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Battlestar Galactica vs. Star Trek

"It's not enough to survive. One has to be worthy of surviving."
—Adm. Bill Adama, Battlestar Galactica

Battlestar Galactica presents a problem for me and my Star Trek-fan friends. Why do we love it so much? We call each other up after each new episode and ramble in nervous high-pitched voices, batting back and forth theories and questions and "OH MY GOD" moments"¦ all the while feeling vaguely guilty that no Star Trek clash with the Borg or tampering with the time-space continuum ever engaged and obsessed and haunted us to such a profound extent.

Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica have wildly different aesthetics and ideologies, and both aspire to very different goals. Fundamentally, it boils down to this: Star Trek is about who we want to be, and Battlestar Galactica is about who we are.

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Star Trek takes place in a world where all the ugly things about human existence have been erased. Interstellar globalization has brought us new technologies to make transportation and translation effortless. Machines called replicators can produce absolutely anything you want, so the economics of inequity are gone. The injuries of race and class and gender have been surmounted, if not forgotten altogether. Scarcity, borders, money, and culture have all ceased to exist. Interpersonal tensions are relics of a more savage age. No destructive love affairs, no chafing under authority, minimal arrogance to put your fellow crew members at risk. There's something nice about visiting a world like that—just like it's nice to pretend that institutional racism and violence against women and poverty are getting better instead of worse. Much of mainstream fiction is built on this kind of wish-fulfillment.

That's why the world of Battlestar Galactica feels so fresh, and so challenging. People still drink too much, and beat their spouses, and work too hard, and hate their bosses, and distrust the government, and fear death. The crew of the Galactica is not boldly exploring the universe for exploring's sake, learning about fascinating new cultures and inviting alien species to join the benevolent Federation of Planets. It's running away from a race of genocidal robots bent on their complete annihilation, while trying to maintain some shred of humanity and civilization.

Star Trek revels in its geekiness. Physicist in-jokes and gleefully incomprehensible technobabble are found in every episode. People say things like "The secondary gyrodyne relays in the propulsion field matrix have just depolarized."

As a nerd, I find this fun. It's part of Star Trek's fantasy appeal. It's part of the idea that science and reason and the intellect will prevail. But we've been telling ourselves that lie for a long time now.

BSG2.jpg

In a very concrete sense, Battlestar Galactica descends from the sci-fi community's realization that darker and more complex times demand darker and more complex science fiction. Ronald Moore, the developer/writer/executive producer of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, has a Star Trek pedigree that makes him the idol of Trekkies everywhere. He scripted 27 episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and was promoted to co-producer and later to producer. On Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, he was a supervising producer and a co-executive producer, writing several of the series' most controversial episodes. He co-wrote the scripts for the films Star Trek Generations and Star Trek: First Contact. And while he was hired as a producer of Star Trek: Voyager, he left after only two episodes. In a January 2000 interview with Cinescape magazine, he outlined some of the frustrations with that show:

"I think the audience intuitively knows when something is true and something is not true. Voyager is not true. If it were true, the ship would not look spic-and-span every week, after all these battles it goes through. How many times has the bridge been destroyed? How many shuttlecrafts have vanished, and another one just comes out of the oven? That kind of bullshitting the audience I think takes its toll. At some point the audience stops taking it seriously, because they know that this is not really the way this would happen. These people wouldn't act like this."

Galactica is sci-fi without that BS. Sci-fi with all the anger and stupidity and sadness that real people experience. Sci-fi without the conviction that we will conquer our own ugliness. Sci-fi for the age of peak oil and 9/11 and natural disasters compounded by climate change to the point where they can completely destroy major cities. Galactica's message is that unless we come to terms with our own history, we are doomed. Mankind created the Cylons to fight our wars and to do our grunt work for us. Eventually they rose up and wiped out 99.999% of us. This basic lesson is one we still haven't learned: that exploitation leads to exploitation, that if you oppress someone you sow the seeds of your own oppression. "You can't play God and then wash your hands of the things you've created," says the Galactica's commander, William Adama. "Sooner or later, the day comes when you can't hide from the things that you've done anymore."
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The apocalypse obsesses us. These days, the idea of society's total collapse has broad traction across the political spectrum. Even Oprah's worried—that's why she picked Cormac McCarthy's The Road for her book club. No getting around it: we're afraid. We want to prepare ourselves mentally. We buy batteries. We lap up every new zombies-destroy-humanity movie. All of a sudden, it's disturbingly easy to imagine the human race reduced from billions of people to tens of thousands. These days, Battlestar Galactica's warning that technology and progress will bring us to the brink of total annihilation is far more resonant than Star Trek's hope that technology and progress will solve all of our problems.

