What 'Battlestar Galactica' Teaches Us About Human Compassion
Between the dates of June 15th and July 6th I was living in an apartment that lacked either working internet, or a working computer (and for a few days there, both). I have a smartphone, but I was doing my best not to go over data limits so I had to find ways to distract myself in a very new and not quite put together apartment.
One of the methods I resorted to was rewatching all my DVDs of Battlestar Galactica, which encompass seasons 1-3. It reminded me of some silly things about the series I’d forgotten (hey there, glowing spines, that S2 episode where Lee is kind of in love with a hooker for a minute, and the disappointing non-conclusion to Starbuck’s story!) but overall it’s like visiting an old friend I haven’t seen in a while. The characters are complex, the fight to survive and prosper is messy, and overall it has a wonderful message about the power of compassion in the most dire of circumstances.
While I was watching the series, the site I happened to be looking at most often on my phone was Facebook. I have a lot of friends around the world (some of them are You People) and it’s the easiest way for me to keep in touch. It happened that the Hobby Lobby ruling came down in this time, and somehow Battlestar Galactica helped me distill why I frequently dread going on Facebook after events like these: the utter and complete lack of compassion some people have towards their fellow humans. From the blatant preference for corporate interests over individual ones, to things as small as dismissing people who try and get others to use more inclusive language or point out small examples of discrimination in everyday life. Courtney pointed it out in her column about the Britney Spears vocal track, but I’m sure there’s a million little examples all of us can think of every day. We, as a nation, seem to be getting less compassionate towards one another.
In a way, Battlestar has helped me understand this. People are stupid, and irresponsible, and greedy. As a species, we are historically violent, short-sighted, petty, and cruel. It is easier to put your faith in a greater power, whether that’s religion, economics, philosophy, science, technology, or any other system of thought that promises to conquer human weakness. This is, after all, what the Cylons did. They worked to make themselves “better” than humans. More logical, more detached, more focused. They all have the same beliefs and the same goals. It’s a seductive version of society; more predictable, less complex, cleaner. Until it isn’t. Some of the Cylons who lived among humans and loved them, like Boomer and Caprica Six, begin to exert pressure on the other Cylons to try and be more compassionate towards the humans. To live with them.
What ends up happening is the disaster of New Caprica. Cylons can only create a perfect society if they don’t have to account for humans. Their reactions to the humans ends up creating cracks in their once flawless society. There’s a line from Men in Black that’s probably meant to be a joke, “Human thought is so primitive that it’s looked upon as an infectious disease in some of the better galaxies. Kind of makes you proud, doesn’t it?” This certainly seems to hold true for the Cylons, and their failure to completely eliminate humans ended up dooming them despite their advanced technology and superior logic.
This is why compassion is both so hard and so necessary, in the world of the show and in life. Humans are beautiful and terrible. Saving humanity means saving people who betray each other, kill each other, people who lie, steal, rape, abuse, and commit every other sin we have a name for. Battlestar does not shy away from showing this. It’s easy to align yourself with the best of people, but hard to extend that mindset to all people. This is the central struggle of Adama and Roslin, one that is mentioned explicitly when a captured Cylon asks Adama if humans ever questioned whether or not they deserved to survive. Truly, the only argument to be made in our favor is our capacity for compassion. It’s this capacity the Cylons lack and when they begin to learn it, it nearly destroys their society because compassion is not logical. It is messy, like people, and it is as necessary to our survival as it ended up being for the members of the fleet.
One of the heroes of Battlestar Galactica is Athena, a Cylon who marries a human, Helo, and gives birth to a child with him. Out of all the conscious Cylons, she seems to be the only one to truly develop and understand compassion. The humans imprison her, threaten her life, assault her, steal her child, and remain suspicious of her intentions while she continually tells them that she loves Helo and just wants to help them. Part of the reason why Athena is different from the rest of the Cylons is that while she never truly forgives the humans for their treatment of her, she manages to show them compassion anyway. She is unique among her species because of this, and her daughter is born of the marriage of compassion and reason. Within the mythology of the show, Athena’s daughter Hera becomes one of the first modern humans. The show has a lot of flaws, but I do like the message there. Reason and logic are important, but it takes compassion to make us human.
Genevieve Burgess hand-wrote the first draft of this due to a broken laptop. It is entirely possible that she was temporarily insane.