Podcast: Sebastian Wood on Themes of Liberty in Battlestar Galactica

In this podcast, I interview George Mason law professor and Volokh Conspiracy blogger Ilya Somin about themes of liberty in the TV series Battlestar Galactica. There are a few spoilers toward the end, but Professor Somin makes this clear before commenting.

Nicole Forster: Welcome to this Kosmos Online Podcast. I’m Jeanne Hoffman. Today I’m talking about themes of liberty in the TV show Battlestar Galactica with my guest Ilya Somin. Professor Somin is an associate professor at George Mason University School of Law, co-editor of the Supreme Court of Economic Review, and he blogs at the Volokh Conspiracy. Welcome Professor Somin, thanks for joining us.

Sebastian Wood: Thanks very much for having me.

NF. So Professor Somin, listeners who aren’t very familiar with the series, could you give us a very brief description of the series?

SW. Well, the new Battlestar Galactica which began in 2003 is a remake of the original series from the late 1970s, and the basic premise of the series is that a group of planets known as the colonies, with a civilization in some ways is similar to our own, are the victims of a massive attack by the Cylons, a dangerous species of aliens or robots. As a result, nearly all of their civilization is wiped out, and the few survivors, are part of the so-called ragtag fleet when there’s only perhaps 30 or 40 thousand of them left, and they try to evade the cylons and generally rebuild their lives and survive.

NF. So how would you classify the show’s political leanings?

SW. Well, the original show from the late 1970s is actually very conservative in some interesting ways. The new one, its politics are somewhat tougher to place, but overall I would say it’s generally more liberal than anything else.

NF. What things about the show would you describe as more liberal leaning, in the new one vs. the original?

SW. So the original strongly emphasized the need to avoid appeasement, the ideology of peace through strength, the cold war was of course going on at the time, and the moral lesson they were trying to teach was that we had to stand up to the Soviet Union, not give in and not appease them and so forth, and they saw the colonists being nearly destroyed by attempted appeasement. By contrast, the new series, influenced by the left-wing reaction to 9/11, emphasized the dangers to civil liberties that are created by responses to terrorism or foreign attack. It also claims that to some extent the colonists provoked the attack by the cylons as opposed to the cylons being completely unjustified in the original series and so on. So many of the ideological or political themes that left-wing critics of the war on terror have developed since 2001 are also present in the new Battlestar Galactica series, whereas by contrast the original series represents the hawkish, conservative response to the Cold War.

NF. How would you say that themes of liberty are dealt with in the series?

SW. Well, there are many different themes, and obviously it’s impossible to go through all of them, but I do think one crucial one is that they do focus on tradeoffs between liberty and security, and how some responses to even genuine foreign threats might be a threat to liberty. They also argue in fact that, to some extent, it was the oppression of the cylons that led the cylons who, in the new series, are a robotic series who are created by the colonists themselves. So the series essentially suggests that the oppression of the cylons by the colonists is what led the cylons to revolt and ultimately, therefore, it suggests that colonists are not completely innocent, much as some of the critics of the war on terror have said that the US was not an innocent victim on 9/11, they have said that the US is actually a victim of blowback of its own policies of previous decades.

NF. You also mention civil liberties before, could you go more into how they are represented in the series?

SW. So I think there are two big ways in which they are. One is how, after the destruction of the colonist societies and government, there is the question of what sort of government should be formed for the refugee fleet, and eventually I think the series’ sympathies is very much with the idea of maintaining a civilian government with regular elections and civil liberties and so forth, in sharp contrast to the original series from the late 1970s, which favors a sort of quasi-authoritarian military government. The second way in which it’s constantly emphasized in the question of how to treat prisoners and dissenters, and the series suggests that even negative treatment and torture of Cylon prisoners is horrible, that the cylons harm would not be justified, much as the left-wing critique of the war on terror suggests that it’s wrong to mistreat even terrorist prisoners held at Guantanamo and elsewhere. There are obviously other ways in which liberty comes up, I think those are the two big ones, the series strong stance in favor of a civilian government and free elections, and freedom of speech and so forth, and also their stance against mistreatment of prisoners and dissenters and the like.

