Watching Battlestar Galactica in a pandemic

[This blog does not contain plot spoilers, but does mention themes and incidents in the story.]

During lockdown, many of us are watching more TV, and the BBC are doing a great public service by putting lots of boxsets on iPlayer. Unexpectedly, they acquired the classic American science fiction blockbuster Battlestar Galactica, broadcasting the first series and making the complete saga available to stream for free.

Source: Wikimedia

I have just finished watching the final season and have been reflecting on the experience of binge-watching the show during the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Battlestar Galactica is a sprawling epic and is not your usual military sci-fi fare. It is packed with ideas about politics, religion, technology, society and the human condition, so it certainly makes you think.

Without providing any spoilers, the premise of the show is that the human inhabitants of planets known as the ‘twelve colonies’ created robots called the Cylons. The Cylons rebelled against their human masters and ultimately wiped out much of humanity, with the exception of around 50,000 people who escaped the destruction, and now roam space in a rag-tag fleet, fighting off Cylon attacks and searching for a new home. The relationship of these humans with us here on Earth today is only revealed gradually over the course of the saga, but their society is recognisable and has strong parallels with our own.

Source: Wikimedia

The show is steeped in history. The 2004 Battlestar Galactica was a reboot of the 1970s series. This most embattled and paranoid of shows was arguably a commentary on the Cold War. The Soviets certainly thought so, who protested that the Cylons were clearly intended to represent them, and that the show was whipping up anti-communist hysteria.

If the original show was a product of the Cold War, then the reboot was a product of the contemporary War on Terror. The makers explicitly sought to comment on 9/11, the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the treatment of prisoners, the power of the military and the erosion of civil liberties. This was not subtle: we see torture, interrogations, executions, suicide bombers and assassinations. In a period when we were told that terrorists walk amongst us, Battlestar Galactica introduced a new type of Cylon that was apparently indistinguishable from a human and able to infiltrate society.

It was therefore an interesting decision by the national broadcaster to show the series during another period of international crisis. Some episodes were very close to the bone, such as a depiction of an outbreak of a mystery virus on board ship, that involved quaratining, heavy-handed enforcement and a race for a cure. But the connections go deeper than that.

Source: Wikimedia

This year we have been told to ‘stay alert’, while watching a show that depicts humanity in a constant state of vigilance in the face of an existential threat. We have been told to report those who break lockdown restrictions, while watching humanity at its most paranoid and treacherous. We have been urged not to panic-buy and stockpile, while the fleet has had to ration its dwindling supplies and hold back rioters at gunpoint.

We have listened to daily death tolls, while President Roslin updated the number alive in the fleet on the whiteboard in her office. We have looked on helplessly at photomontages of COVID victims, while the crew of Galactica created a memorial wall of the dead and missing. We have heard about problems with the testing system, while Dr Balthar’s lab has been overwhelmed with Cylon tests.

We have been locked down in our homes, while watching Capricans go stir-crazy in cramped spacecraft. We have been glued to the news and endured government press conferences, while they have also been held on Colonial One. And we have witnessed venal and incompetent behaviour by those who govern us, while enjoying the power games of Gaius Balthar and Tom Zarek.

Like all great art (and I think it is), Battlestar Galactica is both of its time and relevant to any period that you happen to watch it in. But the parallels with the present day have been spooky. And frackin’ entertaining.

Matthew McCormack

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