Cylons in America: Interview with Editors of New Book on the Battlestar Galactica Series

In a previous post I let readers know about a relatively recent book titled Cylons in America: Critical Studies in Battlestar Galactica (Continuum Publishing Group, 2007), which won the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association’s award for Best Edited Collection on Popular Culture for 2008. The book is edited by Tiffany Potter and C. W. Marshall, both of whom teach at the University of British Columbia. Both of these editors recently shared their thoughts on the television series and their new edited volume.

TheoFantastique: Thank you both for your willingness to discuss the fascinating book you co-edited on the current Battlestar Galactica series. To begin, what was the genesis of the idea for you to compile this collection of essays and to edit this volume?

C. W. Marshall: I think that the main drive was the recognition that at the time there was nothing out there yet. The series was getting a lot of press, and there was a growing fan base with fan publications, but there was nothing that was attempting to assess critically the many themes that the series was raising. But there was a selfish reason, too: we were having great conversations after watching each episode, and we wanted to see what others were saying about the series.

Tiffany Potter: It was clear almost from the start that Ronald Moore and the writers of BSG were trying to engage and interrogate American culture on a critical level; what we wanted to do was to bring together a scholarly community to facilitate the fullest possible investigation of those questions.

TheoFantastique: To provide some background for readers can sketch some of the contours of the current series and its connection to the 1970s version? And how has the current series been revisioned?

C. W. Marshall: The basic plot is the same as the original series: a rag-tag fugitive fleet flee the enemy Cylons after their twelve planets have been destroyed in a sneak attack. Character names repeat, the ships are similar, but the new series introduces two significant developments. First, the Cylons are no longer the robotic forces of a reptilian enemy. Instead, they are a human product that has turned against us, and rebelled. Secondly, some Cylons appear human, and so can pass amongst us unrecognized. These two changes fuel most of the “revisioning.” I think it is helpful to see these changes as reflecting the political climate in which each series was produced: the cold-war us-vs.-them scenario of the original series, in which the enemy is relentless, unfathomable, and completely other, gives way to a post-9/11 enemy who is hard to identify, who looks like us and possibly dwells among us.

Tiffany Potter: One intriguing thing about the old series/new series revisioning is the apparently ambivalent relationship that the producers and even actors seem to have with the old series. The most common adjective used about the old series is “cheesy,” and I think that there’s a certain defensiveness about the show’s origins (not just a little ironic in a show that is in many ways an origins narrative). No one reads the current series in those terms, but we note in the book several examples of what seem undeniable allusions to or revisionings of specific episodes or plots from the original series. The most glaring is perhaps the “Starbuck stranded on a planet” plot in the season one episode “You Can’t Go Home Again.” There are what appear to be direct references and borrowings from the Galactica 1980 episode “The Return of Starbuck,” but Carla Robinson, the writer of the new episode, not only denies knowing the original one, but denies even knowing there was a series called Galactica 1980. I’m not sure what the shame would be in a well-crafted homage to a less well-crafted original, but there’s certainly a pattern of discomfort that’s worth noting if you’re discussing the process of revisioning.

TheoFantastique: In your Introduction to the book you describe Battlestar Galactica as inhabiting different aspects of science fiction as it presents its dystopic fiction of the future. Can you touch on how the series incorporates these different aspects?

C. W. Marshall: One of the virtues of science fiction is that it allows an unfiltered examination of contemporary society. Because a story is set in a distant future, or “a galaxy far, far away,” the creators are at liberty to be very pointed about social or political issues that exist in their own time. It separates the audience from their default assumptions about a subject, and can invite new, imaginative responses. Paradoxically, the distant setting allows for a more direct examination of real issues.

Tiffany Potter: No current American television programming can dare comment on socially contentious issues like abortion, genocide, or the possibility of a divinely-inspired president attempting to steal an election because she or he believes it necessary to God’s will. By recontextualizing the narrative into a site where the essential assumption is that content doesn’t matter (which I’d argue is generally the case with science fiction), the genre can say the unsayable in a way that no other current media can do (and that includes the 24-hour news networks and other ostensibly critical modes of large cultural discourse).

