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Battlestar Galactica DVD cover

It's time for a recap. Ron Moore's Battlestar Galactica returns to us this month having sparked in the third quarter of last year some fairly passionate debate. It is a sign of the show's quality that it can encourage such comment, but at the same time much of the discussion revolved around a profound and increasing sense of discomfort with the show's content, in particular its treatment of the Cylons and, by extension, gender.

I reviewed the first four episodes of Galactica's second season in September, and pointed out that there were questions to be asked concerning the show's penchant for depicting the seduction of dimly good-intentioned human males by malevolent seductress robots. I gave the episodes the benefit of the doubt. The instalment which immediately followed that opening quartet, 'The Farm,' rather put paid to my wait-and-see policy: Kara 'Starbuck' Thrace, the swaggering, talented female starfighter pilot, is kidnapped by the Cylons and informed by a male doctor posing as human that her reproductive system is her "most valuable asset these days." Starbuck has little interest in children or procreation, insisting that she "is not a commodity."

When Starbuck contrives her escape from the compound, however, she stumbles on a breeding farm, in which unwilling women are integrated into machines and used as biological incubators. She destroys the farm—killing the raped women in the process—and flees back to the lines. The question that has lurked in the background of Galactica's run so far rears its ugly head: if the human men, Balthar or Tyrel or Agathon, get to mate with beautiful women, why is it necessary for the human women to be plugged into machines, dehumanised and objectified?

The final episode of the run, a cliffhanger designed to leave us panting for 2006, saw Galactica come across another surviving Battlestar of the human fleet, the Pegasus. Commanded by the distant and formal Admiral Helena Cain, we discover that the crew of the Pegasus have interrogated their Cylon captive—a version of Balthar's ex-lover and constant invisible companion, Tricia Helfer's sensual and sinister Number Six—by means of abuse, torture, and rape. They soon attempt to extend this treatment to Galactica's own Cylon prisoner, a version of the Raptor pilot, Sharon 'Boomer' Valerii.

These scenes are unflinchingly graphic. When Balthar first encounters the catatonic prisoner onboard the Pegasus, we can immediately guess what has been done to her (though the slow reveal of the full truth is one of the few instances of our feeling fully at home and empathetic in Balthar's increasingly unstable shoes). In some ways this is disappointing: Battlestar Galactica regularly flouts conventions and audience expectations, and it seems a shame for it to fall back on stock images and situations in so sensitive a situation. You could suggest that the audience should have instead been shown an abused man, been asked to engage with gender roles rather than merely accept the generally accepted, but to do so, would, I think, miss the point that using a character with whom we are completely familiar was the only choice that could have made dramatic sense of the scene.

Because, as troubling as the gender issues are in these episodes, they do not seem to me the focus either of these five episodes, or of 'Pegasus' in particular. The Number Six stored in Balthar's mind exhorts us to consider the abused woman as an individual, a reality, rather than a scientific problem or icon. Balthar later observes that her catatonic state emphasises more than anything else so far that the psychology of those Cylons who appear human is identical to that of the beings they imitate and destroy. When Cain, assuming command of the fleet, splits up the Galactica's crew on the grounds that Commander Adama is too close to them, and when Apollo is told by his new CO that he should not allow the problems of his friends to trouble him, what is really going on is a destruction of the very philosophy that has kept the understaffed crew of the obsolete Battlestar alive: their acceptance of individuality.

It is in 'The Farm,' that same episode in which women are wired up to egg-extraction machines, that Adama discounts the possibility that Boomer is a machine, and says without doubt that Chief Tyrel was in love with her. Later, in 'Home, Part 2,' Starbuck will observe that Agathon's love for Valerii is real, that it makes no allowance for her origins. In the same episode, Sharon insists that her memories are so strong that she may as well have lived the human life with which she has been programmed—in short, it is the identity bestowed by her memories that makes her who she is. Our individualism is our strength.

And in the first part of the same story, Balthar briefly perceives the crew as a swarming mass, eliciting the comment from Number Six that he is beginning to see them as the Cylons do (those same Cylons, remember, who were capable of exterminating the entire race). For all her saintliness, President Roslin fails to see Boomer as anything more than a representative of the Cylons, having no compunction about jettisoning her from an airlock. Even the enlightened Adama ceases to perceive Boomer as an individual at one point, attacking her and attempting to kill her. When the humanity of empathy is removed—when Starbuck is sent on a mission, and Roslin's telephone calls ignored—the unforgiving military hierarchy takes precedence, and events spiral out of control very quickly. In 'Final Cut,' a journalist makes a documentary about the Galactica crew, at first seeking ways to condemn them as a uniform military bloc, but ultimately concluding that they are men and women, individuals like the rest of us, struggling to do their jobs and get by. 'Pegasus' shows us what happens when the understanding style of command that Adama has constructed is swept aside.

