Thursday, February 12, 2009

Out of Focus: Thoughts on Battlestar Galactica's Mutiny Arc

Here's a hypothetical scenario for you: imagine that several years after the September 11th attacks there was a violent split in Al Qaeda, and some of its top members had been forced to flee for their lives. Imagine that in their desperation, they turned to the US, offering crucial intelligence in exchange for, not asylum, not immunity from prosecution, not the right to live and move freely in the US, but American citizenship.

Or, you know what, that's not bad enough. Imagine that the people in question are members of the SS Einsatzgruppen, the ones who used to walk into Eastern European villages, march the local Jews to a freshly dug pit, and start firing. Imagine that the citizenship they were demanding was Israeli. How would you feel if your government decided to acquiesce to such a demand? Appalled? Offended? Like you wanted to take to the streets, and vote the people who supported this decision out of office?

Neither of these scenarios even approach the awfulness of the proposition that sparks the recently concluded mutiny arc on Battlestar Galactica, because neither the Holocaust, which the series has never attempted to recall, nor 9/11, which it recalls constantly, approach the awfulness of what happens in its opening episodes. It's one of the show's core failings that it insists on drawing on equivalence between a terrorist attack that, though vicious and unconscionable, claimed the lives of only a tiny fraction of its target nation's citizens and left the rest free to live their lives much as they had before, and a genocidal attack that kills billions and destroys an entire civilization. This is just about the only positive thing I'll ever say about that show, but at least Enterprise managed to keep some perspective when it launched its 9/11 allegory arc in its third season--it posited a brutal and deadly assault on Earth, but one which the overwhelming majority of humanity survived, in the wake of which human society, politics, and culture carried on mostly unaffected.

That's not the situation on Galactica. The people in the fleet have lost everything. Everyone they loved, everyone they knew, everyone they ever met, is dead. Everywhere they lived, everywhere they visited, everywhere they ever thought of going has been reduced to radioactive ashes. Their own survival is a statistical anomaly, and growing more and more unlikely by the second, mostly due to the actions of the very people now asking to take the place of their victims as citizens of the society they destroyed, people who, because of the destruction and loss of life they caused, might now represent a meaningful voting bloc, and be able to affect issues of government and social policy. I would mutiny if my government tried to force such a move on me. So would you. So would everyone you know.

To be fair, another difference between the situation on Battlestar Galactica and the two hypothetical scenarios I suggested is that the Colonial government needs the Cylons a great deal more than the US needs Al Qaeda defectors or Israel needs SS informants. There are compelling practical reasons to agree to an alliance with the Cylons, however risible their demand for citizenship. Some very fine television could be wrought out of a debate, and eventually a violent split, between factions who supported each of these understandable and valid points of view, but that's not really what the mutiny arc amounted to. This is a sad thing to say, because I genuinely enjoyed this storyline, and "The Oath" in particular is one of the best episodes the show has produced in a long time (albeit in a way that demonstrates that Galactica's one true strength is action scenes), but like so many of Galactica's plotlines over the last three and a half seasons, it amounts to a missed opportunity.

"A Disquiet Follows My Soul" builds up to the mutiny by showing us Gaeta and Zarek stepping into the leadership vacuum created by Roslin, who is understandably worn out by the failure of the bid for Earth and by her looming death, and Adama, who once again fails to realize that leadership is more than just flat declarations and a stern manner[1]. Implicit in this depiction, however, is the assumption that, had Adama and Roslin been in fighting form, the mutiny would have been prevented. That had the two of them spoken instead of leaving the job to their less qualified lieutenants[2] the fleet would naturally have swung in their direction. I'm not convinced that's true. I'm not convinced that it is possible, much less inevitable, that people who have endured what the citizens of the fleet have suffered at the Cylons' hands for the last few years could ever be persuaded to accept them as fellow citizens, even if their survival depended on that acceptance. I would have been interested in seeing a story in which Roslin and both of the Adamas did their best to sell the alliance to the fleet and, once they'd failed, decided to act anyway and sparked the mutiny.

I think the writers must have realized they'd gone too far with the Cylons' demand for citizenship, because that aspect is downplayed once the mutiny gets going in "The Oath." The previouslys in that episode cut Tyrol's dialogue from "A Disquiet Follows My Soul" in such a way as to leave out the citizenship demand (and given this writing room's history it's hard not to suspect some attempt at retroactive editing) and thus reduce the proposition to an alliance. By the time "Blood on the Scales" comes along, Adama's crime is merely that he's not going to fight the Cylons anymore--that he doesn't, like Narcho, desire war without end. More importantly, the issue at stake is no longer truly the wisdom or folly of allying with a former enemy, but the legitimacy of Gaeta and Zarek's coup. Just in case we're not clear on who the bad guys are, the episode has Zarek massacre the Quorum and unilaterally claim the presidency for himself. When Roslin addresses the fleet she doesn't even talk about the Cylon alliance, and the mere sound of her voice is enough to sway a third of the fleet despite the fact that she's transmitting from aboard a Cylon basestar. Adama's victory and Gaeta and Zarek's execution at the end of "Blood on the Scales" don't merely signal the end of the mutiny but the end of the debate that sparked it--it's now a given that the alliance will happen (after all, with the entire Quorum dead, who's left to oppose Adama and Roslin?) despite the fact that the discussion of this thorny dilemma was never settled, merely replaced by an action-heavy storyline.

As Battlestar Galactica's ending draws near, I've found myself thinking about the show as a whole, trying to articulate to myself the core reasons why it went wrong. I think a major contributor has been the issue of focus: the writers' tendency to take their story to places it doesn't want to go, because their interest lies in topics that aren't supported by their worldbuilding or the simple facts of human nature. It's easiest to observe this tendency in the show's 'issue' episodes--Roslin outlaws abortion in order to ensure the survival of the human race, even though she can't afford to feed or care for helpless infants, and anyway it's the natural human response to catastrophe to breed like crazy; the fleet, two years after the Cylon attack and a year after settling on New Caprica, prizes accountants and lawyers over manual laborers and skilled technicians, even though the former contribute little or nothing to the survival of the species and the latter are worth their weight in gold--but it also infects the show's more organic storylines.

Almost from day one, Galactica has treated Cylon and human politics as two discrete realms with virtually no effect on one another. The two sides responded to one another tactically, but never politically. We've seen little or no debate on either side of what their opponents are like, what they want, and why they're evil. It's as though both humans and Cylons have a fixed image of one another that they're neither interested nor, it sometimes seems, capable of revisiting[3]. On one level, this makes sense--especially in times of war people have a tendency to think of their enemies as an undifferentiated block of otherness, and certainly the humans could be forgiven for pointing to the many and terrible crimes committed against them and saying that look, the Cylons are clearly pure evil. The thing is, though, that hardly anyone in the Colonial fleet ever says this. It's more common to find humans accusing Cylons of being soulless machines than it is for them to accuse Cylons of being evil. When Helo discovers that Sharon is a Cylon at the end of the first season, he's not angry because she's an enemy combatant, complicit in the destruction of his species, but because she's not human. Though far be it from me to discount the role of blind prejudice in perpetuating armed conflicts, it often feels as though the writers are making things easier on themselves by insisting that prejudice is the main or perhaps sole reason for the humans' hatred of the Cylons--making it easier to focus on the humans' flaws, and to equate the humans' excesses against Cylons with the crimes committed against them.

The problem, however, with trying to denounce anti-Cylon sentiment as mere prejudice, is that when it comes to Cylons a blanket prejudice might very well be the only correct and moral response. There was a twisted sort of sense in Helo focusing on Sharon's race rather than her individual guilt back at the end of the first season, because at the time we were still thinking in human terms. To accuse Sharon of genocide made as much sense as holding a single Wehrmacht soldier responsible for the Final Solution. In the intervening two and a half seasons, however, we've learned that there's no such thing as a Cylon non-combatant or even a foot soldier. Their decisions, we've seen, are made en masse, with each model voting unanimously (Caprica breaking with the other sixes on the question of whether to nuke New Caprica was unprecedented and shocking). Unless the writers make a last minute revelation that the eights opposed the decision to attack the colonies, there's no other conclusion to draw but that when polled, Sharon said that yes, billions upon billions of dead humans sounded to her like a good start.

