Academic journal article Science Fiction Film and Television

Black Markets and Black Mystics: Racial Shorthand in Battlestar Galactica

Academic journal article Science Fiction Film and Television

Black Markets and Black Mystics: Racial Shorthand in Battlestar Galactica

Article excerpt

Even in the warp-speed space-faring future, or in galaxies far, far away, onscreen racial representation matters. Audiences connect their cultural expectations and associations with the faces they see on screen, especially - though certainly not exclusively - if those faces are humanoid. The original Star Trek (US 1966-9) was seen as revolutionary for its utopian gestures toward diversity in its multiracial cast, and, following in its footsteps, the original Battlestar Galactica (US 1978-9) and the subsequent Galactica 1980 series continued the trend in having both women and nonwhite characters in respected positions. Played by an African American actor, the Viper pilot Boomer (Herbert Jefferson Jr) rose in the ranks to become a Colonel aboard Galactica by the 1980 series. As the supporting character to the white male heroes Starbuck (Dirk Benedict) and Apollo (Richard Hatch), Boomer, along with the original Colonel Tigh (Terry Carter), can also be seen as part of a longer cultural tradition of interracial friendships (particularly male) developing in times of war or crisis.1 In the rebooted Battle- star Galactica (US 2003-9), much was made of the gender switches of beloved figures when both Starbuck and Boomer were reimagined as women. Though the new Boomer, played by the Korean-Canadian actress Grace Park, raises intriguing questions about feminist and orientalist sensibilities at work in the series, the relegation of African American actors to fill more tertiary roles is an unfortunate symptom of the earthbound limitations of Ron Moore's new vision. Largely typecast to represent primitive mysticism or sexual threats, black characters aboard the new Galactica are a throwback to stereotypes that predate the sensibilities of the 1978 version and persist in popular culture and sf today.

Since the debut of its four-hour miniseries in late 2003, the reimagined Battlestar Galactica (hereafter BSG) has been lauded. It made many media critics' honour rolls, was named Time magazine's best show of 2005 and won the 2009 Television Critics Association's 'Program of the Year' award for its final season. BSG tends to garner praise for two reasons: in doing away with the campiness of the original, its female characters are as powerful and influential as the male characters; and its new grimness depicts a post-9/11 allegory. The gender reversal of the originally male pilot, Starbuck, now played by Katee Sackhoff, received the lion's share of attention (and the occasional boycott by fans of the original series) in the beginning, while the 9/11 overtones gained more notice as the four seasons evolved.2 BSG's emphasis on current, real-world parallels was a signature of its narrative approach and an inevitable part of its positive reviews. In 2006 Nancy Franklin's New Yorker review observed,

a couple of very important characters who were men in the first series are now women. But what interests people who normally don't care about science fiction is how timely and resonant the show is, bringing into play religion and religious fanaticism, global politics, terrorism, and questions about what it means to be human.

The second season even gestured at the then-timely stem-cell debate as Roslin's terminal cancer was suddenly (but temporarily) cured after an infusion of blood from a human-Cylon baby.

The show's executive producers and co-creators, Ron D. Moore and David Eick, were quick to discuss the influence of current geopolitical situations on the story arcs. In a 2006 Rolling Stone interview, Moore reflected, 'I realized if you redo this today, people are going to bring with them memories and feelings about 9/11 . . . And if you chose to embrace it, it was a chance to do an interesting science fiction show that was also very relevant to our time' (Edwards 32). Eick drew even more specific parallels in the same article: 'We don't sit around saying, "Let's do an Abu Ghraib episode" . . . but we're informed members of society and we watch the news - these things seep in' (Edwards 32). …

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