The Sci-Fi Channel’s reimagination of the original Battlestar Galactica (BSG) series (1978-79) in the early 2000s earned critical praise and a passionate fan base by addressing critical issues of the day, specifically terrorism and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.[i] BSG blends elements of the classic space opera with timely commentary on racism, religious intolerance and extremism, and humanity’s fraught relationship with technology. “The Cylons were created by man,” the series’ opening text reads, “They were created to make life easier on the twelve colonies. And then the day came when the Cylons decided to kill their masters. After a long and bloody struggle an armistice was declared. The Cylons left for another world to call their own.”[ii] The armistice abruptly ends when the Cylons infiltrate the colonies’ defense network and launch a coordinated nuclear attack on every human settlement and military installation, leaving only the antiquated Battlestar Galactica and a collection of random ships stranded in space.
The 2003 miniseries introduces the characters and their complicated personal relationships with each other during intense and unrelenting stress and trauma. Bill Adama (Edward James Olmos), quietly hoping to end his career with Galactica’s decommissioning ceremony on the day of the attack, is thrust into the position of saving what’s left of the human race while overseeing a cantankerous crew filled with drunks and insubordinate pilots, including his estranged son Lee (Jamie Bamber). Moreover, Adama must defer to the lowly Secretary of Education Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell), the sole survivor in the cabinet and therefore newly inaugurated President of the Colonies. The two reluctant leaders navigate the hazards of civil-military relations during an unprecedented emergency.
The Cylons, no longer just a clunky race of metal Centurions with roving red eyes and metallic voices, are led by intricate “skin jobs” who appear human, practice monotheism (the humans are polytheists), and rule by consensus. For the next several years the two races will try to destroy each other while seeking the fabled home of the Thirteenth Tribe of Kobol – the planet Earth.
BSG’s most controversial storyline concerns the Cylon occupation of New Caprica, a failing colony populated by fleet members exhausted by the failed search for Earth. Critics noted references to the American occupation of Iraq, including a violent insurgency and ruthless counterinsurgency, terrorist attacks, the use of torture, and a puppet government. In other words, the Americans are the Cylons and the Iraqis are the “good guys.” Show creator Ronald Moore responded to the outcry:
“A lot of people have asked me if the Cylon occupation was our way of addressing the situation in Iraq, but it really wasn’t . . . . There are obvious parallels, but the truth is when we talked about the episodes in the writers’ room we talked more about Vichy France, Vietnam, the West Bank, and various other occupations; we even talked about what happened when the Romans were occupying Gaul.”[iii]
Moore referenced the Holocaust frequently in the series, especially during the New Caprica episodes.[iv] The Cylons arrive in force, marching hundreds of Centurions into the human settlement in a scene reminiscent of Nazis parading through Paris through a crowd of stunned onlookers. Gaius Baltar (James Callis), who is President of the Colonies after defeating Roslin, collaborates with the Cylon invaders to save himself and keep power. Like the Judenrat (Jewish councils) formed to carry out Nazi policies in Poland’s ghettos, Baltar’s regime is at the occupier’s disposal.[v] John Cavil (Dean Stockwell), the most anti-human Cylon, loses patience with New Capricans and presses for reprisals to “reduce the human population to a more manageable size, say half.”[vi] The resistance is led by Galactica executive officer Saul Tigh (Michael Hogan) and Chief Galen Tyrol (Aaron Douglas), but they disagree over tactics, specifically deploying suicide bombers to kill human collaborators. “Some things you just don’t do, Colonel,” Galen says to the fanatical Tigh, “not even in war.”[vii] The storyline culminates with the Cylons orchestrating their own Babi Yar, a mass execution in a remote forested area outside the settlement. The visual cues are unmistakable – this is the “Holocaust by bullets.”[viii]
Normally a classic military SF story featuring ship to ship combat, the New Caprica interlude explores the brutality of this genocidal war at the ground level. Both the Cylons and humans lived with the knowledge that “All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.” The cycle of creation and self-destruction surely must break, but the series finale seemed to indicate otherwise. All of this has happened before. The question remains, does it have to happen again?
[i] BSG earned eight Emmy award nominations and won the distinguished Peabody Award in 2006.
[ii] Battlestar Galactica, Episode #1.1, directed by Michael Rymer, Amazon, December 8, 2003.
[iii] Quoted in Steven Rawle, “Real-imagining Terror in Battlestar Galactica: Negotiating Real and Fantasy in BSG’s Political Metaphor” in Kaveney and Stoy, 144.
[v] Quoted in Wills.
[vi] Battlestar Galactica, “Occupation,” Season 3, Episode 1, directed by Sergio Mimica-Gezzan, Amazon, October 6, 2006.
[vii] Battlestar Galactica, “Occupation.”
[viii] On September 29-30, 1941, SS and German police units and their auxiliaries murdered the Jewish population of Kiev at Babi Yar, a ravine northwest of the city. This episode was one of the largest mass murders at an individual location during World War II. According to reports by the Einsatzgruppe to headquarters, 33,771 Jews were massacred in two days. See “Kiev and Babi Yar”, Holocaust Encyclopedia, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/kiev-and-babi-yar [accessed June 20, 2019].