Terrifyingly, Sharon is actually the closest thing the Cylon race comes to a moral thinker. Unlike the other Cylons, she's formulated an ethical code. It's on the level a five year old could grasp--pick your side and stick with it--and it's based entirely on personal connections rather than ideals or beliefs--Sharon's loyalty is to her husband, her daughter, her commander--but it's leagues beyond what the other, opportunistic, self-involved Cylons are capable of. The only Cylons ever to contemplate the possibility that destroying humanity might have been wrong translated that conclusion into the occupation of New Caprica[4]. The rest of the Cylons still don't get it. Even after New Caprica. Even in the face of the fleet's desperation. They don't understand what they've done, the suffering they've caused. Caprica--of all the Cylons the one who shoulders the most responsibility for the destruction of humanity--actually has the gall to look hurt when Nurse Ishay's face crumples at the realization that the Cylon race might survive while her own is probably doomed.

As they've been presented in three and a half seasons of Battlestar Galactica, the Cylons are, if not pure evil, then at least so completely lacking in morality or even its basic building blocks as makes no difference. Even the worst monsters, tyrants, and mass murderers in human history had some infinitesimal fraction of themselves that told them they'd done something they'd be expected to feel shame for, and so they made excuses, or covered up their crimes, or blamed their victims. The Cylons, who with no meaningful provocation[5] snuffed out the lives of, at a conservative estimate, forty or fifty billion people, don't even realize they've done something shameful. I don't know if soulless is the right word to describe such a deep dysfunction, but it's certainly not far off the mark, and though it's clearly as wrong to torture Cylons as it is to torture anything capable of suffering, I understand, and in fact support, the point of view that you wouldn't want Cylons living next door or dating your sister.

The mutiny arc makes a vague gesture towards acknowledging the legitimacy of the anti-Cylon position with Lee's speech in "The Oath." The problem is, that speech is directed to Tigh, who is one of only five Cylons who don't share direct responsibility for the genocide of humanity. By making Tigh the recipient of his rage, Lee, and the writers, buy into the fallacy that anti-Cylon sentiment is a prejudice, and like the hostility towards Germans that was still floating around in my early childhood, something understandable but irrational in its broadness. This when we know for a fact that with the exception of Tigh, Ellen, Tyrol, Tory and Anders, every Cylon in the fleet is an Eichmann. By tying the anti-Cylon position, on the one hand, to Gaeta and Zarek's violent and criminal actions, and on the other hand to Lee's undiscriminating prejudice, the mutiny arc deligitimizes it, and bolsters the view that letting go of anger and hatred of the Cylons is the correct course of action.

It takes a crucial failure of the imagination, of the muscles of empathy and moral outrage, to blandly insist that humans need to get past their anger at the Cylons, as the mutiny arc seems to conclude. I'm reminded of Fred Clarke's monumental, years-in-the-making takedown of the first Left Behind novel, and his oft-repeated complaint that this book posits the disappearance of a third of the planet's population, including every single child, as nothing but a starting point for its plot, with almost no acknowledgment of the awfulness of this event or the scale of grief and rage that should follow it. Battlestar Galactica isn't quite as bad as that, but its depictions of the reactions to the destruction of humanity are on too small a scale. People miss their spouses, their children, their dogs. They're angry at the discomfort and danger they live in every day. There's no sense of the magnitude of what they've lost--not just family and friends but culture, history, art, society--nothing on the level of this passage, from just a few chapters into The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:

Nelson's Column had gone! Nelson's Column had gone and there would be no outcry, because there was no one left to make an outcry. From now on Nelson's Column only existed in his mind. England only existed in his mind--his mind, stuck here in this dank, smelly steel-lined spaceship. A wave of claustrophobia closed in on him.

England no longer existed. He'd got that--somehow he'd got it. He tried again. America, he thought, had gone. He couldn't grasp it. He decided to start smaller again. New York was gone. No reaction. He'd never seriously believed it existed anyway. The dollar, he thought, has sunk for ever. Slight tremor there. Every Bogart movie has been wiped, he said to himself, and that gave him a nasty knock. McDonalds, he thought. There is no longer any such thing as a McDonald's hamburger.

He passed out. When he came round a second time he found he was sobbing for his mother.

This is a comedy. It's played for laughs, and yet Douglas Adams comes closer in this passage to what it means to lose your entire world than Battlestar Galactica has done in three and a half seasons of misery and torment. When I went on the March of Life at sixteen many of our stops were not in concentration camps or memorial sites but ordinary Polish towns. There we'd be taken to see the cemeteries, the dilapidated husks of synagogues, the houses with mezuzah holes still in the doorjambs. It wasn't just people that the Nazis destroyed in those places. It was a world, a society of European Jewry that has been wiped from the face of the Earth. The writers of Battlestar Galactica have never tried to depict this tragedy because, once again, they're not interested in going where their premise demands that they go[6], and because they won't acknowledge the magnitude of what the Cylons destroyed and the justness of the rage humans should feel towards them, much less the complicity of every single Cylon in this crime, they get to pretend that the choice between granting the Cylons Colonial citizenship and a more dangerous, more uncertain future has an obvious right answer.

It's an undeniable truth that the past is the past, and that we'd all--individuals and nations--be better off if we let go of our pain and anger and tried to start afresh, but to be capable of putting aside our losses so easily is inhuman, and maybe not something to be desired--what sort of person is willing to break bread with the destroyers of their civilization merely for the sake of their own survival? It's easy to say 'you need to move on', but it's also the sort of thing that a conqueror says. The victors have the privilege of letting go of the past because doing so doesn't hurt them, and because they've got what they wanted. For the victims, sometimes pain and anger are all that's left. It is the ultimate expression of Battlestar Galactica's skewed perspective, of its incorrect focus, that it tells a story from the point of view of those who have been beaten and robbed and expects us to believe that these people, or at least their leaders, are willing and able to put their grief and grievances aside so easily, and that this is the right choice. It's a show told from the perspective of the conquered, but its writers are thinking like conquerors.



[1] If you haven't done so already, check out SelenaK's running commentary on the series; in her post about this episode she writes very cogently about Adama's many failings and the massive contribution they make to the destabilization of the fleet.

[2] And this is once again the time to lament the inconsistent treatment of Lee. Catapulting him to the position of president in the first half of the season was bad enough, but if you're going to do so, and especially if you're going to do so by claiming that he possesses the integrity, vision and charisma of a born leader, then why is he so ineffective in the buildup to the mutiny, and why is his role in this story strictly military?

[3] Though what, exactly, the Cylons believe about humans--much less what they believe about them that justified their wholesale extermination--is something that the show has yet to articulate.

[4] I'm still waiting for an explanation of why Boomer, the most human of all the Cylons we met, thought this was a good idea.

[5] Don't talk to me about "Hero." Even the writers are trying to pretend that episode never happened.

[6] For one thing, it would require actually constructing a Colonial culture, as opposed to pretending that the Colonies were 21st century America with spaceships.

34 comments:

Matt said...

I gave up on BSG somewhere early in the 3rd season, but did they ever establish just what exactly is the difference between a human and a human-like Cylon? Back when I loved the show in the first season, the first sign that something was amiss was when they made the human Cylons so absurdly undetectable that the only conclusion was that they really were human with only the slightest, if any, genetic modifications. I expected that to become a plot point.

Two seasons later, I decided the writers didn't care, but it seemed to me that when you base the moral underpinnings of the entire show on whether your "AI" characters have souls, you are required to at least briefly discuss the ways in which they are not biological.

Come to think of it, there's a real disconnect between the humans claiming the Cylons are soulless and the writers' constant evocations of terrorism. No one argues that Al Qaeda are soulless machines, just that they are evil. The result is everyone--Cylons and writers, humans and viewers (viewers like us anyway)--are talking past each other.

ianras said...

