BSG review part 2

battlestar-galactica
Spoilers reminder: I’m not going to worry about them. If you haven’t seen the series and don’t want prior knowledge of plot points, don’t read any more.

After  the abysmal space opera of the Arrow of the Gods schtick (it was some  specific god actually, Hermes I think but I can’t remember for sure and I’m not going back to look) the series suddenly transformed itself into actual SF, using the tropes of the genre to hold a mirror up to our own society. One of the issues BSG explored was the nature of the relationship between a military and its civilian government in wartime.

It had been apparent for some time that the military part of the Galactica fleet, while accepting leadership from the civilian government, does *not* consider the President to be its head – the President is not the Commander in Chief, and all military decisions are up to the head of the military.

There was in fact a minor coup aboard Galactica when Adama was incapacitated after being shot by a Cylon sleeper agent. His second in command Colonel Tigh (who exhibits abysmal judgement and leadership qualities throughout the series, with one notable exception) actually arrests and jails the President, in the process butting heads with the younger Adama (and spluttering indignantly “This is mutiny!” when young Adama tries unsuccessfully to prevent the military coup).

Galactica’s fleet comes upon a second Battlestar, the Pegasus, which survived independently and has been carrying on hit-and-run operations against the Cylons. The Pegasus is purely military, and a more modern warcraft than Galactica. Her commander Admiral Cain is a diamond-hard woman who runs a very, very tight ship, and the Pegasus crew consider the Galacticans soft.

Significantly, they have not been trying to ensure the survival of humanity – their avowed aim is take out as many Cylons as possible before they die, revenge pure and simple. It even develops that the Pegasus crew have a guilty secret; they at first had a civilian fleet of their own, but stripped them of materiel and useful technicians and abandoned them in order to fight more effectively.

The addition of the Pegasus ignotes a prolonged power struggle on several levels; the civilian against the military, the Pegasuns against the Galacticans, and schisms within the Galactican military and civilian forces, the latter stemming from a combination of religious versus secular forces, and long-simmering social injustices pitting the scions of privilege against the working classes trapped in a system which allows little social mobility.

All of this is exacerbated and distorted by the endless emergency of the war against the Cylons, which allows any attempt to question authority to be painted as traitorous, with humanity’s physical survival hanging in the balance.

Against that is arrayed humanity’s survival as moral beings, concerned with societal ideals such as justice and mercy. There are, for example, several examinations of torture, in which brutal interrogations of Cylon androids reveal little but the inhumanity of the interrogators. A Cylon android prisoner on board Pegasus is tortured and raped to the point of catatonia, and when she recovers and escapes first assassinates Admiral Cain, then goes underground and becomes a highly effective revolutionary, and finally detonates a nuclear weapon destroying herself and several human ships, in the process also giving away the location of the remaining humans to the Cylon fleet. The real world parallels are pointed to say the least.

All this social and ethical commentary would alone be enough to mark this period (I mean the second half of Season 2 in toto) as excellent and pointed drama with a science-fictional background, but it is also in this period that the only genuinely SF plot device is deployed, by which I mean a plot device that a) is a plausible speculation, b) doesn’t correspond directly to anything that we directly experience, and c) sheds an interesting light on things we do know.

The plot device I refer to is called ‘downloading’ – the ability of the Cylons to transmit their minds back behind battle lines when they are killed into new bodies (identical, less scars and other subsequent damage).

This ability has multiple logical consequences.

The most feared Cylon raider is one nicknamed Scar (because by the time of the eponymous episode it has a visible bit of damage); it has survived many dogfights, many of which it actually lost and died in, but it kept learning and becoming more deadly.

Cylon spies didn’t have to worry about being on the planets they conspired to destroy, because they survived the nuclear blasts in new bodies.

At one point a Cylon uses downloading simply as a method of instantaneously traveling past guarded battle lines.

In perhaps the most innovative use of all, a Cylon uses the ability as a passive-aggressive interrogation technique, by allowing a human to kill him over and over again until she is emotionally exhausted.

Mind you, there are consequences which I thought obvious which the writers didn’t deploy. Military tactics should have been shown to be very different, for example, since ‘suicide missions’ wouldn’t be, for Cylons.

More puzzlingly, Cylon spies should have been equipped with the ability to suicide, preferably explosively. It would seem to be an obvious method of attack, and yet the Cylons never used it, and indeed were utterly shocked when the humans, who of course get only one body each, did.

That happens in the third season, which I’ll address in a third part.

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~ by B.T. Murtagh on May 28, 2009.

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