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Excavating the FutureArchaeology and Geopolitics in Contemporary North American Science Fiction Film and Television$

Shawn Malley

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9781786941190

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: May 2019

DOI: 10.3828/liverpool/9781786941190.001.0001

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Battlestar Galactica

Battlestar Galactica

(p.145) Chapter 7 Battlestar Galactica
Excavating the Future

Shawn Malley

Liverpool University Press

Abstract and Keywords

In the reimagined Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009), the scriptural phrase “life here began out there” prompts the survivors of the Cylon attack to seek refuge in the mythic home-world, Earth. While the planet’s location lies buried in the obscure corners of cultural memory, the Colonial fleet manages to take its bearings from artefacts, ruins, and substrata along the way. But as a critical medium for investing and investigating historical and cultural identity in objects, archaeology also challenges the Colonials to evaluate the hierarchical distinctions between things and people that underlie their antagonism with the Cylon “machines.” Cylons and humans alike search for their origins, identity, and even survival among the shards of their shared material history in the race to Earth. BSG’s archaeological mise-en-scène affords meta-textual reflection on the central ethical and philosophical question fuelling the exodus narrative: how to understand and define humanity’s purpose out of the ruins of the contemporary world? The answer is that the Cylon Wars will rage until Colonial humanity accepts the Cylons’ desire to transcend the status of historical objects and become historical agents. Finding a (co)habitable destination requires both sides to open the archaeological record to inclusive narratives of origin.

Keywords:   science fiction film and television, archaeology, geopolitics, cyborgs, colonialism, Battlestar Galactica

There are those who believe that life here began out there, far across the universe, with tribes of humans who may have been the forefathers of the Egyptians, or the Toltecs, or the Mayans […] Some believe that there may yet be brothers of man who even now fight to survive somewhere beyond the heavens.

Opening narration, Battlestar Galactica (1978–79)

What is crucial to such a vision of the future is the belief that we must not only change the narratives of our histories, but transform our sense of what it means to live, to be, in other times and different spaces, both human and historical.

Homi Bhabha1

The opening sequences of the Battlestar Galactica miniseries are steeped in dramatic irony (2003–09; 8 December 2003). On the very day the eponymous Colonial vessel is scheduled to be decommissioned and turned into a Cylon War museum, ‘humanity’s children’ destroy Armistice Station and decimate the Twelve Colonies. The first shot aboard Galactica is evocative of this irony. In an elaborate three-and-a-half-minute continuous take, the audience is taken on a video tour of the battlestar. We join a news crew documenting a group of dignitaries being led by a Cylon sleeper agent, Aaron Doral (Matthew Bennett). Doral calls attention to Galactica’s gritty, old-fashioned functionality, to things that seem ‘antiquated to modern eyes, phones with chords, awkward manual (p.146) valves, computers that barely deserve the name.’ Galactica is, he says, ‘a reminder of a time when we were so frightened by our enemies that we literally looked backward for protection.’ The clunky artefact of the Cylon Wars contrasts sharply with the sleek CGI Cylon centurions and the ethereal back-lit, runway model aura of Model Six (Tricia Helfer) on Armistice Station. The viewer is thus positioned within this long take at a critical moment of temporal fragmentation, signalled by the material and televisual conditions of the antagonists’ distinct environments.

Foregrounding the materiality of BSG’s mise-en-scene, the sequence also alludes to the ways the show registers political tension through historical discourse. Appearing three times in the shot, Commander William Adama (Edward James Olmos) plays a crucial role in this meta-historical spectacle. He practises a speech for the decommissioning ceremony, an event that also marks his retirement. ‘The Cylon War is long over, yet we must not forget the reasons why,’ he begins, before being interrupted by Kara ‘Starbuck’ Thrace (Katee Sackhoff) jogging through the crowded passageways. After a short exchange, he starts again, but the camera pans to a new point of interest before we can hear any more. He reappears twice more in the shot; twice more he repeats the phrase. It is significant that Adama cannot answer the question he raises about remembrance on the day his ship is due to become a heritage site. The ‘reasons why’ hang ominously over the miniseries and provide an ethical context for the episodes that follow. Later at the ceremony, he initially frames his speech within well-worn patriotic platitudes; ‘The Cylon War is long over,’ he says, ‘yet we must not forget the reasons why so many sacrificed so much in the cause of freedom.’ The commander pauses at this point. Haunted by the memory of a son lost in the service, he continues off-script:

Sometimes the cost is too high. You know, 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 then wash your hands of the things that you’ve created. Sooner or later, the day comes when you can’t hide from the things that you’ve done any more.

(p.147) Adama’s last act as a battlestar commander is a surprising one. He and his ship are relics of the war, but as a matter of public record Adama troubles Galactica’s conscription into the flagship of Colonial heritage. After the Cylon attack, humanity’s refugees will ‘look backward’ for protection in Galactica’s guns, but their survival will also require the battlestar-museum to negotiate its embattled history with the Cylons.

This chapter argues that BSG’s central story arc of finding Earth is deeply immured in the material conditions and politics of remembrance. While reminiscent of the epic home voyages of Exodus2 and the Odyssey—and equally reminiscent of the original series’ search for the lost 13th tribe taken from Mormon beliefs and history—the fabula of Galactica’s journey is also an exploration through the space-time of archaeological sites. On the verge of a diaspora, the crew of Galactica and its Cylon antagonists are poised at a moment of cultural transformation, in which, to borrow from Homi Bhabha, the ‘natural(ized), unifying discourse of nation, peoples, or authentic folk tradition, those embedded myths of culture’s particularity, cannot be readily referenced’ (439). Material artefacts serve a complex diegetic purpose in BSG. At once chapters in the story of the home voyage, they also signal the deeper cultural codes and ideological conditions embedded within the heritage beliefs that the characters must navigate in their difficult journey to peaceful co-existence.

