Is religion killing good sci-fi shows? (2010)


How “Lost,” “Battlestar Galactica” and “Caprica” lost sight of their sci-fi roots

As an avid sci-fi fan, shows like “Battlestar Galactica,” “Caprica” and “Lost,” rank amongst my favorite shows. But somehow these shows — in an effort to be edgy and contemporary — got lost along the way trying to find ways to counter-balance their extreme science fiction mythology.

Religion and politics are the hot-buttons in any society and using them as story-telling devices is risky. When used cautiously, both can be excellent tools to provoke debate and galvanizing story points. But when used with abandon and heedless of the consequences, they can completely derail or eclipse even the best of sci-fi shows.

“Lost” was thought to be one of the most preeminent science fiction shows of the modern era and was heralded as the best example of successfully melding sci-fi with commercial dramatic television. Yet in the space of 15 minutes, “Lost” managed to alienate the very audience that faithfully tuned in for six years. Instead of delivering the expected epic showdown between good and evil and a climatic ending for the fans – it opted to wrap up its journey with an image of its cast sitting on church pews reverently awaiting the light to welcome them.

I vividly recall sitting with my dad watching those last few minutes of “Lost” and wondering: “what the hell?” Both of us are deeply religious and yet we were still shocked and horrified. In all the years devotedly following every baited-breath of “Lost,” it never occurred to us that it was a show more interested in religion than science fiction. The fractured timelines, wormholes, and smoke monster were all elements of sci-fi. There were no religious under-tones to the story about a group of survivors from a plane crash on a mysterious island that could literally be moved throughout time and space. So where did that ending come from?

To this day, I am still appalled that the series chickened out of telling the story that fans had come to expect. The show could have melded the two fractured timelines; it could have picked any timeline. Instead, it chose to jump the entire show into the limbo-land where souls await their friends before moving on. Just writing that sentence feels like the anti-thesis of “Lost.” That was not the show I watched for six years and spent countless hours debating the pro’s and con’s of whether the castaways would ever escape the doomed island.

Nearly as aggravating was the end of “Battlestar Galactica,” which also chose to over-emphasize religion in its final hour. Having watched the absolutely riveting epic showdown between the survivors and the evil Cylons in part 1 of the finale, the final hour felt anti-climatic and a bit bewildering. The final hour was spent showing us the divergent paths that each of the surviving colonists chose upon reaching New Earth. The most startling being the disappearance of Starbuck – who may or may not have been angel — and the final scene with Head-Balter and Head-Six, several thousand years in the future – who may or may not have been angels, as well. This ending was similarly jarring. For when did a military space opera depicting the near genocide of the human race at the hands of rebellious machines decide it was a story about angels.

Both “Lost” and “Battlestar Galactica” had dabbled and debated various points of religious theology, but ultimately one did not feel as if they were watching a show solely about religion. Sure, John Locke and Jack Sheppard had engaged in many debates of faith versus science over the six years on “Lost”; and one of the core differences between the Cylons and the colonists in “Battlestar Galactica” had been the polar opposite views on monotheism versus polytheism. In both series the tug-of-war of political and religious ideology served well to propel the storylines and heighten the ferocity in which each side fought for their belief that they were absolutely right. It was the motivation – not the answer.

More recently, “Caprica,” the “BSG”-prequel, also expanded its foray into the theological realm. Whereas, “Caprica” was to be the story of the genesis of the Cylons and their rise to power and subsequent resistance to subjugation to mankind, in a startling twist, the series came back from its extended hiatus nearly consumed with a religious war. The hero of the story, Zoe, was virtually missing from the story with nearly 75% of the screen time in the past two episodes spent on the religious zealotry of Sister Clarice and STO’s internal battle for religious control.

Angels, purgatory, limbo and monotheistic/polytheistic religious wars – each has its place in science fiction, but they are merely an element. They should not be the core of a science fiction story. Relying too heavily on these elements in the place of true science fiction only serves to alienate the very audience that such shows seek to engage.

If one is watching “Terminator,” one does not expect to find that angels are in our midst manipulating the fate of mankind; and if one is watching “Doctor Who,” one does not expect the Doctor will one day wake up to find out that all his former companions are waiting for him to welcome him into Heaven. (Note: Angels have their place – for surely nothing has been more terrifying in recent history than “Doctor Who’s” weeping angels.) However, there are certain things we hold to be self-evident in science fiction: it is science fiction, not theological fiction.

Therefore, modern day television writers need to remember what kind of show they are writing and who they are writing for. If they are more interested in writing about theology, then they should write those shows and not distort good science fiction shows beyond recognition. For what purpose does it serve to pull a bait-and-switch on the very audience that provided them with tenure? Will the sci-fi community ever trust Carlton Cuse, Damon Lindelof, Ron Moore and David Eick to write a sci-fi show again? Has our faith in them been betrayed upon finding out that they were not actually writing sci-fi shows, but instead delivering pontification on their religious views?

It is time to get science fiction back on track. Where is the science? In today’s sci-fi, we want to be challenged by the possibilities of what lies ahead if such things as time travel, alternate universes, alien life and the rise of artificial intelligence come to fruition. Give us more of that. That is, after all, what science fiction is truly about. We want to see Cylons and smoke monsters. Do not kill the science in “science fiction.”

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One thought on “Is religion killing good sci-fi shows? (2010)

  1. Great write up. I would have just put in huge letters “YES”, and been done with it.

    I never got into Lost (I’m just now getting in Heroes), but now I know why people were so up in arms and plain angry at the end. I would have been too. really, really, spitting nails, how dare you, angry.

    BSG did get fairly religious at the end, but I gave it a free pass. That probably has something to do with the huge girl crush I have on Katee Sackhoff.

    Religion killing good scifi shows? I don’t know about you, but I grew up reading the Asimov robot series, early Heinlein stuff, Kim Stanley Robinson, Frank Herbert. . . a lot of pretty godless stuff. Take a look at the scifi/fantasy section at the bookstore these days. .. nothing is as godless as it used to be.

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