Battlestar Galactica as political and social allegory

Contributed by
Oct 31, 2006

I've been watching BSG for some time now (which is obvious enough if you search this blog for the word "frak"), and the show has a surprising depth of complexity. Surprising to many because it's science fiction; but I've been reading SF since I was a boy, so complexity in that genre doesn't surprise me. I'm surprised simply because TV shows don't generally show such dimensionality. BSG has it, and the last few episodes ending Season 2 and starting Season 3 have had it in spades.

This past week's story was so current I was shocked. A very brief synopsis (SPOILERS!): cylons are the bad guys, and have nearly wiped out all humans. Some humans escaped and found a planet to colonize, but the cylons followed and took over. There were lots of allegories to WWII (some people turned collaborator, some went underground to become insurgents, most just followed along) and some obvious references to our current situation in the US. with the Iraq war.

The humans eventually rebelled and escaped. But back on board the ship, a ring of six people started grabbing people they thought were collaborators, tried them without their knowledge, and if found guilty blew them out the airlock. This situation was handled very well by the writers and actors, I'll add.

What really shocked me was, at the end (BIG SPOILERS!) it was revealed that all this was orchestrated by the President of the humans. He authorized the power to The Six to try and execute collaborators without public trial, without legal voice, and even without their knowledge. The President defended this position, and he in fact made rational arguments. These arguments, however, did not make what he did right.

If this topic sounds familiar, maybe it should. I've written about this before (first here, and then following up on it here). In the show, the President resigns (for other reasons) and the new President gives amnesty to all collaborators. That's neither here nor there for the purposes I'm writing now.

What is most interesting to me about this is that Mrs. BA and I let the Little Astronomer watch the show. We generally don't; BSG is decidedly for grown ups, with many episodes having very mature themes. But we decided to let her watch this, figuring that if things got too intense we could tell her to go somewhere else for a few minutes. They never did, so she got to watch the whole thing. I'm glad she did.

After the show, she was a little confused. So we talked a bit about Hitler, the Hitler Youth, and collaborators (direct themes of earlier episodes of BSG). We talked about what it meant to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, what the difference is between "innocent" and "not guilty" (a subtle difference, but as wide as the gulf between stars), and how some people think it's better that 100 guilty people go free rather than jail one innocent person, and how some people think the opposite.

That last point was crucial. She said, "I think it would be OK if one innocent person goes to jail if it means 10,000 guilty people do too." I then asked her, how about 9000 people? Or 2000? Where do you draw the line? We then explained what a "slippery slope" argument was, and how you have to be very, very careful when drawing a line in the sand. Where do you draw it? When is it okay to jail an innocent person? Is it ever?

Liberal or conservative, libertarian or autocrat, right/left/middle/agnostic, I don't care. These are not theoretical issues. Maybe they never were, but they have solid impact these days, very solid. You might think Battlestar Galactica is just a TV show, or you might think it's a literary masterpiece, but either way, it's an excellent stepping stone to talk about topics that really, we all need to be talking about now. My daughter is young, and there's no way she can understand the subtleties of these arguments, but I'm hoping that just by talking about them with her she is learning how to think about them. I swear, if more people knew how to think, this world would be a far finer place to live.

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