Battlestar Galactica: A Retrospective Look at a “Jewish” Tale of Orientation, Disorientation, and Reorientation
Accidents of history are sometimes the most captivating moments to observe. Consider the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. At the height of the Cold War that divided the Soviet-led East from the liberal, democratic West, a note was quickly handed to Günter Schabowski, a chief spokesperson for the East German political apparatus. With no time to read the details of the note before he stood in front of the press, Schabowski announced to the German people that “private travel outside [East Germany could] now be applied for without prerequisites.” When pressed for more details by the stunned journalists in his presence, Schabowski quickly shuffled through his notes, where he saw nothing. Looking up, he announced to the German people that the new policy would begin effective immediately.
Of course, this was not the way that the East German government intended for things to unfold. The plan was to implement a new process by which East Germans could apply for a visa to visit other countries. But because no one took the time to prep the spokesperson before he engaged the press, the world heard a very different message. Within minutes, throngs of East Germans began to arrive at the Brandenburg Gate that separated East and West Berlin and the guards were quickly overwhelmed. Faced with a lack of clear direction from his superiors and facing down the choice between opening fire on his own people or allowing them to pass, Meister Jäger, a young East German guard, made his decision: “Open the barrier!”
All at once, the world was awash in images of East Berliners streaming into the West, as the Wall was torn down by hammers, pickaxes, and even bare German hands. The symbolism was almost too powerful for the fragile human imagination. Just two years prior, the American President had stood before the Gate, famously imploring his Soviet counterpart to “Tear down this wall.” And now, as Russian words like glasnost (“openness”) and perestroika (“reformation”) entered the global lexicon, the formerly unthinkable hope of generations seemed poised on the precipice of becoming a lived-in reality. The Soviet Union was collapsing and for many, it felt like the end of history.
Given such heady and hopeful circumstances, it is not surprising that a little-known political philosopher by the name of Francis Fukuyama suddenly became an overnight sensation in the West. Building on his 1989 essay, entitled “The End of History?”, Fukuyama seized the moment to expand upon his seemingly prophetic thesis suggesting that what had once been a matter of question in 1989 was now a matter of fact in 1992:
What we are witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or a passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.
For Fukuyama, the era of “isms” was over. Of course, it wasn’t “necessary that all societies become successful liberal societies, merely that they end their ideological pretensions of representing different and higher forms of human society.” In other words, Hegel had been right. The “story” of history was linear, and we had finally passed through the tribalism, feudalism, and industrialism of our collective, global youth only to inexorably arrive at the moment in time where the City of Progress had been finally realized.
To attempt a serious discussion about 9/11 in a piece such as this is at once as ludicrous as it is impossible. Suffice to say, of all the damage done on that nightmarish day, perhaps no damage has been dealt with as insufficiently as the damage that was done to America’s self-understanding of its own story. In an instant, Fukuyama’s belief in history’s inevitable march towards the City of Progress seemed all at once naïve, hollow, and perhaps even a bit vulgar.
“All of this Has Happened Before; and All of This Will Happen Again”
Living, as we now do, almost 20 years after the attack on 9/11, it is not surprising to discover that Fukuyama’s belief in the “end of history” has come under increasingly intense criticism. What is surprising, however, is that one of the most penetrating critiques of his “storied” history has come not from the academy, nor even from politicians, but from the storytellers in Hollywood.
Enter Battlestar Galactica.