TheoFantastique: You also discuss one of the changes in the current series in the development of the Cylons, the “robots” or androids, into “artificially created synthetic beings with living tissue and cells” that are virtually indistinguishable from human beings. How has this development paralleled discussions of posthumanism and how has it impacted the way in which issues are addressed through the storytelling?

C. W. Marshall: Ultimately, I don’t think the series is particularly interested in posthumanism: it isn’t concerned with what our next stage may be. Instead, it uses the concept of the Cylons in a fictional world to examine what qualities define humanity in the real one. It’s a thought experiment. When there is no external, objective way to mark the Cylons as different than us, the labeling begins to seem rather arbitrary. Being Cylon is to be other, which in the series means that one isn’t guaranteed what should be universal human rights and freedoms (this plays into the discussions on torture, for example). The humans in the series won’t practice capital punishment even for their worst offenders (as when Gaius Baltar is put on trial at the end of season three), but tossing a Cylon out an airlock, or even advocating genocide against the Cylons, is viewed by sympathetic characters as morally unproblematic. It’s a real gap in our Western moral compass that the series’ writers have identified and are playing with. Further, the current season is showing the Cylons working hard to become even more indistinguishable from humans (programming mechanisms to enable free will, removing mechanisms that prolong their lives and allow their consciousness to continue independent of their bodies). These efforts to reduce the differences between the humans and the Cylons challenge any attempt to define meaningful difference.

TheoFantastique: One of the reasons the series has been popular, not only among average viewers, but also among academics, is its frequent treatment of various social, cultural, and religious issues. Can you discuss how the series has addressed our post-9/11 context as it touches on terrorism, torture and prisoner rights?

Tiffany Potter: Two essays in the book address those issues specifically, so the first thing I have to do is acknowledge that my thinking on BSG in these areas has been tremendously influenced by Brian Ott and Erika Johnson-Lewis on post-9/11 and torture respectively. BSG’s take on these topics is most important, I think, in its absolute recognition of the requirement of dehumanization for acts of war and mass violence. The surviving humans need to create a language of difference and nearly literal alien-ation of the Cylons in order to do two things: to define the actions the Cylons have taken (monstrous and inhuman); and to confirm that human beings, by virtue of their humanity, are incapable of such a genocidal action (though of course the show makes clear that we are not).

Though the associative metaphors of terrorists and insurgents are intentionally, brilliantly muddled by season three, the humans never surrender their demand for difference from the “toasters” and “skin jobs.” If they’re going to throw Cylons out airlocks without trial (and by extension if Americans are going to throw people into Guantanamo Bay cells without trial or the public presentation of evidence that has defined justice for Western history), then those thrown away cannot be like the ostensible us: they have to be rendered not-us, not-deserving-of-human-rights through systems of language, of laws, and of governance. It’s not just that the president says so; it’s that the community agrees and naturalizes that construction of difference. And that’s a hugely startling assertion for a presumptively frivolous medium like television to make.

C.W. Marshall: Yes. The series is able to manipulate the default expectations most in the audience will have after 9/11. For example, for two seasons we are invited to map the experience of the humans in the show onto middle America: the Cylons are terrorists, attacking our homeland, threatening our security, and so forth. There is then a startling reversal at the start of season three, when suddenly the humans are seen as a nation occupied by a technologically superior military, insurgents fighting their oppressors. We care about the human characters and have identified with them for two years, but it’s really quite bold to ask the American audience to identify with the plight of Iraq in this way.

TheoFantastique: The original series found religious influences in Mormonism, and the new series is not without a religious dimension as well. Can you talk about the religious or spiritual aspects of the current series, especially the interesting dynamic represented in the monotheism of the Cylons and the polytheism of the humans?

C. W. Marshall: For me this is one of the most exciting aspects of the series. While the new series has not pursued the Mormon angle to the same degree, it is very interested in examining a number of theological and religious questions. At a sociological level, we are shown how religion impacts the lives of a number of characters in the fleet. Some pray, some avoid going to services, some believe in active prophecy, and some prefer to take religion as an extended metaphor. It is a realistic representation of the diversity of North American religious experience, which is pretty uncharacteristic for a television world. At times, the commentary is specific to the America of George W. Bush: at one point, the president is seen praying with her cabinet.