> It's a show told from the perspective of the conquered, but its writers are thinking like conquerors.

That is such a fine insight; I mean, I don't fully agree but it's such a fine insight. I would say that the writers' perspective is one of well-educated, American liberals whose thinking has taken place entirely in the abstract and that's reflecting in their almost faultless ability to bait-and-switch the conclusions they offer to their moral dilemmas.

I first became suspicious of Battlestar Galactica all the way back in 'Bastille Day' which is truly told from the prespective of the coloniser. An intelligent-sounding insurgent from the only colony that's actually a colony turns out to be a power-hungry villain and is dispatched by a member of one of the most elite families from the most elite planet. The people who benefit from that story's resolution are the people who are lucky enough not to be disadvantaged by it: the people with power. Was violent upheaval justifiable on whichever planet it was? Who cares, Zarek feeds children to puppies he's driven mad with torture.

Kyle said...

Loved your review, some thoughts struck me. I tossed these off quickly, as I had very little time. Thanks for the great blog.

I’d have to agree in part with you regarding the scope of Battlesar Galactica. It’s a show that has gotten hung up on it’s ability to “ask the questions” as Ron Moore would say, and not necessarily answer them. This has made a mixed bag of storytelling about a show that wants to ask “hard questions” after 9/11, and not bother to look at it’s own storyline and follow the natural progression of the story at hand.

I’m not going to justify anything the humans do when it comes to the Cylon’s because I’m constantly yelling at the screen “You’re fucking Cylons, that’s why you should die!” I don’t know if the writers are just blind to their own creations or if the focus of the show has shifted from the Colonials being Americans, to the Cylons being Americans. Yes, they murdered billions, and when confronted with that fact they all kind of shrug and say, “Yeah, sorry ‘bout that.” All except Cavill, being the only good Cylon character in the whole bunch. So I have no sympathy for the Cylons at all, but I still get this sinking feeling that they are the Americans. If you want to follow the “hard questions” that Moore is always saying they ask.

Of course, I think “hard questions” is a euphemism for “lazy writing.”

I think the writers must have realized they'd gone too far with the Cylons' demand for citizenship, because that aspect is downplayed once the mutiny gets going in "The Oath." -- I’m not sure I agree with this. It seemed to me that Gaeta and Zarak had different reasons for what they did. Gaeta felt betrayed by Adama, mentioning that Galactica just stranded them on New Caprica, while I think Zarek, angry, yes, about some kind of alliance, really just saw an opening to take over. And Zarek, being a radical by nature could only resort to what he knows, violence. Killing the Quorum was the only way he was going to keep power. When Gaeta came to him, he took it. I agree, there are so many “what could have been” things that should have been discussed, but weren’t. It is the defining legacy of the show. Sad.

Just in case we're not clear on who the bad guys are, the episode has Zarek massacre the Quorum and unilaterally claim the presidency for himself. -- Zarak was always a bad guy. From his very first episode. The rules of television are simple and finite: good guy here, white hat. Bad guy there, black hat. Shades of gray are really tricks, and smokescreens. In the end, most T.V writers tend to fall on the good/evil thing, because that’s all they know, and if it isn’t all they know, it’s what they are told to do by the network/studio.

Adama's victory and Gaeta and Zarek's execution at the end of "Blood on the Scales" don't merely signal the end of the mutiny but the end of the debate that sparked it--it's now a given that the alliance will happen (after all, with the entire Quorum dead, who's left to oppose Adama and Roslin?) –- It seems to me that the subtext to the show is birth/rebirth. Killing the Quorum creates a clean slate for Lee to step in as the president and get a more “enlightened” political body. If it’s true that Adama/Tigh/Roslin will be dead by the last episode, someone will have to take over. Since the end of the first season they have been saying that the half-breed baby is the wave of the future. So the debate (of which there should be one) will be put off for some expediency. When Ellen comes back there will be some mumbo-jumbo that makes no sense, and then they will reveal that there is a cylon generation machine on Mars or something, which explains Starbuck.

We've seen little or no debate on either side of what their opponents are like, what they want, and why they're evil. It's as though both humans and Cylons have a fixed image of one another that they're neither interested nor, it sometimes seems, capable of revisiting[3] -- I can’t say I agree here. I don’t think there has to be a debate. Are Cylons evil? Well, technically, no, they are machines. Machines are neither evil nor good, they simply are. So I don’t think the humans really see them as “evil” but simply as machines. And that’s all they can grasp. Cylons on the other hand have an irrational belief in some sort of god creating them, (when in fact humans did – but I’m sure there will be a retcon somewhere about this. They already started with the stupid “The 13th tribe were human cylons.”) Sigh. Other than that, their only other rationale (in the first season) was that that “Children can’t come into their own until their parents have died.” If God created them, through their parents, then the parents have to die? I suppose, again, if you’re living in T.V. world this might make sense, but what does, really? We were told, “The Cylons have a plan.” No one has ever articulated it. At all. Ever.

“…humans could be forgiven for pointing to the many and terrible crimes committed against them and saying that look, the Cylons are clearly pure evil. The thing is, though, that hardly anyone in the Colonial fleet ever says this. It's more common to find humans accusing Cylons of being soulless machines than it is for them to accuse Cylons of being evil.” -- I don’t think the humans can grasp that the Cylons are evil, again, because they view them as machines. Not living creatures. A car could hit a person next to me and kill them, but I would hardly call the car evil. (I know it’s a bad metaphor, but I think it’s as simple as that.)

The only Cylons ever to contemplate the possibility that destroying humanity might have been wrong translated that conclusion into the occupation of New Caprica[4]. The rest of the Cylons still don't get it. Even after New Caprica. Even in the face of the fleet's desperation. They don't understand what they've done, the suffering they've caused. Caprica--of all the Cylons the one who shoulders the most responsibility for the destruction of humanity--actually has the gall to look hurt when Nurse Ishay's face crumples at the realization that the Cylon race might survive while her own is probably doomed. -- And it’s this attitude that I think the writers have decided that the Cylons have become Americans. Americans, as a general rule, think they are doing “good” and when things break down because it’s their fault, they look around shrug their shoulders and say “Huh? Don’t blame us, we were trying to help.” They even say lines like this during the occupation of New Caprica, and with that passage was when they decided to make the Cylons U.S.,. Or us. I think that the colonials are now “Europe,” or some poor version of them. No matter what they think about themselves, I certainly believe that in interests of the show, the Cylons should all die.

As they've been presented in three and a half seasons of Battlestar Galactica, the Cylons are, if not pure evil, then at least so completely lacking in morality or even its basic building blocks as makes no difference. – Cylons are machines. At least Cavill is the only one that states it implicitly. Machines have no morality. Is a gun moral? Is a computer? Is a car? Nope, they are not moral, they are machines, and for whatever reason they came up with a plan and carried it out. Cavill stated when we first met him something to the fact that “we didn’t agree with the decision, but hey, we went along, and carried out the plan.” Later during the Mexican standoff over the algae planet, Cavill states again, “Let’s kill them, and then look for Earth. We’re machines, we can look all we want.” So are they evil? For T.V., you bet. But in reality, I think they are just malfunctioning.

I agree that the enormity of the destruction of the colonies has never been discussed, but at the same time it’s possible that you can read between the lines and say, (it probably happened on New Caprica). Before that, they were running, constantly, and probably coming to the brink of starvation (at least they should have been), constantly. Just eking out a life would be challenge enough to distract the mind from the loss of everything. But again, the show should have been about that from the beginning, but traded all that in for the groaner of “Kara Thrace has a destiny,” and machines that believe in one-true-god.

