Mythic Mentor Figures and Liminal Sacred Spaces in Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica
The alien known as the Doctor in the open-ended time-travel adventure series Doctor Who (2005-Present) and the fighter pilot Starbuck in the post-apocalyptic survival drama Battlestar Galactica (2003-9) engage with notions of heroic identity that are shaped as much by the narrative requirements of the series’ production contexts as by mythic convention. Both series are remakes of earlier programs, and while their original incarnations invoke mythic patterns, the development of mythic character identity in both modern series reflects developments scholar Michael Z. Newman has identified in the modern era of serial television, particularly in the shows’ emphasis on seasonal and character arcs over episodic narratives (23). Both Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica consciously utilize elements of the mythic structure of the hero’s journey to suit the needs of their drastically different narrative models. Doctor Who is a series designed to run perpetually, replacing actors and production teams, while Battlestar Galactica is explicitly designed as a quest narrative with humanity’s discovery of Earth serving as the teleological end point. Despite using many of the same mythic structures to construct their character arcs, the two series present myth in significantly different ways as a result of their divergent narrative goals.
In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell outlines his theory of the prevalence of narratives about heroic figures, referred to as the monomyth. These narratives follow a figure who originates from a society undergoing a transformation, where he or she sheds the culturally constructed limitations of the birth society through travel to a sacred liminal space. These heroic figures return, bearing some form of benefit to their society inaccessible to those who have not traveled to the sacred space. Campbell’s work has been criticized as falsely universalist and reductionist (Doty 55; Keller 54), and its universality is not tremendously well suited to discussions on the societal function of myths, as Percy S. Cohen notes:
[N]one of this interpretation of the symbols of myth, none of the analysis of the mechanisms of mythical presentation, none of the likening of myth to day-dream, explains why men construct myths rather than just any other day-dreams ..., why these myths ring true for others, and why the sharing of myths is a significant social and cultural fact. (341)
While this criticism of Campbell’s style of mythic analysis emphasizes potential limitations in the interpretation of the significance of mythology relative to larger cultural trends, the deliberate and self-reflexive use of mythological structures within both Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica avoids these issues by emphasizing the artificiality of their myths as narrative constructions. This artificiality can be seen in Commander Adama lying about the location of Earth to transform humanity’s flight into a mythic journey, or through Martha traversing the Earth to create the myth of the Doctor. Rather than affirming the validity of this theory as a tool for examining histories and mythologies of various world cultures, it can instead be used as a framework to examine how these shows meet the expectations placed on a modern serial television drama. In discussing the narrative model of the journey, Lily Alexander emphasizes the importance of danger or obstacles, even when artificially created by an author, to the transformative process:
In the narratives of the journey, the rules of storytelling, and perhaps the author, who mount[s] barriers and obstacles for the heroes, are preventing them from completing their goal — that of passing the test of symbolic ritual journey and achieving spiritual transformation. The heroes’ ordeal intensifies when a landscape becomes a hazard, as well as when the thrills of height, and the mortal risks of fall become part of the journey. (28)
It is in the context of this artificial peril that Campbell’s attempt at a more universal theory of the hero narrative remains useful, as both series entertain somewhat malleable constructions of myth that are shaped more by the necessities of their production than by their relation to mythologies of specific national or ethnic cultures. The episodic conflicts and consistent series settings are often reconfigured intentionally as transformative spaces, as when the TARDIS serves as both a primary location and the location of the development of companion characters into heroic figures in Doctor Who. The outline of Campbell’s monomyth thus becomes a lens for reading the transformative processes built into the structure of the modern television drama season.
