With the enormous critical success of shows like Mad Men and the Sopranos, it is now quite common to say, as Ira Glass puts it, that "we are living through the golden age of television, that this is the kind of golden age that people will look back at years from now the way we look back on the 20s and 30s as the heyday of jazz, or the 70s as the heyday for a certain kind of movie." Academic criticism is beginning to respond by taking television seriously. Academic publishers, drawn in part by the same economics of marketing tie-ins that lure toy manufacturers, are certainly eager to print books that take TV seriously. The criticism, however, remains uneven. Cylons in America is a case in point.
The show discussed--the remake of Battlestar Galactica on the SciFi channel--should be great fodder for intellectuals. It is full of ideas about politics, morality, gender, and metaphysics and features fully realized characters in a world intriguingly like and unlike our own. Also, it is a wonderful example of the ongoing improvisatory writing that serials demand. Many of the essays in Cylons in America bring real insight to the show. They draw not only on scholarly thought, but on the thinking that occurs in online discussion boards and fan fiction, and on the ideas of journalists who have promoted the series, such as Salon's Laura Miller and Heather Havrilesky. In the end, though, none of the essayists in Cylons in America seems to be able to get a picture of the series as a whole, or put it in any satisfying context. The least satisfying essays of the book are the ones that rely most on scholarly criticism, showing that academics still have a way to go before we know how to have an intelligent conversation about a TV show.
The new Battlestar Galactica is a "reenvisioning" of a short-lived campy space adventure show that appeared on ABC in 1978. The original series, created by Glen A. Larson, had a slightly conservative tone, with an allegorical warning about negotiating with the Soviets in the pilot and an overarching plot modeled on the founding story of Larson's Mormon faith. The new show scrambles all of that, mixing contemporary political references; turning extremely macho characters into women with complicated relationships to gender roles, war heroes into war criminals, and inhuman villains into people who are indistinguishable from us. Cylons in America focuses on two of the major techniques the series uses to provoke the audience, the scrambling of political images and the ambiguous nature of the Cylons, the supposed bad guys of the show. A third section deals with a smattering of other aspects of the series.
One of the shows' more effective techniques is to rearrange contemporary political events in unexpected ways. Sometimes the show simply reverses the roles in the story currently unfolding in the newspapers. While the U.S. was mixed in counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, Battlestar depicted a world where the humans were suicide bombers and the evil space robots were the occupying army. More often, the political elements were recombined in ways that are simply unexpected. These days in the U.S. one political party, the Republicans, represents the interests of religious conservatives, abortion opponents, and people who favor a militarist foreign policy. In the world of Battlestar, President Laura Roslin is a religious conservative with authoritarian tendencies, but she has rocky relations with the military and favors abortion rights (until she decides that the need to revive the human population trumps reproductive autonomy).
The writers in this volume are all refreshingly clear-eyed about the state American politics has sunk to in the last eight years. "It is in a context such as this," says the first chapter, "where dissenting views are demonized and critical thought is chastised, that a nation will wage war under false pretenses, that a military will treat torture as a necessity rather than a choice, and a people will without hesitation willingly sacrifice their individual freedoms" (25). Chapter 2 opens by comparing the Bush administration's "War on Terror" rhetoric with the political moves that allowed the Holocaust to occur (27). Chapter 4 notes that "the lack of criticism and the current failure to convict military leaders of war crimes does not make their acts legal" (53). The authors also pay a lot of attention to the way Battlestar inverts and rearranges the elements of the current political scene. The enemies are monotheist religious fanatics that might read like Islamic extremists, but the good guys practice an alien polytheism, wrecking the symmetry. Real quotations from President Bush appear in the mouth of Laura Roslin, including the profoundly undemocratic remark "the interesting thing about being president is that you don't have to explain yourself to anybody" (24). But then Roslin winds up on the side of the insurgents in the Cylon occupation. As in the real world, people justify torture by citing a threat to the existence of their civilization, but unlike the real United States, the humans in the series actually are facing an existential threat. Both human and robot are at various times torturer and tortured, victim and perpetrator of genocide, ruler and insurgent. What to make of it?
Commenters in this volume are divided on whether this amounts to a straightforward indictment of the Bush administration, or a broader, open ended questioning of war and terrorism. Erika Johnson-Lewis and Rikk Mulligan, who wrote the second and fourth chapters, view Battlestar as directly comparing Bush administration policies with the worst crimes imaginable. Mulligan sees the show's Admiral Cain, a war criminal who has murdered hundreds of civilians on her own side of the conflict, as "an extension of the American use of the military in the Middle East" (63). Johnson-Lewis goes farther, drawing a three way comparison between the Nazi concentration camps, the post-genocide world of Battlestar Galactica, and Guantanamo Bay. All are what the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls a "state of exception": a state where all rules are suspended because human life has lost all value and both victims and perpetrators are dehumanized. Other essayists recognize that the way the series reshuffles roles makes it harder to draw simple morals, but here they tend to sink into jargon addled skepticism. Brian Ott, in Chapter 1, describing the show's inverted image of the torture that has been employed in the real world war on terror writes, "Rather than reifying or naturalizing existing social structures, ambivalent rhetoric denaturalizes them, not as a way of coming down on one side or the other, but of inviting one to interrogate the boundary itself." Chris Dzialo, in chapter 13, offers an interesting compromise. He sees the unexpected mixing of contemporary political elements as a reflection of the news media's substitution of balance for objectivity. Rather than doing the work of finding the objective truth of a situation, the media settles for putting both sides of the political debate on screen, even if one side is clearly delusional or denying established scientific fact. According to Dzialo, Battlestar's unexpected reshuffling of current events has a similar, relativistic "who's to say?" effect. At least it does until the third season, when the pose of neutrality is exchanged for a straightforward indictment of the Iraq war offered by the depiction of the Cylon occupation of New Caprica.
