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Our Cylons, Ourselves
Christina Bieber Lake

The third time did it for me. That is, when the third person I met at an academic conference told me that Battlestar Galactica was the best show on television, I decided to give it a try. By the end of the first episode, I was hooked. Hours of Netflix and hulu.com later, I had to wait with everyone else for the show’s fourth and final season. I also had no idea how it would end, and, like every fan, wanted a satisfying ending.

But writing in the Atlantic Monthly well before the finale, James Parker warned that fans weren’t going to get that satisfaction. “Battlestar Galactica,” he wrote, is “presenting all the symptoms of an extended-run high-concept TV series in its decadent phase. An oracular mood, an obsession with identity, a sensation of multiplying meanings—it’s the paranoid style in American TV writing.” While there is much truth in this assessment of the show’s “vertigo,” it was also a bit too cynical. In spite of its many rabbit trails and unanswered questions, Battlestar Galactica presented a remarkably consistent vision of the challenges we face in the biotechnological revolution. And its concluding episode—“Daybreak: Part 2” which aired on 20 March 2009—was rife with moral and spiritual warnings that had been made all along and intended directly for its technorati audience.

Created by Ron Moore and David Eick, Battlestar Galactica began to air on the Sci Fi Channel in 2004, bearing only a skeletal resemblance to its campy 1978 forerunner. The show deserved its considerable following, as it was more aesthetically advanced, better paced, better acted, and better written than most television sci-fi. It also had a stirring original soundtrack. It is an attempt to do well what science fiction at its best offers: a realistic set of characters in somewhat realistic scenarios coupled with completely unrealistic but exciting technology.

The series opens as the world as human beings know it—not on Earth but on what is called the “Twelve Colonies of Kobol”—is about to be devastated by a nuclear attack from the Cylons. Somewhat similar to the Terminators, the Cylons are a race of machines created by man who eventually became self-aware and rebelled. After a long war with the human race, they called a truce and settled far away from their human forefathers. During their absence they evolved beyond their robotic forms into humanoid-like beings, indistinguishable from humans to the naked eye and, apparently, to doctors. These humanoid Cylons—often called “skin jobs” by the humans—eventually infiltrate human society and learn enough to be able to destroy all twelve colonies at once. This apocalypse happens in the pilot. The remaining shows follow the only surviving humans, about 60,000 in number. The fleet is led by Commander Adama (Edward Lee Olmos) whose primary mission is to keep humanity alive. He and the current president of the colonies, Laura Roslin (brilliantly acted by Mary McDonnell), begin to search for a mythical thirteenth colony they have all only heard of: Earth.

Although the show’s drama is at first propelled by the anxiety of this zero-sum battle between man and machine, it is eventually taken over by a deeper identity crisis. The Cylon skin jobs come in twelve models (ranging in attractiveness from Tricia Helfer to Dean Stockwell), any one of which can be replicated any number of times. It soon becomes clear that anyone on board Galactica could be a Cylon, even without knowing it. So the fleet journeys on, trying to fight or flee from an enemy who has infiltrated so completely as to be unidentifiable. It is as unrealistic as it gets, I have to admit, but it was really fun. Leaving the basic questions of “Who’s a Cylon?” and “Where and what is Earth?” tantalizingly unanswered, Ron Moore and company took on a variety of contemporary political issues, including torture, religious fundamentalism, and the temptation to rule tyrannically during times of intense fear. Many of these shows were the best fictional treatments of these issues I ever have seen on television.

In his Atlantic Monthly piece, Parker used the show’s desire to be politically au courant to dismiss its larger questions. They are just “pure nectar to the sci-fi buff, who loves to whir his wings in these realms of ontological vexation: Who is real, after all? And what does it mean to exist? And is it nice to have sex with a machine?” Readings like this casually brush off the one venue that might actually make people think about the role that technology plays in our lives, the relationship between science and religion, and the question of what it means to be human. These are hardly new questions, but they do have a new salience today. As Moore, a former Star Trek writer and a lapsed Catholic, said in an interview, “It’s been an old saw in science fiction for a long time, since Frankenstein, that we’re going to create life that’s going to turn on us. Well, we’re right there, and we should probably really think about these things and understand the door we’re about to go through” (sepinwall.blogspot.com, 20 March 2009).

