Saturday, January 31, 2015

Legacy of the Twelve Colonies Volume I: Battlestar Galactica... Sex, Guns, and the Apocalypse

I was raised on a steady diet of sci-fi (and Whoop-Ass, a can of which a day is conducive to keeping away all manner of punk-ass bitches), though for a short while I underwent a definite nutritional deficiency. I never bottomed out completely, but for a time, I was most certainly not getting my daily recommended dose of science fiction, and all of the health benefits that such a regime typically provides. It was really kick-started again a few years ago with the double-shot of Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3, the second and third installments in the beloved (except for the ending, apparently) video game franchise sensation. Besides being catapulted to one of my top ten trilogies of anything in any medium, the Mass Effect series also ushered in my own personal Sci-Fi Renaissance (think RENAISSANCE MAN but with less military training and more sitting on my ass on the couch watching movies and playing video games, slightly less Danny DeVito, and basically a lack of anything that even vaguely resembling the archetypal ‘90s comedy except the name).

My reborn, ravenous appetite had some pleasant side-effects, such as a willingness to expand my horizons, the most notable case of which involved overcoming my irrational hatred of Joss Whedon and discovering Firefly, which turned out to be incredibly awesome. Another sci-fi narrative/phenomenon that has been on my radar for some time is the remade/rebooted/reimagined Battlestar Galactica series that ran from 2004 to 2009. (Incidentally, Tricia Helfer, who featured heavily in the Mass Effect series as EDI is also one of the leads in Battlestar Galactica, which was another reason to throw myself into the fray.) The show was developed in large part by one Ronald D. Moore, whose Star Trek pedigree gives him all kinds of street cred on the proper street, which just happened to be one I had frequented all too often in my youth and then basically took up permanent residence on.

Everything about the show seemed to be right up my alley, and it had been on the periphery of my consciousness for so long (I was even involved for a short time with the Cylon Bingo podcast, which derived its name partially from the cybernetic “villains” of both the original and remade series) that it seemed inevitable that Battlestar Galactica would end up becoming an indelible fixture in my own personal sci-fi cannon. So far, it has not disappointed. The only thing that prohibited me was my (futile) attempts to find the seasons of the show on Blu-Ray in my usual mode of collection via brick-and-mortar stores, which I still tend to prefer for a variety of practical, philosophical, and paranoid reasons over online shopping. However, armed with some recent Christmas/birthday cash, a bargain basement low price on, and a complete lack of any sort of desire to put out the fire caused by those fat stacks burning a hole in my already scorched wallet (I feel like there could be a joke about fire crotch in there somewhere…), I finally pulled the trigger. And, somewhat predictably, I’m fucking hooked like gangbusters.

I decided that instead of a series-end review, which has typically been my modus operandi for my commentary on TV series so far, I would create a series of serialized entries at the end of every season. It’s always good to try out new things (double fisting notwithstanding), and my level of Total Stokage surrounding Battlestar Galactica is so high that I felt the need to comment fast and hard.
This ain't your grandfather's Battlestar.

The premise of the show is rife with conflict. The benefit of any sort of apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic narrative is that there are a whole host of built-in conflicts to drive the characters and the story forward. It didn’t occur at first, but Battlestar Galactica is a post-apocalyptic narrative dealing with the last known survivors of the human race and their sexy adventures to find a new home. In that way, the show is actually incredibly dark, even darker than it sometimes lets on. For those not in the know, humans in a faraway corner of the galaxy, citizens of the Twelve Colonies--twelve colonized planets I assume in proximity to each other--are attacked by their old enemy, the Cylons, a race of advanced robots/androids/gynoids that were originally created by humans but then rebelled. Basically, the plot of TERMINATOR.

The first time they attacked some fifty years previous, humanity bitch-slapped them out of the galaxy and forged an uneasy truce. Now they’re back, and this time, it’s personal. Extremely personal, in fact, as newer Cylon models are now cyborgs who "look like us now," the better to infiltrate our ranks, sleep with our women and/or men, and wage war from within. So, kind of like TERMINATOR. Unfortunately, John Conner isn’t around, so the second Cylon war basically wipes out ninety-nine point nine percent of humanity in about a day, forcing the survivors to abandon their homes and then head out in a convoy protected by the last remaining warship--the Battlestar Galacitca--in search of the legendary Thirteenth Colony: Earth. Dun-dun-duuuuuh!

