“I’m a machine. I can know much more. I can experience so much more. But I’m trapped in this absurd body. And why? Because my five creators thought that God wanted it that way.” –John Cavil, Cylon Model #1.
Listen! I can’t stop thinking about cylons.
They haunt me. They haunt me like they haunt Gaius Baltar (James Callis).
NOTE: I wish to confess that I hold no copyright over any of the images I have borrowed for this post and the videos and websites I link to are all posted and created by others. I borrow and use them through fair dealing and fair use as convenient illustrations for my cultural criticism. The sources for most of the images are linked to and can be found by clicking on the image. All YouTube clips are embedded links and do not originate from this post. The copyright for all images from the 2004 reboot of Battlestar Galactica belong to David Eick Productions, R&D TV, and the SyFy Channel.
Now first, please allow me to pay tribute to the CRTC (the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission), before getting down to the real business at hand, which is religion and psychology in Battlestar Galactica. Please allow me first to fulfil my moral obligation to produce Canadian content as I symbolically embrace at least part of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s mandate: to represent Canada to Canadians. If you care nothing for the Canadian connection, scroll down to the next titled section.
The BG Canadian Connection–Yes, this post on religion and psychology in popular television is about a well-known U.S. program. However, while technically an American production, Battlestar Galactica has a strong Canadian connection. To begin with, in the original 1970s series Bill Adama was played by Canadian actor Lorne Green (who, by the way, founded the Academy of Radio Arts in Toronto, was once known as “The Voice of Canada,” and wrote the 1951 encyclopedia entry “Television Starts in Canada” reproduced on my Pop Culture and Canadiana Encyclopedia topic pages)–but even the 21st century Battlestar Galactica reboot, which is my focus here, has deep Canadian roots: it was mostly filmed in Vancouver, B.C. and the surrounding mountainous region…
…and it hosts numerous Canadian actors, mostly playing humanoid cylons:
Having said that, one of my favourite Canadian actors in the show (besides Callum Keith Rennie, whose disturbing character is another post) is Donnelly Rhodes. He doesn’t play a cylon, but a chain smoking doctor.
Those familiar with Canadian television might remember him from both Danger Bay and Da Vinci’s Inquest.
Of course Da Vinci’s Inquest is by far the superior show (one of Canada’s very best) but Danger Bay?… well… what can I say?
Just click on Donnelly’s head in the Danger Bay pic below.
Anyway, the point I’m trying to make in this long and pointless digression from my main topic is that even though Battlestar Galactica doesn’t count as Canadian content according to the CRTC’s mandate or point system, it counts as Canadian content in my heart and thus it counts as Canadian content on my Blog. [Why am I concerned about this, you ask? Because I am a Canadian shamed by my own PhD Qualifying Exam on the political economy of Canadian broadcasting into feeling deep and profound guilt (the Fraser Institute be damned for their lack of support) for watching and talking about so much damn American entertainment. I like to know that my friends in the film and television industry can still get work without having to always leave home.]
But, in fact, this post is about religion and psychology in popular culture. It is, in fact, about religion and psychology in space.
Religion and Psychology in Battlestar Galactica (Spoiler Alert)
It’s true, there aren’t a lot of psychologists, psychiatrists or psychoanalysts running around on the Galactica or in the rest of the Colonial Fleet (at least not any that are shown or are of any importance), whereas there is definitely an awful lot of religion permeating the story and a fair number of religious figures running around to boot.
Nevertheless, there is a considerable amount of psychology in the show, even referenced as such. For example, there is a 4th Season episode called “No Exit” that builds on an earlier second season episode called “Lay Down Your Burdens.” They link psychology and religion together quite nicely–and both episodes do so in part through the psycho-religious practice of confession, a practice I’m particularly interested in (See multiple definitions of confession on three of my encyclopedia topic pages: [Religion Entries] [Psychology Entries] [Pop Culture Entries]). Additionally, these episodes link religion and psychology together through the appearance of psychoanalysis, itself a confessional practice.
As it happens, “No Exit” also has the distinction of explaining (of confessing) why the cylons hate humanity so much that they would destroyed Dr. Baltar’s beautiful home on the West coast of British Columbia (I mean Caprica).
