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All Of This Has Happened Before And Will Happen Again: Humanity, Inhumanity and Otherness in Battlestar Galactica

‘It’s funny, isn’t it? We’re all God, Starbuck. All of us. I see the love that binds all living things together.’
Leoben Conoy, ‘Flesh and Bone’ (1.08)[1]

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One of the curious features of series television is its incompleteness. Where a novel, a painting or even a play arrives fully formed, its early drafts or preliminary sketches subsumed into a complete and unified whole, television shows are made up as they go along, evolving along the way. Sometimes the changes are large, and discontinuous; sometimes they are incremental, matters of emphasis and shifting focus, yet either way they ensure that as the years pass no television show is ever the show it started as.

It’s interesting therefore, as SciFi Channel’s Battlestar Galactica enters the second half of its fourth and final season, to wonder how clearly Ronald D. Moore and David Eick, the creators of the 2003 pilot mini-series foresaw the way the show would rapidly exceed the terms of its own conception, developing from an already interesting and original take on genre television into something far richer and stranger.

Watching those early episodes again, it’s difficult not to see the way the show already pushed against the conventions of science fiction television. Laser rifles and aliens are notably absent, in their place is a future – or possibly a past – that looks surprisingly like our present. Confined for the most part to the decks and corridors of Galactica herself, the show’s claustrophobic interiors and silent spilling space battles eschew the tendency of most science fiction to strive towards the cinematic; in their place the show offers a vision of war more familiar from Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers, an often hallucinatory collage of handheld camera and jump-cut editing[2]. Even the swelling orchestral score that has defined science fiction on the screen since Star Wars is gone, replaced by Bear McCreary’s hauntingly minimal soundscapes of endless taiko drums and wind chimes, music that sounds more like the Philip Glass of Akhnaten than John Williams (and indeed, on at least one occasion, actually is Philip Glass)[3].

Yet confronted with Battlestar Galactica’s increasingly haunted and haunting third season, and the extraordinary first half of its fourth, their vision of two societies deranged by war and shadowed by visions of both salvation and destruction, it is still difficult to believe that the strange, troubling and often beautiful creation the show has become was in its creators’ minds from the beginning. For although the intense and often visceral edge that marks the early episodes remains, it has become just one element in a far larger narrative, a narrative that offers a powerful, and often deeply unsettling exploration of contemporary anxieties about war and terrorism and the capacity of violence and trauma to unmake society and individuals, as well as an intensely disquieting meditation on the shifting boundaries between humanity and inhumanity, us and them, Human and Other.

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For those who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s as I did, the premise of Battlestar Galactica is likely to be familiar from the original series of the same name. Humanity, spread across the twelve planets of the Twelve Colonies, is almost annihilated in a surprise attack by the Cylons. In the chaotic aftermath of the attack a ragtag fleet of refugees manage to escape and, banding together under the protection of the last remaining battlestar, embark upon a search for the mythical thirteenth colony, Earth.

The original series is one of the camp classics of 1970s sci-fi television. One part Star Wars, one part a homage to its creator, Glen A. Larson’s Mormon heritage, it survived a single season, producing twenty-four hours of television and a universally derided spin-off series, Galactica, 1980, in which the survivors finally found Earth, and began secretly preparing the inhabitants for the arrival of their cousins from the stars.

Yet for all its woozy 1970s new age trappings and echoes of Erich von Daniken (‘There are those who believe that life here began out there, far across the universe, with tribes of humans who may have been the forefathers of the Egyptians, or the Toltecs, or the Mayans.. . . . Some believe that there may yet be brothers of man who even now fight to survive somewhere beyond the heavens, intoned Patrick Macnee over the credits of the original show )something of the original series wove its way into the popular consciousness, as did its one enduring image, that of the single red Cylon eye, moving inexorably from side to side in the visor of their chrome-plated helmets.

