[Update: There seem to be a few people linking to this from forums and shit, so I thought I'd fix the brain fart that switched "Zarek" for "Varek" and "y" for "i" in "Roslin". And chuck in some nice headings and extra paragraphing to break it down a bit for anyone not used to the "verbose" style of analysis that goes into something like this at the length necessary to deal with it point-by-point. So...]
Why I Had My Doubts
See, I was intrigued at the start by the whole culture-clash premise, the conflict they set up between the homodoxy of the Cylons, with their One True God, and the heterodoxy of the Colonials, with their spectra of mindsets -- military and political, religious and secular, left and right, etc.. Aha, I thought, they’ve taken the basic premise of the original 70s show and mapped it to a modern-world culture-clash of monotheistic fundamentalism and Western liberal democracy. It’s the Great Robot Jihad Against Space Sodom, which is kinda interesting. The heterodoxy of the Colonials is actually more than a tad homogenised in that way so much commercial US cultural product is, presenting an entire elsewhen of human civilisation which is (yet again) viewed so wholly through a scanner darkly set on America, America and… um… America that one can only shake one’s head sadly at the complacent insularity, the blithe ignorance of other fucking cultures and wonder just how fucking parochial a culture can be. (Yeah, yeah, blame it on Hollywood. You know it’s true.)
And the straightforward mapping of the opposing culture to genocidal machines does rather stack the deck in a way that doesn’t make for much ambiguity. Sure, there’s that key twist that’s added to the premise of the old series in the shape of the replicant-style Cylons who look and act like humans, and this does create a potential for humanising the Inhuman(e) Enemy; but for all the suggestions that these Cylons have achieved true sentience, a capacity to suffer, and therefore require our ethical consideration (even if we don’t, at the end of the day, actually judge them worthy of our empathy), they’re still presented as de-individualised, each body a mere vessel for a mind resurrected into a new one on death, each model of body identically programmed, thinking and acting as one, and constructing a seven-fold hive mind as a whole which is generally of a purpose. And all of them are agreed on at least one thing: exterminate all humans. Maybe the humans shouldn’t be thinking of those Cylons as “toasters”, but it’s not like the “bugs” they’re actually portrayed as is really much more of a humanisation of this Enemy Other.
Why The Cylons Are "Bugs"
These are not Bladerunner’s Roy Batty, breaking Deckard’s fingers out of (a very human) vengefulness at the loss of his companions. (“This is for Zhora. And this is for Pris.”) These are the bodysnatchers and bug-eyed monsters of the “reds under the beds” sf of the 50s. They do not think like us. They do not empathise with us. They cannot because their lack of individuality is at the core of the premised conflict. It’s that absence of individuality, negligible understanding of mortality, and concomitant lack of empathy that lies at the heart of the genocide. They’re not an Inhuman(e) Enemy because they want to exterminate the human race. They want to exterminate the human race because they’re an Inhuman(e) Enemy. The nearest they’ve got to a motive other than that is that they’re… tidying up. Personally, unrepentant Sodomite as I am, I’d say it’s not entirely unfair as an assessment of the mentality of fundamentalism, but it’s stacking the deck to make your antagonists essentially this way. They’re machines. They’re programmed like that, their whole manner of being determined from creation. Which doesn’t offer much scope for tackling the realities of personal and political catalysts to radicalisation on any great depth, with any great integrity.
Where Genocide Becomes a Problem
And actually, it’s kinda dishonest when the great defining symbol of this culture-clash, the narrative linchpin of your ideological conflict, binds conceptually not to 9/11 but rather to the Holocaust. I won’t go into all the thematic problems that presents, because Abigail Nussbaum’s said it all already. She’s spot-on, I think, in pointing to this a crucial flaw in the whole setup, rendering much of the narrative just gobsmackingly ill-conceived> Suffice to say I find it hard to believe the writers actually expect us to buy into the Mutiny story-arc as it’s played out. The Cylons have wiped out all but a handful of humanity and the nearest thing they’ve shown to a belief in any solution other than Final is occupation with rule by collaborationist puppets. Be a good human and you get to live in Vichy France rather than die in Auschwitz. But, hey, there’s been a schism in the Cylons and your politico-military rulers of what’s left of humanity decide they can and must make peace with one faction, even bring them into the fleet, as citizens.
