Television Conceptions: Introduction to “Re/Producing Cult TV: The Battlestar Galactica Issue”

SciFi promo of Battlestar Galactica

SciFi promo of Battlestar Galactica

Last year, I was invited to become a columnist for FlowTV and to write a series of short pieces addressing current issues in television and television studies which could speak to both an “academic” and a “general” audience at once — indeed, which could challenge this very distinction between the “academic” and the “general” by acknowledging that those who regularly watch TV and those who seriously think about it are very often one and the same. This is, I would argue, just as it should be, as demonstrated by how such a multiply articulated identity (as viewer and reader, as fan and critic) is fruitfully claimed by all of the authors represented in this special issue, who deftly move among and between their personal and scholarly interests in Battlestar Galactica (2003-present) — a program that itself explores the concept of multiply articulated identities and that, in its own moves among and between stories of personal relations and scenes of political reflection, fantasy formations and critical commentary, futuristic (as well as historicist) vision and allegories for the present-day, encourages precisely the complex readings, receptivities, and identifications evident in the essays collected here. And this is not yet even to mention those who, like Battlestar Galactica star Mary McDonnell (who plays the lead role of President Laura Roslin in the program and is also a contributor to this special issue), work in television and thus also, of course, think very hard about it — again suggesting that, when it comes to television’s “reproductions,” the lines between the “general” and the “specialized” television community, the “ordinary” and the “extraordinary” TV participant (whether viewer or producer, artist, critic, or fan) are necessarily and productively blurry ones.

Not that this made it any easier for me to write my first “short column” for FlowTV. Attempting to think of a nice little topic that I could handle in a mere thousand words, I (in a moment of insanity, perhaps reminiscent of the Baltar-esque delusions of some of Battlestar Galactica‘s own characters) came up with the following: what’s the relationship between television and “personhood,” between our culture’s most pervasive medium and our notions of “being human”? Short, manageable topic, right? And even further complicated by the fact that I tried to address both television viewing and television programs, ranging over considerations of what it means to watch TV, alone or with others (and thus, what sorts of “selves,” “families,” and communities television might yield), as well as over considerations of what various television texts themselves — with Battlestar Galactica as a prime example — might indicate about the possibilities and/or limitations of “personhood,” the “human self,” “family,” and community. Probably needless to say, I couldn’t, in the requested length, quite do justice to the complexity of the topic—and to the complex and multivalent way in which Battlestar Galactica itself handles these issues.

Title sequence

Images and captions from the title sequence (season 3)

This complexity emerges from what might, at first glance, appear to be a commonplace science fiction trope: Battlestar Galactica traces the after-effects of an apocalyptic nuclear attack on human civilization by cyborg beings, initially built to “serve man” as machines and/or slaves. Yet these familiar scenarios are defamiliarized by the very ways in which Battlestar Galactica regenerates and re-imagines previous images of generated automata (not to mention pressing real-world concerns about war and biopolitics). The premise of the program is deceptively simple, encapsulated in the show’s first season title sequence:

    The Cylons were created by Man.
    They Rebelled.
    They Evolved.
    They Look and Feel Human.
    Some are programmed to think they are Human.
    There are many copies.
    And they have a Plan.

A “Plan,” though with some unexpected debate among the Cylons, to wipe out the vestiges of the human population (now on the run, in search of “a mythical planet called Earth”). This agenda must therefore be resisted and foiled by President Roslin and military commander Admiral Adama (Edward James Olmos), along with the crew of Galactica and an assorted fleet of civilian ships under their leadership, through a counter-plan to save the survivors and ensure the continuation of humankind, thus requiring the maintenance and renewal both of the populace and of “human culture” as a whole.

As even just this premise indicates, Battlestar Galactica is all about reproduction — technical, textual, familial, even “universal” — from the generation of babies, to the regeneration of equipment, to the replication of Cylons (in addition to the creation of assorted “hybrids”), all the way to the very “delivery” of humanity… or maybe more accurately, as hinted at in the notion of hybridity, an expanded conception of what we might call “humanity plus.” Yet as that “plus” indicates, this is not reproduction in the sense of simply duplicating the same; rather, there is reproduction with a difference — that is, a re-visioned, re-envisioned production — at every level of the program and its own creation, re-creation, and propagation.

