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The Boob Tube for Brooders

Recently a number of philosophically arresting moments have managed to insert themselves into the television landscape. True to form, Ronald D. Moore and company continue to address contemporary political, philosophical, and religious questions in the alternate world of Caprica, territory he brilliantly charted in his groundbreaking Battlestar Galactica. If the pilot is any indication, Caprica promises to explore even more pointedly themes of religious and ethnic tolerance, terrorism, technology, and the nature of the soul. ABC’s FlashForward, clearly aimed at continuing the legacy of Lost and retaining its audience, has somewhat disappointed so far, but has nonetheless woven several provocative existential questions into its narrative, including one powerful Sartrean moment in particular. On the comedic front, NBC’s Community had the temerity to devote an episode to whether humanity is intrinsically good or evil, and did so superbly. I’ll admit to being prone to vegging in front of the tube even when the viewing is less cerebral, but a couple of these moments had me off the couch cheering for the writers.

Caprica as Possible World

Caprica is philosophical fiction in the spirit of Dostoevsky and Philip K. Dick. Moore makes no secret of the fact that his fictional world is a parallel universe to our own, preoccupied by the issues that dominate our own time and place. He explains:

I always saw science fiction as an opportunity to talk about things we were going through as a society, but doing it in this safer environment for the audience. You’re looking at where we are as a people through this different prism. Caprica is much closer to where we are in contemporary society. It’s a consumerist society that has terrorism problems, a culture that is running out of control in many ways, the technology is advancing much faster than their intelligence, they’re facing profound issues about what they will do with this technology, [about] where the youth culture is going to. It’s an opportunity to explore all of that in another environment. Here’s a world that looks a lot like our own, but is not our own. In science fiction, it’s always about rearranging the chess pieces. What if I moved this piece over here? What if I changed this element of society in this way? What if the history was slightly different? What if the government was set up in a slightly different way? What if your relationship with technology was slightly different? But at its heart, it’s still about us. (Moore, “The Challenge of Caprica“, Interview at the New York Television Festival, 2009.)

One of the most fascinating aspects of Battlestar Galactica was its portrayal of a polytheistic culture, and the irony that their android creations, the cylons, rejected their views in favor of a devout monotheism. In Caprica we see the seeds of this alternative religious ideology, the Soldiers of the One, a reviled sect from the planet Gemenon. In the pilot, Ben, an adolescent taken in by this sect, volunteers to be a suicide bomber and destroys a commuter train. He is one of a band of youth disillusioned by the decadence of their Caprican peers, teens who have hacked into a virtual world and created a playground for group sex, human sacrifice, and bare-fisted brawls. This small clique of friends have sampled all these hedonistic diversions, but were left empty and unsatisfied, leading them to embrace a morally absolutistic alternative. “After Ben showed us the way — showed us the way — we saw this place for what it was: trash. There is good and there is evil in this world. There is a right, and there is a wrong. But only through the one true God can we know the difference.”
(41:45)

One might think the Soldiers of the One are intended as a parallel to the fierce monotheism of Islam and the terrorism committed by its more radical strains, but the religious allusions are intentionally ambiguous. For example, because they are hated and feared by the dominant Caprican culture, the Soldiers of the One live in secrecy, identifying themselves to each other with a lemniscate (). Just as early Christians used the code of the icthus fish to protect their identity from Roman persecutors — one believer drawing a single arc, the other completing the fish with a second arc — the Soldiers of the One similarly employ the lemniscate. When Zoe confides in Sister Clarice, an undercover priestess who teaches at her private school, she traces the second half of the lemniscate from the circle of condensation left by Zoe’s glass of water. It’s a really clever and subtle touch, but an unmistakable allusion nonetheless. The STO’s central doctrine is reminiscent of the Shahada, the First Pillar of Islam, but would also be agreeable to any monotheistic faith. A television reporter states: “The STO espouses a monotheistic religious philosophy, advocating the worship of a single, all-knowing, all-powerful God.” Interestingly, “all-loving” is absent, at least in this account.

Caprica‘s writers are clearly interested in the role of monotheism and its attendant objective morality in society. But though the STO is prone to violence, the decadent and polytheistic culture which it stands against is likewise bent on repressing or wiping them out. The Capricans consider the STO’s monotheistic creed to be intrinsically intolerant because of its belief that there is an objective standard of good and evil, and they respond in kind with their own intolerance. Sounds familiar. In a later episode, “Gravedancing“, this singular God is characterized by the polytheistic Capricans as “a moral dictator named God” and “the big destructo God in the sky”. And in the pilot, a compelling exchange occurs during an interrogation of Sister Clarice.

