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.


James Newberry said...

You make some excellent points. I'd been wondering about the difference between this river dream and, say, the opera house -- but it's easy to gloss over these difficulties if you let yourself. For Laura, I think she's going through a phase of acceptance... beginning to admit to herself that she's going to die. The perfectly natural offshoot of that is an exploration of ideas of what comes next.

I think we can trust the writers to take us further into that; past the desperate grasp for an afterlife that most likely does not exist, and into true acceptance. I wonder how hard she'll fight it, and how tragic it'll get before she succumbs.

M said...

Another post that was a pleasure to read. Good point about the show differentiating the opera house vision and the river vision. Perhaps the writers would like to give Roslin a little bit of an "out" when it comes to Baltar. Another fleet vs Baltar confrontation is obviously pending. Perhaps Roslin can't fully believe in him just yet.