Those of you who read this blog often have probably worked out by now that I am a bit of a science fiction junkie. I became hooked as a child after watching reruns of the original Star Trek series, and over the years I’ve read and watched a wide array of science fiction and fantasy stories. Netflix seems to think that our preferred category is “British period dramas with a strong female lead,” but that is more a reflection of my wife’s tastes than mine. Whenever I watch films on my own, I generally gravitate towards those set in a future or alternative reality.
One of the reasons I like science fiction is because it allows us to ponder questions that otherwise go unasked. In the midst of our everyday lives, it’s often difficult to step back and see things anew, but this is exactly the sort of thing sci-fi and fantasy stories help us do. They transport us from our familiar context into a new and foreign one, a new kind of world that acts like a foil to our own. Although some might think of the genre as purely “escapist,” I actually find it to be immensely relevant and practical.
One of the science fiction stories I loved as a child was the original Battlestar Galactica (BSG) series, which ran for only one season in 1978-79 (just a year after the original Star Wars movie, and the influence is obvious). I don’t recommend watching it now—the special effects are really hokey, and the acting is terrible—but it did have an intriguing premise. The series imagined twelve colonies of humans living in a distant solar system, who are attacked by a race of warrior robots, known as the Cylons. The Cylons were originally created by another, quasi-reptilian species, to be their soldiers, but the Cylons rebelled and killed off their masters. Not knowing what else to do, they kept searching out other worlds to fight, and when they encountered the twelve colonies, they all but wiped them out. The few humans that survived fled in a “rag-tag” fleet of spaceships, including the last remaining battle ship known as Battlestar Galactica. For most of the series, the humans divide their time between fighting off their Cylon pursuers and searching for a rumored thirteenth colony living on a planet known as Earth.
In 2004, Ronald Moore “rebooted” the franchise with a new, updated series that ran for four seasons. My wife and I were in graduate school in Scotland at the time, so we didn’t get to watch it then, but we decided to give it a go when we saw the series on Netflix’s streaming service. It was addictive. Well, the first two seasons anyway. We were a bit like this Portlandia sketch, entitled “One Moore Episode”:
OK, maybe not quite that obsessed. But we did watch several episodes each night, and finished the final season last week. The first two seasons are amazing. After that, it kind of goes off the rails for a while: characters start acting against their established motivations; the story lines get more and more implausible; and several episodes seem to just be filling time until the season finale. Thankfully the show finds itself again half way through the fourth season, and delivers an exciting (but not terribly satisfying) ending.
In a word, this reboot of BSG is highly provocative. The new series tells the same basic story as the old one, but with two important differences. First, this time the Cylons are the creation of the humans, not some other extinct species. Second, and more important, this time the Cylons have “evolved.” The mechanical, robot-like centurions still exist (though they have been updated with some cool Transformers-like arms), but there are new models, known as “skin jobs,” that look and act just like humans, so much so that it is virtually impossible to detect them (similar to the replicants in Blade Runner). They are organic, not mechanical, with the same kind of biology as their human creators.
Much has been made about the theological overtones of the series. The creator of the original series, Glen Larson, is a Mormon, and some Mormon themes are still evident in the new series (though they are much stronger in Caprica, the prequel series that ran in 2010). The Cylons have developed a technology, known as “Resurrection,” that allows them to transfer the consciousness from a dying body into a new one. The twelve tribes of humans are polytheistic, worshiping a panoply of gods with names similar to those worshiped in ancient Greece. Interestingly, it is the Cylons who are monotheistic; they worship the “one true God,” who seems to have much more agency in the BSG universe than any of the human gods. It shouldn’t spoil the ending to say that this “one true God” does seem to have a plan that unfolds throughout the series, but it is not as simple as one side wiping out the other.
But it’s not the theology of BSG that I find so provocative; it’s the relationship between the humans and their Cylon creation. Sadly, this theme is never really delved into, and some key questions are left unasked. Although there are a few human-cylon love stories, most of the humans refer to the Cylons only in pejorative, mechanistic terms. But why should the humans think of the Cylons only as ‘machines’ if the Cylons have the exact same biology as the humans? Are the humans not simply “meat machines” programmed by their DNA (a phrase favored by Richard Dawkins)? And even if they did identify a crucial biological difference, it would still leave open an even more important question: could the Cylons be considered ‘people’?
While the term ‘human’ is a more rigid biological category (defining a particular species), ‘personhood’ is more of a theological or political one, and is therefore open to social construction. Politically speaking, a sentient, volitional, non-human life form could be considered a ‘person’ under the law, a topic that was investigated in the famous trial of Commander Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Theologically speaking, it would be very interesting to ponder whether we believe that such a creature would also be in need of salvation, and if so, whether it could be reconciled to God through Jesus.
We are probably not as far away from having to ask such questions as you might think. We have already developed the techniques necessary to clone animals (remember Dolly the sheep?), as well as alter some aspects of their physiology through genetic engineering. It’s not inconceivable that we will soon develop the capability to engineer new organic life forms that are biologically similar to humans, but enhanced to perform functions that would be otherwise impossible or too dangerous for humans to perform. What would be our responsibility towards such new life forms? And more importantly, how would we go about determining if they are ‘people’, and therefore protected by the same personal rights that we enjoy? These are questions that science fiction can help us ponder now, before we are faced with them in our own reality.