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Battlestar Galactica on the Brain

Worldly insights from the UBC profs who wrote 'Cylons in America.'

By Sarah Buchanan 6 Jun 2008 |

Sarah Buchanan is a freelance Vancouver writer. She is not a Cylon, as far as we can tell.

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BSG's Number Six: A singular ambition.
  • Cylons in America: Critical Studies in Battlestar Galactica
  • Tiffany Potter
  • The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc. (2008)

Good television isn't just piffle anymore. It's complicating our ideas of race, gender, and genocide, and it's doing this on purpose. With the release of Cylons in America: Critical Studies in Battlestar Galactica, Tiffany Potter and C.W. Marshall have firmly established the acclaimed science fiction series on academic ground. The two University of British Columbia professors are the first to compile a critical analysis of the series, but just barely. In July, Josef Stein and Tristan Tamplin will enlighten us with Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy, and two more BSG-themed books are set to follow.

Cylons in America will undoubtedly unleash two battling voices inside the reader: the fluff-fed television cynic who sneaks over your shoulder and whispers, "Kierkegaard? Come on, really? Aren't they getting a bit carried away?" and then the other, likely stronger voice -- the voice of the nerd that has been growing inside you since your lunch money was stolen in Grade 1 -- who will rejoice and yell, "Oh my God! The exponential expansion of The Singularity! I've been talking about this all along!"

The book has been written with the average BSG viewer in mind, and is therefore comprehensible to mid-level nerds lacking in PhDs. For those of us who haven't picked up a philosophy, literature, or physics text in a few years, it won't be completely understandable, but it's a good stretch for the brain. And since the issues examined in the series are chillingly relevant to anyone living in a post 9-11 universe, the book's cultural insights don't require much more than an avid imagination and a critical perspective on recent events.

In an interview with C.W. Marshall and Tiffany Potter, these insights were made clear over coffee and croissants.

Science Fiction is engaged with modern culture, and allows us to confront controversy

Tyee: "In the introduction to the book, you mention the relative freedom of science fiction, allowing BSG to 'offer more honest commentary on contemporary events than is to be found on 24-hour news stations.' Can you explain this?"

Marshall: "Science fiction is a great place for thought experiments. But it has to be credible, there has to be a truth. So in BSG, putting true characters in a situation where they are, say, actively stealing an election, if it were set today in America, would be too obvious a commentary. But there's a distance. 'Oh, it's a space election. They're stealing space votes.' This way, we can connect without the walls we put up when we have established that 'this is the way I vote,' or 'this is the way I think.'"

Potter: "And they push this into the explicitly political as well. One of the most startling moments in the series is when you have Apollo and Helo debating the relative merits of genocide. One is arguing in favour of exterminating the Cylons, and the other is opposed. There is this moment of viewership where you sit back and realize that you are momentarily in favour of genocide. And then you step back from it and realize what you've done. It forces you to experience it. I mean, I didn't sit down that night thinking, 'I am going to think about the relative merits of genocide.'"

Outer Space is a great place to confront our deeply ingrained conceptions of self and other

Marshall: "Sci-Fi has always pushed boundaries. Star Trek gave us the first interracial kiss on TV, when Kirk kissed Uhura in the 1960s, when it was unthinkable. It wasn't even legal in some places."

Tyee: "Why is it so dangerous for us to confront these issues head-on?"

Potter: "There's a big reason and a mercenary reason for this. The mercenary reason is advertising. There's money to be lost if you upset people, especially your advertisers. But the culture of DVD, of watching a whole series without commercials, has in some ways freed up producers to do things they couldn't before.

"The big reason is that we have inherent barriers. [People think], 'I see the world in this way,' or 'I self-position as a Democrat, or a Republican, or a Liberal,' so sometimes we aren't ready to engage these questions because they touch too close to home. We feel that we're being smacked, that our beliefs are being undermined. But when you put the confrontation in outer space, you can allow those questions to be asked without feeling that your individual values are being interrogated."

Tyee: "Right, so it takes us out of the dichotomies we've been raised with, and into the dichotomies that have been introduced by the series. I think the most important thing this series does is play with the self/other divide, question it, and make you realize that everybody has these divides, even if we have been taught to challenge those divisions. I remember being surprised by how strong my feelings were when this was challenged."

Marshall: "Yes, the insurgency is an example of this. The series is clearly operating in a post 9-11 world, the idea that the terrorists are among us, that anyone could be a bad guy. For two seasons, it was the remnants of humanity surviving against terrorists, and then beautifully, in the final episode of season two, they skip a year later, and suddenly the humans are being mapped not onto America, but onto the occupied Iraq. Suddenly the people we care about are clearly representing Muslims, Iraqis, people who we've been told 'aren't like us.'"

Potter: "Right, they have not allowed the presumptive 'us' to remain consistent. In the case of the suicide bombing during the insurgency, we identify with the character, we know why he is angry, and then he straps a bomb to his chest and blows up other characters we identify with. We are horrified, but in a way, we kind of get it. In a way that I don't think any of us ever got suicide bombing. What that show did was give us a moment where the suicide bomber was the presumptive 'us.' No other show has dared do this."

