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Lost in space: matrices of exilic wandering in the Aeneid and Battlestar Galactica

Meredith Safran

Trinity College

In both the Aeneid and its contemporary descendant, the 2003-2009 television series Battlestar Galactica, a people uprooted from their homeland by a devastating war embarks upon a journey of exilic wandering in search of a prescribed home known only from prophecy and legend. Both narratives employ the space through which their exiled protagonists wander to reflect the experience of alienation generated by their sudden and irrevocable deracination. The inability to establish a successful re-foundation anywhere other than at the designated site is not only positively reinforced by the demands of a higher power, but also negatively reinforced by the inhospitable conditions that the exiles encounter, which then characterizes the matrix in which they wander.

While the survival of both Trojans and Colonials depends upon their respective leaders successfully interpreting and adhering to otherworldly signs in order to guide their progress, the two narratives differ in how they characterize the degree of threat presented by each people’s matrix of wandering. For the Trojans, the sea is, by nature, unstable and incapable of supporting human habitation, but at least it is capable of supporting human life. The Colonials journey through the void of outer space, which lacks even a habitable atmosphere and therefore threatens collective extinction in the void beyond their ships’ hulls. The quality of space thereby produced is simultaneously vast and claustrophobic, heightening the narrative tension that engages audience sympathy. The majority of Battlestar Galactica’s episodes take place in this perilous environment, whereas the Aeneid contains most of the Trojans’ encounter with the sea (apart from Book 1’s spectacular storm and Palinurus’ maritime demise in Book 5) into Aeneas’ narration in Book 3.

Rather than offering anticipated relief for either Trojans or Colonials, the land masses that provide definition to these uninhabitable matrices further define the space of exilic wandering as hostile. Although the coastline of the Mediterranean could support human settlement, the Trojans encounter adverse conditions, including pollution (Thrace; Crete), inhabitants unwelcoming to humans (the Harpies, Circe, the Cyclopes), and a human community infected with dysfunction (Epirus). Unlike the original 1979 Battlestar Galactica, which also imagined an outer space full of populated planets, the post-9/11 version presents the universe as nearly devoid of habitable planets (and even the few with a breathable atmosphere are cursed) or other intelligent life forms, apart from a superhuman enemy that was literally of the refugees’ own making. Such absences inflect the exilic experience of the Colonials, relative to that of the Trojans.

This difference further ramifies in each narrative’s presentation of space as shaped by a comprehensible past. The audience of the Aeneid enjoyed a reasonably developed (albeit subject to change) sense of the synchronic and diachronic shape of the Mediterranean world, and even the characters can fit the places and peoples they encounter into a general sense of history. By contrast, the audience of Battlestar Galactica is no more familiar with the outer space traversed by the Colonials than the series’ protagonists, for whom barren moons, gas giants, and other celestial bodies provide no sense of a past that can be comprehended within human experience; only recourse to opaque sacred scriptures provides guidance. Rather than forecasting an incipiently imperialist view of the space through which these protagonists travel and which their descendants will one day rule, as in the Aeneid, in Battlestar Galactica both characters’ and viewers’ inability to grasp the past of this cosmic wasteland redoubles the psychological anxiety that outer space as a physically inhospitable environment produces. This amplification of existential dread, in which the fate of not only one chosen people but the entire species depends upon safe passage through this largely unknown and indifferent matrix, highlights the significant contribution that the quality of space makes in the dynamics of adaptation within the classical tradition.

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Screening Topographies of Classical Reception

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