Religion, Politics and Sex
In 2003 Battlestar Galactica was revived and re-envisioned for the ‘00s. In 1978 Glen A. Larson’s Battlestar Galactica was a post-Vietnam, post-Star Wars sci-fi drama about a war between humans and Cylons, a Space Western about good versus evil. From 2003 – 2009 Battlestar Galactica offered a dynamic, more complex post-September 11 exploration of the ideas found at the centre of the current culture wars: American foreign policy and religion. The new Battlestar Galactica reconceived the possibility of Sci-Fi television from the depth of the characters to its engagement with sexuality. That the Cylons had evolved and had taken human form further pushed the possibilities. In the spin-off Caprica, the pilot of which was released on DVD in April for a series set to screen in 2010, this exploration is set to continue.
What exactly is Sci-Fi? Does a fiction need Outer Space, Monsters and Technology to make it Sci-Fi? Only your Convention Nerd knows for sure. There is no question that Battlestar Galactica is Sci-Fi: after all, it is set in Outer Space! Yet there are subdivisions – Space Westerns and Cyberpunk for example – and let’s not forget Joss Whedon’s marvellous new category “fictionalized scientifics, or as the kids call it nowadays—fi-sci”. But all that is academic. Category is more important to those who market the product. What is unquestionably important is the process, which is not about category and surface content, but about what Sci-Fi has to say, and how it interprets the human experience.
Battlestar Galactica has had, for a television series, an unconventional run: it started with the mini-series in 2003; this was followed by four seasons, the last of which was split into two. There has also been one feature-length film, Razor (2007) as well as one to come later this year, The Plan (2009). There has also been two ten-part webisodes, The Resistance (2006), the events of which occurred between seasons two and three, and The Face of the Enemy (2008), the events of which occurred between seasons four and four-point-five. The spin-off, Caprica, is set 58 years before Battlestar Galactica. It is about the creation of the Cylons. The conflict between the polytheistic Capricans and the followers of the One True God is at its centre.
For television Sci-Fi, Battlestar Galactica proved unconventional. Such a dark, and sometimes bleak, series would not have been possible before the events of September 11, 2001. Prior to this, Sci-Fi on the big screen had always been darker than its television cousins. In the latter half of the 1990s the advent of The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer changed that by changing the possibility of what television could do.
Television Sci-Fi at the end of the 1970s was dominated by the far lighter incarnation of Battlestar Galactica as well as the far campier Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. Buck Rogers was a marvellously pantomime-esque, episodic series that featured the burly Gil Gerard as Buck and the stunning Erin Gray as Colonel Wilma Deering. Although there was chemistry between the two leads, there was little emotional interplay. It was simply not what television was about. This was a time in which the original series of Star Trek was ancient television history and only on the verge of rebirth with Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). It was not until 1987 that it was followed by the spin-offs that turned it into a gargantuan franchise.
It was the Star Trek universe, with its sexless, conservative values and deference to a central authority, which came to dominate the idea of Sci-Fi television in the ‘90s and early ‘00s. Joss Whedon’s Firefly (2002) promised a fundamental change to this landscape, but it was too subversive and came at just the wrong time. (For more on Firefly read the current Polari Classic review.) There were no prosthetics and it felt far more here-and-now than the antiseptic worlds of Trek. The notoriously conservative Fox Television hijacked Firefly before the first episode had aired. The series questioned a federal, centralised control at a time in which George Bush Jnr. was still running high in the polls, and the extent of his administration’s machinations unrevealed. By the end of the year the last episode had aired.
The premise of Battlestar Galactica enabled a level of subversion that bypassed this danger. The surprise assault of the Cylons on the Twelve Colonies, which left the human race under threat, paralleled the social and political insecurity in the wake of 9/11. What followed could have gone either way: conservative or subversive. A key point to its subversion was the fact that the remaining humans were polytheistic worshippers of the gods, whereas the humanoid Cylons followed the One True God.
