Wednesday, October 25, 2006

remarks on "Galactica"

I'm about to finish off Season One of "Battlestar Galactica." It's a compelling series, though not perfect. Here are a few thoughts.


The series seems mostly to be about politics at this point. We've got freedom fighter/terrorists, the phrase "stay the course," questions about constitutionality, the coexistence of government and the military, the separation of military and police powers, behind-the-scenes murders for political gain, and perhaps most amusingly to me, the full and very recognizable implementation of Robert's Rules of Order for parliamentary procedure. The rise to power of Gaius Baltar (I'm at Episode 11 or so) is intriguing. Speaking of which...


The character is cool in a "goofy Limey" sort of way, but the writers stripped away questions of moral ambiguity early on, which makes Baltar less interesting than he could have been. While the series is obviously shepherding the good professor toward a religious conversion from atheism to Cylon theism, I think it would have been more interesting to explore whether Baltar has even a trace of a conscience or altruism. Or maybe some writer decided that that would be too obvious a storyline.

Baltar's "hallucinations" of the buxom Number Six might be a bit more entertaining if the show didn't cue her scenes with the same damn music every time. That gets irritating when you're watching back-to-back episodes on DVD. But the discussions that Six and Baltar have inside Baltar's head (and the often hilarious consequences of those discussions for Baltar, who usually wakes up to find himself half-aroused in public) are necessary plot devices, because they give us tantalizing insights into what the Cylons are up to and why Baltar figures so prominently in their plan. Alas, Baltar's initial dismissal of religion sounds a bit dated, at least for people who've been involved, on some level, in the science/religion discussion over the years.


This device confuses me. The series didn't exactly make it clear that Baltar actually had a plan for a plausible detector, and then suddenly poof-- there it was, and it worked fine in sniffing out Boomer (to whom Baltar gave a pass at the prompting of his generously betitted Cylon muse).


Having read the extensive Wikipedia entries devoted to the new series, I already know that "Caprica Boomer" will bear a half-human, half-Cylon child in Season Two, which would mean that Cylons are a perfect genetic match for humans (in principle, then, Cylons can age). Even the crescent-shaped Cylon fighters (robotic Islam? we'll get to this in a bit) are organic on the inside, possessing something akin to blood and guts. This raises all sorts of philoso-geek issues for intellectual fans of the show. First and foremost is the question-- asked and answered in an episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation"-- of whether a Cylon is a full-fledged sentient being that should be treated as though it possessed the same rights as humans.

The series-- at least as far as I've seen it-- doesn't provide easy or clear answers. The Cylons appear, for the most part, to be religious, and they even share the human trait of chauvinism, as seen in how two Cylons discuss a third Cylon, the Boomer model. Cylon religion is monotheistic, and God, for them, is always referred to in the masculine. This is in contrast with the humans' polytheism (humans worship the "Lords of Kobol"), and I take this difference in religion to parallel a similar theme found in the Matrix series: in those movies, machine intelligence (with the notable exception of the Oracle) views events in terms of their inevitability, whereas the humans are the ones who venerate the ability to choose. A pantheon of multiple gods, then, might represent human freedom, the power of choice: here is your sacred menu! The Cylons, who seem to care little for choice, funnel their theology into one true god, a god with an unalterable plan, no less, and this is consistent with the idea that the Cylons (most of them, anyway) are fatalists.

What's unclear to me is whether humaniform Cylons can communicate in a Borglike manner. Caprica Boomer and Number Six communicate verbally, but Six and her male cohort are able to follow Boomer and her human companion Helo... how, exactly? At a guess, there's a good bit of nonverbal communication going on.

The Cylons are self-replicating robots, but they are also able to evolve far more quickly than humans (about forty years from Robbie the Robot to "Blade Runner" replicant). If anything, Cylon evolution should follow a logarithmic curve. They might have missiles and projectile weapons right now, but within a year or so they should be toting far, far deadlier weapons along the lines of Larry Niven's Slaver disintegrator. One thing I always enjoyed about the Borg on Star Trek was their ability to adapt quickly to the new tricks the humans threw at them. I have high hopes that the Cylons will prove even scarier in that regard.