Greek Tragedy, Danish Philosophers, and Battlestar Galactica are totally compatible

Tyee: "There is an article in the book tracking Sharon's character through Kierkegaard's stages of personhood. I can't help wondering, is BSG really intending to present her this way? Are they asking for this kind of scrutiny?"

Marshall: "Whether they're asking for it or not, it doesn't matter. It's a subject worthy of academic study. They have created a work where someone with a knowledge of Kierkegaard could see a pattern in it, just like there might be any number of patterns for any number of viewers. Now we can understand Sharon's character arc better, and we can see something new in Kierkegaard's thought, and more easily apply it to new circumstances. It becomes a tool for us, rather than something that someone once thought back then."

Potter: "In many ways this comes back to the question of intentionality that we talk about in literary studies. For a cultural studies approach to literature, it's actually less important what the author thought they were doing than what they actually did."

Tyee: "Why is there suddenly so much academic interest in BSG?"

Marshall: "I always joke with my students about the grand works that define the human condition: there's Homer's Illiad, there's King Lear, and then there's Robocop. The funny thing is, they think it's a joke. But good science fiction has always been academic."

Tyee: "You both specialize in more traditional English and Classics subjects. Do you teach BSG as a literary text?"

Marshall: "I teach Classics, Latin and Greek mostly, so it's also hard for me to fit it in. But you can certainly look at BSG and see it operating in the same way as ancient literature. The questions I ask of ancient literature, if they are going to be valid questions, should also be applicable to other forms of culture, particularly things outside of high culture. If what I'm asking of Greek tragedy makes no sense for a sci-fi TV show, then maybe there's an assumption in my question that I haven't fully unpacked."

It is impossible to hide the fact that you have not finished watching all current episodes of Battlestar Galactica when speaking to someone who has watched all current episodes of Battlestar Galactica and compiled a book on the subject

Tyee: "There are many things, it seems, that were interpreted, but not intended by the writers..."

Marshall: "Well yes, at the end of season three..."

Tyee: "Aaah! I haven't finished that yet."

Marshall: "Oh. Do you want to know these things? Should I stop? I'm sorry. Has the tape recorder seen the end of the series? Should I ask the tape recorder if this is okay?"

Tyee: "Okay, okay, for the good of the article, tell me."

Marshall: "Well, there is a big reveal at then end of season three, where certain characters start hearing music, and it's a song that becomes familiar to them, a song from Earth. And the song they chose, 'All Along The Watchtower,' has a hugely provocational element that hasn't been fully explained. It completely changes the tone of what happened before. For a lot of people, that choice really bothered them. It's been interpreted many different ways, and many of our authors actually scrambled to change their articles after this episode came out."

Tyee: "Okay, let's move on before you tell me who is actually a Cylon."

Even though Battlestar Galactica is great, it has not succeeded in creating a post-Singularity narrative, because this is logically impossible

Tyee: "In BSG's intro, the Cylons are described as 'evolving.' They are obviously evolving to become more human-like, at least in physical form. Prof. Marshall, you discuss this idea of evolution in your article. What do you think this means?"

Marshall: "The Cylons are a human product that is proving itself better than us. And those robots are what we created, and the robots then create robots that look like humans. And each step is a progress, much quicker than real evolution. So evolution is a metaphor in that sense -- it's not genetic -- they are choosing their improvements. But they are trying to become more human, and striving for love, which technically is against evolution, so it is challenging what it means to 'advance.'"

Potter: "Yes and no. They are trying to be like God, and their God who created them is the humans."

Marshall: "And that's ambition."

Potter: "This also refers to the common science fiction trope of The Singularity. The Singularity is the moment where the computers that we have created come to be smarter and more capable of creation than the humans themselves, and in that moment they overtake humanity and increase exponentially. This is the source of a lot of dystopic science fictions."

Marshall: "But by definition no science fiction will be able to represent The Singularity because it's so different. Once humans are creating something better than us, it literally shoots out exponentially, so the question of what life is becomes no longer something we are able to comprehend. We can't have a post-Singularity narrative, because narrative isn't going to make sense, or at least the way it makes sense to us now."

Tyee: "Whew."

Marshall: "So what limits this growth in BSG? There has to be something, otherwise it would not be realistic. As we argue in the book, this limit is their drive to be human, this is stopping the Cylons from achieving a post-Singularity existence, and allowing the story to be told, and understood by us."

Tyee: "So I guess the next step in sci-fi is writing this post-Singularity narrative..."

Marshall: "Well that would probably just be a bunch of ones and zeroes on pages! Or a grey smudge. I have no idea."

People who watch Battlestar Galactica are also interested in other things

Tyee: "Anything else you're excited about?"

Potter: "Our next book is on The Wire."

Tyee: "Really?"

Potter: "Really."