And yet the problems remain: Boomer is saved by her men, for example, who charge to the rescue in a testosterone-fuelled bout of protectiveness. It all happens so fast, spurred by a bullish fight between the alpha males of Pegasus and Galactica, that one can't help but roll one's eyes. At the same time, however, this problem is an extension of the wider one on show in 'Pegasus,' and to an extent all of these episodes: that of pacing. That opening quartet of episodes was intense and unrelenting, but here the pace of events is less perfect. 'Pegasus' is too compacted, too rushed, to the extent that it sometimes feels like the Galactica crew have stepped into the equivalent of Star Trek's mirror universe, so black-and-white is the contrast between them and their Pegasus counterparts (a problem which further compounds the clumsy treatment of the difficult issues addressed in the episode). 'Home, Part 1' seems curiously slack, whilst 'Home, Part 2,' in which the crew discover the whereabouts of Earth and the audience realizes that the 12 colonial gods equate directly to our own Zodiac, fits a great deal into its scant minutes—a curious choice for episodes sharing a plotline. The fourth of these five episodes, 'The Flight of the Phoenix,' is a typical spacer episode of the sort we're not used to in this time-constrained series, featuring the ludicrous propositions of a deck crew constructing a starfighter from scratch and Boomer using a wire thrust into the veins of her wrist to communicate a virus to a Cylon attack fleet. But with the stretching of season two to twice the length of season one, perhaps we must begin to expect a more leisurely, even a more hit-and-miss, style of pacing.

It's not as if these episodes did not set us up for this month's return: Boomer seems to be lying when she suggests she is not wired into a wider Cylon matrix and can't remember her previous incarnations ("and you ask 'why'?" she whispers to Adama after his attempted murder of her, a reference to something he said to the corpse of the previous Boomer); Balthar's relationship with the Number Six in his head is changing, to the extent that he can now banish her at will; and, of course, the Pegasus remains in the mix. There are some who have all but lost faith in the show, believe that it has abandoned its intelligence and refusal to endorse stereotypes. But in truth these episodes continue to push the idea that we are all individuals, that blanket judgements are destructive. These five episodes were confused in execution rather than concept, damaged by pacing not prejudice. It would be a shame not to give the show the chance of proving this by at least watching what is, after all, the second part of a contentious storyline.

So. Are we all up to speed? Good.

Let's hope Battlestar Galactica is, too.

Dan Hartland is a freelance creative thinker figuring out what to think. A writer and musician of the inverted commas variety, he splits his time equally between these two things and procrastination. He comes to science fiction from outside the genre, and is a little too happy to remain a gadfly.



Dan Hartland's reviews have appeared for some years at Strange Horizons, as well as in publications such as Vector, Foundation, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He blogs intermittently at thestoryandthetruth.wordpress.com.
7 comments on “Of Mice And Gender: The Best Laid Plans of Battlestar Galactica”
Iain Clark

