Out of Focus: Thoughts on Battlestar Galactica's Mutiny Arc
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. 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 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. 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. 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 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, 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.
 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.
 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?
 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.
 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.
 Don't talk to me about "Hero." Even the writers are trying to pretend that episode never happened.
 For one thing, it would require actually constructing a Colonial culture, as opposed to pretending that the Colonies were 21st century America with spaceships.