Dispatches from the Suburbs of Hell

Heaven is for the obedient. Hell is for the wrathful. What of the ones in between? We wind up in the Suburbs. Our sin is individuality. Our punishment is boredom. But at least we're in good company.

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Location: New England, United States

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Frakking With My Head

Both Isaac Asimov and Rod Serling understood quite well the importance of science fiction. Sci-Fi enables authors to tell fables, to write allegories about human nature without being bound to a specific time or place. It can provide hope for what we CAN become, and voice warnings about what we COULD become. And often it can hold up a mirror to what we truly are; removed from familiar circumstances, a popular point of view can be seen in a different way. The best sci-fi is the kind that makes us think. And the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica series - widely considered not only the best sci-fi show currently on TV, but also one of the best TV shows currently on air, period - does make one think. And the thoughts it raises are not pleasant.

The recent article by Brad Reed posted on the American Prospect Online (www.prospect.org) makes the point that I as a liberal moderate - with some radical leanings; it really depends on how drunk I am - find a bit off-putting. The new BSG is a remarkably well-written show, and frightfully realistic. Completely jettisoning the campy space opera of the original BSG, producer Ronald D Moore and his gallant crew created a show that is entirely its own. The tone of the show is grim, as befitting a story which begins with the utter destruction of human civilization, as it chronicles the efforts of the 40,000 or so survivors of the Twelve Colonies to escape their Cylon destroyers and find a safe haven mentioned in their myths and legends - a place called Earth. There's a real realism to the situation. Our main characters are deeply flawed individuals, and the decisions they make out of their desperation to survive are often horrifying but so understandably necessary. They just escaped the apocalypse; how reasonable would any of us be after that?

But that's not the most frustrating part for a person of liberal leanings who sits and thinks about the show for a bit. It's the conservative mindset of the show. When you stop and think about it, the BSG storyling plays out like an extreme right-wing version of the "War on Terror."

Ponder this:

The story begins when the Cylons - a race of cyborgs that split off from humanity after a civil war - launch a devastating sneak attack on the Twelve Colonies. Having grown complacent after 40 years of peace, the Colonies fall quickly, and the remnants of humanity escape in whatever ships they can find, forever running and forever fighting the Cylons who pursue them relentlessly, determined as they are to completely wipe out humanity. Further, it is revealed, the Cylons have not only evolved into a humanoid form superficially identical to humans - and are thus able to plant sleeper agents anywhere they want - but they have also found religion. The Cylons believe that they are God's chosen people, and that humanity is an abomination that must be purged from the universe.

Sounds familiar, doesn't it? Of course, the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001 had such a foundation-shaking impact on American society, that it's probably next to impossible to NOT look for a parallel in the works of fiction to come after it. Nevertheless, it's there. A race of self-righteous religious fanatics, convinced that their god wants them to purify the world, launch a sneak attack upon what they perceive as the great evil. And scariest of all, they can walk among us undetected. The guy standing next to you on the subway could be the enemy, and you'd never know until it was too late.

The rag-tag fugitive fleet of human survivors are led by two people: Adama (played with perfect craggy-faced intensity by Edward James Olmos), grizzled war veteran and commander of the last surviving warship; and Roslin (the always-great Mary MacDonald), former Secretary of Education and 43rd in the Line of Succession. The fact that she's the only one left to assume the mantle of President really drives the point home of just how desperate the situation is (and to the show's credit, it doesn't take the easy way out with a female leader; any doubts other characters express about Roslin's leadership abilities are based on her inexperience, not her sex). The military and the civilian leaders share an uneasy alliance, until Roslin starts to have prophetic visions, which may or may not be hallicunations stemming from an herbal medicine she was using to treat her cancer. When Roslin starts acting on her visions, that causes a rift with the pragmatic Adama, but strengthens her position among the more religious survivors.

