The Overton Salon

Battlestar Galactica and the Cycle of Violence

Posted in Culture, Theology by austin on April 27, 2011

I finally finished watching the entire Battlestar Galactica (hereafter BG) TV show. I had heard that it was a re-telling of the Aeneid, Virgil’s telling of a remnant’s flight from Troy to found Rome, and while I realized that this was it’s beginning story, it eventually transformed into a story that deals with a major aspect of Christianity: an end to the cycle of violence.

The Aeneid was a story about the founding of an Empire. When Aeneas and his group settle in Latium, they meet the violence of the inhabitants. But in BG, this is the mid-point of the story on “New Caprica.” Eventually they are led to a place called “Earth,” in its primitive state, and they settle there as a people. The cycle of violence is then broken, because of a change in power dynamics.

The humans of the “twelve colonies of Kobal,” eventually developed the technology to create a artificial intelligence called “Cylons.” They eventually develop enough capacity on their own to turn on their masters, and they start a war (perhaps in reference to Cylon of Athens, an olympic victor who attempted a coup in Athens as told by Thucydides). There is a long and costly war, and then a truce. Then forty years later, as the humans are asleep as it were, there is a “Trojan horse” (the Cylons develop themselves to look like humans) and the Cylons proceed to destroy the entire human race, except for 49,000 or so.

So the story is basically about the Cylons chasing humans throughout the universe, and all the attended drama. Much of it is pretty good drama too, although it gets pretty melodramatic at times. The best seasons are 1 and 4, since the themes are the clearest, and even when it gets melodramatic, these seasons don’t stray to far from the overarching theme.

Now BG’s solution to the cycle of violence is two-fold: forgiveness and equality. As the character Ellen says, once the Centurians (Cylons) have been freed, the cycle of violence ends. BG basically interprets violence as an outcome of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic: once the slave realizes that the master’s life is dependent on theirs, they recognize their rights. Yet the master will not give up their right so easily, because they see themselves as superior. Thus a fight for recognition ensues. The story of BG really is this fight: humans believe they are superior, and the Cylons believe they are superior. Eventually forgiveness emerges as both realize they need each other – and this is the reason why the Cylon-human hybrid child becomes so essential to the story.

In other words, forgiveness is the recognition that the claims of both parties – the claim of an equal dignity by the slaves, and a recognition of the need of the slaves by the humans – are affirmed. This allows the humans to re-imagine what life should be like, and allows the Cylons to come to grips with who they are.

You’ll have to see the show to understand how there are so many hints of Christian thinking involved in this (I mean, look at this picture!). I don’t think the creators necessarily intended this, because at certain points they seem to have a real antipathy for at least “organized” Christianity. But the answer to the cycle of violence that BG gives and the answer Christianity gives are quite different. And in the very last episode, it seems that they realize this answer – equality and forgiveness – don’t really do it.

The problem with this answer is that it leaves out a very basic element in human (or apparently, Cylon) life: desire. It does not deal with the fact that human desire for what the other has – whether that be power, or money, or survival – transforms their perception of that other, and what equality really means. Part of what Jesus came to reveal was a way this desire can be transformed, and this is a lot of what the cross is about.

But BG is worth watching in that it is a long meditation on this problem of violence.

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  1. [...] is that of Battlestar Galactica. For an excellent summary of how the show plays with that concept, check out this blog (of course it contains [...]

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