Revisiting Battlestar Galactica

From the misty distance of zero years, it’s time for us to revisit, once more, the Iraq war era.

Battlestar Galactica: your ending disappointed me. I mean, you were no Lost. But you were pretty much like Lost.

Still, your attempts to treat science fiction like the provocative genre it should be—your realization that stories about the future (or the past) are always about now, and that now is pretty interesting—and your respectable effort to spread the beefcake around (but, come on) have led me to rewatch you like you’re Star Trek, or something.

 

Which you’re not. You’re not Star Trek.

To wit, Battlestar Galactica is about failure. The failure of morality, of technology, of history. The failure of humans to fulfill their own promise. And the failure of their machines to do what they’re sposedta.

Star Trek, on the other hand, the entire franchise, is generously about the success of the human/American endeavor.

And, notably, none of the Star Trek series ended with a bunch of hand-waving God crap. Whereas BG and Lost did, and in the process broke a thousand nerdlington hearts.

Which makes me wonder: Have we lost so much faith in science, by the time of the Iraq War, that we need a hand-waving deus ex machina to end our stories of the future for us?

Has Steve Jobs’ machismo pervaded so much of our culture that even technology, the humble application of theory, seems godly enough to warrant this bizarre resurrection trend in our lullabies of science?

Plenty has been written about why BG was, until the last season, so very awesome: The show treated the Iraq War like the national trauma it was, notwithstanding its distance from most quotidian US life. There were sympathetic suicide bombers, religious fundamentalists of multiple (OK, 2) theological persuasions, desert landscapes and moral complexity.

All that’s true.

But what strikes me anew, with the distance of most of the Obama presidency and the wholehearted embrace of so many (so many!) science fiction TV shows, is how little the BG producers bothered making the future look different.

Sure, there is a bunch of simplistic poppycock about destiny and “all of this has happened before” and a rather unimaginative re-imposition of ancient Greek culture at the center of human life. So the dialogue hammers over our head the show’s ambition to re-imagine our present time.

But also: these people in the future/past/whatever/whenever? They dress EXACTLY LIKE US.

They say “frak” instead of “fuck,” and their machines can travel faster than light, but that’s about the only difference. Otherwise, they’re wearing clothes that I could get from the local Army Surplus store. Clothes that I did get from there, in the 90s.

Furthermore, the cylons—the robots whose genocidal war against humanity is the show’s main plot—are also EXACTLY LIKE US.

Cylons are so exactly like humans that some cylons believe they are human. Some cylons’ human life is so thoroughly human that cylons won’t recognize them as cylons.

At first you think that cylons can’t have babies and then it turns out they can. No bigs.

There are shallow differences, sure: Cylons are monotheistic and humans are poly. Cylons exist in many copies of the same 12 models and humans are “individuals.”

Cylons can download into new bodies when they die and humans only wish to.

Cylons can kill the entire human race and humans only wish to.

So the differences between cylon and human are blurred from the beginning. The genocidal fundamentalists  look just like the fundamentalists on an Odyssey to find their destined home.

The robots who don’t understand how to love and confuse love, lust, and cruelty look just like us.

The robots who believe God told them to harvest eggs from farms of young women’s bodies look just like us.

Conventionally, science fiction stories use robots and aliens to allegorize human treatment of racial or gendered others. The word robot comes from the Czech word for slave.

But in Battlestar Galactica, all the humans and all the robots are doing all the bad stuff. And all the good stuff.

Religion is both a misleading, cynical but powerful moral framework and a thinly altered, barely even metaphorical, historical record.

The show’s insights about its political time aren’t exactly fresh. Yes, all sides in a war are both sympathetic and abhorrent. Yes, war is hell. Yes, national security and personal liberty can appear to be opposed and our leaders may get some extra grey hairs wrestling the two.

But as a document of the W. Bush years, the show is dark.

At the end, it takes no less than a God to make humans safe. Left to our own devices, even our most hopeful and skilled attempts to help ourselves will end up killing us.

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