At the end of the mini-series, Battlestar Galactica established itself as a quest. The objective at the end of the war is to find a new home, to find a planet called Earth. Admiral Adama (Edward James Olmos) tells the people that the existence of Earth was a closely guarded military secret and that he will lead them to it. His object is to pull together the demoralised survivors of the Cylon attack, and to give them a future. “It’s not enough to just live. You have to something to live for,” he tells the newly inaugurated President, Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell). “That’d be Earth.”
It is at this point that Battlestar Galactica is not solely defined by the quest. It is defined by the mythological narrative. What it becomes is an epic tale of gods and mankind. Like Virgil’s Aeneid, the objective is to found a settlement that will lead to a new future and as result it is enmeshed in one of the great story telling traditions of the West. The characters are led toward that resolution through a pre-Christian mythological narrative.
There is a fundamental difference between how mythology works on the mind of a people as compared to the sky-god religions, Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Western mythology requires of a pantheon of gods, of archetypes, of possibility. The myth is not a literal but a figurative truth in which the lives of the gods parallel and reveal that of the everyday. The gods are not there to have discrete personalities or to be separate from mankind. A myth is a fiction designed to illuminate and guide the lives of its followers. The impetus for mythology, and fiction for that matter, is to reveal the underlying pattern to our lives, the things that bind us, and to unravel the meaning of life. It is about providing a framework through which our lives can be understood, not a prescription for how those lives should be lived.
The mythological narrative is invariably founded in death and the fear of extinction. This is at the core of Battlestar Galactica: the survival of the human race after an attack on the Twelve Colonies that occurs forty years after the first Cylon war.
Throughout the airing of its four seasons, the place of belief and of religion within the overall story arc unfolds in parallel with questions of racism, public hysteria, political control, and the reason for acts of terrorism. It is a fiction one-step removed from the mundane and enables the audience to question their own political ideas, and their own morality, though its filter. When the humans on New Caprica are under the rule of the Cylons at the beginning of season three acts of terrorism are committed to defy that rule. This raised the moral question of terrorism, which at that time had been so blandly met with the platitudes of the self-righteous Bush administration, to the level of actual debate.
It is moreover no accident that the machines are the ones who follow the dictates of the One True God. This was a truly subversive message that the writers are carrying over into Caprica with a bravery that may prove its undoing. In challenging the view of the monotheists, one of the characters rejects such an “absolutist view of the universe”. He speaks in opposition to the idea of “right and wrong determined solely by a single all-knowing, all-powerful being whose judgement cannot be questioned and in whose name the most horrendous acts can be sanctioned without appeal.” Thus are the three sky-god religions targeted in all their patriarchal bias.
Executive producer David Eick has said that “Caprica is really about a culture of ideas and the idea of artificial intelligence finally rising to a prominent level in society. And it’s about how two different points of view struggle to determine where that artificial intelligence should go and how that, in many ways, will serve as the birth of the Cylons that we’ll come to know in Battlestar.” In this arena Battlestar Galactica challenges a central narrative thread in American history.
Being an American ‘Prime Time’ production, Battlestar Galactica is packed to the rafters with eye-candy. The two leads Apollo and Starbuck are almost manufactured for their gay appeal: Starbuck is the sassy, sexy tomboy, and definitely one for the girls. And Apollo has the looks – and the arms – to appeal to the boys. He is not the regulation 6ft+ jock like the rest of the eye-candy, and he is enough of the outsider to register lightly on one’s gaydar.