A prophetic vision of the first Cylon-human hybrid baby

A prophetic vision of the first Cylon-human hybrid baby

It is this dynamic that we are attempting to evoke with our title for this issue, “Re/Producing Cult TV.” Clearly, as I’ve indicated, “reproduction” is a narrative theme across the program. But beyond Battlestar‘s stories of what we might see as literal reproduction — the birth of children, cyborgs, civilizations — there are stories that involve a more figural reproduction, that disrupt the boundary between the literal and the figural, that, indeed, re-produce (and, in so doing, incite us to re-view) our own stories, histories, and possible futures. Many of the program’s plots have complex allegorical dimensions, alluding to issues and events as varied as, for example, Nazi genocidal politics and WWII resistance efforts (as well as more recent “final solution” or “ethnic cleansing” policies in places like Cambodia, East Timor, Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur); guerilla warfare, as reminiscent of Vietnam (not to mention the present-day Iraqi insurgency); the threat of infectious diseases, viral epidemics, and biological warfare, as feared today; political and religious conflicts, with their attending conflicting meanings of terms like “terrorism,” “counter-terrorism,” and “suicide bombings,” as devastatingly evident in the clashes in the Middle East; timely debates about the detention and torture of “unlawful combatants”; the possibility of election fraud, with its real-life corollary being, I trust, obvious — indeed, I would suggest that, though assumed by some to be “merely” a trivial fictional program in a campy cult genre, Battlestar Galactica offers the most serious and sustained (and never cut-and-dried) examination on television of life in a “post-9/11” world.

Scenes from the occupation of New Caprica

Scenes from the occupation of New Caprica

In its televisual reflections of our world, Battlestar Galactica does not often look at TV itself… with the exception of the diegetic communications network “the wireless,” highlighted in an intriguing episode (“Final Cut,” 9/9/05) in which a Cylon, posing as a human, produces a documentary about life aboard Galactica — a “machine-subject” (a cyborg) deploying another “machine-subject” (video) to construct a way of viewing and re-viewing humanity. But, even beyond this, in its very operations, Battlestar Galactica embodies how television itself functions as a technology of production and reproduction, generating knowledges of our world through the “labor” of everyone and everything involved in TV: media institutions (which, of course, produce not only programs, but textual norms, social discourses, demographic categories, tie-in commodities, and consumer desires), industry workers (with the complex dynamics of multiple authorship that a medium like television necessarily entails among executives, writers, producers, directors, actors, and crew); and television viewers, investing meanings and desires in what they see.

D’Anna Biers films Lt. Gaeta

Reporter (and Cylon) D’Anna Biers films Lt. Gaeta in the episode “Final Cut”

The current Battlestar Galactica is itself a televisual reproduction of an earlier series, a program that aired in 1978-79 and that has since become a cult camp classic (despite, or because of, its own tangled history of replication, pointing toward the complicated relations and reproductions that also link media, political, and legal discourses—for instance, the questions of “intellectual property” that played out in battles with the first series over charges, eventually dropped, of copyright infringement). Later, after several failed attempts to revive the program in the intervening years, the Sci-Fi Channel (with Ronald D. Moore as creative force and co-executive producer) finally brought the re-imagined series to fruition in 2003, with first a mini-series and then an on-going weekly serial (now on hiatus until its fourth and final season premieres in April). ((The Sci-Fi Channel is the U.S. home of Battlestar Galactica; in the U.K. and Ireland, the series airs on Sky One.)) In turn, one might say that Battlestar Galactica brought the Sci-Fi Channel fully to fruition—a case study in the shift in the television industry from “broadcasting” to “narrowcasting,” as well as in the “convergence” of television and so-called “new” media technologies (such as the internet), in that this fictional drama, with its own explosive premise, both relied on and furthered the explosion of channels in the “cable revolution” and the explosion of outlets, audiences, authors, and textual and product tie-ins in the “digital revolution.” With “cult television” now conceived by the industry as a viable economic strategy and, alternatively, by groups of viewers as a particular relationship to animating and re-animating TV, the scene was set for the emergence (or re-emergence) of the complex phenomenon and textual constellation known as Battlestar Galactica.

