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Cylon Politics and Religion:

The final installment of Concurring Opinions' interview with the creators of Battlestar Galactica is now available here. This part focuses on the Cylons.

Personally, I find the Cylons less interesting than the rest of the BSG setting. The issues they raise (e.g. - the moral status of intelligent artificial life) have been done to death in earlier science fiction. Moreover, it's very difficult to take the moral claims of the Cylons seriously in light of the fact that they have just exterminated tens of billions of innocent people and nearly wiped out the human race. Some interesting issues are raised by the Cylons' monotheistic religion (contrasted with the polytheistic paganism of the series' humans). BSG co-creator Ronald D. Moore deserves credit for being one of the few producers of science fiction TV series willing to take religion seriously (which he also did in his earlier work on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - the best of the Star Trek TV series in my distinctly minority view).

Most people raised in the Christian, Muslim, or Jewish traditions unquestioningly assume that monotheism is clearly superior to polytheism. By making the "bad guys" dogmatic monotheists and the "good guy" humans a combination of polytheists and atheists, BSG questions that assumption.

George Weiss (mail):
DS9 FANS UNITE! (my favorite ST also)

I also thought that was one of the best religious commentaries thats ever been on TV.
2.26.2008 5:49am
Tom R (mail):
> "Most people raised in the Christian, Muslim, or Jewish traditions unquestioningly assume that monotheism is clearly superior to polytheism"

Actually, I'd question that. I can't speak for Jews, but among mainstream Christians I'd suggest that there's a kind of rarely-articulated feeling of "Well, yes, we do say 'Credo in unum Deum' when we recite the Apostles' Creed, and we are 'monotheists', but usually when people who describe themselves as 'monotheists', it means they're Muslims, Jews or Jehovah's Witnesses criticising Catholicism, Protestantism or Orthodoxy for being semi-pagan with the Trinity thing."

Put another way; for the past 1,300 to 1,700 years, once Julian the Apostate threw in the towel, Christians have most often defined themselves theologically against Judaism and Islam - and these latter two are more obviously, strictly and unambigously monotheistic than Christianity is. The Trinity doctrine needs some clarification to distinguish it from Zeus siring Hercules; the Jewish and Muslim views of God don't.

Hacing said that, it's still entertaining when Tigh - who in our universe would be some grizzled lapsed Methodist from Kansas - says "Godsdamn!"

And you're right about the Cylons. An improved synthesis of the Borg and Blade Runner's replicants, going further than either, but not a lot further.

An interesting parallel with the Daleks in Dr Who - another series that had its heyday in the 1970s, then wwas cancelled, and has been revived post-9/11. 1970s Cylons/ Daleks were straightforward evil killer robots. 2000s Daleks/ Cylons (a) were originally "toaster" robots who rebelled against their human creators, but (a) have evolved so that some now resemble humans, and have consequently become vulnerable to human emotions; (b) have discovered a "God" whom they worship; and (c) can get, and do get, tortured, and raise moral issues when they suffer.

If you had told me in 1979 "Is it wrong to torture a Cylon/ Dalek and cause it pain?" I would have hooted with laghter.
2.26.2008 5:53am
davod (mail):
Gone are the days when you could watch a show or read fiction without seeing the meaning of life in every move.
2.26.2008 6:21am
Daniel Chapman (mail):
I just enjoyed the spectacle of Shatner seducing green women on styrofoam rocks
2.26.2008 7:15am
FXKLM:
Tom R: Daleks are not robots. They're transportation devices for small, slimy aliens. That was true in the original series as well. The original series didn't address torturing of Daleks (not surprising since it was intended for small children), but there was an episode where the Doctor was ordered to wipe out the Dalek race at the time they were created and he refused to do so.

