JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Battlestar Galactica is a brilliant, maddening, quirky, exasperating, enigmatic, dubious series.

The new Battlestar Galactica takes the pre-existing mythology to daringly unusual places.

The series reflects a new sci-fi grittiness.

Called the Old Man, Adama, as Olmos plays him, is reassuringly paternalistic.

Battlestar Galactica could certainly be called the anti-Trek.

BSG’s portraits of women are pointedly topical.

The series itself has issues with women in power.

The extent to which BSG should be taken as something truly “new’ is an open question.

Sharon, an Asian-American Cylon, is an especially troublesome character.

“Long Live Stardoe! Can a Female Starbuck Survive?”

It’s with the Cylon characters that the show truly approaches the level of daring sci-fi poetry: “BSG offers a new television rendering of the uncanny.”

 

Surprised by Cylons

review by David Greven

Cylons in America: Critical Studies in Battlestar Galactica, ed. Tiffany Potter and C.W. Marshall. New York: Continuum International, 2008. 295 pg.  $18.68

Battlestar Galactica (BSG), the Sci-Fi Channel series currently airing the second half of its fourth and final season, is a brilliant, maddening, quirky, exasperating, enigmatic, dubious series. A re-imagining of a silly but oddly beloved ABC television series of the 1970s, the new BSG takes the pre-existing mythology to daringly unusual places. Human beings of the future or the distant past created robots, the Cylons, to serve them. The Cylons rose up and made war against their creators, decimating nearly the entire human population in the war that commences the new series' narrative.

Religious fervor is one of its surprising innovations. Polytheistic, the humans worship the gods of the Ancient Greeks. In contrast, the Cylons are monotheistic, worshipping the “one true God”; their campaign against the humans is a form of jihad. Fascinatingly, the Cylons of this series have “evolved” from the clanking, immense red-beam-eyed metal robots of the original series into lushly fleshy human-looking beings. These human-like Cylons, “skin jobs” as the Colonial (human) Fleet call them, provide the most fascinating aspects of the current BSG. In their uncanny resemblance to human beings and mysterious passions, these Cylons excite the science-fiction imagination, taking the genre to exciting new places. If only the human beings were half as interesting.

The Cylons of this series have “evolved” from the clanking, immense red-beam-eyed metal robots of the original series into ... ... lushly fleshy human looking beings. For all its brilliance, BSG is also invested in traditional notions of gendered and sexual power.

I am aware of the immense cult following the series has generated, and I am in awe of many of its achievements. It’s well-acted and often dazzlingly well-written, with one daringly imaginative new concept and plot twist after another. But for all its brilliance, BSG also seems to me a highly suspect series. And for all the hoopla, BSG’s success is, at best, a limited one, given that has lasted for precisely as many seasons as the last, disastrous Star Trek series, Enterprise. The interest sparked by the series has derived as much from timing as it does from the series’ own strengths. Emerging in the wake of September 11th, the series reflects a new sci-fi grittiness that is as determined by the changed political and social landscape of the post-9/11 era as it is by innovative approaches. Precisely what garners the series so much praise — its engagement with current hot-button moral issues such as terrorism and abortion and its ideological “complexity” — is also what makes it a difficult series towards which to maintain a position. The series goes through so many permutations of its premise and of its own moral sensibility that after a time we wonder what, if anything, it’s ultimately trying to say.

Luckily, we have a lively new collection of readings as a guide to this maddeningly enigmatic series. Cylons in America: Critical Readings of Battlestar Galactica, edited by Tiffany Potter and C.W. Marshall (Continuum, 2008), offers an intelligent and diverse array of interpretations. While some of the essays are disappointingly lackluster, several of them are first-rate, and on the whole the collection engages and impresses with the acuity of its insights. The essays are divided into three sections:

  • “Life in the Fleet, American Life,” which primarily treats the series as an allegory for post-9/11 America, terrorism and torture being especially frequent topics;
  • “Cylon/Human Interface,” which explores the myriad issues of identity raised by the human-like Cylons; and
  • “Form and Context in Twenty-First-Century Television,” which covers topics as diverse as misogyny, music, and Nietzschean philosophy on the series.

“Television isn’t supposed to make us think like this,” the editors write of BSG’s apparently bold vision (5). “BSG forces us to rethink what we knew” (8). The editors position BSG as a series that goes places where no other ventures to. While the series indubitably innovates the sci-fi genre, it is also part of a wave of revisionist, genre-bending, genre-splicing other series on television. It is also part of a massive re-imagining of the potentialities of the television medium, which has undergone an aesthetic make-over in the past decade, which Suzanne Scott’s essay “Authorized Resistance: Is Fan Production Frakked?” touches upon. The extent to which BSG should be taken as something truly “new” is, I believe, an open question.

Potter and Marshall establish that the innovative nature of this science-fiction work stems from executive producer Ronald D. Moore’s own mandate to reinvent the genre. They quote him as saying that

“a new approach is required. That approach is to introduce realism into what has heretofore been an aggressively unrealistic genre.”

