January 20, 2009

The entertainment of moral ambiguity

I was intrigued the other day by a recently reprinted column by actor Dirk Benedict. You might remember Dirk best as the “Faceman” from “The A-Team.” But another popular Benedict role was that of “Starbuck” in the original “Battlestar Galactica.” In his article, Dirk takes the “re-imagined” “Battlestar Galactica” (the popular SciFi Channel series) to task for a number of things, not the least of which is its inability to distinguish good from evil:

Witness the “re-imagined” “Battlestar Galactica,” bleak, miserable, despairing, angry and confused. Which is to say, it reflects in microcosm the complete change in the politics and morality of today’s world, as opposed to the world of yesterday. The world of Lorne Greene (Adama), Fred Astaire (Starbuck’s Poppa) and Dirk Benedict (Starbuck). I would guess Lorne is glad he’s in that Big Bonanza in the sky and well out of it. Starbuck, alas, has not been so lucky. He’s not been left to pass quietly into that trivial world of cancelled TV characters.

“Re-imagining”, they call it. “Un-imagining” is more accurate. To take what once was and twist it into what never was intended. So that a television show based on hope, spiritual faith and family is un-imagined and regurgitated as a show of despair, sexual violence and family dysfunction. To better reflect the times of ambiguous morality in which we live, one would assume. A show in which the aliens (Cylons) are justified in their desire to destroy human civilization, one would assume. Indeed, let us not say who the good guys are and who the bad are. That is being “judgmental,” taking sides, and that kind of (simplistic) thinking went out with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and Kathryn Hepburn and John Wayne and, well, the original “Battlestar Galactica.”

Indeed, the original 1978 series was created by a Mormon and had its premises largely founded on that religion. It was a spiritual and hopeful show; deadly robotic creations of a dead lizard-like race have virtually wiped out humanity, and Lorne Greene (Commander Adama), along with Benedict and Richard Hatch (Apollo) (among many others) lead a “rag-tag fugitive fleet” to a largely mythical world called “Earth” – the supposed home of a “lost tribe” of humans which left the home worlds of the human Twelve Colonies millennia ago. It was easy to grasp: The robots – “Cylons” – were programmed to kill humans, period. The humans had to avoid them now at all costs, to ensure the very survival of their species. The final episode of the series (it had only lasted one season despite decent ratings) featured a symbolic battle of God vs. Satan, with the Galactica caught in the middle.

Fast forward thirty years. “Battlestar Galactica” has been re-imagined and is one of the most popular shows on television. The premise of the original series has changed quite a bit: The Cylons were actually created by man. Once they became self-aware, they rebelled against their masters and a forty-year war ensued. (To this date the precise origins of the Cylons and why they rebelled remains muddled.) After an armistice, no one heard a peep from the Cylons for decades. Suddenly, they reappeared – and they virtually wiped out the humans’ twelve worlds, killing tens of billions of people. Like the original series, Commander Adama (this time Edward James Olmos), Starbuck (now a female) and Apollo lead a fugitive fleet to the mythical Earth.

There’s just one problem in this re-imagined series: Some of the Cylons are humanoid. And they’ve infiltrated the remnants of humanity on their trek towards Earth.

Along the way we’ve seen – and how – that moral ambiguity of which Dirk Benedict speaks. (For some specific commentary dealing with specific episodes, check out my in-depth reviews of past "Galactica" shows.) The Cylons have just committed genocide on a scale inconceivable, yet in one episode we witness Commander Adama (Olmos) pondering a past secret mission of his during the human-Cylon armistice in which he violated Cylon space. “Was this the trigger that gave the Cylons their excuse?” he wonders. Say what?? A treaty violation justifies the murder of billions??

In another episode, the human fleet discovers a means by which to virtually wipe out all the Cylons that are chasing them. The entire show focuses on the morality of utilizing this means, and the humans ultimately decide not to make use their new-found weapon. Yep – some forty thousand humans remain out of tens of billions, the Cylons are trying to kill this paltry remainder, yet the surviving humans do not want to “lower themselves” by emulating the Cylons’ actions. Yeah. OK.

