BSG As Horror Tale

We wanted to take the time to examine what happens to people when their dreams are shattered, when everything they held as true turns out to be an illusion. After a blow like that, how do you pick yourself up from the floor and go on? Are you able to pick yourself up at all? This is perhaps the most universal theme you can explore. For the people of ragtag fleet, the dream was Earth. (more)

I recently rewatched the entire Battlestar Galactica (BSG) series, and now have a somewhat different take on it. Many spoilers below – you are warned.

The world of BSG starts with cylon robots destroying the huge advanced human civilization that created them. The 50,000 remaining humans first try to evade pursuit, and then look for a new home. This much smaller community can’t support many scale economies; the show sometimes notes such reduced-scale problems, but mostly ignores them.

This universe contains, however, not just humans and cylons, but also hidden powers who influence events in standard mystical ways, such as via prophecies and dreams. While the main characters start out skeptical, over time evidence accumulates and they become strongly and justifiably convinced that such powers exist, and have a plan for them to follow. The main characters actions become increasingly aligned to following such plans, and to acquiring and protecting key mystical icons they see as related.

In fact, many violent deaths result from characters following mystical directions. The humans and cylons, for example, could have more easily gone their separate ways were it not for their wanting the same mystical icons, such as the mythic planet Earth. Once Earth is found, and found desolate, they barely have resources left to search for a habitable planet, yet they instead fight over a child of apparent mystic significance.

Along the journey the mystic signs are usually truthful in foretelling future mystic signs, but they aren’t usually very useful. Earth was useless, and the child didn’t matter much either. All they really got out of following the powers is finding a nice green planet, when only ~20,000 of them were left, and their equipment and resources nearly gone.

They decide to start a “clean slate” by spreading out as much as possible on this planet, throwing away all their tech, and trying to subsistence farm and merge with indigenous foragers. They seem unaware of how bad they’ll be at foraging and farming – in my judgement their actions pretty much guarantee they’ll die out, leaving at most a small genetic legacy.

The mystic powers don’t seem to have miscalculated; it seems they roughly expected what did in fact happen. So we are left to conclude that not only do mystic powers allow vast destruction without intervening to reduce it, they actively encourage more destruction by leading these characters on a wild goose chase, whose end is the almost complete destruction of humanity and robotity. And at the end, after being betrayed in all these ways, humans seem ok with just dying, cause hey, they are still being led by higher powers.

So you can read the whole BSG series as a horror tale, of the terrible influence of mystical powers on humanity. Not that I think most of the writers of the show saw it that way – I expect most of them thought the humans really should have been happy with how it all turned out. Sigh.

By the way, the current movie Brave also has this never-question-mystic-powers element. If blue fuzzy spirits seem to guide our hero to do something, she just does it. And even if that led to great troubles, the characters never later question their choice to follow mystic powers.

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  • Mark M

    Agreed.  Questioning mystical powers is pretty much taboo.  People never quite seem to believe that mystical creatures may have interests that do not coincide with our own.

    BSG may have ended precisely as the mystical powers intended – with humans isolated, spread out, and lacking the ability to do serious damage to the planet.  After all – look at what we did to Earth!  This was certainly not in the interest of the billions of people who died, but it may be exactly what the mystical powers wanted.

    Then again – it’s fiction.  Discussing the motive of fictional mystical powers may be fun, but is there a practical reason for this fictional discussion?

    • I interpreted the ending as ‘this is what the mystical powers wanted.’ There is the stinger that fast fowards to modern times and shows the mystical powers (who seem to be some kind of meddling AIs themselves) giggling about how they get to do it all over again. Malevolent godlike beings building sand castle societies and then knocking them down.

  • adrianratnapala

    Contra M.M, I will just discuss fiction (though I suspect R.H. has some stranger plan).

    I think (a) Battlestar Galactica is a kind of horror,  (b) I doubt the writers had any pro-mystic-power agenda.

