The most cited article I’ve ever written was also my first professional publication: “Why Your Mormon Neighbor Knows More About This Shows Than You Do” in Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy from Open Court Press (not to be confused with the Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy from Blackwell Press).
One reason I wrote that article was that while there were a few scattered articles, websites, and other venues that acknowledged LDS/Mormon influence on the original show (and the faint traces of it in the more recent version), nearly all of them got something wrong – often egregiously so.
And while my essay has been cited a few times since then, it doesn’t seem to have improved matters much. A quick survey of BSG related academic work shows most scholars who write on this stuff have not read my essay. Since there’s not a whole lot written on the topic, ignorance is no excuse; many just aren’t doing the da[ng] research. However, there are some happy exceptions here and there.
However, the history of writing on BSG and “Mormonism is overall a dismal one. In Smart Pop’s So Say We All, for example, the only essay that deals with Mormonism and the show is so terrible I have to believe the actual editors (as opposed to the celebrity guest editor Richard Hatch who likely had nothing to do with selecting or fact checking any of the essays) just didn’t care about quality or truth. That essay uses a very clearly anti-Mormon book One Nation Under Gods to argue the new BSG is closer to LDS theology because the Colonials are polytheistic and Mormons also worship multiple gods (which – well, we could get into debates about monotheism vs. henotheism, but even if you claim we’re really henotheistic, we are not in any practical sense polytheistic, since we don’t “worship” multiple gods).
The first academic article to really make any hay of the issue of Mormonism and BSG was back in 1983, when BYU professor James E. Ford published “Battlestar Galactica” and Mormon Theology” in the Journal of Popular Culture. It’s fairly good, even if all he does is just point out the similarities between the show and LDS theology (he doesn’t really do much with it beyond that). However, it’s clear he didn’t double check his details or have a copy edit of any sort – James Talmage is called “Talmade” and the character Baltar is called “Boltar.” However, his most interesting claim (one I disagree with) is that the use of LDS theology in the show come across as “generalized and philosophied [sic].”
This is much like Orson Scott Card’s claim that BSG is no more than superficially LDS. This may even seem true, as An Analytical Guide to Television Battlestar Galactica only mentions Mormonism in passing twice, once to call series creator Glen A. Larson a “former Mormon” and another to mention he was raised Mormon. While the book is otherwise exhaustive on detailing myth, folklore, and other raw material for the worldbuilding of the show, somehow LDS theology just never figures into this analytical guide. On the other hand, if you read my essay, I argue that the original series is, at its core, quite “Mormon” but that because it’s in a deep layer and most people are quite ignorant of LDS theology and belief, later writers and creators (especially in the comics and novels that try to continue the original series) either ignore it completely or get it bizarrely wrong.
As one final note, I have never been able to track down series creator Glen A. Larson’s status as a Church Member. Attempts to contact him directly never went anywhere. One source refers to him as a “former Mormon”, yet I have had a few people (online, so you know you can totally trust them!) who said they had met him that he was either active or inactive or indifferent or even outright apostate. Schrodinger’s Mormon, I guess.
However, here is a copy of the program from his funeral, for those interested:
That’s really interesting. The place and organization of the funeral plus the obituary’s direct statement would seem to be evidence that Larson was not a “former” church member in any sense but a lifelong member of some kind.
You bring back some great memories, Ivan, of internet discussions in past years. I had never seen that funeral program before — thanks for making it available. Lots of fun, and fuel for more discussion.
As someone who watched Battlestar Galactica before I joined the church, I know how easy it is to miss the church connection and just see it as Dukes of Star Wars (which at the time was a big compliment). But after joining the church and seeing the episode where the temple full of angels shows up….
There are some who care a lot about delineating a person’s “status” in the church, as Ivan puts it. They consider it important to let it be known that they are faithful church members, and they want to be clear about where other members are on a spectrum of commitment and faithfulness. Glen Larson was not one of these people. When I was growing up in the same area as his family, I almost never saw him at church meetings. By that standard, many would have considered him an “inactive” member. On the other hand, he was clear with anyone who asked that he was a Mormon. His religion constituted part of his identity, and he made no apology for it. He participated in the ward as he saw fit. For example, he opened his home for youth firesides that I attended.
Larson was a Mormon who showed no particular anxiety that I could see about what other Mormons thought of his religious observance. He simply owned who he was when it came to religion. That attitude had something in common with his career as a television producer. Television is not really a high artistic medium—and it was far less so in the 1970s and 80s than it is now. Larson was smart and tenacious about the business of making popular TV shows. He didn’t make any pretensions about the artistic quality of his productions, which were often derivative and silly. If they were popular, that’s what counted. By doing popular work, he managed to make a real cultural impact from within the constraints of his medium.
Battlestar Galactica might be the best example of that. It was a quickie TV take-off on Star Wars, made to exploit the popularity of that massive movie hit. It had robots with flashy lights, but it still looked cheap in the way that television series of the 1970s always had lower production values than movies of the time. What makes it last is the same thing that made so many of Larson’s productions memorable: Larson grasped the kernel of a catchy idea. On some of his shows that catchy idea was just dumb, like the series that starred a talking sports car, or the one that made a smirking actor the sidekick to a chimpanzee.
The idea behind Battlestar Galactica was not dumb. It was about genocide and apocalypse. When Larson’s Battlestar Galactica was new, people didn’t talk about the series in such a stark way because the show handled its theme by dousing it in tinsel and fast-paced action. The lowness of the series made it seem silly to take its themes seriously. (Only later did it become an early example of interesting discussions at the intersection of nerd culture and academia.) The show was canceled after one season. It has lasted in our popular culture because the foundation of the idea was worked out well enough that it burrowed into our consciousness, or maybe our subconscious. Larson worked hard and successfully to make some cheap contributions to our popular culture. Battlestar Galactica, cheap though it is, is the one that transcended and endured.
In my essay, I said something like “outside concern for the eternal destiny of his soul, his current status [he was alive at the time] in the Church is probably irrelevant to understanding Battlestar Galactica.”
I have heard, pretty consistently, that some of his children and grandchildren are fairly active in the Church.
On Loursat’s comment –
I recall an interview with Larson where he said (paraphrased) “you can’t pitch anything original to the networks. They will always ask you what else is like this and is that a hit or not? If you do have an original idea, it will quickly become a copy of some other successful show.”
Loursat, one correction: The show with the talking car was awesome, and I will not consider alternate views.
I don’t disagree. One secret of Larson’s success is that a show can be awesome and dumb at the same time. There’s no shame in that.