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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.

Author

  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.

20 Comments

  1. Rich Brauer Rich Brauer 27 August 2012

    Bert, it’s been a while since I’ve watched the series, so please correct me if I’m wrong:

    Without spoiling the ending, as I recall, wasn’t there an indication that the cycle, the eternal recurrence, as it were, had been broken by events?

    I recall thinking that it was a significant copout — not necessarily unusual in American TV series, admittedly, but nonetheless a disappointment (along with a number of other “tying up plot strings” maneuvers from the writers).

    One of the few American series that I recall didn’t resort to that type of “and they all lived happily thereafter” shenanigans was the Seinfeld finale, which almost gleefully played with that trope.

  2. lester gabang lester gabang 28 August 2012

    Mormonism and Scientology intersect with Kolob (the star closest to the throne of God. Astronomers haven’t found it – yet – but it is the inspiration for the planet Kobol in Battlestar Galactica. The person you mustn’t ask about Kolob is Mitt Romney. The teaching isn’t a secret, but Latter-day Saints aren’t keen to discuss it. These days they stress their similarity with Christianity, and there’s no Kolob in the Gospels.

    http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/damianthompson/100169512/where-mormonism-meets-scientology/

  3. Duncan Duncan 28 August 2012

    Having asked why the natural sciences get more funding and serious attention than the social a few weeks ago, are you know trying to show why?

  4. HD HD 28 August 2012

    Excellent series…one of my favourites.

  5. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 28 August 2012

    “Those who don’t study History are doomed to repeat it”

    Studying psychology, however, helps explain History.

  6. Arnold Smit Arnold Smit 29 August 2012

    Bert, excellent commentary on the dominant narrative that seems to play itself out in our society. I have not watched Battlestar Galactica, but I have studied Nietzche. Are we our own worst enemies? What needs to happen to change the pathway of unsustainability that we are on?

  7. Bert Bert 29 August 2012

    Rich – No, at the end of the 4th series there is every indication that the cycle has already started again, with Baltar and No Six walking, as ‘projected spirits’, in modern New York, and commenting on all the machines (computers and primitive robots) that are advertised in shop windows. This is 150000 years after the survivors of the Cylon Wars, as well as some cylons who joined them, settled on earth (giving a tongue-in-cheek answer to the question regarding human origins).
    Arnold – You should watch the series – on many occasions your rhetorical question, whether we are our own worst enemies, is answered in the affirmative, sometimes explicitly, by cylons who point this out. And yes, this is indeed the dominant narrative of today. Every year I teach a course in the philosophy of technology (which is what I am doing at present), and every year it becomes more obvious, when I read the latest stuff from thinkers on technology.

  8. Lennon Lennon 29 August 2012

    I’ve never thought about Battlestar Galactica with such depth / scope.

    What kept me hooked (apart from the explosions, of course) was the way in which people can change so quickly and so often depending on the situations thrust upon them especially Baltar. Just when you think you have a character figured out, they flip and you’re left guessing again.

    One other thing which amused me was the fact that Adama (Snr) never trust the more hi-tech networked computer systems which the Cylons used to disable the rest of the fleet. It makes me think of how technology can be used by the powers-that-be to intrude on everyone’s privacy.

  9. Jaydene Bruiners Jaydene Bruiners 31 August 2012

    One thing that always gets to me is the fact that humans, (philosophers, scientists, etc) always deny or exclude the possibility of God as a reason for our existence. We choose instead, to believe in ourselves, our own abilities and our own inventions and BSG fores one to consider, the fact that Someone greater than humans created humans, in order for the cylons to be created.

    With that said, it also makes one think of the power of enframing. How enframed are humans really, if they believe that the continuous advancement of technology will bestow upon them great power? Sure, we will have power, but all good things come to an end. What happens if the humans face a BSG future, who will be there to save them?

  10. Maria Maria 1 September 2012

    Good point, Lennon. It underscores the need to use technology selectively, and on human terms, instead of blindly succumbing to any new technology. Adama Senior sets a paradigmatic example here – excuse the tautology.