    (a)  For months, I couldn’t bear to watch BSG because it  was too nerve shredding.  I had only seen the first episode after the introduction — right after the multiple apocalypse.  After that, BSG settled down it into a long, gut wrenching but sometimes futilely noble slide towards barbarism. 

    BSG is not “horror” in the sense of scary stuff that thrills and excites.  It just crushes.

    (b) I think the writers were just trying to make entertaining TV, and philosophy is just spice that can be directed in any ideological direction, preferably at the viewer’s discretion.  I suspect they would be pleased with Hanson’s malevolent power interpretation.  I see the final episode as a submission to despair — well and good, the since it was meant to be bitter-sweet anyway.

    BTW: if I recall correctly, the robots (at least the shiny ones) got away with an actual brighter future.  

  • Will Sawin

    Sometimes there are bad mystical powers but only if there are also good mystical powers to stop them.

  • V V

    Are you questioning the ways of the Universal Total Utility Function?
    You heathen!
    Repent now or when the Singularity comes and the FAI acausally judges you, you will burn in (simulated) hell forever!!! 😛

  • Is there a TvTrope for this? There should be. It shows up with people who report alien abductions, spiritual visitations &c. too: the same people who allege that elements of the U.S. government are involved in a huge conspiracy often unquestioningly assume that when their transhumanly intelligent entity says it comes in peace from a planet near Zeta Reticuli, it’s telling the truth. The Catholic Church at least tends to be more wary—any transhumanly intelligent entity can present itself as the Blessed Virgin Mary, so the Church has to exercise discernment when judging the validity of Marian apparitions. The only obvious way to make such judgments, though, involves a dynamic where the alleged validity of an alleged Marian apparition is in large part determined by the extent to which the alleged Mary’s nature and words agree with the nature and words of previous allegedly valid Marys, which seems epistemically dangerous.

    • V V

    • If I told you Robin Hanson posted X, and you couldn’t ask him yourself, is there a better way to determine the validity of my claim than ” the extent to which the alleged post’s nature and words agree with the nature and words of previous allegedly valid Hansonian posts”?

      In fact, isn’t that one definition of “continuing identity”?

  • I thought the only good outcome of BSG was the escape of the centurion drones from slavery. They went off adventuring in their immortality, presumably with enough technology to build a fairly large society.

  • I stopped watching BSG midway through season 3, but did see what I’m told was the penultimate episode, and am I the only one who thought that Cavil’s complaints against his creators seemed perfectly valid? The final five apparently could have made him with all kinds of cool transhumany upgrades, but decided not to because… he wouldn’t have been able to experience human emotions if they had, or something? How exactly does giving someone the ability to see cosmic rays disqualify them from being able to feel human emotions?

  • Barneybarnbarn

    Great blog. I’m a huge but recent BSG fan. A friend turned me on to it and I went down the rabbit hole of all 4 seasons in a couple of weeks. I also consider myself a pretty hard core atheist so when they started with the mystical
    crap I was upset at first but eventually let is slide because, A – It’s fiction, and B – you can read a lot of the “mystical” stuff as metaphor, along with a lot of the other plot points, like Starbucks death, resurrection, and eventual disappearance act at the end. (Which I loved! Unlike most BSG fans.)

    So in a nutshell here’s my take on what the entire show was meditating on. Like you said in your blog, this may not have been the writers intent, but it’s how I interperted my personal attraction to the show and why I was so moved by it. (I say this knowing full well, as your blog’s initial mission indicates, that my “reasons” for liking the show may not be my real reasons. Maybe I just have a crush on Katee Sackoff!)

    Here goes. The entire Battlestar storyline and universe is a meditation on death, loss and more specifically the stage in the grieving process known as denial.

