Opinion: It is not enough to survive, you have to be worthy of survival

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.

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21 Comments

  • An excellent post.

    BSG is a wonderful and deep series and many of its episodes deal with some very hard, uncomfortable and yet realistic and contemporary issues. For example when during their occupation on New Caprica the “heroes” start using suicide bombers and the moral ambiguities and conflicts that generates; what price freedom?

  • What on earth has this got to do with the Liberal Democrats?

  • Yes, Darrell, how dare you stray from proportional representation and local income tax and address wider issues that may be of interest to people 🙂

  • Its a meandering post with nothing of relevance to the readership of the site, as shown by the desultory comments response.

    Its not unreasonable to expect a Lib Dem blog to publish articles in some way of specific intrest to Liberal Democrats.

    And to be frank, most articles on PR and local income tax here are much punchier and more intresting than this. Indeed, they just about all are

    Its a 1350 word essay on terror of which 800 are spent expounding on the allegory found in a cult sci-fi series. Not an article of general intrest to a wide readership then!

  • I do like it. A series can be popular with large numbers and still be cult. In the UK it is not a part of the cultural mainstream. You mentioned Dr.Who- that was cult, but is now clearly mainstream, whereas Battlestar Galactica remains on cable and does not have that kind of wider cultural resonance, although is probably more popular in the blogsphere so I should account for that!

    As to allegory, (also @darrell) I think it can work, but as well as my reservations as to how it fits into the mainstream I have two issues with how it works in the article. Firstly, allegory should be quickly made to draw the reader in, and then the real life example expounded on. The 2-parts-allegory-1-part-real ratio is more that 50% wrong, IMO.

    The second issue relates to this- I feel the analogy loses coherence in the second half. The analogy is left, but then returned to in a way that looks a little crowbared and tangental, which wouldn’t be a problem if it had moved on.

    Although really, the bit where the analogy works is the bit I feel doesn’t relate to lib demmery, whereas the bit at the end where it doesn’t does, if thats all unclear!

  • Also, reading back my initial post was sharp in a way that wasn’t called for, and I apologise for that.

  • Well it makes a change to hear a Lib Dem talking about a Sci-fi series that isn’t Dr Who.

  • Thanks for the feedback all…just to respond to the points;

    @MatGB, totally agree about subheads and maybe about length…i’m not going to take a puritanical line on it, maybe it could have been shorter and also about heading…I will definatly take what you have said on board…

    As to the wider issue about is this relevant I have to however object strongly…people in politics are just like any others, they watch tv, go football go out, go on holidays etc…now i am not suggesting all of that is spectacularly relelvent to immediate political issues but i think its totally wrong to hypothecate politics off and can create rather an elitist air and not just about Westminster but around activism in general.

    BSG is a tv show which is well known and is well viewed and when people view it and identify with the characters; whether they know it or acknowledge it or not they are engaging with political thought because of the nature of the show. What harm does it do to actually try and speak to these people in terms that are relevant to them?? And shouldn’d activists actually start to try and come across as rounded human beings who dont see politics as something sectioned off from the rest of their lives but part of their lives….? I think when politics comes across like that it is at its best and most engagaing…and its that way we draw people in….

  • Well, my main issues were the length and the breakdown of the analogy halfway through.

    Personally I think we do politics best when we discuss issues people really care about that are political- thats why every leaflet has a post office on, after all.

    I do agree that we can use popular culture as a way to engage with people. I just think there are better ways to do this through writing than the manner used above.

  • I think its totally wrong to say people dont care about this issue…its the biggest issue there is today in politics…its the biggest ideological question…and maybe peoples local post office wouldnt be getting closed if less money was spent on it.

  • less money was being spent on the war on terror that is….

  • I never criticised the issue, just the presentation. I certainly find it infinitely more intresting than post offices, in which my interest is near nill. It was only the presentation I didn’t like.

  • Ok :)….i can accept your point about the balance of content and certainly it maybe an issue i would have to look at if i ever redrafted

  • But what pretext would be used in any action against Iran?? Surely it would be the ‘war on terror’??

  • Sorry about the additional L which slipped in…typoitus is a horrible and debilitating disorder which I hope to make a full recovery from….very trite point about it not being a fictional show…and as to the relative scariness of history and geography students…i wouldnt really have a view on that I am afraid…incidentally my geography is dreadful and I work in travel (not saying who for lol)…

  • Yet Another Anon 30th Apr '08 - 1:54pm

    If anything this thread does have something to do with the rather vacuos image based politics that has been prevalent for a considerable number of years, in which people avoid talking about reality in which most people live and instead failing to actually take action to fight crime and terrorism and smash evil around the world, instead they start going on about hobbits, Battlestar Galactica or jedi – no wonder the country is in a bad state.

  • Anon, that comment in itself is rather vacuos in itself…it’s a rather narrow view that the only way you can engage with politics is ‘taking action’ which is of course untrue….politics and political issues have always found their reflection in the creative sphere…and the fact is that people who watch the show and who take stances with or against the characters are engaging in some kind of political discourse and making political choices…would you dismiss a discussion of Zola, Balzac or Orwell and the political content in their work as ‘vacuos’??

    I would hope you would not….your comment is frankly senseless and a little philistine.

  • Kristen Freed 29th Jan '17 - 2:43pm

    This article is even more relevant today, almost a decade later. The only point I think the author missed is that the Colonials in the series face a similar issue to us in that not all Cylons (Muslims) are terrorists but our inabilty to distinguish between the two (terrorist and non-terrorist Cylons/Muslims) poses certain problems. In neither case does taking ‘Universal Precautions’ (i.e. treating all Cylons/Muslims as if they are terrorists) seem to be the answer.

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