J. & C.'s Movie Reviews

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Archive for March, 2010

Battlestar Galactica: Seasons 1 and 2

Posted by J on March 2, 2010

Here we go with another serial sci-fi TV show.  Thanks to Lost, this kind of show blossomed during the last decade, and Battlestar Galactica owes a little something to Lost, while mixing in a bit of 24 and Star Trek.

Galactica is good sci-fi, most of the time.    In some distant time, humans live on twelve planets, none of which are Earth.  These humans are attacked by machines known as Cylons.  Humans invented Cylons long ago, and somehow the Cylons gained enough intelligence and gumption to attack humans.  A war broke out, both sides made peace, and then the Cylons disappeared for decades.

At the beginning of the show, the Cylons return. They nuke all 12 human planets, and destroy 99.9% of humanity.  Only about 40,000 humans remain, scattered amongst several spaceships, hoping to find the lost colony of Earth.  Meanwhile, the Cylons chase these human survivors.

The show’s best element is the mystery it’s premised on.  A few Cylon models are not just robots, but they look and act like humans. They infiltrate the human survivors, and so the humans are never sure if one of them is actually a Cylon.  Since the Cylons are hostile, practicing spycraft and subterfuge, engaging in suicide missions and terrorist attacks, the Battlestar Galacticans have a big problem.

There is a major religious difference between the humans and Cylons.  The Cylons are monotheistic.  They talk about God’s love, God’s justice, God’s forgiveness.  We don’t know exactly what they mean — who is their god, after all? — but they contrast sharply with the colonial humans, who are polytheistic, believing in and praying to the “Lords of Kobol.”  In some ways this divide is supposed to resemble the contrast between ancient Roman pagans and Roman Christians.  In other ways, it resembles the contrast between modern-day fundamentalists (Muslims or Christians) and the accepted polytheism of American multiculturalism.

The human remnant is left to wander around space, scavenging for supplies and hoping to blindly come across a place called Earth.  They don’t know where Earth is, but it’s one of the lost colonies that might allow them refuge from the Cylons’ relentless attempt to dominate the universe and wipe out all of humanity.  It becomes apparent pretty quickly that, at least for the convenience of the show, the Cylons can pop up anywhere, anytime.  What the humans think they are going to do when they find Earth is unclear.  For all we viewers know, there is no safe haven in the galaxy.

When humanity gets down to its last 40,000 people, several problems arise.   Among their remnant, they appear to only have one medical doctor and one thousand journalists.  The medical doctor — a Bob Knight lookalike who smokes — is 70 years old.  He specializes in breast cancer, neuroscience, pharmacology, and obstetrics and gynecology, and that’s just the beginning of his resume.  You’d think the Galacticans would train doctors, pronto, but they’re actually more concerned with the policy decisions of their government.

And, boy, are they concerned.  The 1,000 journalists swarm to every press conference that the Galactican President holds.  This President, newly sworn in soon after the Cylon attack, is concerned with upholding the principles of democracy, whatever those are supposed to be.  She insists on maintaining democratic government even though the humans are attacked by the Cylons every few days.  It’s a time of total war and chaos, but it doesn’t matter.  The Galactican president wants to represent the people. 

As this example shows, Battlestar Galactica is an overtly political drama that straddles every side of present-day American politics, especially every issue involved in the so-called War on Terror.  It is so overtly political that, in one episode, we actually watch a few minutes of parliamentary procedure.  No one who has ever attended a meeting in which Robert’s Rules of Order was used has ever been anything but bored.  You can imagine how entertaining it is to watch in a sci-fi show.  But Battlestar wants us to understand how deeply its characters care about politics.  There is even one minor character (Tom Zarek) who, as a radical democrat, uses violent means to achieve political ends.  Other characters support Zarek’s desire to give “freedom to the people” and “form a collective that works for every individual citizen,” but in an act of moderation, they reject his violent approach to instituting “pure democracy.”  Still, Zarek is allowed a position on the Galactican high council, and eventually becomes Vice President, even though he’s a convicted terrorist and a hijacker!

Every Galactican cares so deeply about politics that, when the presidential election is held, there is a 99% turnout of the human population.  Apparently in the Galactican government, even children and the mentally infirm vote.

Back to the War on Terror.  Battlestar‘s major character is Commander Adama, who is in charge of the human remnant’s military.  Adama is the Political Everyman.  He represents military supremacy and yet espouses the Galacticans’ democratic sentiments.  In one episode, Adama calls a military tribunal to investigate a Cylon spy.  The President warns Adama that such a tribunal will turn into a “witchhunt,” which of course is what happens.  Adama finds himself interrogated at this tribunal, which he ends with his statement that the tribunal is a witchhunt that violates everyone’s civil liberties — and then he promptly has the interrogating officer confined to her quarters, just on his word.  In another episode, Adama arrests the President because she suborned mutiny on his ship, but realizes (after several episodes) that the fleet cannot be divided and that he must forgive the President and reunite humanity.

The Cylon infiltration clearly represents the War on Terror.  Everyone is a suspect, and torture is a legitimate tool of the human military.  The monotheistic Cylons make suicide bomber attacks, and use the human media to foment dissent.

The Cylons are also interested in reproduction, specifically human-Cylon reproduction.  You’d think that 40,000 humans would be the ones interested in reproduction, but no, the humans appear to care more about the abstract doctrine of equality than in their long-term survival. Their women, for example, still play major roles in the government and military, apparently using “protection” whenever they have a tryst in the co-ed bathrooms and military quarters.  By contrast, the Cylons have reproduced to practically infinite numbers.  They appear to have taken over the galaxy, mostly because they believe in their “one true God’s command” to “be fruitful,” rather than in equal rights and the necessary usage of condoms and IUDs. These demographic facts alone should tell us who will win, and very soon, but of course we are supposed to root for the non-reproductive humans.

Galactica often takes some hardcore political position and then challenges it with one of those Philosophy 101 “What-If” scenarios. In one episode, a human woman wants to have an abortion.  The President defends the woman’s right to an abortion, which has been legal under the Galactican government.  Well, of course when you’re down to 40,000 humans, during a time of war, you must reproduce or die.  The President realizes this and reverses her position, using an executive order to ban abortion.  Bizarrely, this becomes a campaign issue when the President is challenged by her own sitting Vice President, who takes the pro-choice position.

This Vice President is uber-scientist Dr. Gaius Baltar, the show’s one great character.  Baltar unknowingly collaborated with a Cylon woman before the Cylon attack, his actions resulting in the near-destruction of humanity.  Baltar is haunted and then entertained by mental visions of this Cylon woman, who tells him how to act in certain situations.  Is Baltar’s mental woman a manifestation of his own brain, a Cylon chip implanted in him, or a “angel of God,” as the woman often claims she is?

The 2nd season ends when Baltar, the newly elected President, fulfills his campaign promise to colonize a barely habitable planet.  It is clear that Baltar’s presidency would be a total disaster, given the doctor’s preoccupation with his own survival and no one else’s.  In the last episode of the season we see the Cylons, some of whom want to make peace with the humans, find the human’s new colony and set up a military occupation.  What are the Cylons there for?  What do they think they will accomplish with a military occupation?  Such answers bring us back to the realm of politics, both abstract and practical, which is what Battlestar Galactica always wants us to consider.

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