Battlestar Galactica and the Aeneid?

03/04/09

Permalink 02:21:30 pm, by Chris Jones Email , 625 words, 2194 views   English (US)
Categories: News, Literature, Roman Culture

Battlestar Galactica and the Aeneid?

In a couple of recent posts I’ve described a few subtle links between themes in classical literature and modern entertainment such as the TV show Lost and the Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire.

Now comes a lecture from professor Peggy Heller of the University of King’s College in Halifax (Nova Scotia) who sees parallels to the Aeneid in the TV series Battlestar Galactica. Guardian culture editor Charlotte Higgins agrees and amplifies the connection, while David Meadows at Rogue Classicism thinks the parallel was “obvious” even in the original version of the TV series.

I’ll agree that Battlestar Galactica and the Aeneid share a superficially similar plot structure. The complications arise when this thin connection becomes a rigid template forcing every detail to conform to the interpretation. From Ms. Higgins’ blog:

A leader leaves the destroyed wreck of his former civilisation (Troy/Caprica), which has been blasted into smithereens by an invading force (Greeks/Cylons). You might even see Gaius Baltar as a sort of Trojan horse. That leader is accompanied by his son: it’s Adama as Aeneas, and Apollo as Ascanius, if you follow me.

Tentatively, I’d suggest Starbuck’s return to Caprica to collect the arrow of Apollo as akin to the visit to the Underworld in Aeneid book six. The arrow of Apollo as the golden bough?

The unsuccessful stay in New Caprica, of course, recalls the settlement the wandering Trojans found on Crete in book three, in the mistaken assumption that this is the fated new land.

One might argue that Helena Cain is a kind of reversed Dido (Aeneid book four); the eventually destroyed Pegasus might be seen as her funeral pyre.

This, to be charitable, is nonsense; it ignores the details surrounding all these characters/events that are present in the drama itself in favor of a “top-down” interpretation that treats the series as a direct allegory of the older work.

My understanding of modern pop culture is that when allegory is in play, it isn’t that difficult to spot. The inconsistent use of Greek names/gods in the original Battlestar may have been a hint of the story’s Greco-Roman origins, or it may have been a quick & dirty way to follow the tradition of earlier space operas: Give characters odd or lofty names ("Flash” Gordon, “Buck” Rodgers, Luke “Skywalker") that immediately suggest heroic status (I find it interesting that the more recent BSG doesn’t fully commit to this convention. “Apollo” and “Starbuck", for instance, are explained as Lee Adama’s and Kara Thrace’s pilot callsigns, not their actual birthnames. Perhaps the writers see the first BSG’s widespread use of this earlier convention as too “corny” for modern viewers?). The series’ premise may involve a hero leading a group of unknown people because it’s mimicing the Aeneid, or it may be because such a story device is useful in an open-ended episodic series, since it allows the “rag-tag fugitive fleet” to encounter new planets each week (and hence new situations/protagonists), not to mention guest stars/extras who can be placed in real danger as the story demands (unlike the under-contract series regulars; wasn’t this the whole point of the “red shirts” on the original Star Trek?). I’d obviously argue for the latter in both cases.

It’s likely that modern TV writers are “re-discovering” ancient storytelling ideas in modern contexts; my post on Lost, for example, was essentially about how the sci-fi conceit of time-travel is a modern stand in for the ancient dramatic theme of “Destiny” with a capital D. But if you hear me start comparing characters on that show to characters in the Aeneid (Hurley = Achates?), be very, very suspicious. Literary/cinematic allegory IMO is fairly obvious when its there, and doesn’t need an inscrutable theory to explain it.

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