The modern incarnations of both series focus on the role of heroic figures and the mentor figures who allow them to undertake a mythic transformation. This is similar to the archetypal relationship Campbell suggests, noting that:
The hero is covertly aided by the advice, amulets, and secret agents of the supernatural helper whom he met before his entrance into this region. Or it may be that he here discovers for the first time that there is a benign power everywhere supporting him in his superhuman passage. (89)
Both programs replicate the function of this mentor archetype repeatedly in their serial narrative structure through chains of heroic mentoring in which part of the construction of heroism includes a process wherein the heroic figures aid in the mythic, heroic transformation of other characters. Commander Adama mentors Starbuck, who mentors fellow pilot Kat in Battlestar Galactica. Similarly, the Doctor mentors a variety of companion characters who complete heroic acts, including Martha’s perilous journey around the world to rescue the Doctor. While this narrative structure is shared, the differing teleological narrative structures and goals of each program shape the way in which these mythic stories are told. Doctor Who’s perpetually continuing, temporally dislocated narrative requires that heroic figures survive and exit the narrative, while Battlestar Galactica’s teleological structure mandates the sacrifice of heroic figures in order to ensure the completion of narrative processes, outside of which their mythic hero status lacks meaning.
The Doctor is the sole surviving member of a civilization destroyed before the advent of the modern series, and as an immortal alien he exists in both a cultural and narrative space of difference, which is central to his function as a heroic figure. While the Doctor’s companion characters were intended to be clearly defined, the Doctor was designed to be a mysterious figure whose origin and true nature would always be at least partially withheld from the audience. Original producer Sydney Newman emphasized this conception of the Doctor in the initial planning documents for the series, noting that:
These are the characters we know and sympathize with, the ordinary people to whom extraordinary things happen. The [Doctor]remains always something of a mystery, and is seen by us rather than through the eyes of the other three. (Newman and Webber 1)
His outsider status allows the Doctor to recognize the unsettling and monstrous problems within the various societies he visits. Alec Charles notes “[t]he Doctor’s talent (as an alien and as an innocent) is to see what is everywhere but what people have chosen not to see, that which has been secreted away below” (9). As Amy-Chinn Dee notes, the Doctor chose his title “because he wanted to make people better (morally as well as physically, in that he often acts as a catalyst for personal heroism)” (241). These elements are central to the construction of the Doctor as a character who assists others and functions as a mythological heroic figure.
Portrayed by an aesthetically and ostensibly British human being, the Doctor operates as a de-facto member of human society. His immortality and alien nature represent the departure from human society required of the mythological hero. Indeed, the constancy of the character’s regenerative ability reinforces this process while a number of actors undergo this transformation both inside and outside of the narrative. It is particularly significant in this context that the Doctor’s role in the serial narrative of the seasons is frequently that of a mentor to his various human companions. In this construct, the benefit that he provides to human society is primarily his ability to teach others to recognize and confront societal ills that could be otherwise overlooked. This process is demonstrated by a conversation between the Doctor and his companion Donna Noble in the fourth season episode “Planet of the Ood”:
DONNA. A great big empire, built on slavery.
THE DOCTOR. It’s not so different from your time.
DONNA. Oy! I haven’t got slaves!
THE DOCTOR. Who do you think made your clothes?
DONNA. Is that why you travel round with a human at your side? It’s not so you can show them the wonders of the universe, it’s so you can take cheap shots?
This exchange highlights the role of the Doctor in teaching companions to examine injustices within their own society. The alien or temporally shifted historical settings of the various episodic narratives serve as transformational spaces for the human companions as the Doctor guides them through a process of participating in heroic actions in order to further their development into figures of moral agency within their own societies.