  11. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 1 September 2012

    I don’t know the film but I know that I did not entirely trust technology (or more accurately the technicians ) either. I always kept a back up, usually manual, which saved the bacon of the Prudential in the 1970s (when the computer expert was stealing from the payroll) and The Board of Executors Insolvency Division in the 1980s/1990s (when the computer system kept crashing or not being available and I had our main cashflow ONLY on my own computer).

  12. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 2 September 2012

    I still believe in “Garbage In means Garbage Out” and that computers are only as good as their programmers (and some of those I have known have been hopelessly incompatant).

  13. Lennon Lennon 3 September 2012

    @ Maria: My greatest fear regarding tech is that we wind up with one those Star Trek scenarios where either genetic augmentation brings us a eugenics war or Borg-styled hive mind society.

    DARPA is has just been commissioned to start testing augmentation on US troopers. The initial idea is that they should be able to operate without food for several days by manipulating their genes to use body fat more efficiently. If this succeeds, then we can expect more tweaking since the ideal soldier would be something akin to Captain America. Depending on just how far they get, we might wind up with a Khan Noonien Singh.

    DARPA is also testing a new comms unit which allows soldiers to transmit orders to each other, thanks to some nifty electrodes in the device. This could potentially speed up communications within a unit and make them more efficient. The downside, would be thinking about the CO’s super hot wife while on patrol. :P

    Ray Kurzweil believes that by the 2040’s we will reach a new level of existence – what he refers to as a technological singularity. Similar, you could say, to the dawn of agriculture, urbanisation and the industrial and electronic revolutions. As it stands, we’ve made some serious advances in robotics and cybernetics over the last few years. The need (or is it want?) to live longer and overcome disabilities is driving this and many people will embrace any tech which does this.

    This frightens me, since tech is always open for abuse.

  14. Maria Maria 3 September 2012

    Lennon, I share your misgivings, largely on Heideggerian grounds, namely that what is driving technological innovation – including Kurzweil’s crazy idea that when the “singularity” happens, we will merge with robots and live forever – is the reduction of everything, including human beings, to resources for optimization. What makes us human, like our receptivity to beauty, and to love, is simply overlooked or ignored. This is what makes Battlestar Galactica so interesting, with its interpretation of advanced machines as human clones, with all our predilections and warts, instead of seeing human beings as machines for optimal utilization.

  15. Lennon Lennon 4 September 2012

    @ Maria: I must admit that I wouldn’t mind immortality just so that I can see how human history continues to play out. Having grown up with a more-than-healthy dose of Star Trek, I’m very interested to see if we will get over our petty quarrels and finally knit together to explore the galaxy or (and I’d prefer not to see this) just wind up annihilating each other.

    Either way, future tech will play a large part (be it genetic augmentation or cybernetics. One would hope that such advances would be used minimally and only when absolutely needed. Personally, I wouldn’t mind have my failing eyes replaced by the implants that the character Geordi LaForge had in ST (it would eliminate a need for binoculars ;) ) But we are a species of excess – just look at how people become hooked on plastic surgery. We’re also a species which craves power and what better way to control the masses than through technology? Just as an example, if we all decide to embrace RFID chips – particularly for financial transactions, we can risk being cut off from society by our own governments for simply criticising them.

    This is a path which should be explored very cautiously.

  16. Mikelle Mikelle 4 September 2012

    Technology is funny in that it sucks people in and “tricks” them into building a one sided relationship with them. However, I feel this idea is not anything new. There have been “sex dolls” for a while and people actually end up building a relationship with the inanimate object to fulfill a need that cannot otherwise be fulfilled. I guess doing this with technology is just the next step. We are taught at a young age to start to love something that will neve be able to love us back: teddy bear, blanket, imaginary friend. All of these are preconditioning us to build relationships with things other than people, especially when times get tough and the idea that no one will understand, begins to creep into our minds. This practice is not something new, yet people are confused as to why a lonely elderly woman would keep a robotic seal as a pet and love them with all her heart. If she has no one else to fill the void, why not turn to this “pet” who will never talk back, will make her feel loved, and keep her company? If we find this practice so ridiculous, then we should stop the idea that a teddy bear is our best friend and loves us. One could argue that as adults, we should know that this object does not actually love us back, but I think it goes deeper than that. We know that a robot dog will not love us, but the feelings evoked are still real.