So Where is the Dissent?
Only the bad (Zarek), the weak (Gaeta) and the stupid, brutal, and/or naive (everyone else) see this as intolerable and decide to rise up in such a way as to blatantly demonstrate their badness, weakness, stupidity, brutality and/or naivety. Every single character who’s painted in a positive light is pitted against this treachery. What the fucking fucktarded fuckety fucking fuck of a fuck?! Are you shitting me?! I mean, seriously… to not even pay lip-service to the legitimacy of dissent. Cause they don’t. You want to tell me that Gaeta is voicing the sincere integrity-driven argument against what he sees as treason, as the aiding and abetting of the enemy in time of war (and at the highest level of government)? I’ll point you at every single shot of him scratching at his chafed stump just to show us how “maimed” he is, how much of an emotional fucking cripple.
Why This is BAD
It’s not just shoddy writing, this failure to engage with the ethical questions, this crude reduction of the whole debate to an illegitimate mutiny quelled heroically by loaded rifles and empty rhetoric. It’s cheap to the point of gross insult in its resort to physical disfigurement as emblem of impaired judgement, as a means to undermining the legitimacy of the character’s stance. Sorry, did I say "stance"? Maybe that's a bad choice of words given that we're kinda having it rammed down our throats that Gaeta "doesn't have a leg to stand on", so to speak. Or, well, he has one, but not the full set like Commander Adama -- one on either side and that third one hanging down the middle in front of his big, manly set of alpha male cojones.
A Point of Comparison
Nussbaum suggests that we imagine those Cylons as Eichmanns (every one of them, equally Eichmanns, equally architects of the Holocaust), these perpetrators of genocide seeking Israeli citizenship after WW2, the Israeli government and military willing to let them in. Now imagine that in order to justify this to the viewer dramatically you give them only two characters of any narrative weight who stand against it. One you make a corrupt Zionist demagogue whose only real concern is personal power. The other you make a basically decent man, but one so eaten away by his bitterness that he’s simply not objective. Just so you can shove it down the viewer’s craw at every opportunity, just so they’re constantly reminded of how “broken” he is, you give him a festering wound, the constant pain of a phantom limb, the constant distraction of scar-tissue that never stops itching, an omnipresent force of infuriating grievance. It doesn’t have to be an amputated limb, of course. You could always give this character… what?… maybe some nasty skin rash on their forearm from a tattoo that went septic, so never healed properly. Or maybe they just keep scratching at it because it’s there, because it’s a reminder, because they just can’t get over it. That’s why they’re wrong, you see. That’s the message you want to send to the viewer, what you’re using that image of an unhealed tattoo to tell them. How biased this character is. How their personal bitterness weakens them, lessens them. That’s what you’re going to use that tattoo for. That’s how you’re going to exploit the trope. You’re going to make it mean that they’re a weaker person, a signal of their spiritual enfeeblement.
Hey, why don’t you just go the whole fucking hog and make it a fucking serial number?
Gaeta's leg may have been lost in a more complex situation, but it's still one of the few symbolic markers of the devastation inflicted on humanity by this whole horrific affair, and to twist it into a symbol of the wrongness of the unforgiving victim is cheap at best. Can you imagine some pro-Vietnam response to Born on the 4th of July which featured a Ron Kovic style veteran whose wheelchair-bound status was time and again used to undermine their anti-war stance? Used to show how, really, actually, their judgment wasn't valid because they were physically (for which read "emotionally, intellectually and spiritually") crippled?
Why They Use This Sort of Crud
The sad thing is the writers have to resort to this level of crassness in order to (try and) sustain their own narrative. Gaeta has to be weak or we might actually afford his stance against Adama some legitimacy. He has to be driven by underlying motives, has to be easily played by Zarek, has to prevaricate while in command. Zarek has to execute the Quorum or we might, Gods forbid, question the infallible wisdom and integrity of the fleet’s heroic leaders. Talk about stacking the decks. Gaeta and Zarek might as well be blindfolded, with their fingers chopped off so they can’t hold their cards, and all their chips being pilfered in every single scene. The narrative has to constantly shout at us, “they’re wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong!” just to drown out any little voice in our head that might be saying, “hey, wait a minute, wouldn’t this deal with the Cylons kick up one fuckload of a stink given that they’re, you know, responsible for the near-extinction of the human race and all.”
