Wrong Is Right: The Political Jiu-Jitsu of Battlestar Galactica

Full disclosure: My personal politics are half Socialist and half Libertarian.

Battlestar Galactica
Photo: Syfy

The first episodes of Battlestar Galactica’sthird season revised the text displayed during the opening credits, thereby distilling the series’s premise down to its absolute basics: “The Human Race—Far from Home—Fighting for Survival.” In other words, these folks live thousands of lightyears away yet inexplicably worship the Greco-Roman pantheon and are at war with a genocidally-inclined artificial species of their own creation…but they’re us.

Of course, in saying that, executive producers Ronald D. Moore and David Eickand their creative team are equating the human species in general with the United States, the better to traffic in allegories about post-9/11 America, BSG’s stock-in-trade ever since the 2003 pilot miniseries. From both a creative and commercial standpoint, that’s a dicey proposition. Given how polarized the U.S. and the world have become since 9/11, any series that tackles the detention and torture of enemy combatants or the suppression of civil rights in a time of national crisis is going to either alienate half its audience or else cling to a milquetoast middleground and come off as either wishy-washy or opportunistic. But Moore and Eick devised an ingenious third option: on BSG, they’ve mastered a form of political jiu-jitsu, coming up with plots that, within the context of the story, at least—put liberal viewers in a position where they’re forced to agree with the Fox News crowd and, alternately, make Dittoheads see things through the eyes of DailyKos readers.

Full disclosure: My personal politics are half Socialist and half Libertarian; by default, given the either/or nature of the American system, I’m what most people would call an extremely liberal Democrat. As such, I can only guess how effective BSG is at making right-wingers see the world through liberal eyes. I’m in awe of how Moore and Eick persuaded me to agree, for example, that there are circumstances under which abortion should be banned (via “The Captain’s Hand”), but the episodes that seem constructed to make conservatives understand an opposing viewpoint strike me as politically facile (from my perspective, they’re preaching to the converted). For that reason, I wonder if episodes like “Hand” seem as thuddingly obvious to those on the right.

With that caveat in mind, let’s go back in time to the first appearance of Moore and Eick’s jiu-jitsu: the series’s third episode, “Bastille Day,” which introduced Tom Zarek (Richard Hatch), the radical Saggitron native who has become the show’s most useful political figure—his radical politics allow the writers to use him as a hero or villan depending on plot requirements, in addition to articulating arguments that don’t quite fit in the mouths of any of the principal characters. In his first appearance, Zarek—then locked up on the same prison ship upon which was being transported when the Cylons first attacked—was presented as a combination of Simón Bólivar, Nelson Mandela and Timothy McVeigh. We learned that the ever-rebellious Apollo (Jamie Bamber) was a big Zarek fan back in his college days. The revelation that Zarek’s book was flat-out censored by the authorities provided a intriguing hint that humankind’s governing document, the Articles of Colonization, might not resemble the U.S. Constitution as closely as we thought.

Zarek’s not in prison for his words, however, but for his actions: though we don’t learn the details, it’s suggested that Zarek killed an unspecified number of people in an Oklahoma City-type attack. Throughout the episode, Apollo acts like a conservative stereotype of simpering liberals who would rather protect abstract notions of fairness than defend peaceful citizens against terrorists. He travels to Zarek’s galley hoping to recruit him and other convicts for a work gang—but his offer to reduce sentences in exchange for hard labor is rebuffed, a mass uprising ensues, and he ends up being imprisoned himself. Zarek holds Lee and other Galactica crewmembers as hostages, saying he’ll only release them after the resignation of Laura Roslin, who he sees as an illegitimate leader (even though she was elevated to the presidency according to rules laid out in the Articles). Secretly, though, Zarek wants to use the standoff to engineer a bloody showdown between prisoners and the Galactica’s marines in the hope of bringing down Roslin and getting publicity that will help him reestablish a power base; so what if a few dozen innocents die in the process? Conservative viewers are given a classic opportunity to say “I told you so!”, while liberals are faced with the implication that the Dick Cheney/Alberto Gonzalezwiretapping, rendition-approving, it’s-abuse-not-torture crowd might have a point.

But the situation reverses itself again when Apollo quashes Zarek’s rebellion by offering to use his clout with Commander Adama (Edward James Olmos) and President Roslin (Mary McDonnell) to force them to stick to a constitutionally-mandated election timetable and succession procedure. For a liberal idealist, this seems a happy ending in which diplomacy and respect for the letter of the Constitution carries the day. For those on the other side, the ending probably just seemed like a setup for the return of a really juicy villain. This could be construed as an argument in favor of negotiating with terrorists, but the desperate situation—the prisoners were needed to help harvest ice needed to replenish the fleet’s rapidly-dwindling water supply—allows the writers to avoid taking a firm stance on either side of the issue.

If Zarek is often BSG’s ultimate conservative bogeyman, his flipside would have to be Saul Tigh (Michael Hogan), who has come to symbolize authoritarian force. This aspect of the character was most prominent at the start of season two, in the story arc where Adama was sidelined after an assassination and Tigh took command of the fleet and declared martial law. Notwithstanding his raging alcoholism, Tigh has always been BSG’s poster boy for law-and-order conservatism. His initial response to the attempt on Adama’s life—a dramatic increase in military discipline—may seem logical, but his tenure as fleet commander soon turns into a fiasco thanks to his impulsiveness and drinking. After he officially declares martial law, a poorly-trained solder kills several civilians while trying to suppress a riot; when Adama awakes from his coma, the fleet is on the verge of chaos. To those who agree with Tigh’s iron-fisted approach to crisis management, his failure may have played as a legitimate tragedy. But to those who think Tigh’s methodology has had toxic effects on American life when applied by the Cheney gang, the sense of sadness comes not from Tigh’s personal collapse, but from the inevitability of chaos ensuing from his crackdown on liberty (it’s tempting for those on the left to gloat when such tactics backfire, but the body count makes it difficult).

