Battlestar Gallactica, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways. (With apologies to Bill Shakespeare ... I'll buy him an ale)

by Sarah in Chicago

[WARNING!!!!!!!: Spoilers for the past three seasons of BSG and BSG: Razor.]

This weekend was a moment in geek history that may have passed the rest of the non-geek world by, due to the debilitating affliction of not being into science fiction (it's okay, we forgive and make allowances for you). Particularly, it was the first of what, rumour has it, will be a series of small-screen (or potentially big-screen as well) continuation, or gap-filling, movies based in the contemporary reworked Battlestar Gallactica universe. That two-hour movie was called Battlestar Gallactica: Razor.

For those of you that have not yet experienced the 21st century adaptation of the rather campy late-70s, early 80s sci-fi television series, you have my condolences. For those of you that are not even aware that such existed, I hope the last few years you spent in the bowels of the Amazon rain forest were highly productive for you. Because, the new Battlestar Gallactica is arguably the best science-fiction television series of all time. Course, this is all dependent of taste, but I say such as an avid lover of such shows as Firefly, Star Trek (TNG particularly), and (going way back) Babylon 5.

In part, it is arguably so because of the writing, which is easily on a par with such shows as the Sopranos, Arrested Development, The Wire, etc, all of which have academy recognitions for such (not that 'BSG' ever will, because getting recognition for a science-fiction 'whatever' is like getting blood out of a Cheney). That writing is complex, dark, nuanced, unresolved, and expects intelligence and awareness out of audience (in other words, characteristics that get most shows cancelled ... as anyone aware of the popularity and proliferation of reality-TV shows will attest to). Further, like all good science-fiction is supposed to (as any science-fiction lover worth their salt will tell you) it gets deep into the meanings of what it means to be human, and particularly, human in conditions that test one's humanity. And it does so in such a way that shows that the answer isn't always pretty (which was one of my problems with Star Trek, as an aside).

The allegories of the battle between the Cylons and the remnants of humanity, and the religious involvements similarly, to such being waged today are obvious, numerous, and covered in far more detail and better in other articles than I will attempt here. It is commentary, but commentary of such quality that it forces you, as the consumer of the series, to construct your own commentary. I would argue that to a certain extent if one does not allow comparisons to our contemporary world to run parallel to the series in one's mind, then one really isn't getting that much into the series.

However, there is one aspect (or, rather, you could see it as two) that I really want to touch on, and that is the portrayal of women, and women of minority status (gay or of colour) within the series, and specifically, within Razor this weekend.

Basically, in a nutshell, Razor filled in a number of the holes surrounding how the Battlestar 'Pegasus' survived the first Cylon attack which all but annihilated humanity, waged war on the Cylons, and then met up with Gallactica and the civilian fleet. It also filled in a chunk of Commander Adama's background with the Cylons, and gave us a hint of what may be to come surrounding the final season of BSG, starting in March '08.

One of the biggest things one notices, however, is that virtually all the major characters in this movie were female. Leaving aside Adama, and his son Lee, the characters of Kara Thrace (Starbuck), Admiral Helena Cain, Aide Kendra Shaw, Technician Gina are all the central figures in this film. Male characters actually take second-shift, as merely supporting characters that allow the story revolving around these women to play out.

Admiral Helena Cain is the commanding officer of the Battlestar Pegasus, one of the newest and most powerful of the Battlestars of the Colonial Fleet, which survives the Cylon attack only because it's integrative computer network (which the Cylons penetrate, was down for repairs (this was also what saved Gallactica, btw, as being the oldest of the fleet and moments away from decommission, had no such net). They randomly jump away from an exploding construction station in Caprica orbit, fleeing what would result in the virtual genocide of humanity, losing fully one quarter of their crew in the process.