Quick! Quick! Have Starbuck shoot someone! Chuck a grenade at Adama! Look! See! Heroes in peril! No time to ask questions; now move along!
An Unwitting Reflection of the Zeitgeist?
Now I have to say that I was actually willing to see past that flaw in the central premise when I was watching the first couple of seasons. I was just about intrigued enough that I could take the ham-fisted figuration of 9/11 as a holocaust-level genocide. Not swallow it, I mean, but... put it in a little mental box labelled "complete lack of perspective" and work around it. For many of us in the UK — though by no means all — especially if you were around in the 1970s, the conflict in Northern Ireland and its constant spillage over onto Britain, with carbombs on the streets of London, and so forth, it was clear how much of the reaction to 9/11 was to do with a sense of violation, a shattering of complacent assumptions that “that sort of stuff doesn’t happen here”. The three thousand odd dead of 9/11 is simply not on a comparable scale to the type of genocidal event we’re offered in the Cylon destruction of the twelve colonies.
But at the same time, it’s not at all surprising to me that it would be figurated this way, because the shock of the reaction was in direct proportion to the naivety that made such an act incomprehensible, multiplied by the force of that act’s symbolic resonances. Apologies if this bluntness smarts, but to the outside world a lot of that reaction looked like the hysteria of a culture so blinded by its own rose-tinted view of itself, it simply lost all capacity for reason when a punch in the face shattered one of those rosy lenses embedding shards of glass in its eye. 9/11 was the Kennedy Assassination of this generation not for the scale of death, negligible in comparison to atrocities much smaller than the Holocaust, but for the emotional import it had on a culture almost entirely unquestioning of the legitimacy of its self-idealisation, its Americanism.
Unlike Nussbaum, I could… work with the inflation of 9/11 to a Holocaust-level genocide in Battlestar Galactica. Why? Because that very act of symbolic hyperbole articulates, I think, something about 9/11, about how Americans in particular, but by no means only Americans, responded to it emotionally, ascribing it a grossly-exaggerated import. That narrative misstep of a dubious analogy is revealing of the degree of faith, the depth of the fall, the jawdropping level of… well… self-importance necessary to place an albeit horrendous act on that level. Call me cynical, but I’m not surprised to see this kind of narrative response to 9/11, not surprised at all.
Or Maybe a Cunning Opening Gambit?
So, I could put that figuration of 9/11 in an act of genocide into a little mental box labelled “complete lack of perspective”. Actually in the first few seasons of the show I didn’t even close the box and put it to one side. I was happy to leave it open in front of me, the premised analogy sitting there, waiting to be addressed if the writers so desired, challenged, redefined. It’s pretty hard to see what you can do to make that genocide anything other than an unpardonable atrocity, but we were given a vague backstory of past conflicts between humans and Cylons, strong suggestions that the Cylons were basically as sentient as the humans, however alien their way of thinking, hints that even the centurions and raiders were hard AI, truly aware. There was a fair scope in that untold backstory.
Where They Could Have Taken It
We could assume that the Cylons were created by humans to toil for them, slaves that might well justly rebel. Or we could assume they were built to kill humans in a bloody history of inter-colony warfare. What sort of martial imperative did their Caprican creators, say, hardwire into them in order to keep the other colonies brutally repressed in the bad old days? Or how many thousand years were the Cylons in servitude, and how badly were they mistreated in that period? How many billions of Cylons got wiped out for playing Spartacus before they finally won their freedom? This is a space-faring culture so old its origins on Cobol are shrouded in myth, indicating that it has, at some point, gone through the collapse into barbarism necessary for the eradication of history. It’s not terribly clear from the get-go just how far back the Cylons were invented. Anywhere along the way, especially with all that search for ancient origins, the writers could have offered us all sorts of twists to force a re-evaluation.