    • Barneybarnbarn

      Whoops! Ran out of space. I’ll keep it brief. The beginning is all about loss. Loss of life, loss of planets, loss of civil society etc. The middle seasons are all about denial of that loss: ie “we ARE still a society with laws” and “we DO have a destiny, and a God or Gods are watching over us and have a plan!”. The cylons think they have this death thing beat because they can be reborn in new bodies, but eventually that gets complicated and indeed “lost” when the humans destroy the resurrection ship. There are more examples, but what I loved about the end episode was everyone finally accepting what their fate was. The last stage of the grieving process. President Roslin accepts ET death, as does Adama. Adama accepts
      that the ship is dead. Tigh accepts that he’s a Cylon. Starbuck accepts
      Sam’s death. Etc. And more importantly she in my mind is the ultimate “accept loss” metaphor. Both she and Appollo have to accept that she really did die at the end of season 3. Her roll since then was a dream that
      many grieving people have of loved ones coming back. Final take? You can’t cheat loss and death. And if there is a God, we would never ecr
      understand that God’s motives. Not in this world. Not in the Battlestar
      Universe. So say we all.

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  • vaniver


    “By the way, the current movie Brave also has this
    never-question-mystic-powers element. If blue fuzzy spirits seem to
    guide our hero to do something, she just does it. And even if that led
    to great troubles, the characters never later question their choice to
    follow mystic powers.”

    Interestingly, the blue fuzzy spirits are clearly Will-o’-the-wisps (Merida calls it a wisp), which are *evil* spirits in every folklore they’re present in! (They also turn out to be the manifestations of Mor’du, who was clearly evil.)

    I think Merida is supposed to be an anti-hero (an interview with the director suggests that the scene where Merida says “sorry” to Elinor is supposed to be the turning point, rather than the scene where Elinor says “you don’t have to get married” to Merida). The parallels to Mor’du are constant and clear, she *hexes* her mother for personal gain, and the “Elinor grows to respect Merida” sequence just screamed Stockholm Syndrome to me.

    My basic summary of the story of Brave is “Mor’du wants to be put to rest, and is willing to ruin the life of anyone who helps him to do it; Merida manages to spin the situation to her advantage, and learns a bit about communication in the process,” which is not the story it looks like on the surface.

  • Careful, this is the kind of thinking that leads rationalists to write Battlestar Galactica and the Methods of Rationality.

    I’m sad to hear that this is where the story went.  Erin and I were watching the first episodes – where the Cylons attack when almost all the humans have been evacuated to FTL ships, but a little child hasn’t been evacuated yet, left behind in an arboretum, looking up at the trees and stars, waiting for someone to get her.  “We have to jump now!” cry the military officers, the new Governor is gritting her teeth and trying to decide, and Erin and I are both chanting, “Leave the child behind!  Leave the child behind!”

    And they did.  The child died.

    That was when we decided BSG was worth watching – so I’m sad to hear where it ended up.

    • I can imagine much worse worlds than ones in which I get to read BSG&TMR. 😉

  • nextbigfuture

    Battle Star Galactica was a fantasy that pretends to be science fiction.
    The Nuclear attack at the beginning would have left far more survivors. One nuke per major city is not enough to kill everyone. When Starbuck goes back she sees things are pretty inhabitable. The ruins also do not show major fires or any climate effects. Various Wikis show population in the billions for each one of the twelve colonies. Even more against physics and reality is where the false earth is still uninhabitable hundreds or thousands of years after a nuclear war. Because of course no one is living in Hiroshima or Nagasaki now. If it is supposed to be our universe but with different location and time then with their tech they can easily find plenty of water. I could only watch this the same way I watched the new Star Wars movies, I edited in real time as I watched it to put in a correct explanation or ignoring various developments. The people and characters in the show did not develop FTL or aircraft carrier sized space ships or human form AI androids. If you have those things then you have other tech too and you would have a more technically knowledgable people. Even if those people are mostly military.Even “junker” space ships had FTL. They were forcing the level of initial acceptance as the movie Pretty Woman – Julia Roberts character is an experienced prostitute and Richard Gere is an expert in business. My more consistent BSG backstory is that the defeatist morons in BSG found the cities and tech and spaceships abandoned and sometimes accidentally made something that they did not understand work at random. The mysterious powers made the abducted peoples do things in some big open lab experiment.

  • TedC2

    This is what happens an agnostic re-writes Mormon mythology.