Science fiction TV shows used to be about scientists playing God — now our intrepid heroes meet God, instead. The overt religious discussions on Battlestar Galactica stood out as unusual, but now every SF show brandishes a bible. What happened?
Oh, and there are some spoilers for upcoming TV shows here.
We can't help noticing the odd religious moments in a lot of the fall's biggest SF TV shows, and how shoehorned-in the references to God or the Bible often seem to be. Unlike Firefly, which featured a man of God as one of its major supporting characters and naturally sparked theological discussions, or BSG, which took place during an apocalypse, the newest crop of shows seems determined to mention God even when it doesn't make that much sense.
Take the scene above from the season opener of Fringe, where FBI agent Amy Jessup goes through all of the Fringe Division's cases and compares them with Bible verses — it's all in the Book Of Revelation! (Thanks to Meredith for suggesting this one.)
Or FlashForward, whose pilot includes one character who randomly questions whether God gave everyone on Earth a glimpse of the future as a punishment. Leaving aside the fact that clairvoyance seems like an odd shape for divine punishment to take. There's also the fact that the slutty/Christian babysitter just happens to be making out with her boyfriend (while the girl she's looking after is asleep) and thus feels guilty — so she decides that God gave the entire world a future vision just to punish her for making whoopie on the couch. Make sense? Absolutely not. Unless you think that some studio exec in a meeting said, "We need a religious angle here. There oughta be one character who decides that this was all God's doing. Because that'll play well in the God states."
And then there's V, which — spoiler alert — has aliens visiting us and claiming to be benefactors, who've come to help us. Plenty of people are suspicious of these allegedly enlightened visitors, but then we meet a Catholic priest who's decided to preach that these aliens are "God's creatures," with the implication being that they're sent by God. And the priest tells his underling, Father Jack, that he must preach the aliens are divinely sanctioned — or else. It's even sort of implied (if I remember correctly) that the Vatican has made support for the aliens official policy. WTF? Why would the Catholic church come out in support of random aliens that we know nothing about? It's one of the few moments in the V pilot that literally makes no sense whatsoever, and it inspired much head-scratching when we saw it at Comic Con.
And then there's Stargate Universe, which — spoiler alert again! — has a character experience weird religious visions for no discernable reason in its second episode. (Or third, if you count the two-hour pilot as two episodes.) It's never entirely clear why one character, stuck on a weird, inhospitable planet, is having visions of being in church and talking to a priest, and it seems partly designed to give us a chunk of this character's backstory. But it also feels like a quick-and-dirty way of conveying that this character is having a spiritual wandering-in-the-wilderness thing, without actually having to create any real religious/spiritual content to go with it. It feels a bit cheap: he's in the wilderness, and he sees some churchy stuff. Oh! So that means it's deeply symbolic or something.
And of course, Dollhouse gave us the ultra-stereotypical "Christian cult with guns" in one of its first-season episodes — the one where Echo gets turned into a blind religious zealot with cameras in her eyes, and everybody's sorta Amish and sorta Mormon.
Honestly at times, watching current SF TV it's hard not to feel like someone watched too many early John Woo movies and thought "church with birds in it — deep!" Or maybe too many early 1980s New Wave videos, where Duran Duran dance around pews and it randomly turns black and white. (And yes, I know that those videos are directed by Highlander auteur Russell Mulcahy.) But it also feels like a bit of pandering to a Christian nation that's perceived as being a bit suspicious of science-y stuff.
The Genesis of religion in SF TV
Once, it seemed like religious iconography and rhetoric was rare in science fiction — the original Star Trek confronted Captain Kirk and his crew with Greek gods, as well as godlike aliens who just wanted to toy with our heroes. You might have a hysterical crewman babble something about "If God had wanted us to go into space, etc," and the Roman episode did end with Uhura staring at the camera and saying the rebels were worshipping "the son of God." But these were just grace notes. (We won't get into Star Trek V, since that was a movie, and it came much later, and it makes the head hurt.)
After Trek, you certainly had the occasional SF program where the good guys were confronted with bog-standard space gods, who were notably free of any religious dogma that people on Earth could recognize. In fact, one reason why space gods are so often ridiculous and campy is the fact that they're trying so hard to be ecumenical. One common SF trope, over the decades, was the "meeting the real-life alien behind the ancient Earth myth — but this was usually the creature who inspired the Aztecs or the Egyptian religions, not the Judeo-Christian deal.
