‘Battlestar Galactica’: why you should care. (UPDATED)
And now for something completely different. Which is to say hugely geeky. I’m here to discuss the best television show not on HBO: the Sci-Fi Channel’s Battlestar Galactica, whose third-season premiere aired Friday night. (The best show on TV including HBO is–sorry, Sopranos fans–Deadwood.)
No, I’m not talking about reruns of the campy space adventure–heavily informed by Mormon theology–broadcast for just one season in 1978. I mean the “reimagined” version that was given a thorough, fascinating reboot by creator Ronald D. Moore. (New York Times readers will recognize the name from his September 18 op-ed on the fortieth anniversary of Star Trek.) This year, BSG earned its first Peabody Award, after having been named among the best shows on TV by Time, Rolling Stone, the Chicago Tribune, and other publications.
Forget what you know about 1970s science-fiction. And forget what you think you know about the genre itself. The new Battlestar isn’t Star Trek. Moore is intent on fashioning a fictional universe in which men and women’s most interesting traits are not leveled by idealism. BSG isn’t Star Wars either. Moore seems actually to care about scripts.
The new BSG is nothing less than a triumphant return to the best of what the genre can do: reframe the questions of the day in new, unusual, and illuminating contexts. This is, in part, why it won a Peabody and critics’ praise. For Moore, BSG’s organizing conceit held powerful, new meaning after 9/11. Here’s the story in a nutshell.
In the BSG-verse, humanity is spread across “the twelve colonies [planets] of man” (bear with me) each named for the real-life constellations (Caprica, Gemenon, Libran, and so on.). To make life easier, humans created robot helpers called cylons. The robots revolted, a long war ensued, and after many losses on both sides, an armistice was reached. The cylons left to find their own homeworld. And the humans and cylons agreed to send representatives to a remote space station every year in order to maintain diplomatic relations–but the cylons never show up. “No one has seen or heard from the cylons in forty years.”
Of course, that couldn’t last. The cylons return, blow up the space station, and launch a devastating nuclear war on humanity. Only 50,000 humans survive, fleeing their home planets in spacecraft. The cylons, who now have models that look human, pursue. Left to defend the last remnants of humanity is the outmoded battleship (“battlestar”) Galactica, commanded by the grizzled Commander Adama (Edward James Olmos).
The post-9/11 parallels are obvious, but other subjects explored by the show aren’t. How, for example, should the surviving humans approach abortion, legal in the twelve colonies, when there are only 50,000 people left? Is it permissible to torture a captured cylon, who bleeds, feels pain, and can die like any man, but who is a machine built by a race bent on the extermination of mankind? How much political power should the military wield in a constant crisis situation? When it appears that a human collaborator is close to winning a presidential bid, can you rig the election to ensure his defeat? Moral complexity abounds.
Add to this a further complexity: humans are polytheistic, and cylons are monotheistic. Some cylons seem to believe they are bringing God’s word to those who haven’t yet seen the light. Others are religious skeptics. The same conflict permeates humanity’s remnants.
Between political camps, the first two seasons of BSG served as a kind of Rorshach test. Conservatives have hailed the show as a brutally honest argument for moral compromise in a time of war. Liberals thought the show revealed how such compromise imperiled the very soul of the polity.
That debate may end very quickly. (Spoilers follow.) As the show enters its third season, humanity has settled on an inhabitable planet that has become occupied by the cylons. After a year of no military action, an unready Galactica and fleet fled as soon as the cylons arrived. On the planet’s surface, people are regularly rounded up, interrogated, tortured, and held without legal recourse. The human government collaborates. A human insurgency has formed, complete with suicide bombings. I imagine alarums of “liberal bias” will pepper conservative critiques. That doesn’t worry me–after years of failure in Iraq, we have plenty of post-facto to go on.
What concerns me is that the parallels will become too obvious, that the writers will go too far out of their way to clue the audience in to their stories’ real-life counterparts. That could spell the creative death of the show. Still, after two seasons of genuinely good drama, I’m keeping an open mind. You should too.
(For all you need to know to get on board the BSG train, check out this summary. And yes, I’m fully prepared to be thoroughly mocked in the comboxes. Let ‘er rip.)
…the producers quite obviously and methodically declared you should think “Iraq” when watching the season premiere. To say otherwise is the equivalent of knocking your ruby slippers against each other and saying over and over again, “There’s no place like Caprica, there’s no place like Caprica.”
Goldberg isn’t alone. NRO’s blog, the Corner, ran a few responses to his column. John Podhoretz explained that when conservatives love obviously leftist works of pop culture, they cook up elaborate justifications that inevitably ignore reality:
Message to BSG fans on the Right: You can love the show, as it is
undeniably high-quality goods. What you cannot do is come up with some
cockamamie explanation whereby it’s not about how we Americans are the
Cylons and the humans are “insurgents” fighting an “imperialist” power.
The words “insurgents” and “imperialist” were spoken quite deliberately
in the premiere. You have to be a sophist to deny an analogy the
producers clearly mean us to draw without any question.
So what do the producers think? In the podcast for the season opener, writer/producer Ronald D. Moore explains:
I’m asked quite a bit about the parallels to Iraq…. I get a lot of questions like, “boy, it seems like you’re really doing Iraq…” There are certainly elements of that. But the truth is, we sat in the writers’ room, and there were lots of discussions of Vichy France and the West Bank, and various occupations—even the American Colonial era, when British soldiers were being quartered in American houses…. We talked about a lot of different historical examples…. There are certainly parallels to what’s going on in Iraq…. I wasn’t really interested, in doing these episodes, in making a political statement about Iraq. I was really interested in taking a lot of those parameters, a lot of that setting, and applying it to our characters: okay, what would Tyrol do in that situation? Or what would happen to Tigh? What would Laura do in that situation? That’s where we spent about 80 or 90 percent of our time—talking in terms of what the characters would do…. There weren’t really many, if any, political discussions about the situation in Iraq in the writers’ room that I can recall…. We’d talk about the news, and we’d talk about what’s going on in the world, and react to whatever that day’s story was, but when we were going through the structuring of the episode, Iraq was referred to, but a lot of other places were referred to as well. Most of the writers are pretty well versed in history, and they’ll pull out examples of all kinds of things. I think [one writer] even talked about when the Romans occupied Gaul.