Saturday, April 5, 2008

BattleStar Galactica: Unique Science Fiction

In my opinion, three science fiction television series stand head and shoulders above all the rest: StarTrek (the original and all its derivatives), Babylon 5, and Battlestar Galactica. Firefly had potential to join this elite group, but was much too short-lived. Since the final season of Battlestar has just begun, I decided to focus there.

The current Battlestar Galactica is a superb science fiction series. No, that’s too weak a statement, let me amend it. Battlestar Galactica may be the best dramatic show on the tube, regardless of genre. In 2006, BG won the Peabody Award, a first for the SciFi Channel. Time Magazine called it one of the top shows on television and described it as “a ripping sci-fi allegory of the war on terror, complete with religious fundamentalists, sleeper cells, civil liberties crackdowns and even a prisoner torture scandal.”

The current BG premiered in 2003 as a miniseries, loosely based on a show of the same name that ran on television in the late seventies. While the original was a popcorn series, the current BG deals with real issues in times of war. This article introduces the show to those who are not regular viewers, and then describes the difficult issues the series addresses.

The story begins with a devastating attack by intelligent androids (Cylons) that wipes out almost the entire human race except for a few hundred soldiers who escape on Battlestar Galactica, an aging but still powerful military spaceship, and somewhat fewer than fifty thousand civilians in a rag tag collection of ships. BG protects the civilians from the Cylons, who are determined to complete the elimination of humanity. The objective of the humans is to evade the Ceylons and find the mythical planet Earth, which has great religious significance to them. To review the series year by year, check out this article.

The primary characters are Commander William Adama (Edward James Almos), the disciplined, unrelenting military leader; President Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell), the pragmatic, newly elected civilian who becomes increasingly devout and charismatic during the journey; and Kara “Starbuck” Thrace (Katee Sackhoff), a loud, immature but expert Viper pilot who may have a “special destiny” in the search for Earth. The most interesting character is Gaius Baltar, brilliantly portrayed by James Callis, a scientist with a genius level intellect, but also arrogant, untrustworthy and sexually promiscuous.

I’d like to explore the way torture of the enemy was depicted on the show, and how that relates to our war with the forces of terror. Is it permissible to torture under certain circumstances, but not others? And what is torture, anyway?

The episode which really sticks in my mind is “Flesh and Bone,” where the humans have captured Leoben, a Cylon who has planted a nuclear bomb somewhere in the fleet, which he claims will explode in nine hours. Starbuck has responsibility for the interrogation, and she is told to do whatever she needs to do to locate the bomb. After all, the Cylons aren’t human.

Starbuck is brutal; the guards beat and waterboard Leoben, but he doesn’t crack. Roselin joins the interrogation and stops the harsh treatment. Apparently trusting Roselin, Leoben admits that the bomb was a hoax, a bad move. With nothing to fear, Roselin has him flushed out an airlock into space. He was too dangerous, in her opinion, to keep alive. Starbuck has misgivings about their actions, and she prays for the Cylon.

This episode reminds me of the war between the western nations and the Islamic fundamentalists. Consider this situation: we have captured an Al Qaeda leader and searched his computer, where we found a plan to explode a bomb (not nuclear) in an American city, but the plan does not name the specific city or the time the bomb is set to go off. You are asked to interrogate him, but you fail to obtain the necessary information. Then you’re told that the President has authorized waterboarding, even though legally it is a form of torture. Would you do it?

The prisoner says he knows nothing about a bomb, except for what is described in the plan. He claims the computer was just delivered to him yesterday. Is it permissible to torture a prisoner when you don’t know for sure if he has the information? On the other hand, when will you ever know for sure? If you torture him, are you any better than your enemies? But do you allow a bomb to kill hundreds of people rather than torture the truth from your prisoner? And anyway, is waterboarding really torture? It doesn’t cause any permanent damage, right?

I know where I stand on this; the bastard is going to get wet! Where do you stand?

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