Battlestar Galactica: Immersion Therapy for Post 9/11 World

Editor's note: Contains spoilers.


An occupying force trying to mold an alien society in its own image. A government co-opted to act as a puppet regime for the occupying army. Civilians recruited to serve on behalf of the occupiers to hunt down terrorists and saboteurs. Resistance fighters striking back and recruiting suicide bombers to kill their fellow citizens en masse in punishment for collaborating.

An uninitiated television viewer tuning in to see this war unfold, and to watch hand-held camera footage of armed soldiers wearing night-vision goggles and kicking in doors to search for terrorists, would be surprised indeed to learn they were not watching a documentary about the American occupation of Iraq, but rather an episode from the third season of the remarkable science fiction series "Battlestar Galactica".

Except of course that American audiences were now required to sympathize with the terrorists, to recognize the cynical justifications of an occupation force, and to understand -- if not condone -- the motivations of the suicide bomber. None of which would likely have been possible for most audience members had it been a show about the war in Iraq. But as cast in the fictional universe of a civilization adrift in space pursued by robots and synthetic humans of its own making, it became fascinating and compelling television.

On March 20th the series came to a spectacular yet downbeat conclusion - -- as it turns out, one day after the 6th anniversary of the launching of the "shock and awe" campaign against Iraq.

When it debuted in 2003 the re-imagined "Battlestar Galactica" (BSG to its fans) faced a skeptical world, one half-incredulous that anyone would bother to remake that cheesy warmed-over Star Wars clone from the late '70s.

What a shock it was, then, to see the new series emerge as a deliberate and uncompromising attempt to confront the aftermath of the September 11th attacks and the "war on terror." From its inception as a mini-series in which humanity is all but wiped out in a sneak attack by a seemingly inhuman enemy, to its almost unrelievedly bleak portrait of a civilization trying to retain its fundamental values in the face of an ongoing threat -- and often failing spectacularly -- "Battlestar Galactica" has acted as nothing less than a kind of immersion therapy for post-9/11 America.

Over the past four seasons (spread out over six years) BSG has been widely praised for its outstanding writing and its willingness to tackle -- in a fashion almost unheard of on American television -- almost every imaginable contemporary controversy you can name. As C.W. Marshall and Tiffany Potter note in their book Cylons in America,

Indeed, one can almost make a checklist of contemporary issues that the series explores. Plots turn on abortion and reproductive rights, torture and prisoner rights, unions and worker rights, racial division, suicide bombing and terrorism, prostitution, drugs, election fraud, the separation of church and state, the underground economy, police violence and genocide.

Perhaps one of the few issues not tackled by the show was homosexuality, which was refreshingly treated as completely unremarkable.

The identification of the show with these and other important issues is so widely recognized that the day before the series finale several members of the BSG cast and production crew were invited to speak at the United Nations Creative Community Outreach Initiative, at which delegates watched clips from the show and discussed their moral implications. Craig Mokhiber from the U.N.'s office of the high commissioner for human rights was quoted as saying, "We are all Cylons, every one of us is a Cylon, every one of us is a colonial. And you have to get rid of the idea of good guys and bad guys, because the truth is today I may be victimized and tomorrow I may be a victimizer."

BSG gained this impressive reputation for its refusal to moralize or instruct the audience how to feel about these issues. The deeply flawed and troubled crew of Galactica as led by Admiral Adama (Edward James Olmos) and the civilian president of its fleet President Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell) must face a morally ambiguous universe and make their own choices. Just like us.

That these characters are just like us is driven home by the series' naturalism and realism. They are not from Earth but come from '12 Colonies' including the oft-seen planet Caprica, which is depicted by location shooting in Vancouver, British Columbia. Apart from a few establishing shots of some futuristic buildings and the occasional spaceship in the sky, almost no effort is made to have their culture appear in any way alien from ours or futuristic. Their clothes, homes, cars, technology, food and interior decorating are wholly familiar to us.

So when we see this society destroyed, its loss is all the more real; further, when we see the grieving survivors of the colonies setting up a makeshift shrine in the hallways of Galactica using photos and other momentos of their loved ones, the audience's own memories of similar shrines on the streets of Manhattan is instantly evoked. Over the course of the series the characters return there repeatedly, reminding us both of their losses and ours.

