Battlestar Galactica and Ecology

bsg202x181For several gruelling months at work, it was an episode of Battlestar Galactica each evening that kept me going – till I’d worked through all five box sets. A military SF story about shooting up evil robots may not seem to have much to do with ecology, let alone deep time … but let’s think about it from an ecological angle.

The ecosystem the protagonists inhabit most of the time is the ultimate artificial environment of a fleet of spaceships. As the story goes on, there are plot complications about securing or rationing the resources the people need in order to survive. The fundamental ecological theme, though, is their extreme alienation from the natural world – from fresh air, green leaves, blue sky, the warmth of the sun. That’s what underlies their desperate quest to find the haven of the long-lost Earth.

When we do see people on the surface of green planets they’re usually in extreme peril of discovery by the Cylons who’ve taken over the planets and wiped out most of humankind. This scenario takes to the extreme the relentless trend in our own time to subordinate human beings to the needs of machines. Whenever I’m told I can’t do something because a computer system won’t allow it, whenever I’m threatened with some penalty if I fail to do what a computer system demands, whenever I hear of someone flattened by a truck, or a town bombed by a drone missile, or a green field paved over to make a road, it seems to me another step in humankind’s surrender to the globalising domain of the machine – in which there’s no place for nature and ultimately no place for human beings, whose flesh and spirit are part of nature.

To say how the ecological thread in Battlestar Galactica works through would involve major spoilers – which I don’t want to inflict in case you haven’t watched the series yet. I do recommend it. It’s superbly done; TV science fiction doesn’t come any better. But be aware how it manipulates our sympathy for the characters to make us warm to the military values nearly all of them subscribe to. This valorisation of the military sits securely beneath the foregrounded agonising about the rights of certain sympathetic Cylons. Characters who take a hard line towards all Cylons are framed as right-wing bigots, which certainly has a resonance with race relations in our own world but also deflects attention from a deep-seated conservativism that never quite comes to grips with the deepest ethical – and ecological – questions the story raises.

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