The revisioned Battlestar Galactica recasts the concept of the original series in contemporary terms. No longer an expression of Cold War paranoia, the story of the attack and the fleet’s desperate flight is grounded in early twenty-first-century, post-9/11 anxieties about terrorism and the decline of the West. The starry-eyed explorers of the original series have become the last remnants of a shattered society quite literally struggling to survive. No longer united under the benevolent gaze of Lorne Green’s original Commander Adama, the fleet is now divided and suspicious, haunted by political dissent and religious extremism Edward James Olmos’ Adama can do little to contain. Even the physical universe is altered, no longer a place of wondrous ice planets and shimmering lights, but a cold and unforgiving emptiness, broken only by isolated planets devoid of all but the simplest organic life.

Yet it is the Cylons who are the most haunting creation of the revisioned series. Where in the original series they are a faceless race of lizard-like aliens, in the revisioned series they have been reborn as artificial beings, some, replicant-like, indistinguishable from ourselves and identified by their model numbers (Two, Three, Six, Eight), others, such as the robotic centurions and Cylon raiders, intelligent biomechanical or cybernetic creatures possessed of an autonomy limited by inbuilt constraints.

Created not in some alien lab but, as the opening credits inform us in a terse, telegraphed series of bullet points, ‘The Cylons Were Created by Man. They Rebelled. They Evolved. There Are Many Copies. And They Have a Plan’[4], by humans, the Cylons are a deeply troubling presence. Simultaneously Rilkean angels, immortal beings lit by the knowledge of a hidden but revelatory beauty, and uncanny, often profoundly disturbing simulacra of human beings, they are at once like but unlike, manufactured yet alive, Human yet profoundly Other.

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Technically speaking of course, the new Battlestar Galactica is neither a continuation of the original series nor a remake. Many narrative elements are retained, not least the names and call signs of central characters such as the fleet’s commander, William Adama, his Executive Officer, Saul Tigh (Michael Hogan), Adama’s son, Apollo (Jamie Bamber), and the narcissistic scientific genius, Gaius Baltar (James Callis). Others, such as Katee Sackhoff’s Starbuck, Grace Park’s Boomer and Michelle Forbes’ Admiral Cain, are regendered reflecting the altered gender relations of the show’s military, an organisation in which men and women fight, wash and sleep together (even the toilets are unisex).  At least two, Boomer and Tigh, have also been transformed into Cylons, in both cases as sleeper agents, initially unaware of their own identity[5].

Yet other elements are altered. In the opening episode of the miniseries (M.01) we are informed that forty years have passed since the armistice that ended the war between the humans and the Cylons, forty years in which the Cylons have remained invisible beyond the demarcation zone. The Galactica herself, pride of the fleet in the original series, is now an ageing relic scheduled for decommission, destined to serve as a museum.

Thus the revisioned series is placed in a universe in which many of the elements of the original series remain, present yet absent. The war of forty years earlier is presumably the same war in which the original series took place, yet the attack itself lies in the future, not the past. The prehistory of the original series intrudes, both as cultural memory and in specific appropriations and allusions, yet the show is not bound by it in any way[6].

The revisioned series is explicitly mythic, invoking sources as disparate as The Aeneid, The Book of Mormon, Exodus and Paradise Lost, as well as suggesting other, more mystic parallels in the Zodiacal names of the Twelve Colonies (Caprica, Sagittaron, Gemenon and so on) and the idols and rituals of the Colonials’ polytheistic religion. Like the playful appropriation of science fictional tropes such as the term ‘skinjobs’ to describe the replicant humanoid Cylons from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (in which Olmos also appeared) and the spectral images of the Cylon Hybrids that control the Cylon Basestars lost in waking dreams like the Delphic precogs in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, or the more subtle incorporation of sacred texts and language (Kobol, the name of the planet from which the humans fled prior to the founding of the Twelve Colonies, means ‘Heaven’ in Persian, while the show’s melancholy theme music incorporates a Hindu Mantra)[7], these mythic elements are highly suggestive, generating parallels and allusions while simultaneously denying easy or reductive correlations. It is a process made more powerful by the repeated suggestion that the events depicted in the narrative are part of some larger whole (not for nothing are we told the Cylons ‘Have a Plan’ in the opening credits), some cycle of time in which past and future are merged and which, in the words repeated by those Cylons privy to the secrets at the show’s core, ‘All of this has happened before, and will happen again’[8].

