Science Fiction Transcendent

The latest issue of the film journal Scope has just been posted online, and it includes a review I wrote about three books having to do with science fiction film and tv (PDF), with a particular view to their expressions of spiritual transcendence and their use of religion as a plot device, character trait, and general motif.

The maximum length allowed for reviews at Scope is 3,000 words, and my original draft was well over that. I cut it down to the best of my ability, but some things got lost. Below the fold here, I'll put the longer version, which gives a fuller exploration of the three books. If you just want to get an overview of the books and what I thought about them, read the Scope version of the review. If you want more detail, keep reading here...

Sacred Space: The Quest for Transcendence in Science Fiction Film and Television by Douglas E. Cowan Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2010. 

2001: A Space Odyssey by Peter Krämer London: BFI/Palgrave MacMillan, 2010. 

Battlestar Galactica: Investigating Flesh, Spirit and Steel edited by Roz Kaveney & Jennifer Stoy London: I.B. Taurus, 2010.

In his useful monograph on 2001: A Space Odyssey, Peter Krämer suggests that science fiction film as we know it began in 1968, when 2001 and Planet of the Apes proved to Hollywood studios that tales of the future could be tremendously profitable, something they had seldom been before. Many of the science fiction films of the next few years were dour dystopias that were not especially successful financially, but then in 1977, Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind hit theatres and provided their studios with breathtaking profits. Since 1977, many of the highest-grossing films have been science fiction stories. On television, Doctor Who gained popularity in the mid-1960s, Star Trek found success in syndication in the 1970s, and in 1987 Star Trek: The Next Generation began the first of its seven seasons, inspiring a spate of space opera shows in the 1990s.

Douglas E. Cowan’s Sacred Space: The Quest for Transcendence in Science Fiction Film and Television gestures toward some explanation of the immense popularity of science fiction media. Cowan is a professor of Religious Studies at Renison University College, University of Wateroo, Ontario, and Sacred Space is at its best when showing the prevalence of religious imagery and allusion in a genre that is often thought to privilege reason over faith. In the preface, Cowan states that ‘There are often significant differences… between the various ways in which these concerns are portrayed in science fiction and the concept of religion in the genre itself’ (ix).

Cowan conceives ‘religion’ broadly, and doesn’t offer an explicit definition until the middle of the book, where he quotes William James’s view that ‘the life of religion’ is ‘the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto’ (152). This is not significantly different from Cowan’s own definition of ‘transcendence’ earlier in the text: ‘the search for something beyond ourselves, the belief that outside the boundaries of everyday living something greater exists’ (11). While these definitions may be broad enough to avoid many internal contradictions or frustrating shades of grey, they provide no focus for the book because it is much more difficult to find films and TV shows that don’t fit into such definitions than those that do, regardless of whether they are science fiction. Using Star Trek’s Ferengi as an example, Cowan writes, ‘Thus, a Ferengi’s concern with profit is underpinned by his belief in the unseen order of the Great Material Continuum, and for him the supreme good is to show sufficient profit to stand before the Celestial Auctioneers and bid on a prosperous future life’ (152-153). This could also describe every game show ever aired.

Sacred Space is organized into two sections: ‘Science Fiction and the Quest for Transcendence’ and ‘Science Fiction and the Modes of Transcendence’, but these titles are almost as open in their meanings as Cowan’s ideas of religion and transcendence. The first section begins by laying out ways that human beings seek to transcend their limitations (personal, social, technological), and plugs in science fiction texts as examples, finishing the section with chapters devoted to Contact (Robert Zemeckis, 1997) and War of the Worlds (Byron Haskin, 1953). The chapter on War of the Worlds demonstrates that the first film adapted from H.G. Wells’s novel reverses the author’s anti-religious message to fill the story with ‘the Protestant religiosity with which many 1950s sci-fi films were charged’ (106).