The long-term narrative structure of Doctor Who is designed without a specific teleological endpoint, though the modern series makes use of the seasonal arc as a primary narrative structure. While he is discussing the role of paradoxes in the time travel narratives of Doctor Who, Matt Hills’ emphasis on the season finale as a disruptive narrative force within the series is particularly important to the completion of the transformation from a mentored companion to a legitimate heroic figure with independent agency. As Hills notes:
[t]he regular appearance of time paradoxes at the end of series’ runs suggests that the confusion of ordinary cause and effect is linked to the need to produce moments of massive narrative shock or revelation.... The motif and structure of the temporal paradox enables the disruption of character identities, allowing unexpected and unpredictable narrative twists by suspending norms of diegetic logic. (97)
These moments of narrative shock function as the author-created barriers and obstacles Alexander discusses, and the characters must overcome these circumstances through their enactment of heroic behaviours, including Martha’s heroic journey in “Last of the Time Lords,” the third season finale. In this episode, the Doctor has been imprisoned and enfeebled by his longtime foe the Master, and Martha travels secretly through a dystopian near-future version of Earth, setting up a resistance that ultimately restores the Doctor simply by willing him back into his regular form. In the absence of the Doctor as a heroic figure, companion characters must fill the void both inside and outside their travels with him. Indeed, this process is central to the construction of both the Torchwood and Sarah Jane Adventures spin-off series, which follow the heroic deeds of former companions. Having saved both the Doctor and the world, Martha departs the series as a full-time companion. She intends to return to her family and to complete her medical studies, thus becoming a doctor in both a technical and symbolic sense. Martha returns to the narrative in times of extreme crisis, including during the extended episodes at the end of David Tennant’s run as the Tenth Doctor, reinforcing the importance of television narrative structure to the way in which the series formulates mythic narratives as central transformative moments for mythic figures and moments of heroic sacrifice are frequently contained within season finales or special episodes.
TThe increased focus on familial relationships in the restored modern series emphasizes this aspect of the Doctor’s personality by exposing the audience to more of the context from which these companion characters originate. Because Doctor Who remains a continuous narrative, the Doctor’s construction remains true to the original design document in maintaining the sense of mystery around him, perpetually creating and recreating him as a figure out of time, place and species. As Campbell notes:
[t]he paradox of creation, the coming of the forms of time out of eternity, is the germinal secret of the father. It can never be quite explained. Therefore, in every system of theology there is an umbilical point, an Achilles tendon which the finger of mother life has touched, and where the possibility of perfect knowledge has been impaired. The problem of the hero is to pierce himself (and therewith his world) precisely through that point; to shatter and annihilate that key knot of his limited existence. (135)
The Doctor’s mysterious nature and immortality allow him to play a number of roles within a structure of multiple hero narratives that are similar to Campbell’s description. He serves as both hero and mentor, shaping the notion of sacred spaces and cultural boundaries from a position that is both perpetually Othered and also the site of ultimate narrative agency. The Doctor is a heroic figure, using a stolen time machine to access what is forbidden to others, and he guides human companions through the process of growing beyond their societal limitations. Through these roles he is able to escape the limited existence described by Campbell and to provide his companions with a space in which to attempt the same transformation.
The Doctor’s TARDIS time machine functions as a form of portable liminal sacred space for his companion characters, representing a home divorced from time, regular spaces and the laws of physics. While the TARDIS is a Time Lord invention, their absence from the series and the capacity of the TARDIS to be recreated and redesigned shape the space of the ship as divorced from any cultural or temporal specificity. The alien nature of the space is reinforced by the repeated motif of first time visitors experiencing confusion in discovering the ship is bigger on the inside. During the time characters spend with the Doctor, the TARDIS becomes a home space which creates a new form of miniaturized society. In each episode the Doctor must enact the role of the hero in order to regain access to the homeland and society created within the boundaries of the TARDIS. In this way and as part of the heroic myth structure, the TARDIS functions as both a point of departure and a point of return in to and out of episodic liminal spaces of heroic development. Indeed, the Doctor is often at his most vulnerable or marginalized when return to the TARDIS is restricted.
Isolating the Doctor from the TARDIS provides the series with an episodic structure, as the Doctor and companions are forced to enact heroic patterns of behaviour in order to survive when time-travel cannot be used to solve problems. An example of this isolation is the episode “Blink,” where the Doctor is stranded in a different time period from the TARDIS and is thus reduced to marginal spaces of limited agency. Sally Sparrow is the central focus of the episode, and the Doctor serves as a guide to her attempts to both rescue him and to survive the Weeping Angels, figures that appear as statues and attack when no one is looking directly at them. While Sally is never completely divorced from her societal position, her connection with the Weeping Angels in the pseudo-supernatural marginal space represented by the abandoned rural home that serves as the primary location for the episode serves as her societal departure. In order to maintain her temporal position, Sally is required to contravene the standard human autonomic response of blinking to keep her eyes focused on the Weeping Angels at all times. The notion of an unblinking figure of agency and vigilance thus constructs Sally as an unusual figure for her society: even the Doctor and Martha are shifted into the past as they are unable to maintain the level of vigilance required.
