In Greek theater, the authors would at times get so caught up with creating drama or peril for their characters only a god could save the day. This “Deus ex machina” or “god from the machine” would refer to the sudden appearance of a deity to fix the problem, usually to facilitate a happy ending. Horace warns writers against that in “Ars Poetica” (basically a 1st Century BC famous writer ‘how I write’ book), but indeed, that does not seem to slow too many authors down. Even geniuses like Vladimir Nabokov might be said to employ such a tactic; when Lolita’s mother is conveniently hit by a car freeing Humbert Humbert to start his…relationship which will serve as the crux of the book, it is a mighty convenient accident.
Sometimes though, it is not just a plot device or convenience that fills this role. At times, there is a literal spiritual entity or system a writer (or writers) may employ as a character. When this happens in certain genres, it seems to be met with more than a little hostility on the part of the audience. Two recent, popular television shows ended on a spiritual note, and elicited a fair uproar from their fans for their efforts. I am here to defend each of these shows: I am not defending the idea that a gimmick is used to conveniently save a story gone off the rails, but rather that each show in fact had narratives leading to a logical conclusion; fans simply did not listen to what the writers were telling them all along.
I realize time has passed since each of these television shows concluded, but we are in a marvelous new age of enjoying such things when we as an audience want to, rather than when a network decides to air them. Let me then give fair warning that I will be discussing in detail (perhaps excruciating detail) important plot points and the concluding episodes of two of my favorite shows: Lost and the 2003 Ron Moore version of Battlestar Galactica.
Lost gives us a collection of flawed, yet fascinating characters that I am happy to compare with any classical literary cast. Certainly we see archetypes in a character like Jack, who as a reluctant and troubled protagonist seems destined to be the star of the show. Look however at the development Sawyer goes through as he changes from basic criminal scumbag to a hero in his own right, even seeing in the “sideways” universe of the last season that within his spirit is a noble protector, personified there as a police detective.
Yes. Lost begins with some very serious science fiction overtones, and for many that set up an expectation for a very serious science fiction conclusion. It is however less Arthur C. Clarke who influences the universe in which Lost occurs, but rather the Bhagavad Gita. In the often dark and cynical environment that is fandom on the Internet, I see again and again people complain how at the end of the show we find out they were “dead the whole time.” This simply is not what the story is about. I do not want to play the “well you just didn’t understand it card” but I think many members of the audience expected either an SF ending with everything explained in some fantastical supercomputer, alternate universe, time travel kind of fashion (and to be fair, those elements are there) but in the end the show defaults to one simple fact: It is, and always has been, about a magic island. Good and evil play out on this island, with the souls of the Oceanic passengers caught in the balance. The island serves as a sort of Gotterdammerung where champions vie to become the next Master of this gateway between our world and the next; not “another” but rather a different world, a higher form of existence.
Indeed, this struggle is so important to these people and their lives, that there is nothing else they will ever do more important to the universe. Hence, when each of them dies in their own way and time, they gather in the same church waiting to cross into the afterlife together. The church is not where they were the whole time; it is a timeless place where these souls prepare. We the audience get the hint when Hurley and Linus congratulate each other on their tenure as the boss and number two on the island…even though it was only a few moments earlier we even knew they had assumed those roles from Jacob and the Man in Black. Those who do manage to escape the island will go on to live out their lives (and it is indeed fascinating to speculate how Kate or Sawyer as survivors have been changed by their experiences, and what they will do with their new freedom) and when they do eventually die, they will get to the Church at the same time as Jack who closes his eyes for the last time at the conclusion of this episode. My apologies for the run-on sentence; however, these are in fact rather deep concepts, more typically found in religious text. An afterlife where the temporal world’s view of time has no effect? Forever and ever, Amen. Lost does leave some threads hanging, and indeed don’t we all? When I die (and I certainly hope it is later rather than sooner) I imagine there will be unfinished books, projects, and mysteries the caretakers of that very, very old man (fingers crossed) will never quite solve. No, the show does not spell out for us exactly the process by which The Man in Black claims the image of the deceased John Locke. That’s not the point, the point is the mystery, and the role these characters, with all their foibles, play in this sweeping struggle across spiritual realms.
Science Fiction? Perhaps not, but still compelling drama and one that made me question how I understood not just the structure of the show, but my own understanding—and ability to understand—the universe around me.
Lost might not be as well disguised in its science fiction trappings as my all-time favorite show: Battlestar Galactica (2003). Like many of my generation, I harbor a strong nostalgia for the original BSG produced by Glen Larson. Even then, as outdated as those sets, costumes, and performances seem now, there was certainly an epic feel to the flight of the rag-tag fleet to find the lost human tribe. As well there should have been; Glen Larson was a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints, and many concepts of the Book of Mormon find their way into his narrative. Ask a Mormon friend about the planet “Kolob” sometime, and marvel at its thematic and phonetic similarities to BSG’s “Kobol.”