This blurring of the familiar and the unfamiliar is a narrative strategy Battlestar Galactica also employs to anchor its political subtexts. For all that its contemporary political resonances are deep, taking in anxiety about apocalyptic terrorist attacks, the erosion of civil society by the military, torture and religious extremism, there is seldom any easy correlation between events in the series and events in the real world. This is a strategy powerfully exemplified by the events of the first four episodes of the third series. Following the discovery at the end of the second season of a planet capable of supporting human life, and Baltar’s defeat of President Roslin (Mary McDonnell) in the first free elections held after the attack, much of the fleet abandons their ships to settle on the planet, now called New Caprica, only to find themselves, in a dramatic reversal of fortune, living under Cylon occupation.

With Galactica gone, the colonists are left undefended, forced to resist the Cylons in whatever way they can. Some, like Baltar, have little choice but to work with their Cylon masters; others refuse to submit, joining a growing armed insurgency. As the Cylon regime resorts to ever more brutal tactics to control the insurgency, the methods of the insurgents themselves grow more extreme, culminating in a series of suicide bombings intended to kill Cylons and members of the Cylon-directed human police force.

Part of a broader destabilisation of the binary moral order of us and them, right and wrong, Human and Other implicit in the show’s conception, these episodes do not merely undermine the easy identification between insurgent and terrorist, but by explicitly invoking the memory of quisling governments such as Vichy, suggest the simplistic historical parallels often drawn between the war in Iraq and the Second World War are far less comforting than they are usually assumed to be.

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This sort of destabilisation is of course the point and power of science fiction, yet Battlestar Galactica deploys it with particularly unsettling results. In ‘Flesh and Bone’ (1.08), a Cylon agent is found within the human fleet. Convinced its information will be worthless, Commander Adama argues it should be thrown out an airlock but President Roslin, who has encountered the model in a dream, disagrees, and insists the agent, a Two known as Leoben (Callum Keith Rennie), be interrogated.

Starbuck is assigned the task of interrogating the captive Cylon, a task she takes to with disturbing zeal, brutally beating Leoben until at last President Roslin interrupts. Seemingly appalled at what she has found, President Roslin demands to know what is going on. Unabashed, Starbuck responds, ‘It’s a machine, sir, there’s no limit to the tactics I can use.’

It is a sequence that is disturbing for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that none of the characters involved evince any reservations about the use of torture. The question of rights and wrongs is not debated, nor is there any suggestion the characters regret their actions. Indeed despite her intervention in the interrogation, and in direct breach of her own offer of amnesty, President Roslin herself orders Leoben be flushed out an airlock only moments after he provides the information she seeks.

At one level these instances of brutality on the part of the human characters are of a piece with the recurrent suggestion that the Twelve Colonies may have been a less than ideal society, for all its democratic trappings. When in ‘Bastille Day’ (1.03) it is discovered the political agitator and terrorist Tom Zarek  is incarcerated on a prison transport ship within the fleet, Apollo admits to having read his books at university, despite them being banned (perhaps seduced by the neatness of the idea, the series toys for a time with the notion that Zarek, played by Richard Hatch, who portrayed Apollo in the original series, might serve as a mentor of sorts to the revisioned series’ version of his former self). In another episode, ‘Hero’ (3.08), we learn the military may have provoked the Cylon attack with unauthorised missions over the demarcation line agreed in the treaty of forty years earlier. And while its exact nature is left ambiguous, the administration in which President Roslin served before the attack seems to have been both politically inept and surprisingly brutal: in a scene set only hours before the attack President Adar demands Roslin’s resignation because she has managed to defuse a teacher’s strike Adar had planned to break up with troops in order to provide an example to other groups seeking to sway the government in similar ways.