It is sad that the writers never built a world, never fleshed out the colonies more than they had to. The show should have been about the exodus, and then about rebuilding life. The fear could have been played simply by the “terrorist” problem, “is it you, or him, or her?” Which plays on the politics of the Bush Administration. As a matter of fact, it was all the political episodes no matter how weak, (the union episode, the abortion episode, the election episode, the black market episode, Bastille day, pretty much any episode that didn’t directly have to do with all the mystical garbage) that I was looking for. In the second episode, they gave some pretty startling figures on what 90,000 people would need to eat on a weekly/monthly basis. The figure was so staggering, they never mentioned it again. That screams of an Executive Producer, that just wanted to skirt the true story. It was all that, where I said, “Great T.V.” only to see that it never panned out, it only got shuffled aside.
I love the show. I hate the show. And honestly. I can’t wait for it to be over, for good and ill.

Karen Burnham said...

>>It's one of the show's core failings that it insists on drawing on equivalence between a terrorist attack that, though vicious and unconscionable, claimed the lives of only a tiny fraction of its target nation's citizens and left the rest free to live their lives much as they had before, and a genocidal attack that kills billions and destroys an entire civilization.

Thank you! You put your finger on *exactly* what bothered me since the show began (I dropped out mid-3rd season, like so many others). This is exactly the problem--the writers don't seem to understand that the response to literally wiping out the human race *should be* different from the response to something like 9/11.

Therem said...

I agree with many of your individual criticisms, but I find it strange that after the most traumatic and upsetting episode in the history of the series, you appear to be arguing that the show should be even more depressing than it is.

Is the show written from the perspective of the conqueror? In my opinion, no. It is not written from any one perspective. It is a big budget studio production involving dozens of actors, directors, writers, and producers that does not present a coherent position on much of anything. To many that seems like a weakness, and I understand that. I happen to like it, because the shifting perspective reflects how humans really think. We are swayed by personalities, traumatized by the past, often unreflective about what we do on a daily basis and how our beliefs contradict one another.

Of course, sometimes it is plain bad storytelling. I completely agree with your note about "Hero". And the writers have admitted that it was probably a mistake to say that the Cylons had "a plan" for all those episodes when they had no clue what it was and never developed it. (I hope the BSG movie that will air after the series, titled "The Plan", will actually contain one that isn't completely lame.)

There have been many other missteps. But I don't think you are correct about the show's creators siding with Adama and Roslin over the mutineers in this latest arc. As the writer of "The Oath", Mark Verheiden, said in this interview with Maureen Ryan, it was very much in his mind that Zarek and Gaeta were right to be concerned about the alliance with the Cylons. Whether mutiny and mass killings were the right actions to take is another question, but I really don't think the concerns themselves were invalidated by things going in that direction. The clearest statement of them came after the end of the mutiny, when Narcho told Adama that he had always respected him but could never support someone who allied with Cylons. The moment was beautifully played and gave a great deal of weight to Narcho's words.

Adama and Roslin came out victorious in the end, which legitimizes their position in a certain sense, but the treatment of this whole arc has been nuanced enough to raise a lot of complicated questions in its audience. I've read quite a bit of argument about it, including an impassioned and ungrammatical defense of Zarek by the actor who played him in the comments thread of this interview with Michael Angeli, the writer of "Blood on the Scales". If there is this much disagreement among fans -- and even the show's actors! -- about the characters' motives, and so much ambivalence in the writers room, I don't think it makes sense to try to diagnose exactly what angle it is taking on its themes. There is no one angle.

And personally, I will always be somewhat on Gaeta's side just because he was Gaeta, the stand-in for well-meaning and downtrodden geeks everywhere.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Matt:

No, the show has remained wildly inconsistent about the nature of human-form Cylons and the difference between them and humans. You get Sharon sticking a fiber-optic cable in her arm and transmitting a computer virus to an oncoming Cylon fleet, and the very fact of downloading, and Baltar nattering on about how Cylon blood is made up of different molecules than the human kind, and then you get Sharon having a baby with a human partner. There's never been any attempt to tie any of these contradictory statements together.

The point, obviously, is that the humans have designated the Cylons as Other, but as you say there's a disconnect between what's going on in the show and the connection the writers are trying to draw between their story and post 9/11 America. When people decide that a certain group is Other, they usually latch on to some visible sign of difference - skin color, language and speech patterns, dress - whereas the Cylons are all but identical to the human characters in all of these respects. The Caprican main characters in fact have more in common with the Cylons than they do with the fanatically religious Geminons or Baltar's New Age cult.

ianras:

I actually think Zarek was used well in (some of) his previous appearances, though not necessarily "Bastille Day." I think he's a good portrait of a certain kind of revolutionary - intelligent, charismatic, able to speak very stirringly about truth, justice and democracy, but incapable of transitioning to a leadership role. Zarek always needed someone to rebel against, and Rosin and Adama were depressingly eager to oblige him. What I hated was the way this story made him into an out and out villain, which I think comes pretty close to being completely out of character.

Kyle:

I'm not sure the show can be boiled down to 'Cylons = Americans.' There have been storylines in which the Cylons have taken the American role, most particularly the occupation arc at the beginning of the third season, but I don't thing the show pays enough attention to the Cylons for them to be the stand-ins for the society the writers are trying to critique. Most of Galactica's stories have to do with various reactions to catastrophes that parallel post-9/11 America - torture as a means of intelligence gathering and a form of punishment, the erosion of civil liberties, religious fundamentalism - which makes the Colonials the American analogues. The problem, as I say in this post, is that in order to get to that discussion you have to equate 9/11 with a species-wide genocide, which just doesn't work.

Are Cylons evil? Well, technically, no, they are machines. Machines are neither evil nor good, they simply are. So I don’t think the humans really see them as “evil” but simply as machines.

The problem is, though, that the show has consistently depicted characters who insist that Cylons are soulless machines negatively (while offering nothing in the way of contradictory evidence). Even I don't truly think Cylons aren't people - we've seen too much evidence of their ability to feel to call them nothing but machines - I just think they're very, very bad people.

My perspective on this is probably a little different than yours, because I've lived all my life in the shadow of a never-ending, self-perpetuating war, and in my experience people who are caught in that kind of situation never stop talking and thinking about their enemies. By which I don't mean that they try to understand the other side - far from it - but that they create an image of their enemy that is as evil and irrational as possible in order to justify to themselves their actions against that enemy. It just doesn't make sense to me that the citizens of the fleet would be content to say 'Cylons are machines' and leave it at that, instead of ceaselessly chewing over Cylon depravity.

Therem:

I find it strange that after the most traumatic and upsetting episode in the history of the series, you appear to be arguing that the show should be even more depressing than it is.

No, I think what I'm saying is that I'd like the show to be depressing in a completely different way than it currently is. And, once again, the example I gave of the kind of depressing storytelling I'm interested in comes from a comedy.

I'm sure the writers think that they've written an ambivalent story, but that's my main complaint against the series - the writers think they're giving us one thing, but what they're actually producing is very different. The example you give of Narcho's speech is a perfect demonstration - his actual words are "I won't serve under anyone who isn't willing to fight the Cylons." What Narcho wants is to fight until he dies, and he doesn't care whether the rest of humanity dies, whether good people like Adama are murdered, whether his leaders are immoral. That's the mutineers' final statement, in an episode that has already presented Zarek as an unrepentant murderer and Gaeta, up until he surrenders, as his pawn.

I'm not saying that the mutiny arc is entirely on Roslin and Adama's side or entirely lacking in ambivalence, but it backs away a meaningful discussion of a very difficult question, and ends up settling that question in a way that fails to fully engage with it.

ianras said...

But Zarek was never represented honestly (or rather he was never represented honestly in the series up to the point where I stopped watching); the writers used every dirty trick in the book to discredit him: there's the bait-and-switch in Bastille day; there's the representation of his supporters as trouble in 'Colonial Day'; there was his association with that guy who might as well have had 'violent thug' tattoed on his face in the mid-season two-parter in season two. I'm all for a character who can function as a revolutionary though not as a leader but not one whom the writers suggest everbody should feel shame for being anything like because of a jerry-rigged narrative. Bad writing throws validation and shame on whichever groups please and displease it; good writing doesn't breed that kind of commentary into it.

