On a recent episode of “Christopher Closeup,” I had the opportunity to interview Barbara Nicolosi. Barbara is a talented screenwriter, founder of the Act One Screenwriting program, and partner in Origin Entertainment. The interview covered a lot of ground including Barbara’s insights on improving the work of Christians in Hollywood and why films & TV programs shouldn’t shy away from portraying sin in their stories. But the high point came when Barbara and I discussed one of our favorite TV shows, “Battlestar Galactica.” (Okay, it’s actually an obsession for Barbara. And she’ll admit that too.)
For those not familiar with the show’s premise, it deals with the near-obliteration of a human society by the machine-race they created called Cylons. Humanity’s survivors are on a mission to find the mythical planet Earth where they can start life anew while fleeing from the Cylons who are out to kill them and claim Earth for themselves.
Barbara discussed this premise from an artistic and religious viewpoint. Here’s an excerpt:
TR: I’ve been reading your blog “Church of the Masses” for years…I pretty much have a sense of what you like and don’t like…Then in January 2008, I go to your blog and read you geeking out about “Battlestar Galactica.” What happened to tilt the earth off its axis so that you’re now praising a sci-fi show?
Barbara Nicolosi: All my friends think I’ve lost my mind (Laughs). But…when you see powerful, well-done, really-well-executed work that’s hitting at all the different levels of meaning that are possible in the screen artform, you have got to say that this is an achievement. And you have got to say this show does that. The funny thing about the show is that…it’s very sexy in some episodes. But I don’t find it gratuitously so because I think that it’s about a post-religious, licentiate human society that’s grown fat with its own excess. And so I think that in that sense it would be a lie not to show that. It’s an adult show, this is on at 10:00 at night, it’s not for kids…
In the very first episode they ask the question, ‘You human beings talk about…struggling to survive. You never ask the question if you deserve to survive.’ The rest of the series then unfolds over this question of ‘do we deserve to survive because of what we’ve become?’ I think that’s a valid question…(And) the cool thing about the show is it never tells you what to think; it just keeps posing questions that have been raised in this post-9/11 America.
For example, an episode that was just aired recently of Season 4 was about the President and the Admiral – the two leaders in the society – (deciding) they have to break the law a little bit and not be open about what they’re doing because there’s a greater threat out there. Then (the government) starts having a fight…when it comes out – ‘How can we do this? This betrays who we are.’ Well, isn’t that what we’re talking about as a society now? And…I don’t think we’re really talking about it as a society. I think there’s a lot of screaming going on. But Battlestar’s actually trying to dialogue it out.
TR: It almost doesn’t come down on either side as being right. You see both sides.
Barbara Nicolosi: You’re right. In fact I talked to the writers at length, we were picketing together during the strike. And they said that is one of the most paramount points that we discuss as a staff. We’re going to lay out in a fair way both sides of these questions and let the audience have to wrestle with whether they think the choices the characters are making are ultimately moral or immoral. I love that! I’m so sick of having a particular worldview jammed down my throat…and seeing the other side so badly represented. I mean, look at ‘West Wing.’ They never could represent a Republican or a conservative – until the very end of the series – without making them a buffoon or an ignoramus…So it’s just refreshing (on Battlestar) to have two characters that you really love and admire be on opposite sides of something, both making a compelling case for where they’re coming from, and then you have to decide who is right or wrong.
TR: Ron Moore, the executive producer of the show, said about it, “There’s a search for truth that we explore continually.” Looking at things from a religious perspective, is the search for truth in a story enough to make it deserving of being embraced by a Christian audience?
Barbara Nicolosi: I think so. I think that one of the things we’ve been getting wrong in Catholic media is that we try and do all the work for the viewer in terms of stories. A story is a car, for example, that you provide out of respect for your viewer. They’re going to go on a journey in that car. It’s a very respectful thing to set them up on this journey, but they have to do the work otherwise it’s not going to mean anything in their life. So if you make it too easy for them and give them the answers, they’ll forget...We say to our students in Act One all the time, “It isn’t telling people the truth that saves them; it’s getting them to wrestle with the truth that saves them.” It’s the reason that when you end a Flannery O’Connor story, you’re furious at her because you say, “Well what did that mean?!” You always think there were three missing pages where she was supposed to tell you what everything meant. And what you have to do is keep going over it and over it and over it until you figure it out. That’s the process of saving you. But Flannery really respects her audience. Now granted a lot of the audience misses the deeper level. But you know what, the ones who get it – it saves their soul.
TR: Galactica is also one of the only shows that deals with religion and faith in an overt manner. At the beginning I was unsure what to make of it because the seeming bad guys were worshippers of the ‘one true God’ whereas the seeming good guys had multiple gods. How do you think the story represents religion? Is it doing it in a good way?
Barbara Nicolosi: I think it was a stroke of genius to make the humans the pagans/polytheists and make the machines the monotheists. In one sense it could just be that the machines are supposed to represent the fanaticism of the Islamic fascists who took down the towers...But it’s not that because Christianity is also a monotheistic religion. So I think that by twisting it on its head, by making the Cylons monotheists, it made it even safer for the show to talk about issues of faith and how they impact daily life...Having said that, this struggle of the people in the show (asks), ‘Are we missing something when we make decisions that aren’t guided by transcendent faith?’ That’s what the human characters on the show are struggling with.
You have some of them, like the most screwed up one, Starbuck, but she really believes that the gods know her name and that she owes them fealty. Then you have the admiral and his son who are just such agnostics, and now they’re struggling to believe because they don’t know what to do, they have nothing else to lean on. And that’s the question of the show – when you have nothing else to lean on, does it then make sense to reach for the divine or are you just grasping at some kind of straw to save your psychological life? The show hasn’t resolved that yet, but I think it’s setting up to do that very clearly.
(To listen to the full interview, visit www.christophers.org/closeuppodcast)