This journey will require new schema for interpreting the archaeological remains that line the route to Earth. While executive producer Ronald Moore is bound by the constraints imposed by a medium that requires the obfuscation of certain details in order to spin out the story arc over four seasons, there is nonetheless a coherence in obfuscation that I argue is broadly archaeological in nature. In BSG, archaeological sites are places of assembly, contestation and ultimately critical reflection on the dangerous antagonisms and imperial politics that have brought humanity to the brink of extinction. Cylons and humans alike search for their origins, identity and even survival among the shards of material history. As a mode of cultural production with ideological commitments constitutive of the issues of culpability raised by Adama, archaeology plays a crucial role in both the physical and ethical dimensions of the journey to Earth. BSG creates through archaeological contestation the possibility of a future that is critical of the pernicious and partial chronotopes of progress (p.148) and heritage exemplified in turning Galactica into a Cylon War museum (Liedl; Rizvi, 197), an act that perpetuates through commemoration the simmering hostility between the races. And if Moore has been successful in his plan to ‘comment on things that are happening in today’s society, from the war against terror to the question of what happens to people in the face of an unimaginable catastrophe’ (qtd. in Bassom, 12),3 then BSG’s archaeological imagination is not simply a means to reanimate the mytho-religious environment of the original series, but a way of exposing it to the real-world geopolitical tensions that impress the BSG reboot with contemporary relevance for its viewership.

The miniseries concludes with Adama announcing his plan to search for the distant ancestor of humanity described in the Sacred Scrolls, the enigmatic ‘Thirteenth Tribe’ who emigrated from Kobol and settled on Earth some 2,000 years before the remaining tribes left to form the Twelve Colonies (10 December 2003). Like many Colonials, Adama thinks that Earth is a myth, but draws upon the scriptural narrative in order to give the survivors hope of a friendly destination (E. Silverman, 1991, 192). The irony of Galactica’s museumification is actualized in the fleet’s exodus into the depths of their mythic past. But here, too, irony bites, for what they discover completely undermines all sense of their origins. With the help of a rebel Cylon faction, a joint archaeological expedition finds in Earth’s irradiated soil material proof of their common ancestry, their common humanity in their shared materiality. Sifting through the detritus of the Thirteenth Tribe, each race is left to ponder its purpose and identity as agents of the kind of imperialist power that has led to cataclysms past and present. Over the course of the painful journey to Earth, Colonials and Cylons come to appreciate the artefacts they encounter as footprints of shared, bio-material existence. In this way, BSG patiently exposes an ‘archaeology of the future,’ a utopian possibility latent in humanity’s rediscovery of its deep-seated hybrid history with the Cylons.

This sense of material, cultural and historical interconnection is signalled in a phrase repeated by humans and Cylons alike, ‘All this has happened before, and all this will happen again.’4 These words are spoken first by the Model Two Cylon known as Leoben Conoy (Callum (p.149) Keith Rennie) in ‘Flesh and Bone’ (25 February 2005). Focusing on Kara’s interrogation and torture of the captured Cylon, who claims to have planted a nuclear warhead somewhere in the fleet, the episode is a shocking reminder of CIA waterboarding of Al-Qaeda suspects and the dehumanisation of prisoners at Abu Ghraib (Bassom, 74; cf. Johnson-Lewis, 24–25; Kind, 123–24; and Leaver, 2012, 133–34). Its grisly scenario notwithstanding, the episode represents the most intimate encounter between Cylons and Colonials to date in the series. As a torturer, Kara seeks truth by exposing the Cylon to his own physicality. She is astonished by what she finds, a grotesque parody of human weakness that feels pain and humiliation, has hunger and bleeds. If ‘you cut him open,’ she casually observes, ‘there’s blood, guts, the whole thing.’ Her dawning sense of their mutual fragility—she herself is nursing a broken leg—disrupts the formidable version of the evil machine-like ‘other’ she expects to find in the interrogation room. She becomes ‘unbalanced’ (Sharp, 71) as a consequence. The audience, too, is positioned within the torture, vis-à-vis a frontal shot taken from inside the water bucket into which Leoben’s head is thrust. The camera frames the moment within the very medium of torture, a disturbing perspective that compels the audience to bear witness to a cruel act. Disrupting the viewers’ normative cinematic relation to the subject, the camera manipulates any stable sympathies we might have for Colonial humanity, which is to say the biological side of the cyborg divide.

Torture thus performs a critical cultural function. It establishes boundaries of inclusion and exclusion, civilization and savagery. But the barbarity of torture always threatens to destabilize and invert these binaries. Kara accuses Leoben of destroying her civilization, aware of the paradox that humans ‘frakked up’ by creating and then enslaving the Cylons in the first place. The problematic and ultimately self-referential logic of torturing a thing—in this case an artefact from humanity’s history—raises a pertinent question about the ways we acquire knowledge: what can objects signify beyond the possibilities of truth offered by the interrogator?

Leoben’s torture, then, may be appreciated as an archaeological performance that connects contemporary images of war with finding the truth. Like torture, archaeology is a mode of truth-seeking that responds to the mutability of material existence. Sympathies emerge between archaeologist and artefact, between human and Cylon.5 In ‘Flesh and Bone’ we observe an individual Cylon struggling for being in time, an (p.150) alien concern for the virtually immortal cyborg. Having ventured beyond the range of his resurrection ship renders acute Leoben’s longing for spiritual transcendence beyond his physical existence. At this moment he is, like his interrogators, a material being defined through entropy.6 We see in Leoben the first instance of how, as Lewis Call relates, ‘Death establishes the possibility of meaning’ for the Cylons (85). And also for the Colonials, who begin, like Kara, to question the wisdom of received narratives of the material world. Both a meta-commentary on the war on terror and the construction of the alien other, ‘Flesh and Bone’ destabilizes through archaeological imagery the object/human categories upon which such distinctions are constructed.

