Battlestar Gallactica, the cult science-fiction television show, starts its fourth and final season this week. Since 2004 it has won some critical acclaim and a cult following despite being confined to satellite TV.
Although reading too much into what remains a fictional show produced for entertainment is tricky, it’s hard to avoid the imprint made on the show by the ‘war on terror’. Other big issues are tackled but the underlying premise of the show is undoubtedly dealing with a post 9/11 world. The premise, of a civilisation on the brink and on the run is unquestionably one that dominates political dialogue day in and day out. Impending economic upheavals are only likely to deepen this feeling of drift and in some quarters of outright despair with the ‘state we are in’.
BSG ‘ReImagined’ began back in 2004 with ‘humanities’ children’, the robotic Cylons, who can now take on human appearance launching a massive strike against the Twelve Colonies of Kobol. William Adama’s Battlestar Gallactica, a relic from the first Cylon war due to be pensioned off as a museum, is the only Battlestar left standing after the Colonies’ defence system is crippled. Nuclear holocaust ensues and the Colonies are set aflame. This is definitely how 9/11 felt to a lot of people – like it was the end of the world, the ‘end of everything’. Terrorism’s great power has always lain in it’s ability to inflict damage, but, more potently, also in the shadows it creates in people’s minds.
In reality, it was not the end of the world or anything even remotely like it but it was the end of a sense of security that ‘our’ way of doing things would be left permanently unchallenged having survived the Cold War.
50,000 survive, and the subsequent episodes follow those 50,000 in their quest to find a mythical 13th colony, Earth. Of course, with the Cylons being able to assume human form this causes a mass questioning of identity Here we have a discourse on the ‘war on terrors’ recruitment to the side of the terrorists of many people who ‘look like us’, or else share our nationality. The ‘enemy’ is not a foreign state – it is stateless – and this in and of itself is challenging us to think outside of the box.
The question of legitimate grievance is also raised. Some of the Cylons are religious zealots, hell-bent on imposing their ‘god’ on humanity (something that is emphasised in series 3 as the Cylons occupy New Caprica) while others harbor serious anger towards humanity for the enslavement and abasement of their race.
Values and established ways of doing things are constantly questioned as the fleet finds itself fighting not just the Cylon’s but it’s own demons; the savagery and baseness of the struggle to survive, the difficult choices that are faced it in that struggle.
We need to be asking ourselves those same questions.
Is it good enough for us to present an image of ourselves as a faultless enduring force for good? Or should we be honest about the times when our foreign policy has shown a callous disregard for the human consequences of our actions?
Sometimes we have meddled where we shouldn’t have and others (for example, Saudi Arabia springs to mind) we turn a blind-eye where we should not and by our actions appear the disinterested, selfish, hypocrites that terrorist propaganda makes us out to be. This is never to say that mass murder of innocents is justified: it isn’t, whether it be in the name of the religious zealotry of Osama Bin Laden or Geroge W Bush. Bush’s oft-forgotten assertion that God told him to invade Iraq will stand as the epitaph of a presidency that has survived by preying on people’s fears, and which has found its ideological antithesis in Barack Obama’s campaign of hope.
Religion and the tensions within it and it’s role in political life is also a constant theme of the series. School-teacher-turned-President Laura Rosalin’s character is a morass of religious tensions as she ‘plays the religious card’ to split the embattled fleet and turn them against Adama, and again as she outlaws abortion under pressure from her key constituency; the remnants of a colony called Gemanon. This decision prompts Guius Baltar, Rosalin’s Vice-President, to stand against her for the Presidency. Baltar is at the heart of conflicting identities as, unbeknown to the rest of the group, it was his affair with a Cylon model that allowed the penetration of the Colonies’ defensive systems.
His character is best seen as a allegory for the political left: he constantly questions if it was his fault (he didn’t know the identity of his amore), even to the point of feeling as if he is a Cylon himself. Cold, clinical and self-absorbed, Baltar is haunted by visions of his former lover who co-opts him into her unquestioning faith; she, resurrected, conversely is haunted by the visions of him, something that is crucial to her becoming a partisan of humanity’s cause.
His association with leftist thought is a point most graphically made in the episode ‘Dirty Hands’ in which he writes tracts which can only reasonably be described as Marxist in tone. From his prison cell he inveighs against the privilege enjoyed by the members of certain ‘colonies’; his call to arms is taken up by workers in a Tilliam mine who strike only to be defeated by Adama’s resolution to put the strikers ‘one-by-one’ up against the bulkheads and have them shot for mutiny. Eventually the strikers are met half-way and their leader, Chief Tyrel, is incorporated into the government by Rosalin. She, whose character is swiftly evolving from a well-meaning idealist to avenging angel of death, attempts to have Baltar put to death for his part in the Cylon occupation of New Caprica.
His neuroticism is the same as that felt by the present-day left. Did we do it?? Was it our fault?? The answer has to be no; just as the Cylons were created by the colonists, the threat we now face was created in the crucible of deeply unethical foreign policy designed to win an ideological war at all costs.
Now the left is splintered; divided between those supporting the ‘war on terror’ by providing it with a liberal, even humanitarian gloss; and those opposed to it, who are slated as automatically being on the side of the reactionary thugs of Al-Quaeda. The concept of a third way was always fluff with little intellectual substance, but this is one issue where the idea of finding a third way might be useful. It is as unacceptable to line up with ‘AQ’ as it is with Bush and indeed the whole ‘war on terror’ machine.
The ‘war on terror’ is less about ‘security’ and humanity’s common good as it is the assertion of unquestioned ideological and military dominance by certain countries over the rest of the world. It is definitely not about the preservation of the values it pertains to defend and threatens to swamp. Numerous outrages against human rights – Guantanamo Bay, Iraq, the increasing acceptance of torture as legitimate, and civil liberties (detention of terror suspects without trial for inordinate lengths of time) – have already been committed in its name.
The sad reality of those terrorist attacks that have been successful is that they have been made by possible by human failings in the intelligence agencies not by the lack of the state’s power to invade the private lives of its own citizens. We are expending a massive effort and significant amount of resources in a gigantic effort to make things much worse than they already were. Iraq stands as a totemic embalm of this complete and abject failure by the right to either ‘win’ this war, the first in recorded history against a noun, or make things any kind of better.
A recent article on Liberal Democrat Voice called for the diversion of resources away from the ‘war on terror’; great, let’s go further and start debating how we can bring it to an end.