The ambiguity these glancing references creates is left unexplored. Indeed given that the series is predicated upon unthinkable grief and loss, Battlestar Galactica provides little in the way of backstory (and on those occasions it does, one usually wishes it had continued to err on the side of silence). The vision of space it creates, its emptiness and blackness, is quite literally a place of death, a fact reinforced by the recurring device of characters being blown out airlocks. With a few exceptions we know next to nothing of the lives of the characters before the attacks: sometimes we glimpse photographs, occasionally names are mentioned, and on several occasions we see the galleries on Galactica’s lower decks where, in a haunting reminder of the message boards that sprung up in New York in the days after September 11, the crew have pinned pictures and letters and other memorabilia of the lost, but by and large the show inhabits a world where the past has been, quite literally, obliterated.

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Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff) and Leobon Conoy (Callum Keith Rennie)

Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff) and Leobon Conoy (Callum Keith Rennie)

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Yet the implications of the events depicted in ‘Flesh and Bone’ run far deeper than their uncomfortable reminders of Abu Ghraib and the Bush administration’s prosecution of the war on terror. While the human characters see the Cylons as inhuman, genocidal machines devoid of feeling or identity, the viewer has already come to see them not as an implacable Other, but as something both less and more familiar. For all that he does not fear death, Leoben feels pain, fear, hunger and, most unsettlingly, professes ecstatic spiritual belief. ‘I see the patterns,’ he tells Starbuck, in an eerie glimpse of what Cylon consciousness might be like, ‘I know that I’m more than this body, more than this consciousness. A part of me swims in the stream but in truth, I’m standing on the shore. The current never takes me downstream.’

In ‘Flesh and Bone’ and elsewhere, much of the pleasure of Leoben comes from Callum Keith Rennie’s disconcerting performance. With his scraggy hair and battered blond looks he most resembles some cracked, streetwise prophet, a man whose eyes see beyond this world, yet whose sudden shifts in mood, from kindness to violence and psychological game-playing simultaneously suggest something dangerously mercurial. By contrast the Starbuck of ‘Flesh and Bone’ is a woman swaggeringly certain of her own convictions, unwilling even to entertain the possibility that Leoben’s suffering might be more than simulated.

The result is an encounter that blurs the distinction between Human and Cylon upon which the show is predicated. For by refusing to concede Leoben’s humanity, Starbuck – and by extension Colonial society as a whole – is dehumanised, becoming, in an unsettling reversal, precisely the thing she seeks to destroy[9].

The boundary between human and Cylon has already begun to blur before the scenes with Leoben. We have learned Cylons are biological replicas of human beings, almost indistinguishable even at a cellular level[10], as well as encountering at least two Cylons (both Eights), the Sharon known as Boomer and the Sharon assigned to breed with Helo on Caprica, who not only resist their programming, but also feel conflicted by human love, desire and loyalty. Likewise we have been offered many disquieting images of human cruelty, and of the horrors of war more generally. (In the episode ‘Flight of the Phoenix’ (2.09) we witness a squadron of Vipers massacre hundreds of disabled and defenceless Cylon raiders. While the pilots and Galactica’s bridge crew whoop and cheer, the viewer is free to explore other, less comfortable reactions.)

Yet it is not until the middle of the show’s second season, and what may well stand as its finest episode, ‘Pegasus’, that the viewer perceives just how unclear the distinction between human and Cylon has become. After surviving for more than a year on the run, Galactica and the civilian fleet encounter another Battlestar, the Pegasus, which has also managed to survive the attack upon the colonies. But the initial jubilation over finding other survivors quickly gives way to disquiet. Pegasus commander Admiral Cain and her crew have become instruments of total war, loyal only to themselves and rejecting all moral constraints upon the prosecution of their cause.