Ilya: What was the religion you liked on DS9? I thought the Bajoran religion was a little tedious, but I loved the Klingons. I think the Klingon religion was developed more on Next Generation though.
2.26.2008 8:55am
Gramarye:
I'm young enough that the original BSG was off the air before I was born, and I was never a Trekkie, so anything from the new BSG that borrows from DS9 will be pretty fresh for me. Maybe that's why I'm a little more positive on BSG's portrayal of "robot religion" than some of the prior posters here. I think the issues the Cylons and their religion raise are much more complex and much more richly explored than the Replicants in Bladerunner, at the very least. Ilya says that "the moral status of artificially intelligent life" is an issue that's been done to death in earlier science fiction. Even if that's true, BSG does it better--and I haven't seen it front and center the way it is in BSG in earlier works. The issue was there in at least one of Asimov's later Foundation works (which were definitely not as interesting as the originals), in AI (which didn't affect me very strongly), in Bladerunner, and a couple of other works I've encountered, but not very many and none so well. It may also play a side role in the new Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, but that show doesn't look to be setting the issue up to make the issue a serious priority.

Religion in AI and alien races often seems more like something introduced for color more than anything else. It's seldom challenged on its own terms. BSG is different. I think the interactions between the ostensibly reason-guided atheist human Balthar and the implacably zealous Cylon Caprica Six are different than science fiction that's come before--I don't claim to be as well-read or well-watched in the genre as some here, but it certainly didn't feel "done to death" to me. The same applies to the intra-Cylon schism, later in the series, about whether the genocide of humanity was a mistake--a far richer moral debate than the dispute among the surviving Daleks about the value of their "genetic purity" and their war of extermination against everyone else, which played a role in one story arc of the new Doctor Who series. (It was a fun watch, but I think the BSG intra-cybernetic-race moral schism operates on a much higher level.)
2.26.2008 9:35am
Anderson (mail):
Cylon Politics and Religion

Cool! Did they actually get Cheney for the interview?
2.26.2008 9:41am
Guest101:
I share your minority view that DS9 was the best of the Treks, though I still found it a poor imitation of Babylon 5. I think it's a bit premature to analyze the Cylons because I get the feeling there's a plot twist coming that will connect the Cylons and their monotheism, cyclical prophecy, and the interbreeding with humans with the human race in some way that we (or I at least) haven't figured out yet.
2.26.2008 9:57am
PersonFromPorlock:
IIRC, Cylons came into being because TV 'Family Hour' regulations in force in the late 70s prohibited killing people during BSG's time slot. Cylons were to give the good guys someone to shoot.
2.26.2008 10:31am
ejo:
don't you find the moral dithering and navel gazing about how to fight back against a race responsible for killing billions of your fellow humans and trying to kill you a little tedious? it's a good show but the "deep" parts of it get old quick.
2.26.2008 10:45am
Dave Ruddell (mail):
See, I agree that DS9 was the best, for two reasons. It had an actual arc (OK, so did VOY, but it sucked), plus, most importantly, stuff got blown up! There was a lot of actual ship-to-ship combat, with an actual war and everything. Sure, not ol Gene's original vision, but who cares?
2.26.2008 11:00am
Bruce:
The issues they raise (e.g. - the moral status of intelligent artificial life) have been done to death in earlier science fiction.

True, but I don't think that necessarily interferes with it being interesting. The problem I have with the (humanoid) Cylons is that I don't know what they are, and neither does the series. Are they cyborgs? Flesh-and-blood replicants? A Borg-like network? Illusions? And what are their aims? They're a bit of a cypher, which makes it hard to get all worked up about their moral status (also because, as you point out, they're somewhat genocidal).
2.26.2008 11:10am
Thales (mail) (www):
I'll agree as a non-fanatical Trek watcher that DS9 was the best of the series. Religion, politics, psychology, the causes of war, shades of moral grey, character development, I think it did all of these well. Garrack (sp.?) the Cardassian was always one of the most fascinating characters. Dr. Bashir was I think the weakest/dullest character, but they even managed to make him shine, usually with his interactions with O'Brien or Garrack. The women in the series too were a tad more interesting than those that showed up in Roddenberry's original or in TNG.
2.26.2008 11:11am
kevin r:
Indeed, DS9 was the best of the Treks. I also prefer Babylon 5 (which also dealt with religion in a fairly serious way, I think), though I think calling DS9 a "poor imitation" of B5 is too harsh. They started out with very similar premises, obviously, but evolved in different ways, and had different strengths.