This is a valuable insight, and the chapter is one of the strongest in the book, but it is also marred by some of the problems that pop up through the other chapters. Despite his broad conception of religion and transcendence, Cowan is blinded by any interpretation different from his own. He notes that on a recent DVD commentary for War of the Worlds, Joe Dante points out a convenient moment where the character of Pastor Collins approaches the Martians, recites parts of Psalm 23, and then is incinerated by the Martians’ death ray. Dante, Cowan reports, quips that ‘It’s very polite of the Martians to let him finish the prayer’ and that Pastor Collins was perhaps naive in ‘thinking he can create interplanetary understanding by holding up a Bible’ (119). Cowan calls this a typical ‘dismissal’ that ‘refuses to take the presence of religion onscreen seriously – either as a function of the narrative itself or as a reflection of the society that produced the film’ (120), but Cowan himself does the same thing to the evangelical Christian film Deceived (André van Heerden, 2002), calling it ‘a rather obvious and at times heavy-handed morality play designed to contrast ‘real’ Christian faith with all manner of false beliefs, demonic temptations, and immoral practices’ (90). Cowan is merciless toward the plot conveniences of Deceived because he opposes the very idea of ‘false beliefs’ and ‘real’ faith. If Pastor Collins had been an evangelical Christian rather than a run-of-the-mill Protestant, would Cowan be as sympathetic to the trite moments in War of the Worlds?

Cowan notes that in 2005, three new versions of War of the Worlds were released: in addition to Steven Spielberg’s high-budget film, there were two smaller productions, one directed by David Michael Latt and another by Timothy Hynes. Cowan dismisses the Spielberg and Hynes productions, saying the former ‘relies almost entirely on special effects… and (Tom) Cruise’s then star power’ and the latter ‘is a dismal and turgid production overall’. However, ‘David Michael Latt’s direct-to-DVD version is arguably the most interesting of the three’ (131), and that is the version he goes on to analyze.

There is certainly nothing wrong with discussing a worthy small-budget film overshadowed by a big-budget blockbuster – Spielberg is not, after all, lacking attention. But Cowan reveals the limitations of his aesthetic perception by saying Spielberg’s film ‘relies’ on its special effects, suggesting it has nothing else to offer. What it doesn’t have is a pastor. ‘Spielberg avoids any real allusion to religion beyond the fact that a church is destroyed when the first alien machine makes its appearance, and, unlike both the novel and the 1953 film, there is no central clerical figure’ (131). Yet, Cowan apparently finds no room for transcendence in Spielberg’s rich visual expressions; or in the film’s presentation of family, masculinity, hope, and fear; or its echoes of the September 11, 2001 attacks. Despite arguing that the presence of religion in the 1953 War of the Worlds must be appreciated ‘either as a function of the narrative itself or as a reflection of the society that produced the film’, he refuses to grant any possibility that Spielberg’s changes to the story are also matters of belief, narrative, and society rather than simply an attempt to make a buck and put big explosions on screen.

The second section of Sacred Space, ‘Science Fiction and the Modes of Transcendence’, abandons film and devotes a chapter each to four television series: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999), Stargate SG-1 (1997-2007), Babylon 5 (1993-1998), and Battlestar Galactica (2003-2009). These chapters offer more insight than any of the chapters in the first section, since the fuller development of characters and plots offered by multiple-season TV shows provides more material to choose from than do feature films.

Unfortunately, Cowan’s book lacks analytical rigor. Writing about the ways Stargate SG-1 uses such things as Erich von Däniken’s idea that religion was inspired on Earth by UFOs, Cowan states that, ‘the question is not how these various theories and hypotheses can be debunked, but why these myths of origin endure and, for our purposes, what that endurance in a long-running science fiction series like Stargate SG-1 can tell us. Put simply, SG-1 reinforces the transcendent value of cosmogonic myths. It highlights our collective need for myths of origin and questions the ability of technology, of science, and of modernity and postmodernity to corrode the power of those myths. Indeed, in science fiction, these myths are often reimagined, reinvigorated, and replayed’ (183). All of this is a reasonable observation, but it misses its own point: what SG-1 and the frequent presence of myth, mysticism and religious speculation in science fiction suggest about such media’s creators and audiences. It’s facile to say that it highlights ‘our’ (whose?) collective anything, because the reasons plot elements or narrative turns exist may not have anything to do with the needs Cowan identifies, and the purposes for which audiences use such items may differ between or among discourse groups regionally and/or historically. Even if such things were, in fact, highlighting ‘our’ hive mind, Cowan does nothing with this idea – he posits everything that interests him as being transcendent, and seldom delves into the specifics of history or production that would give meaning to his observations. Why ‘these myths are often reimagined, reinvigorated, and replayed’ is not explored beyond the assertion that, well, golly, we must need them.

