The Sci-Fi Channel’s Battlestar Galactica is 15 years old this year, and it’s still making news. A new film from Universal is in the works, a podcast about the show is underway, and a retrospective is on bookstore shelves.
One of the secrets of Battlestar Galactica’s success is the moral complexity shown both by its characters and by the show’s treatment of them.
It opens with a miniseries depicting a history-ending genocide: all 12 planets that house the human species are destroyed in a single day. Released in December 2003, viewers cannot help but see the attack as a parallel to the 9/11 attacks in 2001.
In many ways, Battlestar Galactica seems a product of Bush-era liberalism. It takes pains to point out that although a nation must defend itself, being attacked is not license to disregard morality. During its run from 2004-2009, the show directly addressed many of the time’s hot button issues in American politics — the morality and efficacy of torture, the sometimes blurry distinctions between ‘freedom fighters’ and terrorists, and the balance between liberty and security.
The show’s moral complexity puts it on an almost Shakespearean level. At times, the characters refuse to compromise their values even in the face of extinction. (Due process for genocidal robots?!) At other times, they do horrific things, sacrificing even a thousand people for the good of the many. A single character may support the rule of law over all else in one situation, but help rig an election in another.
These complex behaviors are part of what makes the characters feel so real. Very few of us behave with total ethical consistency through out lives. (You’re likely reading this on an LCD screen, the production of which is riddled with serious ethical problems.) We muddle through the best we can, making decisions in the moment, often disagreeing with our friends and even ourselves. That’s an essential part of the human experience.
In a pivotal Season 3 episode, a character is placed on trial for actions taken. The character’s defense attorney gives a Pauline speech about how everyone on board has sinned — the very nature of their continued existence implicates them.
If to err is human, what does that mean for a race of robots who can err? The shows’s dramatic unveiling of the cylons seems to come in answer to this question.
The American political landscape is radically different in 2018 than it was in 2003-2009, but Battlestar Galactica’s moral quandaries are still critically relevant in the Trump Era. When do we fight to preserve our institutions, and when do we bypass them? When do we reason with our enemies, and when do we battle them? What imperfections are we willing to overlook in our leaders, and when do we draw a line?
People disagree about the answers to all these questions. Battlestar Galactica invites us to see the humanity in all of them.
Battlestar Galactica is available for streaming on Hulu.
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