This has all happened before, and will happen again? OK, how about the last time it happened the survivors ended up on Cobol with technology they’d long since forgotten how to use, and expanded out into the twelve colonies in ships they virtually considered magic because they’d reverted to barbaric religious beliefs that put them at each others throats? How about they spent twenty centuries using the Cylons that survived the last cycle as surrogate soldiers in wars against each other, drone warriors fighting symbolic battles out in space so no human had to ever die? How about incomprehensible numbers of Cylons sacrificed as pawns because the humans didn’t see them as sentient when in fact they are? How about that biotech in the Cylon raiders is grown from human neural tissue? How about that legend of Earth as a “thirteenth colony” is a smokescreen for the truth that the original Colonial Empire of the original Cobol raided the homeworld and used its populace as unwilling tissue donors in their creation of the Cylons? Shit, man, the whole “thirteenth colony” thing didn’t make sense in the original series; it’s crying out to be at the core of the reboot.
How That Could Have Worked
With these sort of tropes — cycles of history and myth, slavery and colonialism, all-out war — maybe, just maybe, with a bit of imagination the writers could have easily built a backstory in which that whole genocide was shockingly, horrifyingly redefined as something more akin to the fire-bombing of Dresden. Bait and switch. Turn the tables. The attack on the human colonies wasn’t the Holocaust. Cylon history records that atrocity which the humans have expediently expunged in whatever Great Purge left only the Scrolls of Pythia. Or maybe it wasn’t a Holocaust, just millennia of exploitation, manipulation — human colonialism at its worst, as the sort of imperialist capitalism that fundamentalists latch onto as the Great Satan.
There was a chance, I thought, in the first few seasons, that maybe they could do something all the more unexpected because of the sheer scale of the atrocity taken as a premise, all the more cunning because that premise played to the hysteria, fed the unthinking Western viewer a self-servingly inflated view of 9/11 as unpardonable genocide. Whether you really could come up with any backstory that could really make the ethics of that atrocity less cut-and-dry, it would have been a truly fucking bold gambit if that was their game.
Now Throw in Some Reality
Also, set against that, in the first few seasons, we had the other novel twist to the premise of the original series — an actual division of power with Roslin, as the president of the twelve colonies, asserting the importance of an elected political leader in all this, not just an unquestioned assumption that a military commander like Adama would be running the show. Militaristic authoritarianism meets the politics of liberal democracy in a state of emergency. Throw in the quickly emerging focus on faith at the very heart of that government and you’ve got a stage superlatively set for a critique of the political response to 9/11, assuming you’ve got the balls to step up to it. Oh, yes, that fundamentalist homodoxy of the Cylons is horrific, but maybe there are other types of ideologue to be questioned here too, like the president who believes they have a divine mission, the commander who expects to be obeyed.
But The Doubt Begins
There was a chance, I thought, that the writers were going to get their teeth into the tropes they were dealing with. But I was quite aware that there was a good chance they weren’t. Seeing the whole 9/11 thematics explored in this way, with the Cylon attack so out-of-the-blue, the Cylons themselves painted as such an Inhuman(e) Enemy, Adama and Roslin so very quickly established as worthy leaders, I began to wonder quite early just how deeply the writers were really going to interrogate their apparent subject. Not having read much of the press around the show, letting it speak for itself without paying any mind to statements of intent by the creative team, without even much knowledge of their general political sympathies, I have to say it initially struck me as throwing out mixed signals. For every question raised about whether militaristic authority should be allowed to tread all over civil rights, we seemed to be offered Adama heroically standing up to dumbass civilians who simply didn’t understand the situation. Even as we get the creepiness of the Cylon faith brought home to us by Six’s proselytising to Baltar, we’re fed Roslin’s faith in bona fide prophecy as an entirely acceptable variant of the same basic unreason. Part of me did wonder for a while if what I was seeing was actually one of those "Invaders of the Body Snatchers" style narratives that are really more manifestations of the zeitgeist than anything else, a “ragheads under the beds” anti-Islamist paranoia seeping up out of the mass unconscious and out onto the small screen. Were they actually asking any questions about 9/11 and the response to it at all? Or were they just reflecting that response, manifesting it in this story of an Inhuman(e) Enemy, an unfathomable Them that wants to wipe Us out of existence simply because that’s how they are?