(Meanwhile, as a side note, while the very survival of the human species hangs precariously on a thread, humans in the fleeing fleet eventually demand a “return of democracy,” including all associated freedoms like freedom of the press and free elections. Somehow the words “drastic emergency situation” seem to have eluded those in the Galactica, not to mention the series’ writers.)

In probably the most ridiculous morally ambiguous stretch of the series, the ending of season two to the beginning of season three showed the humans finally settling upon a suitable planet, seemingly undetectable by the Cylons. Nope. The Cylons suddenly appear in orbit, attack the human settlement, and then occupy it. The humans resort to guerrilla warfare against their conquerors, and bingo – there’s a prodigious verbal scuffle over the “rightness” of utilizing suicide attacks against the Cylons. That’s right, folks – the human species is almost extinct, but there they are debating the morality of survival tactics against an enemy which blew almost every single human being in the universe to atoms.

Sound somehow familiar? Let’s take a gander:

There we have the nation of Israel. Founded after a genocide against the people who now make up the majority of its inhabitants, it was swiftly attacked by an overwhelming force shortly after attaining statehood. Twice more, the vast armies of its surrounding neighbors sought to eradicate the Jewish state. Twice more, just like with that first attack, Israel’s would-be conquerors were vanquished. The people who were destined to possess a state alongside Israel, the Palestinians, thus remained stateless, thanks to those who supposedly fought on their “behalf,” their Arab brethren of the adjacent sovereign states.

In that second major conflict (1967), Israel gained a substantial amount of territory whilst driving back the various Arab armies. It’s held onto some of it until this day, mainly because it wants guarantees of recognition of its right to exist, and a dissolution of things like the Hamas Charter which openly calls for Israel – and Jews everywhere – to be annihilated. Yet, a very large portion of the world demands that Israel "just give back" what it gained -- in a defensive war -- fighting, as it always does, for its very survival. Most recently, this same large portion of the world has cried out in self-righteous indignation about the “horrors” that Israel is inflicting upon the Palestinian people – the same people that would have had a state 60 years ago had they and their Arab brothers accepted what the United Nations (yes, the very same United Nations whose edicts everyone NOW wants countries to follow, most especially Israel) granted in the 1948 Partition Plan – even though Israel 1) is not responsible for the plight of the Palestinians in the first place, and 2) has been enduring ceaseless terrorist activity from the Palestinians, even after unilaterally vacating the Gaza Strip three years ago.

Do you see what I’m getting at? Humans = somehow responsible for their own genocide in “Battlestar Galactica;” Israel = somehow responsible for the Palestinian plight, not to mention practically every other ill in the mid-east. And we’re all supposed to believe these according to “Galactica’s” writers regarding the former; according to the world press regarding the latter. This is the result of our modern age of moral ambiguity. Humanity, because they made a mistake of creating a new type of [machine] life and made use of it as servile labor in "Galactica," thus bears the burden for its own destruction. Israel, because it dared defend itself from a genocide that had the potential to equal that suffered during World War II, must bear the burden of responsibility for the success of that defense.

To put it another way, the world of the morally ambiguous demands the answer: "What have you done do deserve this?"

Israel is attacked time and time again. What did it do to deserve it?

The World Trade Center was attacked on 9/11/2001. What did the U.S. do to deserve it?

Humankind is virtually extinguished in "Galactica." What did it do to deserve it?