When Moore says “we’re right there,” he is not speaking as some kook who spends his time worrying about how near we might be to Skynet’s Judgment Day or to Kurzweil’s “Singularity.” And Mary Shelley was not some kook who spent her time worrying about animating corpses, either. Both writers understand that human nature has always been the real issue. Technology means greater power, and greater power always comes with good and bad uses. It would be foolhardy to deny that our technology is advancing more quickly than we can process it as we move forward into the twenty-first century. That is the “door” we are about to go through, and the one that Moore wants us to understand. That is why all the fans were dying to know what we would get to on the other side of this door. How would it all end?

 

Cylon

Here are what I considered to be the three most likely endings, each with substantial ramifications for the overall point of the show. First, the show could have ended with the destruction of the human race. The darkness of Season Four was more than a little foreboding, and it looked very much like humanity might end not with a bang but a wimper. Galactica thought they had found Earth, but what they found was yet another completely nuked and uninhabitable planet. Without purpose, the fleet began to drift; with no home, they eventually would die out, even if they did manage to evade the Cylons. This ending would have been very hard to swallow, but understandable. It would have been an affirmation of what Bill Joy pointed out in a famous article in Wired magazine, “the 21st-century technologies—genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics (GNR)—are so powerful that they can spawn whole new classes of accidents and abuses.” But none of us who had been watching the series really thought that it would end this way. We would have felt betrayed by the writers, and confused by all the glimmers of hope we had seen from the beginning.

Second, the show could have ended with a strong affirmation of posthumanism. This is what I thought would happen. I thought the show’s big reveal might be a quasi-religious transhumanism along the lines of “we have to completely embrace technology in order to stay alive and reach nirvana, so let’s get over it: Cylons R Us. The Cylons are more mystical, evolved, and whole than us, and the good ones can lead us to a new promised, postmodern land.” This land would be Donna Haraway’s cyborg dreamworld.

Third, the show could have ended by affirming the importance of spirituality in finding a way to draw back from the edge of self-­destruction, an edge to which humanity is cyclically drawn. And this is the way it did end, more or less, but with a lot more action. This is sci-fi, after all. After a wicked battle with the Cylons, Adama asks Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff) to jump the ship to another place in space, and she chooses the coordinates based on some music she remembered from her childhood. They jump, and then they see it: the real Earth. They don’t call it Earth, but we viewers recognize the continent of Africa. They land, and soon discover that ritualistic, pre-lingual, tribal peoples with compatible DNA inhabit this planet. They then make the remarkable (if completely implausible!) decision to abandon all of their technology and settle on this planet—to “start over.” And so the big “reveal” is that these human survivors and their Cylon friends mixed with primitive humans, making them our most distant ancestors.

To be fair to James Parker of the Atlantic Monthly, this is what he guessed would happen. He concludes his complaint by joking that the face of the twelfth and last Cylon to be revealed would be L. Ron Hubbard. (And I have to admit, after the series ended, I got an unwanted image in my mind of Tom Cruise jumping for joy on Oprah’s sofa). But again, it is too easy to dismiss the issues that the show is trying to engage by taking this ending so literally. It has been a mythological show from the beginning; indeed, what is most at stake for Moore is his conviction that scientific materialism cannot help us answer metaphysical questions. The show’s ending does not resolve everything, but it does say a lot about where we find ourselves in the twenty-first century when it comes to some key issues in our biotechnological future. Seen through the lens of the finale, the show makes four consistent claims that are worthy of additional reflection.

1. We must recognize that we have always been able to destroy ourselves, and that now we can do it in new and exciting ways. The show is a classic dystopia, a genre that was largely born in the post World War II era. The great dystopias such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s 1984, and Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake worry about technology, but they worry more about the abuse of power. Ron Moore’s strained relationship with the Star Trek franchise illustrates quite well his move toward a darker and more realistic vision of technology: he was the one behind the darker Deep Space Nine, and the one who wrote the death of Captain Kirk. Science fiction dystopias perform a much-needed service given how quickly techno-utopians seem to forget the fundamentally flawed nature of human leadership and decision-making. Even Norbert Wiener, the founder of cybernetics, warned that the problem will always be “true sorcery,” or simony, the usurpation of power by those with selfish interests.

