Saturday, 8 January 2011

Catholicism and SciFi - the shifting sands of a shared culture?

I'm afraid I can never resist a chance to talk Sci Fi, so here is some food for fellow sci fi junkies, prompted by an article in the UK Catholic Herald claiming that Star Trek is pure catholic propaganda. 

Classic Trek (and subsequent iterations) as catholic...

The crucial evidence for this claim is the episode Classic Trek episode Bread and Circuses, where our intrepid heroes find themselves on a planet with a 20th-century version of the Roman Empire, "complete with gladiators, senators and nefarious politics. The empire sponsors state executions of renegade slaves who practice a pacifistic religion of “total love and total brotherhood”".

The twist, as the article's author, Angelo Stagnaro, points out, is that Spock and Captain Kirk are puzzled by the fact that the religion of the rebels is Sun worship.  It is Lt Uhura, who points out what the viewer has already worked out, namely that "It’s not the sun up in the sky. It’s the Son of God.”

And there are other even more specifically catholic references throughout the series' incarnations.

The view that Star Trek is a catholic construct is not an uncommon view, as this classic photo below from the Shrine of the Holy Whapping attests.

But unfortunately, the program's creator (though of course not necessarily all of the shows writers) was in fact a secular humanist with a number of quite weird beliefs.

Testimony to a lost shared culture?

In fact, I would suggest, Trek's catholic references are rather occasional allusions to a shared cultural framework that has since largely been lost, making those references seem more stark in retrospect.  Indeed, one of the examples cited by Stagnaro in support of the claim to me more symbolises the failure of many to take up and keep up the faith:

"In Star Trek Voyager, the penultimate permutation of the Star Trek epic, Capt Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) sought out advice from a recreated life-like hologram of Leonardo da Vinci who urged Capt Janeway to seek out God’s assistance in prayer. “When one’s imagination cannot provide an answer,” Leonardo said, “one must seek out a greater imagination. There are times when even I find myself kneeling in prayer.” The wise hologram then suggested that the two retire to the chapel at the Monastery of Santa Croce. “Come with me, Katarina,” he said, taking Janeway’s hand. “We will awake the abbot, visit the chapel, and appeal to God.”"

But here's the rub:

Ultimately she didn’t take the maestro’s advice.

Catholic culture wars in Battlestar Galactica

So I agree with the commenter who suggested that there are in fact far more explicitly Christian/Catholic Sci Fi efforts out there, most notably Babylon 5 (which came complete with an order of monks).

In fact though, by far the most interesting depiction of catholic morality in recent Sci Fi was in the dark drama of Battlestar Galactica, where the desperation to survive was underpinned by a relentless secularism on the part of the two leaders (President Roslin and Commander Adama).  Though (initially at least) both atheists or perhaps agnostics, neither hesitated to quite ruthlessly and hypocritically exploit the Greek classical pagan religion of their society for political and morale purposes.  And the enemy were believers in one God....

But there was a catholic hero in there, in the form of Karl Agathon, who fought desperately against attempts to force an abortion of his child; subverted an attempt at genocide; and stood up for the humanity of those who were defined by the mainstream as non-human, marrying one of the monotheist enemies, the Cylons. 

I had high hopes there for a while, that he would end up playing a major role in the plot resolution, but unfortunately the whole series fizzed out badly in the end, a victim of the US writers strike of a few years back.

Still, a think the show's framework does accurately reflect the shift in society: in the mid-1960s everyone could recognize and enjoy the joke of Kirk and Spock knowing so little of the faith that they can't even recognise a badly disguised Christianity; in the first decade of the 21st century, the vision of a world where the monotheists are the enemy, and catholic morality is suspect, is fully realized...

No wonder sci fi these days, even Dr Who, has taken on a much darker tone.

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