Battlestar Galactica: philosophical, social, ethical and political themes



I was a big fan of the new “reimagining” of Battlestar Galactica, a sci-fi series that ended its four-year stint on television just a few years ago (but which, thankfully, continues to exist through DVD).

Although not a natural science fiction fanatic myself (I could never get into any of the Star Trek series, for example), I’ve enjoyed the complex, layered storytelling of the world of humans living under constant seige by their progeny, called Cylons, who have been able to create humanlike versions of themselves. The entire human population of about 50,000, spread across about 50 ships, continue to grapple with everyday human quandaries along with the constant pressure of evading Cylon attacks, buoyed by the hope of reaching the mythical planet of Earth, where the lost “thirteenth colony” of humanity is rumored to live.

How BSG’s humans cope with the existential threat posed by the Cylons, who seek to destroy them as inferior progenitors in the course of natural evolution, echoes in some ways the way the West does the same vis a vis the threat posed by fundamentalist Islam (although, naturally, the threat is not nearly as dire nor as foreign). The philosophical, social, political and ethical decisions that the humans’ struggles force them to make mirror those that have continued to shape our societies in the face of the forces that threaten to erode them.

Philosophical issues: The predominant philosophical theme that runs through the series is what constitutes a sentient being, and if Cylons qualify. What exactly makes us human? Is it our physical appearance and bodily makeup, our minds and our capacity to think, is it our feelings and capacity to love, or is it something less tangible, our values and character, or a soul or spirit? For the first two or three criteria, the humanoid Cylons clearly qualify (“Boomer” shows a capacity to love that often overrides her programmed directives), so is it that they wantonly kill people that created them and that are so similar? People have been warring and killing each other since the dawn of humanity, so disregard for fellow man is obviously not a disqualifier.

There are barely-detectable (without the aid of a laboratory) differences at the molecular level between humans and humanoid Cylons, but these might be meaningless if humans and Cylons were not locked into an existential struggle against each other. What compels Cylons to want to destroy humans? It’s not clear, but their different theology suggests they think wiping out the human race would complete an evolutionary step.

BSG also explores determinism vs free will (esp as it relates to those competing motives in Cylons like Boomer), and immortality (via commemoration, legacies and memories, most vividly struggled with by Starbuck).

Ethical issues: The series’s characters grapple with ethical dilemmas that constantly test their values and ideas of justice. Ethical concepts dealt with include:

  • Utilitarianism – Measuring and executing to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of humans present a neverending challenge, principally to the human leaders, President Laura Roslin, and Commander William Adama. Every decision, whether to rig votes for the vice presidency, or “jump” and leave raiders or ships behind, carries with it certain loss; the loss must be weighed against potential gain, or mitigation of an even greater potential loss.
  • Justice – Human treatment of Cylon and human prisoners, what rights are extended to them, whether they are entitled to due process, and how punishment is meted, create ongoing dilemmas to those forced to make these decisions.
  • Kantianism – The individual’s role in shaping his behavior vis a vis rational thought and experience is brilliantly explored through the conscious thoughts of Dr Gaius Baltar, who continually struggles to balance self-interest with moral accountability to his fellow humans.

Social issues: BSG offers a glimpse into Cylon social structures, largely collectivist, as a foil with which to contrast human society, which is a reflection of its “western”, individualist values. Appreciation for (and tolerance of) dissent, love and duty (“office romances”), nepotism and favoritism, and behavior incentivization are all explored throughout the series.

Political issues: The predominant political undercurrent is that between civilian and military government, embodied by Roslin and Adama in the series. Colonel Tigh declares martial law at one particularly chaotic point in the second season, and faces widespread noncompliance as civilians protest the dissolution of their elected government. The accommodation of a civilian government by a military engaged in constant warfare with an existential enemy is one that democratically-elected governments have had to repeatedly face in times of conflict.

…..

With the series ending, we’ve lost yet another brilliant television show that made us think (while, sadly, so many others that don’t continue to live on). But, like at least one great “thinking person’s television” show, Six Feet Under, BSG ended when the majority of its viewers continued to cherish it.

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