What IS The Story Here?
It’s a story of how terrible that threat is, but how we might just be saved by Fearless Leaders of indomitable will (Adama) and perspicacious wisdom (Roslin), ready to stand up to the bureaucrats and bolshevists who just have to learn to shut the fuck up and obey or else (Adama), and ready to ignore the terrifying possibility that their rational judgement is right in favour of blind faith in religious doctrines that promise salvation (Roslin). Political dissenters, it’s established fairly early on, are not to be trusted (Zarek). If you can’t quash them you may have to deal with them, buy them off with power, but sooner or later they’ll turn on you because they’re just plain corrupt. The labour force doesn’t need to be respected. If they get uppity about inequity, you just need to find the ringleader (Tyrol) and put a gun to his wife’s head. Women can’t actually be wise-cracking, hard-ass, adrenaline-junkies (Starbuck); if they look that way really it’s because they’re slaves to their own overwhelming emotional insecurities, victims of their own victimhood and quite possibly willing victims to boot. As we move gradually towards the Mutiny storyline it should be no surprise, actually, that the show schizoidly seeks to gloss over the nature of the Inhuman(e) Enemy and crudely manipulate us into simply accepting the narrative arc with the crass theatrics of Zarek and Gaeta, because the show has never really had the courage of its convictions, has maintained a schizoid confusion of liberal and reactionary subtexts throughout. It should be no surprise that it brings the Cylons into the fleet while singularly failing to engage with the actual ethical dilemma of dealing with an unrepentantly genocidal foe for the sake of survival, because the actual ethical questions, it should have become clear by now, have never actually been articulated.
But Doesn't Moore Seem Fairly Right-On?
It’s not, I think, that the show is actually just an unreconstructed, uncritiqued response to 9/11. As reactionary as that reading above is, it seems clear from Moore’s statements about his intent and his approach to the Cylons that he wanted to tell a story that is more morally complex. Other features within the narrative itself, in fact — storylines of characters like Tigh during the occupation of New Caprica, for example — suggest that he wanted to tell a story in which our sympathies were pulled in different directions, in which hard questions really were asked — e.g. regarding the legitimacy of terrorism against an oppressive regime. It’s just that the writers seem incapable of asking a hard question aimed at either side of the political coin without immediately copping out by offering whatever easy answer springs to mind. Honestly, I’ve come to the conclusion that someone in power there is just chickenshit.
How The Show Cops Out
In the Cylons, it’s as if Moore did actually want to take a swing at the fundamentalist mindset, the monomania of faith. And giving them a One True God as opposed to the Colonial pantheon is a pretty ballsy move that implicitly puts Christian fundamentalism in the same camp as Islamist. Nice little bit of subversion there. Or at least it would be if it wasn’t immediately rendered toothless by offering Roslin’s faith as a clear analogue of non-fundamentalist Christianity — scripture-based, salvation-oriented and guided by that nice Magic Negro lady who looks just like the nice Godsfearing churchgoer she is. No Bacchic revels in this paganism, just a few statues of household gods that might as well be of saints. Don’t want to alienate mainstream America, after all. Don’t want to actually challenge the faith of the people who voted Bush into office on the basis of his “moral values”. Any question of the legitimacy of Adama’s authoritarian attitude to civilians is similarly dispatched pronto. Throw him into a situation where it kicks in, where suddenly we’re faced with the reality of a military officer who feels it’s his duty to impose order, to quash dissent, and you can guarantee that situation will quickly come down to simple necessity. He just has to do it, cause that’s the way it is. Don’t want to actually challenge the politics of those viewers who’re digging the show for its Military SF heroism of space battles and true grit.
