How Politics Destroyed a Great TV Show
Either you are with me, or you are my enemy!” shouted a young Darth Vader in 2005’s Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, one of the execrable prequels to the original films by George Lucas. In response to this all-or-nothing provocation, a disgusted Obi-Wan Kenobi replies, “Only a Sith deals in absolutes!”
Siths are Jedi Knights who have given themselves over to the Dark Side by embracing the evil emotions of anger, envy, and revenge. Readers of Commentary can be forgiven for neither knowing nor caring about this. But it is worth noting that for millions of Star Wars enthusiasts, it was very serious stuff indeed. Lucas revived, if not reinvented, the entire genre of science fiction in the 1970s by embracing bold and mythic depictions of good and evil and the heroic battle of the former against the latter. For decades, the established premise of the Star Wars franchise was that the universe is divided into the Dark Side and the Light Side of the “Force.” Jedi Knights—champions of all that is noble and virtuous—were warned never to give in, even a little, to the Dark Side, lest they lose their souls. If all that is not about “absolutes,” then what on earth (or in a galaxy far, far away) is? And Lucas threw it all away to get in a dig at George W. Bush.
His swipe at Bush’s famous iteration of the doctrine that would bear his name—“You are either with us or against us”—in a few seconds unraveled the entire moral superstructure of the Star Wars franchise. Such gratuitous political self-indulgence saturated the popular culture during the Bush years, in fare that had absolutely nothing to do with the policies of the White House.
In the two (awful) sequels to The Matrix, a science-fiction hit about humans being used as a fuel source by a world overtaken by machines, Bush is visually compared to Adolf Hitler. In the Pixar film Wall-E, the “global CEO” of an environmentally devastated Planet Earth apes Bush’s “stay the course” line. In X-Files: I Want to Believe, Bush and J. Edgar Hoover are paired. On television, Bush hatred or liberal antiwar paranoia suffused the NBC series Law and Order like a metastasizing cancer. The hospital show Grey’s Anatomy, the attorney show Boston Legal, the cop show Bones, and even the mother-daughter show Gilmore Girls included notable and needless instances, some playful and others less so, of what Charles Krauthammer dubbed Bush Derangement Syndrome.
In most of these cases, political asides can be shrugged off. Hollywood is a very liberal place, Bush and the war were indeed very unpopular, so expecting producers and actors to escape the temptation to get their shots in would be like expecting them to treat global warming with skepticism. Denouncing the ideological intrusion into the dialogue of Grey’s Anatomy as a corruption of artistic integrity offers such televised junk more respect than it deserves. After all, few can look upon Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay and wistfully ponder what might have been.
That is not the case with a cable-television series called Battlestar Galactica, a remarkable piece of work that nonetheless committed artistic and creative suicide owing to the intrusion of the political beliefs of its creator and writers, which eventually made a complete hash of their own show.
A remake of a campy 1970s science-fiction series made in the wake of the box-office receipts of the original Star Wars, the gritty, intelligent, and pensive Battlestar Galactica came as a startling surprise upon the premiere of the six-hour miniseries that began its run in 2003. The story line involves a futuristic human civilization spanning 12 planetary colonies. Robots (called Cylons) originally invented to serve as slaves evolve into sentient enemies bent on destroying their former masters. In the original series, the Cylons were depicted as fairly absurd tin men. In the new version, the evolved Cylons are human doppelgängers capable of infiltrating human society (the tin men, far more frightening this time, are still around but serve as shock troops). The doppelgängers are also essentially immortal—if one is killed, his or her consciousness is instantly transmitted into a new, identical body.
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. The series won Program of the Year from the Television Critics Association, as well as numerous other awards. Time hailed it as the best thing on television in 2005, and the series earned a ranking in its top 100 TV shows of all time. From National Review to Rolling Stone, the series was justifiably hailed for its gritty realism, superb acting, and deft direction.
Originally, the series was very difficult to pigeonhole ideologically. An avid student of martial culture, Ron Moore, its guiding creative hand, treated the military with deep respect. William Adama, Galactica’s commander, is not a coffeehouse philosophe indulging his cosmopolitan sensibilities (the way Patrick Stewart’s Jean-Luc Picard often did in the second iteration of the Star Trek franchise in the 1980s), but a gruff and stalwart leader. Laura Roslin (played by Mary McDonnell) is a saccharine liberal do-gooder accidentally thrust into the position of president who achieves a flinty toughness—and makes an unexpected ideological journey of her own when she decides that abortion cannot be tolerated with the human population reduced to a mere 50,000 souls.
Inevitably and justifiably, the show dealt with various “enemy within” themes, but unlike countless rehashes of The Crucible, Battlestar Galactica conceded that there actually was an enemy within. The enemy was very real, literally an existential foe guilty of murdering 20 billion people, not just the hobgoblin of alleged McCarthyite paranoia. Peace activists are depicted, at times, as deluded, dangerous, and even vaguely traitorous, giving the impression that at least some of the writers were familiar with Orwell’s writings on wartime pacifists. And the frightening nature of the relentless suicide-bomber-attack machine was indelibly captured by the sensational concept that any Cylon killed in battle could simply be resurrected to fight another day.
Though the show received raves from writers and critics associated with the Right, Battlestar Galactica was in no way a conservative document. Numerous subplots were congenial to liberal sensibilities, as when President Roslin’s breast cancer is cured with embryonic stem cells. But hawkish arguments and assumptions were portrayed with integrity. The regrettable trade-offs implicit in any war, particularly a war to prevent total extinction, were treated as real.
