I love a well-thought-out conspiracy show; for a researcher like me, there is nothing quite like the thrill of attempting to follow competing storylines and unravel an intricate mystery. As such, I approached the pilot of ABC’s new uber-conspiracy show Zero Hour with cautious optimism. The series follows Hank Galliston (Anthony Edwards), editor of Modern Skeptic, whose wife Laila (Jacinda Barrett) is kidnapped by Vincent, a terrorist (Michael Nyqvist) seeking, it seems, a mysterious clock she had purchased for her shop. This “terrorist” has ties to Nazi experiments that prompted opposition in the church (and specifically the Rosicrucian order) to invoke some little-understood force or device to stave off Armageddon, an apocalyptic event that could be reignited by Vincent and others like him if they can track down the items or persons they are seeking.
The premise is thus more than a little preposterous, though one expects such leaps in a supernatural conspiracy series. Where Zero Hour falls flat for me is in its blatant use of the standard “science versus faith” trope and in the implications that trope has for the show’s apparent definition of faith. Galliston is from the start presented as the skeptical stick-in-the-mud whose unusual situation forces him to “believe.” In one of the most telling sequences of the pilot, Galliston’s co-contributors at Modern Skeptic try to persuade him to have faith that his wife is still alive:
Hank: He doesn’t need us anymore, Rachel. He got what he wanted. He doesn’t need Laila. It’s logic; a guy like that, he eliminate loose ends.
Arron: Screw logic, Hank.
Hank: Logic is the compass—
Arron: —that as of right now will get you exactly nowhere.
Rachel: He’s right. Now it’s all about believing. You’ve just got to believe.
Hank: After all this, she wants me to have faith?
Rachel: Yes. You’ve got two ways you can go: you can believe she’s dead and quit, or you can believe she’s alive and find her.
I am certainly in favor of holding on to faith in desperate situations. But the “screw logic” version of faith embodied here is hardly the reasonable expectation enjoined by Christianity. Rather, it seems more of a chop-shop version of Pascal’s wager. In his famous Pensée 233, the French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal famously argued that, ultimately, it makes more sense to believe in God than not:
. . . you must wager. There is no choice, you are already committed. Which will you choose, then? Let us see: since a choice must be made, let us see which offers you the least interest. You have two things to lose: the true and the good; and two things to stake: your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to avoid: error and wretchedness. Since you must necessarily choose, your reason is no more affronted by choosing one rather than the other. That is one point cleared up. But your happiness? Let us weigh up the gain and the loss involved in calling heads that God exists. Let us assess the two cases: if you win, you win everything. If you lose, you lose nothing. Do not hesitate, then; wager that he does exist. (Translated by A. J. Krailsheimer)
Arron and Rachel are following a similar, if somewhat less rigorous, line of thought: I choose to believe because, practically speaking, my odds of achieving my ends in this situation are better if I believe than if I do not.
But what exactly is the object of their faith? In the conversation above, faith is set up as little more than a faint hope at best, a denial of facts at worst. Hank should “believe,” not in anyone or anything particular, just “believe” that Laila is alive. In Pascal’s formulation, the argument specifically concerns belief in God and, in its overall context, the Christian God. Curiously, Zero Hour’s first episode by no means presents an atheistic world, and yet it is a world whose God is curiously impotent. In the opening prologue set in 1938 Germany, one of the heroic figures asserts, “Not even God can help us now, only the twelve.” Later, another figure involved in resisting the evil forces declares that the Nazis sought out something that would “make God irrelevant.” In one sense, this theology serves strategic narrative purposes: if God is truly sovereign and working toward a climactic eschaton that is foreordained, a degree of suspense is necessarily removed from the storyline. Humans can affect their temporal situation but cannot “save the world” (or fail to), because that ending is held in the hands of a good and omnipotent God. Zero Hour thus seems to be establishing a dualistic world, akin to Zoroastrianism, but with hard Nazi science rather than Ahriman as its force of darkness. And its theism is so open that, in placing the world’s fate in the hands of human agency, God cedes control of the final outcome.
Yet while such a world may make slightly more compelling television, it also makes for highly problematic theology. In the course of its run, however long that might be, Zero Hour might take steps to collapse the false binary of skepticism and faith; at its snappiest and most self-aware moments, the dialogue allowed hope for some intelligent nuance in the writing. Similarly, the show’s God could prove more powerful than its pilot suggests, hiding an almighty goodness for a time before intervening (at a convenient plot point). Unfortunately, however, I do not find the initial results promising; Zero Hour just doesn’t seem worth wagering on.