If someone hinted two years ago that one day I would be eagerly awaiting the third season of a remake of Battlestar Galactica, my response would have been something like, “Get away from me, crazy person, because that is crazy, what you are saying to me.”
The original series ran in the late 1970s and was very, very dumb. Sure, it’s interesting to learn that bits of Mormon theology were embedded into the show. And I suppose some people will now be entertained by those vintage haircuts. But don’t be fooled by the sickly glow of nostalgia. The show was junk. Let’s put it this way: There was a robotic dog.
Looking back, it was probably Tim Burke’s recommendation that made me give the remake a try. He called himself “probably the last geek out there to discover Battlestar Galactica” but actually, no, a few of us were left to follow in his wake.
The new series is often said to have “reimagined” the original, but I don’t think that word quite cuts it. There must be some bit of alchemical jargon that would do the trick. An article from the Newark Star-Ledger by Alan Sepinwal sums up the first two seasons:
Since its revival in 2003, “Galactica” has been one of the most overtly political shows on television, albeit one with spaceships and robots. The human heroes were set up as America; the robotic Cylons, who were created and trained by the humans only to rebel and become religious fanatic mass murderers, were stand-ins for Al Qaeda. 9/11 imagery abounded, characters debated the merits of security versus civil liberties and leaders on all sides invoked their respective deities as justification for their actions.
But there’s more in play than just contemporary geopolitical allusion. The humans are polytheistic. Some come from a colony known for its rather fundamentalist attitude towards the gods, while others are completely secularized. And there is a retro feel to some (but not all) of the technology they use (big, clunky telephones for example) because of a certain quasi-luddite phase human civilization underwent in the recent past.
The Cylons, by contrast, have moved beyond the computerization and artificial intelligence that created them, towards the development of biotechnology. And they are strict monotheists. They believe in both holy war and mystical communion with their God. One of the intriguing developments in the somewhat uneven second season of Galactica was the emergence, among some Cylons, of questions about whether it might be possible to love a human—who is, after all, an Other, and presumably unable to commune with the one true (robot) God.
Another of the show’s defining tensions is that between military and civilian authority. It raises the question of what elections might mean in an extreme situation—a “state of exception” in which the legitimacy of constitutional democracy is itself in doubt.
The finale of the second season (discussed by Tim Burke here) involved a different and unexpected jolt of topicality. A decision was reached among the humans to settle on an uninhabited world. Quoting from Alan Sepinwal’s column again:
The human fleet settled on an obscure planet they dubbed New Caprica, lived there for a year in relative peace, then faced an invasion by the Cylons.
The new season picks up four months into the occupation, and despite the Cylons’ claims of benevolence, the largest structure visible anywhere is the new jail. Humans are routinely rounded up without cause, others are branded as traitors for joining a Cylon-organized police force, and the resistance, led by former prisoner and torture victim Colonel Tigh (Michael Hogan), is trying out suicide bombings.
If the humans were originally us and the Cylons were Al Qaeda, how did the Cylons become America while we became the Iraqis?
Sepinwal interviews Ron Moore, the creator of the show, who surprisingly indicates that working on Galactica actually made him somewhat sympathetic to George W. Bush: “I don’t hate the man. I disagree violently with many of his decisions, but I can kind of go to a place where I understand where he’s working from, the pressure of that office, the security of millions riding on your every decision.”
Not that anyone watching the new Galactica is going to confuse it with political analysis. But its way of breaking down and juxtaposing elements of the post-9/11 world in combinations then held together in a science-fiction framework has a defamiliarizing effect.
More from Sepinwall’s interview with Ron Moore:
“The fact that we’re not saying, ‘These are the Republicans and these are the Democrats and this is Al Qaeda’ means we can get to the heart of the drama, and examine it from many angles, make the audience question whose side they’re on, in a way you can’t in a docudrama.
“I think the show is relevant and is trying to do what science fiction is supposed to do, which is to examine society through a different prism. I like the show to raise questions, to provoke people and get them to question their beliefs—and if they come out the other side of that with their beliefs affirmed, that’s fine. The show raises questions. It doesn’t try to answer them. We don’t try to say in 90 minutes, ‘Here’s what the solution to Iraq is.’ I think the show tries to get you to examine these issues and decide for yourself.”
To fellow stragglers, I also highly recommend Battlestar Wiki, quite the monumental labor of geek love.