The Globe and Mail
Sci-fi's clash of civilizations
The genre has always been ripe for political commentary, and Battlestar Galactica's groundbreaking war stories are playing on our post-9/11 nerves
June 5, 2006
Special to The Globe and Mail
In the months after 9/11, the war on terror was raging -- a military offensive in Afghanistan, nuclear plants on alert, a Passover suicide bombing, an armed standoff in Bethlehem and Homeland Security's new colour-coded terrorism scares.
Amid this chaos, the U.S. Sci-Fi Channel announced they were reviving the seventies cult favourite Battlestar Galactica.
The Vancouver-filmed show would still revolve around "a ragtag fugitive fleet." But rather than using global holocaust to launch a George Lucas-style space adventure, as the campy original did, creator Ronald Moore had something deeper in mind. Conceived with ground zero still smouldering, this gritty remake would include no "casino planet."
Having recently concluded its second season on Canada's Space network, the show's intellectually engaging approach has unexpectedly, but deservedly, earned it a Peabody Award. Tonight, the 65th annual event will honour Battlestar with the most prestigious prize in radio and television because of its "parallax considerations of politics, religion, sex, even what it means to be 'human.' " Meanwhile, Time magazine declared Battlestar 2005's best TV show, it made the top-10 lists of the American Film Institute and numerous newspaper critics and an Emmy campaign is currently under way.
Science fiction is rarely taken seriously, but that's why it's such an effective forum to explore topical issues through allegory.
Presaging 2003's four-hour miniseries-cum-pilot, Moore laid out his manifesto: "We believe that science fiction provides an opportunity to explore our own society, to provoke debate and to challenge our perceptions of ourselves and our fellow man."
As with the original, Battlestar began with an apocalyptic sneak attack by the robotic Cylons. This time, however, humanity's arch-enemies are not alien but created by man, paralleling America's support of the mujahedeen in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan.
Moore's premise is that "Sept. 11 happens, but the only people who survive are the people inside the Twin Towers." With billions dead, 50,000 refugees flee into space, beginning a series-long treatise on 9/11's aftermath.
Battlestar is about a clash of civilizations marked by terrorism, religious fundamentalism, suicide bombers, prisoner abuse and conflicts between civilian and military leaders, with magnificent performances by Oscar nominees Mary McDonnell (as President Laura Roslin) and Edward James Olmos (as Admiral Adama), as well as standout newcomer James Callis as the treacherous scientist/politician Gaius Baltar. It also delves into the paranoia over "sleeper cells" with certain Cylons -- most impressively Canada's Next Top Model host Tricia Helfer -- appearing human.
Thanks to its sci-fi trappings, Battlestar avoids the pitfalls of the short-lived Iraq War series Over There, which Newsweek slammed for "bend[ing] over backward not to express any opinion whatsoever about the conflict" while others decried it simply for dramatizing an ongoing war.
Most TV dramas deal with our terror era superficially to avoid losing advertisers. "The networks are terrified of controversy," Moore has said. "But in sci-fi, they don't notice or care so much -- you get a free pass." Rod Serling discovered this when his 1957 congressional drama The Arena was prohibited from discussing politics. "I probably would have had a much more adult play had I made it science fiction, put it in the year 2057, and peopled the Senate with robots," he later said, adding that would be "no less dramatically incisive." So he created The Twilight Zone to explore nuclear war, McCarthyism and other hot-button issues. Similarly, Star Trek tackled sexism and racism while The X-Files examined pre-millennial government paranoia.
In Battlestar, most major plot points have real-world parallels -- from the shooting down of a ship hijacked by Cylons to an election rigged by President Roslin, a religious convert. She's somewhat analogous to George W., but because the show is about shades of grey rather than Bushian black-and-white, her ploy fails and she's still a far better leader than her selfish, cynical opponent.
The Cylons offer a similar exercise in ambiguity. They've largely been terrorist stand-ins and even subject to Bush-style harangues: "The Cylons have no understanding of the meaning of the word freedom. How could they? They are programmed machines." But they occasionally display more humanity than the real humans, and the jaw-dropping Season 2 cliffhanger, which jumped the series ahead by one year, further challenged those preconceptions.
Having discovered a hidden, habitable planet, albeit one resembling a refugee camp, humanity stopped running only to be "benevolently" invaded. The Cylons' new approach was clear: "We will love them and take care of them . . . and, like God, our infinite mercy will be matched only by our power and complete control."
There are echoes of Vichy France, but the American occupation of Iraq will also be prime fodder when the third season begins in October and our protagonists become insurgents, forcing viewers to relate to both sides of the current war.
Throughout its run, Battlestar has eschewed easy critiques while examining how the terror era has changed America in light of Abu Ghraib, domestic wiretaps and Iraq. But they don't pull punches, either. As Adama said, following a showdown with his ruthlessly Rumsfeldian counterpart Admiral Cain: "It is not enough to survive -- one has to be worthy of survival."