Watching Battlestar Galactica from the Middle East – Part II

by Brian on November 2, 2006

in Living Through Terror

New Season Evokes Holocaust, Iraq as Allegory Shifts to Occupation Theme

A few weeks ago I published an article reviewing the hit Sci Fi Channel series Battlestar Galactica. In it, I compared the theme of nuclear jihad in the fictional program with the realpolitick of contemporary fundamentalism vs. the West. My review covered the series through its second season finale.

Since then, a number of people have written to ask my opinion of the new season which kicked off on October 5. At the risk of making this blog overly Sci Fi-centric, indulge me one more time.

While I think that Battlestar Galactica remains what Rolling Stone Magazine called “the smartest and toughest show on TV,” it has taken a dramatic turn this season away from extolling the dangers of the future and has been spending most of its first five episodes this season looking back: at the Holocaust in particular, but also the past six years of sustained suicide bombing in the Middle East – in Israel and more recently Iraq. That makes Battlestar Galactica perhaps the most un-Sci Fi show about space ever aired.

In Seasons One and Two of the show, the fanatical, monotheistic robot believers in the One True God, the Cylons, have nearly exterminated humanity, killing an estimated 20 billion in a sneak nuclear attack against the BSG human universe’s 12 home worlds. The remaining 45,000 men, women and children are on the run in a “ragtag fleet” of spacecraft. But as the second season ends, a habitable planet has been found which is sufficiently shrouded in interstellar interference that the human government deems it acceptable to settle on firm ground.

A year after most of the survivors of the genocide have disembarked to “New Caprica,” as the planet is named, the Cylons – as naysayers correctly predicted – track down the humans. But instead of once and for all obliterating the remnants of humanity, the Cylons decide to occupy them and serve as their benign rulers. That occupation quickly evolves to include detentions without charge, torture, and outright disappearance of some of the show’s main characters.

The humans, clearly, don’t find this new arrangement acceptable and immediately form a resistance that blows up strategic Cylon installations, sabotages the power grid and other needed facilities, and ultimately, engages in a campaign of suicide bombing against the occupiers. In the process, a human police force is formed to “collaborate” with the occupiers to ostensibly keep law and order.

The show reaches back to employ unmistakeable images from the Holocaust: the new police force is clearly modeled on the Kapos who worked with the Nazis and were loathed by their fellow Jewish ghetto inhabitants. Or perhaps the parallel is more recent: Iraqis who are recruited to work with American soldiers in that war torn nation.

As the insurgency grows, the Cylons decide to get even tougher on their captives. Leaders of the rebellion are rounded up in the middle of the night, trucked out to an empty field where Cylon soldiers, clearly patterned after Nazi storm troopers, arrive to gun them down into a ditch.

While a last minute tip off prevents a massacre, the show’s creators are clearly tapping into history much more this season than continuing the proscriptive political line that dominated the first two seasons and focused, as I wrote previously, on the dangers of letting nuclear weapons fall into the hands of rogue states.

The emphasis on history and politics is not surprising when you know a little about the background of the show’s creators. Both executive producers Ronald Moore and David Eick were political science majors in college. “If you go through our libraries, you wouldn’t guess we were in show business,” Eick said in an interview with Rolling Stone.

The most disturbing aspect of the new season, however, has to do with the use of suicide bombers by the human resistance leaders, not by the evil Cylons as happened in Season One. The leader of the insurgency is someone we have known through the show and grown to respect, if not always trust.

Despite an admonition from another character that “there are something you just don’t do, even in war,” the message seems at times to be that the suicide bombers are justified in their actions because they have lost everything and have nothing left to lose. As the former president of the Colonies states, “desperate people use desperate measures.”

This premise sounds an awful lot like the language used by supporters of suicide bombers today. Those of us who live here in the Middle East with this reality know that suicide bombers are not men (and women) who have lost all hope, but are cynically recruited by a well-oiled death machine.

Battlestar Galactica ultimately backs away from support for the bombers, but even the transient implication, however obliquely, that it is possible to understand and even sympathize with the bombers is unfair, and a departure from what had been the program’s mostly moral clarity to date. Executive producer Eick reflected that ambuguity when he said, during a conference call, “It’s that old adage: one person’s freedom fighter is another person’s terrorist.”

By the end of the fourth episode of the new season, the human population is rescued from the Cylon occupation and returned to the “ragtag fleet.” But rather than get back to the business of winning the war, the first order of business seems to be a chilling settling of scores.

A secretive tribunal is set up with quasi-government approval to mete out quick justice. Defendants have no access to any representation for their own defense. There is only one penalty for treason.

The former leader of the resistance sets the tone by murdering his own wife, who transferred sensitive documents to the Cylons. 13 other “collaborators” are dispensed with this way. This time, however, the message is unambiguous: we are clearly meant to feel horror and revulsion, and the parallels with the fates met by alleged Palestinian and Iraqi collaborators cannot be overlooked.

Executive Producer Moore said on his weekly audio podcast that accompanies each program that the parallel was meant to be with the lawless weeks, months and years that followed the end of World War II when survivors, particularly in Vichy France, were searching for ways to exact revenge and lacked confidence that official channels would wholly serve their needs.

The third season of Battlestar Galactica is the darkest and most disturbing to date. The program is riveting exactly because it pushes us harder than we expect from Friday night entertainment. Despite some missteps, it was, nevertheless, a bold move to insert an occupation/collaboration/liberation storyline into an already politically challenging plot, and the writing and acting consistently step up the challenge.

A recent article in the New York Times by Virginia Heffernan compares Battlestar Galactica with allegories in popular fiction by the likes of George Orwell, H.G. Wells, and Ayn Rand. As with all good allegories, the characters eventually outgrow pigeonholed roles such as “terrorist,” “diplomat” or “freedom fighter.”

Battlestar Galactica has redefined the cheesy good guys vs. bad definition of classic space opera. But then spaceships were never more than a prop in Battlestar Galactica, an incidental necessity to storytelling on such a grand and ambitious scale.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Anonymous March 6, 2007 at 7:53 pm

I thank you for your comment.

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