The parallels with the Bush administration’s war on terror are evident, not least in Cain’s barely restrained contempt for President Roslin, and the semblance of civilian government that endures in the fleet (‘The Secretary for Education?’ Cain asks Adama incredulously after her first interview with him and President Roslin). But it is not the frighteningly clearly drawn portrait of the corrupting nature of power unchecked by ethical constraints that gives the episode its thematic heart (in another of the series’ uncomfortable reversals President Roslin and Adama eventually agree the only way to contain Cain is to corrupt themselves, and murder her) but the revelation that Pegasus has a Cylon prisoner in her brig.

When Baltar examines the prisoner and extracts what information he can, he discovers a Six (Tricia Helfer), a model he has been in love with since before the attack on the Colonies, she is catatonic and immobile, her body displaying the marks of repeated brutality, torture and sexual assault.

The discovery is deeply disturbing, for both Baltar and the viewer, but it is the following scenes that complete the reversal of roles that is prefigured in ‘Flesh and Bone’. Unbeknown to Adama and President Roslin, Cain orders her intelligence officer, Lieutenant Thorne, to interrogate the Eight known as Sharon (Grace Park)  who, having betrayed her race to help the stranded Helo (Tahmoh Penikett) escape Caprica is now held in Galactica’s brig. In a series of viscerally disturbing scenes that cut between an off-duty drinking session on Galactica’s flight deck and Galactica’s brig, we circle inwards, watching Thorne arrive in Sharon’s cell (constructed, in a visual echo of Guantanamo Bay’s holding pens, of wire mesh within a larger cargo bay), hear Pegasus crew boasting about their treatment of the Six in their brig, see Sharon’s uncertainty turn to first to concern and then terror as Thorne and the troops with him force her face down on her bed and rape her.

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Admiral Adama (James Lee Olmos) and Sol Tight (William Hogan)

Admiral Adama (James Lee Olmos) and Saul Tigh (William Hogan)

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No doubt this game of shifting sympathies, and growing uncertainty about the boundaries between the human and the Cylon Other would be less effective if it were not embedded in Battlestar Galactica’s broader interest in exploring the capacity of war and trauma to derange societies. Implicating it in the show’s relentless downward spiral transforms what might be an engaging diversion into something far more important, connecting the question of the relationship between the Human and the Cylon Other to the question of the survival of both.

In this respect Battlestar Galactica presents a vision of decline that is almost unique in series television, its four seasons not charting humanity’s triumph over adversity, but the alarmingly rapid unravelling of what  is left of human society. This alone would make for confronting viewing, yet the show goes further, weaving its depiction of this process into a grander mythic narrative.

In quantitative terms this process is charted in the number that flashes up at the end of the opening credits of each episode recording the number of survivors, it ticks ever downwards from its first reading of 49,998, sometimes slowly, sometimes-as in the first survivor count after the escape from New Caprica-drastically, but always downwards, reaching, by midway through the fourth season, a mere 39,685.

In more human terms it is also visible in the gradual fraying of the fleet itself. Episode by episode the cost in lives weighs more heavily upon the characters, in particular the fighter pilots who are the front line of defence. Although the men and women of Galactica are the heroes of the piece, the show has few illusions about the reality of military life. With the exception of Apollo and a few others, Starbuck and the other pilots are aggressive risk-takers, and there are more than a few scenes that remind the viewer of the violence and dehumanisation that is a necessary part of military life. Simultaneously though we are constantly reminded that they are, for all their faults, human beings, and of the psychological toll of their responsibilities. Likewise the many scenes of dress uniform ceremonies that occur in early episodes quickly fade, ceremony eroded by the need to survive.

In this respect Battlestar Galactica often subverts one of the basic tenets of series television. For rather than accepting that characters should, for the most part, remain constant over time, it repeatedly places them in situations from which they can only emerge radically and irreparably altered, a process that is most evident in the episodes set during the occupation of New Caprica. Yet while all the characters are implicated in this often brutal process of psychological and social disintegration, growing increasingly embittered and damaged as the series proceeds, it is in the person of President Roslin that the process is most starkly drawn.