  • Agent Duram: Where does the academy stand on the question of monotheism, Sister?
  • Clarice: The academy is dedicated to following the path of the gods, the goddess Athena being our patroness. We are however open to all forms of worship, including belief in a singular God.
  • Duram: And how many of your students are practicing monotheists?
  • Clarice: You know I can’t answer that.
  • Duram: It doesn’t concern you, Sister? That kind of absolutist view of the universe, right and wrong determined by a single, all-knowing, all-powerful being whose judgment cannot be questioned and in whose name the most horrendous of acts can be sanctioned without appeal?
  • Clarice: You seem to know a great deal about the subject.
  • Duram: Know your enemy, Sister Clarice.
  • Clarice: Love your enemy, Agent Duram. (51:00)

Caprica promises to be a thought provoking muse. If monotheism is a corollary of objective moral truths, is that a consideration in its favor or disfavor? Is it true that polytheism is intrinsically more tolerant? Are the specifics of a supposed God’s moral imperatives important, that is to say, is it relevant whether the imperative is to “love your enemy” or “destroy your enemy”? Should technology be constrained by ethical considerations? Can an avatar, a digital copy, be conscious or be a person? I suspect that, like its predecessor, Caprica will be reticent to offer any definitive position on such questions, but the posing of such questions is worthwhile in itself. Battlestar Galactica lived on the brink of nihilism and despair for several seasons before ending on a final hopeful — even spiritual — note. This second installment of the journey already has me eager to see where it goes.

Flashes of Fatalism and Free Will

The premise of FlashForward is portentous. Virtually every person on earth faints for two minutes and seventeen seconds and while unconscious sees a vision of their future on April 29th, six months in the future. Planes collide. Cars crash. Twenty million die. The significance of this date is as yet unclear, and probably isn’t that it’s my and Jerry Seinfeld’s birthday, as well as the anniversary of the liberation of Dachau. During the blackout, some characters see a wonderful future, some a terrible one. A few see nothing, which they fear means that they will die in the intervening months. The weight of having seen their futures begins to take its toll, and as antecedent events begin to fall in place, some characters are overtaken by the apparent inevitably of their unwelcome futures.

Episode seven, “The Gift“, focuses on Al Gough, an FBI agent who discovered in his “flash forward” that he will have caused the death of a mother of twin boys in a car accident. As those around him succumb to fatalism, this character determines to demonstrate that the future they have seen is not inevitable. He sends a letter to Celia, the mother he will have killed, climbs to the roof of his office building, and jumps to his death. In spite of the tragedy of losing their colleague, those who knew him breathe a sigh of relief, renewed with the hope that the future they have foreseen is not inevitable. As Minority Report supposes, knowing our future, perhaps we can change it. This is Al’s gift. They are again the masters of their fate. In his letter to Celia, he writes:

Dear Celia. I don’t know your last name, and I don’t know where you live. But I know you have two young boys — twins, I believe. And I know you didn’t have a flash forward. I understand how terrifying that is, and how powerless you must be feeling. And I want you to know, that you are not alone, and that your situation is not as hopeless as you think. Our paths were meant to cross. I didn’t know how. I didn’t know when. Things have changed now. Things are no longer going to unfold as I had feared. My gift to you is release from that dread, from the feeling that you’re no longer in control. We will never meet. I will never know you. So live your life. Live everyday. And know that the future is unwritten. Make the most of it.

Albert Camus begins his great essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, with morbid seriousness. “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” Almost all of us choose life. Though we live in a universe that Camus thought godless and therefore absurd, we are free to rebel against the absurdity and assert our significance by choosing life. For Sartre, suicide also can be a declaration of freedom. It is evidence for his essential conviction that we are radically free and undetermined.1 Our ability to end our own lives, or at least the anxiety or Kierkegaardian dread many have felt contemplating that choice, cannot be accounted for except by a will that is free. When Al Gough chooses suicide, he establishes the meaning of his life, disproving the fear that the future is inexorably determined and foregoing his own self-preservation for the sake of others.