Thus, Sacred Space expends most of its text in two basic strategies: 1) enumerating instances of religious discussion, allusion, or iconography in selected films and shows, or 2) using the religious elements of science fiction media to support theories about actual religion or religious history. The former is useful for proving the point that religion is a common topic to science fiction media; the latter makes the book often feel like a nondenominational Sunday School class led by an instructor who includes pop cultural references so the kids won’t just stare out the window the whole time.

In a 20-page essay in Battlestar Galactica: Investigating Flesh, Spirit and Steel, Geoff Ryman provides more insight into the uses and meaning of religion in science fiction than Cowan does in his entire book. ‘Battlestar Galactica is not science fiction,’ Ryman writes. ‘It is an historical, religious fantasy. It uses two familiar science fiction elements [faster-than-light travel and ‘rebellious human-created intelligence’ in the Cylons] to make its storytelling easy to create, and easy to understand’ (37).

Ryman is a novelist (sometimes of science fiction) and has been an advocate for ‘Mundane Science Fiction’ – that is, science fiction that takes science seriously and that does not ‘cheat’ with violations of known laws of physics, biology, etc. The tenets of Mundane Science Fiction provide Ryman with a useful method of analysing Battlestar Galactica, because he is able to make a convincing case for why the show’s creators would make the choices they did, and what those choices suggest. By turning the inhabitants of Caprica into Americans in 2003, for instance, the show is able to keep production costs down, even though it is illogical that a society with interstellar travel and the ability to create Cylons would otherwise have all the same technology and attitudes as were visible in the US when the show was conceived. This is not, though, necessarily a fault: ‘In storytelling terms, the Xeroxing of America onto Caprica is brilliant’ (41). By presenting Caprica as the US in 2003, Battlestar Galactica is able to keep costs low, make the characters easy for the target audience to identify with, allow a general audience to understand the technology that is essential to the story, and provide many obvious parallels to contemporary political and social situations. 

What, though, do the many religious allusions in the story achieve for the narrative of the series? (Cowan spends a chapter pointing them out and deriving general lessons from them without answering this question.) They provide, Ryman maintains, ‘a foundation myth for white folks’ (45). 

The much-maligned (especially in this book) final episodes of Battlestar Galactica brought a predominantly white group of people to what seems to be our Earth far in the past, and suggested that contemporary humans are their descendants. It reconfigures the history of humans on Earth as a white supremacist fantasy.

‘Religion is a plot function in BSG,’ Ryman says (53), and this is a powerful insight for understanding at least part of the reason that religion is so prevalent in science fiction, especially science fiction media: religion is more convenient than physics. Religion offers lots of possibilities for plot points, especially the deus-ex-machina moments so valuable for any serial. Ryman also points out that religion provides an easy way to extend the story with quests, such as for objects with mystical importance, and allows messy moral moments to be quickly resolved through a god that tells the characters and audience what is right and good and just. Prophecies are useful, too. ‘In storytelling terms, prophecies save work because they accustom your audience to the totally unlikely. You keep telling people it will happen until it seems inevitable. This means you are saved having to work out how things might actually happen through cause and effect’ (54).