It is the series’s continued illustration of this very fact that lends emotional weight to Lee Adama’s (Jamie Bamber) decision to give up technology and integrate with the tribes on Earth. When explaining why he does not want to start by building a city, he says that this time “we break the cycle. We leave it all behind; we start over.” And even more tellingly, he muses that “our science charges ahead, our souls lag behind. Let’s start anew.” To me, these two lines would have been enough to affirm two of the show’s most important warnings: the first, that what has happened before will happen again unless we take care, and second, that we need time to catch up morally, ethically, and spiritually with our technology.

But in case we missed it, the writers tacked on a final scene that takes place 150,000 years in the future—in basically our day and age. The camera pans over the beautiful virgin earth and into more forests and then suddenly we see—New York City. The Cylon Caprica Six (Tricia Helfer) and Gaius Baltar (James Callis) are talking about the way humanity is going. (They are talking to each other while looking over the shoulder of Ron Moore himself in a cameo appearance). Caprica says to Gaius, “commercialism, decadence, technology—remind you of anything?” All this has happened before, she says, to which Gaius responds, “The question remains, does all this have to happen again?” And the camera pans to images of advances in robotic technology, including life-like robotic figures.

2. Don’t worry about the definition of a human being, just act like one. One of the most fascinating things about the series is how it completely abandons the question of human versus Cylon but does not do so by suggesting that we all embrace our posthuman future as soon as possible. Making the Cylons the supposed co-progenitors of the human race seems to me to be less L. Ron Hubbard-esque and more a statement about the relative unimportance of ontology (what is human nature?) as compared to ethics (how should we then behave?). The show insists that the human race was always already technologically enhanced (mating with Cylons!), and that we should worry less about what it means to be human and more about how to act humanely. Ron Moore said in an interview that “it was never about saying that people are irredeemable. It was about trying to be honest about people, saying, ‘Look at us. We are capable of all these things. Really good people do horrible things and horrible people do good things.’” The idea, of course, is to learn to do more of the good things.

Moore

This theme had been developing in Battlestar Galactica from the beginning, and the series took a substantial turn in this direction when Colonel Tigh and Galen Tyrol, who had led a human insurgency on a Cylon occupied planet, turn out to be Cylons themselves. In the end, they both choose loyalty to their human friends and lovers over everything else. This theme was also revealed in the toaster-hating Starbuck’s reincarnation into an “angel” who leads humanity into a more humane destiny. “Human is as human does” is not an insignificant point to make in a world where technology is changing us rather quickly. My only complaint was the way the writers handled the transition; it seemed implausible to me that after fighting the Cylons for so long, the humans could find it so easy to work and live side by side with them, especially when the question of who was controlling their programming was still open. But I do agree that part of not “charging ahead with science while our souls lag behind” is learning how to love others in a world of often substantial disagreement and difference.

3. We must go green. We live in an age of increasing environmental responsibility, and the chosen ending tapped strongly into this cultural moment. The fleet’s discovery of a virgin Earth revealed the power of the show’s aesthetic choices. Season Four in particular was getting literally darker and darker; there were no planets in sight, no blue sky, and even the air seemed heavier. After they find the devastated and uninhabitable planet they had thought was Earth, the crew begins to disintegrate right along with the ship. Admiral Adama gets drunk more often than Colonel Tigh, which is saying something. The crew’s morale seemed linked both to the need for hope and the need for an inhabitable, earthly home. This aesthetic flies in the face of Star Trek’s spaceship interiors in which everyone is cheery and no one seems to be bothered by the fact that there’s no sunlight or fresh air. Since I was watching Season Four in the middle of a cold Chicago winter, the aesthetic was particularly noticeable for me. When the fleet finally found the real Earth, I wanted to run outside and hug the ground in my garden in sheer relief. The stark contrast between the darkness of the majority of episodes and the scenes on this colorful planet created what was perhaps the series’s most poignant moment. After they decide that they will make it their home, Admiral Adama takes the dying Laura Roslin for a final aerial tour of the planet. They see mountains, oceans, trees, and a flock of pink flamingos—the most color we’ve seen for five years. Her dying words are: “So much life.” These words mean a lot coming from someone who has spent her last energies trying to ensure humanity’s survival.

4. Not everything—and especially not the important things—can be explained by math and science. One storyline illustrates this theme particularly well. Earlier in Season Four, the Cylon skin job Boomer (Grace Park) had kidnapped Hera, the first human-cylon hybrid child, and taken her to the Cylon fleet. In the final episode, Boomer is bothered by the way the other skin jobs are probing and studying the child, as if she were a lab rat. As Galactica’s crew attacks in an effort to recover Hera, Boomer says to the Cylon who is doing the probing, “You are just going to keep doing tests, even with the colony coming down around your ears?” The Cylon impassively responds that they have superior firepower and superior numbers, and “in the end it is all about mathematics.”