The nature of the Cylons is an even murkier aspect of the series. They can appear human, but do they have the moral status of person? They can act as individuals, yet they exist as many duplicates. They are theoretically mortal, but they do not normally have to face death because they can upload their software to a new body. And where did they get the idea to become monotheists anyway? The sharpest essay in this volume, by independent scholar Robert W. Moore, looks at the issue of Cylon personhood through the lens of Kierkegaard's ideas about the individual and society. He provocatively argues that Cylons are not ordinarily people, but that Athena, a humanoid Cylon model number 8, achieves personhood though her roles as wife, mother, and military officer. Another smart essay comes from Christopher Dies who explores the ways the portrayal of the Cylons expresses coded anxieties about race, something that happens a lot in science fiction. He also notes the consistent negative portrayal of black male characters, Cylon and human, even though race does not seem to be a socially significant category in the world of Battlestar. Other investigations into Cylon nature in this volume are less successful. Tama Leaver offers a mostly inconclusive exploration of the parallels between human and Cylon, focusing on shared ethical lapses. Much of what she says is obvious, but she does notice an interesting parallel between the Cylon's forced breeding program and Roslin's suspension of abortion rights in the fleet. Matthew Gumpert attempts to clarify Cylon nature using post-colonial theory from Homi Bhabha and Gayatri Spivak. I generally find that these authors create more confusion, rather than relieving it, but Gumpert's treatment does produce a useful list of things that are meant to divide humans and machines and how the series undermines them. The remaining essay on the nature of the Cylons shows how their ambiguous nature works to create a sense of the uncanny. Overall, the collection is very mixed. People who are interested in a discussion of Cylon nature that is both more accessible and more sophisticated should check out part II of Blackwell's Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy, which does things like apply classic ideas of personhood and identity from Locke and Parfit to the Cylon case. (Full disclosure: I have an essay in another section of that book.)
The remaining essays are a grab bag of topics of varying import. Suzanne Scott offers insight into the ways the producers of the series publically encourage fan fiction, but then steal the market for fan fiction by providing their own online content that serves the same narrative role. Eftchia Papanikalaou does a good job investigating the music on the show, especially producer Ron Moore's strange decision to give Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower"--or a fictional counterpart of the song--a prominent role in the story line. Although she offers an interesting look into Dylanology, she can't dispel the fear that Moore's move was simple self-indulgence. A similar failing occurs in Jim Casey's essay on images of eternal recurrence in Battlestar, starting with the line "All this has happened before, and all of it will happen again," which comes from the Sacred Scrolls of the human's polytheist religion and is repeated by many characters in the series, both human and Cylon. Casey has a keen eye for the numerous reverberations of this idea, including references to the previous version of the series and, oddly, to Disney's 1953 Peter Pan. But even bringing Nietzsche into the discussion can't clarify what it all means. Carla Kungl dives into the implications of turning the character of Starbuck in the original show into a woman. The essay is mostly amusing because it reprints some of the Neanderthal comments made by the original actor Dirk Benedict in response to the shift. The strangest essay in the collection is by C.W. Marshall and Matthew Wheland. It asks why the invention of the Cylons in the show did not trigger a technological singularity. Apparently "because a technological singularity is only plausible if you make incredibly naive assumptions about the nature of intelligence and evolution" was not a legitimate answer.
I haven't described all the essays in the book, but that should be enough to give the reader a good sense of its contents. For the most part, the writers look at the show in the context of the current political situation. Aside from the introduction, nothing is said about the changes in television that enabled this series. Authors pay comparatively little attention to the context that genre provides to the show. Alison Peirce has some perceptive things to say about horror, including horror television. Christopher Deis talks about the use of disaster and apocalypse in science fiction to erase racial difference. I would have liked to hear more about Ron Moore's call for "naturalist science fiction" and the use of visual tropes from documentary filmmaking. What kind of naturalism or realism do you get when you use a shaky, seemingly hand-held camera for an exterior shot in outer space?
The book will appeal most to fans of the series who also study continental philosophy, postmodern literary theory, and related fields. Continuum Press specializes in academic books from those fields, so a good test to see whether this book appeals to a fan of the show is to ask whether they have read and enjoyed other books from continuum. For my taste, it is too uneven and too focused on the relationship between Battlestar and the Bush administration's war on terror. Hopefully, with the end of the Bush era, this will become a dated way to see the series, of historical interest only.
© 2009 Rob Loftis
Rob Loftis teaches philosophy at Lorain County Community College. His essay "Baltar the Tyrant?" appeared in Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy, from Blackwell Press.