So, in 2003 when it turned out there would be a “re-imagined” Galactica from the producer of arguably the best Star Trek (Deep Space Nine; I know, we’ll argue about that later), I expected the spiritual themes to be diminished compared to the original. Indeed, they most certainly were not. I realized they were in fact less subtle, and more deeply integrated into the lives of our characters. Actors like Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell take their roles very seriously, and we seem their characters not as just modern Buck Rogers archetypes, but rather as real people struggling deeply with their own spirituality, or lack thereof.
Early on, the show establishes a great twist. The humans with whom we identify are the polytheists, worshipping some form of the Greek gods. The killer-machine Cylons are the monotheists. The one appearing in some form within the mind of Gaius Baltar claims that one, true God has a plan. Many viewers with whom I would discuss this show continually speculated on the nature of the Cylon god, particularly when it was revealed that mankind’s war with the machine life they create had happened before (and might happen again). Was the Cylon god a leftover from the original Cylon colony on Kobol? Was there some outside influence affecting both races? Why were their myths so similar?
When we do get to the end, we again find a conclusion more along the lines of a great spiritual work than just a sci-fi TV show. The entire story is wrapped around the grandiose—and very Hindu—idea of “The Eternal Return;” that is the idea that certain events continue to recur throughout history, or even spiritually throughout all histories. Even the Christian Bible is written along these lines with patterns of events established in ancient texts, playing out for the character of Jesus in the later books. It is a deeply Eastern concept that lies in the foundation of many faith systems worldwide. Without getting off on too much of a tangent, certain cosmological theories reflect some form of expansion/contraction cycle repeating eternally in Bangs and Crunches. In Battlestar Galactica’s case the Cylon God has been behind the creation of humans, allowing them to create their own lifeforms, and then hoping that those two species can adapt to one another. The cycle of man makes machine, machine rebels, and man and machine wipe each other out has happened over and over, and this latest version can only be resolved when both man and machine lay down their arms and come together in harmony on a new planet…where in 150,000 years we as their descendants are again faced with the challenge of living with our own technological progress. The Cylon God is in fact God watching it unfold, offering help where possible; unless God—who hates being called that—is a bit more active here and periodically topples our Cylon Towers of Babel.
Yet, so many people in the blogosphere, or around me, were angry. Somehow feeling betrayed when the show that had been dealing with angels and gods and destiny and prophecy since the pilot actually reached a spiritual conclusion. One of the biggest complaints I hear is about the ambiguity of the character Kara Thrace, Starbuck. Her death midway through the show punctuated by her return and eventual disappearance left many wondering. Put in the context of the show’s spirituality though, an explanation emerges clearly. A person with a father figure who leaves their life early, is good at everything they attempt, dies, is resurrected, leads people to salvation, and then ascends to “The Other Side”? The Jungian archetype is clear, and the implication is apparent.
The use of a modern “Earth” song surprised many of us in Season 3 when we had all assumed the similarities between the Galactica crew and the viewer would have to have been established long before. I too was left rather aghast when the final five begin quoting Dylan (he wrote “All Along the Watchtower”, not Hendrix). It is a key left to a chosen few with instructions on how to escape a cycle if it reaches an apocalyptic ending. The song hangs in our collective subsconcious, waiting for us to need it; a failsafe in case our tower falls and the Toasters start killing us. I don’t know why the producers chose that particular song, but I was amused to no end to learn that Bob Dylan wrote “Watchtower” in 1967; in that same year the Department of Defense’s “Dendral” project created the first knowledge-based computer-reasoning program. I hope someone is interpreting stellar coordinates from the Joker and the Thief right now.
So here is what I ask: if you hated how these two shows ended, accept the fact they are spiritual fantasies and give them another shot. The drama, the characters, the performances, and effects: all are top notch and on a second viewing I think you will see neither ending was in fact Deus Ex Machina, or just to save the writers from too much setup that could not be satisfactorily answered. These are shows about a magic island, and about peace coming to the Children of God, and they cover those subjects damn well. Remember this most of all; if you are not a believer or someone of a different faith than espoused in either, they are in the end simply fiction meant to entertain. Is it really difficult as an Atheist to accept God as a fictional character if you already think him to be such? Battlestar Galactica is a show with killer robots and spaceships: Apply that suspension of disbelief just a bit further, and I think you will be pleasantly surprised at how well crafted each show really is. And maybe you’ll find yourself thinking in depth about how you really see the universe around you. In the end, that is what all good art does.
So say we all.