This kind of discussion is tricky because it far more often than not slips into competing victimologies and leveraging of oppression into grabs for existential authenticity or some such but the thing is that, like you said, when people aren't confronted with these conflicts regularly, they don't understand them very well and when you come from the US, whose insurgents against colonialism have been reified into heroes, and you're not confronted with the complicated truth of the matter, you're more likely to create a character like Zarek and treat him in the way the BSG writers treated him.

Therem said...

Abigail: ... the writers think they're giving us one thing, but what they're actually producing is very different. The example you give of Narcho's speech is a perfect demonstration - his actual words are "I won't serve under anyone who isn't willing to fight the Cylons." What Narcho wants is to fight until he dies, and he doesn't care whether the rest of humanity dies, whether good people like Adama are murdered, whether his leaders are immoral. That's the mutineers' final statement, in an episode that has already presented Zarek as an unrepentant murderer and Gaeta, up until he surrenders, as his pawn.

That was not what I saw when I watched that scene. I saw someone who was expecting to be harshly punished, if not executed, for his actions, and who could still not bear to go along with Adama's plan, despite respecting him as an individual. He did not look like a death-obsessed warrior; he looked like someone who had been pushed too far and just couldn't go any farther. Frankly, I was surprised by the way the scene played. I expected something more black & white, so I give a lot of credit to the actors and the director of that episode for making Narcho more sympathetic than most shows would have made him.

I'm not saying that the mutiny arc is entirely on Roslin and Adama's side or entirely lacking in ambivalence, but it backs away a meaningful discussion of a very difficult question, and ends up settling that question in a way that fails to fully engage with it.

The story arc may be over, but I don't think this question was really settled to anyone's -- characters' or audience's -- satisfaction. It seems more open ended and messy to me than you are describing it. And I think that was intentional.

ianras: when people aren't confronted with these conflicts regularly, they don't understand them very well and when you come from the US, whose insurgents against colonialism have been reified into heroes, and you're not confronted with the complicated truth of the matter, you're more likely to create a character like Zarek and treat him in the way the BSG writers treated him.

Could you explain what you mean by this? I can't tell who you are talking about when you refer to "reified heroes", and you haven't explained how that would necessarily lead to the "dishonest" portrayal of characters like Tom Zarek. I suspect that you are making baseless and patronizing generalizations about Americans, but your sentence is so tortured that I can't be sure.

ianras said...

>Could you explain what you mean by this?

Sure.

>I can't tell who you are talking about when you refer to "reified heroes"?

The leaders of, and those who fought with, the Patriots during the American War of Independence.

> I suspect that you are making baseless and patronizing generalizations about Americans, but your sentence is so tortured that I can't be sure.

What I was saying, if you'll forgive the tortured syntax (and I mean that genuinely, that sentence was all over the place), was that people who experience colonialism, its aftermaths and its implications daily usually understand it better than those who haven't. What I said wasn't a generalisation because I didn't generalise, I said Americans are 'more likely' not to grasp it. And I don't think it was baseless, because my argument - that people who experience something tend to have a more profound understanding of that thing than those who don't - appears to me common sensical.

> and you haven't explained how that would necessarily lead to the "dishonest" portrayal of characters like Tom Zarek

Because Zarek is a revolutionary from a planet exploited by the other eleven. When you're not from Algeria or Nigeria or Tibet or Ireland, it's a lot harder to become sensitized to nuances of colonialism and post-colonialism because you're not immersed in a culture and discourse in which those are enormous and recurrent features. In the exact same way that a writer who hasn't been sensitized to, say, the untruthfulness of depicting women as objects for men to fight over in fiction, will repeat that trope, the writers of BSG have written Zarek. He's the 'savage tryant the colony would have produced had we, the coloniser, not ruled them' that's used to justify sticking the boot in with.

Kyle said...

Re: Narcho. It’s funny, because I thought Narcho expressed the one thing that we’ve all been saying, and you Abigail specifically with that passage from Hitchhikers. When he said his line, I could see him crying over and over again after the attack. The loss of the colonies demands full and total retribution. “Kill them all, as they did us.” I think he wants to end it, and be on the winning side. I totally bought it, and it was something that I didn’t really hear from Gaeta or Zarek. Maybe I’ll watch it again. I don’t think he wants the war to live in perpetuity.

Even I don’t truly think Cylons aren’t people – we’ve seen too much evidence of their ability to feel to call them nothing but machines – I just thin they’re very, very bad people.

Ever since the beginning of the show, I always felt that they were simply running on programming. I think it was Adama that once said something to the affect of “you’re just running a program.” The ability to act sentient doesn’t necessarily make it so, no matter how good the act is. It’s like that Twilight Zone, where the mannequin comes to life, then becomes a mannequin again. In the end, she’s still a mannequin. At least that’s how I view the Cylons, and why every time they cry “why are you picking on us?” I yell back, “because you’re just a machine.” That episode where they were threatened with their own extinction from that bio-feedback silliness: I had hoped that the colonials carried out the attack. It would have been one of those things that you wouldn’t have expected.

It just doesn't make sense to me that the citizens of the fleet would be content to say 'Cylons are machines' and leave it at that, instead of ceaselessly chewing over Cylon depravity.

I guess I didn’t articulate myself well enough, (it was late). I don’t think the colonists should simply “leaving it at that,” and I agree with you that they grouse about the Cylon depravity. After all, they aren’t just machines, they are machines that are hunting them down and trying to kill them all. And yes, that would lead to the whole “other” mentality. I was just trying to say that from my perspective, they aren’t good or evil, they simply are. They’re working on poor programming.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Kyle:

That's a very good point about Narcho and I think you're right that he's meant to be viewed positively, as the voice of the fleet's grief and pain. But again, I have an on-the-ground perspective on these sorts of conflicts and I can tell you that 'kill them all' is effectively the same thing as war without end. The Cylons tried to kill all humans, after all, and but for a fraction of a fraction of a percent, they succeeded, but three years on they're still mired in a war they have no idea how to get out of. Maybe that's part of the point the episode is trying to make, but in order to do so it has to ignore the fact that you can't make peace with someone who won't acknowledge the legitimacy of your grievances against them.

As for the Cylons, I still think the show expects us to conclude that they're people - it would certainly be a less interesting story otherwise.

ianras:

I still think Zarek is, in general, portrayed more positively than you give him credit for. The fact is he's usually right when he complains about Roslin and Adama bending or breaking the law, subverting democracy or concealing the truth. Of course, my perspective might be skewed because I long ago lost any sympathy I ever had for Adama, so that when he and Zarek square off (such as in "Sine Qua Non") I tend to side with his opponent.

Therem:

See my response to Kyle re: Narcho.

The story arc may be over, but I don't think this question was really settled to anyone's -- characters' or audience's -- satisfaction. It seems more open ended and messy to me than you are describing it. And I think that was intentional.

I'll be watching this week's episode later today, and maybe you'll turn out to be right and it'll contain fallout from the mutiny and specifically from Roslin and Adama's failure to lead and the enormity of what they've imposed on the fleet. But I'm still waiting for comparable fallout from the Pegasus arc and, with the exception of "Collaborators" and the blight that was Starbuck's season 3 character arc, from the occupation storyline, so I have my doubts.

ad said...

It's a show told from the perspective of the conquered, but its writers are thinking like conquerors.

This reminds me slightly of Orwells essay on Kipling: http://gaslight.mtroyal.ca/Orwell-B.htm

But because he identifies himself with the official class, he does possess one thing which "enlightened" people seldom or never possess, and that is a sense of responsibility. ..He identified himself with the ruling power and not with the opposition. In a gifted writer this seems to us strange and even disgusting, but it did have the advantage of giving Kipling a certain grip on reality. The ruling power is always faced with the question, "In such and such circumstances, what would you do?", whereas the opposition is not obliged to take responsibility or make any real decisions.

It is a very long time since I last saw this show, but I do not think its writers had any such sense. If they did they would realise, for example, that it is absolutely essential for the Colonials to figure out how their enemies work, and what they want. The Cylons are too strong for the Colonials to risk ignorance. And yet, they never seemed to feel any desire to reduce their ignorance.

