Introduction to the Structure of the Book
(Excerpt from Chapter 1)

Scope and Outline of the Investigation

The genre of science fiction, fantasy and horror is the place for the grand gesture, for the sweeping tale binding past, present and future into one large narrative. Good and evil, destiny and freedom, fate and choice -- the crucible of the allegorical allows for more than what is already visible in real life. Fictionality and allegory provide the free space to indulge in fantasy, as much as in thinly veiling controversial issues of today in a world of tomorrow or in a universe far, far away.

Safely removed from the considerations of technical correctness regarding genuinely real procedures which haunt each police drama or courtroom show, other genres of almost similar density, the more fantastical can concentrate on mythology, derived or proper. It does not really matter whether a transporter malfunction on the starship Voyager is depicted correctly; nobody would know that anyway except the geeks, and even if a technical manual existed, it could be easily overridden by pulling a new rabbit out of the hat once a new episode or series is launched. What matters, though, is what is usually referred to as "humanity:" the true (or flawed) depiction of feelings, drives, dreams, hopes, fears and archetypal situations. Psychology and philosophy, and religion, too, are at the center of the fantastic; the details of the how are just, well, details.

This study sets out to investigate the dogmatic core of that emotional and philosophical center, namely the occurrence of religious themes in several recent or contemporary American television series. The concepts of religion as shown in the respective texts will be examined in the context of the medium (television), the fantastical hyper-genre, and allegedly American cultural values such as individualism, freedom of choice vs. concepts of collectivism, destiny and fate.

Structure of the Book

While there exists a theoretical focus based on established theories in literary and cultural studies underlying the analysis of the material given in Part Two (Chapters 3-7), and which will be subsequently introduced, Chapter 2 explores the perspective of memetics as a further approach to the topic. As memetic theory features what can be called a bottom-up perspective of culture, delivering a different reading of cultural artifacts that is not yet widely applied in literary and cultural criticism, this will need some introduction. Thus a brief overview of memetic theory will be provided in order to establish the argument in how far this theoretical model might be applied to subjects of literary and cultural studies.

Subsequently, five television franchises are introduced, and a critical reading of the outlined themes will be provided. This encompasses, amongst other elements, the analysis of story, character development, narrative strategies, selected motifs, and the American cultural imaginary. The rather large number of television shows discussed results from the comparative perspective chosen. The series introduced in Chapters 3-7 have all created franchises, they have spawned, so to say: One show has been either expanded into another, or a sequel has been produced, or a series with a similar character and style[1] has been created by the same production team. Thus they will be treated like twin or parent/offspring phenomena. The analysis of each franchise will look at an issue constitutive for the particular series, but important throughout the genre. The franchises are:

  • Chapter 3: The X-Files (1993-2002) and Millennium (1996-1999). Created and produced by Chris Carter et al., these series deal with the investigation of so-called paranormal phenomena, conspiracy theories, millennialism, apocalyptic visions and religious experience. The two shows are distinct entities but are related in many ways with regard to topic, visual style, music, overall atmosphere, depictions of society, and religious outlook. The leitmotif for this chapter will be the Errand into the Wilderness, in relation to these and other crucial texts under discussion.

  • Chapter 4: Babylon 5 ("B5," 1994-1998 plus subsequent TV movies) and Crusade (1999). The epic narrative that constitutes the universe as created by J. Michael Straczynski tells a story filled with tales of ancient god-like beings, prophecy, fate and destiny, and technology indistinguishable from magic. Both shows are connected and function less as separate entities but as parts of the same story. The central focus herein lies in the depiction of authority, the resistance to authority, and a merging between political and religious rhetoric.

  • Chapter 5: Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) and Angel (1999-2004). Vampires, demons, gods, demigods, souls, fate, destiny, and epic struggles abound in a tale about emancipation and the fight between good and evil that is spread over two television shows which share a common mythology. The chapter will concentrate on individual responsibility, emancipation from stereotypes, and the "soul."

  • Chapter 6: Stargate: SG-1 (1997-2007) and Stargate: Atlantis (2004-2009). The fight against aliens posing as gods, or possessing god-like powers, as well as the investigation into a mythical past which plays on many religious themes constitute the background of the Stargate franchise. The scientific perspective, however, governs the outlook of these series and is actively contrasted with obscurantist and exploitative religious foes. Science, pseudoscience and Euhemerism will serve as the central points for this chapter.

  • Chapter 7: Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) and Star Trek: Voyager (1994-2001). The religious "problem" of the soul becomes manifest in the artificial life characters of the android Data and the holographic Doctor. Since its beginnings in the 1960s, the various Star Trek television series and films have explored the nature of what we understand as "humanity," a discussion which is most poignant when applied to non-biological life. Thus the leitmotif for the final case study will consist in artificial intelligence and the problem of the soul.

After the exposition of the various candidates for analysis, Chapter 8 supplements these by discussing several reoccurring features which are related to religious thinking and which are common to all the franchises investigated, plus some series in the closer vicinity. This summary is made in order to discern specific patterns. Chapter 9 connects the findings of Chapter 8 and the case studies in a comparative mode with the theoretical bodies established and referred to in Chapters 1 and 2, thus underlining the complementary nature of most of literary and cultural theory, and placing memetic theory inside the context of already established theories. Specifically, the memetic perspective will be utilized for a new approach towards genre theory. Chapter 10 serves as a conclusion.

[1] "Style" or "look" herein means a combination of audio-visual (lighting, color, camera angles and movement, kinds of music, effects etc.) and also some narrative elements (pace, amount of exposition given, buildup of action, frantic multitasking or linear storytelling) creating an idiosyncratic text different from other shows.