President Laura Roslin, and indeed the entire notion of a surviving civilian government, is one of the masterstrokes of the series as a whole. The former secretary for education, she assumes the presidency of the Colonies after the forty-two members of the government ahead of her fail to report in line with emergency protocols. A former schoolteacher, and initially regarded as a soft-headed junior member of a government-Adama himself admits to not having voted for her: ‘President Adar was an idiot,’ he remarks at one point-President Roslin assumes the reins of power essentially unknown and little-respected. At first her chief concern is preserving lives, but by the first episode of the first series, ’33’ (1.01), she is prepared to give the order to destroy a ship carrying 1500 civilians because she believes a Cylon agent on board threatens the entire fleet. This blooding begins a journey that sees President Roslin grow into a hawk of such swift brutality she unnerves even Adama (when, in ‘A Measure of Salvation’ (3.07), Roslin is offered a means to destroy the Cylons forever she does not blink at genocide).

Yet this transformation is not without its costs. By the fourth series, haunted by visions from the chamalla extract she has been taking in an effort to stave off the spreading cancer within her, President Roslin experiences a long hallucination in the moments between hyperspace jumps in which she is confronted with just how removed from human feeling she has become, unable to love, unable even to feel  (the episodes of the first half of the fourth season also dangle the possibility that Roslin is herself a Cylon).

Nor is this focus on the deranging effects of war upon societies is not limited to Battlestar Galactica’s portrait of human society. Although in the early episodes Cylon society remains essentially inscrutable, by the second and third series it is less so, as the series explores the growing malaise in Cylon society engendered by the war. This process really begins with ‘Downloaded’ (2.18), which is set not amid the human characters but among the Cylons on the now-irradiated and largely ruined Caprica.

Prior to ‘Downloaded’, the viewer’s contact with fully functioning Cylon characters has been limited to encounters with individual agents, such as the Leoben in ‘Flesh and Bone’ or the Three known as D’Anna in ‘Final Cut’. The three continuing presences in the first and second series-the Six who appears to Baltar in his tortured visions; Boomer, whose horrified realisation of her Cylon nature occupies much of the first season and culminates in its shocking finale; and the Eight known as Sharon who helps Helo escape from Caprica-are all either unaware of their true identity or separated in some way from the bulk of Cylon society.

‘Downloaded’ focuses on two Cylons already encountered in very different circumstances. The first is the Six who used Baltar to access the Twelve Colonies’ defence networks; the second is Boomer, who, having been killed after her attempt to assassinate Adama, has now downloaded and been reborn. Both are hailed as heroes by their Cylon brothers and sisters. Yet despite this both are struggling to reintegrate into Cylon society. Boomer, still horrified by the discovery of her true identity, exists in a state of existential rage and despair, while the Six is haunted  by the knowledge of her part in the deaths of so many billions as well as by her love for Baltar.

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A Three (Lucy Lawless) wakes in a resurrection pod

A Three (Lucy Lawless) wakes in a resurrection pod

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The question of individuality and what it might mean haunts ‘Downloaded’, as well as later episodes focussing on Cylon characters (by the fourth season the Cylons are often referred to in the singular, as ‘the Cylon’, implying a tacit understanding of the unified and collective nature of Cylon society). Just like the images of a San Francisco populated by alien replicants of its population in Philip Kaufman’s 1978 film Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, there is something profoundly unsettling about the idea of a society inhabited by duplicates (perhaps the more so in ‘Downloaded’ because the Cylons are engaged in the process of re-creating the cities they destroyed in the attack, engaged in some unexplained attempt to reproduce the human world so recently extinguished)[11].

Yet as we come to understand more about Cylon society it becomes clear exactly why Caprica Six and Boomer’s resistance to reintegration poses a threat to the Cylons. Cylon society is collective, a unit in which decisions are made by the group, the models voting as blocks, and the whole acceding to the wishes of the majority. Individual ‘skinjobs’ seem to exist within and outside some sort of hive mind, sharing memories and experiences yet still individuated. To deny the group is therefore to deny the whole, a violence of a profound and almost unimaginable kind.