Obviously, the writers are not even trying to think about what the colonials, or their leader, should do.

They are not thinking like people with responsibilities. The writers are thinking like people trying to show how enlightened they are.

Enlightened people, for example, disapprove of torture, racism etc. So it must be wrong for the colonials to hate Cylons…

Kyle said...

I think we’re in a bit of an agreement here regarding this, except that I think that a military man (I’m former navy) never thinks of a war without an end. It’s a thing they indoctrinate into you.

To the military, (even if there is evidence to the contrary) wars have beginnings, they have ends, and everything between is simply middle. Even if that middle is 20, 50, 100 years. That’s all I’m saying. They told me that the cold war ended in 1989. Many people believe that, and yet the “enemy” isn’t disarmed, nor toothless, but hey, “we won!”

So to Narcho, a vote for Zarek is a vote for victory! (emphasize the exclamation point).

Plus – think of the rather large victory the colonials gained. They destroyed the resurrection hub. And as far as they’re concerned it’s just a matter of hunting down the remaining base ships. If these characters were real people, I’m sure that would have been running through somebody’s mind.

I also agree that the show wants us to believe the Cylons are people. Moore has said in a couple of podcasts that they are “A young race, and they make mistakes.” So I’m with you there. I’m just arguing (or trying to) from the colonial perspective. Or maybe mine. When its all over, I’m going to take a week and watch them all and see what I think then. I find T.V. with long plot lines work better for me that way.

Jed said...

Excellent and insightful piece (and followup discussion), as always.

I agree that the issue you raise is the central flaw at the core of the series. I think there've been (and will continue to be) various attempts by the writers to explain why the Cylons committed genocide; but no explanation I've seen, and no explanation I can imagine, would really be sufficient to justify killing billions of people.

And yet, for me, it's a testament to just how much I like the show, and how good I think the writers are, that I've been willing to set that aside.

In almost any work of fiction, especially TV shows, there are, oh, anywhere from a couple to a dozen things that I have to set aside in the mental category of things that if we paid too much attention to them would make the whole work impossible, so I acknowledge them now and then but largely try to ignore them.

For me, this forgiving-genocide thing is in that category. I agree with almost everything you said here--but I pretend that it's not true, because for me that pretense is essential to enjoying an otherwise often extremely good show.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I agree that any television series, or any story, requires a degree of suspension of disbelief of its viewers, and has flaws that are written into its premise which fans will choose to ignore in order to enjoy its strengths. But there are different kinds of fundamental flaws. Some can be ignored because they're nothing but the mundane building blocks of the story's world and background. For example, early in the series's run some lip service is paid to the enormous amounts of food and fresh water needed to keep the people of the fleet alive for even a single day. It's an issue that's raised and never dealt with again, because there's no good way of dealing with it, no solution that doesn't see the fleet starve to death within weeks of the miniseries. So we the viewers just accept the fact that part of the show's premise makes no sense and concentrate on the more interesting stories it can tell only by handwaving that difficulty away.

The other kind of fundamental flaw, however, infects all of the show's storytelling, because it's baked into every single story it tries to tell. Take, for example, the next to last episode, in which Tigh and Caprica's baby dies. I'm expected to feel bad for Caprica - not only for her loss but because of the reasons for it, because Tigh doesn't love her enough or at least not more than he loves Ellen and Adama - but I can't do that unless I forget that she's directly responsible for the murder of billions, and that her first act on screen was to calmly snap an infant's neck before its mother's disbelieving eyes. By any reasonable standard Caprica deserves every bit of pain she suffers in this episode, but the story the writers have chosen to tell only works if they forget that fact, and demand that I forget it too. This to me is an insurmountable and fatal flaw.

Of course, it doesn't help that I don't think much of the writers and their ability to plot or create characters. Going back to the same episode, the whole story hinges on the sudden revelation that Tigh loves Caprica, when not only have the writers done no work to establish this but have in fact worked hard in every one of the characters' few previous interactions to paint his feelings for her as a mixture of lust, confusion about his identity, and longing for Ellen. I don't think Galactica is an extremely good show, or a good show, or even an OK show, so I have very little motivation to forgive the writers their flaws.

genwolf said...

I posted an extended response to this over on TWOP, where it provoked a bit of discussion.

There is a good deal I disagree with in your post. Obviously there is the problem that I don't find it difficult to imagine at all that the US would take in any Al Queada turncoats or dissenters, and if there intel was really good, I would imagine that even Citizenship would not be a stretch. After all the Sunni insurgents in Iraq did some terrible things to both US troops and the Iraqi population and Iraqi Security forces before they turned against their Al Queada allies. This has not caused many to riot. Senior echelons of the Wehrmacht tried to get rid of Hitler in WW2, despite being completely involved in his brutal campaigns of conquest. I don't think they deserve the heroic treatment they are now being given, but I bet you in WW2 the allies would have been sorely tempted to do deals with such men pretty much at any point prior to the endgame when victory was assured. I cannot see how the way in which the differing reactions to the Cylon alliance are not very realistic compared to analogous situations from our own history. Against limitless evil such as the Cylon attack people should perhaps be limitlessly outraged. Rwanda, the rehabilitation of Stalin in Russia, the ambivelence towards the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia (the current PM, Hun Sen was former cadre of the Khmer ROuge), shows that the outrage we might expect people to feel does not always pan out. Meanwhilst people are able to get stirred to hatreds and rages over hyperbolically overgrown senses of grievance - in fact the evil of Pol Pot or Stalin or Mao or even Hitler have their origins precisely in such overblown senses of greivance. And it would seem the Cylon's suffer the same problem.

But what I will agree with in Abigail Nussbaum's criticism is that when the Cylon's asked for citizenship should not someone have thought to ask for some statement of remorse for their part in the Genocide of humanity? The writers do seem to be writing around this issue -We have had Dmeand Peace and Demand Love and even this pragmatic compromise - but their really should be someone demanding the rebel Cylon's thingk about what they have done.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I don't think any of the real-world parallels you suggest truly mirror the situation in the show. Yes, the US made deals with former Al Quaeda supporters, but not with Osama Bin Laden. Yes, the British would have welcomed Nazi informants, but it wasn't their mothers and fathers being gassed to death in concentration camps. Yes, there's been a partial rehabilitation of Stalin and the Khmer Rouge, but only at a distance of a generation or two. The people in the fleet have very recently suffered terribly at the Cylons' hands, and are being asked to accept as neighbors, co-citizens, and elected officials the very people directly responsible for that suffering. I don't think I'm wrong to expect violent opposition to such a policy.

More importantly, you're ignoring the fact that I do acknowledge that there are pragmatic reasons to acquiesce to the Cylons' demand. My problem is in the show's treatment of the choice between survival and forgetting the Cylons' crimes, which is one-sided and simplistic.

genwolf said...

Well their are no real world analogies that truly match the magnitude of what happened on the show, but you own post began with analogies and we can at best extrapolate from what we know, and what the writers know, and we know the writers and RDM both are deeply interested in and informed by History.

I don't think it is a stretch to say there are analogies with postwar Europe, with enormous bitterness towards a defeated Germany, but at the same time a great fear of Stalin's USSR. These circumstances produced a situation where whithin 4 years of the end of the war West Germany was to be an ally of former enemies. Of course there was bitterness, and people who would not trust a German again as long as they lived, similarly with Japan, and driven by similar fears of Russia. Of course thsi is not the same but it is the closest we have, and extrapolating from it does not suggest that the writers have treated the alliance possibility unrealistically.

And I can't see that they have treated it one sidedly either - after all the leader of the Mutiny is one of the most Noble Characters we know, the Civilian leader of it is someone we have formed a complex relationship with, and whom we seen best the best and worst of. Racetrack is not someone who we have been taught to see as a villainess, nor Kelly, and Even Narchos is someone who is basically a good officer for whom the allaince is simply a step too far. I was prompted to re-watch the mutiny arc by your post, and come away thinking that they really did cover both sides, and they have been from the start. The Conflict between Adama and Gaeta has many elements of the conflict between Roslin and Adama in the mini, Adama vs Cain in the Pegasus arc and he tensions between those who were and were not on New Caprica after the second exodus.