I generally agree with your analysis. It’s a show with many problems and inconsistencies, but remains one of the most interesting SF shows of recent memory.
It seems to me that the series is rooted in a very thoughtful and fundamental discussion: what does it mean to be ‘human’ in the broadest sense of the word; a thinking, reasoning, self-aware individual? We’re shown time and again that the Cylons are psychologically no different to humans, and that humans are capable of what we might hypocritically term “inhuman” behaviour. At times the genocidal and scheming Cylons are treated no less sympathetically than the fleeing humans, which given the atrocities they have committed creates all sorts of troubling moral difficulties and yet is also the point. We view the Cylons as monstrous, but they view us the same way. They are the ultimate expression of the abused child becoming the abuser.
It’s an idea with strong SF pedigree, of course, and the obvious comparison which springs to mind is Rutger Hauer’s replicant in Blade Runner. “It’s a terrible thing to live in fear”, he says. “That’s what it is to be a slave.” This premise, far more than anything from the original Battlestar Galactica series, seems to be the inspiration for the new series. It’s the story of a brutalised, dehumanised slave people taking murderous revenge on those who enslaved them, and proving to be no less human – in both savagery and nobility - than their creators.
I would argue that the treatment of the Cylon women in Pegasus should, at least partly, be viewed in this light. I agree with you that the Cylon women are placed in the role of victims but that the point is always to underline their fundamental humanity. These events are framed as part of the show’s ongoing Blade Runner-esque dialogue about who is the more human, the humans or those they treat as less-than-human. While it can accurately be argued that women-as-victim is a regrettable and unthinking stereotype, as always I think the show takes this stereotype and subverts it just as much as it exploits it. This does not excuse the stereotype, but it does in my mind allow the programme some latitude. Taken as a whole, it gets as much right than it does wrong with regards to gender, and is perhaps unusual in series television for doing so. Whether this says more about endemic attitudes in TV than about the bravery of this series is a valid question, but not one which should blind us to the virtues of this show.
The other problems with gender in the series remain. Number Six, right from the pilot, has barely trodden the line between sexual fanboy fodder and intelligent protagonist. The “evil” women in the series do tend to fall into a range of clichéd female roles from seductress to manipulator to gold-digger. (Cain is the exception, her flaw being the more traditionally masculine one of martinet captains through the ages.) I think you get to the heart of the gender issues when talking about the Farm. It really does give us pause when men are seduced but women raped. Even if The Farm is only one tack the Cylons are pursuing, wouldn’t it make just as much sense for men to be hooked up to machines to harvest their sperm?
Despite these genuine problems it is, I think, misleading to focus on gender in isolation. You note that the show can be accused of abandoning its refusal to endorse stereotypes. Perhaps perversely I’d argue that this gives the show too much credit. From the beginning it has traded on stereotypes as much as it has undermined them. It is an innovative show built on very traditional foundations. There are a lot of hackneyed character types in the show, both male and female: the father and son who don’t see eye-to-eye; the venal weak willed bully; the stubborn, paternal leader; the grunt who’s more capable than his commanding officer. On one level - at which gender is no more or less of a component than any other - this is a deeply traditional TV show. The saving grace is that the series takes these clichés, both male and female, and pushes them in interesting directions: Number Six is not just a seductress, she’s a leader, and a religious zealot; Boomer is a rounded and sympathetic character who genuinely loves Helo; Tigh’s wife is… okay, Tigh’s wife is just a two-dimensional gold-digger.
It’s also important not to lose sight of the show’s positive gender portrayals. Starbuck is a woman adopting a male, even macho, role and remains a strong protagonist while being more nuanced and female than the stereotype suggests. The degree to which she is allowed to embody this insubordinate ‘male’ role is both unusual and consistently successful. President Roslin is the flipside - a strong person who embraces more traditional female territory of insight over logic - and yet she is also capable of taking a more hard-line and militaristic stance than Adama. Strong women in the show remain regrettably fewer in number than strong men, but their portrayal is to be commended.
Lastly, on the issue of pacing the second season has certainly had its bumps. It’s interesting to note that series creator Ron Moore regards Home, Part 2 as the actual end of “Season 1”, with the less-serialised episodes that have followed being the start of a new chapter. Likewise the unsubtle nature of Pegasus may owe something to the large amount of material which was cut from the episode for time. The problem for the viewer is that such behind-the-scenes considerations don’t alter the fact that the series is progressing in a series of lurches rather than giving us a smooth journey. It's a good job, then, that they're taking us somewhere interesting.

Dan Hartland

I'm not sure Starbuck is the best example of the show bucking gender roles, to be honest - it seems to me that she is depicted as someone running from her true identity, rather than someone creating a valid one.
Otherwise, I more or less agree with you. I think you're absolutely right that at the core of this show is that question about human-ness - what makes us human, and are those qualities transferrable to people we would, quite frankly, prefer not to be human, to be 'other', in order to facilitate our persecution of them? The rape scenes are clearly an extension of this. But it's impossible to avoid the fact that it's the poor old women being brutalised by the mean old men - whatever the purpose, the effect is to depict women in that same old victimised light. I argue in the review as you do that we should let Galactica off this once, but it can't keep doing it.
Why? Because, as you say, it's a show rooted in stereotypes ... but in subverting them it questions them. This is a very useful trick in a show about dehumanising tendencies and the tonic against this being recognition of individuality. It would be a shame if the Cylon women are the only characters not to be given this treatment: Number Six is a strong, powerful seductress, sure ... but in the shape of Prisoner Six, she's punished for it. A pretty stock approach in every way, I think you'll agree. 😛

