From the Hebrew Bible’s revelation of the likeness of god, to the Indian mystic Ramakrishna’s deep spiritual trances, to the ecstatic and sensual relationship between St. Theresa of Avila and her Christ, to Philip K. Dick’s post-dentistry encounter with Rome, and beyond, religious and prophetic visions appear again and again throughout human history.
And, just as visions have always existed, so have those wanting to analyze the experience. Some of those analysts claim visions are symptoms of mental illness or distress. Some believe the human brain is wired to have these spiritual and religious experiences. Some dissect their visions in order to better understand themselves, their faith, and their relationship to god(s). Dick himself wrote an 8,000-page exploration of his visions called Exegesis that offers several of his own theories regarding the genesis of his visions, including extraterrestrial intervention, alternate dimensions, and mental illness. When his visions faded, Dick attempted suicide, having felt that the divine had abandoned him.
Religious visions continue to be a topic of much debate within the psychology of religion, religious communities, and the wider world. It is where the impossible and the scientific collide that Battlestar Galactica captures so beautifully.
Forty years after the human-Cylon armistice began, and on Caprica, a planet not that much different from Earth, humanity is overthrown and decimated. The Cylons have returned, but they are no longer the metallic machines humans made them to be. Instead, they have assumed a limited number of humanoid forms, which is how they have infiltrated and invaded Caprica.
Galactica and her crew are preparing for the ship’s decommission when the attack takes place. Together with the few civilians present on the ship, they escape, hoping to survive traveling through space with a fleet of ships including Colonial One, the ship of newly minted President Laura Roslin.
A major character in the series is famous scientist Gaius Baltar, who unwittingly aids a Cylon called Caprica Six in infiltrating Caprica’s defense systems. He conceals this fact and is recruited to serve as chief science advisor for the president.
A funny thing starts to happen to Baltar once he’s onboard Galactica: He begins to see Caprica Six everywhere. No one else can see his lover slash Cylon, who appears crueler and colder than her non-vision counterpart. Vision Six consistently appears to Baltar, manipulating him and helping him in equal parts. Baltar wonders if he’s a Cylon or if there was a chip implanted in his brain that causes the visions, but neither theory is true.
Vision Six proves to be a stalwart ally to Baltar, telling him that she’s "an angel of God sent here to protect you, to guide you, and to love you."
Meanwhile, President Roslin, who was Secretary of Education and 43rd in line for the presidency at the time of the Cylon attack, grapples with terminal breast cancer while trying to lead a fleet of scared and lost refugees. Right around when she is given six months to live, she begins to have intense visions which just so happen to match the Pythian Prophecy. It turns out the visions are caused by a hallucinogenic pharmacological drug called chamalla that Roslin uses due to her battle with cancer.
While that explains the catalyst for her visions, it does not explain their uncanny prescience, nor how her visions match the prophecy written by Pythia 3,600 years earlier. The prophecy states that a human exodus would be led by a dying leader who would take them to the promised land. As you might imagine, realizing she fulfills a prophecy leads Roslin to become very devout to the polytheistic beliefs common to the humans of the Twelve Colonies. Not only does she experience a personal religious epiphany, but Roslin also follows her visions to a temple that reveals the path to Earth, to their promised land.
Though Roslin survives her first bout with cancer, she finds herself battling the disease a second time. With it, she returns to using chamalla and having prophetic visions.
Many of the elements and themes present in Battlestar Galactica reflect the Mormon faith of creator Glen A. Larson, which only further highlights the role of visions in the series. The Mormon faith itself was founded based on The First Vision. In 1820, Joseph Smith went into the woods to consider his faith and was afflicted by an unseen, otherworldly baddie. Before it could hurt him, he was rescued by two figures, who many interpret to be Jesus and God. The figures told him all the churches in existence were wrong and, so, Smith founded the Latter-Day Saint movement.
Visions, thus, are not suspect within the world of Larson. Nor, then, must they be explained by scientific or other reasons in Battlestar Galactica. But the series goes out of its way to explain how these visions come to be. As noted above, Roslin’s visions are induced by a drug. What of Baltar’s visions?
First, it must be noted that later in the series not only does Baltar see Vision Six, but Caprica Six, in a new body, has visions of Baltar. The series explains these phenomena by asserting that Caprica Six and Baltar’s consciousnesses are intertwined because of his proximity when she was downloaded from Caprica (her body was killed in an explosion during the invasion); however, at the end of the series, Baltar and Caprica Six are together and they both see Vision Six and Vision Baltar, who explain that they are messengers of god. They tell Baltar and Caprica Six to protect the human-Cylon hybrid who will be the future of both races. Hm. Two beings appear and tell people of a holy mission in a vision. Sure sounds familiar.
Battlestar Galactica presents visions as real, surreal, and unreal, challenging any simple explanation, particularly because the visions have both immediate and far-reaching impacts. And, part of the purpose of those red herrings above is to present viewers, and the characters in the narrative, with a soothing, logical explanation for something utterly impossible. It’s as if the narrative itself wants viewers to believe everything is explicable and predictable, only to force them to confront that there’s no way to know anything for certain.
Roslin has drug-induced visions that fulfill a polytheistic prophecy and lead the fleet closer to Earth. Baltar and Caprica Six see monotheistic messengers no one else can see who charge them with the care of the child who is the future of human and Cylon kind alike. Perhaps rather being an exploration of the clashing of two species so unlike one another that they are at war — as illustrated by their mono- and polytheistic faiths — Battlestar Galactica is instead the story of how, in the end, we all need each other to survive, regardless of our beliefs, our appearances, or how we came to be.