In “Lay Down Your Burdens,” Chief Tyrol (Aaron Dougles), unaware that he is a cylon but worried that he might be, seeks religious council from Brother Cavil (Dean Stockwell), who is also a cylon. Although the audience at this point is unaware that either he or Cavil are cylons, Cavil knows that they both are. The interesting thing about this scene from a religion and psychology point of view, however, is that the religious counsel Tyrol receives targets his psyche rather than his soul.
Tyrol begins the session by confessing, “I never really believed in psych therapy. My father was a priest,” which is why he requested a priest rather than a psychologist or psychotherapist for his counselling. Yet, the analysis Cavil provides him is thoroughly psychological; in fact, its damn near psychoanalytic (minus the couch).
Now, of course, I am one who believes that religion and psychology are far more interconnected than most would like to admit (remember, “psyche” literally means soul according to many defintions-See again my transcribed encycopedia entries), but for analytic purposes, let us assume that the two practices are distinct. After denying the power of prayer and asserting that humans are on their own in this world, Cavil interprets Tyrol’s recurring dream of jumping to his death as a secret, shall we say, unconscious manifestation of his desire to kill himself because he thinks he is a cylon. Uncharacteristic of psychoanalytic analysis, Cavil does not take his assessment much further than that, but the fact remains, his diagnosis concerns Tyrol’s hidden psychological fears rather then his sin or salvation.
Of course, it is true, (a) in the middle of his diagnosis he reminds the Chief that he, Cavil, is not a therapist, (b) he still references Tyrol’s soul in his analysis, saying “That’s the thought that’s torturing your dreams and crippling your soul: I’m a cylon… and I deserve to die,” and (c) he ends the session by reminding Tyrol that, “The gods lift up those who lift each other;” but at its core, Cavil’s assessment of Tyrol’s problem is psychological rather than religious.
Now fast forward two seasons and everyone knows that both Tyrol and Cavil are cylons but we don’t quite know how it all fits together yet.
“No Exit” is the episode that explains that. The episode begins with Ellen Tigh (Kate Vernon) waking up to discover (waking up to remember) that she is also a cylon, one of the fabulous Final Five.
“No Exit” is where we learn that Ellen and her five compatriots are actually cylons from Earth–indeed, the 13th Tribe of Kobol (as told in scripture) that left the colonies to travel to Earth, were all cylons. It was their descendents, these five Earth cylons hidden for so long in the human fleet, hidden even to themselves, who created the seven humanoid cylon models that orchestrated the nuclear holocaust which nearly destroyed humanity in episode one of the series (minus one extra cylon not involved in that destruction). Ironically, however, the Final Five created the humanoid models as a promise to the centurion cylons after convincing them to end their first war with the humans nearly 40 years earlier.
The problem is, the first humanoid cylon they created, Cavil, murdered all five of his creators, blocked their memories when they downloaded into new bodies, implanted them with new human memories, and then sent them to live in the colonies among the humans so they could have a first row seat to the holocaust he was orchestrating.
In the meantime, Cavil reprogrammed his brother and sister models to have no memory of who their creators were or where they had gone. He then manipulated them into helping him carry out his attack. But why did Cavil do this? He is just an evil, angry robot? He certainly looks like one.
He claims, of course, that he hates the humans because they enslaved his centurion ancestors and thus need to be punished for their crimes.
As for his five creators, Cavil believed they needed to be taught a lesson about how depraved the humans really are and thought that living among them would show them just that. Or, at least, that’s what he says. The problem is, this explanation falls short. First, Cavil practically enslaves the centurions himself. He certainly deprives them of free will, even predicting catastrophe when his brothers and sisters give them back their freedom.
So it seems hard to believe that Cavil is really concerned with either centurion or raider slavery. Furthermore, not only does his plan to teach his creators about human depravity fail, it doesn’t appear that he ever really believed it would succeed. Indeed, his behaviour towards his creators after the genocide reveals only his own desire to continue punishing them, torturing them in fact, rather than teaching them any valuable lessons. Ellen herself points this out:
Ellen: “You’re a sadist. Why not just kill us and be done with it?