Does Battlestar Galactica portray transcendence? Obviously, yes. But why? Cowan maintains that Battlestar Galactica uses religious discourse because transcendance is a common human yearning – to go beyond ourselves, to wonder about what is human – and that seems true, but it is not a particularly perceptive explanation for why religious faith is important to the narrative developments in the supposedly rational genre of science fiction. Ryman’s insights are more productive. Religion is a useful tool for storytelling because it provides an easier way out of plot jams than science or logic do. This is not, he notes, necessarily a bad thing – Battlestar Galactica offers, especially in its early seasons, interesting characters, compelling situations, and a disturbing reflection of American politics and society at the beginning of the new millennium. Would it have been better if it were more rigorous in its world building? Yes, because it might have then provided a fuller vision of a future society, it might have avoided some racism and heterosexism, and it might not have had so many inconsistencies of plot and character. But that would probably have required more time and money than the show had, and it would certainly have made it a much more complex and difficult narrative, limiting its audience to people who really wanted to think through such things. (Imagine, if you can, a TV series faithfully based on Samuel R. Delany's novel Stars in My Pockets Like Grains of Sand…)

Part of the appeal of religion in stories is that people do, indeed, like to speculate about an ‘unseen order’ and yearn for eternal and immutable validation for their ideas of ethics and morality. But Pastor Collins didn’t get to live for an extra minute because Martians like psalms or because it was logical for the Martians to wait till he stopped speaking; he lived because the creators of the film thought it would be more poignant for their narrative to have him do so. 

Ryman’s essay is one of the best in Kaveny and Stoy’s anthology, but there are no weak entries, and all of the contributors provide productive ways to think about Battlestar Galactica. In general, the essays display disillusionment with the show; many of the writers seem to have been drawn in with great hopes for its progression during the first two seasons, only to be continually annoyed, frustrated, and disappointed with the second two seasons and, especially, the final episodes. In an essay on the show’s ending, Roz Kaveney locates her disappointment with the show’s ending in its use of religion, and offers a purist’s definition of the genre: ‘Like many viewers, I assumed that the show was going to deconstruct the religious faiths of its humans and humanoid Cylons, that we were going to learn some ultimate truths, and that they would be the sort of ultimate truths appropriate to the decorum of science fiction, which is a literature of reason and not faith’ (230). If Cowan’s Sacred Space proves anything, it is that media science fiction has at least as often relied on faith as reason. (Written science fiction is a more complex case, simply because its corpus is so much larger and therefore difficult to generalize from.)

Kaveney and some of the other writers suggest, though, that the failures of Battlestar Galactica stem from carelessness and hastiness, and that the reliance on supernatural explanations is both a product of this carelessness and hastiness and an enabler of it. The arc of the story was obviously not thought through at the beginning of the show, filling the entirety with numerous holes in plot and logic. 'If the illusion of unity and conclusion is broken,' Kaveney writes, 'we decide that the show's reality was always a set of artistic compromises, a piece of shoddy carpentry put together in a hurry and for commercial gain' (229).

Shoddy carpentry allows all sorts of ideologies to sneak in between the boards, and many of the essays in the book explore some of these ideologies, particularly ideologies of gender and politics. Matthew Jones vividly shows that Battlestar Galactica privileges and validates a specific construction of masculinity, and that this masculinity is something both the male and female characters desire and are rewarded for, while anything coded with femininity is not only denigrated but shown to be ineffective or even destructive. Karen K. Burrows explores the show's heterosexism, especially with regards to Admiral Cain's lesbianism. Steven Rawle draws on ideas from Andre Bazin and Slavoj Žižek, among others, to demonstrate how the cinematic choices of Battlestar Galactica create its reality effects and influence its political and ethical portrayals. Roz Kaveney's 'The Military Organism: Rank, Family, and Obedience in Battlestar Galactica' looks at the show as military science fiction and family drama, particularly as represented by the leader/father figure of Bill Adama and his son Lee.

The most amusing item in the book is a set of questions Kaveney and Stoy sent to BSG writer Jane Espenson. After the incisive criticism of the show offered by the various essays, Espenson’s answers seem shallow – but revealing in their shallowness. When told that some people ‘would call the series woman-hating and ‘sketchy’ about gay representation’, Espenson responds: ‘I felt that the BSG universe had amazing women characters and presented a much more gender- and orientation-balanced world than most shows. It’s always possible to do better and I hope to continue to be given chances to do better. I’m stunned that anyone would call the show “woman-hating”’ (221). Espenson’s answers demonstrate the difficulty of considering representations when in the midst of creating them by committee for tight deadlines, while the essays in Kaveney and Stoy’s anthology demonstrate just how important it is to consider the implications of what is created.

