TV Review: The Best Pop Culture Translation of the War on Terror is… Battlestar Galactica?!


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It’s Christmas week, so here is something lighter than usual…

And yes, you read that title right.

Lots of people get their beliefs about big issues from pop-culture, a social fact wildly underappreciated in social science. Witness the stunning impact of “24” on US popular attitudes to terrorism. And of all the shows and movies I have seen about the GWoT since 9/11, none of them capture the tensions as well as the new Battlestar Galatica. This is not a replacement for actually reading something, but it was political TV entertainment with brain, and that strikes me as awful rare. I just watched it on DVD. The show really flies off the rails midway through season 3, but the first few seasons are much sharper than I expected regarding the GWoT.

In the show, a human people from a far away planet are being pursued across space by a mechanical race (the Cylons) which they created but who then turned on them. The creators used this plot, which was so bad in the first show in 1978, to build an extended metaphor about the US in the War on Terrorism. I found this remarkably clever, particularly given American science fiction’s preference for silly CGI space alien stories like Avatar. Here are a few good parallels:

1. The humans repeatedly face extreme and realistic trade-offs that result in mass fatalities. Usually GWoT movies and TV soft pedal ethically awkward choices by establishing one character as the bad guy, whose death will wrap up the morality of the story easily (see the bloodthirsty Christian prince in Kingdom of Heaven or the sleazy bad guys of 24). In BSG, some humans are sacrificed for the good of the greater number. Civilians are left behind to die; soldiers shoot civilians; defenseless enemies are butchered. No one leaves the show morally excused or pure and therefore easy for US viewers to identify this.

2. The torture debate runs throughout the show. Cylon prisoners are abused, beaten, even raped. And even more realistically, sometimes torture is shown to work, sometimes not. And in one episode, a prisoner released from torture promptly kills her guard – very believable and very uncomfortable punishment for doign the right thing. The Cylons too torture their prisoners. It’s blood and pain all around, which pretty much sums up the US flirtation with torture as a tool of national policy.

3. The shows nicely demonstrates the tension between civil and military command during wartime. At two points, there are military putsches and martial law – basically Chalmers Johnson’s fear about the direction of the Bush presidency.

4. Lots of decisions are made under conditions of extremely poor information. The show abounds in the moral dilemmas of ‘what if’ scenarios that leave more bodies behind. At one point, the civilian president and military second-in-command decide to assassinate the military first-in-command, because she is promoting torture and military dictatorship.

5. The show also channels the GWoT paranoia about sleeper cells. The Cylons have agents that look exactly look humans. This captures exactly the fear of Muslims in the West who seem just like us until something like the London bombing or Ft. Hood shooting happens. Inevitably after these things happen, neighbors always say, ‘they seemed like such nice young men, so normal.’ The show makes strong use of the paranoia this creates, and it shows the splits and divisions among the humans that such paranoia creates.

6. The most obvious parallel, which is probably overdone by the producers, is to make the Cylons crusading monotheists and the humans polytheists. It is almost too easy to see the Cylons as Islamic jihadis. But again, the show gets good intellectual mileage out of the issue of religious tolerance, and the show has multiple characters who invoke God to justify extreme behavior.

7. The show also displays well the long-term stress that constant war places on democracy. The humans slowly become more regimented. Their democracy is constantly under threat of military intervention justified as wartime necessity. The soldiers are constantly tempted by jingoism and strut. The parallels to barracks democracies like Israel and South Korea are rich, and arguably the show was warning against the drift of the Bush administration.

8. There are lots of subtle digs at the Bush people. One leadership character prefers a standing desk and authorizes torture – nice a Donald Rumsfeld reference. The president of the humans undergoes a religious conversion.

9. The show does have flaws. Like too much science fiction, the core audience is young male, so the show abounds in ridiculously out-of-place sexy women. The CGI is mixed. The show has the same military obsession with people in uniform that so much US TV and film has. Like so many US war films, there is a great deal of macho military posturing, saluting, and barking, but at least there is some critical perspective. But this adulation of the military values also reflects the Bush-era GWoT.

This is vastly superior to 24 and other GWoT junk like Stealth or Lord of the Rings 3. The moral dilemmas are sharply defined, the choices available are usually bad, and the ‘right’ moral choice is rarely clearly apparent. The same kinds of cost-benefit analyses under stress and poor information that characterize political decision-making during war are regularly displayed. I found this a breadth of fresh air after laboring through the action-movie and easy morality idiocy of 24.

3 thoughts on “TV Review: The Best Pop Culture Translation of the War on Terror is… Battlestar Galactica?!

  1. From The Washington Post by William M. Daley:
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/12/23/AR2009122302439_pf.html

    “But now they face a grim political fate. On the one hand, centrist Democrats are being vilified by left-wing bloggers, pundits and partisan news outlets for not being sufficiently liberal, “true” Democrats. On the other, Republicans are pounding them for their association with a party that seems to be advancing an agenda far to the left of most voters.”

    The Democrat Left has gone Rush Limbaugh on centrist Dems. I think that it might be too late. The Left just might sink the Democrats just as the Right sunk the Republicans in 2008.

    How ironic, the same argument that was being mad vis a vis this subject and Repubs is now being mad in the Left/Democrat context. Problem is that the Democrats are afraid to take on their Left Wing. Sound familiar?

    Dr. Bob, what say you? You have written about this subject vis a vis Right/Republicans. What is your take on this?

  2. Pingback: “Homefront” Video Game: ‘I Pledge Allegiance to Kim Jong-Eun’ – Hah! « Asian Security Blog

  3. Pingback: 9/11 a Decade Later (1): The Apocalypse that Wasn’t… « Asian Security Blog

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