Battlestar Galactica (the 2003 reboot, not the campy 80’s series) is a bit dated if you judge the series by its special effects. Yet it stands as perhaps the pinnacle of space operas (sorry Star Trek fans!) owing to superb acting, an intricate, sprawling plot, and perhaps most importantly, the way it makes you think about human nature.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Battlestar Galactica reboot, the show starts with humanity, then inhabiting the “12 colonies”. These colonies are subsequently destroyed when the robotic beings called “Cylons” launch a massive surprise nuclear attack. Unlike most space operas, there are no aliens in Battlestar Galactica, only humans and their creation, the Cylons.
And while the 1980’s version of Cylons looked like walking, talking toasters, in the reboot many of the Cylons are nearly indistinguishable from humans. They look human, they act human, they experience emotions, and are fully sentient. More so than the updated special effects, this change might stand as the most important break from the original series as it eventually forces viewers to question what it even means to be “human.”
Good and Evil Isn’t Always So Clear Cut
One of the problems with genre fiction, both in written and acted forms, is the tendency to portray the good guys as, well, good guys, and the bad guys as dark, maniacal evil doers. The story becomes predictable, simplistic, and as a result boring. The good guys (and gals!) do what good guys are supposed to do. And the bad guys do what bad guys are supposed to do. The results are formulaic, and in the real world, there are usually shades of gray between seemingly black and white issues.
Battlestar Galactica starts out much the same way. The humans are the on run, fleeing through space in a convoy of spaceships, shepherded by the famous Battlestar Galactica. They’re being chased by the evil, genocidal Cylons across the stars, in search of a new home, the mythical Earth.
Yet as the episodes pass, the plot grows far richer. Turns out that a few of the beloved crew members of the Battlestar Galactica are actually Cylon sleeper cells and in some cases they’re completely unaware that they are, in fact, Cylons. Later, this raises important questions. If they’re Cylons, but they’ve never participated and crimes, and they’re loyal to humanity, are they really the enemy? Can they ever be trusted? Should they just be executed?
Further, eventually some of the human-like emotional Cylons are captured. Once in custody, they are subjected to torture, raising questions over how prisoners of war should be treated. When you think about a race of robots killing billions of people, it might seem easy to over look a torture here and there. But when you see a very real person being tortured and subjected to such intense pains, it forces you to really think.
Eventually, some real love between a Cylon and a human results in a human-Cylon hybrid baby. Is the hybrid baby a threat to humanity, or the path to the future? This question nearly tears the human fleet’s leadership apart. And over the course of the series, some Cylons begin to turn coats, trying to join with their human counterparts, but can they ever really be trusted? And why should humanity accept help from genocidal robots?
I don’t want to give away all of the details, so I’m only scratching a the surface. Yet the full spectrum of morality found in Battlestar Galactica both reflects the nature of real-world issues, and forces viewers to confront some very deep questions.
The Blurry Lines We Find in the Real World
In a world where torture, genocide, and other crimes against humanity are very real, these questions are more than just interesting, they are some of the defining questions of our time. And we still don’t have any answers. Within the show, the human-Cylon rift doesn’t make these questions easier to answer. Instead, it forces viewers to think deeply about the existence of “others”, and what really separates us, and what really makes us “human.”
When we think of our world at war, it’s easy to create “others.” Ask Americans or Europeans to describe terrorists, and many will paint a mental picture of Islamic extremists. Yet the vast majority of Muslims are simply trying to go about their lives, wanting nothing to do with war or terrorism.
Similar trends can be observed across nationalities, ethnicities, and religions. Far too often we are left divided and suspicious of one another. Creating “others” that allow us to be divided and sub-divided is easy. Yet as Battlestar Galactica shows us, when you embrace the individual reality and uniqueness of each person, the lines quickly blur.