An entry in the fan film contest Videomaker Toolkit

An entry in the fan film contest Videomaker Toolkit

This phenomenon also, of course, involves a constellation of people, all involved in creative work even as they are simultaneously (and necessarily) enmeshed in commodity culture — the two of which, as television has taught us, cannot be seen as oppositions. While it is no doubt true that the television industry defines “personhood” and “human identity” in consumer capitalist terms (selling audiences to advertisers and offering a “demographic” rather than “democratic” vision), this perspective does not exhaust the implications and operations of television and television viewing. Indeed, viewing itself can be seen as re-production with a difference — as both pleasure and labor, proliferating and propagating meanings, affects, identities, relations, and communities in multiple ways (some, arguably, disempowering; others perhaps quite empowering, albeit within certain limits). This is particularly evident with the fan communities that are so active in their viewing and re-viewing, identifications and appropriations of cult texts like Battlestar Galactica. Producing an amazing range of creative material — fan fiction, art, films, and videos; podcasts, blogs, archives, and wikis; public events and private reflections — these viewers claim their own authorship over television, challenging notions of fixed hierarchy, authority, property, and propriety through their varied practices and actualizations. Again, this is especially evident with self-identified fans; but I would argue, as many other TV scholars have argued, that all viewing works this way (or can and should work this way): not simply as a means of consumption, but as a means of production that challenges, then, that very production / consumption divide, along with other such divides like education versus entertainment or critical versus popular response.

Our objective in putting together this issue of FlowTV was to encourage and embody exactly this boundary crossing, this intermixture and hybridity. The contributors include people who labor at television (re)production from both sides of the screen: Mary McDonnell, who is, of course, centrally involved in creating the show, and myself, Melanie Kohnen, David Bering-Porter, Sarah Toton, Julie Levin Russo, Alanna Thain, Anne Kustritz, and Bob Rehak, all of whom are involved in re-creating it in our work as spectators, enthusiasts, and academics. But, in our multiple roles, we might all be seen as all of the above: viewers, producers, artists, critics, and fans. Our hope is that, through the mutual dialogue that is the goal of this special issue (and of FlowTV as a whole), the multiple roles that all of us play in our relationships to television, culture, critique, and “personhood” will also be further animated, amplified, and propagated — that is, will also be “re-produced.”

Author Bio:

Lynne Joyrich is an Associate Professor in the Department of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University. A member of the Camera Obscura editorial collective, she is the author of Re-viewing Reception: Television, Gender, and Postmodern Culture (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1996) and of a number of articles and book chapters on film, television, feminist, queer, and cultural studies in various anthologies and journals.

Issue Credits:

Lynne Joyrich, Guest Editor, “Re/Producing Cult TV: The Battlestar Galactica Issue”
Julie Levin Russo, Guest Associate Editor, “Re/Producing Cult TV: The Battlestar Galactica Issue”
Jean Anne Lauer, FlowTV Editorial Liaison, “Re/Producing Cult TV: The Battlestar Galactica Issue”

Image Credits:
1. SciFi promo of Battlestar Galactica
2. Images and captions from the title sequence (season 3), screencap provided by author.
3. A prophetic vision of the first Cylon-human hybrid baby, ibid.
4. Scenes from the occupation of New Caprica, ibid.
5. Reporter (and Cylon) D’Anna Biers films Lt. Gaeta in the episode “Final Cut,” ibid.
6. An entry in the fan film contest Videomaker Toolkit, ibid.

Please feel free to comment.

Signal to Noise: The Paradoxes of History and Technology in Battlestar Galactica

Commemorative wall on the Galactica

Commemorative wall on the Galactica after the Cylon attacks, recalling similar memorials in New York and other cities after 9/11

Battlestar Galactica speaks to the events of 9/11 and the subsequent “war on terror” in ways that are hard to miss: in place of a surprise attack on the World Trade Center that leaves Americans devastated and the U.S. government bent on chasing the perpetrators (who have been figured as “programmed” by terrorists’ ideology and thus as not quite human), in Battlestar Galactica, the not-quite-human Cylons launch a surprise attack on the Twelve Colonies that leaves humanity’s home worlds devastated and the survivors on the run from further strikes. Indeed, as producer Ron Moore puts it, “What happens to the people in Galactica is what happened to us in September [of 2001], but in several orders of magnitude larger. It’s sort of like saying September 11th happens, but the only people who survive are the people inside the Twin Towers” (Interview with SFX Magazine, June 2002).