Bringing things and people into symmetry is the first step towards dismantling the categories of difference so deeply embedded in the Colonialist worldview. Exposing Cylon materiality to human decay effects an amazing reversal. The tortured Leoben penetrates the torturer’s hard exterior, her own inscrutable materiality. ‘I look at you now,’ he says, ‘I don’t see Kara Thrace. I see an angel blazing with the light of God, an angel eager to lead her people home […] You will find Kobol, the birthplace of us all. Kobol will lead you to Earth.’ These words amaze her, for she is unprepared for the Cylon to recognize her own religious struggles. The empathetic bond between torturer and tortured collapses the object world into the social, allowing Leoben to expose in Kara’s imagination the prospect of inclusive and flexible narratives of origins for both races.

President Laura Roslin (Mary McDowell), the secular leader of ‘her people,’ however defends entrenched binary distinctions. She reminds Kara that the Cylon is ‘a machine. And you don’t keep a deadly machine around when it kills your people and threatens your future.’ Roslin cannot accept a future defined by Cylon subjectivity, an irony that unfolds in season two when she herself leads her followers on an archaeological expedition to Kobol with the help of another Cylon prisoner, Sharon Valerie (Grace Park). The manner of Leoben’s execution—which (p.151)

Battlestar Galactica

Figure 21. Battlestar Galactica, ‘Flesh and Bone’ (Universal Studios Home Entertainment, 2005).

she invents on the spot for Cylon war criminals—re-inscribes his status as an unwanted thing: ‘flushing’ the Cylon into the vacuum of space. Kara explains to Roslin that Leoben is not afraid of death, but afraid, like all people of faith, that his soul will not find God. Resigned to his fate, Leoben places his hand on the glass partition of the airlock. Kara responds in kind. Hands join momentarily in a gesture of prayer, then he is destroyed. The glass mirrors the frontal shot of the torture scene, situating torturer and tortured in a position of mutual sympathy. Replacing the objective views of the camera and water, the window renders transparent the deep-seated distinctions between object/person, origin/future and alien/kindred.

Kara’s ostensibly contradictory acts of torture and communion challenge Roslin’s executive power to preserve exclusive categories of difference. She repeats this interrogative performance privately at a makeshift shrine to the gods of Kobol that she tends in her locker. It is significant that she keeps these votive figurines close to her. As reproductions of primitivistic representations of the gods of the ancient, quasi-mythical homeworld, these fetishized artefacts stand in for the personal relationship she has just established with Leoben. Kara is uncertain about the status of the Cylon’s soul, but she nevertheless asks her gods to ‘please take care of it.’ Holding the promise of meaning in space and time for both parties, these artefacts resonate with the transformative experiences of the interrogation room and the promise that she will find Kobol, the home of Cylons and Colonials alike. Yet (p.152) this disturbing sense of equilibrium also encodes and echoes privileged notions of antiquity for the viewer. The Etruscan-looking figurines signify an a priori value lingering behind and before the technological culture embodied by the Cylons. Part of BSG’s fascination for its audience is its ability to draw viewers into the diegetic search for origins survived by its archaeological mise-en-scene. Kara’s locker is, in fact, only one of several private collections stowed aboard the museum-ship. Adama’s quarters, for example, are saturated with historical memorabilia of the vanished colonies. His many books, statues and old furniture occupy the same space as his navy paraphernalia, a model ship, cutlasses and even a samurai helmet evocative of a Cylon head, a subtle connection between our own imperial past and the colonial wars depicted in the series.

Privy to the torture of Leoben, the audience, like Kara, can no longer enjoy the privileged position of coding the Cylon as a static object of repetition or of unfeeling programming. In the episodes that follow, recognisable archaeological sites continue to disrupt these cultural categories of human and material. The dawning sense of interconnected existence in ‘Flesh and Bone’—the troubling figure of the cyborg that emerges when perceived dualisms keeping things and people apart collapse—is crucial for the next phase of the archaeological journey: Kara’s search among the ruins of Caprica for clues to the direction to Earth.

The opening ‘teaser’ for the first-season finale (‘Kobol’s Last Gleaming: Part 1,’ 25 March 2005) presents a series of pairings. Adama and Lee (Jamie Bamber) spar in the boxing ring; the father knocks down the son. Kara and Gaius Baltar (James Callis) are having sex, which ends badly when she cries out Lee’s name; ‘Virtual’ Six (i.e., Baltar’s former Cylon lover who appears to him in visions) is deeply wounded by the betrayal. Sharon ‘Boomer’ Valerie (hereafter ‘Boomer’) suspects she is a Cylon sleeper agent, and considers shooting herself. Stranded on Caprica after the attacks, Karl ‘Helo’ Agathon (Tahmoh Penikett) shoots the Model Eight masquerading as Boomer sent to seduce him (hereafter ‘Sharon’); wounded, Sharon reveals that she is pregnant with his child and wants to defect to Galactica to raise it.