Star Trek doesn't pretend that human beings are perfect—prior to the discovery of the Warp Engine, Earth had been brought back to the edge of the Stone Age by the "Eugenics Wars"—but it does take for granted that human beings are good, and that history represents a fumbling messy sort of progress towards perfection. What makes Battlestar Galactica so haunting is the existential question it poses to all of us: "Do we deserve to exist?" In light of Auschwitz and Darfur and the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, Tibet and 9/11 and Abu Ghraib and global warming, can we honestly say we don't deserve total destruction? That we'll learn? That we'll change? Early on, Galactica's commander wonders: "When we fought the Cylons, we did it to save ourselves from extinction. But we never answered the question Why? Why are we as a people worth saving?" And while Star Trek plotlines frequently boil down to a search for the best solution to a problem, the "best solution" on Battlestar Galactica is likely to raise all sorts of thorny moral questions. Is it acceptable to rig an election, because you know that your opponent's policies will lead to disaster? Can we assassinate a rival officer whose actions put the fleet at risk? Where is the line between a mob and a society?

I wish I could see the show as a clear sign that we're ready to own up to the narratives of hate and violence and oppression that comprise our history, but that feels like a stretch. At the very least, I think Battlestar Galactica has been an overwhelming critical and popular success because we're ready to be challenged. Midway through the final season, the survival of the human race clearly hinges on whether mankind will come to terms with what it has done. And while it's simplistic to reduce the Cylons to an allegory for racism, or our oil addiction, BSG offers us a rare opportunity to examine our own culpability, and our own power to change.

Sam J. Miller is a writer and community organizer. His work has appeared in numerous zines, anthologies, and print and online journals. He lives in the Bronx with his partner of six years. Visit him at samjmiller.com and/or drop him a line at samjmiller79@yahoo.com.

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Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
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science
Head Case: What the Only Soft Tissue Dodo Head in Existence Is Teaching Scientists About These Extinct Birds
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock

Of all the recently extinct animals, none seems to excite the imagination quite like the dodo—a fact Mark Carnall has experienced firsthand. As one of two Life Collections Managers at the UK's Oxford University Museum of Natural History, he’s responsible for nearly 150,000 specimens, “basically all the dead animals excluding insects and fossils,” he tells Mental Floss via email. And that includes the only known soft tissue dodo head in existence.

“In the two and a bit years that I’ve been here, there’s been a steady flow of queries about the dodo from researchers, artists, the public, and the media,” he says. “This is the third interview about the dodo this week! It’s definitely one of the most popular specimens I look after.”

The dodo, or Raphus cucullatus, lived only on the island of Mauritius (and surrounding islets) in the Indian Ocean. First described by Vice Admiral Wybrand van Warwijck in 1598, it was extinct less than 100 years later (sailors' tales of the bird, coupled with its rapid extinction, made many doubt that the dodo was a real creature). Historians still debate the extent that humans ate them, but the flightless birds were easy prey for the predators, including rats and pigs, that sailors introduced to the isolated island of Mauritius. Because the dodo went extinct in the 1600s (the actual date is still widely debated), museum specimens are very, very rare. In fact, with the exception of subfossils—the dark skeletons on display at many museums—there are only three other known specimens, according to Carnall, “and one of those is missing.” (The fully feathered dodos you might have seen in museums? They're models, not actual zoological specimens.)

A man standing with a Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird
A subfossil (bone that has not been fully fossilized) Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird in a museum in Wales circa 1938.
Becker, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Since its extinction was confirmed in the 1800s, Raphus cucullatus has been an object of fascination: It’s been painted and drawn, written about and scientifically studied, and unfairly become synonymous with stupidity. Even now, more than 300 years since the last dodo walked the Earth, there’s still so much we don’t know about the bird—and Oxford’s specimen might be our greatest opportunity to unlock the mysteries surrounding how it behaved, how it lived, how it evolved, and how it died.

 
 

To put into context how old the dodo head is, consider this: From the rule of Oliver Cromwell to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, it has been around—and it’s likely even older than that. Initially an entire bird (how exactly it was preserved is unclear), the specimen belonged to Elias Ashmole, who used his collections to found Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 1677. Before that, it belonged to John Tradescant the Elder and his son; a description of the collection from 1656 notes the specimen as “Dodar, from the Island Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big.”

And that’s where the dodo’s provenance ends—beyond that, no one knows where or when the specimen came from. “Where the Tradescants got the dodo from has been the subject of some speculation,” Carnall says. “A number of live animals were brought back from Mauritius, but it’s not clear if this is one of [those animals].”

Initially, the specimen was just another one of many in the museum’s collections, and in 1755, most of the body was disposed of because of rot. But in the 19th century, when the extinction of the dodo was confirmed, there was suddenly renewed interest in what remained. Carnall writes on the museum’s blog that John Duncan, then the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, had a number of casts of the head made, which were sent to scientists and institutions like the British Museum and Royal College of Surgeons. Today, those casts—and casts of those casts—can be found around the world. (Carnall is actively trying to track them all down.)

