Back in 2004 I was blown away by the amazingly good pilot of the re-vamped TV show, Battlestar Galactica. In addition to a strong cast, striking production design and good effects, it had the guts to make the Cylon villains a bunch of religious fanatics. I was all the more surprised because the trauma of 9/11 was still raw. But now I think it was that very catastrophe that enabled TV to deal with such a big taboo. Alas, the pilot was the high point.
First, full-disclosure here, I have only watched a sampling of the 4 seasons. I faithfully followed season one back in 2004, but the Cylons were so superior to the humans in technology, numbers, resources and all around savvy that I couldn’t take it anymore. Every episode showed our bunch of squabbling heroes out maneuvered to the point of extinction, only to bounce back with one “Hail Mary Pass” after another. I stopped being entertained, and started feeling manipulated, so I dropped out. Now, 10 years later, I’ve just sampled seasons 2 through 4 on Netflix, and despite some good stuff sprinkled throughout the series, my dissatisfactions have grown into disgust. Technically, not having seen all the episodes, I have no right to critique the series, but I’ll forge ahead because so much of the excruciatingly detailed coverage this series has gotten on the Internet avoids the central point: the Cylon’s use of God to justify a holocaust. There is a staggering amount of fan analysis out there, and most of it appears to be a happy obsession with the details of the show’s fictional history and the Cylon’s technology and biology. Concentrating on the trees, they miss the forest, so I’d like to write about the Culture War at the heart of Battlestar Galactica.
The original Battlestar Galactica from the 1970’s – which I remember seeing during the original broadcasts! – was a godawful, cheesy rip-off of Star Wars that gave us a Pearl Harbor style sneak attack in space. The villains were an alien robot race called Cylons, and the heroes were our space ancestors who lived on 12 planets with names like Caprica and Aquaria. The Cylons were the simplest cartoon villains imaginable, and their only goal in life was the complete conquest of the human race – just because! They got their big break with military information from a traitor, and the well-meaning foolishness of a president committed to appeasement with a ruthless enemy. The upshot was the destruction of the 12 worlds. Only one human warship, the Galactica, survived, and gathering a rag tag fleet that had escaped the Cylon attack they fled into space looking for a mythical “earth,” on which to settle. Apparently this story line wasn’t inspired by the Erich von Doniken bestseller “Chariots of the Gods,” but by executive producer Glen Larson’s Mormon faith! At any rate, the show tried, and succeeded, in achieving a simple good vs evil adventure feel. So much so that it made Flash Gordon look sophisticated.
The original Cylons who, according to Commander Adama, “Hate us with every fiber of their being!”
…And why shouldn’t they?
The 2004 reboot added moral complexity by making the Cylon robots creations of human technology. Used as slave labor they revolted, and after much bloody fighting won an armistice that allowed them to seek their own home out in space. That would seem to be a happy ending for the Cylons, but the reboot opens 40 years after the cease of hostilities, and they come back with a vengeance. Why? Well, it’s not any trickery or aggression from mankind, which is happily enjoying the good life on it’s 12 colonized worlds, where the problems of civil war, poverty and environmental degradation seem to have been solved. Mankind doesn’t know where the Cylons are, and it doesn’t care. But the Cylons care. Somewhere along the way they have picked up a messianic faith in a single God that runs against the polytheism of the 12 worlds, and “they have a plan” which requires that they wipe those 12 worlds out. And so we get a spectacular atomic holocaust that leaves billions of human beings dead.
Nuclear explosions go off all over the planet Caprica.
This time the fault does not lay with pro-appeasement politicians, but with a happy carelessness on everybody’s part. For 40 years there has been no apparent Cylon threat so – oh the fools! – the human race gets sloppy in its military preparedness. Not enough Cold War paranoia, in other words. That, and key inside info handed over by an unwitting traitor named Baltar, dooms the 12 Colonized worlds of mankind. (Baltar is a tricky, hollow, amoral self-promoter. He’s a good character, but I object to the way he’s used, and to the excessive fascination the script has for him. I’ll return to this point later.)
One of the strong points of the show is that it often highlights the rifts and tensions that erupt among the human survivors during their desperate flight, and so we don’t get a sentimental celebration of saintly orphans weathering a cruel storm. But we do get another kind of sentimentality in the show’s worship of the military. Speaking roles for civilians are few and far between, and that goes double for members of the press. Aggravating. But I’ll give the show credit for openly addressing the debate between a democratic government versus a military dictatorship. Well, kinda. In the climax of season three the heroic Commander Adama stages a coup against President Roslin because he’s afraid she MIGHT might a bad choice in the future. A bold script choice that could have equaled the moment when Annakin Skywalker goes over to the Dark Side – only we are all saved a great deal of emotional trauma when a Cylon operative interrupts the coup by shooting and wounding Adama. I didn’t watch the following episodes, but by the middle of season four we are back to where we started with Adama in command of Galactica and Roslin still the president. (In the reboot, the Cylons have an elite corps that look just like people, and so can infiltrate human society.)