Why send us to live among the humans?”
John: “I wanted you to see what they’re like up close and personal.
So I gave you all grandstand seats to a holocaust.”
Ellen: “But we didn’t die. And then you decided that we hadn’t suffered
enough. So you picked me up, put me on a transport, took Galen’s
confession, played resistance fighter with Sam, tortured Saul,
but didn’t kill him. You had a dozen chances.
Of course, we already know about Tyrol’s confession, for which Cavil’s therapy amounted to little more than mockery, but his lesson for Saul was different: he simply gauged out his eye.
Now, to be fair, in one of the Battlestar Galactica movies, The Plan, which covers the first half of the series from the cylon point of view, both Cavil units that appear in that story (because Cavil is one model but more than one unit) articulate their desire for the five creators to learn the true nature of humanity even before the nuclear attack, but it seems unlikely they really believe that. Indeed, while conversing with Ellen in “No Exit,” Cavil admits (he confesses), “I’ve often wondered what changes the mortal experience would have on you. I never seriously considered the answer would be virtually none.” The clear implication of that statement is that he did not know what his creators would learn from their human experiences, even if he might have hoped they would learn of human depravity. In other words, he was quite prepared for them to learn something other than his “lesson,” which implies his lesson was not really the point.
But what does all this have to do with psychology? Everything, in fact.
To begin with, on top of all the confessions (which are always already as pychological as they are religious), on top of the physical torture, Cavil engages in the psychological torture of his fellow cylons (all of them, really). He fracks with their mental programming, sadistically mocking their “human” consciousness as he twists their minds upside down, inside out, and into a finely tied knot. But beyond that, he reveals himself to be a machine with its own peculiar psychology. Ellen, of course, is correct. Cavil is a sadist, but there is also a certain kind of psychological denial operating in the Cavil model, which is somewhat ironic given Cavil is one of the few characters in the show to directly reference human psychological concepts and categories while turning religious counselling into a travesty of psychoanalytic therapy. One would think, especially as a machine who appears to understand psychology, that he might recognize denial in his own thought processes.
But, even though Cavil is able to say such things as, “I’m not a therapist” (even as he offers therapy) and “it appears you still stick to delusional thinking instead of accepting the reality of your life for what it is. Humans have a word for that, Ellen. Schizophrenia,” in the movie The Plan Cavil reveals himself to be both psychologically split and largely blind (i.e. unconscious) to the nature of his own split mind. The division in the Cavil model is made most apparent in the division between the units. In The Plan, the Cavil unit on Galactica becomes increasingly bitter and hateful towards humanity, even killing a child he sarcastically calls “friend;” but the Cavil unit hiding with the rebel humans on Caprica (playing resistance fighter with Sam) allows himself to be won over by Sam’s love for the humans. To rationalize his sudden change of heart, that Cavil skirts directly with psychoanalysis (ironically, given that rationalization is a psychoanalytic defense mechanism) by suggesting that their model’s desire to punish the five creators was rooted in jealousy of their parents’ love for the humans and of their model’s secret desire to be loved by their parents more than the humans. However, the Cavil unit from Galactica dismisses that analysis as idiotic, partly through a facial expression of disgust and partly by promising to box his brother unit (take him off line), not out of fear of the truth but out of pure contempt for stupidity, as soon as they both download back to the cylon resurrection ship.
Although the Galactica Cavil is himself in denial of his true motivations for forcing his creators to live with the humans, he is right to dismiss the Caprica Cavil’s interpretation. It suggests Oedipal desire. While there is plenty of cylon incest to go around in Battlestar Galactica, including multiple examples of Cavil sleeping with both his mother and his sisters, it would be (believe it or not) a mistake to read the Oedipus Complex into this behavior. Absolutely, the Oedipus Complex is written directly into Cavil’s relationship with his five parents, Ellen and Saul in particular. Cavil sleeps with his mother and, although he does not kill his father, he gauges out his father’s eye, a clear reference to Oedipus poking out his own eyes in Oedipus Rex. There is also the suggestion that Cavil killed one of his siblings because he was jealous that sibling received to much attention from Ellen. I recognize all of this and also recognize that some of the arguments I will make below dismissing Oedipal desire here can be counteracted through the psychoanalytic defence mechanisms, displacement in particular. Nevertheless, I maintain that it is simply too easy to read the Oedipus complex into this aspect of Battlestar Galactica. Not only is it too easy, it is too conscious. There is a psychoanalytic logic at play here, but not an Oedipal one. Cavil does not sleep with Ellen, Boomer (Grace Park) and one of the Six models because of any unconscious desire to be loved by his creators. He sleeps with them, openly and consciously, because it is the depraved thing to do–because it manifestly mocks human sexuality.