In a 2006 interview with Jamie Bamber in Out magazine, which bore the odd title ‘The Queering of Sci-Fi’, the fact that Battlestar Galactica had reintroduced sexuality into Sci-Fi was applauded. The era of Star Trek was not troubled by the conflicts introduced by sexuality. Bryan Fuller, who wrote for both Deep Space Nine and Voyager, noted that, due to the dictates of the franchise, “it was largely written in stone that they all get along and are highly professional and much more evolved than we are. With that came a sort of sterile sexuality.” The fact that Battlestar Galactica had not introduced homosexuality was then raised. Bamber was all for it, and said that “it should be there, and it should be as unabashedly honest as the heterosexual relationships”. Executive Producer David Eick, however, skirted the issue and said that as far as the audience knew they hadn’t seen any gay characters, which is not much of an answer. And then Battlestar Galactica introduced homosexuality into the series. Its failure to do this intelligently was remarkable.
The first instance of a gay character was in the feature-length Razor, a flash-back scenario screened between seasons three and four. Razor told the story of the Battlestar Pegasus, which first appeared midway through season two, and how Admiral Cain (Michelle Forbes) came to torture the Cylon model number Six (Tricia Helfer), who had been in on board in the guise of a crew member. That Cain is an unhinged, unpredictable commander is the subject of the season two episodes in which she appeared. In Razor it is revealed that the Six on board the Pegasus achieved her ends by seducing Cain. Here at last was a gay character. And what was she? An almost inhuman, aggressive sociopath that Adama had to put down. If there had been any other gay characters in the series this would not jar as much. But in the first instance that a lesbian is introduced to the show, she is an aggresive pre-liberation stereotype. That Buffy alumni Jane Espenson was on the crew at this point makes the handling of this story line unforgivable. Maybe it was just a questionable excuse to get resident sexpot Tricia Helfer in some girl-on-girl action?
The next character to get the gay treatment was Lieutenant Felix Gaeta in the webisodes The Face of the Enemy. At this point, midway through season four, Gaeta had become one of the most detestable characters in the Battlestar Galactica firmament. The webisodes are designed to explain why he played the role he did in the mutiny that occurred when Adama joined forces with the rebel Cylons. In a scenario that should have been part of the main story arc, and not in a series of webisodes that only residents of the US had access to, the reasons for Gaeta’s rebellion are laid bare. It is also revealed that he had a relationship with Lieutenant Louis Hoshi, and the final moments between the two are genuinely touching. What is galling is that the writers chose Gaeta the worm-that-turned, Gaeta the easily swayed, Gaeta the man who needs another more powerful man to look up to and follow, to be their gay male character. It is yet another rehashed, outdated stereotype.
Sexuality is problematic. It is about that which exercises a control over and above our conscious minds. It is often mired in contradiction. Why else is religion so blindly prescriptive about it? Sexuality drives us, and it defines us; it is at the core of love, passion, and hate. Battlestar Galactica would have been the perfect arena to raise questions about what we understand about hetero and homo sexuality, but on this subject it failed spectacularly.
Where Battlestar Galactica is at its strongest is the arena of religion and politics. One of the most significant speeches from the mini-series is Adama’s address at the decommissioning ceremony for the eponymous battlestar. He reminds those gathered that the Cylons were created by mankind, and that it is mankind who need to therefore question their responsibility for the First Cylon War. It is a speech about taking responsibility.
As such the series questions the public face of American foreign policy, especially under Bush, in which any military action was measured against, and justified by, the last reaction. In the Bush government narrative, the September 11 attacks occurred in an historical vacuum, and this led to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that, in the sphere of public policy, had little to do with fact. This questioning is so evident in Battlestar Galactica that it led to the somewhat incongruous appearance of the cast and crew at the United Nations to discuss international relations.
It is the complexity of the series, its darkness, and its willingness to deal with these questions head on, that make it such a landmark in television history. With the upcoming feature-length The Plan, written by the remarkably versatile and talented Jane Espenson, the mythology of the series is set to go further. “We wanted to explain things that you might not have even realized needed an explanation,” Espenson has said, “tiny little mysteries that we could address.” Perhaps in Caprica the place of homosexuality will be addressed in that “unabashedly honest” way that Jamie Bamber called for. Perhaps the end of the Bush era with all its closed-minded conservatism will lead the writers to even greater heights.