So Say We All

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March 19, 2009 by D Stack

After a bunch of serious posts, I think it’s time for something a little bit lighter.

This week marks the end of SciFi’s Battlestar Galactica (BSG) series. If you’ve never seen it… well, I advise you not see the finale in isolation. But I do suggest you do yourself a favor and rent or purchase the DVDs. There are some minor spoilers for the series, but I won’t be giving away any massive secrets.

Without exaggeration, I find Battlestar Galactica to be the best science fiction show I’ve seen. This includes some of my favorite shows such as the original Star Trek, Babylon 5, and even Firefly (which I think had the potential to exceed BSG but was sadly aborted shortly after launch). And I think it’s the best show currently on television.

Before discussing the social aspects of the show, I’d like to offer a quick comment on the setting and look of it. Despite being a science fiction series with spaceships and robots, the technology of the Twelve Colonies (the government of the humans at the start of the show) is above our own only in those areas which the show absolutely requires it to be. This may not be realistic, but it serves to ground the show in reality. The show requires space travel and humanoid robots so it has them. But beyond that it has very few advances over our own technology. For weapons, the characters use guns easily recognizable as the sorts of weapons we use. Doctors use scalpels, give medication in pills, and don’t have magic wands to diagnose patients. There’s something very similar to radar – good enough to detect enemy ships, not good enough to find a single person somewhere on a planet. When traveling on a planet the characters use cars, not hoovering vehicles or magic transporters.

In some areas, the technology on the show is actually behind our own, though for deliberate reasons. For example, Galactica’s computer systems are very primitive – the computers are pretty much stand-alone, not being networked together. If a navigator determines some coordinates for a faster-than-light jump those coordinates will need to be entered manually. The communications system resemble what you’d find on a World War II aircraft carrier, not a 21st century vessel. The backstory for the show indicated that over forty years before the show began the Cylons, robotic creations of the humans of the show, rebelled against their masters. Their robotic nature made it easy for them to infiltrate advanced computer networks. Ships like Galactica were made deliberately primitive as a way to counteract this advanced technology. It also gives the show a distinctive look – one that I find rather neat.

Beyond the technical aspects however, I find that BSG excels in its social commentary. While the Star Trek of the 1960s was clearly a commentary of its day (it doesn’t take much of a leap to replace the Klingons with communists), Battlestar Galactica is a reflection of the post-9/11 Western world. The miniseries which launched BSG deals with a deadly Cylon surprise attack which wipes out nearly all life in the Twelve Colonies. The survivors gather in a rag-tag fugitive fleet led by the Galactica. Those who survived often dis so through luck. And most of them have missing family members. On Galactica there is a remembrance wall – covered with photographs and mementos of the missing and deceased. One of the memories drilled into many Americans consciousness was the sight of similar posters for missing people in New York City after the 9/11 attacks.

Also like the post-9/11 world there is an undercurrent of fear and paranoia. In the United States we worried about terrorist cells in the US made up of people who look just like us. On BSG there are many Cylon models that look human. Some even think they are human, allowing them to be the ultimate deep-cover agents. As the crew of Galactica learned of these humanoid Cylons (“skinjobs”) they were prepared to go through extreme measures to find them. When found they used any means, incuding torture, to get information from them.The crew faced questions about the divisions between civilian and military leadership. About whether to allow a dangerously incompetent and corrupt government to come to power or to tamper with votes.

As the show progressed, the survivors of the Twelve Colonies attempted to settle on a habitable planet they found. And in a twist from our Western perspective, these colonists were occupied by a Cylon force. These colonists formed a resistance that was prepared to use any means to defeat the Cylons. Suicide bombers, killing collaborators, etc. It was as if a show were being made with the Iraqi resistance as its protagonists.

The aftermath of this occupation forced the survivors to deal with what to do to lawbreakers with a legal system not prepared for the issues it is facing – much like how we in the United States debate how to handle “enemy combatants”.

If this sounds like a show where the characters just sat around and talked about stuff, it wasn’t. It was far from that. The characters were often forced to make split-second decisions without time to think through the consequences. And sometimes they made the wrong decisions. Some characters despaired, going so far to commit suicide in the face of a seemingly hopeless quest. Relationships were strained, transformed, patched back together, or shattered irretrievably. These characters were real to me in a way that characters on more “realistic” dramas were not. I believed in them. Not that they would always do the right thing. But that they would act in a way true to their character.

My Tivo is all set to catch the finale. Even over some NCAA tournament games.

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