Watching Battlestar Galactica from the Middle East

by Brian on October 5, 2006

in Living Through Terror

I have long been a big fan of science fiction literature. My favorite first authors were Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Ira Levin, and Isaac Asimov, and despite the fact my reading routine has expanded somewhat in the intervening years, my interest in alien societies and their interaction with human beings has not waned.

On TV and the big screen, I’m just as much a sci-fi fan. From Star Trek to Star Wars, The X-Files, Planet of the Apes, three Matrix movies, several versions of Dune, plus all of the Terminators (and a few too many of now Governor Schwarzenegger’s less notable action flicks), I’ve seen more than my share.

But I wasn’t prepared for what I think is clearly the most compelling sci-fi series made yet: Battlestar Galactica.

Because Battlestar Galactica is not just about pointy-headed humanoids who somehow speak English fluently while wreaking havoc on the space-time continuum (no offense intended, Gene). Rather, BSG is about the world we live in today, and how bad it could get if fundamentalist terror is not stopped.

Battlestar Galactica, you see, is a not so loosely drawn metaphor for a universe torn apart by jihad. The show returns for its third season on the Sci Fi Channel Friday night, October 6.

Keep in mind that the Battlestar Galactica I’m talking about is not the cheesy series of the late 1970s that featured cute kids and a robot dog named Muffit.

The new Battlestar Galactica was launched as a mini-series by the Sci Fi Channel in 2003 featuring high-end production and superb acting, writing and direction. It quickly rose to become the top rated program on the network. Episodes are also available online for $1.99 each on iTunes.
Battlestar Galactica’s protagonists are human, but they’re not from Earth, rather the “12 Colonies of Kobol” that seem to share with us a common Homeric legacy (the planets have Greek-sounding names like Gemenon and Virgon).

In this parallel universe, human beings have created a race of artificially intelligent robots known as Cylons to serve man. In standard sci-fi style, the robots rebel and war breaks out. An armistice is drawn and the two sides separate for 40 years until a surprise nuclear attack by the Cylons kills billions, leaving less than 50,000 humans alive in the galaxy.

The humans who survived the genocide were those who had been “off planet” during the attack, most onboard what the show describes as a “ragtag fleet” of spacecraft defended by a single aging warship – the Battlestar Galactica.

Over the course of the next 33 episodes, there are battles between humans and Cylons, inter-species intrigue, and plenty of mythology and back-story to keep even the most die-hard sci fi fans fully engaged.

But Battlestar Galactica – which has been described by critics as “the best show on TV today” – is not really about space at all. It’s more a drama that happens to be set in space. The show is about human relationships and what happens to survivors after a holocaust of such immense proportions.

Now, here’s where the parallels with our own universe become sinister. The Cylons – the genocidal bad guys – are monotheistic believers in what they call the “one true God” while the humans are a bunch of polytheistic pagans who pray to little idols they keep in their storage lockers.

The Cylons believe God speaks directly to them and their actions – however morally and ethically reprehensible – are according to a carefully laid out (and slowly revealed) “Big Plan.” The Cylons have somehow internalized a belief that they are the new inheritors of the mantle of Moses (or Zeus in this case) with humans as the infidels who must be eliminated at all cost.

Sound at all familiar?

The Cylons have also developed – in their 40-year absence – 12 “new models” which are indistinguishable from humans. They have become so intermingled with “regular” people that it’s no surprise when one of them becomes the sci-fi world’s first post 9/11-suicide bomber.

In one particularly politically challenging episode, a group of survivors decides that it’s human beings who are really at fault, that the reason Cylons hate their creators and have murdered most of humanity is that humans simply treated the Cylons poorly. All humanity has to do, this groups argues, is admit its wrongdoing, appease the Cylons and they will willingly lay down their arms and stop trying to kill the survivors. The military responds that giving in to terror is not an option, but it is another suicide bombing (this one by the humans themselves) that ultimately derails the debate.

Such parallels for our own Middle East reality – and the global war on terror in general – are what make Battlestar Galactica at once riveting and deeply disturbing.

Despite the BSG’s overall depiction of good guys vs. bad robots, the show consistently confounds the ability for viewers to easily take sides. The Cylons are for the most part beautiful and sexy. They are wirelessly networked to each other in ways to which our own bio-silicon designs can only breathlessly aspire. And when a Cylon dies, a unique system of guaranteed digital reincarnation makes the human concept of heaven seem a much dicier proposition.

The humans, on the other hand, engage in petty squabbles, descend to fisticuffs on regular occasions, swear, sleep around, drink and use drugs. There is inter-human gang warfare and a brutal black market replete with corruption that extends to the highest echelons of the political leadership. When a captured Cylon tells the human commander of the Battlestar Galactica something along the lines of “maybe you don’t deserve to continue on as a race, maybe we are the new chosen ones” the words do not ring as patently ridiculous.

Battlestar’s second season ends on a compelling cliffhanger (spoiler alert: if you’re still catching up in preparation for season three’s launch this week, skip the next paragraph). Over the course of the show, we learn that, despite their strong monotheism, the Cylons are no more uniform in their beliefs than humans. Two influential Cylons convince their fellow evil-doers to declare a truce – what would be called in the Middle East a hudna of sorts.

The Cylons can’t exactly “convert” the humans (after all, even though they bleed, the Cylons still are robots). But there will be no more killing…as long as humans agree to live as second-class citizens, lacking equal rights, under the benign, “loving” occupation of their robot masters. It’s a twisted space age dhimmi. How this plot line will be resolved is the focus of the first several episodes of season three.

The show – while clearly fictional and intended for entertainment – asks tough questions that are particularly relevant and “in your face” to someone such as myself, living here in the gritty reality of the Middle East.

What if terrorists, or states that sponsor terror, get their hands on weapons of mass destruction?

What if the “normal” assumptions about the power of détente to constrain both sides don’t apply? We’ve already received a taste of that in the past summer’s war between Israel and Hezbollah. What if that had been a nuclear conflict?

What if our standard, soothing Western logic about the sanctity of life is irrelevant to our enemies, such that they would be willing to launch a nuclear attack to annihilate anyone with whom they disagreed because they believed it was part of God’s plan? Is surrender or cooperation ever possible with such a jihadi mentality?

When you live in a tiny country that is the subject of daily threats of total annihilation from a near-nuclear neighbor, and have lived through a punishing barrage of more than 4,000 missiles in 32 days, the questions posed by Battlestar Galactica can sometimes feel too close for comfort.

Battlestar Galactica is a dark depressing show. It is not surprising the new envisioning of the show caught on after 9/11. Could it happen in real life? Is there anything we can do to prevent it? These are the kind of decisions that need to be made…in the halls of diplomacy and/or on the battlefield.

I would posit that, as unseemly as it sounds, perhaps watching Battlestar Galactica ought to be required viewing for the leaders of the free world in our own decidedly non-alternative universe.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Anonymous October 6, 2006 at 12:10 am

Love BG. Two points on what you said.
1. The Colony names are the origins of the signs of the Zodiac – remember, this is supposed to take place in the past, not the future.
2. Nice as it is to look at it with an eye to jihad and Islamicism, it turns a critical eye towards religious fundementalism of all kinds. There are many references to the Bush/Christian Right, and can be equally interpreted as critical of Jewish fundementalism as Islamic.

2 Anonymous October 30, 2006 at 11:52 am

Very interesting article. I would love to see a followup analysis from you in regards to the first four episodes of season 3.

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