Voyager started out with a great premise, and then totally blew it.
2.26.2008 11:15am
Guest101:

They're a bit of a cypher, which makes it hard to get all worked up about their moral status (also because, as you point out, they're somewhat genocidal).

In fairness to the Cylons, we discovered in season 2 (I think) that they were apparently happy to leave the humans alone until Adama came poking across their border; their preemptive genocide may have been overkill but it wasn't entirely unprovoked, and we don't know exactly what happened between the humans and Cylons to set off the original war. They certainly seem to genuinely fear the humans' capacity for destruction and cruelty, and for all we know, that fear is justified by their history.


I also prefer Babylon 5 (which also dealt with religion in a fairly serious way, I think), though I think calling DS9 a "poor imitation" of B5 is too harsh. They started out with very similar premises, obviously, but evolved in different ways, and had different strengths.

True enough; I was thinking primarily of the earlier seasons of DS9. It got much better, and took a decidedly different path than B5, in the later seasons.
2.26.2008 11:35am
ejo:
actually, their excuse for genocide is kind of like the jihadists using the excuse of cartoon pictures for murder-I guess I would make this the beginning of the dithering that makes the show tedious. you were taking a look to see what we are up to, therefore we will kill billions-that's not moral grayness, it's simply silly.
2.26.2008 11:39am
Thorley Winston (mail) (www):
DS9 was actually my second favorite Trek series behind TOS and the things that made it superior than TNG, VOY or ENT was (a) it had an actual story arc, (b) we got to see characters do things that they wouldn't do on TNG or VOY, (c) a large part of the focus was on non-Star Fleet characters (e.g. Ferengi, Klingons, Cardassians) and (d) a kickass war which coincidentally broke down into original Star Trek (UFP, Klingons and Romulans) against new Stat Trek (Dominion, Cardassians, and Breen).

Also the fact that the took the one interesting regular from TNG and moved him to DS9 helped immensely. Much as I generally despise what RDM did with the Klingons, I have to give him credit for the times when we saw Worf do some fairly controversial things like killing Duras in cold blood and refusing a blood transfusion to save the life of a Romulan. They managed to bring his story to an interesting conclusion at the end of DS9 when the orphan who was raised by humans and idolized the Klingon culture finally came to the realization that maybe their empire deserved to fall (as it probably will when Martok dies unless Worf or someone comparable becomes the new Chancellor).
2.26.2008 11:54am
Benjamin Coates (mail):
The humans have pretty much lost, so when the occasionally Cylons make it look like they'll let the humans live if they apologize for everything and do whatever the Cylons want, some "moral dithering" is reasonable. Maybe I'm being too cynical, but it seems like a lot of the pro-Cylon sympathy in BSG is based on fear and the desire to be one of the "good ones" when the Cylons finally win.

The behavior I find hard to understand in BSG is that of the Cylons during the whole prison-camp series, it seemed clunky and illogical even as an allegory for current events.
2.26.2008 11:57am
Thorley Winston (mail) (www):
Voyager started out with a great premise, and then totally blew it.


What were the things about Voyager that you didn't like? I've got my own list of things that I didn't like about it and am curious what other people didn't like about the show. My list:

1) While I thought the Doctor was probably the most interesting character on the show, it got a little tedious to have so many shows focused around "hologram rights" or his own personal development. I didn't like it when they did essentially the same thing with Commander Data either.

2) Too many episodes that took place on the holodek

3) Naomi Wildman and the Borg children

4) For the first couple of seasons, it seemed like they'd never get out of Kazon territory

5) I thought that they had a real opportunity to do an interesting story arc showing how the (former) marquis crew were integrated into the crew of Voyager but they rushed it along too quickly.