What I will agree with is that the Rebel Cylons need to, and the Humans demand of them, that they acknowledge what they have done to humanity and their part in it, other wise the Alliance will find it hard to become a reconciliation. But here again our own world is full analogies on both sides of that question - e.g Germany and Japan have very different relationships to their wartime pasts.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I don't see why you keep bringing up real-world examples since by your admission there is no meaningful analogue to the scenario posited by the show - most particularly the universal guilt shared by all Cylons for the genocide. My examples were meant to illustrate that even in situations much less extreme than the one posited on the show the idea of granting citizenship to people who have dedicated themselves to destroying your nation is something that most people would find abhorrent.

I've written already about why I feel that the handling of this dilemma was simplistic, and in the comments to his essay Hal Duncan has gone into this question in much greater length, but just to briefly recap: the fact that the mutineers ultimately commit many evil acts, and the fact that in the wake of their defeat the Cylon alliance has gone off without a hitch and with almost no indication of resentment or ambivalence from the human characters, seems pretty damn one-sided to me.

I do agree that it would be good to see the Cylons issue some public apology for their actions, but in order for that to happen they first have to figure out that they did something wrong.

Anonymous said...

I'm so sorry the stupid writers ruined your show. You shouldn't have hired them. If Perfection had you as a role model, the world would be such a better place. Could you show me where your burning bush is?

Anonymous said...

Wow. Could you please destroy the Beatles' White Album next?

genwolf said...

Re:
My examples were meant to illustrate that even in situations much less extreme than the one posited on the show the idea of granting citizenship to people who have dedicated themselves to destroying your nation is something that most people would find abhorrent.

Well I could just say Werner Von Braun to that. I could also say that in both the mutiny and in the aftermath - where Baltar gets the Guns, and Lee is the one pushing for Baltar to be heard, I think it is obvious that the writers are really going to great lengths to show that Humans are not simply down with the Cylon alliance, and people are not simply insouciantly saying bygones about the Cylons or the alliance - there has not been an episode since the Alliance began that has not explored it's fragility and the suspiscion and mistrust surrounding it - even at the level of the people most responsible for driving it - namely Adama and Roslin. It caused a mutiny.

At the same time the situation is that without the Alliance humanity may well be finished - totally, and the Alliance is after all against the main Cylon force.

These are the reasons why I just find the criticism that the writers are just glossing over the Cylon's crimes and what Human's would rightfully feel about them an unjustified one.

Cat said...

A few thoughts:
I see the disparity of the comparison between 3000 murdered and 50 billion, obviously, but I think the comment the writers are making is that the same decisions have to be made, with the same goal: survival, and being worthy of survival. They’re asking the question “how do we move on?” without using a supposedly fictional story to openly proselytize. If the show’s scenario were more like 9/11, it would simply be offensively fictionalized political commentary, rather than the philosophical fiction that it is.
Just or not, rage serves little purpose in the immediate and pressing need for survival. These people really haven’t had the time to pull to the berm for a crying jag, given that they’ve been assaulted by wave after wave of crisis.
Furthermore, you cite the “constant” recalling of 9-11, but dismiss that when examining the handling of grief. We live in a world where our emotions have been honed post-disaster for purposes of advancing military agendas we likely would not have bought into otherwise. For the show to dwell on the emotional impact would have been manipulatively maudlin and a pretty nauseating echo of recent events.
The show seems to me to posit that while pain and anger are a natural reaction to loss, the choice to reside in those emotions is deadly. Dwelling on loss does nothing to fill the void, and eventually it poisons those who wallow in it until they become an attacker, thereby restarting the cycle. That’s been kind of a major theme in this show. The writers are asking what other options might be available. It’s a message we need, couched in a fresh setting – that’s one of the higher aims of fiction.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Genwolf:

We seem to be going around in circles. You've yet to come up with a single example from human history in which person A is directly responsible for a successful genocide against nation B, and the ragged remnants of nation B, within a few short years of that genocide and while still suffering heavily in its aftermath, agree to grant person A citizenship and a leadership role.

As for aftermath from the mutiny in the show, I've already spoken about why I consider it insufficient, and I'll note that Baltar getting weapons for his people being part of the aftermath of the mutiny is a) unrelated to the Cylons and b) something we only hear about in the episode podcast, and I refuse to give the writers credit for a plot point they were either incapable or unwilling to bring up in the actual show. When you've got Cylons sticking up pictures of their dead in Galactica's memorial room alongside the pictures of their victims and Roslin and Adama treating this as, at worst, an odd thing, I really don't think it can be said that the show is taking the enormity of the Cylons' crimes into consideration.

Cat:

I see the disparity of the comparison between 3000 murdered and 50 billion, obviously, but I think the comment the writers are making is that the same decisions have to be made, with the same goal: survival, and being worthy of survival.

I'm sorry, but that's simply not true. Was the survival of the vast majority of Americans threatened in the wake of 9/11? Did their lives change significantly? Was there genuinely a choice before them between survival and their civil liberties, or did cynical politicians prey on their fears in order to convince them that this was the case?

I agree that in the grand scheme of things the only way to move forward is to let go of rage, but for some reason the show's writers aren't interested in depicting how difficult and how painful that is. Instead they delegitimize the rage of the oppressed, and sweep the unapologetic oppressors' actions under the rug in order to make it easier to say that, well, that's all in the past and now we all have to get along. It's lazy writing, and thus hardly my idea of an important or much-needed message.

genwolf said...

I don't think we are going in circles so much as you are moving the goalposts. You started off your original argument using examples with what you saw as having some small analogy with the situation on BSG, but supporting your case that the people on BSG would just not behave thsi way to their tormenters. When it is pointed out that in fact there are plenty of historical examples showing that people do often behave in highly conradictory manners towards even people guilty of trying to destroy them, ranging from post second world war relations, to Modern day Rwanda, or even post surge Iraq the historical analogy restrictions become incredibly tight. Now it's become formulated as :

"You've yet to come up with a single example from human history in which person A is directly responsible for a successful genocide against nation B, and the ragged remnants of nation B, within a few short years of that genocide and while still suffering heavily in its aftermath, agree to grant person A citizenship and a leadership role."

Well the whole history of indigenous peoples in the Americas or the Antipodes frequently takes a path very like that does it not? Yes there is resistance, but there is also attempts to accomodate or assimilate, and sometimes people just bend to superior force. Indian tribes - who only a few years before were being decimated or pushed off their land by whites, would, as soon as the whites started fighting between each other, try and align themselves with the winning side.

"and I'll note that Baltar getting weapons for his people being part of the aftermath of the mutiny is a) unrelated to the Cylons"

Your joking aren't you? Baltar gives that whole speech to Adama about this being the last Human solution, the Cylon goo, the possibility of Centurions being tasked to keep order in Dogsville and it has nothing to do with Cylons? Now granted Baltars own motivations are as ever, murky, but the reason why he is given the guns has everything to do with the Cylons. Between the three choices facing Adama, arming the sons of Ares (whom we already know contains a number of people who were in the Mutiny), Arming Baltar and bringing in Centurions to police Dogsville arming Baltar is the most rational. And that has everything to do with both the mutiny and the Cylon's.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I'm sorry, but it really does feel as if you haven't read the original post very closely. Let me take you through it again:

1. I start by giving two examples of hypothetical scenarios that, in my belief, most people would find repugnant and unacceptable - at least at first.

2. Then I say Neither of these scenarios even approach the awfulness of the proposition that sparks the recently concluded mutiny arc on Battlestar Galactica and go on to discuss just how far off the scale this proposition is compared to anything in human history.

