June 29, 2012

On Being Human: Battlestar Galactica and Caprica

Battlestar Galactica

(Once a month through 2012, CCLaP staff writer Karl Wolff is examining the question of what it means to "be human" through a diverse series of books, movies and television shows. For all the essays in this series, please click here.)

Battlestar Galactica/Caprica
Review by Karl Wolff

"The Cylons Were Created by Man. They Rebelled. They Evolved. They Look and Feel Human. Some are programmed to think they are Human. There are many copies. And they have a Plan." In 2003 a three hour miniseries debuted on the Syfy channel. A re-imagining of the '80s space opera Battlestar Galactica gave the cynical and rather jaded viewers of a channel renown for terrible low-budget shlockfests a glimpse into a science fiction series that was gritty, sexy, socially relevant, and chock-full of cool battle scenes. Producers Ronald Moore and David Eick took the original series and gave it a daring set of tweaks and refinements. Set 40 years after a truce between the Twelve Colonies and the Cylons, Battlestar Galactica (hereafter BSG) gave viewers a rich vein of pop culture to tap. It critiqued the post-9/11 world, exploring numerous relevant social issues. For the purposes of this essay, I'll focus on how BSG and the prequel series Caprica investigated the question, "What does it mean to be human?" (Warning: Due to the nature of this essay, there will be major spoilers throughout. If you haven't seen either BSG or Caprica but plan to, please put off reading this essay until you've finished.)

The new BSG series presented a newer, sexier Cylon. Unlike the chrome-plated baddies of the original series, the Cylons looked like humans and came in twelve different "models." When the human crew aboard the Battlestar Galactica discover this fact, paranoia joins the initial shock from the genocidal attack on the Twelve Colonies. But the humanoid Cylons were not exactly like humans. The humanoid Cylons also have the older model Cylons (called Centurions) working for them. At the time of the Cylon attack, seven Cylon models were known. The remaining unknowns were called The Final Five. With special Resurrection Ships, Cylons could download their consciousness into a new body. To complicate the mind-body issue even further, Dr. Gaius Baltar has visions of someone called Head-Six, a mental projection of the Cylon model he had an affair with on Caprica. In addition to these attributes, the Cylons were monotheists, unlike the polytheistic Colonials. In the BSG universe, the Twelve Colonies were modeled on the Greek gods but called "The Lords of Kobol" (a reference to the Mormon beliefs of Glen Larson, the producer of the original series). The human remnant clung to the culture of their homeworld, each having a name akin to a Greek constellation (Gemenon from Gemini; Caprica from Capricorn, etc.). BSG offers a heady mix of body politics and social commentary.

The series provided a trenchant critique of post-9/11 politics, the Iraq War, and applied interrogation techniques. With saber-rattling at an all time high, BSG created a storyline with the human population on New Caprica occupied and oppressed by the Cylons. While the oppressors were sentient machines, we saw ourselves in their arrogance and atrocities. The revelation of the Final Five, following the liberation of New Caprica, created even more animosity among the human crew. Among the Final Five Cylons were Sol Tigh, second in command, and Samuel Anders, Caprican resistance fighter and lover of Kara "Starbuck" Thrace. It's an ingenious exploration of "racial self-loathing," albeit one where the race is the "differently sentient" Cylons. The Final Five issue brings up the philosophical question of "existence vs. essence." Put another way, is Sol Tigh the enemy merely because he has Cylon "DNA?" Tigh is a Cylon War Veteran and loyal right-hand man to Adama. Is enemy status granted because he is essentially a Cylon or does his pro-human existence exonerate him? Also, does anyone hear that frakkin music?

Another act of monotheistic terrorism opens the series Caprica. Set 58 years prior to BSG, Caprica was a short-lived series, but one that dared explored issues in politics, philosophy, and organized religion. Caprica begins when terrorists detonate a bomb on a train in New Caprica City, claiming the lives of Zoe Graystone and Tamara Adams. Zoe was the daughter of Daniel Graystone, a Bill Gates-esque inventor who heads the company that eventually invents the precursor to Cylons. Tamara Adams is the daughter of Joseph Adama, a lawyer whose ties to an organized crime family in New Caprica City has him torn between homeworld loyalty and the desire to assimilate, at least for business purposes. The mutual grief suffered by both men brings them together. A monotheistic terror group called Soldiers of the One claim responsibility for the attack and the gears of the law are set in motion. Unbeknownst to the Graystones, Zoe is a member of the group. Zoe, being a computer genius of her own, created an avatar for herself in V-World. Her father, discovering she is alive (sort of), downloads her avatar into a proto-Cylon.

In Caprica we see how the different worlds of the Twelve Colonies operate. It is similar, but not as exaggerated as the district system in The Hunger Games, with Caprica operating as government and commercial hub. Tauron, Adama's homeworld, was oppressed by Caprican forces in previous decades and is currently run by a playboy dictator. V-World, short for Virtual World, is a decadent ultraviolent Second-Life-type environment accessed by holoband where young people let off steam. The setting also hosts several intricate games. When people die, they de-rez. Zoe's avatar wanders V-world only to discover Tamara, who has become a V-world legend because she is "unkillable."

So what does it mean to be human, in the context of BSG and Caprica? Like Iaim L. Bank's "Culture" series talked about here a few months ago, these TV programs show the fluidity between the states we call "human", "machine", and "divine." Zoe created her avatar from an amalgamation of information culled from V-world (likes, dislikes, shopping habits, etc.). It puts into perspective the intuitive consumer algorithms on Amazon and Netflix. BSG examines the age-old bias we all hold dear, that of "human superiority." We are superior to our machines we use, that's a given at this point in time. While I'm skeptical of the nearness of the Singularity, the rapid advancement of technology gives me pause. Remember the Walkman? How does it compare to your iPod, iPhone, and iPad? What will technology be like one year from now? Five years? Ten years? It's not really that scary for a blinking box to win on Jeopardy! or to beat Gary Kasparov. It's when Big Blue has the sense to get out of the rain, then we may have to worry. Are we superior to our creations just because we created them? It's an question we've been wrestling with since Frankenstein and the golem. Do these machines, these manmade clockworks of gears, circuit boards, and software, deserve to be thought of as our equals? BSG examines the human bias of visceral hatred for the different in appearance. But when they look like us, act like us, and lust like us, our claims of superiority become moot. The road to mutual co-existence between sentient hominid and sentient machine is a rocky one.

Coming July 27: Swastika Night

Filed by Karl Wolff at 1:00 PM, June 29, 2012. Filed under: Karl Wolff |