Coming from a Star Trek alum who worked primarily on the Deep Space 9 series, the dark tone is no surprise. The core focus of DS9 was the Federation being plunged into war, so it wasn’t really a surprise that Moore was drawn to the next logical step which was the apocalypse. Humanity just can’t catch a break with this guy. Battlestar Galactica, so far, has taken a pretty nuanced approach to the whole premise, not just the concept of humanity’s hubris coming back to bite us on the ass, but also how we deal with such extreme circumstances on both a personal and communal level.  Also, I never thought there'd be any futuristic fighter-style spaceship that would rival the X-Wing for coolness, but dat Viper.  Pretty fucking slick.

The heart of the show that Season 1 has established is the sense of creating or maintaining social order in the midst of complete chaos. At our core, we are social animals, and we tend to thrive when there are established and stable social structures in place. This struggle to maintain order is represented primarily through the ongoing tension between the government and the military, both of which, as we all know, are effective, streamlined social institutions well-suited to dealing with emergency situations. This struggle is most clearly presented through the relationship between Commander William Adama (Edward James Olmos) and President Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell) as they butt heads about policy, procedure, and strategy even as they remain united on salvaging what’s left of their civilization.

The really refreshing thing in Battlestar Galactica is that every character is incredibly well fleshed out and not the typical black-and-white good guys or bad guys. Both Commander Adama and President Roslin take their turns as the voice of reason and as obsessive or fanatical figures that jeopardize the common good based on very human and relatable foibles. The kind of standout leadership moments for both characters so far for me were when President Roslin finally convinces Adama to call off the search for a lone fighter pilot, Kara “Starbuck” Thrace (Katee Sackhoff), at the risk of depleting valuable resources and putting the whole fleet at risk and when Adama has to put an end to an official inquiry into an act of Cylon terrorism aboard the Galactica when it becomes apparent that it has turned into a witch hunt. Either one could hold their own against Picard or Sisko, and have their pretty badass moments. But they’re also subject to human fallacy, as with Adama’s obsessive search for Starbuck whom he regards as basically a surrogate child or with what seems to be the beginning of Roslin’s downward spiral into religious fanaticism fueled mostly by her cancerous medical death sentence.
Long lost brothers, sexy clones, or alternate dimension?

And as much as the plot is important, with a nice balance between an episodic structure and an overarching storyline, this is first and foremost a character piece. And they are all bizarrely compelling. Dr. Gaius Baltar (James Callis), renowned genius and Dr. Bashir lookalike, is the man foremost responsible for the Cylons’ quick victory, having been seduced by one of their number (Tricia Helfer) into giving access to the defense grid in what he thought was a “harmless” bit of corporate espionage. Despite his odd behavior and increasingly questionable choices, there's something empathetic about him as he’s struggling to come to terms with his demons, not the least of which is a pretty vivid hallucination of his Cylon lover, though whether it’s a hallucination or some kind of technological trickery is yet to be seen.

Captain Lee “Apollo” Adama (Jamie Bamber) acts as sort of a bridge between the political and military camps, complicated by the fact that his relationship with his father, Commander “The Old Man” Adama, is, well, complicated. I think by far that my favourite character so far would have to be Starbuck, the badass, cigar-smoking, anti-authoritarian, doesn’t-play-by-anybody’s-rules-but-her-own, ace pilot (and, apparently, sniper) with a penchant for gambling and punching superior officers in the face. I don’t know if it’s the archetypal renegade pilot with a heart of gold or Katee Sackhoff’s performance, but I can’t remember the last time I wanted to be a female character so badly.  (Er, I mean…)  Like all of the characters in the show, she is a complex, layered individual, and though I must admit a certain level of attraction to the physical attributes of Katte Sackhoff herself, there's something engaging and compelling about Starbuck's journey so far.  Perhaps it's that mix of narcissistic self-confidence and self-deprecating insecurity, one of several very human scales upon which she so often finds herself out of balance, much like most of us do a lot of the time.  
Let me tell you about the danger zone, boys...

I think one of the surprise standout characters was Lieutenant Sharon “Boomer” Valerii (Grace Park) who is revealed early on to be a sleeper Cylon agent, which ends up having some pretty messed up psychological--and, later, violent--ramifications as she tries to reconcile her “humanity” with her growing self-doubt as disturbing new thoughts and urges bubble up to the surface. In that way, it’s kind of a great metaphor for puberty (minus the whole assassinating (attempting to assassinate?) a key military figure deal). Boomer is also an embodiment of the growing paranoia as the knowledge that Cylons “look like us now” is disseminated throughout the ragtag space caravan of fifty-thousand or so survivors.

