We’re all Cylons: Battlestar Galactica’s last days

If your country was invaded and occupied by a foreign power, would you blow yourself up to fight back? If someone pointed a gun at your head and threatened to pull the trigger if you refused to sign a document you knew would lead to a hundred deaths (and you signed!), would that make you ultimately responsible for those deaths? Does superior technology give you the moral right to impose your will on a technologically inferior culture? If something believes it’s a human being, acts human, and looks human, should you treat it as human? And what the hell is human anyway?

Cylon in Battlestar Galactica
A cylon from Battlestar Galactica – the metal kind.

You wouldn’t expect a mainstream television show to tackle such philosophically loaded questions, certainly not a show based on cheesy science fiction from the ’70s, but if you’ve watched Battlestar Galactica since it was reimagined in 2003, there has been no escape.

Time Magazine named it one of the best TV shows of all time and called it “a ripping sci-fi allegory of the war on terror, complete with religious fundamentalists (here, genocidal robots called Cylons), sleeper cells, civil liberties crackdowns and even a prisoner-torture scandal.”

Newsweek declared that Battlestar “captures better than any other TV drama of the past eight years the fear, uncertainty and moral ambiguity of the post-9/11 world.”

Horror writer Stephen King was equally impressed. “This is a beautifully written show,” he said, “driven by character rather than effects… but the effects are damn good. And there’s not a better acting troupe at work on television.”

Joss Whedon, creator of the classic science fiction western series Firefly, declared, “it’s so passionate, textured, complex, subversive and challenging that it dwarfs everything on TV.”

Battlestar Galactica is arguably the most innovative, well-written science fiction television show ever, and the end is near. The second half of the final fourth season of Battlestar started 16 January, and when the final episode airs, television will never be the same again.

It’s easy to see that creator Ronald D. Moore drew inspiration from the September 11 attacks and the events that followed.

An endless war, Guantanamo Bay style atrocities, suicide bombers, sleeper cells, the clash of religious beliefs, civil liberties crackdowns, the limits and use of military power, the nature of forgiveness, the constraints of patriotism, it’s all here. It may be wrapped up and disguised as a run of the mill science fiction television show, but don’t be fooled. Battlestar Galactica exposes the moral dilemmas, outrages, and questionable beliefs of the present as effectively (but more entertainingly) than any documentary or news program.

Humanity is nearly wiped out by a race of robots called Cylons that revolt against their human creators. They believe in one God (compared to people who worship many) and can impersonate humans perfectly. At first, the only survivors of the human military appear to be those stationed on a spacecraft called Battlestar Galactica, spared because the ship’s commander, Adama (Edward James Olmos), still runs his ship without using modern computer networks vulnerable to Cylon attack.

A shocking torture scene in a second season episode, Pegasus, involving the human-looking Cylon called Sharon, questions the efficacy of torture and demonstrates how rapidly people can descend into barbarity when an interrogated subject is labelled an “it”. It’s not hard to see parallels in the CIA and US military’s use of interrogation techniques in Bush’s War on Terror or the effects of labelling one race as “the enemy”.

“Our antagonists are not villainous necessarily,” said one of the series creators, David Eick in The Guardian. “Yes they’re out to kill us, but they’ve got an awfully sympathetic point of view in many respects. They’re much more like the audience in terms of their being monotheistic. They’re not moustache-twiddling villains and that’s the strength of the show.”

The third season’s depiction of the remainder of the human race trapped on a Cylon-occupied planet is particularly poignant. Here Gaius Baltar, the brilliant but cowardly Cylon puppet, an unwitting figurehead, rules the remains of the human race and is forced to sign the death warrants of many.

Whilst cowardly, it’s hard not to have some sympathy for the self-centred (and maybe crazy) Baltar, especially during his trial in the third season where he is exonerated and released, even though the establishment, in particular the President, would clearly like to see him dead for unwittingly letting the Cylons break through human defences. Should Baltar be held responsible for ordering executions under duress? Or was it a case of just following orders? Is cowardice a capital crime?

When humans under Cylon occupation start blowing themselves up because it’s their only way to fight back against the technologically superior Cylons’, is this patriotism gone mad or a justifiable response to an impossible situation? You cannot help but wonder if a foreign race invaded your own country using superior military power (especially a race that did not hold your beliefs or values) whether you wouldn’t do the same thing. The parallels with the US-led occupation of Iraq and the use of suicide bombers there was undoubtedly deliberate.

The final fourth season, with its emphasis on the search for the last of “the final five Cylons”, seems poised to question the nature of what it really means to be human.

Of all the television shows of the last twenty years, Battlestar Galactica stands head and shoulders above the rest. While the spin-off series Caprica looks promising, it’s going to be hard to top this. Battlestar has held up a mirror to the present and we could all benefit from taking a good hard look at ourselves. And you thought it was just a television show?