At first, my reason for tuning in to “Battlestar Galactica” was much like any other geek who had been raised on a hearty diet of sci-fi books and movies: excitement about the revival of a show from my youth. However, after struggling through my disappointment about the lack of a robot dog and my confusion over being attracted to Starbuck, I quickly realized that this new show also had a wonderful anthropological aspect to its writing.
“BSG” highlights one of my favorite themes within anthropology: the human compulsion to divide our world into “us” and “them” and dehumanize our enemies. What better choice then the Cylons for a dehumanized enemy? The Cylons begin as ruthless, unfeeling beings, but as the story evolves, they engage in heartfelt relationships with humans, show human frailties, and even embrace the notion of religion. In following this tack the writers reflect the work of my favorite anthropological author, Joseph Campbell.
Campbell theorized that all the world’s great myths tell the same story, one that begins with the hero’s bravery (or necessity) to depart their comfort zone and meet the unknown enemy in the beyond. These stories usually end with the same uplifting message: The enemy who we find so alien and frightening is in reality not that different from ourselves. Gilgamesh becomes best friends with his enemy Ekido, Beowulf discovers that Grendel has a nurturing mommy, Luke finds out Darth Vader is his father.
This theme runs throughout the series, and is especially strong when “sleepers” realize they are Cylons. Early in season one, Boomer realizes she’s a Cylon and can’t accept it. She even tries to kill herself.
Later, the episode when Col. Tighe, Chief Tyrol, Sam Anders and Tory all realize they are Cylons is the best example of Campbell’s teachings. These are our heroes! They led the resistance on New Caprica. Saul lost an eye and killed his wife for being a traitor! Now they are faced with the hard reality that they are exactly what they most despise. The classic “us-them” dilemma hits them in the face. Does this mean we are evil? Does this mean “they” are good? Does that fact that we are them, with all of our feelings and morals intact, mean that they possess those same qualities we treasure in ourselves? How do we behave now that the curtain has dropped?
Especially in today’s geopolitically divided world, these are questions we should all be contemplating, and “BSG” brings them to our minds in an entertaining and thought-provoking way.
Dr. Edwin Barnhart is a renowned Maya archaeologist who has appeared on History Channel, Discovery Channel and Japanese Public Television. He is the director of Maya Exploration Center, a fellow of the Explorer Club, and a widely recognized authority on ancient Maya astronomy, mathematics and calendar systems.