Because the mythology of Battlestar is so rich and complex, it is necessary to begin with a brief overview of the series. Set approximately 150,000 years ago, the story follows an advanced, polytheistic human civilization that is spread across a number of star systems known as the Twelve Colonies. In the past, the human colonies had been at war with the cylons (pronounced “SY”+”lons”), a race of beings that they, themselves, had a hand in creating. When the First Cylon War ended in an armistice treaty, the cylons had retreated to unknown regions, leaving humanity to rebuild its prosperity. And for forty years, all was well. No one had heard from the cylons. The Pax Caprica—not unlike the Pax Romana—reigned supreme. But at the start of the series, the cylons have returned, launching a devastating nuclear assault on all twelve systems. Within minutes, the dead number in the billions and fewer than 50,000 survivors remain. With a single capital ship left to defend them, humanity is forced to take to the stars in search of a new home, only vaguely known through their mythologies as Earth.But just because the show rejects the notion of inevitable progress does not mean that it postulates anything else. After all, postmodern television and film is famous for often raising far more questions than it seeks to answer. Did Battlestar have an alternative premise?
From the beginning it was clear that Battlestar (released just two years after 9/11) had no interest in Fukuyama’s understanding of progress or linear history. As portrayed in the opening mini-series, the Twelve Colonies were self-absorbed, obsessed with the promise of technology, and utterly convinced that they stood at the pinnacle of civilization. Indeed, in many ways, the capital city of Caprica could easily be mistaken for modern day New York City. It was a decadent, hedonistic place, flush with boundless resources and endowed with endless liberties.
When we first meet Commander Adama, one of the lead protagonists of the series, he is sympathetically presented to us as a veteran of the First Cylon War, hopelessly out of touch with the modern sensibilities that insist that the war with the cylons is a thing of the past. The Galactica, the ship he commands, is being mothballed and turned into a museum. But Adama, who is no believer in the “end of history,” isn’t feeling the zeitgeist. And when given the chance to address his crew and visiting dignitaries at a decommissioning ceremony, he says this:
The cylon war is long over. Yet we must not forget the reasons why so many sacrificed so much in the cause of freedom…When we fought the cylons, we did it to save ourselves from extinction, but we never answered the question: why? Why are we, as a people, worth saving? We still commit murder because of greed and spite and jealousy. And we still visit all of our sins upon our children. We refuse to accept responsibility for anything that we’ve done, like we did with the cylons. We decided to play God—create life. And when that life turned against us, we comforted ourselves in the knowledge that it really wasn’t our fault—not really. You cannot play God and then wash your hands of the things that you’ve created. Sooner or later the day comes that you cannot hide from the things that you’ve done.
Neither Adama nor the showrunners of Battlestar Galactica seem terribly impressed by Fukuyama’s thesis. The world does not appear to be getting better and better. Rather, much like the Western society in our world, unlimited consumption, unrestrained liberty, and an obsession with personal happiness seem to have formed an unholy trinitarian nucleus within Caprican culture, devouring the society from within.
But just because the show rejects the notion of inevitable progress does not mean that it postulates anything else. After all, postmodern television and film is famous for often raising far more questions than it seeks to answer. Did Battlestar have an alternative premise?
As it turns out, it did.
Very early on in the series, the viewers are introduced to a mantra that is often cited by a member of the monotheistic cylon race (And yes, the cylons are monotheistic.). From time to time, one cylon will turn to another and say, “All of this has happened before; and all of this will happen again.” In the vernacular of the series, this was a way of saying that all of history is cyclical, much in the way that the 14th century Arab historian Ibn Khaldun once suggested in his work, Muqaddimah. According to Khaldun, history could be best understood as a successive tide of dynasties, each flowing towards the shore in growing power before receding back into the ocean, indistinguishable and largely forgotten. Each dynasty was to last, on average, for about 120 years. The first or “founding” generation would accomplish something extraordinary and rise to prominence and power through hard work and sheer force of will. The second generation would grow softer, basking in the glow of their ancestors’ work. But, as a result of their immediate connection to the “founding” generation, they would retain some of the ethos of their predecessors. As for the third and final generation, they would grow even more accustomed to the luxuries of living in a dominant empire, but they would lack the grit of the founders; and as a result, they would oversee the decline and fall of the dynasty.
