Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Trouble With Cylons

When it comes to Battlestar Galactica, I've always been in it for the ontology. When machines develop the ability to think for themselves, where do we draw the line between humanity and everything else? This is not a question that arises with any particular insistence in The Terminator; there, the machines can think, and what they think about is how much they like killing people. T2 did make Arnold Schwarzenegger into a rather lovable killing machine, but still - his destiny was always to sacrifice himself in order to save humanity and prevent his own kind from coming into being, thus preserving the supremacy of the maker over the made.

In the Battlestar version of this myth, the question is considerably more complicated. The first-generation metal "centurion" Cylons have given way to "skin jobs" - Cylons who are physically indistinguishable from humans. At first it appears that these human replicas are the perfect secret agents: they infiltrate human society and disable the twelve colonies' defense systems. These Cylons look human, but their agenda and loyalties are always pure Cylon. More intriguing are the Cylons represented by Boomer: "sleeper" Cylons who are totally unaware of their true identity. Boomer has human experiences and human loyalties, but in her essence she is a machine: when she is activated, she will do whatever her programming dictates.

Or maybe not. There are signs that Boomer can resist her programming (as indeed the first generation of centurions had done), that her human emotional connections might override her machine origins. Later, another model from the same line, Athena, will throw her lot in with the humans. Athena falls in love, bears a child, and appears able to make free decisions based on these very person-like emotions.

Cylons like Athena pose a question that has both a political and philosophical edge. What confers personhood - one's origin or one's nature? Emotion and freedom emerge as the defining traits of personhood; if someone can form genuine emotional bonds and make choices based on those loyalties, then the word "toaster" no longer seems like an apt description.

The Cylons have always been intriguing because their nature seems so at odds with their origins. They are machines, invented by humans only a few decades ago. They have acquired the ability to think for themselves and they seem bent not only on destroying the human race but also on imitating it. The "skin-jobs," as it turns out, are not merely a line of spy-robots, but rather the dominant species of Cylon; the centurions who - presumably - invented them are now obedient servants, a subordinate race of manual labourers. (Perhaps this is the natural way of things for technological beings; the most recent generation will always be the most technologically advanced.) Each decision the Cylons make seems designed to allow them to approximate human life more closely. They are trying to unlock the secret to biological reproduction; they have destroyed their resurrection ship so that they can experience the quintessentially human trait of mortality. Humanity, it would appear, is not something one is but something one does.

Unless, of course, it turns out that the Cylons originated on Earth 2000 years ago. Human prejudice against the Cylons has always been based not only on vengeance but also on a kind of xenophobia: Cylons are hated not for what they have done, but for what they are. But what does the word "machine" mean in reference to a thinking, breathing, organic creature? Terms like "toaster" are reminders of the Cylons' origins: we invented you, they say; you are a thing created, not begotten.

This, then, is my beef with the fifth season of Battlestar. It began with a huge revelation: the origins of the Cylons are not at all what we had supposed. And having dropped that little bombshell, the writers have simply left it alone. No one is asking where the Cylons came from or what it means that their history precedes that of the twelve colonies. It reminds me of the first season of 24, when the writers, with a blithe disregard for probability or continuity, decided that Nina was working with the terrorists. A big "twist" isn't worth it if it's purchased at the price of the very thing that made the show worth watching in the first place.

11 comments:

Hannah said...

I will come back and read this once I have caught up. Because I'm late to the party and am still working my way through season 2.

Talk amongst yourselves.

Mouse said...

I think (i.e., hope fervently) that the writers will return to this, especially since it looks like they're going to have to make a go of Earth after all.

I'm also waiting to see what they'll do with the Tigh/Six baby (and how pissed will Ellen be about that?).

metro mama said...

I'm still back at season 2. I hope the show doesn't go south!

DaniGirl said...

"The trouble with Cylons."

*snort*

One never knows exactly one might encounter over here at Bub and Pie on any given day, does one?

Bea said...

Mouse - So clearly I posted too soon, eh? After last night's episode, I'm still trying to figure out whether I prefer the new myth of origins or the old one.

Bon said...

you tell 'em.

i agree with you, though only in principle as i haven't seen BG since season 1, though i liked it.

but you had me at "ontology".

Mary King said...

I loved the post, but I am not sure I can discuss it in the comments without spoiling too many people.

Kerry said...

Okay... have you seen last Friday's ep? What say you now? (And Dani needs to not mock. They have more chick ads on that show than car ads, that's for sure.)

Chaotic Joy said...

OK, I just right now finished the episode where they found earth. Now I have FIVE episodes of the current season recorded. I am pretty frustrated with everything having to do with the final 5...it feels like they didn't know where to go with the series and so they said, well, what the heck, lets make these people Cylons to throw everyone for a loop. I am curious to see how they wrap this whole thing up this season.

Bea said...

Kerry - It was a crazy episode - so much exposition, I kept waiting for commercials to come so I could try to figure out how to fit everything into the timelines. It's a very tight squeeze: when the Five arrive at the twelve colonies, the first Cylon war is already going on, so they have to (1) broker a deal with the centurions to end the war in exchange for sharing the skin job technology; (2) create the 13 new Cylons; (3) give John time to kill Daniel and eventually rebel against his creators - all in the narrow window of time before Tigh is reinserted into human society, which couldn't have been more than a few years after the end of the war.

A few other things to figure out too. Why would the Five immediately set out to warn the twelve colonies against creating/mistreating Cylons? I thought Earth was supposed to be an entirely Cylon society, so how would its destruction imbue the Five with such urgency? If Earth was a Cylon planet, it would make sense that it lost contact with the twelve colonies - apparently this was Kobol's way of resolving Cylon/human conflict. But it seems like it would work much better if Earth was the only planet to form a society based on a union of humans with Cylons - a union that eventually went bad, resulting in a nuclear holocaust.

I like the way the John storyline combines so many mythologies: there is Cain and Abel, Zeus and the Titans, Satan and God. It seems like John has been able to lead the other Cylons around by the nose even though they have no real idea of what he has done. (Most of the other lines are fervently monotheistic and reverent towards the Five, even though they never speak of them.)

It seems fairly obvious that Starbuck is Daniel. Did John give Daniel a reprieve - banishment rather than execution? Or did someone else spirit Daniel away and hide him in Starbuck?

Phat Baby Photographer said...

The advent of kids has greatly slowed my television viewing. Slowly making my way through season 1, which coincides with the year I started having kids. It's almost as if, nah, sure it's just a coincidence....