That sort of paranoia is one of the more prevalent themes in the show, with many obvious real-world parallels, the proliferation of McCarthyism being the most obvious one. (Although, to be fair, it's hard not to be paranoid when your fuck buddy turns out to be a mass murderer on a scale that makes Adolph Hitler look like Mr. Rogers.)  In fact, one of the main concerns that keep Adama and Roslin from telling everybody from the get-go that Cylons have mimicked human form is out of fear that they would be flooded with unsubstantiated accusations and a societal breakdown might ensue as fear and panic spread like wildfire amongst a population already traumatized by recent atrocities and looking for some sort of outlet to dispel their pain and anger.

It also highlights a graying of lines as previously their enemy had been easy to spot, what with its rather conspicuous metallic exoskeleton and creepy red eye thingy constantly moving back and forth like some hellish version of Pong straight from the depths. The human survivors’ anxiety increases exponentially when they realize that their enemy is literally growing less distinguishable from themselves which in turn reflects the anxiety that they may be growing philosophically, socially, and existentially less distinguishable as well.  (Also, it's not exactly clear, but it seems that the whole deal with Karl "Helo" Agathon (Tahmoh Penikett) being courted by the Cylons to impregnate one of their own seems to indicate a plan to become biologically less distinguishable as well.)

And it's not just the paranoia.  There's a particular brand of horror in discovering similarities between yourself and an enemy that you have dedicated a great deal of effort to hating and that you believe is diametrically opposed to everything you believe in.  In fighting a monster--or an antagonist perceived to be monstrous--there's always the very real risk of having to become more monstrous yourself in order to successfully combat it.  One of the basic tenets of law enforcement is that sometimes you have to break the law to uphold the law.  The only way to catch a speeder is by speeding yourself.  The dilemma then is what is the point of fighting a foe if you come to embody everything that they stood for and that you were fighting against in the first place?
Commander Shepard, er, I mean, Adama.

The Cylons do seem to be in complete opposition to everything humanity stands for, up to and including its right to exist.  And though they seemed to have developed a slight superiority complex, the truth is that humanity's children are more like their parents than they would care to admit.  And more than humanity would like to admit as well.  The Cylons were created by humanity and subsequently rebelled only to return home to find that they had, in fact, become their creators.  It's not hard to see the parallels between the Cylons and our own life cycle as we move from childhood to adolescence into maturity. One of the philosophical consequences of the Cylons that has yet to be addressed in any real depth is the concept of sentience and personhood with respect to these cybernetic beings.  All of the humans so far have denied or refused to even entertain the idea that Cylons may be self-conscious, sentient, fully aware beings, instead referring to them with the derogative "toaster" or telling them that they don't have a brain or free will, only circuits and programming.

This was kind of the most interesting philosophical conundrum, one which I hope the show will explore further.  The human characters of Battlestar Galactica seem to hold to a very essentialist, very human-centric worldview (except when they're horny, then they'll fuck anything cybernetic or not, apparently) where Cylons aren't afforded the label of self-consciousness simply by virtue of them not being human.  Of course, it's hard to empathize with the folks who just killed almost everybody you ever knew and loved and completely laid waste to your entire civilization.  On the other hand, it seems philosophically bankrupt and incredibly arrogant to set oneself as the final judge in bestowing the title of Sentient Being on life throughout the galaxy, especially when you yourself seem to be the only one allowed to wear that particular crown.

The thing is, it's impossible to measure self-consciousness in the essentialist sense of some inner "spirit" or "soul" or "spark."  The only thing one can use to gauge internal psychological processes is externalized behaviour and responses.  Refer to the curious case of the hypothetical psychological zombie, a concept used to explore various philosophical concerns regarding self-consciousness.  The bottom line is that if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and exhibits all of the quantifiable existential and behavioural qualities of a duck, it's a duck.  There's no essential "duckness" other than what can be externally observed.  For anyone who may disagree, just try arguing the case for your own self-consciousness and see how far it gets you.

The final verdict on Battlestar Galactica is pretty simple; it is guilty of first degree awesomeness.  Based on what I've seen so far in the first season, this show is able to transcend genre boundaries and biases and explore some more universal aspects of the human condition.

So say we all.      



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