It's worth noting that in the BSG universe, religion is a powerful thing. The Colonial religion - loosely based on Greek mythology, in contrast to the Cylons' fanatical monotheism - has tremendous political clout. Many of Roslin's supporters during her temporary split with Adama are fundamentalists, and it just so happens her visions line up quite nicely with a bit of prophetic scripture. With their support Roslin becomes the spiritual leader of the fleet as well as the political one, and it's that role that often influences her decisions. In one particularly difficult episode, Roslin issues an executive order to criminalize abortion - mostly to bolster population growth among the handful of human survivors, but the fact that it endears her to the strict fundamentalists that make up her electorate doesn't hurt. Again, the parallels are somewhat glaring. Here on Earth, we have a current President who has made no secret of his fundamentalist religious beliefs and his support of "protecting the rights of the unborn." With Laura Roslin, we at least have the luxury of seeing the situation from her eyes, an agonizing sacrifice of her own personal beliefs in service to a greater good. We have no such luxury with George W Bush; we don't even have the comfort of believing that he finds the decisions he makes in office are in contrast with his own morals. In both the fictional and real cases, we are asked to accept that the decision will end up being the right one in the long run. Somehow the ficitonal one holds more water.

And then we have Roslin's opponents within the fleet; apparently politics, like cockroaches and fruitcake, will survive the apocalypse. Several public figures within the fleet array against Roslin and her policies, including a terrorist movement calling for the end of the war with the Cylons - and two former allies. The first is Tom Zarek (Richard Hatch, cast member of the original BSG and back for more), a former radical activist and political prisoner. The charismatic Zarek is given a significant Machiavellian quality, manipulating every situation for his own personal gain. He sees the destruction of Colonial civilization as an opportunity to start anew, build a new order, one free of the abuses he has fought against. Although we're never privy to what these abuses were, exactly. Zarek's specific politics are never explored; we're never even told why he was imprisoned. This is important, because it makes his motivations in building this glorious new order seem completely and entirely self-centered. He's not interested in a better world for the human race; he's interested in being in charge.

The other former ally is Gaius Baltar (James Callum, sniveling with the best of them), a brilliant scientist who has the unfortunate tendency to think with his...ahem, LOWER brain as much as his upper one. Baltar is, in fact, the one responsible for the Cylon invasion; he shared his confidental government security access with a woman whom he thought was a rival contractor - turns out she was a Cylon agent. Oops. Driven a bit nuts by guilt, Baltar becomes more unstable as demands are made on him, until finally he decides to run against Roslin for President in the next general election (with Zarek as his Vice-President and puppet master, no less). They run on a platform of ending hostilities with the Cylons and settling on a newly-discovered world beyond Cylon reach. Roslin runs on a platform of staying the course, heading for Earth, foiling the Cylons at ever turn. Lured by the promise of a new world to call home and expertly manipulated by Zarek's spin control, the fleet elects Baltar into office and begins settling the world which they dub New Caprica.

One year later, things are falling apart. The population is still living in tents and quonset huts (or whatever the equivalent is in this universe), civil unrest is rampant, and Baltar can't be bothered to care. He spends his days drinking, getting it on with interns, and ignoring pesky problems like being a Head of State. THEN the Cylons show up. The orbiting military fleet, woefully undermanned since the colonization began, has no choice but to flee and regroup, and Baltar surrenders power without putting up a fight.

Again, we can draw parallels. Neocons love to vilify Bill Clinton, and as President Gaius Baltar is an obvious caricature of him. I'll be the first to say Clinton was a disgrace as a human being, but he could at least effectively govern the country for eight years. Baltar is not so effective. He is a weak-willed womanizing drunk, under whose regime the military suffered attrition in resources and manpower to the point where it could not mount an effective defense against an attacking enemy. Meanwhile, puppet master Zarek, the selfish godless intellectual, is nowhere to be found. The two of them together sought to build a new order, and that order failed spectacularly. This is pretty much what arch-conservatives warned us would happen if John Kerry had won the 2004 election: the liberals took power and the terrorists won.

