Recently my friend Tycho and I have been watching Battlestar Galactica on DVD. I really wanted to catch it when it first starting airing but I never seemed to have the time. So I watch it now, 2, 3 or 4 episodes in a row. It’s interesting watching an episodic story in bunches; one can see the story arc clearly, as well as recurring themes and repetitive story-telling tricks (the first season for example – wow was there a lot of Baltar talking to his invisible girlfriend and embarrassing himself!). We’ve been avoiding watching the current season on tv so I ask you all to please avoid fourth season spoilers in comments!
Firstly, for those who don’t know (don’t ask me why you might read a post about a show you don’t know, unless you are enamoured with the writings of the Gogglers and lap. up. every. word. Did I just call us Gogglers? O.o ) Battlestar Galactica is a remake of a show that initially aired in 1978/79. It’s a story about the distant past, when humans, in 12 colonies deep in space, are obliterated by a race of robots called Cylons. They flee their homeworlds in whatever ship they had on hand, with only one military ship, the Battlestar Galactica, to protect them. Having no where else to go they decide to follow their ancient legends and try and find Earth, the home of the 13th colony, with the determined Cylons hot on their heels. In 2003, this sci-fi cult-cheese-classic was remade, with some rather considerable changes. Minor changes include making the smoking, drinking, gambling, promiscuous top pilot a woman (with all aforementioned traits included). Despite what many might think, I actually think this is a minor change. Starbuck is still Starbuck, doing Starbucky things and saving the day or getting into trouble. Another character is made a woman too, but, more importantly, she’s also made a Cylon who looks just like a human and doesn’t actually know she’s a Cylon. Fun! That’s a change to the character!
In general, I’ve been really enjoying it. I’m old enough to have watched the original when it first aired and mourned it’s ending (I was 11). While I was a fan of the original, I’ve had no problem with the changes they’ve made to the series. I’ve quite liked how they’ve rethought the whole premise and changed the gender and race of some of the characters. Initially, that hot-dog, smart-ass, sleeping-around female Starbuck was awesome! (later I started to notice how often that character was in tears, for all her toughness). But at least she’s still the best pilot they have and keeps playing a pivotal role in the whole story arc. I am noticing a distinct lack of of black men, however. They’re there, but almost always in the background. And no, it’s not that I expect every show to be truly diverse, but, well, it just doesn’t reflect reality that much does it? Since we’re talking about a culture clearly based on our own, why are all the black men just one-off characters? Or criminals?
Coincidentally, while I was struggling to start writing this yesterday, Sady at Tiger Beatdown also wrote about BSG! You should go read her post as well, as it does cover some of what I wanted to say. Both Sady and I are really liking the moral ambiguity of the show; the Good Guys do bad things and the Bad Guys are oftentimes sympathetic. Many of the characters, both human and cylon alike, are complete and utter hypocrites. They cylons commit genocide on the humans, then say “unlike the humans, we respect life.” The humans sometimes wonder if they’re a people worth saving. They torture – some of them using rape to torture but excusing it because “you can’t rape a machine.” They other and de-personalize the cylons, always calling them “toasters” even though they are clearly sentient. In fact, the humans started the whole thing by creating the cylons, giving them sentience, then in effect, enslaving them. Of course the cylons rape too, medically impregnating human women and forcing them to incubate the hybrid embryos. And for all their talk of wanting a new life, the cylons sure do obsess about the humans. Why are they following them across the universe? It’s like they want what the human want, regardless. “Oh, you’re going to try and settle on New Caprica? We want to settle and start anew too! We’ll stop here as well.” And “oh you’re going to earth now? Us too!” It’s like this really really dysfunctional controlling relationship.
So, moral ambiguity. Also, the humans are polytheistic, whereas the cylons talk about their One True God (who is a he, I’ll note). When I first heard that I wondered if the writers setting up the cylons as the truly good ones because their religion sounds like Judeo-christianity? Or are they trying to get the audience to relate to the cylons on a gut level? See them as like us? Of course, this assumes the tv watcher follows the Judeo-christian traditions, but that’s fairly common for Hollywood. I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, to be shown that the group with the Christian-like religion are the Truly Good ones. Which doesn’t say much about the humans. Sady notes, in responding to my comment on her post, that she has heard many people initially reading the Cylons as being analogous to Islamic fundamentalists (remembering the cultural context of when this new series first aired in 2003). I didn’t start watching it in 2003, when the Islamic fundamentalist connection might have been stronger, but rather have just started watching it since Christmas. I don’t think that I would have made that connection, however, even if I did? It might be partly because of my Wiccan leanings and atheist upbringing, but when predominantly white people with American accents start talking about a One True God I immediately start thinking of Christian fundamentalists. Sady elaborates further:
Now, they’re making more directly Christian analogies, I think, and it comes across more as reflecting on religious and cultural imperialism as a whole. The Cylons are just what happens when political and religious power are conflated; one of the reasons they Kill All Humans is that they’re convinced the humans are Godless and morally inferior. I think that American Christians are encouraged to identify with the Cylon belief system, and I don’t think we’re meant to feel good about that. We’re also meant to feel slightly queasy about Roslin, who is continually legislating religion in her own way.
Now, after my initial reactions and listening to Sady, I’d have to say that I agree with her: we’re supposed to be made uncomfortable with who we end up identifying with.
And seeing as there’s only one season left, it may turn out that the writers will continue with this moral ambiguity for the rest of the series and not give us neat, oversimplified answers! Amazing!
(ps I haven’t seen Season 4 so no SPOILERS plskthxbai)
* title in reference to good cowboys wearing white hats and bad cowboys wearing black hats in the old westerns, for all those young’uns :-p