Thursday, 20 September 2012

Battlestar Galactica: The Hand of God

I was sent seasons 1 and 2 of the new(er) Battlestar Galactica (plus the mini-series) by a friend ages ago, and have been making my way through them very slowly - so far Disc 3 of season 1 is as far as I've got! For some reason, I just can't seem to get into the show and I find it a bit slow and dull a lot of the time. I like Starbuck, Sharon, Helo and the engineer (who I mostly think of as 'Scotty') and Stands With a Fist is fine, but I find Tigh and even Adama boring, and Apollo doesn't seem to be much more than a pretty face so far. Oddly enough I like Sharon a lot, but find Boomer irritating, which is probably a testament to the writing and Grace Park's acting.

There's lots of Classical stuff to talk about in Battlestar Galactica. Obviously, one of the lead characters is actually called Apollo, the name of the sun god (well, his callsign is Apollo). Another is called Gaius, which has less obvious symbolism beyond a general feeling of Roman-ness but is worth mentioning. (It was the Emperor Caligula's name, but although Gaius Baltar's sanity is definitely a wee bit questionable, so far he doesn't seem to have much in common with that particular namesake, and hasn't yet claimed to be a god - he thinks he's an instrument of God, but that's not quite the same thing). Helo's surname 'Agathon' is from the Greek 'agathos,' meaning 'good.'

The religious system in Battlestar Galactica is also Classically inspired. The humans' religion (the only human one we've seen so far - Caprica seems to have had an unusual lack of religions to choose from) is focused on worship of the Lords of Kobol, most of whom are the Olympian gods of Greek mythology (whenever a Greek god is mentioned, they're usually described in the same terms as the 'real' mythological equivalent). The scripts put this polytheistic religion up against the Cylons' monotheistic religion, which is clearly modelled on Christianity. The relationship between the two does not quite match the contrast between Christianity and ancient paganism, because ancient 'paganism' was not one religion with set gods, but the Olympians were among the most important gods and were the main state gods, so there's a clear Classical inspiration there.

In this episode, President Laura Roslin has some disturbing hallucinations during a press conference (a side effect of a drug she's taking to treat her terminal cancer), and asks for advice from a woman who is presumably a priestess (this may have been clear from an episode I watched ages ago and can't remember!). The priestess asks if the images were 'prescient,' implying a fairy strong belief in premonitory visions in her religion. Roslin describes the snakes she saw crawling all over the podium, and the priestess is astounded, saying, 'You read Pythia and now you're having me on.' In Battlestar Galactica's world, it emerges, about 3,600 years before the mini-series, an oracle (the implication is, one of several) called Pythia wrote a sacred scroll about the exile and rebirth of the human race, and about a leader with visions of snakes, who would not live to see the new land.

In real life, the Pythia was another name for the Delphic Oracle, the richest and most important oracle in Classical Greece. The myth attached to the site was that Apollo, god of prophecy, killed the huge serpent/dragon the Python, which guarded the shrine at Delphi, and claimed the oracle for himself (serpents and dragons were very similar, almost interchangeable creatures in Classical mythology). The Pythia herself was a woman who would rant and rave in answer to a question, inspired by the god, and the priests at the shrine would 'interpret' her ravings (i.e. presumably come up with something plausible and likely to please the inquirer).

The scrolls described here sound more like the Sibylline prophecies from ancient Rome. The Sibyls were Roman oracles, not unlike the Pythia, except there were several of them and they were said to have written a collection of prophecies that were preserved, and consulted by the Senate during times of emergency. Some politicians and emperors had a tendency, occasionally, to 'discover' new Sibylline prophecies. The way characters in Battlestar Galactica talk about 'sacred scrolls' learned in school (Gaius Baltar mentions reading Pythia in the sixth grade) is much more like the Christian attitude towards the New Testament, a sacred text learned (about) in school, than the Sibylline prophecies, which were part of a religion with no sacred or dogmatic texts and were consulted only by the powerful. The Sibylline oracles are clearly the inspiration for the Pythia's text, though.

The Viper spacecraft are identified as the serpents from the prophecy by Baltar's semi-hallucinatory  Cylon friend Six. The victory is won thanks to Baltar choosing a spot to bomb at random and it working out - Six claims that (the Cylon, single) God guided Baltar to the site, in order to provoke an eventual confrontation at the home of the gods (which is a bit odd if her religion is monotheistic). This is what convinces Baltar that he is an instrument of God.The wider significance of this, and of the two religious systems, and of the Pythia's prophecy that 'All this has happened before. All this will happen again' will not fully be revealed until the series finale, but in the meantime this episode has some fun playing with the symbolism, throwing around references to snakes and Apollo by having Roslin's vision relate, in immediate terms, to a victory won by the character Apollo using the Vipers.

I will definitely persist with Battlestar Galactica, as it has some intriguing long-term storylines on the go and an excellent fake swear word ('frak') to use alongside 'frell,' 'smeg' and 'Belgium.' It's just... so... slow... My favourite episodes so far were the two dealing with Starbuck's background, her relationship with the Adamas, and her crash-landing on some planet somewhere, though my favourite characters are Sharon and Helo. I also appreciate some of the subtle nods to Star Trek, particularly the badges which are sort of triangular, though I'm less sure about having the main black female semi-regular play, essentially, Uhura. And maybe the pace will pick up a bit if Baltar ever bothers to tell anyone Boomer's a Cylon...