Len McCain

I wish this show were showing on HBO or another commercial-free environment, if only because they might gain another few minutes of running time. Things are cut for time that are explained in the podcasts that I dearly wish had made it into the show. For example, there were farms with male abductees hooked up to machines.
However, I also agree with Iain. The show does have traditional/stereotypical elements all over the place, partly because of its pedigree as a remake of a 70's action adventure show. In order to be at all recognizable as any version of "Battlestar Galactica", it has certain things unavoidably built into its DNA.
But additionally...I think it's important to have those traditional/stereotypical elements in there in many cases, to function as stepping off points for the subversions and challenges to convention that the show does engage in. Moore and co are saying "We're going to make a space opera as an anchorpoint (with this passel of well worn conventions), but with these observations, riffs, changes, reinventions for contrast, plus some contemporary political allegory over here as another anchorpoint.
I don't think the show meant to be a free floating experiment in exploding and subverting everything all at once. The impression you get from Moore in his podcasts is that he approaches genre more as a dissatisfied craftsman rather than a revolutionary, he wants to build a better mousetrap, but he still largely believes mice need trapping.
There absolutely are certain things I'd like to see on BSG that they're not doing, including things relating to gender, and things they're doing I'd rather they didn't. But no other sci-fi on TV right now (and very few scripted hour long dramas of any stripe) are getting even as close as BSG is getting as it is. So I'll take what I can get, so long as I feel the overall level of quality remains high.

Iain Clark

Dan: I'm not sure Starbuck is the best example of the show bucking gender roles, to be honest - it seems to me that she is depicted as someone running from her true identity, rather than someone creating a valid one.
I understand that argument, and especially the way it undercuts her strength by having it be a defense machanism. But I'm not certain that just because we understand how she came to be who she is - that in essence she's been given some depth as a character - it necessarily undercuts her strength. Although she may be fighting all sorts of neuroses, as all the best characters are, she remains a strong, capable person.
My big fear with the show is that what they're doing with the portrayal of strong women in the show is conscious, but that what they're doing with the depiction of women as seducers and victims is unconscious. While that (uncharitable) interpretation doesn't stop the show from having admirable qualities, it does make it far less likely to lose its more questionable attitudes. We'll see. I half suspect the writers don't really care and are just pursuing what seem to them to be the most dramatic options regardless of how good or bad it makes them look with regard to gender roles.
Len: "there were farms with male abductees hooked up to machines"
This is an interesting point and it's a possibility I almost mentioned myself. The problem is that the show didn't choose to show the male farms, only the female ones. That decision in itself plays into the wrong kind of stereotype. I generally loved the first six episodes but I disliked this aspect, partly because it's horribly sexist, and partly because it's so hackneyed, reminiscent of B-movie ideas involving aliens taking our wimminfolk.
On the plus side, the fact that male farms were mentioned in the podcast shows an awareness of the issues, even if it didn't end up on screen in this instance.

Iain Clark

Uncannily, and I swear I hadn't seen this before posting my reply above, Edward James Olmos has just likened the show to Blade Runner in an interview. I'd entirely forgotten he was in Blade Runner.

Cruella

Don't get me wrong, but why is that so many people mention a nice movie Blade Runner but completely forget the brilliant, and much deeper book it's based on - Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? It's a must read for any sci fi fan and I'd say any fan of good literature and has more dimensions than its rather simplified adaptation. Where's love for Philip K. Dick?

Skorsky

I liked the detail of your commentary; However I do not agree there they are drinking gender streotypes on cool-aid; Just the reverse, BSG seems to play with them in very different ways. And to the amount that there _are_ streotypes, well that is there for a reason: THAT'S HOW REAL LIFE IS. There are even exaggeratinons I would say; Currently the ratio of female fighter pilots to male are 1 to 1, but in real world, it would hardly be so. The book that said "men are from Mars and women are from Venus" is very correct, man are *still* hunter gatherers (e.g. fighter jocks) and women tend to be territorial. It's just the way we are biologically wired. Also women are sexy (duh), and men run after them. That's also unbalanced but it's a fact of life.
BSG has lots of strong roles for women though, and the whole prisoner abuse thing has nothing to do with gender, but everything to do with human rights. The show tried to work the Abu Graib angle, and the Cylon they picked just happened to be a female one. Hence they could work the parallel on Boomer who is another female and expecting. Roslin wanted to abort her baby, and that too was about dehumanizing aspect of war. One could say that three female models as Cylons spies is too much, but there are two male models as well, one of them appearing close to the end of Season 2. Besides, like I said, men lust after women more than the other way around, hence a sexy (6) or cute (Sharon) model would have much better success to infiltrate the enemy, and which in fact they did.

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