In this respect the Cylons (or Cylon) are a disquieting creation, uncanny copies both of each other and of their human creators. At once human and not, alive yet undying, created beings that both simulate and experience emotion, desire, pain, their presence drives a radical instability of meaning, one that echoes precisely the instances of doppelgangers and simulacra that Freud describes as instances of the uncanny[12] (the mantra of the Cylons, ‘All this has happened before, and will happen again’, might also be seen as another instance of this Freudian pattern of recurrence, or indeed of that other most uncanny sense of repetition, déjà vu).

This strangeness is given its most powerful expression in the scenes and episodes aboard the Cylon basestars in Seasons Three and Four. In contrast to the relatively banal simulation of human society glimpsed in ‘Downloaded’, these episodes afford a glimpse of what it might be to be Cylon. Moving silently through space in their beautiful, geometric Basestars, the immortal Cylons seem to exist both within and outside time, passing their existences in meditation, and release into the whole.

It is this unity the Caprica Six and Boomer’s resistance threatens, first by its very nature and later, more directly, by their decision to kill a fellow Cylon in order to prevent her from taking the life of a human resistance fighter. In so doing they spark a series of events that lead first to the doomed attempt to live alongside the humans on New Caprica, and finally to the schism and civil war that divides Cylon society in Season Four.

Such a course is  the fulfilment of the Oedipal conflict that begins the series. It is the wages of the Cylon’s original sin, yet it is also a manifestation of the series’ preoccupation with the effect of trauma upon societies and the blurring of the two species. Now they are in conflict their fates are necessarily entwined. The two are now destined to become one, or perish.

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Sol Tigh (Michael Hogan) interrogates Boomer (Grace Park)

Sol Tigh (Michael Hogan) interrogates Boomer (Grace Park)

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It will be interesting to discover exactly how Battlestar Galactica’s producers intend to resolve the remarkable web of narrative and thematic complexities the series has created over the past four seasons in the ten episodes that remain. Making sense of the many competing allusions and expectations they create is likely to prove challenging, not least because any resolution will need to fulfil the demands of the words that have haunted the series, ‘All of this has happened before, and will happen again.’

But in a way the path is already set and understood. In the final episode of Battlestar Galactica’s third season, in the climactic scene of Baltar’s  trial for crimes against humanity, Apollo gives an impassioned speech calling for his acquittal. As he speaks he gropes towards the reason so many are set on killing Baltar, a man he and many others hate.

‘Because you’re weak,’ Apollo says ‘Because you’re arrogant … Because you’re a coward, and we the mob, want to throw you out of the airlock because you didn’t stand up to the Cylons and get yourself killed in the process. You should have been killed back on New Caprica, but since you had the temerity to live, we’re going to execute you.’

But as Apollo speaks we see him begin to understand the answer to the question he has been struggling to articulate. ‘This case is built on emotion, on anger, bitterness, vengeance. But most of all, it is built on shame  … And we’re trying to dump all that guilt and all that shame on one man and then flush him out the airlock, and hope that just gets rid of it all. So that we can live with ourselves.’

It is a cathartic moment in more ways than one. For Apollo, who has resigned his commission and had his father disown him in order to defend a man both hold in contempt, it signals a moment of recognition and clarity of a sort he rarely enjoys.

But it also signals a deeper catharsis, the implications of which are not clear to those present, but which reach into the heart of the show. For in recognising that Baltar, the cast out, the abject, must be admitted back into the fold, Apollo articulates the possibility of resolution of the deeper conflict that gives the series breath, that between humanity and the Cylons, creatures that were once their children, but rose against their parents in an act of Oedipal genocide, possibilities that come to be explored in the show’s final season.  For in the end there is no us and them, no human and Other. We are them, and they are us. And all of this has happened before, and will happen again.


