Politics & Policy

A Clash of Civilizations

On the pertinence, and the excellence, of Battlestar Galactica.

The enemy is relentless. Where they occupy and control, they enforce their unyielding rules mercilessly. Areas they don’t control, they infiltrate. They seduce our friends, bunk next to our families, and creep into our military. Taking advantage of the freedoms of an open society, they make themselves indistinguishable from us. We know that agents are in our midst, but we do not know who they are until they unleash their violent mission upon us. Fanatically dedicated to a strict monotheism which calls for the extermination of an entire race, they are committed to winning by any means necessary. Radical Islam? No, this is the plight of the rag-tag band of human survivors in the Sci-Fi Channel’s surprise hit Battlestar Galactica. The show starts up again after an agonizingly long break on Sunday, January 21.

Wrapped in traditional sci-fi fare of space ships, robots, and laser-beam battles, Battlestar Galactica transcends its genre to appeal to a galaxy far, far beyond sci-fi lovers. There are no aliens with odd hair-dos, half-naked astrobabes, geeky space “anomalies,” or sanitized utopian ideals. Instead, the show focuses on gritty humans desperate to survive disaster.

Of all the series on TV, BSG is the show that best resonates with our post 9/11 world. The human battle with the renegade robots known as Cylons is, to use a current phrase, “a clash of civilizations.” Mankind may be flawed, but values freedom, creativity and dissent. Cylon-kind operates under a group mentality, with their religion, suspicion of humans, and desire to dominate inspiring them to exterminate the few remaining humans. The men and women of BSG, like us today, must find a way to fight for civilization while maintaining the values that make civilization worth fighting for. In-depth characters, amazing special effects, laser-fast action, fine acting, and political parable combine to make Battlestar Galactica an outstanding series.

The show opened three seasons ago against a backdrop of twelve human-inhabited planets: prosperous, powerful, and lulled by long peace into complacency. The humans of the twelve colonies long ago fought and vanquished the Cylons, human-created robots that rebelled (is there ever a robot in sci-fi that cheerfully does what it’s told?). The last time anyone saw a Cylon, it looked like a robot: a large, lumbering, chrome “toaster,” as the humans call them. But the Cylons have evolved to look human, act human, and dress in leather miniskirts with stiletto boots like humans. Government official Gaius Baltar (James Callis) is seduced by Cylon agent Number Six (Tricia Helfer) and allows her access to the colonies’ defense information. The Cylons attack and murder billions of people in a single deadly assault. Commander Adama (Edward James Olmos), on the brink of retiring both himself and his creaky old warship, leads the effort to rescue and gather survivors. His ship, because of its very obsoleteness, is the only one immune to the Cylon technological attack. Meanwhile, former teacher and current Secretary of Education Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell) takes the oath of office and becomes president. She’s 43rd in the line of succession. The scene recalls LBJ’s succession after Kennedy’s assassination and evokes our deepest fears of the future. When all is tallied, Adama and Roslin lead some 50,000 humans in a handful of ships in search of the one refuge of which they know: a mythical, half-believed in planet called Earth. The Cylons pursue them doggedly.

The thin spacesuit-clad line that separates the human survivors from death is a stable of feisty fighter pilots lead by headstrong Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff), rigid Apollo (Jamie Bamber), and tough Sharon (Grace Park). These three delight in blasting Cylon “out of the frakkin’ sky” in high quality battle scenes that rival movies in special effects. This is not your grandfather’s Battlestar.

Between the pulse-pounding combat, the characters grapple with tangled personal relationships. Apollo pines for Starbuck but marries Dualla (Kandyse McClure). Apollo also wrestles with his thorny relationship with his father, Commander Adama. Starbuck has a thing for Apollo but marries a freedom fighter. Number Six and human traitor Baltar carry on an affair rife with passion, loathing, and manipulation. A Cylon is so obsessed with Starbuck that, during a Cylon occupation, he locks her in an apartment and pretends to be her husband. She kills him repeatedly with kitchen utensils, but he keeps coming back for more (Cylon are functionally immortal), demonstrating that there’s no accounting for love. Things became even more complicated in the first season when pilot Sharon was discovered to be a Cylon agent, although even she believed herself to be human. In fact, two copies were sent to infiltrate the Battlestar. One Sharon copy, nicknamed Boomer, was a trusted part of the fighter squad until she tried to assassinate Commander Adama, acting from hidden programming. At the same time, a second copy of Sharon was fighting her way though an occupied planet with pilot Helo (Tahmoh Penikett). Both copies of Sharon in some way choose humans over cylon. When Boomer is killed and awakens on a Cylon ship, she becomes an advocate among the Cylon for peaceful co-existence with humans. Number Six joins her cause. The other Sharon, imprisoned in the Galactica brig and closely watched, proves her loyalty to humans enough to regain her military uniform and earn the nickname Athena. Athena, now married to Helo, insists she can overcome her programming and choose allegiance to the human side.

Because the Cylon are so complex, as opposed to your tentacle-waving aliens of yesteryear, BSG is able to explore the dilemma of a free society at war. How far can the humans go in fighting the Cylon before losing their souls? When Cylon such as Sharon are captured, humans must find the line between decency in treating prisoners and the need to extract information from enemy assets. When a Cylon-killing virus is discovered, the humans must decide whether to unleash this biological weapon. The resistance under Cylon occupation must decide whether suicide bombings and attacks on non-combatants are moral. Others under the occupation must figure out how much they can cooperate before they become collaborators. After the humans are freed from the occupied planet, some are hungry for vengeance against perceived collaborators. Onboard Galactica, Adama and Roslin struggle to balance protecting the people and guarding liberty. The peoples’ right to information collides with the need to protect secrets. Tension rises between civil government and military leadership. All the while, an overworked and undersupplied military fights to maintain morale in an impossible situation.

Inside a large hall on Galactica, survivors have made a shrine to honor all they have lost. Photos of loved ones killed in the struggle line the wall from floor to ceiling. People come there to pray, to mourn, and to draw strength. Some believe the gods direct their path. Many have lost faith. They are war-weary and haggard, faintly hoping to put aside fighting, settle on some planet, and rebuild lives of comfort. Yet they keep on, because there is something worth fighting for. The survival of civilization, of humanity itself, depends on their resolve. By moving our current situation from the front page of the newspaper to the recesses of space, the show engages us in a national conversation about war, democracy, and commitment. It may not give all the answers, but it asks the right questions. This is what makes it the best show on television.

Rebecca Cusey writes from Washington, D.C.

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