Fixing the political position of any arc, episode or individual character is not easy, because on BSG, no element is ever static. By the start of Season Three, for example, Zarek—who had become Vice President of the Twelve Colonies—had morphed into somebody conservatives could admire as an exemplar of principled patriotism, for his unilateral refusal to collaborate with the Cylons. Tigh, on the other hand, seemed to skew leftward as season two progressed, perhaps in response to the Galactica’s first encounter with the Battlestar Pegasus (in “Pegasus” and “Resurrection Ship Part 1 & 2”), commanded by the ultra-authoritarian Admiral Caine (Michelle Forbes), who dehumanized her troops.

Liberals and conservatives alike root for the human fleet, and in so doing, root for America’s best interests, whatever they consider those to be. But the series goes out of its way to complicate one’s sympathies. For instance, in the season two finale when Tigh attempted to steal the presidential election to ensure the re-election of Laura Roslin over her rival Baltar (James Callis), a secret Cylon mole and collaborator, he was unknowingly acting on behalf of humankind’s best interests. The inarguable rightness of Tigh’s Chicago-style electioneering put liberal viewers in an awkward position. The Supreme Court-decided outcome of the 2000 U.S. Presidential election recommitted Democrats to the sanctity of the one-man, one-vote paradigm, and reinforced their perception of the Republican Party as unrepentant dirty tricksters who would go the extra mile to suppress or disqualify ballots in the name of victory. Yet in identifying with the humans—who in some sense represent American citizens—liberal viewers found themselves cheering for Baltar to get screwed in much the same way they believe Al Gore got screwed by Team Bush. At the same time, G.O.P. voters who believed the 2000 election was a case of the end justifying the means might have found themselves thinking that this episode did a better job of justifying their side through allegory than Team Bush ever did in news reports.

The theft of the election was shot down by Adama and Felix Gaeta (Alessandro Juliani), two of the series’s most sympathetic characters, who briefly became “bad guys” for putting an end to the scheme and unknowingly signing the death warrants of thousands of colonists who would perish at Cylon hands on New Caprica a year later (rough cuts of “Collaborators” sent to the press listed the number of survivors after the evacuation of New Caprica as 36,592, which was bumped up to 41,435 when the episode aired). On New Caprica, Tigh became the leader of the resistance against the Cylon occupiers and their human proxies; this led him to embrace tactics favored by groups like the PLO and Hamasand Iraqi insurgents in our world—including suicide bombing. Tigh’s innate appeal to conservatives forced them to view events through the eyes of political movements they’re inclined to demonize. (That said, this particular trope was irksome from a common sense standpoint: when your race has less than 20,000 women of child-bearing age left alive, suicide bombing, like abortion, is not a good idea.)

Of the humans who made it off New Caprica alive, no one suffered more than Tigh, who lost an eye (unlike Odin, he hasn’t received wisdom in exchange—not yet, anyway) and killed his own wife as punishment for her collaboration with the Cylons. But he soon lost the sympathy of liberal viewers by leading a “star chamber” court that tried perceived collaborators on the basis of flimsy evidence and gave the accused little opportunity to defend themselves. The parallels to the Bush administration’s limits on the ability of accused terrorists to have their day in court were clear—perhaps transparent. It seems clear that the writers wanted to show conservative viewers the folly of a democratic society restricting legal rights of those held and charged as enemies of the state. If any were led to reconsider their opinions of the Abu Ghraib scandal and the conditions at Guantanamo Bay,I can hardly complain. As an opponent of the Bush administration’s interpretation of the Constitution, though, the episode seemed groaningly obvious—especially it was revealed that the nearly-executed Gaeta, formerly Baltar’s aide, was the mole who saved humanity by leaking the Cylon plans. (The script treated this as a big surprise, but there were no other logical candidates, and the preceding episodes were loaded with broad hints.) This time, it was liberals who were left smacking their foreheads at the obviousness of the message, although the progressives and radicals among the characters were hardly let off the hook—the executions and trials (some as brief as Admiral Caine’s famous two-second courts-martial) were ordered by Zarek, who briefly succeeded Baltar as president, and Everyman deck chief Galen Tyrol (whose activist bona fides were proven when Moore and Eick had him deliver a speech cribbed from 1960s UC Berkeley campus activist Mario Savioin the season-two finale) sat alongside Tigh on the bench at the kangaroo court.

In season three, BSG’s focus has shifted more to religion and philosophy, but political allegory remains a core component of of the series’s DNA. Production leadtimes and Sci Fi’s scheduling policies prevent the series from literally ripping stories from the headlines as the Law & Order shows do, but that’s undoubtedly for the best; if the goal is to make people rethink their fundamental assumptions, broad hypothetical scenarios are better than specific questions. Besides, neither a diminished Cylon threat (courtesy of the virus that’s floating around out there) or even the discovery of Earth is going to get all of the colonists to agree on the right way to solve any given problem, because they’re us.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

Andrew Johnston

Andrew Johnston was a film and TV critic. He wrote primarily for Time Out New York and Us Weekly and was also editor of the "Time In" section of Time Out New York.

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