  1. Ooooh are you in for a treat!!! Everyone pretty much freaks out when the truth about Boomer comes out (which you know it will eventually... what with Helo back on Caprica it's unavoidable).

    There are 12 human cylon models (as someone left a note for Adama stating), have fun wracking your brain trying to figure out the rest of them! ;o)

    For once I did catch on straight away to the Classical references, hard not to if you have even just a basic knowledge of greco-roman mythology! :p

    Adama will grow on you. Apollo, well depends on your taste in guys... Sharon is definitely more interesting than Boomer (she is totally wasted in Hawaii 5-0!) Stands with a Fist? Oh you mean Roslin!!! At first that's how I identified her too. Now whenever I see her on something else I'm like "President Roslin!"
    And Gaius definitely qualifies as NUTS!!!


    So say we all. :o)

  2. And dammit! Now I want to interrupt my Stargate viewings (I'm going through all the series, nearing the end of SG-1 s9 and Atlantis s-2) to watch BSG again! :o(

  3. No, don't give up so close to the end! (I got to the end of season 9 of Frasier, then was given Twenty Twelve - will get back to Frasier at some point...!)

    Mix 'em, up :) I'm hoping to start West Wing reviews alongside Voyager once I have time for more than one post a week, looking forward to watching them in parallel!

    1. It's not giving up but hitting pause (besides I'm re-watching it all, not like it's the first time). As for mixing it up... it's already a bit confusing alternating with Atlantis! (one disc of one, one of the other... just like when I rewatch Buffy and Angel). I might take a break when I finish season 9 (and 2 of Atlantis). BSG is fewer seasons (and some of them shorter) so it will go faster. ;o)

  4. The new Galactica is fun to watch, but over time it grows increasingly boring. It also has far too much things in common with current American society. Some things also don't add up. How could a civilization which developed far from Earth even have a name like Columbia for a ship? Lots of other things are very Earthly, probably to make it easier for the movie makers to film it. Season 4 takes a true downfall when it comes to sanity and gets worse by each episode.

    1. Boring?! NEVER!!! And I really liked Season 4! It was never going to be easy for them to wrap this one up but I for one enjoyed the whole ride!

  5. I've never seen new BSG largely because I saw the original when it first aired and it so horribly violated everything I knew to be true and good about science fiction that it made Star Wars look like 2001 or Destination Moon. Unless Ron Moore came up with symbolism to attach to the various names, you probably can't read too much into them, since most of them were taken over from the original. There was a strong ancient astronauts vibe to the show and the names were a horrible mishmash of things that sounded ancient. It wound up sounding like an RPG campaign run by a bunch of 12-year olds: I am the elven wizard Glorfindel and these are my companions Gnarf the barbarian and Fred the dwarf. I break out in hives just thinking about it.

    Baltar doesn't seem to have been called Gaius in the original, so maybe there's a Caligula tie-in. But it was also Julius Caesar's praenomen, so who knows?

    1. DemetriosX, I only had vague childhood memories of a campy BSG which I saw in reruns while vacationing in Spain. In my memory it's a bit mixed up with Buck Rogers and V! (summer staples in the '80s). But I'd heard a lot of good things about the new version, and having a lot of faith in Ron Moore I decided to rent the miniseries (is a separate disc from season 1) to at least check it out... and right after I finished it I got on Amazon and ordered the Miniseries AND the First Season (which had just come out on dvd in the UK but wouldn't in Belgium, where I was at that time, for a couple of months). And the rest is history!
      So just give Ron Moore the benefit of the doubt and try it out. The miniseries is really good for that! ;o)

    2. Half of Rome was called Gaius, it's one of the most common of the very few first names available. Caligula sprang to mind as the person most commonly known as just 'Gaius', as opposed to Gaius Julius Caesar or Gaius Gracchus or any of the others.

    3. I don't know. The original was so bad. I mean made-Buck-Rogers-look-good bad. Of course, it was better than the second season, Galactica 1980. That was even worse. I'd rather watch the first season of Enterprise. I'd rather watch Neelix-centered episodes of Voyager. I'd rather watch Tuvix! Shudder.

      I kind of trust Ron Moore. But the things I've heard about the finale are... disturbing. Maybe one of these days. I've got to catch up with the Doctor and Torchwood first.

    4. Ignore the comments on the Finale, it was Lost-divisive in that people either loved it or hated and it's kind of split down the middle amongst fans.

    5. I like Tuvix...

      I know what happens in the finale because I went to a conference panel on BSG earlier this year. Knowing in advance, I kind of like it, though I might not have liked it so much if I'd had it sprung on me in the finale. Of course, I haven't actually seen it yet!

  6. I imagine it was the writers of the updated series who gave it that kind of texture and depth, as opposed to the original?

    I never did see the series when it was on. It's not really the sort of genre I'd watch.


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