Battlestar Galactica vs. Star Trek

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"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.

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.

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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 BSing 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 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."
* * * * *
The apocalypse obsesses us. 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.

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, 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. As we enter the final part of 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.

This article originally appeared last June. Sam J. Miller is a writer and community organizer. His work has appeared in numerous magazines, anthologies, and print and online journals. He lives in the Bronx with his partner of six years. Visit him at samjmiller.com.

January 15, 2009 - 6:00am
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