New Battlestar Galactica interview sheds light on Cylon rights

A new chat with the creators of Battlestar Galactica raises the tricky issue of torture once again. This time, we get some answers straight from the source

Starbuck

The reimagined Battlestar Galactica is often described as “gritty” and “grimy”. For some Den of Geek contributors, it’s too gritty. Our own Martin Anderson criticised the show’s depiction of torture in episode 8: Flesh and Bone – his argument being that the scenes of interrogation amounted to an endorsement of violent coercion (When Good Guys Torture). In this episode, we follow Galactica fighter pilot Starbuck as she tortures enemy Cylon agent (and artificial construct) Leoben, in scenes that are sometimes very difficult to look at. The show ends with the captive Cylon being executed; tossed into space to die on the orders of civilian leader President Roslin. So appalled was Martin by the episode, that he stopped watching the series entirely.

I took the stance that BSG is a little more complex than just “good guys versus bad guys” – and that showing a “hero” acting in a manner that isn’t heroic doesn’t automatically endorse that behaviour in the same way that it might if the scene had been shown in a less morally ambiguous, less intricate series like Star Trek. At the time I commented:

“The narrative dynamic at play in Battlestar Galactica (…) questions the traditional hero/villain dichotomy that is so clearly delineated in less complex sci-fi and horror.

Galactica doesn’t explore “good” and “evil” – but seeks instead to analyse the complex motives and behaviours of two different cultures in the context of war. Battlestar Galactica as a whole does not “tacitly endorse” Starbuck’s behaviour – or that of Roslin. In fact, many of the episodes that follow Flesh and Bone refer back to this (interrogation), questioning (its moral validity) in light of further revelations made about Cylon society.

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“For example, a Cylon character joins the fleet and is accepted into the fold. Inevitably, a moment arrives where she has a confrontation with Roslin in which she says “What are you going to do, throw me out of the airlock?” Many of the human fleet are forced to reconsider their knee-jerk prejudices about the Cylons – their categorisation of them as “merely machines”. Flesh and Bone becomes a reference point for the change in view that occurs”.

Now, a new interview with Battlestar creators David Eick and Ron Moore directly addresses some of these issues – and more. It’s testimony to the irreducible complexity of BSG that this interview wasn’t with a TV magazine or a cult media web site like Den of Geek. It was conducted by Concurring Opinions, a scholarly blog that broadly concerns itself with the role of law in society. The transcript is broken down into sections covering “Legal Systems”, “Torture, Necessity and Morality” and “Politics and Economics”. So, not exactly “How Much is a Pint of Milk?” then.

On Flesh and Bone, Moore says:

“There was a notion that [torture] was permissible under some circumstances but not others, or at least we should have a public debate about it. And that alone just felt like . . . well, okay then, just by having it in our show we would touch into what’s going on in America today. I think that given the circumstances of where they are, it was completely believable that people in different circumstances would choose to use aggressive, physical coercion on their enemies.

“[This is] especially [true] in the circumstance [in the show] where we have the distinction [between humans and cylons.] [In the show,] Kara [“Starbuck” Thrace] and the rest of the Colonial officers did not view the Cylons as legitimate people. They were not accepted as [humans] — they were not human, and they did not have the rights of humans, and they would not be accepted as anything other than machines. So when we approached the first episode that really dealt with this, “Flesh and Bone,” one of the key concepts was: ”Well, it’s a machine.” Is there anything morally wrong about beating a machine? And torturing machines? And making a machine go through all kinds gyrations?

“We were sort of at pains in the story discussion room and at the script phase to not send [any particular] message [about torture]. We were trying not to say, “Hey, guess what, torture’s bad!” or to go through the rationalizations of why it should be employed in certain circumstances. We really just wanted to put the audience in the room and make them really uncomfortable. We really wanted them to struggle (we like to do this a lot in the show) — we wanted them to struggle with [the questions]: “Who am I supposed to be rooting for in this circumstance? Whose side am I on?”

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The full interview, in both transcript and audio forms can be found at www.concurringopinions.com . It looks at BSG in a serious context, covering issues of legality, human rights and moral imperative – and is well worth a thorough read. The fourth and final season of Battlestar Galactica comes to the US Sci-Fi channel on the 4th of April.