At first glance, Battlestar Galactica‘s ongoing commentary on our current cultural climate unfolds by way of engaging familiar (perhaps too familiar) narrative strategies; yet these narratives also shift in unexpected ways. For example, instead of making a sharp delineation of “us vs. them” (as in the war on terror), the opposition between humans and Cylons breaks down repeatedly in the course of the past few seasons on Battlestar Galactica, making the seemingly easy alignment of the humans as the “good guys” and the Cylons as the “bad guys” increasingly questionable. The occupation storyline during the last season even went so far as to place the human survivors into the position of being members of an insurgency movement — willing and able to deploy “terrorist” strategies, such a suicide bombings, for their cause — with the Cylons determined to show humanity “the glory of peace” by enforcing “complete control.” Beyond a simple role reversal of the usual identification of “hero”/“villain,” “occupier”/“terrorist,” however, Battlestar Galactica also shows us the internal conflicts on both sides. For instance, those under occupation disagree about the shape of the resistance movement, asking themselves: are suicide bombings really the solution, especially because humanity’s numbers are already dwindling? How far can you co-operate with the Cylons before you become a collaborator? Is collaboration a crime punishable by death? Meanwhile, the Cylons debate the treatment of humanity: should humans be wiped out in the name of god, or are they worth saving? In the face of so much resistance, can you still strive for peaceful co-existence? Or do you intervene in the form of public executions and reducing humanity to “a more manageable size”? In exploring these questions, the parallels to recent events involving American military actions in Iraq are impossible to overlook. Yet, Battlestar Galactica also reminds its viewers that questions about the ethical dimensions of occupation, resistance, torture, and war have long histories — the specific use of the term “collaborator,” for example, evokes associations with Vichy France. This angle further complicates the picture by not only reminding viewers that there are historical precedents to our current situation, but also by asking us to recognize the complexity of that history — one that cannot simply be reduced to the story of the U.S. army as the heroic liberators. In narrative arcs such as the one dealing with the Cylon occupation, Battlestar Galactica thus remixes pertinent questions and concerns about the war on terror with varying degrees of verisimilitude and with varying degrees of predictability.

Cylon occupation on New Caprica

Cylon occupation on New Caprica

There are other moments and configurations in Battlestar Galactica‘s narrative world that also speak to current cultural anxieties, but the “messages” here is less clear; they become confused, filled with noise, and, because of that, they are perhaps more interesting than the rather straightforward commentary on America after 9/11. In Battlestar Galactica‘s diegesis, the history, present, and future deployment of technology emerges as a precarious nexus of meaning. It appears both as promise of salvation and as constant threat of destruction. Salvation appears in the form of Galactica’s non-networked computer system, which saves the ship and its crew from an attack via a Cylon computer virus; destruction looms large when the Cylons trace the radiation of a nuclear explosion back to its source, namely humanity’s temporary refuge on New Caprica — a turn of evens that leads to the aforementioned occupation. Technology is also called upon as the means that might distinguish humans from Cylons, but not even DNA testing can offer sufficient answers. Moreover, technology reconfigures the meaning of both love and religion. As Julie Levin Russo also notes in her piece in this issue, love becomes a reproductive technology when it turns out to be the crucial component in producing the first human-Cylon baby. Likewise, religion turns into a navigation system that charts the way to Earth, the mythic lost colony and presumed safe haven for humanity’s survivors. In another instance, religion and technology become nearly inseparable when one Cylon sets out on a quest to uncover the face of the Cylon god, a quest that is enabled by a series of quasi-ritualistic suicides and subsequent “downloads” into a new body that affords glimpses of the Cylon god in the brief moments between life and death. In all these sites, human survivors and Cylons alike try to yoke the possibilities of technology to their search for meaning: they attempt to filter the noise of contradictory opinions and experiences into a signal that might finally provide answers to the perhaps most fundamental question that Battlestar Galactica raises, namely, what does it mean to be human in a world in which the boundaries between man and machine, self and other, has been utterly compromised?

Even though the uncertainty arising from this compromised position is inscribed at the heart of Battlestar Galactica‘s diegesis — an aspect that serial television, with both its drive toward an open-ended future and its worlds full of reminders of the past, would presumably thrive on — it appears that uncertainties of this magnitude need to be brought to an at least temporary resolution. As such, we discover at the end of the most recent season that four out of the five previously secret Cylon models are in fact members of Galactica’s own crew. Being literally hailed by a signal that only they can hear, figured as an unidentifiable but also strangely familiar melody disrupted by static that is transmitted through various sources ranging from old transistor radios to the ship itself, the four crew members meet in an abandoned storage room and concede to themselves and to each other that they must indeed be Cylons (discovering one’s “true self” has never been that easy before). They react by desperately clinging to their humanity in an attempt once more to uphold compromised boundaries between “good” and “bad,” human and machine, past and present, origin and destiny — “I’m Saul Tigh. I’m an officer in the Colonial Fleet. Whatever else I am, whatever else it means, that’s the man I want to be,” one of them declares.

