Cylons in America: by ed. Tiffany Potter, C. W. Marshall

May-lee Chai

While thought-provoking and well-researched, this book is only for hard-core Battlestar Galactica fans who also happen to like academic essays.

Cylons in America

Publisher: Continuum
Subtitle: Critical Studies in Battlestar Galactica
Author: C. W. Marshall
Price: $24.95
Display Artist: Tiffany Potter, C. W. Marshall [Editors]
Length: 278
Formats: Paperback
ISBN: 0826428487
US publication date: 2007-01

First came the 1978 TV series. It was cheesy. It evolved. In 2003 Battlestar Galactica was reborn and became a cultural phenomenon, invading television sets, Tivos, the blogosphere, and now finally, Academia. This final frontier may not have been such a great idea if the essays in Cylons in America are any indication.

For the uninitiated, the rebirth of this sci-fi soap opera revolves around the last remnants of the12 tribes of humanity searching the universe for the mythical planet named Earth, while being chased by genocidal robots called Cylons. The Cylons were created by humans to serve as their slaves, gained consciousness, and rebelled. They also rebuilt a portion of themselves to look like super models, infiltrated human society, and then staged a “final attack” that was supposed to end the so-called human problem. Instead, nearly 50,000 humans escaped, protected by a lone military ship, known as a Battlestar, this one named Galactica.

All of this, except the super model part, was from the original series. The important difference is that the reincarnation of Battlestar Galactica includes an injection of a very serious and timely subject that elevates the plotline to something contemporary and compelling. Furthermore, the series writers have been willing to talk about subjects echoing America’s current war in Iraq that the regular news media have been largely unwilling to touch.

In addition to the requisite (and really cool) space battle scenes that one might expect, the series has focused on concerns about military rule versus a democratic society, how to run an election during a time of war, when, if ever, it is acceptable to suspend civil liberties, genocide, torture, rape as tools of war, abortion, reproductive freedom, the nature of insurgencies, suicide bombings, and show trials of dictators. Oh, yeah, and a lot of sex, including three ways with humans and Cylons, and a weekly display of beefcake, cheesecake, and robo-cake that makes network TV look so very lame, indeed.

It is precisely this mix of entertaining sci-fi, thought-provoking subject matters, good old-fashioned violence, and a lot of flesh (let’s be honest, folks) that has made Battlestar Galactica the cult hit it is today. The acting and production values are also superb, and unexpected, especially from Sci-Fi Channel.

Many fans thus take Battlestar Galactica very, very seriously. And yes, I’m one of them. But that being said, the authors of the 18 essays in Cylons in America at times seem as though they are arguing points in a war crimes tribunal as opposed to writing about a TV show. I’ll be the first to admit Battlestar Galactica is not just good TV, it’s great, but after all, it is actually only fiction.

Three of the essays directly address the parallels between Battlestar Galactica and the Iraq War. At times the authors seem to think this analogy has slipped past Battlestar Galactica’s many fans, when a quick trip to the blogosphere would have proved otherwise. Other essays delve deeply into issues the show has raised, for example the use of torture, including rape, both to extract information from prisoners and to punish transgressors.

While the authors find this groundbreaking, it’s surprising no one points out that only female characters on the show are raped, which suggests sexism in television doesn’t go away overnight, even in shows that are known for their “progressive” female roles. For example, while Hillary Clinton dukes it out with Barack Obama and John McCain in real life, Mary McDonnell has successfully been playing the President of all humanity for three seasons now.

The book could have been a useful tool to bring new viewers to this very worthy series, except no one bothered to write even the simplest synopsis of the plot, nor is there any concerted attempt to explain who any of the characters are and how they are related to each other. As a result, the essays in this book will be completely incomprehensible to non-viewers or even occasional viewers. The writers do presume, that like themselves, the readers will have watched every single episode, including the deleted scenes on the DVDs.

Finally, by the lords of Kobol, was it really necessary to write these essays in academic prose so dense with theory and professor-speak that most readers will feel they’re being subjected to a new form of torture? For example, in the essay “Authorized Resistance: Is Fan Production Frakked?” this doozy of a sentence pops up without warning:

The Battlestar Galactica series is concurrently more and less canonical than other Battlestar Galactica comics: [sic] though it supposedly occurs within the diagesis of the television series, there has been no evidence to validate its occurrence retroactively.

Such writing is more common than not. Ultimately, Cylons in America, while thought-provoking and well-researched, is only for hard-core fans who also happen to like academic essays.

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