How Politics Destroyed a Great TV Show
Jonah Goldberg, in Commentary Magazine
In the debut miniseries, we are introduced to a civilization very much like our own: open, decent, democratic. In fulfillment of a supposedly divine plan, the Cylons spread out among humanity’s 20 billion people, taking advantage of that openness and decency, as well as society’s boredom with military preparedness (memories of the last Cylon war have faded away). They orchestrate a 9/11 on a genocidal scale, murdering the vast majority of humanity in a perfectly timed nuclear cataclysm. An aging battlestar called Galactica—essentially a space-borne aircraft carrier—poised to become a museum exhibit narrowly escapes the -Armageddon with a tiny ragtag convoy of humanity’s survivors. Outmatched, outgunned, and outstrategized, they must all try to survive against a foe that needs no rest and has no conscience.
These premises gave Battlestar Galactica an ideal foundation to play off the headlines of the day. Indeed, as Newsweek’s Joshua Alston noted in December 2008, Battlestar Galactica captured “better than any other TV drama of the past eight years the fear, uncertainty and moral ambiguity of the post-9/11 world.” The tensions between security and freedom, civilian and military leadership, healthy fear versus debilitating phobia, were explored brilliantly...
... But in the third season, a Cylon leader explains that “plans change,” whereupon the Cylon quest to exterminate the human race simply evaporates so the show can riff on the evils of “occupation.” By the premiere of the fourth season, the Cylon plan was no longer mentioned during the opening credits. And every other seed of plot that had been planted over the previous years was left untended and forgotten as well.
Thus, a show marked by gritty realism about how a decent but flawed civilization modeled on our own tries to cling to its decency while fighting an existential war against an implacable enemy veered wildly off course.
I have an online friend - a gentleman I meet up with at least once every year at Dragon*Con - who has, at times, openly expressed doubt as to whether Colonial civilization was indeed worth preserving. I can't say I blame him. During my full series re-watch this summer, I often felt the show to be an obligation rather than a diversion. This was not really because I was bothered by the plot elements discussed in the article above. Unlike Jonah, I really liked the opening arc of the third season regardless of its authorial intent (which I am just post-modern enough to gleefully ignore) - and I think leaving Kara's death and resurrection ambiguous was the right choice. What bothered me about the series were writing issues at the character level. I like flawed characters - absolutely I do - but Battlestar Galactica seemed to have a genuine obsession with taking its heroes and stripping them of everything that made them admirable - assuming, of course, that they were admirable to begin with. (Gaius Baltar certainly was not.)
The most egregious example of this is the trajectory of Laura Roslin. For three years, I was in love with Roslin - or, as I often dubbed her, Madame Airlock - because she was willing to make the hard choices necessary to keep the human race alive. I happily encouraged my friends when they wrote filks about her love affair with the airlock control, was tempted to put a Roslin '08 sticker on my bumper, and made disgruntled noises whenever she didn't get sufficient airtime. Did she always make the right decisions? No, of course not - but we repeatedly saw that she was self-aware enough to admit her mistakes, and throughout, there was no question at all that her care for the fleet was genuine. In the fourth season, however, the writers threw it all away; when Earth turned out to be a dead end, Roslin disappeared into her own self-centered melancholia and never reemerged. She completely abdicated her responsibility to the fleet just at the moment when tensions were highest to pursue - well, I'm not exactly sure. But it definitely involved sleeping with the Admiral while the crew of the Galactica plotted mutiny around them. By this point, as you might imagine, I was utterly disgusted - and similar levels of disgust developed with regards to many other characters at one point or another. Either that or I simply slipped into a state of pure apathy. In the end, it was difficult to find anyone to really root for - and that is profoundly alienating.
Far more pernicious than any silly Iraq allegories is, in my opinion, the show's relentless iconoclasm. There are no heroes in Battlestar Galactica - or, if there once were, they were promptly knocked off of their pedestals. The writers embraced the concept of original sin - of our fallen nature - without giving us anything higher to strive for. There was no hope - there was only, in the final moments, cultural suicide.