The core of the show’s religious vision is that life is not all about mathematics. The show’s very existence, the fact of it being a loose collection of interwoven human stories centered around a quest, speaks to this issue most profoundly. We want resolution, and we look for deeper meaning beyond scientific materialism. We look for origins; we look for God. The desire does not prove that what is desired is real, of course, but in Battlestar Galactica the Truth is clearly found in visions, prophecies, and dreams as much as (or even more than) in formulas and FTL drives. Starbuck finds Earth through music; ancient prophecies end up coming true. The show’s most prominent scientist, Gaius Baltar, becomes the most religious person on it.

These narratives also insist that morality is not reducible to a mathematical equation. The fact of Boomer’s “conversion” is a great example. Boomer was the first real human-who-is-actually-a-Cylon surprise on the show, and she went through a lot of abuse from the crew as a result of it. This suffering played no small role in her eventually joining the Cylons and then kidnapping Hera. But the final episode reveals more of her back-story. Boomer suspected she was a Cylon long before the other humans found out, and it is really stressful thinking you might be a Cylon! The stress gets in the way of her duties as a member of Galactica’s crew. After one particularly poor job of landing her raptor, Adama tells Boomer that he is going to give her a second chance, and she responds that someday, when it really matters, she will pay him back. Three years later, it is her feelings for Hera as a child and the memory of this promise that lead her to return Hera to Galactica, knowing full well that doing so will lead to her own death. Human decisions might be able to be mapped onto a 0/1 binary, but they cannot be reduced to or explained by that binary. Decisions are the result of complex interactions of emotions, memory, and loyalty. Human is as human does, and Boomer proves her humanity by her actions. Colonel Tigh’s and Galen Tyrol’s stories are similar.

 

Beyond these general considerations, the show’s specific theology is remarkably reflective of the loose spirituality of our age. One of the show’s main questions, the question of why the Cylons are monotheists and the humans are polytheists—and who is “right”—is never resolved. Though the show suggests that monotheism is higher up on the evolutionary scale, it does not or cannot decide where it stands on the issue of what God is. But like the Star Wars that Ron Moore grew up on, it does believe in some spiritual “force.” This is where the series was most disappointing for Christian viewers. Yoda was a moral heavyweight compared to Gaius Baltar, who my husband and I wanted badly to see thrown out of the airlock from the very beginning. While I do believe that true spiritual leaders are necessarily flawed human beings (I love whiskey priests), it is difficult to buy Gaius’s conversion—and his influence—in part because he had so recently been all over the map. In the final showdown, Gaius preaches to Cavil (Dean Stockwell), the leader of the Cylons, “I may be mad, but that doesn’t mean I’m not right.” I’m with him so far; I’ve always agreed with Emily Dickinson that “Much Madness is divinest Sense.” But Gaius continues that it doesn’t matter what we call the force, “God” or “gods,” it is a “force of nature, beyond good and evil. Good and evil—we created those.” Gaius is not smart enough to make a sophisticated Nietzschean argument about good and evil, and this dumbed-down version does not satisfy. Good and evil have not, in fact, been a human construct at any point in the show, but have been assumed standards, even transcendent ones. An example is when Gaius scolds Cavil, saying that Hera “is not a thing, she’s a child.” Treating children with dignity, whether human or Cylon, is a non-negotiable moral good.

When it comes to important decisions involving human life, a loose spirituality is better than no spirituality at all. In spite of all its flaws, Gaius’s speech works. It comes in a charged moment, with guns drawn and life or death decisions to be made. Gaius pleads with Cavil that if we want to stop the cycle of “death, destruction, escape, death” that characterizes the human/Cylon war, “well, that’s in our hands, and our hands only. It requires a leap of faith. It requires that we live in hope, not fear.” The God in Battlestar Galactica provides moral guidance, but he does not turn people into puppets. The humans who start again on Earth will have fewer weapons and gadgets, but the same choices. And so it is with us, the writers seem to be insisting. We choose what to do with our technology. We choose whether to live in hope or fear. We choose how to treat others. Does all of this have to happen again? Not necessarily, and the choice has always been ours.

 

Christina Bieber Lake is Associate Professor of English at Wheaton College.

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