Do Androids Dream of Al-Qaeda?

The original Battlestar Galactica series was created in the late 1970s as a TV version of immensely popular Star Wars movie. A story about space-faring ancestors of mankind began successfully but quickly plummeted in its ratings that led to the series’ cancellation. So when in 2003 SciFi Channel announced its remake led by producers Ronald D. Moore and David Eick, nostalgic fans took notice. But the new Battlestar Galactica turned out to be a whole different beast then its shallow predecessor. And a frightful beast it was, one spawned from the events of 9/11 and War on Terror.


Series begins with a surprise attack by Cylons – a robotic creatures used by humans for a long time until they finally rebelled. Decades later, they return to attack humans, killing billions with nuclear weaponry. Only a handful of survivors remain, running away in a search of a new home. Their leader is President Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell) – a politician of minor importance whose function was handed down to her simply because the rest of the government perished. Her position is undermined by the military pragmatics like Admiral William Adama (Edward James Olmos) but also by democratic idealists led by political prisoner Tom Zarek (Richard Hatch). Aside of robots and space ships, the world of Battlestar Galactica is pretty much as our own.

The characters of the series – like narcissistic and possibly insane Gaius Baltar (James Callis), dysfunctional pilot Kara Thrace (Katee Sackhoff) or idealistic officer Lee Adama (Jamie Bamber) – grew up in prosperous democratic society only to end up in a war no one expected. Traumatized from a frightening terrorist attack and faced with an uncertain future, they soon become paranoid as well when they realize that their attackers are now androids – robots visually and even internally indistinguishable from humans.


But, as Cylon agents infiltrate the ranks of survivors to sow distrust, panic and destruction, we learn they’re far from monolithic, faceless evil. They have their own goals, ideals, conflicts and even religion – something that humans find especially abhorrent. Creatures that were once dismissed as a mere resource to be exploited turned into beings possessing all the human emotions, both good and bad.

Over its four seasons duration – from 2003 miniseries up to its 2009 finale – Battlestar Galactica served as dark reflection of America of the new millennium. Controversies over the 2000 U.S. Presidential elections were addressed, as well as War in Iraq, torture of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and dangerous effects of religious fanaticism and populist rhetoric on the health of democratic society.

Moral and political quandaries rose throughout the series: what good are democratic traditions when mere survival is at stake and quick and decisive actions are required? How much liberty are people willing to sacrifice in order to gain security, even if it’s only symbolic? To what lengths are humanity’s leaders willing to go in order to ensure mankind’s future? Is there any possibility of trust between opponents bent on mutual genocide?


For the most part, there were no easy answers. We might cheer the characters on in one moment and hate them in another. One week, viewers might have been disgusted by Cylon experiments on humans; in the following episode they were equally horrified by beating and torture of Cylon prisoner by its human captors. Faced not only with enemy threat, but also with failing technology, diminishing resources and societal unrest, many characters in the series slowly sank into PTSP, alcoholism, drug abuse and even suicide.

And yet… there’s a silver lining of humanism throughout this almost savagely realistic SF series. By showing us the imperfection of individual insight, it made a strong case for necessity to listen and tolerate dissenting opinions, if only to better grasp the nuances of reality. And, while the writers of the series recognized flaws and faults of individuals and society in general, they also pointed out amazing perseverance of human spirit, even when faced with the series of crushing defeats.

Where all too often we see TV and movie heroes sprouting slogans about heroism, trust or compassion, Battlestar Galactica managed to convey to its viewers the price of such ideals – the burden, the risk and the sacrifice they demand – that made them realize their true value. The more the series insisted on its gritty realism the more it reminded us how similar we all are in our hopes, flaws and problems. To claim all that and to make it not sound like a cheap truism just might have been the greatest accomplishment of this series. After all, in this turbulent decade, that message all too often got ignored.