In his piece, Brad Reed goes on to say that, with the new third season of BSG, the political allegory of the show has changed: the Cylons are now in charge of New Caprica, and the humans are fighting a war of insurgency (even making use of suicide bombers). Reed goes onto point out how several conservative blogger pundits have now decried the show, as it appears now to be a critique of the Iraq War. I'm not entirely certain I agree, as those fighting the Cylons are the same ones that always have been. The nature of the war has not changed, only the battlefield. The parallels to real-life are again obvious, but if anything it shows just how alike religious radicals are. Cylon or human, Christian or Muslim...when you're willing to strap a bomb to your back for some nebulous greater good, there's no quantifiable difference any more. In the BSG universe, we're once again asked to believe that the humans are the "good guys," and this is yet another disasteful but necessary thing they must do to survive. It requires us to think about the psychology of a suicide bomber: what kind of person would do this? What would lead to him this place, where blowing himself up for the cause seems reasonable? It's a dark road to travel, and a difficult one. Heavy stuff; no wonder the pundits are pissed.

In tonight's episode, we were introduced to a new situation. The fleet is back together, they have escaped New Caprica and are on the road back to Earth. Roslin is reinstated as President. The divinely-appointed conservative who guided humanity through its darkest hour is restored to power. And a secret death squad - comissioned by Zarek, his last act as President before stepping down - is moving through the fleet, eliminating Cylon collaborators. The fact that this death squad is composed of several characters we thought were good guys makes it hard to condemn them entirely. And the fact that some of these characters suffered great personal losses under the Cylon regime makes it hard to hate them. Once this is discovered, Zarek, ever the manipulator, claims he was, once again, acting for the greater good: by quietly eliminating these people, he is letting Roslin start her term with a clean slate, free of any need for costly investigations or legal actions. Roslin solves this moral dilemma by rising above it: she offers a blanket amnesty to all surviving human beings, pardoning any and all collaborators, thus eliminating the need for trials or secret death squads, and truly allowing humanity to start anew.

Saintly stuff, right? In the BSG universe, yes, where we have positive proof that the conservatives were right and the liberals almost destroyed humanity. In the real world, such a thing seems cowardly...and increasingly more likely to happen. The idea of having some magnanimous figure simply absolve all of us of our missteps in the Iraq War, so that we can just put this unpleasantness behind us and move on, is both arrogant and aggravating. It means those responsible for the mess will never be held accountable. And will most likely remain in power despite a proven inability to effectively wield it. While in the BSG world, we know that this maintaining of the status quo, this staying of the course, is a good thing, in the real world we know it's not. And it's aggravating to see those in power pretending that it is in the face of clear evidence to the contrary. George W Bush is not Laura Roslin. His plan for America - if you can call it that - is not the best plan for the survival of the human race, a fact that becomes increasingly clear with each passing day.

Science Fiction's job is to hold up a mirror to human society, and we often don't like what we see. But the consolation is that, once we see the mirror image, we can see what is wrong and strive to change it. Let's hope we can do so before we're all floating homeless through the void.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Portrait in Flesh said...

There's always been something that's kind of bothered me about the new BSG but I could never quite put my finger on just what it was. (And, no, it's not just because I'm never going to get a chance to see Lucifer or any of the other pretty shiny bishops in this version.) To me, the show never really felt like science fiction per se; more of a standard drama than anything else. Sure they're out in space, but that somehow seems only incidental. But now I see what it is that's bothered me about the show; it's the politics. Something so obvious I can't believe I didn't pick up on it before.

And politics (like religion and professional sports) is a topic I tend to find next to no entertainment value in. On a pure entertainment level, it just doesn't push my buttons.

But sci-fi isn't just about entertainment (although that doesn't hurt). The trouble is most of what BSG is asking us to think about is the type of thing that tends to crumble under close scrutiny. The type of fundamentalism here, it seems to me, is based less on what makes sense and more on what is felt to be morally justifiable. But I'm not even sure if what I said there makes any sense...must be the side effects of that questionable fruitcake I had...

9:37 PM, October 28, 2006  
Blogger Noreen Braman said...

I've fallen behind on the plot since SCI FI became a premium channel in my neck of the woods - but I find this blog to be well written and well thought out. Lots to think about for sure. Also brings up the age old debate usually reserved for literary works - is it just a good story, an allegory, a cautionary tale - you know, was Lord of the Rings really about World War II .... Lots to think about here. Now I have to go yell at my cable company... I want my SCI FI back.

9:47 PM, October 29, 2006  

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