Father and son, lovers, friends, allies, Cylon and human are bound to each other in conflict. In his podcast commentary, Moore relates that this is his favourite teaser of the first season, because it reflects the physical and psychological battles developing between the principal characters (Moore, 2005). These antagonisms are crucial in the search for Earth. Unforeseen and largely unconscious sympathies develop between the Cylons and Colonials depicted in the teaser. Once again, archaeology as praxis and critical idiom offers a way of framing these relationships, the (p.153)

Battlestar Galactica

Figure 22. Battlestar Galactica, ‘Kobol’s Last Gleaming: Part 1’ (Universal Studios Home Entertainment, 2005).

evolution of the home-journey narrative, and the critique of privileged notions of origins that BSG progressively undermines. On a scouting mission for supplies, Boomer locates a planet that Roslin identifies from reconnaissance photos as the Kobol of myth and scripture. The president sees in the photo of ruins an inhabited city with features identical to the ‘Forum’ in Caprica City. She literally cannot see the site as it is, only as a simulacrum, a manifestation of her desire to claim the aura of origins filtered through the Sacred Scrolls and an architectural reproduction at the Colonial capital. Acting under the misplaced belief that humanity will be welcomed by its ancestors, she envisions Earth as a version of the mythic Kobol, the land ‘where gods and men lived in paradise until the exodus of the Thirteen Tribes.’ Ironically, her conviction is the product of the kind of repetition and simulation that Colonials ascribe to the machine world of the Cylons. The irony deepens when she echoes Leoben’s own words by telling Kara, ‘We are playing our part in a story that is repeated again and again throughout eternity.’ Convinced that ‘Earth is real,’ Roslin persuades Kara to return to Caprica to retrieve the Arrow of Apollo from the archaeological museum, the artefact that will, according to the Sacred Scrolls, unlock the Tomb of Athena on Kobol and reveal the route of the Thirteenth Tribe to Earth.

On Caprica, Kara finds the museum in ruins (‘Kobol’s Last Gleaming: Part 2,’ 1 April 2005). She picks her way through toppled statuary and broken display cases. Colonial heritage is literally under attack. In this episode, the emerging archaeological motifs are certainly topical, for (p.154)

Battlestar Galactica

Figure 23. Battlestar Galactica, ‘Kobol’s Last Gleaming: Part 2’ (Universal Studios Home Entertainment, 2005).

the battle over history and heritage at this site clearly references the bombing and looting of the Baghdad Museum in April 2003. In BSG, Colonial heritage is similarly embattled. Kara enters the bombed-out museum, shoots herself with anti-radiation medication and then shoots the display case containing the Arrow of Apollo. The Colonials steal their own history by exposing it, as it were, to the poisonous atmosphere of imperial war. The artefact is unlocked from its hermetic seal and rejoins the world of struggle and symbolic exchange. Enter Six, who appears over Kara’s shoulder, the new guardian of heritage. In the still above, the artefact is framed in a deep focus shot that layers the antique hand, Kara holding the arrow, and Six in a series of strong parallel lines. A sense of continuity and contestation in time is established in the frame, with the arrow literally and figuratively changing hands. The battle for history ensues, moreover, in brutal hand to hand combat for possession of the arrow, which is to say, its continued meanings for the future: the Cylons, too, need it for their own, parallel search for Earth. The Arrow of Apollo is a sign of common heritage and interconnected history that, like the bombing and looting of the Baghdad Museum, dissolves into conflict between rival claimants.

The fight is, however, oddly intimate. The intimacy of boxers, of a father and son sparring in the ring … or of lovers. After a series of rapid cuts of Six dashing around the room—Six is showing off her physical superiority to a terrified, hunted Kara—in the end, Kara tackles her and they fall together through a hole in the floor, crushing the Cylon. They (p.155) lie embracing among the broken statuary. At this very moment Helo and Sharon arrive. Another piece of a larger puzzle emerges at this contested heritage site. The Arrow, a weapon that Kara jabs at Six, now points the way to the future, the human-Cylon child growing within Sharon. The arrow is now a compass that will lead both sides to a hybrid future beyond their embattled history.

Similar convergences are occurring simultaneously on Kobol. A survey expedition from Galactica unwittingly jumps into the middle of a Cylon armada and crashes near the ruins photographed by Boomer (‘Kobol’s Last Gleaming: Part 2’). The site offers both visual relief from the closed spaces of the ships, and a perspective of the deep historical time the Colonials are tracing on their journey to Earth. With gestures towards the eighteenth-century picturesque ruin tradition, the extreme long shot of the temple ruins is—with the aid of computer imaging—coeval with the primordial landscape suggested by the swamp in the foreground and, in the background, the vertical repetition of the structure by the mountains.

The visual layering of the establishing shot of the temple is indicative of the dynamic nature of visual perception and its manipulation in BSG. The scene cuts to Virtual Six rescuing Baltar from the burning Raptor. Filmed as she often is in high-key and strong back-lighting, she interrupts the normative environment, representing a kind of mythic extra-diegetic time and space coeval with the ruins, an embodied zeitgeist. At this moment she immerses Baltar in the Cylons’ perceptual experience of what in BSG mythology is known as ‘projection,’ the fabrication of desired spaces and realities, like a kind of built-in holo-deck. Similar to the Super Mechas in A.I., Cylons are by their very nature meta-filmic, for their sense of identity is shaped directly within the conventions of visual culture. Their ability to disrupt time and space, which is integral to the televisual feel of BSG, also invests the archaeological terrain with historical meaning. Virtual Six tells Baltar that he has been chosen by God to ‘survive and serve His purpose.’ The angelic figure shares with her former lover a projected vision of the temple. He, like Roslin, ‘recognizes the place,’ sees instead of ruins the temple as it might have been millennia ago. Baltar and Roslin experience the same vision of a simulation based on the model on Caprica, the very building in which Kara is battling Six for the Arrow of Apollo. The ruins on Kobol are extant with those on Caprica. Both sites mark the cycles of holocaust endured and propagated by each race. In ruination, both hold clues to a new beginning. In the temple (also known as the Opera House) Virtual Six shows Baltar a projection of Helo and Sharon’s child, Hera (Iliana Gomez-Martinez). While the Christian imagery is unmistakable—Virtual (p.156) Six is dressed in angelic white and bathed in a heavenly glow that envelops the child-messiah—the vision is as mundane and material as a child in a crib. Hera is the answer to Adama’s question of shared liability for the violent cycles of time. As the fleet draws closer to Earth, Hera becomes the Rosetta Stone for translating a new hybrid beginning, and a new way of understanding the interconnected nature of the material past over which each race is fighting.