Then there's the problem of Cylons wanting to simulate humans at all. The human form isn't exactly the most efficiently designed. If I were a Cylon overlord, I'd want my Cylons manufactured (or bred, or force-grown, or nano-generated) in all different shapes and sizes, always with an emphasis on the intangible traits: adaptability, creativity, and so on. Why go through so much effort to pass undetected among humans? Why simulate humans to the point that a Cylon can breed with a human and produce progeny? I guess I'll have to wait and see what the Cylon master plan is before any of this can make sense.


The human religion, aside from being polytheistic, espouses a belief in historical cycles: this has happened before, and it will happen again. Many of the Cylons (at least the Number Sixes) seem to share this belief. How did the Cylons form their picture of history? Where did they get their notion of God? If we assume that humaniform Cylons possess intellects on the order of (or surpassing) Gaius Baltar's, we can also assume that they have been able to gather and process enormous amounts of data about the physical universe, as well as human history and psychology (so far, in Season One, there haven't been any aliens to learn from). How has this rapidly evolving view of the cosmos affected their religious outlook?

Cylon religion appears to be monotheistic and fatalistic. All things move according to plan, and no Cylon is uncomfortable with the idea that the plan's fruition is inevitable. In the episode where the Cylon gets tortured by Starbuck, he utters the phrase "I am God," a phrase that got Shirley MacLaine in a lot of trouble here on Earth, mainly because she was using the term in a fairly advaitic Hindu sense and not the traditional, Western classical theistic sense. This means that Cylon monotheism might actually have a bit in common with the vedantic worldview.

There appears to be some dissension among the Cylons, however, especially regarding how to relate to humanity. When one Cylon seriously ponders what it means to be the "children of humanity," perhaps implying that children have filial obligations, another Cylon blithely reminds the first that parents must die so that children can come into their own. That's a creepy thought: in the human world, parents and children can literally grow old together. There's no law of nature saying that parents must die for offspring to mature. It's enough for offspring to leave the nest-- something the Cylons did, after much violence, decades ago. Where did the Cylons get this idea of the role of parents and children?

Cylon religion, as represented by Number Six, also appears to be exclusivistic, and this might be a good moment to bring up the question of Cylon-as-militant-Muslim.

Think about the Cylon religion for a moment: we see conformism, an affirmation of God's omnipotence, a belief that all other gods are false gods, and what appears to be a strong desire to get some sort of message across or die trying. Cylons in Season One have already resorted to suicide attacks two or three times-- in one case the attack was an obvious allegory for Muslim suicide bombing. We also see that Cylon fighters are all shaped like crescents. Why would a machine intelligence design a crescent-shaped fighter? Are the Cylons basically militant Muslims in pursuit of the Twelve Tribes of Israel? Islam is, after all, a "child" of Judaism, seeing as it claims the same Abrahamic roots claimed by Christianity. If the Islam parallel holds, then the Cylon plan isn't the destruction of humanity: it's the assimilation of it.

Finally, there's the matter of divine influence on the proceedings. Up to now, I've had no reason to believe that the series takes the existence of God or gods seriously, but in the latter half of Season One, we see President Roslin having visions that turn out to be exactly like those found in scripture. This might be coincidence, of course, or the series' writers might be sneaking the divine in through a back door. In any event, it's quite cool to see that so much of the show's time is devoted to religious issues.


Ha ha! Totally American! I'm loving this, but I do have to wonder what people in other countries think of the show's take on the military, especially the question of military humor.

This isn't Star Trek. Star Trek was Gene Roddenberry's optimistic counterpoint to Robert Heinlein's starker, more bellicose vision of humanity's future, as seen in a novel like Starship Troopers. For Roddenberry, it's the military that does all the exploring, and especially in "The Next Generation," the military is barely a military at all, as the Borg demonstrated nicely when they first plowed through the Terran solar system, obliterating all defenses along the way. (Obviously, things were different when we got to "Star Trek: First Contact.") In "Battlestar Galactica," the military is the military. These are hardened fighters, not bon vivant scholars like Jean-Luc Picard.


The space combat scenes in the series owe a lot to Ron Howard. Let me explain. I remember being entranced the first time I saw the pilot episode of "Battlestar Galactica": space combat struck me as fairly realistic, with spaceships behaving like spaceships and not like the Millennium Falcon. But there was something awfully familiar about those combat scenes, and I couldn't quite put my finger on it until I remembered back to one scene in Ron Howard's excellent "Apollo 13."

