Battlestar Galactica has featured assassinations, coup d’etat, martial law, suicide bombing, torture, forced abortion, gang rape. It’s a dark show. But to my mind, one of the most horrible moments of the show was not anything so conventionally terrible as the above, but a speech sometimes hailed as one of the triumphant turning points of the show:
In our civil war, we’ve seen death. We watched our people die. Gone forever. As terrible as it was, beyond the reach of the resurrection ships, something began to change. We could feel a sense of time. As if each moment held its own significance. We began to realize 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.
In “Guess What’s Coming to Dinner”, Natalie, the Six who leads the Cylon rebellion, gives this speech to the assembled Quroum, humanity’s elected government, arguing in favor of a joint strike mission to permanently disable the Cylon’s ability to resurrect themselves into new bodies following death. Later, in “The Hub”, with the exploding resurrection hub in the background, Helo and the leader of the rebel Eights fly the last surviving Three back to the rebel base ship:
Three: And with a whimper, every Cylon in the universe begins to die.
Eight: Yes, that’s right. And it’s a good thing, D’Anna, because now there’s no difference. We can all start trusting each other.
The first thing that follows this, of course, is Helo’s betrayal of the Eight’s trust by taking Three to President Roslin and denying the Cylons access (on the President’s order). But there’s a larger issue here than the Eights’ pereptually foolish optimism. And that’s the idea that the only way the Cylons can be “whole” is for there to be “no difference” between humans and Cylons.
Much of Battlestar‘s thematic weight in its later seasons–from “Downloaded”, at the end season two, onwards–has been thrown towards understanding the Cylons as people instead of impenetrable bogeymen that attack from the dark of space (or faceless crowds, as with the suicide bombing Five in season one’s “Litmus”). Many might even say that the series has “humanized” the Cylons–but that term is in this context disingenuous. It is of course right to assert the Cylons’ basic rights (their “human rights”, normally): their right to live, which Laura Roslin dismisses early on in her infamous airlocking of Leoben in “Flesh and Bone”; their right to unrestricted movement, until “Revelations”, the last aired episode, only granted to the Eight known as Sharon Agathon; their right to not be tortured or raped, the flashpoint issue of season two’s “Pegasus”.
Make no mistake, it’s positive progress. But there’s a big difference between recognizing Cylons’ basic rights–granting them freedoms they weren’t previously–and taking away a fundamental feature of their nature. Were it merely a human decision, of course, this would be not much worse than all the other egregious transgressions against the Cylons. But here it’s the Cylons themselves who have decided to cut off a fundamental part of them in order to make themselves more “human”.
It’s an understandable mistake by the Cylons, a young race who have floundered about in search of a plan (despite what the series’ opening credits continue to attest to) since the start of the series. After “Downloaded”, the first major visible shift in Cylon attitudes, they changed their mind merely six episodes later, at the conclusion of the New Caprica arc in “Exodus, Part II” (between which, granted, some eighteen months had passed within the series’ timeline). Since then the Cylons have changed their minds again and again, desperate for an answer to the same existential questions humans have always struggled with.
Natalie, the Cylon leader who first declares a death a necessary part of Cylon evolution, is one of the most noble characters in the entire series (necessitating, of course, that she doesn’t even survive half a season). After giving that speech, she returns to her compatriots and assures them that the humans do indeed intend to betray them, apparently justifying the Cylons’ plan to betray the humans as well, but decides that in spite of this they should back down:
Natalie: No, I was wrong. We’re not ready. We’re decieving them. [. . .] Out of suspicion. Fear. Why haven’t the Final Five [hidden Cylons in the human fleet] come forward? What if they’re watching, judging us on our actions? We’re about to resort to violence and coercion. What if they refuse to come with us? We can’t do this. [. . .] We have to tell the humans the truth.
The other Cylon rebels convince Natalie not to tell the truth (although they do abandon their plan for betrayal, only to have it put back into play by Three once she returns). But the poitn is that Natalie is a character whose opinions are intended to be respected. She alone among all the characters recognizes the futility of the cycle of betrayal and mistrust (at least until “Revelations”). So when she says that Cylons need death in order to be “whole”, it seems to be something else that the audience should respect. Certainly, the only characters in the show to dispute this are the villains–Brother Cavil and his allied Ones, Fours, and Fives. Cavil declaims the destruction of the hub as “mass murder”–which is true not only in the sense that all Cylons who die will now die permanently, but also in that all the Cylons living aboard the hub are (permanenently) killed by its destruction–yet no other characters acknowledge this.
The Cylons are people, yes, but for all their similarities to humans, they are not human. To try to become human is a fundamental mistake. They are a people who have only seven (or twelve, but the Final Five should probably be discounted) faces, only seven bodies. They are a people who have extreme difficulty reproducing sexually and rely on cloning and “downloading” to perpetuate themselves. They are a people for whom physical death is a rarity. Yet none of these things take away their people-ness (what we might otherwise call their “humanity”); mortality, as the humans of Battlestar and reality have aptly demonstrated again and again and again, does not make a people whole; it only magnifies the tragedies of their actions.
Of course, Cylons don’t exist, and it might seem that this problem is something relevant only to science fiction; but the Cylons have always been representative of the demonized others who in reality are always human. (Consider even that word, “demonized”–to transform into a demon, something not human.) But the trap of reconciliation is not just not killing others, but accepting that differences are acceptable–that the other need not become the “same” as us in order to be “whole”. (I am reminded of the infamous “understanding” positions of certain “liberals” that “accept” Muslims–so long as they act like American Christians.)
Battlestar is a smart show. I hope very much that its apparent endorsement of this idea is just that–an unfortunate appearance that will be proven wrong in the upcoming final ten episodes. But I don’t know. (And actually what I’ve heard of the final episodes suggests that the series will go in an entirely different direction with regards to the differences between humans and Cylons.)