Sunday, February 24, 2008

Why I Love Battlestar Galactica

The Volokh Conspiracy's Ilya Somin has a great post on Law and Politics in Battlestar Galactica. The post inspired a great comment thread, so if you're at all interested in the series, make sure you take the time to read through those as well. I've cut and pasted Ilya's comments along with those of several commenters. First Ilya,

The series' mostly left-wing politics are very far from my own. In addition, I have some reservations about the way the show's premise is set up. For example, the "colonial" humans' political system seems far too similar to that of the United States, given that these humans supposedly developed in complete isolation from Earth for thousands of years. Many of the show's moral and political dilemmas seem a bit trivial in a setting where most of the human race has already been wiped out through genocide and the few survivors are in grave danger of suffering the same fate. In such an extreme situation, drastic measures such as the use of torture and suspension of due process are surely justified (assuming that they really are effective in staving off annihalation). The show's attempts to make these questions seem difficult strike me as unpersuasive. The more difficult question, of course, is whether these and similar measures can be defended in the much less dire circumstances we face in the real world. To a certain exent, BSG's creators were boxed in by the scenario they inherited from the original 1978 series; there is sometimes a poor fit between the show's basic premise and the issues they want to explore.


Some of the confusion arises because the creators of the show are indeed quite left-wing. On the other hand, they are also incredibly pro-military, which can be tough to do when showing atrocities and torture, but they pull it off. And not in the silly "we support the troops" bumper sticker kind of way, but in showing that the most admirable (although not always correct) characters are military - even some of the bad guys, like Cain.

Of course, some of the moralizing is a bit tired - its ok for Starbuck to waterboard Leoben and for Roslin to summarily execute Cavil, but its wrong for Cain to have Gina raped? Would it have been wrong for Cain to just shove Gina out the airlock?

Still, the most "moral" characters like Helo and Lee Adama are shown as arrogant jerks sometimes, while the most morally questionable characters are also shown as heroic, like Cain and Tigh. Thats why its good drama.

Abd Jim47, who hits the nail right on the head:

One of the things I like about BSG is that it seems more interested in portraying political conflict than taking sides. There are very few good guys in the series; there is no one in the series that is portrayed as the one who is always right.

Roslin, Adama, Tigh, Baltar, Cain, Zarek and others are all portrayed as fallible humans; some of the best things are done for selfish reasons, some of the worst things are done for good and pure reasons. Roslin is at once the hero but also a deeply disturbing leader; she shows the dangers of a powerful leader at the same time that her competence is shown to be a necessity. The closest the show comes to characters that is "right" are Helo and Apollo, and they are both very conflicted moral figures.

What is intriguing about the show is precisely that it exists in a counterfactual scenario where the rules of normal society break down. It explores which things can go, and it explores the human cost to those who find themselves faced with doing horrible things.

It strikes me basically that a well done piece of fiction, one that tries to have realism, and which tries to confront important themes, is beyond politics. It can be used to advocate any belief system that actual reality can be used to advocate.

Long time readers will remember I've blogged before about the futility of those who attempt to read partisan politics into Battlestar Galactica. Actually, I've blogged about it several times. The greatness of the show lies in it's willingness to showcase human tragedy at both the large scale and personal levels. It's not about left wing, right wing, it's about difficult questions of right and wrong that have no easy answers.

Plenty have criticized the New Caprica story arc as a simplistic Iraq parable, but as I written in the past, the only parable is the one your own mind creates. The images are supposed to be familiar- not just American occupied Iraq, but Palestine, and even Nazi controlled Vichy France. Since day one the show has strove to present the audience with familiar images- witness in the miniseries, when Laura Rosalin is sworn in to the presidency in a scene remarkably familiar to LBJ's swearing in after the JFK assassination. The familiar images are meant to anchor the show to the audience emotionally, but that familiarity in characters and situations is a vehichle for asking hard questions.

Ilya and others question the shows premise- that perhaps the annihilation of humanity is not the best forum to ask these sorts of moral questions. But if we're talking about values, maybe the scenario of civilization on the brink is precisely the point. What values make us human and what values are merely the niceties of our modern comfortable existence? We splice hairs when we talk about survival- is the struggle with Islamic terrorism a struggle for survival? Was war with Nazi Germany a struggle for survival? Battlestar tosses those politically charged questions aside to give us a clearer example of an actual fight for survival. What little ambiguity there is to start with provides an excellent template for these moral dilemmas and questions about what it is that makes us civilized.

But then again, I'm in the biased group who thinks the show is one of the best things to ever be put on tv.


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