What 'Battlestar Galactica' Teaches Us About Human Compassion

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What 'Battlestar Galactica' Teaches Us About Human Compassion

By Genevieve Burgess | Think Pieces | July 11, 2014 | Comments ()


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.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Cheetahdriver

    For a heavy SF reader and watcher, I have always wondered why BSG never captured my attention. I think at least part of it has to do with the original show, which at the time was like nothing on television. Disregarding where it wound up (and let us not even go to the mercifully short lived sequel), it was as good of US made SF as showed up on the small screen for many years. I was never able to separate V1.0's Cylons (more of the Saberhagen Berserkers) from the V2.0's kinder, more gentler human created version.

  • BSG was just such an amazing show on so many levels. And then the end happened.

  • ironypants

    Genevieve, it's official: you're going on my Pajiba 10.

  • $113152758

    RE: Athena / Boomer / Eight.

    Damn it! Can I resubmit my Pajiba 5?

    Grace Park really deserves better the 5 - O...


    Additional: She's 40!

    *Great post G.B.!

  • stella

    She is not 40. Holy shit.

  • alwaysanswerb

    I have nothing substantive to say because any mention of BSG these days renders me a quivering, nostalgic mess. And YES I HAVE ALREADY REWATCHED IT ONCE THIS YEAR LEAVE ME ALONE.

    For reals though, this was a great article.

  • Valhallaback Girl

    Third season's bottle episode of BSG "unfinished business" is one of my all times favorite episodes of any show. It's a great way to showcase (?) the culmination of betrayal, conflicts and affairs. And watching it all come to head through flashbacks and the boxing scene was wonderfully cathartic,

    Goddamn I love this show. Starbuck is my personal hero.

  • emmalita

    Very thoughtful piece. I love the messiness of the show, even though I have problems with the end. One of my friends teaches a civil society class to undergrads. She pulls scenarios from BSG to get her students to talk about how to rebuild civil societies in war and post-war situations.

  • Lord Inferno

    I have yet to go back and rewatch the show in it's entirety. Partly this is because of how difficult the show can be. It doesn't shy away from much of anything. Partly because I am afraid that if I look too closely at it again I will see all the warts.

    Let's face it, even RDM admits they had no idea what to do with Lee as a character after the first few episodes, and after the evacuation of New Cap, the mythology of the show completely got away from them.

    Here is the main thing I took away from the show: a "perfect" society is one of the single most dangerous ideas in the universe. The Cylons, in their attempts at making a perfect society, exterminated the entire human race. A genocide on a galactic scale. In the end though, even among the 12 models they did have, their disharmony destroyed them.

    Human society is not spectacular because it is virtuous, benevolent and perfect. Human society is amazing precisely because it isn't and it still continues to exist. Without discord there cannot be comprimise, without wrongs there cannot be forgiveness, without diversity, acceptance.

    To quote another of my favorite Sci-Fi, "A year from now, ten, they'll swing back to the belief that they can make people better. And I do not hold to that."

  • SnowyOwl

    Serenity, yes! You know, I love both BSG & Firefly/Serenity, but never realized before how similar the overall message is, about the disastrous consequences of trying to "improve" human nature -- that our flaws are necessary.

  • Stephen Nein

    . . they'll swing back to the belief that they can make people better. And I do not hold to that.

    A book recommendation for anyone interested in this issue is Brilliance by Marcus Sakey

  • Lee

    I aim to misbehave

  • BootlegGinger

    Yassssssss. Love this!!! I watched this show over this past Winter-that-never-ended, and there were many nights I found myself sitting up late pondering humanity. it's one of the great things about the genre of science fiction, in my opinion. it tends to be one of the most successful depictions of humanity, because of the way it reorients perspective, and can really honestly look at all the infinite potential for good, bad, and everything in between inherent in life. You seem pretty sane to me, but I'm sure there are many people who take that with a grain of sand ;)

    And on that note, Futurama better win the Emmy this year for best animated show!!!!!

  • Excellent piece.

    I always go back to a different line from MiB though: "A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it."

    There's something to the dehumanizing effect of the crowd, of groupthink, of the angry mob. Combine that with the apersonal nature of the Internet and you have the vitriol that spews forth in Facebook and other sites. It becomes very robotic in the end: the same tired, cliched statements spun again and again.

    BSG captured the messy nature of humanity. While I still don't like the deus ex machina nature of the ending, I've learned to let it slide and enjoy it for what it is.

  • Genevieve Burgess

    I actually thought about throwing that one in too, but I figured one MiB quote is probably more than enough for something I wanted people to take seriously.

  • nosio

    I really need to go back and re-watch BSG.

    I'm not terribly knowledgeable about sci-fi pop culture, but I've always loved that it (at least, the bits I've been exposed to, so basically Ray Bradbury, BSG, and Doctor Who) delves into a philosophical exploration of what it means to be human, which is the kind of big-picture question that matters most.

  • Dulce et Banana

    I keep this one nearby for days when I wonder if I'm still human. It helps.


  • Lawrence Aggleton

    Great article. I'd add a comment for just how good the music is in this show too, in particular the Cylon theme once we start getting to explore their basestars.

  • Wōđanaz Óðinn

    Sorry to have to disagree but the cheesiness of the score irritated me to the very core. Mind you, it perfectly reflected what was being displayed on screen so I'll concede that it might have been deliberate.

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