Tigh searching for the origin of the mysterious signal

Tigh searching for the origin of the mysterious signal that has been transmitted to him and other crew members on the Galactica

Even the mysterious melody of this episode is recuperated from the uncertain space between signals and noise: it turns out to be a remixed version of “All Along the Watchtower” by Bob Dylan. We might consider the incorporation of the song merely as self-indulgence on the part of producer Ron Moore (as he admitted in the podcast about the episode, he had always wanted to include the song in a TV program), but we can also see it as instance of nostalgic longing for the recent past. The late 1960s, the time when “All Along the Watchtower” had its debut, was also a time of fundamental uncertainties structured around America’s involvement in a complicated war overseas; but through the lens of history, the fault lines of that conflict seem neat and identifiable. In fact, a closer look at both Battlestar Galactica‘s mise-en-scene and narrative construction reveals an abundance of these nods to the past. In homage to the original Battlestar Galactica series, much of the set decoration recalls the style used in the 1978 show: old phone handsets, transistor radios, and books with their corners cut off are ubiquitous on the Galactica. Beyond their significance as acknowledgments of the earlier series, these remnants of “outdated” technology gain new significance in the current cultural context as well as within Battlestar Galactica‘s diegesis. Take, for example, the Galactica’s “museum-worthy” computer system, which consists of independently operating units rather than a network. It is precisely this failure to be up-to-date that saves the Galactica during the initial Cylon attack: The non-networked computer system isn’t prone to a Cylon computer virus that infects the other, more “modern” ships (thus offering the Galactica a moment of salvation, as I mentioned earlier). This nostalgic celebration of nearly-obsolete technology coincides with post-9/11 fears of a networked world, in which terrorist cells might “abuse” the “freedom of information” granted on the internet to co-ordinate attacks against the United States.

Battlestar Galactica‘s easily decipherable criticism of the war on terror is thus frequently interrupted by random bouts of noise emerging from the narrative uncertainties that are mapped onto various aspects of the relationship between humans, Cylons, history and technology. As a way out of these uncertainties, the technological past appears as seductive refuge for both the viewer and Galactica’s human survivors. It seems to recall a time when it was still possible to distinguish terrorists from upstanding citizens, humans from Cylons, utopian visions from dystopian nightmares, self from other, signals from noise — even if this past is a retrofitted fantasy brought to us in the form of recycled television.

Author Bio:

Melanie E.S. Kohnen is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of American Civilization at Brown University. Her dissertation is entitled “Out of the Closet? The Discourse of Visibility, Sexuality, and Queer Representation in American Film, Television, and New Media, 1969-Present.” In addition to her work on the relationships among gender, sexuality, and the media, she is interested in the transnational ties between the U.S. and Asia, particularly concerning the consequences of migration, imperialism, and globalization. She also serves as Managing Editor of Digital Humanities Quarterly.

Image Credits:
1. Commemorative wall on the Galactica, screencap provided by author.
2. Cylon occupation on New Caprica, ibid.
3. Tigh searching for the origin of the mysterious signal, ibid.

Please feel free to comment.

Toaster-Frakkers and Remote Controls: Technophilia, Cylons, and the Archival Drive

The interpenetration of machine and flesh
The interpenetration of machine and flesh

The interpenetration of machine and flesh

The term “technophilia” — which is often associated with sci-fi and cult genres — generally denotes an almost comically overdeveloped love affair with technology. But, in exploring the notion of technophilia in relation to Battlestar Galactica, I would ask, for the moment, that we take the notion of technophilia quite seriously as a way of conceptualizing our own relation to technology and the construction and operation of desire in our everyday lives. What is it in technological objects and our interactions with them that generates such a powerful affective charge? These are questions that Battlestar Galactica also takes very seriously through its portrayal of the Cylons as living embodiments of technology, making it an exemplary instance of the dynamics that I am bringing together, here, under the title of technophilia. Before discussing the specifics of the program, though, let me detour for a moment to explain the concerns that are inherent to technology and how desire and technology interrelate.