For the first three seasons of its run, this appears to be the “story” of Battlestar Galactica. Humanity is not making progress, per se. Rather, history is stuck in an unending cycle in which the autonomous I/We comes into contact with the alien Other, resulting in unimaginable violence and chaos before yielding to rebirth and revitalization. It is history as explained by Khaldun, and history as understood by the Aztecs, Greeks, Babylonians and Hindus.
Battlestar Galactica as a “Jewish” Tale of Orientation, Disorientation, and Reorientation
Ultimately, what makes Battlestar Galactica such a fascinating and unexpected series is the manner in which it concludes its story. Battlestar’s disavowal of linear history was clear from the start. Moreover, it appeared equally clear that much like other sci-fi classics (e.g. Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Liebowitz), history was to be understood as a deterministic tidal or cyclical experience, devoid of any reason to hope that anything but more violence could ultimately be expected in this life.
But in a twist that almost no one saw coming, the writers of Battlestar pulled the rug out from under the feet of its viewers and postulated something entirely different in the final three-part series conclusion.As anyone who has read the Hebrew Scriptures for any length of time well knows, the story of the Jewish people is a story of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation that cycles repeatedly with a single caveat on which everything hangs.
As many longtime viewers are well aware, Battlestar Galactica was always going to be a tough plane to land. And as the series was drawing towards its imminent conclusion, there seemed to be two competing questions hanging in the air. On the one hand, how could humanity ever physically, emotionally, or spiritually recover if the author of its near genocide survived as a viable threat? In other words, would the hope of humanity not require the utter annihilation of the ones who had done this to them? Must not the Other literally die for their sins?
On the flip side of the coin, the Emmy Award-winning writers were dealing with another thorny question. How do you commit yourself to the eradication of the series’ villains when it had become a common experience among fans to ask each other: “In which episode did you begin to sympathize with the cylons?”
For four years, Battlestar Galactica had become the ultimate Rorschach Test in our post-9/11 culture. What did you see when you learned that the cylons had been enslaved by humanity? Did it justify their violent response? What did you see when you witnessed a cylon prisoner being sexually assaulted? Could artificially intelligent beings that understood themselves as the children of God have rights? What did you see when human prisoners began strapping bombs to their chests, killing their brethren and enemy combatants alike? Could the collateral damage be justified in the name of freedom?
Yes, Battlestar Galactica was always going to have a tough time sticking the landing. But what the writers knew that the viewers did not is that history—as Battlestar understood it—was neither linear nor cyclical. Quite surprisingly, and to the consternation of more than a few, it was Jewish.
As anyone who has read the Hebrew Scriptures for any length of time well knows, the story of the Jewish people is a story of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation that cycles repeatedly with a single caveat on which everything hangs. At any point in the history of humanity, should the people demonstrate contrition, should they embrace the shema, should they come to love their neighbor even as they love themselves, then G-d would show mercy to them. They would be His people and He would be their G-d. What’s more, this mercy—this unmerited grace—that would “cover” their sin would culminate in the true “end of history,” wherein humanity, having reconciled with G-d and with one another, would finally live in a state of shalom or “peace.” In other words, history is not as Fukuyama understands it, nor is it that which Khaldun suggests. Rather, history is the story of progress through cycles, whereby peace is ultimately achieved only when individual, autonomous freedom is subsumed under the loving care of the Creator who guides history towards a “good” and “whole” conclusion. But all of this hangs upon the response of humanity to the divine offer of grace.
In the final three-part conclusion of Battlestar Galactica, the cylon empire has fractured. Some, convinced of the sinfulness of their genocidal activity, have taken refuge among the remainder of humanity. As for the other cylons, governed by the cynical, atheistic Cavil (an excellent Dean Stockwell), they remain convinced that nothing short of the utter annihilation of humanity could ever allow them to live freely. And so, they continue the hunt.