  17. Edgar Munguambe Edgar Munguambe 5 September 2012

    Battlestar Galactica strikes me as an anti-technocrat’s wet dream. In philosophy whatever has an effect as its consequence is called a cause, one of the causes of technology that can serve as an anti-thesis to the dystopian concerns of anti-technocrats is the telos i.e. the goal or overarching cause, technology such as a Viper fighters serve as battle aircrafts just like real life fighter jets. Heidegger argues that technology is made possible but not because of mere objects, the computer in front of you for instance is not just an object it is standing-reserve. Standing reserve is everything that is ordered to stand by, to be immediately at hand in order to fulfill a task for which it was designed for, in the case of the computer; it was switched on, the respective browser allowed you to find this page and the interface made it possible to accept, read and possibly reply to my comment. In this example the computer’s real function is to make it possible for a comment to be accepted, read and replied to, there is no synergy. There is no synergy in your computer, a fighter jet or any standing-reserve for that matter, thus machines and technology by extension is unable to take over the world in the fashion of Battlestar Galactica’s cyclical struggle between humans and machine…. (continued below)

  18. Edgar Munguambe Edgar Munguambe 5 September 2012

    (continued)…Further in terms of Ancient Greek’s “onto-theological” viewpoint; the theology or the origins of machines is human engineering and the ontology, the fundamental nature of a machine such as a computer for instance, in terms of the material is: metals, wires, electricity etc. In terms of non-material the ontology of a machine is……….exactly, machines have no non-material substance: there is no soul, no spirit hence, no autonomy, no sociality, no aesthetic appreciation, in short no life. No life means machines will never fight with humankind over power. Battlestar Galactica is and always will be science-fiction

  19. Brita Brita 5 September 2012

    It is a bit frightening to comprehend that machines could possibly programme our defence mechanisms. This also makes me think of ‘Deep blue’ and the chess case study where through surveillance; a form of technology has been created/revealed to manipulate human beings into thinking that Deep Blue is more intelligent than us.

    In relation to machines (robots) loving humans, it forms part of the theme of abjection. The result of these robots and what they are capable of conveys the theme of abjection as it is something traumatic and unknowable because we do not know if our technological and scientific advances will turn against us in the form of a battle or war as seen in many films and series. This is our greatest fear, anxiety, wonderment. I am not saying that technology has not created ‘war’ already (in terms of surveillance, panopticism, regimentation) but in relation to robots with artificial intelligence, it reminds me of Victor Frankenstein and his monster. The abjection within Victor has produced something from the darkest depths of himself that possibly stems from the will to power, the will to create something powerful…

  20. Edison Edison 26 September 2012

    I must say its really great that human being has the capacity to think that far or that deep about the possibilities and put into play to make it part of the daily existance of mankind. It is facinating to think that machines could possibly takeover humanity in these extent. Like Edgar put it “Standing reserve. machines are made to be controlled, switched on/off when man needs it to function or serve or do something for them. It is really frightening to think that one day it might come to reality that machines will turn on mankind and we would forced under their arm, but reality is that we havent had that kind of technolgy bringing us close to such, in terms fictional production it is great to show possibilities and help preparer for the unknown. it is very impossible to come across and independent mind that functions like humans and to think that a man made machine could somehow one day wipe oup out humanity is absolute. Mankind is himself his worst enemy, by indutrialism, capitalism, and all. With regards to artificial interlligence nothing exists beyond human interligence.

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