The original miniseries was written and filmed in 2002, when the war on terror was a nearly universal cause. The show’s first season was written and filmed in 2003, and the second in 2004. When it came time to make the third season, in 2005, the war on terror had become old hat, and the war in Iraq had become a grinding controversy. Moore and his colleagues felt compelled to move on from their analogical portrait of the war on terror to the occupation of Iraq—a decision that upended the direction the show had been heading over the previous 32 hours and that led inexorably to its self-destruction.
The third season opens with most of humanity—exhausted by war, deprivation, and internal divisions—settling on a bleak, barely habitable planet. Suddenly the Cylons, after annihilating all but .00025 percent of humanity, decide they want to live in peace. But rather than leave humans alone, they conclude the best way to achieve this goal would be to invade this last tiny outpost of humanity and forcibly convert them to the one true god (in the series, the Cylons are monotheists, while the humans are polytheists) . . . or something.
The truth is that the audience was never given a remotely decipherable, never mind plausible, explanation for this radically bizarre and nonsensical turn of events. Rather, it was simply asserted in a hodgepodge of babbling dialogue. Almost immediately, the show’s protagonists are transformed into “insurgents” who have little or no compunction about becoming suicide bombers. The Cylons, for their part, are finding the human colony very troublesome. In one particularly ham-fisted scene, one of the Cylon leaders mocks his colleagues: “How did you think the humans would greet us? With— ‘Oh, never mind’?” This is, of course, a naked reference to the idea expressed before the American invasion, that the war in Iraq would be a “cakewalk.”
Most egregiously, the human suicide bombers are not young men brainwashed in a madrassa and promised eternal life with 72 virgins, nor are they threatened with the murder of their families—the tactics used by jihadists to create their human bombs. Rather, they are decent, calm, and composed men and women fighting in a noble cause. Taken seriously, this romanticization of suicide bombers and “insurgency” has a cascade of revolting implications. The insurgency in Iraq was not an authentic resistance like the Warsaw Ghetto uprising or De Gaulle’s Free French forces. The ranks of terrorists in Iraq were overwhelmingly made up of Baathist remnants of the Hussein regime and al-Qaeda interlopers with their own imperialist ambitions for a worldwide umma.
The extent of the show’s political and ideological corruption is best exemplified by the fact that one of the central pillars of the series had to be yanked: the notion that the Cylons had a grand, complex, conspiratorial plan involving their human doppelgängers that was unfolding inexorably over the course of the show’s run, one that humans needed to uncover in order to secure a victory in the war for the survival of their species. Indeed, every episode of the first three seasons began with an opening sequence in which the viewer is explicitly told that the Cylons “have a plan.” 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. The humans were no longer analogized to Americans; rather Americans were analogized to genocidal occupiers. In other words, we are no longer the inspiration for the futuristic Israelites trying to survive. We are now the Nazis.
With this turnabout, left-wing writers suddenly fell in love with the show. Battlestar Galactica had “morphed into a stinging allegorical critique of America’s three-year occupation of Iraq,” cheered a writer in the liberal American Prospect. Spencer Ackerman, then an employee of the New Republic, wrote a piece for Slate titled “Battlestar: Iraqtica—Does the hit television show support the Iraqi insurgency?” His unequivocal conclusion: “In unmistakable terms, Battlestar: Galactica is telling viewers that insurgency (like, say, the one in Iraq) might have some moral flaws, such as the whole suicide bombing thing, but is ultimately virtuous and worthy of support. Wow.” That “wow” is celebratory.
After the Iraq story line, Battlestar Galactica deteriorated rapidly over the course of its final two seasons. The plot shift led the show’s writers and producers into a bizarre and meandering world of visiting angels, pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo, and deus-ex-machina literary devices. Human and Cylon fell in love; robots killed themselves; a key character’s death and resurrection were never explained; and in the end it turned out that everything we were watching had led to the population of our Earth 150,000 years ago and that we were heading in a similar direction because we have some robots now too. The disappointment among the show’s fans was palpable, and its final episode provoked widespread rage-—there is no other word for it—among those who had followed the series passionately for the previous five years and felt they had been tricked by its conclusion.
No doubt the producers believe it was all worth it. For having the “bravery” to tackle the occupation of Iraq, the producers and lead actors were invited to a panel at the United Nations to dilate on the war on terror. It is hard to imagine that would have happened if the series had held to its original course.
Ron Moore told Salon in 2007 that “the show’s mission is not to present answers to what I think are really complicated, difficult questions. One of the mistakes TV often makes is that it tries to tackle complicated moral and legal issues and wrap them up in an hour and give you a neat, tidy message by the end: ‘And here’s the way to solve Iraq!’ I don’t think that’s helpful, and I don’t think that’s good storytelling or great to watch. Our mission is more about asking questions, asking the audience to think about things, to think about uncomfortable things, to question their own assumptions.”
It’s been said that the difference between the truth and fiction is that fiction has to make sense. After its third season, Battlestar Galactica steadily failed on both counts.
These failures are attributable not just to the allure of ideology and the desire to stay “relevant” but also to Moore’s fraudulent notion that merely “asking questions” isn’t itself a form of ideological commitment. Indeed, most propaganda is often posed in the form of invidious questions. A merely loaded question—have you stopped beating your wife yet?—is one thing. An invidious question is one in which evil fictions are given parity with truth. “I’m not saying the Holocaust didn’t happen, I’m just raising important questions.”
Joshua Alston’s conclusion that Battlestar Galactica best captures the fear, uncertainty, and ambiguity of the post-9/11 world still holds up, but with a thick layer of irony. For the series’s story arc demonstrates that Moore and Company were not immune to the pressures of the post-9/11 world. Indeed, it reveals instead that they could not handle those pressures.