Monday, June 05, 2006

human depravity in Battlestar Galactica

So, thanks to the incomparable Flett family, my anxious days of waiting for Baby Clare have been ameliorated by the generous lending of seasons 1 and 2 of Battlestar Galactica. Now that Mom's here, I have someone to watch them with (Brent steadfastly refuses and refers to the series as "Battlebutt Gargantua," which I am sure is on some level an unconscious commentary on my expanded anatomy. I certainly feel like a Battlebutt Gargantua at this point, anyway.) I have now watched these DVDs three times through, starting on round 4, and it's time for a little dissertation-related musing on the theological theme of human depravity in this posthuman tale which struggles directly, on many levels, with the question of what is human/posthuman.

For those of you that don't watch, all you need to know is that the basic premise is as follows. Human beings created the Cylons, mechanical robot-types, to aid in the colonization of new planets. These human-made creatures then (with no explanation yet forthcoming by the way) "rebelled" against humanity and thus began the first human-Cylon war. The humans apparently "won" this war, or at least, the Cylons bugged off and left humanity alone for 40 years, during which time human civilization on the Twelve Colonies started to revert back to its techo-dependent ways. As the first episode (the mini-series) opens, the Battlestar Galactica is a military relic about to be decomissioned, and the Commander of the Battlestar (Commander Adama) is himself a relic with old-fashioned fears of the consequences of networking computers. But, of course, his old-fashioned paranoia is vindicated when the Cylons reappear without warning and nuke all twelve Colonial planets, as well as the entire military fleet, save for the obsolete Galactica. Adama then becomes the de facto leader of the remnants of humanity--those survivors who were in transit off-planet during the nuclear attacks that killed everyone else.

So that's the premise. What is terribly interesting is that as the story develops, there is constant commentary on human nature. During a grand tale of somewhat epic proportion about the gutsiness of humanity, its determination, will to survive, capacity for sacrifice and courage, and inexplicable optimism in the face of overwhelming odds, there is also a consistent message that humanity is inherently flawed: shortsighted and violent, selfish and ruthless. There is even the sense that this doomed fate, as the result of ignorance and a failure of moral responsibility, is deserved even as they try valiantly to escape it.

Quite often this commentary on human nature is directly voiced in the dialogue. At the end of the original miniseries, a group of Cylons convenes to discuss the escape of the Galactica and the fleet of civilian refugee ships it protects. The humans have temporarily placed themselves beyond the Cylons' reach, and the question is, can the Cylons afford to let them go? The answer is a decisive "no," and the reason is very simple. If the Cylons are merciful and allow the humans to escape, they predict that the humans will return to exact revenge, because "it is their nature." The irony, of course, is that this is exactly what the Cylons themselves have done: but this goes unremarked, and apparently unnoticed by the Cylons themselves.
Also intriguing is that one of the major Cylon characters, "Number Six," refers to the Cylons as "the children of humanity" in a conversation with another Cylon. They discuss the concept of a debt owed to their parentage and the conclude that parents must be supplanted by their children, in fact, die, so that the children can "come into their own." But the condemnation often voiced by Cylon characters of the inherent depravity in human nature is never considered by them as a possible heritage from their human "parents."

Intensifying this commentary is the religious contrast quite deliberately drawn between the (ostensibly) polytheistic/atheistic humans and the strictly religious monotheistic Cylons. Not only are the Cylons physically and technologically superior to humanity; they consider themselves religiously superior as well. The sense of self-righteousness that runs blatantly through all Cylon God-talk serves to further obscure the obvious question of the parallel depravity of Cylon-nature as the Cylons consistently condemn human nature.

There's much more to this series--a lot of other questions and issues of a posthuman nature are raised. But this particular theme runs quite strongly throughout the whole series, and is central to the plot. The unanswered question of why the Cylons rebelled in the first place has a shadowy hint of an answer in their constant condemnation of human nature. The desperate decisions forced on Commander Adama and the fleet--who do we save? who do we abandon? when do we give up?--illustrate the kind of ethical quandary that best exhibits the ambivalence of human nature. Whether the Cylons are correct in their assessment of human nature or not remains an open question, and I think, perhaps the determining question concerning the direction of the continuing story.

12 comments:

Tracy said...

Today (tonight!) is it! I just know it!!! Come on you 9 lb little girl!

RM said...

I have to tell Tom to read this post, as you are reviewing on of his favorite series :)

I hope Clare makes an appearance soon!

JTB said...

I would like to post a retraction as my tendency toward rhetorical excess led me to mischaracterize Brent's habit of referring to "Battlebutt Gargantua." It really isn't in any way a reference to my ass, and if it were I would be much too mortified to post it on my blog! So, dear readers, rest assured that Brent finds my ass as attractive as ever.

D.J. said...

My husband loves that show too, and I haven't been able to understand why. I enjoyed reading your synopsis of the premise (something he has not attempted). Perhaps next time he wants to watch it, I'll watch it with him.

Hope little Clare comes soon. My baby is due in 2 weeks, and I'm already counting down the days. I don't want her to be late - a little early or right on time would be perfect!

thelonebarista said...

Jennifer,

Hi! I found your blog awhile back but have only "lurked" until now. I definitely think your musing on Battlestar Galactica seems to be a unique form of theological student "nesting" which means baby Clare is coming soon :-) Hang in there! -jess hb

Chad said...

JTB, I haven't had a chance to check out this new series, but now it's on my netflix list. I loved the old one, which I know makes a relic too. :-) Your post made me remember Sartre's dictum that humans are condemned to be free.

Mark Wiebe said...

I am with you on Battlestar Gallactica. Jocelyn and I discovered it over here when we ran out of other shows to watch. It was one of the first few shows available on I-Tunes. And we're so glad it was there. We love the complexity of the characters, especially Dr. Baltazar. He's the last one you want to identify with and yet so many times, the first one you have to acknowledge a resemblance to.

TKP said...

Where the hell is Clare??? I lost my June 4th wager. Glad Brent still loves your ass.

R-Liz said...

C'mon June 7th! Are the rules of baby predictions like The Price is Right? Is it the one who was closest, but who didn't go over?

Kevin Wells said...

I got here through the devil baby post on GKB.

Battlestar Galactica is great. And once you get over the annoying use of the euphemism there are some important ideas. Is humanity worth saving? I also like how they are polytheists. I thought the priest in the suicide episode was a real jerk so I'm glad he ended up being a cyclon.

Hoping that you have no time to read these substantive thoughts because Clare is on her way.

ksw

JTB said...

KW--priest in the suicide episode? I've only got the DVDs and don't have the sci fi channel so, don't give anything away...although I confess I've viewed the little clips of the downloadable episodes, so I do know hints of what happens in season 2.5 or whatever...but I have to wait for the DVDs to come out before I can see all of them. Or take up the Flett's offer to camp out in front of their computer and watch them. But that might mean going into labor in John's office at this point, so it's probably more polite to decline...

RM--you mean Tom isn't a devoted daily reader??? I'm crushed.

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