It is particularly significant that, as the Doctor is separated from the sacred space of the TARDIS by his failure of vigilance. Stripped of his time-travel abilities, the Doctor must communicate in ways conducive to surviving undiscovered for decades. Indeed, the methods the Doctor uses to communicate with Sally are particularly effective in emphasizing the divide between the Doctor as a mythic hero and the Doctor as a mythic mentor. The past becomes a space of communication, as Sally must discover and decipher clues the Doctor has hidden under the wallpaper and on DVDs. The Doctor thus communicates through a mythologized temporal space, devoid of direct agency in the contemporary setting outside of his capacity to provide clues for Sally. He is marginalized in a manner that requires he communicate only through the personal tastes and cultural position of his mentee, aiding Sally to enact the role of the hero by using the sacred space of the TARDIS to trap the Weeping Angels. Sally thus follows the “separation-initiation-return” model Campbell suggests is the “nuclear unit of the monomyth (28) as a result of the Doctor’s mentoring. The Doctor is thus a mythical hero figure within the temporal past, here created as a sacred space by the narrative structure remaining in the present despite the absence of the central characters of the program. This is emphasized by his position in the marginal space typically associated with the monstrous or dehumanized enemies of typical episodes in the series, who are typically presented as unable or unwilling to operate within the rules or power structures of the society established as the focus of a particular episode. The revelation that Sally initially provided him with the clues leading to her rescue functions both as the completion of the return portion of her monomyth and a reversal of her initial role as she thus mentors the Doctor in a way that ensures they both successfully complete a single-episode mythic arc, linking their chain of mentoring in a paradoxical time-loop.
The Doctor, as the primary figure of agency within the narrative and within the diegetic world of the show, is also capable of enforcing the boundaries of the sacred spaces in which he operates. This serves the requirements of the series’ endless narrative structure, allowing him to indefinitely delay the return to his original society that would signify the conclusion of his travels. During “The End of Time Part Two,” the Doctor is forced to maintain this boundary by foiling the Master’s plan to release the timelock that has kept the events of the Time Lord-Dalek Time War separate from the extant universe. The Doctor’s decision to attack the technological apparatus making the restoration possible and not the Time Lords reinforces the Doctor’s association with Campbell’s model of the hero operating outside of societal rules, demonstrating that he is “the man […] who has been able to battle past his personal and historical limitations” (18). His decision to shield the universe from his own society reinforces Alec Charles’ description of him as an innocent (9), though the series suggests this innocence is a behaviour learned from his companions. Indeed, after the loss of two companions in “The Angels Take Manhattan,” River Song warns him not to travel alone, implying that the absence of companions to keep him actively engaged in a heroic project could be destructive.
The Doctor demonstrates the series’ malleable relationship with mythological structures as he remains a perpetual heroic figure and mentor rather than permanently returning to his own society. Despite this decision he still seeks to reestablish connections with individual Time Lords. The Doctor is even drawn into a trap in “The Doctor’s Wife” by a creature that uses Time Lord distress signals, and then transfers the consciousness of the TARDIS into a human body. This personified version of the TARDIS is referred to as Idris, and she explains the unreliable and unpredictable navigation of the ship during her time with the Doctor in this exchange:
THE DOCTOR. You know, since we’re talking with mouths, not really an opportunity that comes along very often, I just wanna say, you know, you have never been very reliable.
IDRIS. And you have?
THE DOCTOR. You didn’t always take me where I wanted to go.
IDRIS. No, but I always took you where you needed to go.
