Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

The technology and theology of ‘Battlestar Galactica’

One of my all-time favourite science-fiction series, Ronald D Moore’s Battlestar Galactica, which ran for four seasons in the US – from 2003 to 2009 – and was an expansion of and imaginative re-elaboration on the Glen Larson 1978 television series by the same name, is much more than meets the eye. This is true of all good science fiction, of course, as I have argued before on TL concerning Cameron’s Terminator films.

What is commendable about Battlestar Galactica is its thoroughly philosophical narrative scrutiny of what is arguably a recurrent, deeply embedded alternation between creative and self-destructive human traits. In fact, the term “recurrent” gives one a clue concerning one of its many philosophical threads, despite being clothed in lots of the kind of outer space “action” that science fiction (and science fantasy) aficionados love.

Cylon model Number Six (played by the beautiful Tricia Helfer) remarks more than once to her human lover, scientist Gaius Baltar (James Callis) that “… it has all happened before, and it will all happen again”. This is an allusion to the disastrous events comprising the history of struggle between the humans of the Twelve Colonies and the cybernetic machines (or Cylons) created by them before the sophisticated humanoid robots eventually rebelled against their creators by wiping out all the billions of humans on the twelve planets, barring approximately 50 000 survivors.

In the history of philosophy, Number Six’s reference to the cosmic recurrence of everything unmistakably resonates with the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, that troubled genius of late-nineteenth century German thought, particularly with what he dubbed “the eternal recurrence”). In the beautifully written last aphorism of his posthumously published The Will to Power, where Nietzsche explains what the concept “the world” means to him, he remarks:

“This world: … a sea of forces flowing and rushing together, eternally changing, eternally flooding back, with tremendous years of recurrence, with an ebb and a flow of its forms; out of the simplest forms striving toward the most complex, out of the stillest, most rigid, coldest forms toward the hottest, most turbulent, most self-contradictory, and then again returning home to the simple out of this abundance, out of the play of contradictions back to the joy of concord, still affirming itself in this uniformity of its courses and its years, blessing itself as that which must return eternally, as a becoming that knows no satiety, no disgust, no weariness: this, my Dionysian world of the eternally self-creating, the eternally self-destroying … ”

Battlestar Galactica traces the trajectory of one such cycle of creation and destruction, and ends at the point when the surviving refugees find the “mythical” thirteenth colony, earth, and the scene is set for a repetition of the same cycle, where the human race, through scientific and technological development, will eventually again reach the point where, in an effort to replicate (human) intelligence, it constructs intelligent machines. First will come the rudimentary types, such as mechanical machines (the “robots” of the 19th century), then computers, and still later the more sophisticated, electronically operating “robots”, which eventually turn on their human masters.

To be sure, this scenario of techno-scientifically created beings rebelling against their human creators has been imagined more than once in science fiction (another case of recurrence) – in the Terminator films, in the novels and short stories of Philip K Dick (and films, like Blade Runner, based on these), to mention only some, and in the early medical science-fiction gothic novel by Mary Shelley, namely Frankenstein. So what recommends itself about Battlestar Galactica, then?

First there is its thematisation of the irresistible seductiveness of technology, which is here presented not merely in the familiar guise of technical devices that fascinate people with their performative capabilities, such as Viper fighters and “battlestars” like the eponymous Galactica, which instantiate micro-worlds within which human communities can exist indefinitely, as long as they have the required amounts of food, water and energy sources.

Here the machine is imagined in its most seductive fashion yet: beautiful simulacra of women, for all intents and purposes indistinguishable from their human counterparts, who literally seduce men (specifically Dr Baltar) into sharing with them the secrets that would give the machines access to human defence systems. The mini-series starts with such a female machine, flanked by two primitive cylon “centurions”, kissing a stunned human diplomatic representative before destroying him.

One should add that this theme is elaborated along the ambivalent lines of a simultaneous fascination with, AND fear or abhorrence of, the machine: people are both attracted to, and often express their loathing of, machines embodied as cylons (who are derogatorily called “toasters”). Significantly, when the surviving humans (and some cylons) settle on earth, they destroy all technology – a signal expression of their recognition of its inherent dangers – but in vain; the cycle of science and technological invention starts all over again.

The second theme treated in a philosophically persuasive manner concerns one side of what Martin Heidegger called the history of metaphysics as “onto-theology” – the historically recurrent tendency, since the time of the ancient Greeks, to explain entities in the world, including humans themselves, both in terms of their origins in time (theology), and with reference to their fundamental or essential nature or being (ontology), such as a kind of material (water, fire, atoms), or something non-material (“nous”/mind, spirit).

While the ontological thread is not conspicuously foregrounded in Battlestar Galactica (although it is there), the theological strand is conspicuous in its various manifestations, with an ironic twist: the humans are mostly polytheistic (one notable exception being Dr Baltar, who is converted to monotheism by a cylon), whereas their robot creations are monotheistic, with Number Six, for example, frequently informing Gaius Baltar that some event is the “will of God”, and that he is destined to play an important part in the unfolding of the divine will.

Similarly, but along polytheistic lines, some of the humans – who differ widely regarding their religious beliefs, ranging from outright atheism and agnosticism to a fervent belief in the “gods of Kobol” (which are modelled on ancient Greek, and to some degree Roman deities) – believe that the Sacred Scrolls (dating back to an early period of worship of the gods of Kobol) have foretold the epic journey of Battlestar Galactica and the fleet of ships carrying the surviving humans in their search for earth. There are even prophetic indications of the “destiny” of certain characters (like the woman president of the survivors, who suffers from cancer, and Kara Thrace, an outstanding, maverick Viper Pilot) in the unfolding of what is fictionally made out to be this particular historical cycle.

It is impossible to offer a more-or-less exhaustive interpretation of this thought-provoking television series in a brief blog post. Suffice it to say that many of the aspects of the cyclically recurring world-in-becoming, articulated as “the will to power” by Nietzsche (in the earlier quotation), are evident in Battlestar Galactica, without any reference to aliens, to boot – here one only witnesses the struggle between humans and the beings created by themselves in the first place. In its treatment of the two themes I have briefly mentioned, however – as well as other, related themes, such as the question whether machines are capable of loving someone – this is one of the finest examples of the way in which science fiction as genre is capable of developing a sophisticated account of recurrent philosophical questions.

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