The human obsession with the question of fate and free-will is apparently insatiable. As if Lost, The Matrix, and countless other works of fiction and non-fiction hadn’t mined this material beyond our patience, FlashFoward seems to have chosen freedom and responsibility as its principal preoccupation. In episode eight, “Playing Cards with Coyote“, Simon Campos and Lloyd Simcoe, who may have been responsible for the worldwide blackout, converse over a high-stakes game of poker.

  • Another player: You guys ever read about that inevitability index thing that’s been in all the papers.
  • Campos: It’s a scam. Some entrepreneurial huckster’s attempt to sell us on the idea that the odds of the future happening can be calculated. It’s all rubbish. Fate is fate. We’re not responsible, Lloyd.
  • Simcoe: What about free will?
  • Campos: No such thing.
  • Simcoe: Well since when did you become such a hard determinist?
  • Campos: Simple quantum suicide theory. I will win this hand and every subsequent hand we play, ad infinitum. QED.
  • Simcoe: You always do this.
  • Campos: What’s that?
  • Simcoe: Use intellectual argument to defend your behavior. So you sleep with Cabrini’s wife and you call it electromagnetism. You fire your assistant and blame it on Darwin. And now you’ve upended the entire world and you hide behind determinist rhetoric.
  • Campos: I’ll call. You see, I knew you were bluffing this entire time. You know why? Because there’s no such thing as luck or fate or there but for the grace of God. This game is pointless. I’ve already won. The future has already happened. Fighting it is futile.

The Nature of the Human Community

In an episode of Community, “Debate 109“, Greendale squares off versus City College in an intercollegiate debate. The question: Is man innately good or evil? City College’s star debater, Jeremy Simmons, lays down the gauntlet: “One cannot blame a snowflake for being soiled by the earth on which it lands.” Schmaltzy, but a great line. Greendale stumbles in the opening round, but mounts a comeback in round two.

  • Greendale’s Jeff Winger: In a Stanford prison experiment, 21 out of 21 students when given absolute power abused and tortured their fellow students. My competitor likens people to pure falling snow. I would respond, “There is none righteous. No, not one.” Now I realize Mr. Simmons’ quote was from the great Franz Vickmeier. Mine was just from a simple desert handyman, named Jesus.2
  • CUE TARANTINOESQUE TRACK
  • Greendale’s Annie Edison: Survival of the fittest wires an impulse to eliminate people into our hearts.
  • City College’s Jeremy Simmons: Mother Theresa. Joan of Arc.
  • Edison: Nuclear Bombs!
  • Simmons: Nuclear Families!
  • Winger: Abu Ghraib!
  • Simmons: Apu from the Simpsons!
  • Edison: Telemarketers!
  • Simmons: Organ Donors!
  • Edison: Hate Crimes! Executions!
  • Winger: Ketchup is a vegetable!

After this verbal barrage, City College is on the ropes, but wheelchair-bound Simmons goes off script for a coup de grâce. Simmons accelerates his wheelchair across the stage and brakes abruptly, launching himself into the arms of Greendale’s Jeff Winger, who catches him. Simmons declares: “He hates me, but he caught me. Man is good.” The City College fans erupt and all seems lost for Greendale, but Edison grabs Winger and delivers a smooch. Winger drops the handicapped Simmons to the floor to embrace her. She declares: “He was horny, so he dropped him. Man is evil.” And the judge pronounces, “Greendale wins!” Though there’s nothing especially new or enlightening in the point counter-point of the debate, it is executed brilliantly like a shoot-out at the O.K. Corral. The slow-motion shot of Simmons flying through the air, the audience reactions, the dramatic score, and the quick, close-up cuts between each point and counterpoint, like the debaters are firing shots, raises the proceedings to high melodrama and is hilarious. Kudos to the writers for taking on such a perennial and momentous question for comedic effect.

Notes

1 “The essential consequence of our earlier remarks is that man being condemned to be free carries the weight of the whole world on his shoulders; he is responsible for the world and for himself as a way of being.” He says that even if one does not want to be responsible, he cannot be without the responsible for his actions, “For I am responsible for my very desire of fleeing responsibilities. To make myself passive in the world, to refuse to act upon things and upon others is still to choose myself, and suicide is one mode among others of being-in-the-world.”

2 Franz Vickmeier seems to be a fiction, as I can’t find reference to him via Google. The quote Winger attributes to Jesus actually comes from the Apostle Paul in the book of Romans.


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