The revelation that the TARDIS’ unreliability is actually a form of intelligence directing the Doctor to where he is needed reshapes the concept of the Doctor as a figure of complete agency into one applying his agency within the context of an ad-hoc society constructed of partially human and partially Time Lord figures. As the agency and personality of the TARDIS are rarely acknowledged outside of this episode, she functions as a perpetually implied mentor for the Doctor, directing him toward problems across all times and places. This becomes his primary mode of existence, as he notes that he avoids days off in “Silence in the Library” when he states “I never land on Sundays. Sundays are boring.” Indeed, the personification of the TARDIS and the establishment of an interpersonal relationship construct the TARDIS as both sacred space and a participant in the new societal homeland of the TARDIS space by directing the Doctor’s heroic potential into a modified society that consists of his current companions. The heroic project of the Doctor thusly becomes post-temporal and also closely tied to the long-term narrative structure of the show as a whole. As the Doctor’s companions are continually replaced, he enacts the process of both functioning as a hero where the TARDIS chooses to take him, and also serving as the spiritual guide of Campbell’s model of the monomyth. The transfer between lead actors is also contextualized in this manner, as both the Ninth Doctor and the Tenth regenerate after sacrificing themselves to save a companion.
While Doctor Who emphasizes continual cycles of narrative regeneration and repetition, Battlestar Galactica follows a more traditional teleological narrative structure. Joseph Campbell notes that “[t]he happy ending of the fairy tale, the myth and the divine comedy of the soul, is to be read, not as a contradiction, but as a transcendence of the universal tragedy of man” (26). This model is crucial to understanding Battlestar Galactica, as the journey structure of the series requires high stakes and risks that directly shape the construction of heroic figures. The complexity of Battlestar Galactica is found in its approach to the gendered assumptions of the monomyth. Joseph Campbell notes that the guide or mentor figure in myth is frequently specifically identified as male:
Not infrequently, the supernatural helper is masculine in form. In fairy lore it may be some little fellow of the wood, some wizard, hermit, shepherd, or smith, who appears, to supply the amulets and advice that the hero will require. The higher mythologies develop the role in the great figure of the guide, the teacher, the ferryman, the conductor of souls to the afterworld. (66)
While Adama more closely corresponds to this part of Campbell’s model, Starbuck’s role as a heroic mentor and ultimately as a spiritual guide complicates this gendered conception of the mythological figure. At first glance Starbuck appears to overturn gendered expectations of the myth as her character was a male heroic figure in the original series, but Adama functions as a surrogate father in a way that reinforces her powerlessness during a traumatic childhood in which she suffered physical abuse. Indeed, the gendered nature of Starbuck’s past is an important part of her construction as a female hero. This is particularly clear during the third season, when Leoben, a cylon, or organic cyborg, keeps her captive in a pseudo-domestic situation during a brief attempt at planetary settlement. As Lorna Jowett notes, “[t]his image of domestic bliss might, for some, resonate with Leoben’s disturbing ‘playing house’ with [Starbuck] during the occupation of New Caprica” (75). Leoben manipulates her through suggestions that physical harm will come to a child if she is disobedient, and it is significant to the series’ problematic representation of gender that she ultimately must be rescued rather than escaping, as the sublimation of her personal narrative arc to societal power structures cannot be overcome until after her death in the third season finale.
Adama is the ostensible main character of the series and a mythic figure in his own right, but it is Starbuck who functions as the most crucial and complex mythological figure in the success of their intertwined teleological mythic arcs. As these two figures are so closely linked, a brief discussion of Adama’s mythic arc is necessary to contextualize his role as Starbuck’s mentor and later as a member of society benefiting from her return as a spiritual guide. Commander Adama functions both as the embodiment of Earth and as a focal point for the survival of humanity. His lie about knowing the location of the prophesied Earth creates a mythic destination in order to give humanity a unifying and motivating force, which inextricably links his societal role to the fulfillment of historical prophecies. Campbell describes the “composite hero of the monomyth [as] a personage of exceptional gifts. Frequently he is honored by his society, frequently unrecognized or disdained” (35). Adama holds a position of prestige, but his responsibilities as military leader supercede his agency as an individual outside of this role. Indeed, his societal immobility is so rigidly constructed that when the fleet settles on a planetary surface at the end of the second season, he remains in orbit. This is perhaps to be expected, as the name Adama, or a’dama, is the Hebrew word for earth (Gross 17), which suggests a direct connection between the commander and the series’ teleological destination of Earth.