Few science fiction movies have been as full of implications and as free of obvious meanings as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Strangely, Cowan has nothing to say about 2001 except to posit some superficial ideas about the relationship of humans and computers, and so he ignores a film that is almost entirely concerned with the subject of his book: transcendence. Peter Krämer’s BFI monograph on 2001 fills that gap and many others, as Krämer provides a specific reading of the film’s structure and its visual and aural design, as well as a history of its creation and legacy. Though Krämer had access to the Kubrick archive, this is the most frustrating aspect of the book – for anyone fascinated by Kubrick and/or 2001, Krämer’s revelations are more tantalizing than satisfying, because with fewer than 100 pages of text (heavily illustrated), he doesn’t have room to both detail the archival material and give an overview and analysis of the film. Nonetheless, he makes good use of information about the film’s gestation and of its reception, providing evidence that, contrary to many previous statements, film was not a financial failure until it was discovered in re-release by stoned college students. It had a profound effect on many first-run viewers, and was listed by Variety as the eleventh top-grossing film of 1968, despite limited release because of the lack of cinemas capable of projecting 70mm. When it entered general release as 35mm in 1969, it was, Krämer says, ‘a major hit’ (91). Nor was it a flop with the critics; the reviews in general were positive, ‘except for a small number of leading New York reviewers whose work is often cited in support of arguments about the film's initial critical rejection’ (92).

Krämer shows that the studio understood 2001 as a film about transcendence even before a script was finalized. When Kubrick’s project was known as Journey Beyond the Stars, the studio sent out press materials that highlighted its transcendental and even specifically religious-epic qualities: ‘MGM’s announcement promised that Journey Beyond the Stars would depict encounters with ‘extra-terrestrial’, that is heavenly, beings, "explore the infinite possibilities" and "wonder" of "space", that is the heavens, and contemplate the vastness and mystery of the universe. The inclusion of a quotation from "the great biologist" J.B.S. Haldane – "The Universe is not only stranger than we imagine; it is stranger than we can imagine" – suggests the limits of scientific knowledge and thus perhaps the need for a more spiritual approach’ (36). Clarke’s novel offers some explanations for the monoliths and the strange events at the end of the story, explanations that rely on extraterrestrials whose technological and evolutionary advancement makes them little different from God. Kubrick excised almost all explanations from the film, keeping the meanings of the images unresolvable, and thus heightening the film’s power for viewers, who must draw their own conclusions. Krämer quotes from letters Kubrick received from audience members, many of whom perceived ‘that their own journey across the strange cinematic world of 2001 had strong parallels to that of the astronaut’ (87), and who saw in the rebirth of the Star Child a hope for their own, or their world’s, rebirth.

Kubrick’s own rationalism was so rigorous, and his creative process so careful, that, paradoxically, he created a film that is not just insistently visual, but rationally irrational. This is a sharp contrast from most of even the best science fiction media, whether Battlestar Galactica or the works Douglas Cowan considers, in which it is simply easier to tell an irrational story than a rational one. 2001 stands as proof that the transcendental can be exquisite art, but that such art does not result from quick decisions, shoddy carpentry, or plot convenience.

While Sacred Space may be useful for researchers looking to identify religious imagery in science fiction media, Kaveny & Stoy’s anthology of essays on Battlestar Galactica demonstrates how much can be gained from not stopping there, but instead moving toward careful analysis of religious imagery as both a result of production circumstances and a fuel for various, often problematic, meanings. The strategies of Krämer’s monograph on 2001 fall in between the two other books’. The limitations of its format and purpose prevent sustained analysis of the film text itself, but his analyses of the film’s effects and influences are persuasive because they are founded on the realities of 2001’s conception, production, distribution, and reception.

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