Primarily we follow the arrival of Kendra Shaw to Pegasus, just before the Cylon attack, through to contemporary times, operating as Lee Adama's XO. She is initially an aide to Admiral Cain, who becomes a mentor to Shaw. Cain obviously sees in Shaw some of herself, and goes about molding Shaw into a version of herself as a solider. Hard, relentless, powerful, and thoroughly without morals when it comes to completing the mission. The latter of which Shaw eventually fails at, despite completing the mission. Shaw is Asian (not to mention Australian, which her accent gives away strongly, a feature of the show, as no actor is told to cover up their original accent, something which is done 99% of the time for US audiences ... Lucy Lawless lets her kiwi accent come through strongly in the actual series as an example).

The survival of Pegasus puts it in a rather unique position in comparison to Gallactica, in that it has no civilian fleet to protect. As far as its crew-members know, it is all that remains of humanity, and (very importantly), the lack of civilians ensures there is no civilian foil for the military mindset. It is all military, all the time, as the character of Admiral Cain reminds us. Not long after fleeing the destruction of human civilisation, she advocates a campaign guerilla warfare against the Cylons, to which the whole of Pegasus agrees, symbolised chillingly via the singular ship-wide chanting of "So Say We All".

Cain, as the movie progresses, becomes more and more machine-like, leaving her humanity behind in her movement towards the completion of the mission. Morals, ethics, hesitation, are all left behind in order to get the job done. When her XO (and her friend) refuses an order to put their troops into the firing line that would see many of them slaughtered, Cain takes his side-arm off him and executes him in front of all the other officers on the bridge. Doing what she feels she must in order to purge all weakness, both from herself, and from her force (which, one becomes to suspect, she sees as one in the same).

But it is another moment that really reveals, and rather causes, Cain's slip into becoming a machine. Early on in the film, we discover that Cain is in a relationship with the chief civilian technician on board Pegasus, a female technician named Gina. Gina is obviously where Cain lets her guard down, lets her humanity most show, and expresses softness, and dare-we-say it, love. This is all handled matter-of-factly in the film, the only surprise for Shaw being finding out that her mentor, Cain, was in fact human, with emotions and softness. It is actually Gina that mentions this to Shaw, saying "We are all human". Cain's lesbianism as a sexuality is of no consequence.

Shaw, however, discovers Gina to be a Cylon, when she kills another version of Number Six (the Cylon model designation of which Gina is). She promptly charges onto the Pegasus CIC, pointing a rifle at Gina. When Cain sees the proof, she refers to Gina as 'It, removing all humanity simultaneously both from Gina, and consequently from Cain. There is a look between Cain and Gina where one can actually see all the trust, love and solace between them drain out, their eyes betraying all the destruction of emotion.

Cain then orders the effective torture and gang-rape of Gina, using, as she argues, the machine's ability to mimic emotion against it. We see Gina sitting on the floor of her cell, clad in ill-fitting prison-garb, totally vulnerable, totally human. While Cain stands stock still, invulnerable, powerful, machine-like, devoid of all emotion, as emotion swirls around her, storming. Later, again, the same scene, but this time, post-rape, post-degradation, post-beating, blood and injuries displayed, her head raised up, staring at Cain in resistance in defeat.

Upon discovery of a small fleet of civilian ships, Cain orders Shaw and a number of other officers to board them and strip them of what they need, in terms of resources and personnel. When the civilians naturally resist, a massacre occurs, started by Shaw. This is set alongside Cain telling Shaw about stripping away all emotion, morals, etc in order to become the Razor, so that one does what one must, to follow one's orders, to complete the mission. This, Shaw does, in putting her pistol to the forehead of a civilian woman, and killing her as the woman kneels in front of her, but only via going into a dissociative state, which she emerges from only later, remembering what she did. The remaining ships give in after the massacre, and Pegasus proceeds to strip them of all they need, leaving them behind to fend for themselves, without even such things as FTL drives.