Starbuck’s societal position is significantly shaped by the Campbell’s notion of the hero who is disdained (35). Hal Himmelstein notes that a primary type of television mythological and ideological structure is “[t]he triumph of personal initiative over the bureaucratic control and inefficiency of the state” (10). Starbuck’s role in the narrative as a monomythic hero is particularly evocative of this strain of ideological structure. Her introduction in the pilot miniseries is as an individualistic figure in frequent conflict with the authoritarian structures of the military. Starbuck and her superior officer Colonel Tigh have an antagonistic relationship centred on her disregard for authority and his alcohol diminished readiness for combat. As Matthew Jones notes:
[t]he price that Starbuck and the crew pay for letting their hair down, literally in her case, is a long and painful occupation of their new world by the Cylons. To seek this type of happiness through letting one’s guard down and allowing the indulgence of feminine ideals will, we are told, lead to disaster. (174)
This dynamic is not uncommon to military narratives, but in the context of Battlestar Galactica’s mythological framework it represents a crucial part of Starbuck’s engagement with the structures of the hero myth. She is presented as both a centrally important part of defense efforts and as someone who opposes orders from those who do not embody mythic qualities, as demonstrated by her relationship with Adama. Starbuck demonstrates extraordinary qualities through her piloting skills, demonstrated in the pilot miniseries when she executes a nearly impossible rescue maneuver. This helps situate her development into a heroic figure, as she is distinguished within her own society prior to undergoing transformation into a truly mythic figure. Commander Adama’s decision to free her from imprisonment in order to defend the fleet emphasizes her position as somewhat separate from society through the exemption from the societal and military law she violated in striking Colonel Tigh. Similar to the Doctor’s theft of the TARDIS, Starbuck’s anti-authoritarian leanings represent the monomythic hero’s efforts to exceed the boundaries of their society, though the fact that her long-term character arc follows the will of societal authority figures means hers is an incomplete departure. While it is significant that her departure to seek the Arrow of Apollo during the narrative of the first season is driven by the wishes of President Laura Roslin rather than the military order of Commander Adama, her departure is still prompted by the inherent societal power structures of her society. The journey to recover this artifact occurs at the end of the first season, demonstrating that, similar to Matt Hills’ emphasis on the intensifying nature of the season finale within the narrative structure of Doctor Who, Battlestar Galactica shapes crucial points of the myth-arc of characters around the needs of the television production model. While Doctor Who repeats this narrative arc with new characters, the teleological structure of Battlestar Galactica means that the roles of the extant characters must shift in order to construct a continuing narrative utilizing mythological structure and archetypal heroic behaviours.
While Starbuck recreates and embodies Campbell’s model of the heroic monomyth during the first season, she also replicates the process of mentoring during individual episodes. This can be seen in the second season episode “Scar” when Starbuck pursues a particularly skilled cylonraider beyond the range of return for her Viper fighter. The raider seems to have developed an individual identity previously thought impossible for this type of cylon, which is signified through damage to the raider’s exterior and the human characters nicknaming it Scar. With these abilities, Scar requires the intervention of a heroic figure to protect humanity. Starbuck ultimately uses her skill as a pilot in order to create an opportunity for fellow pilot Kat to take on a heroic role in destroying Scar, replicating the process of heroic figures mentoring the heroic development of others. After killing Scar, Kat’s societal standing improves, and her relationship with her superior officer Starbuck takes on a less combative edge. Kat’s death in the third season episode “The Passage” represents the completion of her mythic hero narrative, as she sacrifices herself to guide the fleet through a highly radioactive area. While characters mentored by the Doctor in Doctor Who tend to survive in order to serve as markers of the Doctor’s success, Kat’s personal sacrifice replicates the larger pattern followed by heroic figures within Battlestar Galactica, and her death represents the role of necessary risk Alexander notes in the development of mythological heroes (28).