The line between good and evil is now blurred ... blurred to such a degree that many more, aside from the most extreme of the extreme, soon will be asking things like what did the Jews do to deserve the treatment befallen upon them by the Nazis? We are seeing such language now in our "free" societies, in the streets full of anti-Israel protests. We're seeing "new histories" which question the judgment of those who fought against the most horrific tyrannies ever witnessed -- those against which we fought in World War II. In a conflict where the defeat of the Allies would have meant the extermination of the Jewish people, the slaughter of myriad other "unpure" races, and the enslavement of the entire globe, our moral ambiguity tells us that our leaders from that time who ordered, for instance, the bombing of Dresden and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are "no worse than Hitler, Tojo and Mussolini" and are "war criminals." The good cannot be distinguished from the bad.

Such a course continued means disaster for any society. For, if no one can make judgments of good and bad (evil), the result logically becomes anarchy. What the individual determines to be "right" is right.

Posted by Hube at January 20, 2009 04:16 PM | TrackBack

Comments  (We reserve the right to edit and/or delete any comments. If your comment is blocked or won't post, e-mail us and we'll post it for you.)

I actually never minded the debate about democracy or what not. I can easily see how such divisions could be created in such a climate. It seems realistic to me.

Meaning, if you happen to have a bunch of civilians and they are under military authority and they are desperate, and a bunch of terrorist-extremists happen to take advantage of this and produce propaganda against Galactica chain of command, I could easily see how such subversion methods could destroy cohesion and produce such flim flam excuses as "a return to democracy".

Doesn't mean the majority of the fleet would buy on, but you only need a few in the minority to cause havoc. Of course, the series requires a real opposition so they had to tinker with the realism a bit there.

No, the thing I really found unforgivable was how they sanitized military honor and tradition and made it to be a prop for Adam vs his son, Apollo.

There are no good guys. The definite bad guys, like that traitor and cylon useful idiot Balthazar, they actually move up on the ladder in terms of power and influence.

David Weber wouldn't have had to change a single element in the story itself, as it currently is. Just change the plot around and revamp the character relationships and character development and you would have a whole new "space opera".

Just his Honor Harrington series should give you an idea of what I am talking about.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at January 23, 2009 09:14 PM

Excellent analysis.

Posted by: Laura at January 26, 2009 04:05 PM

I think you've made the mistake here of assuming that the writers intend us to regard all human characters as good. The way I view the series, it's pointing out that our modern Western society is pretty much incapable of survival due to our constant in-fighting. For example...

> In another episode, the human fleet discovers a means by which to virtually wipe out all the Cylons that are chasing them. The entire show focuses on the morality of utilizing this means, and the humans ultimately decide not to make use their new-found weapon. Yep – some forty thousand humans remain out of tens of billions, the Cylons are trying to kill this paltry remainder, yet the surviving humans do not want to “lower themselves” by emulating the Cylons’ actions. Yeah. OK.

You're misrepresenting this by referring to what "the humans" want. The whole point of the episode -- as with so many other episodes -- is that the humans are crap at uniting, so there is no one thing that the humans want. The episode starts with the military being all ready to go ahead and do it, but then they get overruled by the political wing. It's left up to the viewer to decide who was right. I have no doubt some viewers are on the side of the politicians, but I wasn't, and I don't think the show tried to push me in that direction.

You've misrepresented this one, too:

> The humans resort to guerrilla warfare against their conquerors, and bingo – there’s a prodigious verbal scuffle over the “rightness” of utilizing suicide attacks against the Cylons. That’s right, folks – the human species is almost extinct, but there they are debating the morality of survival tactics against an enemy which blew almost every single human being in the universe to atoms.

No, the debate (as I'm sure you know) is about the rightness of using suicide attacks against humans who are willing to work with the cylons. So yes, the human species is almost extinct, and there they are debating the morality of killing humans not in order to survive but merely to discourage other humans from becoming policemen for the occupying forces.

As for the spiritual faith, I've been regularly surprised by just how big a role religion plays in the new series. Sometimes the religion is made out to be a bit mad, but it's also regularly made out to be correct -- revelations actually do come true, for instance.

You can make it out to be anything if you leave out enough of it, I'm sure.

Posted by: Squander Two at January 27, 2009 04:24 PM