By the second season of BSG, Roslin and Adama have reached an impasse over the route to take, which is to say, the ways material history is interpreted. One third of the fleet jumps away with Roslin to search on Kobol for the Tomb of Athena, forcing Adama to make the difficult decision to reunite the ‘family’ of humanity on Roslin’s archaeological expedition (‘Home: Parts 1, 2,’ 19, 26 August 2005). On Kobol, Baltar’s revelation of the child intersects with Sharon’s role in the series. She becomes not simply the mother of the hybrid future, but is herself the map to this end. Claiming to ‘know more about your religion than you do,’ she warns Roslin that her kind will soon descend on the tomb. Sharon assumes the dual sense of her name, ‘sharing’ knowledge and, like Charon of classical mythology, crossing between worlds. She will be rewarded ultimately for guiding the party with acceptance back into the fleet, where she receives the call sign ‘Athena’ from the Raptor pilots. At this point, however, she is forbidden to enter the tomb that bears her new name and new hybrid life aboard Galactica. She remains the enemy, a thing to be used, a kind of military asset. Played by an actress of Korean descent, Sharon, moreover, is a figure of typage, who invokes the fear of the cyborg incarnate in, as Eve Bennett argues, far-Orientalist configurations of technophobia (26–31).7

Inside the tomb, the low-key lighting creates mysterious shadowy effects upon a ring of broken classical statuary. Stepping into the gloom, Kara murmurs, ‘this is where it all began.’ Reiterating the classical iconography of the Caprica Museum, the site represents a familiar chapter in the story of the rise of Western civilisation. Like leaving their guide outside, the very act of ‘discovery’—of being the first race to find the tomb—reinforces categories of inclusion and exclusion. Discovery is a form of dispossession, typifying what anthropologist Johannes Fabian famously calls ‘the denial of coevalness’ (31) to the (p.157)

Battlestar Galactica

Figure 24. Battlestar Galactica, ‘Home: Part 2’ (Universal Studios Home Entertainment, 2006).

colonial other. Finding the tomb and the way to Earth unites the fleet by affirming its mytho-religious identity, but this only accentuates the political antagonisms that have limited their historical understanding. For this sacralized space is actually a technological device constructed by ancient Cylons, a cyborg site activated by the Arrow of Apollo, revealing its real purpose as a planetarium that projects—in cinematographic Cylon fashion—the constellations surrounding Earth over a stone circle and, beyond, the Ionian Nebula that will give the fleet its new bearings. Seeing these familiar objects and patterns is comforting, yet the knowledge garnered from this classical site—and its pretence of a privileged historical timeline—will also have to be dismantled. For Apollo’s arrow directs the Colonial fleet to the nuclear legacy of the Thirteenth Tribe. The lesson that humans and Cylons must work collectively to understand the nature of their hybrid history remains hidden in the rubble of what each side still considers its special destiny to survive at the cost of the extinction of the other.

This glimmering sense of intertwined histories and fate in the series—and the prejudices and horror that the cyborg figure still inspires in its human participants—intensifies on the next leg of the archaeological journey, the discovery on the Algae Planet of the Temple of Jupiter, or, in Cylon lore, the Temple of the Final Five (‘The Eye of Jupiter,’ 15 December 2006, and ‘Rapture,’ 21 January 2007). At this point in the BSG saga, the colony of New Caprica has been abandoned and the fleet has renewed the search for Earth. The next major stand-off with (p.158) the Cylons is a winner-take-all battle for the temple and possession of its artefact, the ‘Eye of Jupiter,’ which is said to hold further secrets about the location of Earth. The Cylons are led by the Model Three D’Anna Biers (Lucy Lawless). Like Roslin, she is convinced that she has a special destiny. Hers is a parallel quest for the truth of her Cylon origins, the forbidden knowledge of the ‘Final Five’ progenitors of the humanoid Cylon race.

Just like the Temple of Athena, the Temple of Jupiter/Final Five is actually a technological beacon left by the Cylons after their exodus from Kobol, a site which now contains information about the Final Five, who stopped here to ‘pray’ for guidance on their journey to the Twelve Colonies. The Eye of Jupiter mandala inside—a kind of bull’s eye of concentric circles—is a figure for knowledge based on ‘seeing straight.’ But sight is as contested as the site itself. The Colonials are frustrated and grasp at meanings that linger tantalizingly close. Galen Tyrol’s (Aaron Douglas) reverential caress of the mandala betokens the kind of fetishization that resists intelligibility. The elaborate lighting inside the temple creates a sense of cathedral-like immensity and wonder. Artificial light projected from the top of the chamber draws the eye upward to a CGI vaulted ceiling, creating chiaroscuro effects around the central pillar, the light of knowledge veiled in shadowy mystery. The lighting scheme reflects the action. Whereas the Colonials are now united in their appreciation of the temple’s significance if not its meaning, the Cylons have become divided. Model One, ‘Brother’ John Cavil (Dean Stockwell), is prepared to kill D’Anna in order to guard its message from his peers, that the Final Five, the sole survivors of the holocaust on Earth, hold the secret that Cylons and humans share a common ancestry. Just as New Caprica and the pretence of living in peace crumbled, the utopia of Cylon democratic consensus fails under the pressures of Cavil’s own imperialist politics and the resistance this breeds in characters like Sharon, D’Anna, Caprica Six, Natalie and, moreover, the Centurions and Raiders who are developing self-awareness and individual identities through their experiences. The humanoid Cylons have quickly created their own ‘Cylon problem’ through their burgeoning imperialistic culture and politics.