Starbuck (Kara Thrace)

Starbuck (Kara Thrace)

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1 In the interests of clarity, episodes are identified by the series and episode numbers contained in their production numbers. Thus episode 4 of series 2 is denoted by the number 2.04. In keeping with this system the telemovie Razor, while aired as a separate stand-alone episode, is assumed to form the first two episodes of Series 4 (4.01 and 4.02) and the two episodes of the miniseries, which lack a series number, are nominally denoted M.01 and M.02. Where differences exist between the episodes broadcast and those released on DVD (the DVD version of episode 2.10, ‘Pegasus’, for instance, includes some fifteen minutes of extra material), references are to the version released on DVD.

2 Much of Battlestar Galactica’s very particular (and extremely coherent) visual style is the work of the Australian director, Michael Rymer, who directed both the original miniseries (M.01 and M.02) and more than a third of the first three and a half seasons.

3 For a fuller discussion of Battlestar Galactica’s use of music, see Eftychia Papanikolaou, ‘Of Duduks and Dylan: Negotiating Music and Aural Space’, in Tiffany Potter and C.W. Marshall (eds), Cylons in America: Critical Studies in Battlestar Galactica (2008), pp. 224–236 An extended discussion of Bear McCreary’s influences and his Battlestar Galactica score can be found in Tina Huang’s review of the Battlestar Galactica Season 2 original soundtrack album. Philip Glass’s ‘Metamorphosis Five’ is used as a recurring motif during Starbuck’s visit to her abandoned apartment on Caprica in ‘Valley of Darkness’ (2.02).

4 The opening credit montage alters subtly across the four seasons. In Season 1 it also includes the additional phrases ‘They look and feel human. Some are programmed to think they are human’, while in Season 4 we are told ‘Twelve Cylon models. Seven are known. Four live in secret. One will be revealed’.

5 Given the generally heterogenous racial mix of the characters, a mix mostly notable for the relatively small number of black characters, it is perhaps interesting that Boomer, the one African-American character in the original series, has not just been transformed into a woman, but into an Asian woman.

6 The revisioned series also deliberately invokes the outdated technology of the original series, in details such as the Korean Army telephones that are used on Galactica and visual jokes, such as the Cylon uniform from the original series glimpsed as a museum exhibit in the first episode of the mini-series (M.01) and in Razor (4.02), and as a plot device (Galactica survives the initial attack because its antiquated systems are not networked, and therefore are protected from the Cylon virus that disables the defence networks (M.01)).

7 The Gayatri Mantra, taken from the Rig Veda: “OM bhûr bhuvah svah tat savitur varçnyam bhargô dçvasya dhîmahi dhiyô yô nah pracôdayât (may we attain that excellent glory of Savitar the God / so may he stimulate our prayers)”, (

8 A more extended discussion of the intertextual elements of the revisioned series is available in Tiffany Potter and C.W. Marshall’s insightful introduction to Potter and Marshall (ibid).

9 For a fuller discussion of this point see Erika Johnson-Lewis’ ‘Torture, Terrorism and Other Aspects of Human Nature’, in Potter and Marshall, pp. 27-39.

10 The exact nature of the skinjobs’ biology remains somewhat mysterious. Despite being informed Cylons are essentially indistinguishable from humans (in the telemovie Razor, we learn the early biological Cylons were hybrids of human and machine) and it being clear Cylons are able to reproduce with humans, in one episode we have also seen Athena insert a computer cable into her arm and interface with Galactica’s computer systems directly, suggesting their bodies have functions that exceed the human and hark back to their cybernetic origins.

11 It is perhaps not accidental that the Cylons seem most focused on creating a replica of what looks like a Starbucks in their reconstruction of Caprica.

12 Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny, Penguin, 2003. For a fuller Freudian interpretation of Cylons and Cylon corporeality, see Alison Peirse, ‘Uncanny Cylons: Resurrection and Bodies of Horror’, in Potter and Marshall, pp. 118–28.

Originally published in Meanjin, Vol 67, No 4, 2008. © James Bradley, 2008.