Tuesday, 9 January 2007

Battlestar Galactica

Battlestar Galactica is back! If you don't want to read any spoilers, look away.

If memories of Battlestar Galactica are of 70s hair do's, Dirk Benedict and space opera campery, the new series will be something of a shock. Leaving aside the sci-fi cliches concerning hyperdrives and what not, I would stick my neck out and say this is as realistic as a science fiction show can be. It's harsh, it's militaristic, it's gritty ... and very watchable.

Like the original series the premise is the same. The 12 colonies of 'man' (sic) are wiped out by the race of machines they created - the Cylons. All except for the eponymous Galactica and a ragtag armada of civilian ships, the series plots their exploits as they hop from star system to star system with the Cylons in pursuit. Their objective is Earth, the mythic home of the lost 13th tribe of humanity.

Strangely, at no point have any of the characters considered the wisdom of leading a pack of psychopathic machines to our beautiful blue world. I digress.

The show is of interest to lefties because it is a product of post-Sept 11th psychosis. Until a film is made chronicling the 'War on Terror', a more explicit allegory will be seldom found. In the pilot episode the human race is betrayed by Gaius Baltar (James Callis) who hands over the keys to the human defence grid to the Number Six Cylon agent (Tricia Helfer), enabling them to launch a massive first strike and taking the colonies in one fell swoop. This forces the survivors to flee.

They are more than just an external bogey, they are an internal threat. Cylons are now virtually indistinguishable from humans. The one-eyed toasters have had a makeover. The centurions are lithe armour-clad cyclopses with Freddy Krueger claws. But it is the 'human' Cylons who inspire fear - they live among the fleet, gathering information, carrying out assassinations and causing mischief. In this climate of paranoia, political authoritarianism asserts itself. The civilian administration of President Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell) is threatened and occasionally superseded by (benign) military rule under Commander Adama (Edward James Olmos).

These and other war on terror parallels are easy to distinguish in the first two seasons. The Galactica is a belleagured USA protecting a defenceless but ungrateful flotilla of civilians (the "free" world). It is the strong and vigilent military that is the best hope for humanity, be it against Cylons or Al-Qaeda. What's more, during the second season the Cylons reveal their war against humans is a holy crusade. Quite literally. While the colonies worship the pantheon of ancient Greece the Cylons follow the one God. Ironic that machines created by humans turn against their former masters in a squabble over the divine creator.

Tonight's season opener marks a two fold departure for the series. In the final episode of the previous run the fleet colonised an earth-like world shrouded by a nebula, believing it to be hidden from the Cylons. Unfortunately for them the Cylons turn up a year later in overwhelming force and occupy the human settlement. What remains of the fleet jump away to fight another day. For those left behind the tension rises as they adjust to life under the Cylon jackboot. Some contemplate suicide attacks against the machines and their collaborators, others face the dilemma of betraying loved out of necessity or because they've swallowed the propaganda of the occupying authorities. Out go the space battles. In comes urban guerrilla warfare.

Apart from the narrative reorientation the viewpoint of the show has undergone a sublime shift. Never straightforwardly gung-ho and uncritical, the first two seasons could still more or less be assimilated to the US position in the war on terror. Now the drama is concentrating on the occupation, the human's standpoint is analagous to that of Iraqis. I never imagined that I'd see a mainstream US show attempt to come to grips with the psychology of suicide bombing, let alone elicit audience sympathy for those characters who choose to undertake them. The portrayal of the Cylons has accomodated this. Rather than being mechanical religious fundamentalists we learn the occupation is motivated by the Cylon's desire to civilise the humans by converting them to their faith. Some Cylons think this is best done through a softly-softly approach. Others favour the whip hand. Both factions are united on the necessity of the occupation, while the draconian repression of the humans exposes its illegitimacy in every way.

This is television at its very best - dramatic, complex and thought-provoking.


Jim Jay said...

BG *is* fantastic and I'm so sad I'm not even ashamed to say it. It's really hard to believe that this layered and subtle programme was spawned by a trash western in space from the seventies...

There are some other really interesting points about the show. How the humans constantly refer to their enemy as "toasters", whilst the cylons themselves are interested in philosophy and religion: the politics of torture, and the effect it has on the torturer themselves. Also the relationship between the political administration and the ilitary in time of war.

I also wonder about the two humans that go out of their way to (violently) save the life of the pregnant cylon traitor... are these anti-war liberals thinking with their hearts not their brains?

Anyway I've not seen the latest episode - so no more spoilers!

Chris Baldwin said...

Not seen this one but the original BG was great! Battlestar Galactica 1980 was a travesty however.

Louisefeminista said...

I was having a conversation with a work colleague about Battlestar Galactica and he said he liked it. I like most sci fi but I never was a fan of this...........

Phil said...

Is that the original series or the current one?

Zoe Brain said...

Hope you don't mind a RWDB NeoCon dropping in.... never mind, perhaps we can all agree on BG in its latest incarnation being a really good show.

Sometimes the US does have some culture after all, and when it does, it does it very well indeed.

Now please let me give my sympathies to the author of this blog. I've just completed the first year of my PhD and I Feel Your Pain.

Best of luck, keep on blogging, I found much thought-provoking material here. Thanks.

Jim Jay said...

Louise you shouldn't let your memories of the original stop you watching the new version, although there are a few similarities it's basically a completely different show with real complexities and nuance - woooo!

Louisefeminista said...

Phil: "Is that the original series or the current one"?

The original (for me) though work colleague was talking about the current one. Confusing.....