6) It seemed like the crew lived in relative luxury considering the conditions they were under. The two-parter where they encountered the USS Equinox seemed a lot more realistic.

7) The Borg were encountered and beaten far too frequently compared to what we've seen in TNG. Then again maybe that's why Janeway was made an admiral and Picard wasn't.
2.26.2008 12:08pm
Kent G. Budge (mail) (www):
I pretty much lost interest when it became clear the new BSG had transformed the Cylons into evengelical Christians.

I liked DS9 quite a lot, but I don't know that I'd put it ahead of the quaint charms of the original series. But then I have a weakness for slender redheads dressed in nothing but bits of skins. ;)

Voyager: I thought the original premise was a little weak (bad memories of Lost in Space, maybe?) and it got worse. I thought it jumped the shark when Janeway decided to kill Neevac or Tuulix or whatever his name was -- the most intriguing new character to come along in the franchise in years -- to restore Neelix and Tuvac. Besides making it clear that Janeway was a murderous tyrant, this restored Star Trek's equivalents of Jar Jar Binks and a fence post, respectively.

Look, we know why Janeway made admiral and Picard didn't: Affirmative action obviously lasted a little longer than the 50 or so years that Sandra Day O'Connor projected as reasonable.
2.26.2008 12:32pm
great unknown (mail):
Maybe the underlying religious theme of BSG is that a monotheistic culture has the focus, unity, and moral certitude to defeat a mixed poly/atheistic one.
2.26.2008 12:40pm
Oren:
Moreover, it's very difficult to take the moral claims of the Cylons Americans seriously in light of the fact that they have just exterminated tens of billions millions of innocent people and nearly wiped out the human Native American race.
Fixed it for you.

That's not to say that the point is completely parallel, of course, and the united nature of Cylon decision making is quite different from human decision making (considering that those responsible for past decisions die off and new humans take their place). That said, the series does make me think that folks like Andrew Jackson ought to be considered with a lot more scorn than is currently the case.
2.26.2008 1:04pm
Oren:
Look, we know why Janeway made admiral and Picard didn't: Affirmative action obviously lasted a little longer than the 50 or so years that Sandra Day O'Connor projected as reasonable.
Picard never wanted to be admiral - he wanted to retire in France and make wine or whatever.
2.26.2008 1:05pm
Sean O'Hara (mail) (www):
Am I the only one who thinks BSG should end with the Colonials reaching Earth and sending a shuttle down to make contact, only to be greeted by two dozen Arnold Schwarzeneggers?
2.26.2008 1:09pm
Observer:
Oren: I have never watched BSG. Given your analogy, I can only assume that the Cylons are mostly well-meaning aliens who, upon contacting earth, inadvertently caused a majority of humans to die from a disease (which disease the Cylons did not anticipate would spread ahead of time, and which they could do nothing about). Then, the Cylons built their own cities on earth and did what they could to allow the surviving humans to integrate within their own society. This is what BSG is about, right?
2.26.2008 1:35pm
ejo:
you could include, in that version, that the humans were a tad hostile at times, not complete wimps like from a 1970's environmental commercial starring an italian guy dressed like an indian, and actually killed innocent cylon men, women and children on their own in unpleasant ways, a misunderstanding that sometimes led the cylons to take guns and shoot them. It doesn't absolve the cylons from original sin for being born but it will give their ancestors something for which to wear their guilt on their sleeves for generations to come.
2.26.2008 2:06pm
Thales (mail) (www):
"Picard never wanted to be admiral - he wanted to retire in France and make wine or whatever."

Isn't this a running theme of the Treks, that the upper brass are incompetent or immoral, and your life caps out at captain?
2.26.2008 2:42pm
Oren:
Observer, on this continent, while it's true that many natives died of disease, the fundamental attitude of the Europeans was somewhere between contempt and outright dehumanization.