On the Algae Planet, the archaeological path folds in on itself, revealing the deepening complexity and interpenetration of human and Cylon affairs. As Janice Liedl states, the ‘race for Earth is not just one for survival, but an evolving dialectic between rival groups for control of contested destinies arising out of their claims on history’ (205). Both races are fated to be at the site when the sun goes nova, which reveals the way to Earth to the Colonial and Cylon fleets. ‘The nova is the Eye of Jupiter,’ remarks Galen, which aligns with the Ionian System revealed (p.159)

Battlestar Galactica

Figure 25. Battlestar Galactica, ‘The Eye of Jupiter’ (Universal Studios Home Entertainment, 2008).

at the Temple of Athena. But the experience also has a special mystical meaning for D’Anna. She steps into the nova’s light cast through the temple, which reveals to her a projection of the Opera House, and therein the luminous figures of the Final Five. As an artefact, the Eye of Jupiter is not a figure of enlightenment, but an actual light source that registers within D’Anna’s televisual Cylon perception the deeper truth that the Final Five live indistinguishably among the human population. And so, on the verge of unveiling this secret, the Colonials and Cylons begin the final leg of the race to Earth. A race both species are destined to lose.

Two important archaeological moments remain, the discovery of the two Earths, the two ends, the results of two kinds of choices: the nuked colony of the Thirteenth Tribe and the pristine planet the characters of BSG name after the idea of the world they have been chasing. On the first ‘older’ Earth, they do not find a new beginning at the end of their travails, nor a quasi-mystical encounter with distant ancestors. The fleet’s progress has led them to the end of progress, to the place where they began, in ruins, another site of apocalypse. Instead of encountering welcoming embraces, the characters stumble through the overexposed irradiated landscape of hollow archways and twisted metal reminders of Hiroshima or the WTC, a parody of civilization (‘Revelations,’ 13 June 2008, and ‘Sometimes a Great Notion,’ 6 January 2009). The moment of discovery shatters any lingering sense of privileged destiny for either race. Archaeological expeditions turn up humanoid Cylon bones and Centurion-like faceplates. The inference is devastatingly clear: the (p.160)

Battlestar Galactica

Figure 26. Battlestar Galactica, ‘Sometimes a Great Notion’ (Universal Studios Home Entertainment, 2009).

Thirteenth Tribe were Cylons, who created their own machines, which in turn rebelled and laid waste to their masters. All this has happened before, and happened again. The end of the line is the knowledge that human and Cylon, creator and created, are bound in a chain of life and destruction.

The joint expedition reveals a common history that completely challenges the historical timeline that the leaders of both sides were struggling to maintain. Long establishing shots over the desolate terrain cut to a series of close-ups of characters digging in the ground, unearthing bits and pieces of expired life, children’s toys, musical instruments, a watch. These ordinary objects resonate with the life lived beneath the grand archaeological narratives stored up in places like the Caprica Museum. Here Cylons went to the beach, played guitars, owned businesses, loved and were loved. Four of the Final Five find artefacts. Touching them sparks projections of their former lives. For the Cylons, material traces of the past come fully equipped with narratives. Galen passes a trench containing Cylon remains, establishing continuity with a startling ‘find’ of his own: his incineration shadow left on a wall, from which he projects his last moments there. He was buying an avocado at a market. Samuel Anders (Michael Trucco) finds a guitar neck, recalls playing it. Tory Foster (Rekha Sharma) remembers the song he wrote for her. Saul Tigh (Michael Hogan) finds a safety deposit box, and sees his wife Ellen (Kate Vernon) lying in the rubble of the bank and realizes that she is the last member of the Final Five.

(p.161) The archaeological imagination in BSG merges at this juncture with the show’s implicit postcolonial critique of the relationships between the Colonials and the Cylons dating back to ‘Flesh and Bone.’ The archaeological record on Earth seems like the punch line of a bad joke, but it also offers new routes beyond the old imperial narratives constructed by both races. The archaeological materials gathered on Caprica, Kobol and the Algae Planet are ideological texts that are open to scrutiny. We see here that archaeology is a powerful tool to dismantle dominant histories, to render, in the words of archaeologist Praveena Gullapalli, the ‘colonizer-colonized dichotomies problematic’ (35). She argues that the ‘assessment of archaeology as a viable and reliable way of understanding and investigating the past is best exemplified in discussions over contentious sites’ (48). Earth clearly fits this paradigm, for its history of contestation lies just below the surface of the terrain into which rival groups had been battling to stake their claims.

This new archaeological evidence requires new sensitivities to the heterogeneity of historical experience gathered here. As leader of the rebel Cylons, D’Anna is forced to negotiate peace with the Colonial forces. Like them, she initially resists, in Gullapalli’s words, ‘the multiplicity of experiences, both past and present’ (37) that binds Cylons and Colonials. But the archaeological discoveries on Earth unite ‘groups with different ideologies and perceptions whose actions mirror the multiplicity of self-interests that they embodied’ (37). Through their own burgeoning civil war, the Cylons have become heterogeneous, casting off their identity in model numbers and, after the destruction of the ‘Resurrection Hub’ (‘The Hub,’ 6 June 2008), the kind of mechanical reproduction that arrests their bodies in time. They are inserted into the temporal flow along with their human antagonists, and like true cyborgs, join humanity in the experience of entropy.

For Kara, these issues play out at another gravesite: her own. Her mortal remains are physical proof that she has been here before (i.e., that she travelled to Earth when she passed through the vortex in ‘Maelstrom’ [4 March 2007]). The grave is another archaeological site that challenges linear progress. The SF topos of time travel merges with the archaeological conceit of communion with the dead. Indeed, this is the ultimate archaeological site, for she accomplishes what humans and Cylons alike are seeking all along: their own face in the archaeological record. Of course the knowledge gleaned from this (crash) site is ironic and completely disappointing. For it is endemic of how these discoveries have shattered illusions of causality between human and Cylon, and raises deeper and more pressing questions of identity. As Kara says to Leoben, ‘If that’s me lying there, then what am I?’ Her body itself is the (p.162) intimate witness of the disastrous cycles of human conflict. The desire to plant roots in Earth now becomes the need to search for routes to a new Earth beyond the pale of human/Cylon conflict.

