Friday, October 21, 2016

Teaching with TV: Religion & Public Life according to Battlestar Galactica




What should a society do when faced with terror attacks? What should citizens do when the future of their government is uncertain? And what role should religion play in all of this?

These are tough and timely questions that should be asked and discussed in the classroom. Many educators are (understandably) nervous about facilitating theses kinds of discussions because any time an instructor takes on a controversial topic, s/he assumes a good deal of risk. Science fiction is a great vehicle for teaching controversial subjects like the role of religion in the body politic because it allows students to enter into a story and debate important issues in a non-threatening way; the society that they are discussing is far, far away from their own religious or political experiences. 

If you want to generate some fantastic discussion about whether or not religious values do/can/should influence society from heads of state to the average person, I recommend Battlestar Galactica (2004).
The premise of BSG is this: sometime in the not-too-distant future, humans create robotic technology (cylons) that develop consciousness and rebel against their creators. For years, humans and cylons war and eventually come to a truce. BSG begins when cylons break their longstanding peace and destroy the many planets on which humans live (12 to be exact). The only humans who remain are a rag-tag group of space ships led by a rickety old relic from the past war, the Battlestar Galactica.

How will humanity survive? How will it thrive? And will religion play a part in humanity's salvation? These questions (and many more) are at the heart of the series. As the last remnant of humanity flees from their enemies and searches desperately for a new home, socio-political and religious divisions abound. Wealthy people from the planet Tauron clash with the impoverished, oppressed planet of Sagittaron. Humans from the planet Gemenon cling devoutly to their polytheistic scriptures and prophecies about the future of humanity; politicians from the capital planet of Caprica are not so sure that the gods have anything to do with humanity's destruction or its future. And of course all of the humans have to wrestle with what it means to have human rights (and how those ought to be protected) if there is little to nothing distinguishing cylons from their creators.

The more detailed conversations students have about the intricacies of this sci-fi world, the more real-world connections they are able to make in their own contexts. Plus, it's a ton of fun. I dare you not to root for Starbuck, Apollo, & Co. So say we all!

Friday, October 14, 2016

Religion & Pop Culture Fall Season Review: Timeless


"For better or worse, and in this case worse, this is real history."
Professor Lucy Preston to her history students (and to us the viewers?) in Timeless

On paper, Timeless was made for me. It is about a tenure-track lady historian who discovers that she must save America (and maybe the world?!) from a time-traveling terrorist with her historian skills (and super cute colleagues). And, it was created by Eric Kripke, who created Supernatural (I love this show with a deep, abiding love). AND it stars Abigail Spencer from Mad Men, Paterson Joseph from the uneven, but overall-worth-thinking-about The Leftovers, Matt Frewer (Dr. Leekie!) from the truly wonderful Orphan Black, and Malcolm Barrett from the under-watched Better Off Ted. AND the pilot takes viewers to the WWII era.

Why, why, WHY don't I love this show? Here's the short list of reasons why not:
1. The dialogue is generic. "Your canceling my tenure meeting?" asks Professor Lucy. Of course if that was how tenure review worked, this would be the MOST TERRIFYING line in the entire pilot for us academics, but it is not. Here tenure is used in the most generic way give us exposition about Lucy's lack of job prospects. Okay, I realize only my academic friends will get this point, but there are several other examples in the pilot where generic plot twists are used where detailed world creation would be more compelling (see for example the haunting Southern Gothic Rectify, which also stars Abigail Spencer).
2. The plot is confusing. Eric Kripke is the king of creating a simple plot with complex emotional dynamics that has staying power (12 seasons of Supernatural!). This plot is actually fairly simple (take old, derelict time machine and save the world by chasing villain in fancy, new time machine!), but it's told in such a convoluted way that the viewer has to pay attention for all of the wrong reasons.
3. There's not enough attention to historical detail. Of course, as an academic, I am going to harp on this. But attention to detail is important if you are doing a show about time-traveling. Sadly, the pilot's inattention to detail ends up trivializing unfortunate historical realities like the danger of being African American in 1930s America. Or being a woman for that matter. 

Will I try Timeless again? Yes. Because, Eric Kripke, Abigail Spencer, et. al. And, it is about a tenure-track lady historian who discovers that she must save America (and maybe the world?!) from a time-traveling terrorist with her historian skills and super cute colleagues. Would I recommend it? Sorry to say, no. But I'll keep you posted!

NB: I think it's worth noting that I am a huge nerd and I didn't include ONE pun about time travel in this review. You're welcome, dear readers.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Bingeworthy: Cleverman


"The Aboriginal people of Australia are the longest surviving culture on earth with over 60,000 years of stories known as The Dreaming. The Dreaming is the spiritual realm that binds the past, present and future together. It is inhabited by incredible creatures and spirits. At the head of this realm is the Cleverman, a powerful man who is the conduit between The Dreaming and the real world."

Opening credits of Cleverman on Sundance TV

In the world of Cleverman, a mysterious group of ancient creatures known as "Hairypeople" - who have lived peaceably and secretly alongside humans for millennia - have been discovered in contemporary Australia. As is often the case with new and different people, they are not warmly received by the general public or the Australian government. Hairies are deemed "subhuman," and are required to live in "The Zone," an undesirable part of the city. As Hairies are stronger, faster, and, well, hairier than humans,  the powers that be are both interested in and fearful of their potential. Adding to the fear and distrust of Hairies - a series of gruesome murders are terrorizing the inhabitants of The Zone. 

Who can bring peace to this world? Who will advocate for the Hairies and protect the people of The Zone? Of course it's the Cleverman of Aboriginal lore. He's old, though, and seems ready to pass the mantle on to one of his two nephews: Warru, a human/subhuman activist who has been groomed for the role his entire life, or his half-brother Koen (who is also half-Aboriginal) who makes a living exploiting terrified Hairypeople for his own gain. The choice seems obvious - or does it?

Cleverman has many layers. It explores timeless mythical themes such as strife between two brothers, reluctant heroes, developing virtue, supernatural anointing, and of course the ancient story of the Cleverman & the Dreaming (probably new to most non-Aussies - it was to me!). It also includes classic sci-fi tropes and ethical quandaries around issues of genetics, reproductive politics, the limits of science, etc. And, you don't have to dig very deep to find excellent conversation starters about immigration, racial and ethnic identity, class warfare and xenophobia. At its heart, however, Cleverman is a superhero origin story that I hope to follow for many seasons.