-barge over to the basestar, she could have used a viper to scout out the situation first, thus get some more evidence of this Cylon civil war and the state of the basestar.

The catch to Leoben's story however is that, unlike the characters on the poo-barge, we know there is some truth to his claims. We don't need to see a shot up basestar because we know there really is a Cylon civil war going on and there is a possibility for a truce with Cylon rebels. We know they'd find a battered base star. Starbuck, however, has no good reason to put her trust in her old enemy, that known liar, Leoben Conoy. It's just her crazy instincts that she has for no good reason which, because of the set up, I know she's right to go with.

In this way the hand of the gods made itself known in this episode and it was a bad thing because we all know who the real gods of the Galactica universe are, they are Ron Moore and his writers. That's the way fictional universes are, they all have gods and those gods are the writers who risk spoiling the illusion they want to create when they inject such plot driving miracles into their stories. And Starbuck's seemingly all too correct faith in Leoben's claims are just such an intrusive miracle.

There's a reason that even writers who preach their religious beliefs at writers conferences have shied away from the use of supernatural events and prefer psychological pain to demonic affliction, and dark nights of the soul to the voice of God echoing out of the whirlwind. They write about what they know. And they know they themselves and most other people don't really experience the voice of God like it happened in the Bible. They know that for every tear drop of wisdom to be found in religion there is a vast ocean of stupidity and insanity behind it. In our world people don't seem to come back from the dead like Starbuck and our miracle workers can often be caught using simple magician's tricks. Even Mother Teresa, a potential Catholic saint, was running on only a few weird experiences she had early in her life where she literally heard God’s voice directing her to go to in India and help the poor. However, as soon as she did start her mission, God's silence began and she spent the rest of her life feeling abandoned by God. Was it all just a couple potent brain farts that changed her life?

God in Evelyn Waugh or Graham Greene is more often a significant absence than a presence. Actual encounters with the divine or the demonic in literature, such is in Philip K. Dick's last books, are usually the product of a writer who has actually become subject to what they think are paranormal visitations. And Dick had been abusing amphetamine for years before that.

There's just something incredibly arrogant (not necessarily a bad thing) about making God a character in your story because the real gods in these fictional universes are the writers (or in television, perhaps its the producers). You can pull it off if God himself is actually a character and you have something to say about the nature of godhood, but not if that God remains utterly mysterious and just advances the plot when convenient for the writers. Starbuck's trust in Leoben may yet be explained by whatever force brought her back, but right now it doesn't feel like it.

In the second story, Tyrol has shaved his head and is looking a bit crazy. He has continued to sink into despair after the death of his wife. While he is in the launch tube where Cally was ejected into space, Tory comes to talk to him and it appears that Tory is starting to buy into Gaius Baltar's theology. Yet later Tory acts more dismissive of Baltar's religion when, after frakking Baltar, she informs him that she has told the president about his pirate radio broadcasts and that no one is really worried about him because "no one of consequence" had joined his religion, just people on the fringes.

Later, when Tyrol happens to catch Baltar's pirate radio broadcast and he gets disgusted with it and switches it off, but then his child starts to cry until he turns it back on. So, Tyrol becomes curious about Baltar's sermons and the people following him.

Tyrol goes to see one of Baltar's sermons and quickly gets disgusted and starts walking out. Then Baltar calls to him, asking Tyrol to take his hand and saying "it's what Cally would have wanted." Tyrol gets enraged by Baltar's presumption and tells Baltar that Baltar didn't know his wife and he's not one of Baltar's ignorant sheep. Then Tyrol physically attacks Baltar. Baltar's little "take my hand" request came off as "slick" and manipulative theatrics and he failed to pull it off.

Later Baltar shows up at Tyrol's apartment to repair the damage he'd done by telling Tyrol about how the "Cally would have wanted it" line was unfair. Baltar admitted that it was a pretension toward a knowledge he didn't have. But Tyrol, by getting enraged, gave Baltar even more dangerous information about Tyrol's emotional state. And Baltar must have noted that Tyrol had a gun lying on his chest and wondered if he had contemplated suicide. Baltar could see Tyrol's pain and weakness and use it. He started to reel Tyrol into his religious view, talking about how he seeks redemption (something Tyrol is also seeking in a way).

Cally is dead. Tyrol is alone, confused and lost. He was almost ready to kill himself after his encounter with Baltar, he put a gun to his head briefly before screaming in frustration. Where are Tyrol's friends? Where are the people to support him in his time of need? He pushed Adama away and got demoted. Who is the only person to come and check on him now? Baltar.

Tyrol never says a word and as Baltat finishes his speech Tyrol offers Baltar his hand. During Baltar's sermon it was mere theatrics, in Tyrol's apartment, with no audience, it was personal. It's not a gesture that says Tyrol now believes in Baltar's religion, but it is gesture that shows us that Tyrol now accepts Baltar as sincere. And that might be a beginning. Tyrol too is "on the fringe" of Colonial society now, he's been demoted, but he has had a more consequential and influential role in the past and may rise again. That combination of currently being in a socially and emotionally vulnerable position yet having respect and legitimacy from people in many walks of life would make Tyrol the sort of person Baltar needs to give his religion credibility. And why is Baltar spending so much effort on the two Cylons? Does he know they are Cylons? Or, are the new Cylons attracted to Baltar because they know he is not a Cylon hater, like so many others, and because Baltar has lived with Cylons and had hoped to find some humanity in them?

I don't think Baltar's second attempt to talk to Tyrol was entirely calculated and selfishly motivated, but it may be a factor. Ever since Tory, Tyrol and Tigh had found out that they're Cylons they've been going through changes and trying to figure out what it means. If they’re Cylons, when did that begin and what are their true back stories? What are they meant to do? Are they dangerous to each other, are they dangerous to the ship, can they trust any of the people around them, should they keep this secret only among themselves?

So far, they all seem headed for the dark side. If any of them were ready to sacrifice their safety for the good of humanity they would call for another meeting after having hidden a camera in the meeting place. Then they could give the recording to Adama and tell him what had been going on. In the end, each of the Cylons is too selfish to do that. None of them are worried enough about being programmed to do something like kill Adama, as Boomer tried, to act on that possibility.

Can you guess what kind of Cylon I am to have such opinions?

Which Battlestar Galactica Cylon Are You?