In the first season episode “You Can’t Go Home Again,” Starbuck battles acylon raider and both ships eventually crash onto to an inhospitable planetary surface. She is forced to tear her way into the cylon ship to survive, discovering in the process that the raiders are actually organic creatures. The fact that the space where she undergoes her heroic transformation is within the actual body of her personal rival and cultural opponent is significant to the mythic narrative of the series as a whole. Starbuck undergoes the process of cultural separation from her society during a military engagement, contextualizing her mythic personal development within the sociopolitical and military aims and needs of her society. Within this particular episode, Starbuck departs from her society within a military context and the societal benefit she returns with is also understood within a military context. The cylon raider she brings in is both a military trophy and the literal body of the enemy. This process is representative of the way in which mythic structures function in conjunction with televisual narrative structures, as the use of the raider as a mythic transformational space provides a benefit to human society, completing a version of the mythic arc in a single episode, but also symbolically represents the process of human and cylon societal merger that becomes central to the completion of the teleological mythic arc of the series. The cylon thus serves as a liminal sacred space, and the end result of her actions is the merger of humans and cylons as a result of the completion of the mythic element of the overall series narrative. Starbuck is thus a tripartite figure, enacting the heroic model for human, societal and corporeal societal functions. This triplicate structure of heroic function constitutes the structure of Starbuck’s transition from person, to hero and ultimately to a figure of societal deliverance. The biological merger between human and cylon that creates the audience’s understanding of humanity during the series finale functions as both the benefit Starbuck brings to society as a result of her multi-part enacting of the hero myth, and also as the completion of her role as a supernatural spiritual guidance figure who saves humanity from otherwise guaranteed destruction through dwindling resources and failing technology.
Starbuck’s transformation into a spiritual guide allows her to mentor Adama and to usher humanity towards deliverance and the completion of the prophetic arc first outlined in the first season episode “The Hand of God.” Campbell describes the arrival of the archetypal guide, noting that “[w]hether dream or myth, in these adventures there is an atmosphere of irresistible fascination about the figure that appears suddenly as guide, marking a new period, a new stage, in the biography” (51). Her role in bringing the survivors of the second human-cylon war to a destination represents a temporary upending of the gendered mentor paradigm within the series, as she becomes Campbell’s ferryman and aids Adama in completing his own heroic arc, living up to the promise of his name and making his initially artificial myth into a reality. In the series finale, “Daybreak, Parts 2 & 3,” the combined human and cylon fleet, having destroyed the anti-merger portion of cylon society on their mothership, finds the actual planet Earth. Patrick Sharp notes that:
[T]he end of the series collapses back into an unproblematised colonial imagination where the humans and Cylon rebels join together to colonise the primitives of Earth. In the process, Starbuck’s gender-bending character transforms into an undead agent of divine providence who guides both humans and Cylons to their new manifest destiny. Her captivity experience is interpreted as part of the chain of events that positions her to carry out her divine mission as a pathfinder for colonial interests. (58)
The closure of the various mythic hero narratives in Battlestar Galactica is consistent with Campbell’s conception of heroic myths as foundational narratives, a process he describes by noting that “[t]he heroes become less and less fabulous, until at last, in the final stages of the various local traditions, legend opens into the common daylight of recorded time” (291). This process is made fairly explicit, as the purely spiritual Starbuck cannot exist in a historical space, and Adama, as a heroic figure, has no place within a historical human society after the completion of his teleological mythic function. Starbuck’s actions within the narrative serve to bind her closely to Adama as a mentoring figure, as her character arc serves to bring truth to the lie he tells in the pilot miniseries about knowing the location of Earth. His lie provides the human survivors with a salvation narrative, and the teleological endpoint of her mythic arc is to bring this narrative into the realm of historical truth through her own sacrifice. While both Martha’s storytelling in the third season of Doctor Who and Adama’s lie provide humanity with the hope to overcome obstacles as the myths behind these stories become true, the differing narrative designs of each series cause drastically different results. While the Doctor is restored to continue his adventures by the fulfillment of that particular myth, Starbuck blinks out of existence without a trace, and Adama sets up a new home separate from the new human society. This is in keeping with the series’ occasionally problematic representation of gender, as two female heroic figures, Kat and Starbuck, are ultimately killed as a result of enacting their mythic roles and the female President Roslin dies of cancer at the moment of her arrival at Earth, while Adama lives to see the successful completion of mythical and teleological goals of the series.
