I’m glad that we at the USIH Blog are once again participating in the For the Love of Film Blogathan—always a good cause. In fact, now is your chance to donate! This year’s focus on science fiction is exciting because I have always been a sci-fi fan and have wanted an excuse to write about one of my favorite recent sci-fi productions, the 21st century remake of Battlestar Galactica (BSG).
One of the reasons I love sci-fi is because I am a sucker for both utopian and dystopian depictions and sci-fi is the genre most adept at such imaginings. But along with the utopian and dystopian imagination, sci-fi is also often best suited at hard-hitting political criticism. Perhaps this is because when the setting is in some far off future (or past) such criticism seems less threatening—even, perhaps, when the target of such criticism is blatantly obvious, as is the case in BSG’s acclaimed opening episode to Season 3: “Occupation,” which aired on the Sci-Fi Channel on October 6, 2006.
For the uninitiated: BSG is a show about the 50,000 humans who survived the cataclysmic attack on humanity by the Cylons, a civilization of cybernetics originally created by humans. As the Cylons seek to hunt down and kill them, the remaining humans follow the lead of Admiral William “Bill” Adama, played by James Edward Olmos, who commands the only remaining military vessel—the Battlestar Galactica—and President Laura Roslin, played by Mary McDonnell. Adama and Roslin seek to lead the humans to the mythical, edenic planet they call “Earth.”
Towards the end of Season 2, the surviving humans, weary of constant space travel under perpetual Cylon harrassment, had settled on a barely inhabitable planet they called “New Caprica”—the original Caprica being one of the planets nuked by the Cylons. But at the conclusion of Season 2, the Cylons conquer New Caprica, setting the stage for “Occupation.”
In the first two seasons of BSG, there were many allusions to the so-called War on Terror. The Cylons had “sleeper cells” aboard the Battlestar that committed acts of terrorism, and in response the humans let their ethical codes slip as they resorted to torture—some decent if typical commentary about the thin line between civilization and barbarism. But none of that came close to the critical political commentary of “Occupation,” when the closest real life approximation of the “good guys” were Iraqis resisting the American occupation of their homeland.
“Occupation” depicts the humans on New Caprica resisting the Cylon occupation by any means necessary, including bombing a police training camp that resulted in the deaths of many humans who by the logic of resistance had been Cylon collaborators. I remain convinced that that episode is the single best critique of the American occupation of Iraq that was on offer from Hollywood during the war. Here’s Spencer Ackerman, writing at the time in Slate:
There is little end to BSG‘s Iraq parallels. In the first episode, after the insurgency begins, the Cylon council debates how to respond. One Cylon, disgusted with his colleagues’ sentimental fears about losing hearts and minds, bellows, “How did you think the humans would greet us? With—oh, never mind.” We know, from Dick Cheney, how to fill in the blank: “With sweets and flowers.” The cameras record Cylon occupation raids on unsuspecting human civilians with the night-vision green familiar to any CNN viewer. And the reasoning of the Cylons is horrifically familiar: They would prefer not to be brutal, but they won’t accept the failure of a glorious mission.
Not all sci-fi is so politically hard-hitting. But perhaps only sci-fi can get away with such commentary while also entertaining? What are some other examples of sci-fi as political criticism?