Some Thoughts on Battlestar Galactica: Razor

Yeah, so, spoiler alert.

As regular readers of this blog know, Amy, Brian, and I are big fans of Battlestar Galactica. The new one, with Edward James Olmos. Not the original, Dirk Benedict-y one. While some individual episodes have disappointed (particularly towards the end of last season, with the addition of a new character who was so cool, he kept his sunglasses on in outer space!), the show has-- for the most part-- been an entertaining and thought-provoking look at life during wartime. And it has more than a few parallels to current political and military issues, so that's cool too.

Anyway, last night, the Sci-Fi Channel aired the new Battlestar Galactica movie, Razor, which tells a "lost tale" of the Battlestar Pegasus. Actually, it's more precise to say "two lost tales"; one takes place during (and immediately following) the attack that launched the original 2003 miniseries, when the ship was under the command of Admiral Caine; the other takes place at a point towards the end of season two, when the ship was under the command of Commander Lee Adama (the show's resident "everyman" character).

Earlier in the series, Admiral Caine was introduced as something of a villain-- a woman who has lived by the sword for so long, she's lost her humanity (she even orders the use of rape as an "interrogation technique"). When she was eventually killed, it was generally understood that this was how it had to happen; she was, after all, the antagonist to Edward James Olmos's William Adama and Mary McDonnell's Laura Roslyn. So she had to go.

This movie does some work to humanize her-- we see that before the attack, she was still a disciplined taskmaster, but she also seemed to have friends and a more human side. But she very quickly loses whatever humanity she has at the beginning of the movie, eventually executing her second-in-command for insubordination and ordering the execution of a civilians in order to cannibalize their ships for parts, weapons, and crew members. So, you know, all that makes it kind of hard to relate to her.

Except...

The thing that made this movie really great-- beyond the strong female characters, the tightly-woven plot, and the really, really strong acting-- was the fact that, in the second "lost tale," Lee Adama finds himself in a position where it appears that, to save his ship and crew, he's going to have to abandon a group of his own soldiers and another collection of humans to the enemy Cylons, who will-- he knows-- use the humans for brutal medical experiments. Weighing all of the options, Lee concludes that, of course, he's going to have to abandon his own troops for the "larger purpose" of preserving his ship and crew.

Naturally, some last-minute maneuvering (and the intervention of his father, the older and wiser Admiral Adama) allows him to avoid this fate; most of his people come back unharmed and the ship is able to make a clean getaway. Nevertheless, the fact remains that our heroic everyman character, Lee, found himself in a life-or-death situation similiar to the situation Admiral Caine found herself in (alone in space, surrounded by enemies), and made the decision to sacrifice some human lives in order to save other human lives. No, he didn't order any executions himself, but the viewer is left to understand that this hardly exonerates him. If Caine is a "villain," than surely Lee must be as well, as his decision was, fundamentally, as brutal as hers were.

But, of course, what made this movie really great was that we understand that war makes such simple-minded labels like "hero" or "villain" rather obsolete. Morality, this movie reminds us, is a luxury that doesn't really exist in war-- where survival might mean having to do something that would strike a viewer sitting on his couch at home as monstrous. I think this is why Battlestar Galactica is one of the best contemporary war stories I've ever seen. Whereas some movies or TV shows concerned with such themes offer up patriotic platitudes in order to reassure the viewer that war can be justified, that "our side" is inherently heroic, this show confronts the reality that war dehumanizes and destroys everyone in the end.

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