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Battlestar Galactica - Sci-Fi and the Terror Wars

Very sadly Stuart Miller's Alien Worlds magazine "will not be published again." Although short lived, I really enjoyed my time working with Stuart and am very proud to say I wrote for AW. In a field largely trapped in the 1990s (if not the 1950s), it was fresh, young and innovative, not afraid to seek new answers to old questions or even ask new ones. Perhaps the best evidence of this is the fact that Stuart was prepared to take a gamble and give new writers like me the chance to show what they can do. For those who don't know, I wrote a sci-fi/TV related column called Sci-Fi Worlds, my first piece was on Doctor Who and is available in issue 4 of Alien Worlds. Anyway, before I got the sad news about the magazine I had already written a second piece on Battlestar Galactica so I thought it might be a good idea to publish it here at BoA instead. Hopefully you'll find it thought provoking, even if you disagree with some of my views.

In this edition of Sci Fi Worlds, we're going to take a look at the other cult sci-fi series to be resurrected and reinvented for the new millennium ... Battlestar Galactica. In particular, though, we'll be considering how the new series, right from the beginning, has reflected the events of 9/11 and their aftermath, what might be remembered as the Terror Wars of the 21st century: Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon, as well as 7/7 and a series of other terrorist attacks.

Unlike the new series of Doctor Who, the resurrected Battlestar Galactica is not a continuation of the classic story but rather a total re-imagining of it. Like its counterpart, the new series begins with 12 colonies of humanity getting savagely attacked and ruthlessly wiped out by the Cylons. A relentless and calculating race of war machines that appear hell-bent on the complete annihilation of all mankind. The Cylons' holocaust leaves only a handful of survivors. A ragtag fugitive fleet, 41, 402 people desperately trying to escape their cybernetic hunters and clinging to the hope of finding the legendary 13th colony called Earth.

But other than this shared back story, the two series have surprisingly very little in common. This is a good thing, because the original descended into little more than a childish action adventure, especially when compared to the more serious, adult drama and post 9/11 allegory which is the new series.

The parallels with 9/11 and the War on Terror were made particularly clear in the three-hour miniseries that relaunched Galactica in 2003. The Cylons' sneak attack on the 12 colonies directly mirrored the surprise attacks on the Twin Towers and Pentagon. What more, the Colonial Fleet in Battlestar completely fail to protect their home worlds from the attacks, just as NORAD completely failed to defend the United States on 9/11. Probably the most emotional and direct reference to the 9/11 attacks, though, is the Memorial Hallway: a shrine onboard the Galactica, walled with hundreds of photos, newspaper clippings, drawings and other mementoes of lost loved ones. It is a haunting reminder of the events that begin the series but, more importantly, also the victims of that black September day.

Perhaps the most interesting and, by far, the most disturbing parallel with 9/11, however, is how the survivors behave in the wake of the tragedy. Of course, just as in the wake of 9/11 in the real world, we witness incredible courage, as well as a stubborn determination to continue in the face of terrible adversity. But, we also sadly see how fear, fueled with a legitimate need for revenge, can bring out the worst in people, changing victims into criminals, the terrorized into terrorists, and moving society closer to the evil it is meant to be opposed.

The best example of this, both in Battlestar and the real world, has been the disturbing maltreatment and even torture of prisoners of war. Mirroring Guantanamo Bay and the Abu Ghraib scandal, Cylon captives (models that look and feel entirely human), are cruelly beaten, raped and even murdered by colonials in various episodes of the new series. Humanity's favourite method of execution being "spacing," or put simply throwing Cylons out the airlock.

Interestingly, the post-9/11 parallels are completely turned on their head in the third season. In the miniseries, as well as season one and two, the Cylons are clearly meant to represent Al Quada and fundamentalist Islam, whereas the humans clearly parallel America. However, in the shadow of the Anglo-American invasion and occupation of Iraq, these roles seem to have been somewhat reversed during season three. The bad guy Cylons become the invading westerners and the humans take the place of the Iraqi insurgency.

Much of season three takes place on what the colonials name "New Caprica": a cold, remote and hostile world that most humans decide to settle on after abandoning their vain search for Earth. However, they are eventually found and, strongly echoing real world events in Iraq, invaded and occupied by the Cylons one year later.

The Cylon invasion and occupation of New Caprica is an obvious mirror for the Iraq war, directly reflecting the conflict in several key ways. For instance, the human resistance is continually referred to as "the insurgence" by the Cylons. Also, again echoing Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, the Cylon-occupiers use torture against captured insurgents. Saul, the leader of the resistance, is so badly beaten by his Cylon captures that he even loses his right eye.

Moreover, strongly paralleling the Iraqi Police Service created in the immediate aftermath of the 2003 invasion, the Cylons establish the New Caprica Police: a group of human volunteers who work for the Cylon authority to establish law and order within the settlement. The NCP are considered nothing more than Cylon collaborators and traitors by the resistance who, again like their counterparts in Iraq, even go to the extremes of using suicide bombers in their campaign against the Cylons.

Another interesting parallel with Iraq, of course, is the role religion plays in the conflict on New Caprica. The Cylons worship what they call the "one true God," whereas the colonials have many different gods. This is perhaps a loud echo of the religious differences between a predominantly Christian America and Muslim Iraq.

It should be stressed that in earlier seasons the monotheist Cylons were obviously meant to conjure up images of Osama bin Laden and radical Islam. However, during their brutal occupation they more immediately brought to mind another band of dangerous religious fundamentalists... George Bush and the Christian Evangelical right that supported his mad crusade in the Middle East. Like the Cylons (or even bin Laden) they used God to justify their immoral war.

Chiefly though, perhaps the greatest parallel is that both nightmares, Iraq and New Caprica, are largely born out of a lethal cocktail of misguided good intentions mixed with fear. Initially, the Cylons invade New Caprica under the sincere intention of finally finding some way to live in peace with their human creators and former masters. However, when the humans obviously fight back they soon give in to the fears of the more militant Cylon models and, far from living in peace, become a brutal occupation force.

Similarly, many people sadly supported the 2003 invasion because they were beguiled into believing our troops were fighting to free Iraq from an evil dictator before he could develop weapons of mass destruction and threaten, paradoxically, international peace. Disastrously though much like the Cylons, far from peace all we've done is throw Iraq dangerously close to civil war and terrorized the Iraqi people.

Perhaps we should give the Cylons some credit though. Unlike Bush and Blair, at least the Cylon leadership didn't have to invent a story about WMDs to take their people to war. Likewise, despite everything they go through, the humans still give arch traitor Gaius Balter, who had been the Cylons' puppet president on New Caprica, a fair trial. Which, whether he deserved it or not, is far more than Saddam appeared to get.

Five years on from its relaunch, the writers of the re-imagined Galactica have to be congratulated. It would have been easy to write a more simplistic series with, like the original, everything presented in distinct black and white terms of good vs evil and no shades of grey. Instead, they created a highly compelling post 9/11 allegory, a mirror for our troubled times that shows the Terror Wars, warts and all. Hopefully, the rest of the series and the planed spin-off Caprica will be equally brave and thought provoking.

Richard Thomas, BoA UK Correspondent and Columnist.