But in general, when television SF did grapple with religion prior to recent years, it was to reveal religious icons as aliens, using high technology to impress the superstitious. It wasn't until the final couple of seasons of Stargate SG-1 that this "superstitious humans worshipping aliens" storyline seemed to be an overt critique of organized religion. The show suddenly introduced a new antagonist for our heroes, a set of "ascended" (non-corporeal) aliens called the Ori, who encourage humans to worship them and preach from the Book of Origin. Writes blogger Chris Bateman in his 10-part essay on religion in science fiction:
It is almost impossible not to interpret the Ori as a paper-thin parody of Christianity... Much of the shallow critique of Christianity occurs between Claudia Black's ex-Goa'uld host Vala Mal Doran – who takes over Richard Dean Anderson's role as comic relief in the later seasons and fulfills this role magnificently – and her Ori-worshipping husband Tomin. Vala and Tomin square off in debate after Tomin reads incessantly to her from the Book of Origin, with Vala accusing him of taking a bunch of stories about how to live well and using it as a justification for war and murder. The scene serves a narrative purpose – Tomin later witnesses a Prior blatantly distorting the meaning of one of the verses in the Book of Origin, causing him to question his faith – but it also reads as a clumsy attack on contemporary Christianity.
Bateman theorizes that the producers of SG-1 were aghast at the Bush Administration's war in Iraq and wanted to satirize what they perceived as a right-wing Christian crusade against Islam. To some extent, The 4400 also seemed to be taking jabs at organized religion on occasion.
But before SG-1 introduced the Ori, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine took a huge leap forward in introducing religious themes to SF, with the Prophets, aka the "wormhole aliens." For most of DS9's run, you could choose to believe the secular theory that the Prophets were merely interdimensonal aliens, who lived outside space/time and saw future and past as the same thing. But towards the end of the show's run, the messianic overtones around Benjamin Sisko made it harder and harder to sit on the fence. And meanwhile, Babylon 5 won praise for including characters of faith (including a Catholic commander, and a group of Catholic monks who come to live on the station) as well as including religion in many of its storylines.
Most recently, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles included Agent Ellison, who's frequently shown to be a Baptist, and religious references became more and more predominant in the show (which is about the actual apocalypse, so it does make sense to bring it up.) Most fans of BSG would agree that the show's monotheist/polytheist divide made it a much richer experience than a simple robots-vs-humans show would have been otherwise — regardless of how you may feel about the Baltar Cult, and the hand-wavy "Starbuck turns into ZZ Top" ending. And it's pure blasphemy to suggest that Firefly would be better without Shepherd Book.
The rise of Space Jesus?
Lately, though, it's seemed almost required to have some kind of religious discussion among a TV show's themes — and it's more likely to be Christian rather than some kind of vague Space Religion (TM) or misty spirituality.
Religion is part of society, and including religious points of view makes your world seem more realistic and three-dimensional — it would seem odd if science fiction on television never included a religious viewpoint, just as it would if people never mentioned politics at all. At the same time, there are ways to include religion that make sense (Firefly and T:SCC come to mind immediately) and ways to include it that feel gratuitous and weird (the Vatican is endorsing the aliens!)
And yes, when you throw in religion in a nonsensical way, it either feels like you're going for a cheap effect, or like you're pandering to religious people. Add to that the fact that scientists and people who use pure empiricism to deal with problems are far and few between — Walter Bishop and maybe the twisted Topher on Dollhouse are our only real avatars of tech nerdhood that I can think of off the top of my head. It's become a taboo in televised science fiction to show people doing science.
The show that's handling religion in the most fascinating manner right now is Supernatural, which is modern fantasy rather than science fiction. In the last year or so, angels have joined the show's long-standing demon characters — and now Lucifer himself is roaming around. And there are lots of hints that we'll actually be meeting God this season at some point. Theological discussions over why God allowed all of the horrors of the 20th century to happen are automatically more fascinating when they come out of the mouths of actual Angels, and the fact that the Archangels believe that God is dead makes for fascinating viewing.
So consider this a plea for more thoughtful portrayals of religion in science fiction — and fewer random, thoughtless, kitchen-sink inclusions. People who watch science fiction are smart. We can tell when we're being pandered to, and when we're being spoonfed religious ideas just because it makes your show seem more "mythic" or "relevant." Religion can make your science-fiction story feel like it takes place in a world we can relate to, and it can deepen your characters and add another layer to your story — or, in the wrong hands, it can feel like a random piece of baggage, tacked on to your story for spurious, external reasons. We can usually tell the difference between the two.