The Oxford University Dodo head with scoleric bone and the skin on one side removed.
The Oxford University Dodo head with skin and sclerotic ring.
© Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History // Used with permission

In the 1840s, Sir Henry Acland, a doctor and teacher, dissected one side of the head to expose its skeleton, leaving the skin attached on the other side, for a book about the bird by Alexander Gordon Melville and H.E. Strickland called The dodo and its kindred; or, The history, affinities, and osteology of the dodo, solitaire, and other extinct birds of the islands Mauritius, Rodriguez and Bourbon. Published in 1848, “[It] brought together all the known accounts and depictions of the dodo,” Carnall says. The Dodo and its kindred further raised the dodo’s profile, and may have been what spurred schoolteacher George Clark to take a team to Mauritius, where they found the subfossil dodo remains that can be seen in many museums today.

Melville and Strickland described Oxford’s specimen—which they believed to be female—as being “in tolerable preservation ... The eyes still remain dried within the sockets, but the corneous extremity of the beak has perished, so that it scarcely exhibits that strongly hooked termination so conspicuous in all the original portraits. The deep transverse grooves are also visible, though less developed than in the paintings.”

Today, the specimen includes the head as well as the sclerotic ring (a bony feature found in the eyes of birds and lizards), a feather (which is mounted on a microscope slide), tissue samples, the foot skeleton, and scales from the foot. “Considering it’s been on display in collections and museums, pest eaten, dissected, sampled and handled by scientists for over 350 years,” Carnall says, “it’s in surprisingly good condition.”

 
 

There’s still much we don’t know about the dodo, and therefore a lot to learn. As the only soft tissue of a dodo known to exist, the head has been studied for centuries, and not always in ways that we would approve of today. “There was quite some consideration about dissecting the skin off of the head by Sir Henry Acland,” Carnall says. “Sadly there have also been some questionable permissions given, such as when [Melville] soaked the head in water to manipulate the skin and feel the bony structure. Excessive handling over the years has no doubt added to the wear of the specimen.”

Today, scientists who want to examine the head have to follow a standard protocol. “The first step is to get in touch with the museum with details about access requirements ... We deal with enquiries about our collections every single day,” Carnall says. “Depending on the study required, we try to mitigate damage and risk to specimens. For destructive sampling—where a tissue sample or bone sample is needed to be removed from the specimen and then destroyed for analysis—we weigh up the potential importance of the research and how it will be shared with the wider community.”

In other words: Do the potential scientific gains outweigh the risk to the specimen? “This,” Carnall says, “can be a tough decision to make.”

The head, which has been examined by evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro and extinction expert Samuel Turvey as well as dodo experts Julian Hume and Jolyon Parish, has been key in many recent discoveries about the bird. “[It] has been used to understand what the dodo would have looked like, what it may have eaten, where it fits in with the bird evolutionary tree, island biogeography and of course, extinction,” Carnall says. In 2011, scientists took measurements from dodo remains—including the Oxford specimen—and revised the size of the bird from the iconic 50 pounder seen in paintings to an animal “similar to that of a large wild turkey.” DNA taken from specimen’s leg bone has shed light on how the dodo came to Mauritius and how it was related to other dodo-like birds on neighboring islands [PDF]. That DNA also revealed that the dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon [PDF].

A nicobar pigeon perched on a bowl of food.
A nicobar pigeon.
iStock

Even with those questions answered, there are a million more that scientists would like to answer about the dodo. “Were there other species—plants, parasites—that depended on the dodo?” Carnall asks. “What was the soft tissue like? ... How and when did the dodo and the related and also extinct Rodrigues solitaire colonize the Mascarene Islands? What were their brains like?”

 
 

Though it’s a rare specimen, and priceless by scientific standards, the dodo head is, in many ways, just like all the rest of the specimens in the museum’s collections. It’s stored in a standard archival quality box with acid-free tissue paper that’s changed regularly. (The box is getting upgraded to something that Carnall says is “slightly schmancier” because “it gets quite a bit of use, more so than the rest of the collection.”) “As for the specific storage, we store it in vault 249 and obviously turn the lasers off during the day,” Carnall jokes. “The passcode for the vault safe is 1234ABCD …”

According to Carnall, even though there are many scientific and cultural reasons why the dodo head is considered important, to him, it isn’t necessarily more important than any of the other 149,999 specimens he’s responsible for.

“Full disclosure: All museum specimens are equally important to collections managers,” he says. “It is a huge honor and a privilege to be responsible for this one particular specimen, but each and every specimen in the collection also has the power to contribute towards our knowledge of the natural world ... This week I was teaching about a species of Greek woodlouse and the molluscs of Oxfordshire. We know next to nothing about these animals—where they live, what they eat, the threats to them, and the predators that rely on them. The same is true of most living species, sadly. But on the upside, there’s so much work to be done!”

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