Of the many works of sci-fi present in the growing archives of human fiction, few are more deserving of the term “space opera” than the 2004 remake of Battlestar Galactica. Space opera is popularly defined as a work placed in a space-faring setting of an epic character, “where technology is ubiquitous and entirely secondary to the story.” All well and good for those searching for a meaningful tale unburdened by technobabble and the monster/phenomenon of the week formula. And yet, BSG manages to surpass even this level of story- and character-focus implied by its genre. Indeed, the sci-fi setting of the show is easily forgotten for a deceptively simple yet compelling reason: Battlestar Galactica is a real human drama, which transcends both the audience’s expectations and its recent experiences, and further explores territory which has been left uncharted in the public mind for far too long.
The premise of BSG is easy to lay out, and is not particularly unusual for a work of science fiction. The population of the Twelve Colonies have been annihilated in a holocaust perpetrated by the sentient machines which they had once built, used as servants, and finally fought a war against; following the destruction of their homes, a small fleet of 50,000 survivors then sets out on an exodus to find the legendary Thirteenth Colony of Earth. This desperate journey through the stars is, unsurprisingly, no light-hearted trek. The survivors, torn with sorrow, fear, and rage, are trapped in ships affording little space, few supplies, and even less hope—their only protection in all this being a single aging Battlestar, the Galactica. And all the while they are pursued relentlessly by their forefathers’ creations, the Cylons, who are intent on wiping out their creators.
But it is not the setting (though it is well fleshed-out), nor the show’s effects (which are admirable), nor even the danger (which is ever-present) which creates the drama of BSG. It is, as in all meaningful fiction, the people who bring this tale to life and infuse it with the potency of reality. Throughout the series, the audience forgets that the show’s characters are sailing through space, flying about the void in search of a planet called Earth. The audience instead, in nearly every moment that matters, sees only the people, their relationships, and their decisions. It is these elements which make BSG something more than the sum of its parts.
In our modern age of fantasy power-trips, our fascination with the dark and gritty, and our infatuation with the fulfillment of selfish ego, it is far too rare to see a work of fiction ask honest questions about human nature, and then to carry through in showing the why of human action and its consequences. But Battlestar Galactica does this, and its execution culminates in a definitive and accurate assessment of the condition of man. At its core and throughout, BSG not only states but artfully shows that human beings are flawed creatures struggling to arrive at the place to which they feel called but can never quite reach. But this place is not a planet called Earth: it is a state of adherence to moral principle and right action.
The characters of BSG, perpetually gripped with fear and anger, are trapped in a harsh reality, where the distance between “what is truly right” and “what is the best we can do” is measured in the depth of human identity. With man’s darkened eyes, he grasps for starlight but catches only dust in the cosmic wind: he recognizes what is good and proper, but finds he cannot do the things he wishes he could, and instead falls short. He is not such a man, and he does not live in such a world where it would be possible to do otherwise. In the world of Galactica, this inability to remain in the light often arises most visibly in the struggle of principle and pragmatism. Is it right to sacrifice one thing for the sake of another? Can you have both, and if not, which is the right thing to preserve? In particular, the show’s characters grapple with the dilemmas that come with a desperate plight and hopeless flight before an insurmountable foe: do those who are responsible for the very survival of humanity “indulge” in such luxuries as a divisive democratic system and idleness? Or does “necessity” justify strict discipline and secrecy, when the loss of a single life is a step closer to the abyss? Do they attempt to stonewall the self-destructive whims of those unable to provide for or protect themselves, or do they allow the power-hungry and discontent to pursue the means to endanger them all? Do they distribute dwindling resources in a manner that best ensures the people’s protection, or their comfort? Do they execute justice, or extend mercy? And is there a point where saving lives from imminent destruction must weigh on the scales more heavily than does their momentary happiness, and have they crossed into that zone?
Some of these questions may have easy answers when they are put in such stark, abstract terms. And yet, anything short of perfection moves the scale of moral analysis to a level where no one can walk away from a decision truly happy or in the right—merely resolved to carry on as best he can. Given BSG’s thorough understanding of man’s limitations and failings, it should come as no surprise that one of the places where Galactica excels is in showing the weight of these decisions upon the shoulders of those who have been tasked by fate and writer’s fiat to carry the survival of their civilization, their friends, and their families. Even when the audience firmly says, “They should do such and such” or “That is clearly the wrong choice,” the show makes the viewer understand why the characters make the decisions that they do—even if the viewer still disagrees. When a character compromises on his position for the sake of others when he sees no better outcome, and he walks away with a bitter taste in his mouth, the audience has likewise walked in the steps which have taken him (however unwillingly) to that crucial point. Moreover, the pathos and the tragedy of these men and women forces the viewer to behold a fundamental truth: the people of Galactica still desire to do the right thing…even if they lose their way and they know it. Does this deftness of writing condone these actions in those instances when they appear to miss the mark? No, it does not, and the show makes no such claim. And yet, the viewer should come away with a better and fuller understanding of human motivation, and of the process that a man uses in coming to a conclusion about the right course of action…whether or not he is in fact correct.
While the tragically accurate depiction of human fallibility, flawed passions, and faulty reasoning is a proper reminder of a stained world full of broken people, BSG also provides the audience with something more edifying and tantalizing: a glimpse of divine providence which carries humanity forward in spite of its despair, weariness, and error. Throughout the course of the series, there are hints and glimpses of a higher power at work behind the scenes. In “coincidences” and “luck” that fulfill prophecy, and in the subtle guidance of (mostly) unseen actors on the stage, the fragile little fleet of flawed survivors finds itself treading a path which has been laid out for them, and from which they are unable to deviate, despite their own failings and shortcomings; despite their wretchedness and perverse judgment; and, in all, despite man’s tarnished character.
In this way, BSG accomplishes what few television shows have done in recent years: it paints a gloriously detailed picture of humanity’s struggle with its own flawed nature in a blemished world—but in which man is nevertheless shepherded through his trials by a faithful power which loves mankind despite its ugliness, ruthlessness, and imperfection. Such a depiction of man and the divine has long been absent from the world of popular fiction, and while even Battlestar Galactica makes its share of missteps in its cosmology and in its content, the West could use more shows with its self-critical but heavens-turned eye.
So say we all.