The fascinating and confusing interpenetration of Cylon and human history, culture, belief systems and psychology has, by the mid-point of the fourth season, now fallen into place. The battle for survival for humans and Cylons comes down to a war between those who accept Cylon-human hybridity and the Cylons who follow Cavil’s desires to extinguish humanity and live in a machine-ruled universe. Each position depends, however, on the survival of the child Hera, who holds for Cavil the secrets to resurrection and, for the rebel Cylons, proof of natural conception with their human partners. The final assault on the Cylon colony is fought for a principle, the salvation of a child, the embodied future of both races. The battle is won, the child is saved from Cavil’s operating table, destinies and prophecies merge, and the fleet jumps blindly away to a new planet they will name Earth (‘Daybreak: Parts 1, 2,’ 13, 30 March 2009).

This version of Earth is the prize earned for accepting postcolonial hybridity. But there is one more archaeological challenge remaining. For this world is inhabited by, in Baltar’s words, an ‘early ritualistic tribal society.’ Adama surveys them through field glasses from a hilltop, a telephoto point-of-view shot, another ideological sight-line. Hidden behind their panoptic technology, ‘Doc’ Coddle (Donnelly Rhodes) relates that he found a burial site and has determined that the aboriginals are genetically compatible mates. The polemical archaeological issue of disturbing indigenous burials aside, humanity will survive by interbreeding with the natives. The characters are poised on the precipice of another moment of cultural transformation. Adama dismisses the natives as ‘tribal, without language even.’ Lee counters that ‘we can give them that, we can give them the best part of ourselves.’ This utterance is problematic given the disastrous results of ratiocination explored on the journey. Lee has forgotten that such impositions led to their near extinction several times over. He fails to recognize that this Garden of Eden already has a history, a past that he is willing to conscript into humanity’s new heritage.

Lee also makes an interesting and outwardly contradictory proposition: to abandon technology and begin again. He proposes that ‘We break the cycle. We leave it all behind and start over.’ Material culture may be abandoned, but Earth will nonetheless become a constructed Paradise founded on principles like teaching the locals civilization. As Ronald Moore relates in his podcast commentary (2009), Lee’s plan mimics Cortez scuttling his ships, binding the conquistadors to their colonial (p.163)

Battlestar Galactica

Figure 27. Battlestar Galactica, ‘Daybreak: Part 2, 3’ (Universal Studios Home Entertainment, 2009).

enterprise. The Galactica-museum—which still preserves the glassed-in Cylon Centurion in the launch bay—is driven into the sun in a gesture of apotheosis, a foundational moment in the colony’s burgeoning mythology. The new colony presents, as Grace Dillon relates, ‘a dispersed people in exile that nevertheless has the power to colonize the host they encounter. Doing so effects the transformation of collective memory and myth’ (17). And so, the seeds of a new cycle of violence are sown.

Kara’s final conversation with Lee confirms this future, this implied end. Aware that she died on old Earth and has been reincarnated in order to bring the fleet to this place (Butler and Winston), she asks him what he wants to do. The deep focus and warm golden tones of the grassy ‘African’ savanna signal departure from the cramped physical and psychological interiors of the space-faring vessels. He answers that he longs to explore, to climb the mountains and cross the oceans. The colonial cartographical imagination cannot be incinerated with Galactica. The outwardly un-SF-like act of destroying technology paradoxically opens the territory for exploration and settlement. Space exploration simply shifts focus to a single world. And this new beginning has a historical function, what John Rieder calls the ‘anthropologist’s fantasy’ of relegating native ‘others’ to the colonizers’ past. Lee’s desire to start over requires a stable theory of origins that can be bracketed off in time and projected meaningfully into the future. This historical narrative enables a host of other ‘imperial fantasies’ of appropriation on Earth: the racial fantasy of superiority/inferiority, the discoverer’s fantasy (p.164) of claiming empty lands, and the missionary fantasy of correcting indigenous beliefs (30–31).8 Indeed, the ideological positioning suggested by the telephoto shot of the aboriginals is reiterated throughout the settlement process, a series of high-angle shots over vast virgin territory teeming with vegetable and animal life, the building blocks of civilization. Baltar finds a spot to farm. The pristine ground is ripe for planting future history. Of all the characters, only Galen will remove himself from history altogether. He chooses to settle on the ‘northern islands’ where it is cold and unpopulated. Like Frankenstein’s creation, he will suffer through isolation the sins of his race and bear the stain of difference in solitude. End of line for Galen.