You know the scene I'm talking about: it's where the three crewmen are doing a controlled burn of the LEM's engines to alter their approach vector so as to avoid skipping out of Earth's atmosphere or burning up on reentry. The frenzied camera, the small thrusters firing crazily in the external shots, the great CGI-- watch that sequence, then go watch a space combat scene in "Galactica." You'll see what I mean.


Easily the coolest character in my book. His repartee with Colonel Tigh is a great example of good writing: the senior officers' relationship is the first satisfactory SF analogue for the Kirk-Spock-McCoy rapport I've seen. Adama has his flaws, many of which are predictably brought to light whenever he locks horns with President Roslin, but he's also a man who understands honor and loyalty (at least so far in the series).


The second-coolest character. Cranky, crusty, still learning to be tough... and pussy-whipped by a scheming whore of a wife. This series isn't particularly kind in its portrayal of women.


Quite possibly the funniest character in the show. A bitter cynic and, it would appear, a chain smoker to boot. The anti-McCoy.


Whiny bitch in the Luke Skywalker mold. Perhaps disgruntled fans will send in millions of emails and his character will suffer a gruesome death at the hands of the first true alien the fleet encounters. Let us speak no more of him.


Quite cool, though I keep hoping Dirk Benedict will pop up in the series at some point, just as Richard Hatch has. Perhaps Dirk can claim to be the current Starbuck's father or something.


Sexiest cancer victim out there. I'd do her.


The CGI replacements for the ridiculous Cylons of the 1980s series look badass, but can't shoot for shit. They're obviously not Terminator material. I'll give them this, though: they always die well. It's a bit unnerving to watch machinery go limp after two shots to the metal brain casing.


Grace Park wins the International Yummy Award. Tricia Helfer's nicely built, and gentlemen prefer blondes, but... I'm no gentleman. Sorry, Trish. I'm curious to know whether Caprica Boomer is ever going to meet Galactica Boomer. Where I am in Season One, Helo now knows that Caprica Boomer is a Cylon, but no one in the fleet is aware that there are at least two Boomers wearing military uniforms.


"There are only twelve models," we learn in the pilot episode. (Who gave that message to Adama, anyway?) The humans now know how to spot three of them, including Number Six. I see no reason why the Cylons should limit themselves to only twelve models, but having complained about that already (see above), I'll say no more here.


Probably the weakest element in the show. Human fashion, human architecture, and human appliances all recall early 21st-century America. Cities have recognizable roads; flashbacks to scenes on Caprica show Humvee-like vehicles prowling the tarmac. This is unacceptable. How could humans develop faster-than-light travel-- the ability to move something as massive as a battlestar across great distances in a short amount of time-- and not have learned how to build superbuildings or create devices more clever than a toaster or a Humvee?

The big problem with this conception of humanity is that it seems highly unlikely that the fleet will ever find Earth. How embarrassing would that be for the show's writers, eh? The colonials reach Earth, where, by sheer coincidence, everyone dresses the same and speaks the same language-- English! Gods be praised! Let's go shopping!

Which reminds me: how could twelve human colonies, composed of what I assume to be billions upon billions of people, all speak one language? (I've wondered the same thing about the Klingons: surely that fractious alien race would speak thousands of different languages, just like Terrans!) If we've got English, why not French? Korean? Russian? Caprican?

Having recently enjoyed the movie "Thanks for Smoking," I can't help thinking that human civilization, as depicted on "Battlestar Galactica," is bringing the sexy back to smoking. Most of the main characters smoke, and at least two characters-- Tigh and Starbuck-- make drinking seem pretty cool, too-- or they at least make it look tempting for fence-sitters. Yet strangely, there's a dearth of fat people in the fleet. Perhaps they were too heavy to board the evac flights off the colony worlds? Were they roasted and eaten by the Cylons?

More thoughts are forming as I mull over this fascinating, well-written series. While I've got my misgivings about some aspects of the show, there's no doubt that the writers have hit upon an addictive mix of narrative tropes. In plain language: the series tells a damn good story, and I'm enjoying the hell out of it.


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