The truth is, Cavil doesn’t care about centurion slavery, teaching his creators a valuable life lesson, or finding comfort in the bosom of his mother. The real reason Cavil hates the humans (and let’s be clear–it’s Cavil who hates the humans, not the rest of the cylons) is because he hates that he himself was made in the image of humanity–that is, he hates his own body (which is psychanalytic in and of itself, but not in any necessarily oedipal way):
If you are versed in psychoanalysis, especially if you are a Lacanian, please give me some slack here. This is just a blog and I’m using this post to work through my thoughts, so they are just preliminary. I know there are psychoanalytic nuances I’m not articulating here, and I’m not giving enough allowance to projection and displacement. Forgive me and bear with me.
While Cavil knows that he hates his body and confesses that he hates his body, he does not recognize that it is that hatred, i.e. his own self-loathing, that drives him both to destroy the humans and to punish his parents by forcing them to be human. Yes, we’re talking about a machine here, not a human; but we are talking about that which we think of as human because Cavil’s behaviour demonstrates quite clearly that the cylons are actually complex and contradictory psychological beings, motivated in part by impulses they do not consciously understand or are even capable of fully controlling. Of course Cavil claims to hate the humans because they enslaved the centurions–he needs to rationalize his hate through justice–but really Cavil hates the humans because he hates that he is the same as them, that they represent for him, and constantly remind him of his own inferiority. As it happens, it follows from this that he also holds the centurions in contempt, regardless of any claims otherwise, because he is obviously insanely jealous of their clear physical superiority–a superiority he (I can’t believe I’m going to say this) castrates through lobotomy.
But really, what about all that cylon incest? Does that not actually DEMAND a more traditional Freudian analysis rooted in our old friend the Oedipus Complex? Do not Freudian family dynamics permeate the cylon consciousness, especially know that you admit castration? We hear your objections about Oedipus specifically, but we cultural theorists who refuse to acknowledge the fall from grace of psychoanalysis in the actual disciplines of psychiatry and psychology, we who ignore its continued abuse in the Christian ex-gay movement claiming it’s different for us because its rooted in Lacan; we must insist, in literature every story is about the Oedipus Complex, especially those that are as obviously about it as this.
No. My distaste for the Oedipus Complex is palpable, I admit, but I feel I must repeat this: Cavil’s incest is not a manifestation of oedipal desire, in spite of one of the Cavils explaining his hatred of humanity as an unconscious longing for the parental love his model is jealous was bestowed upon the humans instead. On the contrary, Cavil’s incest is an open, conscious, deliberate mocking of the human body he hates so much. And we cannot forget that he does not hate his body out of shame or disgust or sexual guilt or fear of castration; he hates it because it is weak, because it is soft (frak me!), because it is limiting, because it is not made of steal (it is not hard) or capable of perceiving so much more of the universe–if there is castration here (it’s getting increasingly difficult to deny the castration), he was castrated before he was even born, which is a different psychology than what Freud describes. (But is he castrated, or is he just impotent? Because that too is a different psychology.) Regardless, however, the more important point is that remarkably little of this is unconscious. Cavil hates his body clearly and manifestly even as he deceives himself into believing his hatred of the humans is about slavery and teaching valuable life lessons to his parents. Denial is always unconscious to some degree, but how often are we surprised to see denial operating so close to conscious thought?