BSG, in Moore’s phrase, is “Naturalistic Science Fiction” (5). This nod to one of the major genres to emerge in the literary realism of the latter nineteenth-century is intriguing. Naturalism eschews any sense of individual self-determination or free will, taking a deterministic, scientific view of human nature. In one of naturalism's exemplary texts — Frank Norris’s McTeague (1899) later made into the film masterpiece Greed (1924) — a young woman from a poor immigrant family wins a cash prize. The prize destroys her relationship with her big, lumbering, mentally impoverished, dentist husband, the titular McTeague, as it drives her to greater levels of self-imposed deprivation. We watch as the gears of fate relentlessly spin and these lives are inexorably destroyed by “good luck.” In similar fashion, we watch the humans of BSG suffer intensifying levels of pain for their hubris after they have made the fatal error of reaching a level of culture that is too technologically sophisticated.

As Potter and Marshall argue, the show succeeds by disrupting “known modes” and fragmenting “extant systems”; it's a “generic fracturing” that achieves a “level of social commentary that cannot be achieved anywhere else on modern television,” one that refuses any kind of “Star Trek utopian imagining of power well held” (5). Significantly, Moore worked on Star Trek for many years, and with its violently apocalyptic scenarios and endlessly maintained levels of paranoia, BSG could certainly be called the anti-Trek. As the editors point out, BSG has connections to Virgil’s The Aeneid and to The Book of Mormon, “which describes how the prophet Lehi took part of the tribe of Joseph to precontact America; this is rewritten as BSG’s Thirteenth Tribe” (7), precedents that also existed in the original series but are greatly expanded upon in the new one.

Brian L. Ott’s argues in his essay, “Reframing Fear: Equipment for Living in a Post-9/11 World,” that whereas “the Cylons in the original series represented our social fears about technology, the Cylons in the new BSG represent our social fears about cultural difference” (16). Ott establishes the show's allegorical impact in the context of our current “War on Terror, ” especially in terms of the series’ representation of the Cylons as the non-human Other: “if one does not see an enemy as human, then one does not feel compelled to treat ‘it’ humanely” (17).  Ott details the repeated scenes of Cylons being tortured on the series, as well as the human references to them as “machines,” “toasters,” and “skin jobs.”

“In addition to degrading the Cylons, such language homogenizes them, reinforcing the prevailing perception that they are all the same and can thus be treated as one nameless, faceless enemy” (17).

Ott points out that the most salient issue is

“not what Cylons are, but what they represent on the show. …. In simultaneously humanizing and dehumanizing the Cylon prisoners, BSG frames torture in ambivalent terms. …. The ambivalent frame encourages reflexivity — an awareness of our complicity and cooperation in war” (19).

Working through the framework of the philosopher of rhetoric Kenneth Burke, Ott praises the series for its “scathing critique of the Bush administration and its foreign policy” (22) and for not offering “a singular position on political dissent,” which encourages “viewers to judge for themselves” (24).

Erika Johnson-Lewis’s essay, “Torture, Terrorism, and Other Aspects of Human Nature,” picks up where Ott’s essay leaves off. “BSG complicates easy or obvious answers to the question of what it means to be human” (28); “BSG usually refrains from moralizing” (32). Bringing in the work of theorists such as Elaine Scarry, Judith Butler, and Giorgio Agamben, Johnson-Lewis examines the series’ representation of what Agamben terms “bare life (homo sacer), or life abandoned by human and divine law” (33).

"In blurring the boundaries between human and inhuman, between barbarism and civilization, and by exposing that anyone might find himself in the no-man’s-land of the exception, stripped to bare life, BSG asks us to resist the Manichean logic of 'with us or against us,' when its only possible outcome is not only dehumanization of the other, but the dehumanization of ourselves" (38).

Along related lines, Carl Silvio and Elizabeth Johnston, in their essay, “Alienation and the Limits of the Utopian Impusle,” raise the Marxist question of alienated labor. They ask about the series,

“Should we read BSG as an ideological critique that seeks to call attention to the inherent contradiction between our experience of the alienation inherent in the wage relation and our faith in the supposed benefits of a market economy for human society?” (43).

Though critical of the series' “lack of overt ideological critique,” the authors finally conclude that

“[BSG] stands as such a fascinating and complex work of art precisely because it resists being reduced to simplistic dichotomy. In making this assertion, we intend more than a facile affirmation of the value of artistic ambiguity, and instead suggest that this ambiguity may in fact lend itself to more effective ideological critique” (50).

BSG invites us to identify with and invest ourselves in competing and contradictory attitudes toward its utopian themes” (51).

These three thoughtful and intellectually wide-ranging essays set the tone for the essay collection and for its general view of the show as being admirable in its refusal to palliate its audience and in its “complexity.” I will return to this thematic of complexity below.

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