The thing is, all these inhuman acts are position in such a way as you find yourself rooting for them. It's horrible, but you ADMIRE Cain and Shaw. You wonder if whether in the same position, if you would have the strength to do what they feel they must. Even as you recoil disgusted and revolted at a woman, Cain, ordering the rape of a prisoner in order to get information, you also recognise the sickening need to revenge at the betrayal Cain feels from Gina, which denies both Cain and Gina humanity.

The women in Razor are strong, hard, unyielding and powerful. They are complex and all-too human in the inhuman things they do. There is a comment from Commander Adama to his son Lee when Lee asks how Adama didn't go down the route Cain took in becoming a weapon. Adama says both the effect of President Rosalind and the civilian fleet being there from the beginning being his foil, and also, having children, seeing himself reflected in their eyes, seeing what he did and does in them.

This easily could be read as a denigration of child-free career women, but to quickly conclude such would be to fundamental misread of BSG in my mind. Cain doesn't exist so much as a woman in the movie and the series. Rather, she is the personification of all the dark that is in humanity when she is stripped of emotion, love and trust. When she is at her most rational, reasoned, and without hesitation (ie that which is seen as 'masculine' in our culture), can she perpetuate these crimes. Adama, as nurturing, caring, emotional, and 'soft' is seen as clinging to what is good about humanity (what is traditionally seen as 'feminine' in our culture). Cain and Adama are polar opposites, but yet opposites that have aspects of the other in them. They are simultaneously at their most strongest and most wrong when they act without all the aspects of humanity informing their decisions. The fact that Cain is female, rather then being a slight against her, actually brings this fact into even more stark relief. The contradictions with contemporary society and gender, rather than being a commentary on such, bring the wider questions of humanity in even more stark relief.

Of course, there are commentaries on contemporary constructions of gender. Like in the series, women in authority are addressed as 'Sir', just as the men are. Women are just as likely to be chosen for a risky mission as men are, and are considered expendable as soldiers (when Lee has to choose between Starbuck and Shaw for a suicide assignment). They are shown as no more, and no less, capable of both humanity and inhumanity as men are. Women, in war, have the potential of doing the most disgusting things imaginable (ordering rape as a tool of war).

Yes, of course, it IS a woman in this series that devolves down into the personification of an inhuman machine. Given the incredible propensity for lesbian women to be portrayed as either evil, insane, violent, or all three, in western media (so much so the 'evil lesbian' is a cliche now), this is something I cannot, as a lesbian myself, ignore. Cain, on the surface, fits this seemingly to a 'T'. However, as I said above, this would be a misread of BSG, a surface appraisal that takes things out of context of the BSG universe, and what is being told at a deeper level.

I am not arguing this in order to have Cain nor Shaw forgiven, because I am not. They did things that were they on Earth, one would excessively hope they would end up in front of the ICC. However, as with all women, people of colour, and now gay people, in the BSG, they are HUMAN. In their flaws, in their strengths, in their complexities, and in their contradictions, women are no less complete beings than men are. But they are shown to be such not through merely mimicking accepted contemporary masculine constructions of subjecthood and agency, but rather via investigating what it really means to be human, in all its extremes and, yes, inhumanities. The rape and torture of Gina as a machine reveals her very humanity, not because as a woman she should be raped, but because in becoming inhuman enough to order the rape, the humans on Pegasus connect themselves to her. In one of the most ultimate inhuman acts (and, arguably, the most masculine), rape, the terrifying humanity in such comes through. Through being broken down to their own inhumanities, Cain and Shaw, are ultimately shown to be human. And that disturbs us fundamentally, particularly with how much we see ourselves in the characters.

Now, I know there are people out there that would disagree with me, that will see this merely as just another evil lesbian cliche, as merely another demonisation of successful, powerful, non-maternal women in the huge, HUGE, pile of such demonisations of successful, powerful, non-maternal women out there. And they could be right. After all, this could just be post-hoc justification on my part due to my love of the show. The rape of Gina is, after all, could just be yet another example of the rape of a woman reduced to a plot-device. But given the quality of the show, I would politely suggest a deeper reading.


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