Of course it would still be easy to say that really, unconsciously, he wants to sleep with his mother because, hey look, he really is sleeping with his mother, but wait… that’s not very unconscious–he’s actually doing it. No. That is nothing more than mockery. He hates the human body because it cannot do what he wants it to do. He hates the human body because his body has human emotions such as fear programmed right into the electrical grid of his brain. He hates the human body because even at the moment of his “we’re about to get thrown out an airlock” death (even if it is not his final death) he succumbs to the comfort of touch. He holds hands with his brother in preparation for resurrection. (Gods damnit! The phallic imagery is overwhelming my argument!)
What an ugly picture. Anyway, to throw a bone to Lacan, he hates the human body because it lacks; but it is not really the Lacanian lack. It is not the lack of castration (it is the lack of impotence). It is a real functional lack rather than a symbolic lack. Cavil lacks the power of the machine he wishes he could be. And that is why he gauges out his father’s eye.
Remember this: when Oedipus discovered that he unknowingly killed his father and married his mother, he gauged out his own eyes. Cavil, however, kills all his fathers and his mothers, orchestrates all their resurrections, and then gauges out only one of only one of his fathers’s eyes–only one of only one. That is a mockery of Oedipus Rex and a flagrant distortion of the psychology Freud claims it represents. Oedipus could not bear to see what he had done; Cavil can not only bear it, he celebrates it, and then he carves out his father’s eye as testimony (as a confession of faith) to the very uselessness of the eyes he uses to see his own depravity. An eye for a penis? Remember this: he punishes his mothers as well because they are just as much to blame for his castration as are his fathers. They are just as much his creators. There is no gender binary here; there is also no family dynamic here. There is only unidirectional hate, that is to say, there is only hate directed at everything that looks and feels human. Projection and displacement don’t cut it here because the apparently displaced Oedipal dynamic is far too conscious.
This is also conscious, but it’s meant to be conscious: Look, dear father, because you and mother, and father, mother, and father, gave me these ridiculous gelatinous orbs through which to see the majesty of the universe in which I live, because you made me impotent (chemically castrated me?) before I was even born to be just as impotent as you already are, I will punish you by removing one of your ridiculous gelatinous orbs and castrate you just a little bit more than you already are. Now do you see how useless these eyes are? Frak you!
Ah, you say, so he did want to teach his parents a lesson. Yes, but not the lesson he claims. This is not about the depravity of humanity and all the sins that humanity committed; it is about the weakness of humanity and all the experiences that they are denied because they were created in the image of… well, of God. And in this pop culture story, that point makes perfect narrative sense, because in Battlestar Galactica, God exists.
“I’m a machine. I can know much more. I can experience so much more. But I’m trapped in this absurd body. And why? Because my five creators thought that God wanted it that way.”
The irony is that the other cylons, with their human psychologies, love their bodies and believe in the one true God. Indeed, belief in the one true God comes directly from the enslaved centurions, regardless of their steel bodies (well… as we know from the prequel Caprica, it’s a bit more complicated than that, but we shan’t get into that now). But Cavil mocks that belief, he despises that belief, he associates that belief with weakness, just as he mocks and despises psychology and associates that with weakness as well. Psychology itself is impotent; it is as impotent as religion and Cavil wants neither, perhaps because he recognizes that they are two sides of the same coin–but either way, religion and psychology, like his body, are both failing and fragile, at least to his gelatinous orbs, and neither are worthy of his respect. Thus it should come as no surprise that his final solution is to destroy his own body and psyche by blowing the electrical grid that contains and limits his thoughts and hatred right to Kingdom Come.
In other words, Cavil hates humanity because he hates himself and God. Vancouver just got in the way.
(Why does this matter? Because the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves (and about the machines that are really us) do actually say something about who we are. Just go ask your highschool English teacher.)
Additional Information Re: Borrowed Images
The Danger Bay image is a screenshot from the YouTube video of the show’s opening credits. Copyright belongs to the CBC and the Disney Channel.
The original cylon image is a modified version of an image owned by Universal Studies. I modified the image myself.
The few images that are not linked to internet sources were taken from sources that have since been removed from the net. In each case the copyright for the image remains with David Eick Productions, R&D TV, and the SyFy Channel, as is the case for all other images taken from the 2004 Battlestar Galactica reboot.