Five Times Battlestar Galactica Reflected Real-World Political Conflicts

Wednesday, 24 August 2016 - 12:49PM
Battlestar Galactica
Wednesday, 24 August 2016 - 12:49PM
Five Times Battlestar Galactica Reflected Real-World Political Conflicts
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Battlestar Galactica, specifically the 2004 reimagining, was one of the most well-written and politically potent shows in the history of science fiction. Especially when it first aired on the heels of 9/11 and the American invasion of Iraq, it served as an extended allegory for the post-9/11 political climate. Even more, it was forward-thinking and proposed (or implied) solutions to many real-world conflicts, leading the UN to invite the stars and producers to speak at a panel about the show's insight into resolving religious clashes and international skirmishes:

Opening quote
"The show did some extraordinary work... they were able to look at the world and hold a mirror up to it," says Edward James Olmos says in the above video. "We talked about reconciliation between the Cylons and human beings... I talked about right to choose/right to life, about suicide bombings, they talked about terrorism, they talked about children in war, and it talked a lot about the issues that the U.N. deals with every day."
Closing quote

The entire show does function as one long political allegory, so there are too many real-world parallels to list here. But for brevity's sake, here are five real-world issues that were expertly tackled by this intellectually daring and important show:

War on Terror

When it came out in 2004, the initial destructive event immediately evoked images of 9/11, which would make the Cylons roughly equivalent to Al Qaeda. And while that analogy is more nuanced by the end of the show (more on that in a minute), the paranoia, fear, and "us versus them" mentality that followed the near-extinction event closely mirrored post-9/11 America. And especially since the conflict between the humans and Cylons was religiously motivated, at least in part (the humans are polytheistic while the Cylons follow a more Abrahamic religion, interestingly), there were clear allegorical overtones.


But even when the Cylons were clearly meant to represent Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, Battlestar did not dehumanize the other side, or even necessarily paint the humans as more sympathetic. In one harrowing episode in season one, the Cylon Leoben claims that he has hidden a nuclear warhead on one of the ships that will detonate in nine hours. Feeling the time pressure, Kara keeps him captive and tortures him for the location of the warhead, even resorting to waterboarding at one point. In the end, he was lying about the warhead the whole time, a fact he only reveals after President Roslin has put an end to the interrogation. This was immediately reminiscent of human rights violations perpetrated in the War on Terror, in prisons like Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, and served as a blistering reminder that torture is not only dehumanizing and morally abhorrent, but usually ineffective.

Suicide Bombers

But then, in season three, the writers subverted the allegory by painting an entirely sympathetic picture of suicide bombers. In the third season, the humans have been occupied by Cylons, and while the Cylons aren't perpetrating violence, they are carrying out terrifying raids (with night-vision goggles that are all-too-familiar to Americans), imprisoning dissenters, and enslaving the population. In order to secure their freedom, the humans take drastic measures, including suicide bombing in public areas. Although the show doesn't condone their actions, the humans' desire for freedom and to reclaim their home is entirely relatable, even noble. As a result, the writers made a humanistic critique of Americans' views of insurgents in Iraq and other conflicts in the Middle East: it's easy to demonize suicide bombers when you're the occupiers rather than the occupied.

The Israeli/Palestinian Conflict

During the Cylon occupation in season three, the show functioned as a commentary on both the War on Terror and the conflict between Israel and Palestine. In many ways, the entire premise is much more easily related to the conflict in the Middle East; while Cylons were unquestionably the aggressors, they were largely reacting to a long history of humans subjugating them. And if the humans lost their home when the Cylons attacked in the first episode, the Cylons never had a true home of their own. Both sides were presented as sympathetic and understandable, and reacting to a complex relationship between two peoples that was largely based on actions taken by their ancestors.


In the second season, abortion was tackled in a sensitive (and potentially controversial) way, which somewhat acknowledged both sides of the abortion debate, but mostly fell in the pro-choice camp. In "The Captain's Hand," President Roslin is faced with a young refugee from a religious sect who wants to receive an abortion, while her vice president tells her that if the current birth and death rate continues, the human race will be extinct within two decades. Adama, who is clearly pro-life, suggests an abortion ban. Roslin, who has fought for women's reproductive rights her entire life, is horrified at the thought, but enacts the ban anyway, while allowing the young girl to get an abortion and seek asylum before the ban goes into effect.

While ultimately, abortion is criminalized, Roslin clearly feels morally conflicted about taking away women's autonomy, and faces grave consequences for her decision when the fallout leads to a contentious re-election race (the results of which, in turn, directly lead to the Cylon occupation). And more importantly, the events of the episode contribute to the ongoing theme of survival versus rights; while Adama falls into the conservative camp here, he was the one who originally came to the realization that humanity needs to not only survive, but be "worthy of survival." Roslin's decision, like most decisions made on this show, is meant to fall into a moral grey area, which reflects the thorny and morally ambiguous nature of the real-life abortion debate.
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Battlestar Galactica