Theologically, the series presents a culture, the Cylons, which bases its actions on an extremist monotheism. One true God, to replace the diverse polytheism of the humans. Problematically, we are told “God is love,” but we also see the Cylons using their monotheism to justify their attack on the humans. The series authors have been very careful to blur the lines of how we are to interpret this religious extremism: is it the radical Islam America claims to be fighting, or is it the fundamentalist Christianity that is particularly associated with the American heartland?

The current season is developing both of these dimensions. We see that the human polytheism has had a place for mystery cults (reference has been made to worshippers of Mithras alongside the twelve Olympians), and we see a growing place for the cult of (Cylon) monotheism. In some ways, the picture is evoking the religious world of the first-century Mediterranean.

TheoFantastique: Can you sketch the overall layout and some of the other topics addressed in this book?

Tiffany Potter: We’ve organized Cylons in America according to three different threads of inquiry. In part one our (brilliant) contributors address the way that BSG represents American life through the distorted and sometimes didactic mode of science fiction. They address exactly the issues of post-9/11 questions of identity, violence, and torture in a world suddenly defined by a terrorist Other. This section also addresses how a community responds to this sort of immediate change in terms of military and scientific responses (and the way a culture comes to view its military and its scientists), and also in terms of individual responses like the continuing need for competition, play, and desire.

The second section addresses the series’ big question: what does it mean to be human, and how does the Cylon/human interface illuminate that? The contributors’ essays discuss religion, determinations of personhood, racialized difference and its potential future in ideas of hybridity. This all sounds very critically astute—and it is—and perhaps out of the range of many readers—but it’s not. It’s about what marks Sharon as concurrently human and Cylon, and how conventions of horror genres help us to understand what’s so attractive and terrifying about Six, and how the series plays with those end-of-the-world-movie clichés like all of humanity banding together regardless of race and creed to fight a non-human enemy, and how that suddenly gets more complicated when that enemy can’t be instantly visually identified by physical markers (like the shorthands we use in our usual ideas of race).

The final section looks at the series as television. Essays in this section link the show’s often contradictory politics with contemporary media’s obsessive need for supposed “balanced reporting,” and also look at allusions to other science fiction and cultural texts, from films and music to fan fiction and internet responses to the regendering of Starbuck. We tried to select essays that would talk about BSG not just as if it were a text, but also as a cultural experience at the start of the millenium.

TheoFantastique: How would you summarize your experience in reflecting on these issues and how it informed your editing of this volume?

C. W. Marshall: I think the process made us better viewers of television. Each viewer has particular interests, but by expanding the dialogue in this way we become exposed to a range of critical issues and approaches we might not have considered on our own. The series is a larger and deeper object of study than we originally expected. Like theatre, television is a collaborative medium, where a range of individuals bring their talents to the creative process. As such, it invites a wide range of academic approaches; we are authorized to look for deeper meanings and resonances.

Tiffany Potter: For me the experience of editing the volume made clear how much really astute thinking is going on about elements of our culture that many people regard as disposable and temporary. For better or worse, television is our culture’s
single most pervasive social device: it functions in the way that literature and theatre have done for hundreds of years in that it provides a widely-consumed and thus normative reflection that isn’t really a reflection. It’s aspirational in showing what we perhaps wish we were (morally, socially, economically, or as America’s Next Top Idol Fifth Grader), and what we wish we had (“My Name is Earl” aside, most of television is about highly affluent, often professional people with a lot of expensive things). But I think television is also linked to long traditions of didacticism—satirical or otherwise—in that good television brings into our homes the very things we try to avoid seeing: the dangers and benefits of treachery, corruption, and violence, and what they mean to us as human beings. Children’s television directs by positive modeling, but television like BSG, The Sopranos, and The Wire challenge us to *think* about the world, and that’s never disposable.

TheoFantastique: Thank you again for carving out some time to discuss the book, and for your great contribution to the academic study of popular culture.

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