Battlestar: Iraqtica

Does the hit television show support the Iraqi insurgency?

Warning: This article contains many, many spoilers for the third season of Battlestar: Galactica.

Katee Sackhoff and Luciana Carro in Battlestar Galactica

It starts with a suicide bombing at the first graduation ceremony for the new security forces. As the occupation official passes through the rows of recruits, pinning their new rank bars onto their uniforms, a nervous policeman bides his time, and then, as she draws closer to him, he whispers to his dead wife—murdered by the occupiers—that he’ll see her soon. His thumb presses the detonator, and the ceremony is ripped apart, along with a sense of security and optimism for the occupying power.

If this sounds like Iraq, it should. But it’s the season premiere of Battlestar: Galactica, the Sci Fi Channel’s acclaimed remake of the kitschy Star Trek also-ran. In its previous two seasons, Battlestar has hinted at war-on-terrorism overtones. The evil Cylon robots have all but eradicated humanity in a nuclear war and chased its remnants to the far reaches of the universe. Humanity’s task was to reconstitute civilization under the direst of threats: the all-powerful Cylons, which are capable of mimicking human form and live among the humans—even among the crew of the Battlestar Galactica, the one remaining dreadnought of the human interstellar navy. When the humans discover that one of their lieutenants is a Cylon, she is brutally tortured, thereby evoking the darker side of the war on terror. Like many science-fiction shows before it, BSG concerns itself with the porous membrane between humanity and barbarism. Unlike most of its predecessors, however, it has the benefit of an open-ended, real-life war as its backdrop, making its lessons about barbarism unavoidably resonant.

This year, BSG is going many steps further. Season 2 ended with the Cylon invasion of the new,dusty, human homeworld, New Caprica, and the self-serving capitulation of President Gaius Baltar. The invasion forced the Galactica into space—meaning humanity is without its defenses and possibly without hope. Season 3 finds that hope can be reconstituted through resistance: that is, through insurgency. The American public may be anti-war, but now BSG is going way beyond public sentiment. In unmistakable terms, Battlestar: Galactica is telling viewers that insurgency (like, say, the one in Iraq) might have some moral flaws, such as the whole suicide bombing thing, but is ultimately virtuous and worthy of support. Wow.

There is little end to BSG’s Iraq parallels. In the first episode, after the insurgency begins, the Cylon council debates how to respond. One Cylon, disgusted with his colleagues’ sentimental fears about losing hearts and minds, bellows, “How did you think the humans would greet us? With—oh, never mind.” We know, from Dick Cheney, how to fill in the blank: “With sweets and flowers.” The cameras record Cylon occupation raids on unsuspecting human civilians with the night-vision green familiar to any CNN viewer. And the reasoning of the Cylons is horrifically familiar: They would prefer not to be brutal, but they won’t accept the failure of a glorious mission.

The show would be intolerably ham-fisted if the Cylons were mere ravenous engines of destruction. But on New Caprica, we see the Cylons justifying their occupation as an attempt to bring a peaceful end to the horrific wars of the past. They seek to enlighten a warlike human race, introducing them to the Cylon monotheistic faith—based on love—that they believe will provide ultimate salvation. In Episode 2, which airs tonight, Cylon Number Three, one of the robotic leaders, has an extended discourse with a human doctor operating on a wounded Cylon. When she suspects him of letting the Cylon suffer, Number Three smears her finger on the doctor’s artificial-bloody smock and delivers a brief treatise on racial harmony: “It’s a very funny thing. This stuff all looks the same.” Can’t the humans just see that they have a better option than the destruction of the past? Why can’t they accept it? Well, now you know how Iraqis feel about you.

The big question that arises from the first few episodes of this season of BSG is whether the resistance is worth it. For all the show’s admirable treatment of the moral complexities and the uncertainties of insurgency, its answer is an unequivocal yes. The Cylons believe themselves to be righteous, but they are monsters. They are infinitely more powerful than the humans, yet live in fear that humanity will “nurse a dream of vengeance down through the years so that one day they could just go out into the stars and hunt the Cylon once more.” The Cylons occupy New Caprica, impose their will in place of any elected human leadership, round up and torture those who resist, and then do not understand why the humans refuse to accept their promises of benevolence. It often seems as if the whole motive of the creative talent behind BSG is to make you feel uncomfortable about being an American during the occupation of Iraq.

Whether that’s the right point to make about insurgents in Iraq is suspect. There’s a reason why even the most strident anti-war voices have stopped far short of defending the Iraqi insurgency. New Capricans debate whether it’s acceptable to kill collaborators; Sunni and Shiite insurgents prefer to take power drills to the skulls of their political rivals. However one feels about the occupation, it’s no accident that the weaker Iraqi faction typically asks the Americans to stay.

While the moral parallels between Iraq and New Caprica may be strong, is the American public receptive to the lesson? According to a year’s worth of polls, the public has turned against the war, largely due to its futility. But there’s little evidence to indicate that the public considers the war inherently immoral—and, even if it did, it’s still a long jump from there to sympathizing with the insurgents. BSG has many good points to make about barbarism, imperialism, and resistance, and the show’s bravery is praiseworthy. But this season, it’s charting a course far out into space, and its viewers may not be able to follow.