3. Then I say To be fair, another difference between the situation on Battlestar Galactica and the two hypothetical scenarios I suggested is that the Colonial government needs the Cylons a great deal more than the US needs Al Qaeda defectors or Israel needs SS informants. There are compelling practical reasons to agree to an alliance with the Cylons, however risible their demand for citizenship and express the opinion that a story that dealt intelligently with such a choice would make for fascinating TV.

4. Then I discuss the ways in which the BSG mutiny arc fails to be such a story.

5. Then I go on to talk more generally about the show and its failings, which we don't need to get into.

What you keep doing is coming up with examples from human history in which people from opposite sides of a war learn to live side by side and even cooperate. Which is irrelevant, due to points 2 and 3. The impression I get from your comments is that you think the argument of my essay is expressed in points 3, 2, or even 1, whereas in actuality these are merely the foundation for the actual argument, which is in points 4 and 5.

S Johnson said...

BattleStar Galactica has equated 9/11 with genocide from the beginning. It is not a "mistake," but the reason for its existence. The show is about the War on Terror, starting with the same premises as Bush and Company: They are religious maniacs who are determined to kill us all because they hate us for no reason and pose a huge threat because they have awesome powers of subversion.
And they aren't really human.

In this context, the mutiny arc stands as the conflict between the bitter determination to wage unremitting war to the annihilation of the enemy peoples versus the nuanced determination to divide the enemy and wage war to victory, which might possibly be something less than the extermination of an entire race.

The arc, like the show, is entirely unsatsifactory because the premises are phony and because the alleged conflict is an intramural dispute in the pro-War on Terror camp.

Since the show is also pretty badly written, sexiness being the only thing done notably well, plainly the only interest anyone has ever had in BSG is its basic premises. The equation 9/11=genocide works because the Christian Zionist mindset is exactly that apocalyptic. That this articulates vile bigotry is not regarded as a drawback. The show clicks with a certain kind of person precisely because it articulates its premises.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

You know, there's not much that'll get me to defend the BSG writers on ideological grounds, but this might do the trick.

the Christian Zionist mindset is exactly that apocalyptic

I don't know what I find more offensive - the idea that Zionism is inherently apocalyptic, or that it is inherently Christian. You do realize that I'm an Israeli Jew, right?

S Johnson said...

What is your point? Your English is excellent and I'm sure you grasp the way "Christian" modifies Zionism.

Maybe you're not aware of how enormous the apocalyptic literature (both "nonfiction" and fiction,) and film has become, but it's hard to believe you don't even know it exists.

Maybe you're not familiar with theological scenarios, but it isn't easy to believe that you don't know some Christians militantly support the state of Israel as God's plan fulfilled.

I'm afraid I think you know perfectly well there is such a thing as Christian Zionism and it is indeed apocalyptic. I think you really were offended at the thought BSG has always relied on an implicit appeal to bigotry.

Although I don't think you're interested in debate, I will tell you what an Israeli Jew might not realize: That the Christian Zionists who would happily nuke the Arabs don't like Jews. The children of the local churches have been made too many antiSemitic outbursts for me to have any illusions on that score. The fifteen year old boy who made a monster mask of Jews "like they are inside" was getting his ideas from people who would claim to be your friends.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I think you understand very little about Zionism if you think that the current evangelical fervor for Israel has anything to do with it.

And I think you understand very little about human nature if you think that barging into another person's blog with offensive comments, then compounding your offense when called on them, will lead to debate.

bEnder said...

And Pow! Abigail knocks a moron out of the park!

halojones-fan said...

Late to the party.

But...

*I'd actually write your first examples a bit differently. It's as if it were late 1945, and the Americans had simply blockaded Japan instead of occupying it after nuking it--and then a group of Americans had landed on the Japanese shore saying "we hate America, please let us live among you".

*"It's a show told from the perspective of the conquered, but its writers are thinking like conquerors."

Good point!

And, y'know, in all the RaceFail imbroglio, I don't think I ever saw anyone describe the notion of "writing from a priviledged position" so neatly. The issue isn't that the Cylons are Americans, or that the Colonials are Americans--it's the everyone in the show is an American. The Cylons are the Americans as conqueror superpower; the Colonials are the Americans post-9/11, scrappy survivors bent on revenge even at the cost of their own principles. Moore's BSG is an apologia for the first at the same time as it's an excoriation of the second.

It's interesting that you point out how this isn't really a post-apocalyptic show; and, come to think of it, that's true in a lot of ways. It's significant that, despite the repeated tally of survivors, the "lifeboat" nature of the fleet never really comes into play; there's always someone we haven't met, always some ship we haven't seen, always a new location to go to.

Anonymous said...

Dear Abigail,

This is a response to comments both about BSG, Stargate and tv reviews in general. Something I find as part of the audience, is that a critical review of a creative piece doesn't have to inform the reasons I personally enjoy it. I've really enjoyed Star Trek Voyager, for example, even though many reviews (for those that even considered it worth reviewing), found it creatively and innovatively stagnant: Rick Berman was actually quoted as saying he was trying to create a show with charming characters that the audience would want to come back to week after week. Now I watch it to lift my spirits at times, and because I love the idea of a virtuous crew that explores the nature of what it is to be a self-aware, feeling being. Do I think Voyager represented cutting edge tv, was fresh, deeply nuanced, clever and surprising? Cutting edge it was not. Emotionally fulfilling for me personally, yes.

Now,BSG I had a hard time accepting and watched it mainly to understand the critical acclaim. I find it ironic that you mention BSG did not explore its premise, the emotional fallout from the Colonial holocaust, when I remember Ron Moore saying something to the effect that Voyager did not explore its premise of fighting for survival, and that BSG existed partly to explore that premise.

There were aspects of BSG that I loved personally, the bond between Lee and his father, the friendship of Adama and Tigh, the tenderness between Adama and Roslin. However, I found it hard to accept that the Colonial defenses could be so widely corrupted, after all the Cylons had not been heard from for 40 years, and that's an ominous sign if there was one. But, hey this is a tv show, a fictional work, so Ron Moore & co. have a creative license.

The cylons are also imitating humanity, their children, so does that not include a moral conscience, empathy? They must have realized that magnitude of the murder and suffering they were perpetrating. Then again, they had an army of obedient robot soldiers, so it's not like all the Cylons had free will or control to begin with.

My motive for writing was your response to another poster:

"I agree that in the grand scheme of things the only way to move forward is to let go of rage, but for some reason the show's writers aren't interested in depicting how difficult and how painful that is."

I sense you have strong feelings about this, and how BSG depicted the effects of the holocaust, and for my part, I do remember thinking in the original Miniseries, how deeply Adama wanted revenge and Roslin talked him out of it, and how visciously Adama took his anger out after Leoben revealed he was a Cylon and threatened Adama. Later, one of the best installments for me, was where the Pegasus arrives (hope!), only to have Admiral Cain bent on revenge, willing to sink to the level of brutal torture and rape, really an "eye for an eye" that someone said would make the whole world blind.

The hardest part for me to accept Ron Moore's BSG and his earlier Star Trek DS9, was the sense I got (and the writers acknowledged) to put characters in sticky, moral situations and have them deal with the consquences of their mistakes, and emotions at doing harm. A classic example is DS9's "In the Pale Moonlight".

So do I respect and value your critical opinions? I hope I show that. Do I value Ron Moore's or the producers of other sci fi shows to have creative license, and produce what they want? Absolutely. Does that mean that I will value critical commentary or creative works they way they were intended? I can definitely value them for different, personal reasons. That's the eye of the beholder,:).

Dean Gross
British Columbia, Canada

Maggie said...

I'm rewatching the show right now, though I just started season 4 and can't really remember what happened. I think you're right that a moral evaluation of the cyclons is sufficient to make giving them citizenship repugnant, especially if once we learn that they make decisions by consensus. It's that last fact especially that makes collective responsibility more than a mere prejudice.
I think there are some wonderful aspects to the show-especially the individual actors and the haunting notion that there is an eternal recurrence to events (something I want to write about). But the practical elements of the fleets, the details of HOW cyclons are different from humans, and the reaction to genocide-all are underdone and inconsistent, as you say.

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