While Doctor Who emphasizes the development of a continuous string of companions and central actors, the narrative construction of the show is such that this process of replacement creates a perpetual cycle of heroic figures. The Doctor functions as a spiritual guide for his companion travelers and their transformation into mythic figures, while the TARDIS guides him in a similar fashion, creating him as a mysterious figure in a perpetual cycle of enacting the roles of both mythic hero and mythic mentor. This allows the series to maintain a perpetual cycle of heroic behaviour and narrative pattern. As the endpoint of Battlestar Galactica’s narrative is connected directly to human biological history, the narrative serves as what Geoff Ryman refers to as an “origin myth of the white homelands” (46). This closed-end narrative creates a structure in which heroic characters can permanently complete their heroic arc and thus cease to be necessary. As they complete the pattern of the monomyth, the narrative discards them, whether through literal death in Kat’s case, physical isolation in Adama’s case or literal death followed by spiritual negation in Starbuck’s case, these figures are removed from both their societies of origin and the narrative as a whole. Doctor Who constructs notions of sacred space as homeland that Battlestar Galactica’s militarily and societally grounded primary settings cannot mirror, as transformational experiences happen primarily in the void of outer space. It is revealed in “A Good Man Goes to War” that the daughter of two companions was actually conceived in the TARDIS, and her partial Time Lord status reinforces the series construction of the ship as both a home space and a sacred space as she becomes the product of her pseudo-societal origin as much as her biology. Indeed, as the Doctor is capable of traveling to any time period and reshaping portions of history through his heroic agency, it is crucially important that most of his companions survive their travels with him and depart as heroic figures with their own agency intact. For the Doctor’s efforts to have the continuing merit implied by his name and for the narrative structure of the show, it is essential that he and his companion characters are capable of leaving improved societies behind in most episodes without requiring their ultimate sacrifice.
While both Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica present a number of various mythological narratives, the primary mythological focus of both series remains on maintaining a continuous repetition of heroic narrative cycles around central characters. Whether through the Doctor’s maintenance of innocence or personal ethics through his refusal to return to his home society, or through the reversal of Adama and Starbuck’s relationship when she becomes humanity’s spiritual guide following her death, both series thus serve the differing needs of their long-term narratives through their somewhat malleable embodiment of monomythic structure. As Doctor Who is designed to function as an ostensibly perpetual series, the characters the Doctor helps to develop into heroic figures are ultimately relegated to episodic and seasonal margins of the narrative. Battlestar Galactica does not face this problem, as the continuous setting and teleological narrative structure of the series as a whole represent the opportunity for more consistent long-term character development of both mentor and mentored figures. Instead, their status in this narrative is such that upon completion of their long-term heroic arc they are removed from the narrative as it re-establishes diegetic boundaries. Both series connect to the world of the viewer, but as Battlestar Galactica ends, mythic figures must depart as the narrative of human history takes over, while Doctor Who, shorn from both temporality and a teleological victory condition, never needs to reconcile mythic elements with the contemporary world.
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Devan Joneson is currently pursuing an MA in English at the University of Northern British Columbia. His primary research areas are television narrative structures, production cultures and gendered identity construction.