Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Anti-Humanism of Battlestar Galactica

Humanity, the reimagined Battlestar Galactica tells us, is Fallen, progress an illusion that dies when the creations of that "flawed creation," Man, finally turn on it – and do so successfully because those flawed human beings failed to understand that peace is just a period of preparation for the next round of war. (The first scene of the show, in fact, depicts the Cylons' strike on the Armistice Station that represents the Colonies' peace overture to them – adding insult to injury.)

Humanity also failed to appreciate that not only could the Enemy not be reasoned or bargained with, but that it had penetrated within, their ruthless agents and their hapless dupes undermined us to the point that we had little defense against the external assault that finished civilization off in hours.

Trying to examine the history leading up to it, to actually understand the origins of this situation, is pointless, and even traitorous. ("How this could've happened, why it happened – none of that matters right now. All that does matter is that as of this moment we are at war," Commander William Adama says in his call to arms during the pilot.) And that's not the only way in which too much truth is an inconvenience. In the wake of the disaster, the man who claims the mantle of leadership bolsters his legitimacy with a "useful" lie promulgating false hope (regarding Adama's knowledge of the location of Earth), and the forging of a consensus through appeals to the irrational, and the pressure to conform ("So say we all!").

Those who do not conform, like the dissenter and the radical (e.g. Tom Zarek), repeatedly justify the suspicion and contempt with which they are treated, as does the intellectual (e.g. Gaius Baltar), who is not only the very source of our predicament in his misuse of his technical expertise, but a self-seeking traitor at every turn. The rise of such men to a position of leadership is, of course, ruinous, not least because the masses are so easily led astray. Proving once more that they cannot be trusted to take care of themselves, that they are weak and soft and unwilling to face the Hard Facts of Life, the People grab the first chance to fly from the struggle – foolishly electing Baltar President (and foolishly permitted to do so by Adama and sitting President Laura Roslin when they decide not to falsify the election's results to head off this outcome), and leaving their ships for the soil of New Caprica, with the result that Democracy and Excessive Respect for the Law has led to the exchange of the bitter struggle for the even more bitter subjugation by the Enemy. (The second season, in fact, ends with a shot of Cylons marching down the settlement's single muddy street like the Wehrmacht parading through Paris after its capture in 1940 – an image all the more loaded in the American imagination by Anglo-Saxon perceptions of French arms during World War II – and the next begins with Baltar playing quisling to the Cylon occupiers.)

Naturally, it falls to the soldiers (who despite being the show's principal repositories of virtue are no exceptions to the spectacle of human degradation that is the cast of characters, from the pathetic Saul Tigh to the broken Kara Thrace to the tragic Felix Gaeta) to save the civilians from themselves yet again. However, even their heroics accomplish only so much. The Apocalypse runs its course, after which those who had indulged in the luxuries of the wicked cities finally return to the Land. Nonetheless, it is to be only a matter of time before they begin the same stupid cycle of rebuilding and destruction all over again – while the rather smug "angels" manipulate us toward some unknown end.

This was all taken for "gritty" – which is to say, "realistic." Yet one could more precisely, substantively and usefully describe it all as authoritarian, militarist, xenophobic, obscurantist, anti-rational and anti-modern, and just plain misanthropic, which is to say that it conforms to "reality" as seen only from a very specific part of the political spectrum.1 Such a reading of the show is, if anything, encouraged by the presentation of so much of what happened on the show as relevant to our contemporary politics (through its constant, shamelessly sensationalist evocations of the War on Terror).2

That such comments have not been far more common says a great deal about the political moment in which the show appeared, and what it takes to be "realistic."3 It also says a great deal about our moment that this is the show which has supplanted Star Trek as the template for science fiction television, its considerable influence evident in recent efforts like Stargate: Universe and the reimagined V (which reimagining is in itself a striking story of political inversion). Ken MacLeod has described this condition as well as anyone I can think of: "humanity as a rational and political animal died in 1979, and went to hell." The new Galactica, representative of the anti-humanist polar opposite to what Star Trek (once) stood for, is a story we told ourselves there.4

1. The original Galactica has also been noted for its right-wing politics. Still, many of the changes took it further in that direction, like the emphasis on humanity's nature as fallen, and the treatment of particular characters, like the transformation of Gaius Baltar from a power-hungry politician into a horny, status-seeking scientist with an accent the show's primarily North American audience would regard as foreign. There is, too, the addition of the civilian-military power struggle, which had Adama in a tug of war with President Laura Roslin, presented here as out of her depth, as she had been "only" a teacher earlier – not just a member of a profession held in low regard among Americans (and a lightning rod for the same anti-intellectualism we see in the treatment of Baltar), but one identified with the "liberal establishment" conservatives frequently demonize.
2. The show's first episode "33" had the heroes shooting down a hijacked passenger craft, while later in that same season Cylons were seen blowing themselves up like suicide bombers, captured Cylons got waterboarded, etc.. The result was to equate the September 11 terror attacks with the annihilation of a twelve-planet civilization, al-Qaida with the military might of the Cylons, and the context of a handful of refugees in a flotilla of life boats to that of the United States today – comparisons which entail so much exaggeration as to render any analogy useless (while the tone was usually that of FOX News in Space).
3. Admittedly, the show did not adhere to the view described with perfect consistency, at least after the first two seasons. Indeed, some argued that the politics were quite the opposite of those described here in season three. In particular, much was made of the show's protagonists becoming resistance fighters against the occupying Cylons in that season's first episodes, with many reviewers suggesting an equation of the human "insurgents" with present-day Iraqis, while subsequent episodes like "Dirty Hands" and "The Woman King" entered new territory by raising questions of class, labor and bigotry. (Indeed, Jonah Goldberg adored the first two seasons, and hated the later ones, which thoughts he shared in a post pointedly titled "How Politics Destroyed a Great TV Show" – which is to say, how the merest whiff of liberal politics made intolerable to him a show he'd once enjoyed because of its agreement with his world-view.) However, the extent and depth of the changes should not be overstated. They did not alter the basic premises of the series, and in any case, were quickly drowned in the pseudo-religious muddle already moving to the fore.
4. Ironically, the new show's creator, Ronald D. Moore, worked as a producer and writer on the Star Trek franchise, scripting nearly sixty episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager, as well as the films Star Trek: Generations and Star Trek: First Contact.

Stargate as Star Trek
3/23/12
On Star Trek Bashing
3/23/12
New and Noteworthy (Ken MacLeod, Robots, Foreign Movies at the Oscars, Locus Recommended Reading List)
2/10/11
Stargate: Universe (A Reaction)
10/4/09
More on the Galactica Finale
5/11/09
The End of Galactica
3/26/09

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