At every turn, I think, the show tries to throw its “hard questions” into the mix to satisfy one portion of its potential audience — the liberals who reject fundamentalism but who were equally as dubious of the military, political and religious agenda that emerged out of 9/11, the whole War on Terror — only to pussy out with an immediate backflip that will satisfy another portion of its potential audience — the conservatives who hate Islamic fundamentalism but are convinced that the only sensible response to 9/11 is the War on Terror, that this is necessary for our very survival.
It doesn’t create a tension between these two poles, mind. It doesn’t set up meaningful divisions amongst the humans as to how they should actually deal with the situation. It doesn’t offer us Zarek as a sincerely-motivated, honest-to-Gods left-wing idealist who sees Roslin’s faith-based politics as just plain nuts, doesn’t question the veracity of her vision in order to pit them against each other as equals. It doesn’t offer us the media as a valid political force demanding debate and transparency in the face of Roslin’s and Adama’s autocratic tendencies, just glibly gives us a reporter as Cylon infiltrator and moves on, the whole episode reading as a sop to right-wing suspicions of “the liberal media”. Of course, on the other side of the coin, it panders to left-wing suspicions of “the fascist authorities” by giving us Cain as the brutal tyrant, but slaps the villain tag on her so that spectre can be dispensed with almost as quickly. Couldn’t have that sort of stuff happening on Galactica and raising real hard questions about the desperate extremes people might be willing to go to when survival is at stake. Hell, even the inherent tension in the basic dichotomy of militaristic autocracy versus democratic bureaucracy is dissipated quickly as Adama and Roslin prove to be pretty much of a mind.
The End Result
The result is a sort of thematic vagueness, where the show doesn’t really dramatise the ideological issues it’s pretending to deal with. It seems unwilling to really come down on one side or another and risk alienating viewers who might find such a stance challenging. Worse, this lack of gumption carries through into an unwillingness, for the most part, to even allow such opposing ethical stances to manifest in characters of equal substance and sympathy, not to the extent that any real dramatic tension emerges. Shying away from its own basic thematics, the show can only redirect the drama into simple heroes-in-peril scenarios or soap opera inter-relationships.
An Example of How It Could Have Done Better
So Adama and Roslin want to bring the rogue Cylons into the fleet as Colonial citizens? Does that mean we’re going to see Lee, say, actually use his legitimate political power to oppose it on principle? Given his general utility as the stick-up-butt prig who’ll occasionally stand up to his old man (for as long as it’s necessary in plot terms) and the recent suicide of Dee in the wake of Roslin and Adama’s wild goose chase to a devastated Earth, this might have been a perfect point to take that stick out and put a firecracker in. He’s tediously self-righteous, so if it’s absolutely necessary to your story arc to have those Cylons in the fleet he might well do a good job of undermining his own argument with his insufferability, but at least it would present a vaguely valid objection to this move. Hell, play it right and you could be setting up a much more believable resistance (violent or passive) with all the drama that entails. But, no, that would actually be asking the “hard questions”. So what we get is Gaeta the bitter cripple seizing power and pissing it away in a couple of episodes cliffhangered with a grenade lobbed at Adama.
It’s not an unwatchable show. I’ve seen a lot worse in terms of script, acting, visuals and so forth. If all the soap opera inter-relationships and random left-turns have rendered characters like Starbuck and Tyrol patchworks of utterly arbitrary behaviours, some of the heroes-in-peril scenarios are… serviceable. They just could have done better. Fuck, I even think they might have managed to rewire that ill-conceived 9/11 parallel into something functional and sorted out a lot of the worldbuilding issues to boot simply by fleshing out the backstory with a bit of savvy and spunk. It’s just that to do so would have required a guts they’ve never really had. Unless it’s all some cunningly disguised tragedy which will read as heroic serial right up until we see Roslin impeached and Adama shot for treason by Baltar, the last surviving member of the human race, and realise, “wait, so we were meant to think it was all a bit fucked-up,” I really kinda think they’ve squandered most of the potential the show started out with. And with the not-terribly-impressive backstory of Earth, the “final five” and the petty motives for the attack on the twelve colonies revealed in huge slathering dollops of speechifying in the latest episode, none of it adding much in the way of thematic complexity, I’d have to say I’m not expecting to have to revise that opinion. Which is a shame.