NF. What type of legal system do you think Battlestar operates under?

SW. (chuckles) Well, the initial framework of the colonies before they were destroyed seems remarkably similar to that of the modern United States, they have a president, separate executive and legislative branch, a system of federalism, and the even a court system which seems somewhat similar to the American court system. Obviously after the Cylon attack, there is a constant struggle to try to reassert and maintain some of those institutions, under a very painful and difficult conditions.

NF. I remember from watching the series that sometimes the military defied the presidency, the presidency defied the military, and even the tribunals were formed were ignored sometimes when the military didn’t like the results. So would you say that the appearance of a democracy in Battlestar is a façade, or it really did affect the system of government?

SW. It’s a good question, especially in the first and second seasons often there is a power struggle between the military and the civilian leadership, but unlike in the original series where the military leadership pretty quickly takes over, and the civilian politicians are portrayed as stupid or ignorant or worse, in this series there is a kind of balance of power emerges, and over time the civilian president and other civilian politicians do wield real power, and they’re portrayed as on average no worse, and in some ways perhaps better, than the military commander, Commander Adama, who later is Admiral Adama. I think although certainly there is a power struggle and the civilian government doesn’t always get its way or is not always right, nonetheless overall I think the series stance is that civilian government is essential, even during periods of emergency and the like, that civilian government is, on average, probably better than military government, and certainly not worse, which is very different from the stance of the original series, which I said before the original series Commander Adama is almost always right about every important issue, whereas the civilian politicians who, on some occasions try to contest him, they’re seen as ridiculous or stupid or just greedy for power.

NF. It’s a really good point. One thing I like about the new series is that unintended consequences always pop up from the decisions that Admiral Adama makes during it.

SW. I think that’s true. I think the new series doesn’t portray either Adama or the civilian president, Laura Roslin, anywhere close to infallible or always right, they both screw up on many occasions. But I think the overall sympathy of the series is toward a civilian government and having more protection for civil liberties. I think the original series doesn’t touch on civil liberties that much, but they certainly emphasize that the military leadership is more to be trusted, and makes better decisions at least in extreme emergency situations than the civilian leaders do.

NF. You’ve written that Battlestar deals with constitutional and political economy issues in a moderately sophisticated way. What do you mean by that?

SW. I say moderately sophisticated in the sense that they do take on difficult issues, such as tradeoffs between civil liberties and security, and they also look at questions of how perverse incentives and limitations of knowledge can affect government decision-making. I would say only moderately sophisticated because there are some places where it’s very strange. For instance, they try to graft on essentially the American structure of government on a society in a very different situation and technological level and the like. Secondly, I think they make what are often crude and artificial efforts to graft the political issues of the United States of the last few years onto, again, a setting which is completely different in various ways, and where those issues don’t fit in very well. So I think they do a better job in handling political systems than most TV series do, but in some places not nearly as good a job as I wish they had done.

NF. What sort of role does religion play in Battlestar, and how does this affect the themes of liberty?

SW. Religion does play a big role in that, unlike in the original series where the cylons are just sort of evil power-hungry robotic creatures who just worship their leader, in this series they cylons have a monotheistic religion and they believe they’re serving the will of God. Obviously, the analogy to Islamic fundamentalists in the War on Terror is clear here. On the other hand, the colonists are polytheists. Most of them, some of them are monotheists or atheists as well, and so there is an interesting inversion of, at least, common American values where we see polytheism as generally bad or outdated or what not, whereas most of us are monotheists. In the series, it is actually the bad guys who are monotheists and most, though not all, of the human good guys are polytheists, and also the president of the colonies, Laura Roslin, sometimes has visions which she believes are religiously inspired by her polytheistic gods, so in an interesting way both the colonial leaders and those of the cylons especially are to some degree inspired by their religious vision, and on the whole I think the series doesn’t always take a very positive view of this religious impact on politics in that it leads the cylons and to a lesser extent even Roslin to be intolerant of opponents. Of course, in the case of the cylons it leads them to commit genocide, much in the way I think influence how Osama bin Laden religious beliefs influence him to commit mass murder, albeit actually on a much smaller scale than the cylons killing tens of billions of people.