See here and here and here.
2.26.2008 2:54pm
ejo:
what came first, human massacres of cylons or dehumanization. I suspect it depended on the cylon back then-however, I wouldn't expect the cylon would have kind feelings towards humans who slaughtered his kith and kin. the cylons just might return the hostility with greater fire power.
2.26.2008 3:12pm
kevin r:
Isn't this a running theme of the Treks, that the upper brass are incompetent or immoral, and your life caps out at captain?


This is also the Dilbert Principle -- incompetent employees are promoted to management, where they can do the least amount of harm. I hadn't thought of applying it to Janeway, but it makes sense.
2.26.2008 3:58pm
Felix Sulla:

Isn't this a running theme of the Treks, that the upper brass are incompetent or immoral, and your life caps out at captain?
I hardly think that is a theme of the show, though there are instances where upper brass have been incompetent or immoral. I think the phenomenon you cite is actually more along the lines of, "Sure, you could accept promotion...but honestly, if you've got a starship and carte blanche to spend years exploring the unknown reaches of a huge and fascinating galaxy, why would you want to sit behind a desk in San Francisco and be an administrator?"
2.26.2008 4:25pm
Bill Woods (mail):
Oren: Americans ... exterminated millions of innocent people and nearly wiped out the Native American race.

The "millions" died of disease, long before America was founded. Indeed, most died before they even saw a European.
2.26.2008 4:28pm
Oren:
I stand by my statement that the treatment of Native Americans lies somewhere between contempt and utter dehumanization. If you care to rebut that, be my guest. One does not need any impetus to treat other human beings with the exact same level of decency and humanity one expects from one's neighbors. To conclude anything other than the fact that any shred of decency was totally lacking is to willfully ignore the historical evidence.
2.26.2008 5:12pm
Tom R (mail):
FXKLM, if "Daleks are not robots", stricto sensu, then a fortiori Sharon Valerii is not a "little robot girl" either, as the Pegasus goon squad mockingly taunt Helo and Tyroll. Nor is The Terminator (the 1984 version) a "robot". Both have a far higher skin to metal ratio than the Daleks. You know godsdamn well what I meant.

(IIRc, the original Cylons were cyborgs too, weren't they? My memory is real hazy).

The Cylons' plan (or, more accurately, plans, as these appear to be as mutually different as God's various covenants are to a Dispensationalist) makes a certain amount of sense if you post that they wanted to humble, frighten, and ultimately remake humankind - but not to utterly exterminate all of them. The nuke attack was not intended to wipe out all of humanity, just as the Raider attacks or the sabotage are not really intended to wipe out the Fleet. Rather, the Cylons see themselves as the rod of God's anger, subjecting humankind to a tribulation and exile (and, yes, I realise there are precedents for both in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles), so that they'll emerge broken and teachable.

Hence, eg, Cavill's argument in council that the NewCap insurgency is showing that there are still too many humans left - they're feeling in a mood to fight, so they need to be "culled to a more manageable number". Not, note, wiped out completely.

But I'm estimating that the fourth and final season has already been scripted, if not filmed, so all this has already happened before, and it won't happen again.
2.26.2008 10:19pm
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
Oren-

I stand by my statement that the treatment of Native Americans lies somewhere between contempt and utter dehumanization. If you care to rebut that, be my guest. One does not need any impetus to treat other human beings with the exact same level of decency and humanity one expects from one's neighbors. To conclude anything other than the fact that any shred of decency was totally lacking is to willfully ignore the historical evidence.

The European colonial powers certainly committed some disgusting atrocities against the various indigenous people they ran into during the period surrounding the "discovery" and colonization of the New World. But remember, the world at that time wasn't a cocktail party at the United Nations. People were looking for any excuse to slaughter and enslave each other - nearly everywhere. You had religious wars, ethnic wars, territorial wars, etc. nearly everywhere. And the Native Americans certainly had no problem slaughtering and enslaving each other.
2.27.2008 6:14am
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
Tom R.-

The Cylons' plan (or, more accurately, plans, as these appear to be as mutually different as God's various covenants are to a Dispensationalist) makes a certain amount of sense if you post that they wanted to humble, frighten, and ultimately remake humankind - but not to utterly exterminate all of them. The nuke attack was not intended to wipe out all of humanity, just as the Raider attacks or the sabotage are not really intended to wipe out the Fleet. Rather, the Cylons see themselves as the rod of God's anger, subjecting humankind to a tribulation and exile (and, yes, I realise there are precedents for both in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles), so that they'll emerge broken and teachable.