While Rieder focuses on SF narratives composed during the heyday of Western colonialism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, his model is entirely apropos of the neoimperialist themes explored in BSG. BSG’s ultimate failure to dramatize its own premise is, arguably, the show’s most poignant critique: that SF television cannot contrive a future beyond destructive narratives of progress. The audience jumps away from the fleet to the present—to the future history of BSG—and lands in a crowded metropolitan street easily recognisable as Times Square. Time itself is the message. Virtual Six and Virtual Baltar are on hand, proverbial angels on the shoulders of none other than Ronald Moore, who is reading National Geographic, a publication with a long history of manufacturing exotic scientific subjects for Western consumption. The series ends much like it began, with an ironic meta-textual commentary on the current state of affairs. Six reads from the magazine, a story about a recent archaeological discovery in Tanzania of the fossilized remains of a young woman speculated to be ‘Mitochondrial Eve,’ the most recent common ancestor of all living humans. The ground zero for the terrorist attacks in 2001—which is also the conceptual ground zero for the reimagined BSG—overlays the historical, primitive, virgin territories of the National Geographic metier. Reading the bones of Hera as the fossilized ‘Eve’ is clearly wrong. Baltar ‘gives the punch line’ (Call, 110) that she lived with her ‘Cylon mother and human father.’ Yet, the scientific misidentification bears the ironic truth that BSG has been exploring but ultimately fails to dismantle at every juncture: that imperial regimes inevitably create and reproduce disastrous histories from stable points of origin. BSG’s potentially subversive narrative premise—of challenging the archaeo-capitalist notions of progress that have led humans and Cylons to their end—simply folds back into tried-and-true imperial (p.165) patterns incarnate in the image of Eve descending from the heavens as the mother of a new race, or, in the final meta-historical moments of watching our own present unfold in New York City, the scientific search for Mitochondrial Eve, the excavated fossil dedicated to re-scripting time into monomyths of origins. As Matthew Gumpert relates, the ‘spectre of the miraculous child whose coming will usher in a new era is a figure from our past, not our future: a sign of the pervasive nostalgia underlying the apocalyptic futurism of BSG’ (153).

We are left with Six’s observation, ‘consumerism, decadence, technology run amok, remind you of anything?’ ‘All of this has happened before,’ she says. ‘But the question remains,’ interjects Baltar, ‘does this all have to happen again?’ The audience is left with a question that hearkens back to Adama’s speech. The city streets furnish an answer as deterministic as the Prophecies of Pithia. The camera in the last scene pans away from a beggar, contrasting an ugly image of despair and poverty with the artificial beauty of the city and shops where she begs. The camera focuses on televised pictures of the 2005 Robotics Expo in Aichi, Japan, which featured the sexy ‘actroid’ DER 01. She is posted on electronic billboards, the sea of replicative technology at Times Square, the robotic artefact of our future, or, in the mythology of BSG, the reincarnation of our distant ancestor, the android Eve. The television screens are a self-reflexive commentary on the BSG saga as a television spectacle, and a meta-textual comment on the show’s central theme: that we have sacrificed our own ‘humanity’ to the cause of material progress and cosmetic immortality, the pretence of arresting death for the privileged few in this cybernetic field of dreams.

While Katie Moylan advocates quite rightly that BSG never fully retreats from its ‘military project’ enough to offer substantial cultural critique (67), as a popular cultural document BSG nonetheless invites attentive viewers to question the historical paradigms that support entrenched militaristic and imperialist ideologies of Western culture. The space opera closes with Jimi Hendrix’s song ‘All Along the Watchtower’ emanating from the street person’s boom box. ‘There must be some kinda way outta here’ is the desperate hope that closes the circle on Adama’s question of responsibility. Galactica’s final jump to Earth is programmed by this song, this musical code, this promise of a fresh start. BSG holds this promise out to us. But the question remains, what versions of heritage are we willing to sacrifice along the way? For historical discourse is often itself a major barrier to transcending the destructive singularities represented by Cylons and humans, of how, in Homi Bhabha’s words, ‘in signifying the present, something comes to be repeated, relocated and translated in the name of tradition, in the guise of a pastness that (p.166) is not necessarily a faithful sign of historical memory but a strategy of representing authority in terms of the artifice of the archaic’ (35). The final moments of Battlestar Galactica suggest that the ruling ideologies of economic, cultural and ethnic difference cannot be so easily cast—like the relics of the Cylon War—into the sun.


A version of this chapter was originally published as ‘Does all this have to happen again? Excavating Heritage in Battlestar Galactica’ in Science Fiction Film and Television 7.1 (2014), 1–29.

(2) Resisting the comparison to Exodus, Grace Dillon argues that the original BSG and Galactica 1980 are better understood through diaspora theory. She contends that the shows’ portrayal of an embattled people seeking and settling upon the ‘promised land’ (17) is an elaborate allegory of Regan-era economic imperialism.

(3) The numerous readings of BSG’s engagement with 9/11 and the war on terror include Dinello; Erickson; Johnson-Lewis; Leaver, 2008; McHenry; Melançon; Mulligan; Ott; Peters; Pinedo; and Rawle.

(4) E.g. ‘Flesh and Bone’ (25 February 2005), ‘The Hand of God’ (11 March 2005), ‘Home: Part 2’ (26 August 2005), ‘Razor’ (24 November 2007), ‘Revelations’ (13 June 2008), ‘No Exit’ (13 February 2009) and ‘Daybreak: Part 2, 3’ (20 March 2009).

(5) Matthew Gumpert, 144–46, also explores the unstable nature of the human/Cylon binary in materialist terms.

(6) The finality of Leoben’s death foreshadows the future of the Cylon race itself. After the destruction of the Resurrection Hub, the leader of the Cylon rebellion, the Six known as Natalie, states, ‘We began to realise that for our existence to hold any value, it must end. To live meaningful lives, we must die and not return. The one human flaw that you spend your lifetimes distressing over, mortality, is the one thing, well, it’s the one thing that makes you whole’ (‘Guess What’s Coming to Dinner?’ 16 May 2008). Lewis Call argues that she is ‘dying in the Heideggerian sense: she has been comporting herself towards death, and she has been open to opportunities for authenticity’ (102).

(7) Bennett also observes that Sharon and Boomer are also coded within the Orientalist ‘Madame Butterfly’ trope of sacrificial victim (34–38). Nadine McKnight similarly argues that BSG is guilty of reproducing and replicating black stereotypes, such as black mysticism and the threat of sexual violence, most notably in the characterization of Elosha and Simon.

(8) Cf. Patricia Kerslake’s examination of SF’s generic coding of aliens as colonial ‘other’ (passim).