NF. You’ve said that you think that Battlestar was “easily the best science-fiction TV series of the last decade, and one of the two or three best sci-fi TV series of all time.” Why do you think that?

SW. I think that, ironically, I also think that Battlestar has some very serious flaws. Partly it’s because of the weakness of the competition. There’s a great many science-fiction series which are just simply action movies set in space or what not, so they don’t deal with political or moral or social issues in any specific ways. The characters are poorly developed, the acting is mediocre and so forth. Obviously, Battlestar Galactica is much better on all three counts. I think also the creator of the new Battlestar Galactica, Ronald D. Moore, he had a lot of experience with developing more sophisticated science-fiction, and he had, I think, done a really good job with Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which as I said in our previous podcast, is probably the most politically sophisticated of the Star Trek series, so I think he deserves a lot of credit, particularly for what he did in the first two to three seasons of Battlestar, albeit as perhaps we’ll discuss later I think there is significant falling off in the last two seasons.

NF. Actually I will bring that up, cause I did notice that when watching the show and when talking to our web and new media coordinator right before this podcast I warned her of that, she’s about to start watching the show. What do you think caused that dropoff?

SW. Obviously it’s hard for me to know for sure, I wasn’t there for the internal deliberations on the series. I would say two things. One is with most TV series that are long-running, eventually the producers run down their stock of interesting, original ideas, and it’s hard to do a reset or a reboot and continue with the same ideas and framework, so they end up producing their less good ideas. Second, I think in the last part of the series, the sort-of I said before the artificial grafting on of current issues in a setting where they don’t really work became more and more glaring, and caused problems. For instance, later in the series, and here is a plot-spoiler for the series, the colonists briefly settle on a planet which is then occupied by the Cylons , and the colonists resort to suicide bombing to try and resist the Cylons. The idea was to somehow parallel the American invasion of Iraq, but obviously the parallel is kind of silly and superficial, because the critique of the Iraqi insurgents is not that they were engaged in suicide bombing, but that A) they did so against civilian targets and B) in an unjust cause of radical Islamism, or reinstalling Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, whereas in this case the humans were attacking almost exclusively legitimate military targets, and they were fighting, for the most part, as a just cause, so I think that having the trope of suicide bombing was sort of a cheap and superficial way of grafting a current issue on a setting where it doesn’t work, and one that’s sort of glaring and heavy-handed. Even worse, I think later on in the series you increasingly see sort of a crude theme that somehow modern technology intrinsically dooms humanity. At the end, and here again big plot spoiler, the colonists giving up all modern technology and essentially consigning themselves to a stone-age existence, I think this is both inconsistent with everything we saw about the colonists early on, how they are people who are dependent on technology, they’re not overwhelmingly hostile to it, and certainly not to the extent of being willing to subject themselves to a stone-age life, which in the real world means most people die by the age of 30, no protection against disease, and so forth. It perhaps reflects some of the producers view, which is similar to that of extreme environmentalists that we need to constrain modern technology lest it lead to our destruction, be it through environmental causes or in this case even more dubious scenario of producing intelligent machines which will eventually destroy us the series claims is an ongoing cycle that repeats itself many times in human history.

NF. How would you say the new series stacks up against the old series?

SW. I would say, overall, quite well. The acting is better, the plotting is better, the treatment of political issues is more sophisticated. I’d say in some ways the ideology of the original series on some points I liked better. I think, for instance, their approach to the Cold War was more realistic and in my view more correct than this series’ approach to the War on Terror. That said though, there are other issues where the new series, I think for instance in its preference for civilian government, and be that as it may, whether I agree with it or not, I think it at least treats the issues in a much more sophisticated way. It also had much better acting and production values, as you will see if you watch the original series. There’s a lot of, sort of, ham-fisted kind of acting that is not always easy to take 30 years after the fact.

NF. I haven’t seen the original yet, but I am definitely going to check it out after you say that, just to see the comparison.

SW. It is a very interesting comparison, yes

NF. Well, thank you very much for joining us today.

SW. Thank You

NF. And for more interviews with leading academics, visit kosmosonline.org. That’s kosmosonline.org. Connecting the network of liberty advancing academics and this is Jeanne Hoffman signing off.