It is this continual and courageous confrontation with the impacts of war, terrorism and torture that has made BSG such essential viewing. While many conservatives latched on to the show early on for its depiction of a civilization under attack by a fanatical, monotheistic enemy, any attempt to identify "good guys" in the Galactica universe was quickly scotched. The show's main characters have at one time or another plotted to steal elections, tortured, killed civilians, committed acts of terrorism and betrayed one another and their government. Indeed, most of the "humans" we have identified with were revealed to be artificial humanoid Cylon sleeper agents, yet fully retain our sympathies. BSG has constantly challenged the audience to question what it means to be human, to reflect on how easy it is to dehumanize others in a time of war, and to understand how war itself dehumanizes us.

This was particularly true at the end of the show's second season, in which the fleet had settled on a world they called "New Caprica," only to be discovered by the Cylons, who swiftly invaded, imposed total control over the humans and co-opted the weak and selfish then-President Gaius Baltar (James Callis) to be their Vichy leader. In the third season, most of the main characters formed a secret resistance force while the Cylons, publicly stating their intention to create a unified, peaceful New Caprica, recruited humans to serve in the civilian police force, and used them to hunt down the resistance fighters and imprison them. Later it turns out that the characters leading the resistance were, in fact, all (unknowingly) Cylons themselves.

This continual upturning of expectations, destruction of moral certitudes and identification with the "other" only intensified in the fourth season when the long-sought planet Earth -- the mythical "13th Colony" -- was finally discovered, only to be revealed to be a blackened ruin from a 2,000 year old nuclear war. With the loss of this final myth -- the one thing that had held Galactica and the fleet together through their desperate flight though space -- human society began to unravel badly. Morale cratered, people turned on one another violently, and a mutiny and coup erupted. Even the very structure of Galactica itself started to give way, and the ship is largely evacuated for a rebel Cylon base ship.

In last week's finale, however, it was revealed that this irradiated "Earth" was not the one we live on, but rather a completely different world known to the Colonials by that name. Our planet shows up in the final hour -- inhabited by spear-carrying hominids -- and is dubbed "Earth" in memory of the lost, destroyed colony.

But by this time the humans and Cylons alike have apparently lost any faith in the project of civilization. Convinced that rebuilding their cities and returning to their former social structures will lead once again to self-destruction, both peoples scatter in small groups across Earth. Sadly, the show's main characters even decline to remain part of any community at all but go off on alone or in pairs to live as hunter-gatherers or farmers.

Flash forward 150,000 years later and the series closes with images of our own gigantic cities and the latest advances in robotics. Despite the Colonists' chosen isolation many millennia ago, civilization has returned, with all its glories and injustices. True to the series' spirit producer Ron Moore and his writers leave open to interpretation whether or not we will avert the fate of the 13 Colonies. What is less clear is if they share their characters' cynical fatalism about civilization -- that all attempts at forming human societies are necessarily doomed, and should therefore be avoided.

For four seasons we have heard the Colonists' religious precept that "all this has happened before and will happen again." In this portrait of cyclical histories, appeals to the supernatural to explain events and leaving open the hope that something will emerge to prevent history from repeating itself, BSG (perhaps unwittingly) adopted a highly Toynbeean view of its universe. As such, it's worth reminding ourselves what the great Arnold J. Toynbee wrote on this theme in his classic A Study of History, which was written at the close of World War II but seems equally applicable now:

A civilization is not like an animal organism, condemned by an inexorable destiny to die after traversing a pre-determined life course. [A] succession of catastrophic events on a steeply mounting gradient inevitably inspires a dark doubt about our future, and this doubt threatens to undermine our faith and hope at a critical 11th hour which calls for the utmost exertion of these saving spiritual faculties. Here is a challenge that we cannot evade, and our destiny depends on our response.

In this light, the entire four-year run of "Battlestar Galactica" may be read as a meditation on Toynbee's assertion that "civilizations die from suicide, not by murder." Following years of technological hubris, near-genocide, tyranny, competing attempts at theocracies and civil war, Colonial and Cylon civilizations were quietly allowed to expire, in the belief that civilization itself was at the root of their suffering. As we face our own calamities of crashing economies, deepening wars, decaying democracies and a planet becoming ever-less forgiving of our excesses, we would be well advised to heed Toynbee, who, to the contrary, would argue that it is when a society faces its most severe crises that our "faith and hope" in the project of civilization are needed most.

This piece was originally published on CityStates.

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