Not withstanding the stronger dramatic elements, I couldn’t watch the entire series because of the horrible amount of slow-moving soap opera that constantly engulfs the hot, hot-headed and horny crew of the Galactica. Particularly, the hot, hot-headed and horny “Viper” pilots. Any chance it gets, the camera is down in their mess area watching the well-muscled team lounge around in their tank tops as they drink, smoke, curse, argue, flirt, fight and fuck. (RE: fucking – it’s always with the wrong one! Or it’s with the right one – just before they die!) Nothing wrong with any of this, but we get waaay too much of it, and the script follows all of these shenanigans with the awed reverence of a dweeby freshman.
The delicious Jamie Bamber plays hot Viper pilot Lee Adama.
Probably we are subjected to so much melodramatic filler because of the producers’ hope to keep the show running for as many seasons as possible. This is a particular curse of American television, unlike the BBC, which isn’t afraid of a limited series that gives us a strong story line, and then wraps everything up with gusto. It’s probably this aspect of American show business economics that is also responsible for a major felony in my book – and that’s the constant changing of the Cylon back story as the series progressed. I actually discovered this complaint on the blogs of some enthusiastic fans. So while season one tells us that the Cylons are a fairly recent creation of human technology, season four gives us some “special” Cylons who are thousands of years old. I don’t know the details, but it sounds like a big mess. A mess I don’t care to investigate.
The very cool and creepy Cylon war fleet.
Cylon history is not the only thing that gets muddy, so does their reasoning. At first it is crystal clear; they are a bunch of vengeful zealots that, despite the fact they have won their independence, are bent on wiping out the “heathens” that created, and abused them. Talk of “God’s Plan” inspires them with holy fire, provides a rationale for murder, and hides from view their obsession and insecurity regarding mankind. A bad thing, right? Well…as the show progresses, it seems to drink the Cylon kool-aid, and “God’s Plan” becomes real. The series doesn’t go so far as to show a divine manifestation, a la God speaking to Moses in Cecil B. DeMill’s “The Ten Commandments. (Why not? Because it would look ridiculous? Because hearing God tell the Cylons to wipe out the 12 human worlds would make him look like a psycho?) What we get instead is a Nostradamus-like sage called Pithious who lived some 4,000 years before the Cylon attack. (Documented history is in short supply in the world of Galactica, so our high-tech, space-faring humans must rely on vague holy books that speak in riddles.) Happily, the vague riddles of Pithious all come true, thus “proving” that God (or the gods?) and his (their?) plans are real.
The conflict between a belief in one God and many gods is not adequately addressed – not in the episodes I watched, at any rate. Officially the humans worship the classical Greek gods Zeus, Apollo, Athena, etc. But most of the time they are actually modern-day agnostics or atheists. I never saw a scene where a human shows any emotional investment in any of the gods of the pantheon. I also never saw a debate between a devout polytheist and a devout monotheist. In fact, I never saw a Cylon suffer any intelligent push-back what-so-ever when it came to their endless talk about God and his plan . (If anyone who reads this blog knows of any such examples in the series, I’d be happy to know about it!) What passes for religious debate happens mostly between a sentient Cylon hologram and Baltar, the traitor. She’s a smarty-pants know it all with inside information, and he’s the sleazy a-religious operator who screwed the human race with his careless greed. And now, by default, he’s the voice of “reason.” Can you guess which side wins the day?
Sexy Cylon “Number Six” teaches feckless Baltar about “God’s Plan.”
So anyways, jumping over many, many plot points, our human survivors and some Cylon “rebels” finally reach earth. (The Netflix episode guide tells me that late in the day the show fixed one of it’s major problems by giving the Cylons some arguments amongst themselves.) On earth they find tribes of Stone Age humans which they, amazingly, decide to join. For now all the humans, as well as the Cylons, want to be “agents of God’s plan.” So they all voluntarily agree to trash their space ships, to abandon cities, culture, and advanced medical care, all for the moral thrill of starting over with a “clean slate!” Wow. Where to begin? First, by observing that the enthusiastic cooperation of 100% of the survivors for following “God’s Plan” sounds like something you’d encounter in a Scientology compound, or in North Korea.
As shown in the pilot, the 12 Colonial Worlds look to be fabulous successes. If we here on earth reach anything close to them we will be very, very lucky. So where does the disgust with civilization come from? From the surprisingly dark and reactionary heart of “Battlestar Galactica,” that’s where. Disgust with cities, and the freedoms they give their inhabitants, has a long history with authoritarian types, and destroying them for the “good of mankind” is a wet dream that goes back to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. In fact, what we have here is a sci-fi retelling of that tale, done on a scale to surpass Noah’s Flood. The Cylons, devout agents of God, destroy the decadent and heathen cities of mankind with fire from the sky. And while this leads to 12 radiated planets and billions of deaths, that’s OK, because it enables the 38,000 survivors to discover the joys of Faith, and living in pious stone-age villages! So whatever the original intentions, “Battlestar Galactica” ends up celebrating the horror of 9/11 by giving us a happy ending that any Muslim Jihadist, or Moral Majority Christian Soldier, can approve of.
It’s not a cult, it’s God’s Plan!