In the end, before the series dissolves into a succession of cascading codas, they are all brought face-to-face one last time. Here, the victims stand before their oppressors, but who is the victim and who is the oppressor is not entirely clear. Here, the monotheists, polytheists and secularists stand together, drowning under the collective weight of their own sins, even as they insist on their own righteousness before the Other. And here the Judas-figure, the one known as Gaius Baltar, the one that sold out humanity, finally steps forward to offer this:
I see angels. Angels in this very room. And I know I may be mad, but that doesn’t mean I’m not right. Because there’s another force at work here. There always has been. It’s undeniable. We’ve all experienced it. Everyone in this room has witnessed events that they cannot fathom let alone explain away by rational means. Puzzles deciphered in prophecy. Dreams given to a chosen few. Our loved ones, dead, risen. Whether we want to call that “God” or “gods” or some sublime inspiration or a divine force we can’t know or understand, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. It’s here. It exists, and our two destinies are entwined in its force… God’s not on any one side. God is a force of nature, beyond good and evil… You want to break the cycle? Break the cycle of birth? Death? Rebirth? Destruction? Escape? Death? Well, that’s in our hands, in our hands only. It requires we live in hope, not fear.
No, Battlestar did not believe in Fukuyama’s privileged optimism, nor did it subscribe to Khaldun’s deterministic fatalism. Rather, it forced us to take a close look at the Divine, an even closer look at the Other, and then dared to ask us one final question.
In the closing scene of the series, two angelic figures are seen walking the streets of New York City. We’ve seen these two before. They were the angels referred to by Baltar in the aforementioned scene. One hundred and fifty thousand years have passed and these two are now standing in Times Square, observing varying news reports of scientific discoveries on human origins, degrading violence, and technological wonders:
Female Angel: Commercialism, decadence, technology run amuck. Remind you of anything?
Male Angel: Take your pick. Kobal, Earth—the real Earth before this one,
Caprica before the fall.
Female Angel: All of this has happened before—
Male Angel: But the question remains, does all of this have to happen again?
Female Angel: This time I bet no.
Male Angel: You know, I’ve never known you to play the optimist. Why the change of heart?
Female Angel: Mathematics. Law of averages. Let a complex system repeat itself long enough, eventually something surprising might occur. That, too, is in God’s plan.
Male Angel: You know he doesn’t like that name.
And so ends the series, with the two angelic figures dressed in high fashion, fading away into the crushing mass of Manhattanites, amidst the opening strains of Bob Dylan’s, “All Along the Watchtower.”
There must be some way outta here
Said the Joker to the Thief
There’s too much confusion now
I can’t get no relief
Poignant is the manner in which showrunners Ronald Moore and David Eick elegantly pivot from the fictional world of Battlestar Galactica to the real world of modern-day New York City. Who are we, the viewers, amidst all of this greed and unfettered liberty? And what will we choose? Will we continue to follow the lead of our political and civic leaders who remain invested in the mythology of Fukuyama? Or will we, in light of 9/11, have the courage to reject that Modernist illusion in favor of a more Hebraic understanding of history? Can we, in humility, reorient ourselves in light of the Divinely given grace? Can we find the courage to see the imago Dei in the face of the Other? And can we, through divinely given grace, work to break the cycle of history by learning to live in shalom with one another?
To be sure, all of this has happened before. But the question remains, must it happen again?
 In the aftermath of the series, showrunners Ronald D. Moore and David Eick attempted to jumpstart a prequel series set 60 years in the past. The series was to have been set on Caprica, and it was to have followed the decline of a civilization with a “wild glint in its eye.”
 Perhaps one of the most famous detractors of Battlestar’s ending is George R.R. Martin, author of Song of Fire and Ice (more commonly known as Game of Thrones). Apparently, the man who is responsible for one of the most hated show ending of all time, had this to say about Battlestar: “Battlestar Galactica ends with ‘God did it.’ Looks like somebody skipped writing 101, when you learn that a dues ex machina is a crappy way to end a story.“ I’ll just leave the irony here for you to ponder.
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