Academic journal article Science Fiction Film and Television

'Does All This Have to Happen Again?' Excavating Heritage in Battlestar Galactica

Academic journal article Science Fiction Film and Television

'Does All This Have to Happen Again?' Excavating Heritage in Battlestar Galactica

Article excerpt

There are those who believe that life here began out there, far across the universe, with tribes of humans who may have been the forefathers of the Egyptians, or the Toltecs, or the Mayans. ... Some believe that there may yet be brothers of man who even now fight to survive somewhere beyond the heavens.

Opening narration, Battlestar Galactica (US 1978-9)

What is crucial to such a vision of the future is the belief that we must not only change the narratives of our histories, but transform our sense of what it means to live, to be, in other times and different spaces, both human and historical.

Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (256)

The opening sequences of the Battlestar Galactica miniseries (US 2003) are steeped in dramatic irony. On the very day the eponymous Colonial vessel is scheduled to be decommissioned and turned into a Cylon War museum, 'humanity's children' destroy Armistice Station and decimate the Twelve Colonies. The first shot aboard Galactica is evocative of this irony. In an elaborate three-and-a-half minute continuous take, the audience is taken on a video tour of the battlestar. We join a news crew documenting a group of dignitaries led by none other than Cylon sleeper agent Aaron Doral (Matthew Bennett). Doral teases out Galactica's gritty functionality, calling attention to the old-fashioned nature of the vessel, to the things that seem 'antiquated to modern eyes, phones with chords, awkward manual valves, computers that barely deserve the name'. Galactica is, he says, 'a reminder of a time when we were so frightened by our enemies that we literally looked backward for protection'. This lingering artefact of the Cylon Wars contrasts sharply with the sleek CGI Cylon centurions and the ethereal back-lit, runway model aura of Model Six (Tricia Helfer) on Armistice Station. The viewer is thus positioned within this long take at a critical moment of temporal fragmentation, signalled by the material and televisual conditions of the antagonists' distinct environments.

Foregrounding the materiality of BSG's mise-en-scène, the sequence also alludes to the ways the show registers political tension through historical discourse. Appearing three times in the shot, Commander William Adama (Edward James Olmos) plays a crucial role in this metahistorical spectacle. He practices a speech for the decommissioning ceremony, an event that also marks his retirement. 'The Cylon War is long over, yet we must not forget the reasons why', he begins, before being interrupted by Kara 'Starbuck' Thrace (Katee Sackhoff) jogging through the crowded passageways. After a short exchange, he starts again, but the camera pans to a new point of interest before we can hear any more. He repeats the line three times, punctuating his three appearances in the shot. It is significant that Adama cannot answer the question he raises about remembrance on the day his ship is to become a heritage site. The 'reasons why' hang ominously over the miniseries and provide an ethical context for the episodes that follow. Later at the ceremony, he initially frames his speech within well-worn patriotic platitudes: 'The Cylon War is long over, yet we must not forget the reasons why so many sacrificed so much in the cause of freedom.' The commander pauses at this point. Haunted by the memory of a son lost in the service, he continues:

Sometimes the cost is too high. You know, when we fought the Cylons, we did it to save ourselves from extinction. But we never answered the question 'Why?' Why are we as a people worth saving? We still commit murder because of greed and spite and jealousy, and we still visit all of our sins upon our children. We refuse to accept responsibility for anything that we've done, like we did with the Cylons. We decided to play God, create life. And when that life turned against us, we comforted ourselves in the knowledge that it really wasn't our fault, not really. You cannot play God then wash your hands of the things that you've created. …

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