Charles River

Charles River
Upper Limit Cloud/Lower Limit Sail

Derrida

"Messianicity is not messianism ... even though this distinction remains fragile and enigmatic." (Jacques Derrida)

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

On "Battelstar Galactica"

It’s inexplicable, but I’ve only just discovered Battlestar Galatica. Oh, I caught a few random installments on the Syfy channel back when I could afford cable. But the timing was never convenient and I’m simply not a destination viewer. Ron Silliman’s touting it piqued my interest and I’m finally catching up with it now, thanks to Apple TV’s on-demand system, and have become totally, ridiculously hooked. After sampling what looked to be some of the choicer episodes with a view to possibly adding them to my Posthumanism course, I’ve settled into routine watching and am almost done with Season One.

Naturally, I couldn’t resist paging through a few of the BSG and Philosophy books (there are three, at least, so far), and while all turn a well-informed scrutiny onto the show’s complex themes – its engagements with gender, religion, terrorism, and posthumanism – I never came across anything that put its finger on the show’s draw. The religious angle, for instance, is a terrible mess – riddled with metaphysical inconsistencies and offering up one theological red herring after another. And, as many commentators have noted, while BSG is exemplary in its use of strong female characters, this dedication appears to fall off sharply in the last two seasons.

Yet BSG is deeply compelling, whether as a mature meditation on the post 9/11 state of emergency and the ethical challenges it poses ("West Wing" meets "Star Trek TNG"), or as a fabulous mashup of Blade Runner and Star Wars. The question of why machines would naturally “evolve” into humans is one the show doesn’t directly address (at least so far). It seems they want feelings, too – access to the full range of affectivity that only embodiment can make possible. Also, deep space dogfights are cool.

But finally the appeal of this show, I think, is very traditional. I’d sum it up as John Ford’s cavalry trilogy in outer space. Which is to say, there’s a helluva lot of bro-love gushing through all the military ceremony and grace under pressure derring-do. You can almost hear Ben Johnson growling off-stage, “Get ‘er done, Starbuck.” The growling, though, in this case, is usually done by Edward James Olmos, in what is surely his finest performance, a minimalist masterpiece of restraint and understatement that is often very moving.

BSG openly glorifies military culture, offering its values as co-terminous with civilization's with only the occasional demural, and this is troubling. Yet beyond the pleasure of all the Fordian male bonding rituals and the Hawksian gratifications of men "just doing their jobs," it also asks the question the best SF has always asked -- in the face of the alien, the other, in the wake of genocidal catastrophe, what does it mean to be human? To want to be human?

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