Hence, eg, Cavill's argument in council that the NewCap insurgency is showing that there are still too many humans left - they're feeling in a mood to fight, so they need to be "culled to a more manageable number". Not, note, wiped out completely.


Note that the two alternatives - (1) extermination vs (2) partial extermination + enslavement - are not really that different. In fact, under modern legal theory both of these alternatives are considered genocide. It's considered genocidal just to target the leadership, the educated, the males, the wealthy, those with military training, etc. of a particular ethnic group to intimidate, pacify, terrorize, extort, enslave, etc. the rest.
2.27.2008 6:23am
Mike S. (mail):
(IIRc, the original Cylons were cyborgs too, weren't they? My memory is real hazy).

Originally they were supposed to be lizards in armor, and that was carried over into the novelizations. They wound up as pure robots (in large part, probably, because of the earlier-mentioned Standards and Practices issues-- it's okay to kill AIs onscreen with reckless abandon). Robots who had, a thousand years (pardon me, "yahrens") earlier, risen up and exterminated their (nonhuman) builders. So the current Cylons are something of a combination of the two concepts.

And as others have noted, just what they are now varies from episode to episode-- they're utterly indistinguishable from humans except for one test that only the resident genius can administer, yet they can plug network cables into their arms to interface with computers? (Though they come by the "we can reproduce only by the power of Love" bit honestly. That comes straight from the original robots of Capek's R.U.R., which they closely resemble.)
2.27.2008 10:26am
Tom R (mail):
> "Note that the two alternatives - (1) extermination vs (2) partial extermination + enslavement - are not really that different."

Granted, yes, they're not that different if the dominant group dislike the culture of the oppressed group, and want to assimilate them (eg, Chinese within Indonesia, who are required to have Bahasa names). Either method makes them disappear.

OTOH, if the dominant group consider the oppressed group to be not just culturally inferior but somehow biologically dangerous, then extermination (and note that I was specifically talking about unambigous "wiping out" and extermination - I avoided the contentious word "genocide" for this reason) is the only method the DG will accept. You don't let the smallpox virus live once you've reduced its numbers. (Well, actually you do, keeping one vial locked away "just in case" someone it might be needed one day... but my point is, you don't leave it with a small enclave of its own).

I hate to confirm Godwin's Law (sorry - Godswin's Law), but the Nazis are a good example of genocide-by-extermination as directly opposed to genocide-by-forced-assimilation. A Jew who embraced Nazism, changed her/his name, Sieg Heiled loudly, ate pork, etc, could still never be a "true" German. Indeed such a Jew would be even more dangerous (there's a passage in Tom Kenneally's novel, on which Schindler's List was based, in which Amon Goeth ruminates about how treacherous and seductive Jewish women are, because they look so much like Aryans).

On the other hand, I don't deny that genocide by forced assimilation is still genocide. As I posted earlier, maybe elsewhere, I kept waiting for the Cylons and their NewCap new kapos to try this on the humans, but they didn't. They even "respected the temple" (until the insurgents hid guns in it).

An alternate line could have been "We have judged you humans to be too warlike and aggressive so we are disarming you until you learn otherwise. We will protect and police you - no human need bear arms." (The humans could then respond with a Lockean-Bernsteinian argument of "Why should we trust you? You might seem benevolent now, but once we're disarmed and at your mercy, you could do anything to us... like, oh, say...nuking our planet?") Again, a precedent in much written SF, such as Arthur C Clarke's Childhood's End and Julian May's Galactic Milieu.
2.27.2008 6:28pm