Technology is, itself, more than simply a means to an end. While technology is something that we understand (rightly) as a tool that we use in facing problems ranging from the astronomical to the mundane, the immediate use-value of technology doesn’t seem fully to account for humanity’s romance with the machine. To begin with, we could say that technology extends our reach in the world both literally and figuratively as it makes possible and brings into being new possibilities themselves what would otherwise fall beyond our grasp and perhaps even our understanding. This becomes more evident when one considers the role of modern, autonomous technology, which works precisely at the level of possibility and potential; it serves to reveal the potential hidden within the natural world and, at least we hope, the potential within ourselves as well. Technology stands always in relation to this potential as a way of unlocking it and keeping it in reserve, always ready for future use, and, in this way, technology can be thought of as framing or even structuring this potential: giving it some manageable form that brings it closer to us and gives us access to the potential that lies at an imperceptible level beneath the surface of our knowledge and beyond the borders of our everyday apperception.

The Cylons interface with the control center of their ship

The Cylons interface with the control center of their ship

In this sense, the power of technology is to unveil the potency of the world around us and to give us the means to bring about whatever ends. Rather than existing purely to facilitate an end, technology exists as pure means and, as such, technology seems both to draw us nearer to the possible satisfaction of our desires and yet stands as a permanent intermediary between us and the objects for which we strive, thereby enacting a dynamic in which those things that we want are brought closer to us, while, at the same time, deferred. In this way, technology would seem not only to interact with our desires but also to mimic their operations as well. Further, if technology seems to exhibit the same structure as our desire, it is important to keep in mind that technology also gives structure to our desires. Indeed, one might say that technology informs our desires; more-so if, again, we take this word quite literally and parse it, “in-form”, to reveal its roots in a notion of giving shape to something both at a conceptual and material level. I think that it is in this double sense of informing possibility that we find some of the reasons for technology’s affective dimension. Technology lends to our desires a certain structuring aspect that, in the broadest sense, gives form and shape to those things that we love. The Cylons in Battlestar Galactica represent this, in that they give shape to our greatest hopes, fears, and questions concerning technology. Cylons bring together this intersection of possibility and desire within real bodies that are shown repeatedly as objects of desire and that bring about the literal instantiation of the concerns of technophilia that I have traced. Yet keeping in mind that the Cylons are televisual representations and not, at least in our world, truly existing technological forms, another aspect of the technophilic emerges: the way that our fears and desires, within the context of technology, are literally recorded and compiled by technology, in this case through the medium of television. Thus, one of the most interesting things about Battlestar Galactica is how it adds to the general archive in which these questions of technology are addressed.

An example of these aspects of Battlestar Galactica and the representational work performed by the Cylons will no doubt help to ground what could otherwise seem like a highly abstract discussion. It is useful, then, to begin by looking at how the Cylons are portrayed and some of the ways in which they embody the issues and problems that have been raised here — and we can begin most fruitfully with the concept of the archive. The archive is more than simply an instance of recording, organizing and filing. It has its roots in the systems and principles of technology, which, as previously noted, give shape and informs. Yet, the archive exists more broadly as well as a conceptual technology that produces order providing structure to what might otherwise exist in disarray and making regular the disorganized mass of information that we encounter on a day-to-day basis. The archive is a prime example of how technology therefore also encloses or limits possibility, keeping it preserved and ready for future use. Archives function as a kind of cultural memory and have even served as models for understanding the way that our own memory works: yet, for all that archives are constructed for the purpose of giving form to the past and providing a record of history, what is truly at issue for the archive, given the question of potential that I’ve discussed, is nothing less than the future. Thus, the archive reveals its own position within the phylum of technology (more broadly) through its investment in the possibilities inherent in a notion of the future. In some sense, it is for future generations that we archive in the first place and it is towards the future, via this desire or drive to preserve and bring about these generations, that technology leads us.

The Hybrid
The Hybrid

The Hybrid

Within the on-screen space of Battlestar Galactica, the Cylons illustrate these questions of technophilia through the representational work that they perform both in relation to the remnants of humanity and in and of themselves. Within the narrative of the show, the Cylons are technological forms that are very much invested in the body and its pleasures and these representations seem to take on the issue of desire and technology quite directly. One question that comes immediately to mind in relation to the Cylons might be: why is it that Cylons need (or want) sexual desires at all, let alone require a highly sexualized society in which “personal” fantasies are literally projected onto the walls and haptic technology (one might infer) extends beyond merely touch-based interfaces into otherwise uncharted territories of inter-cylon interaction? Perhaps the best instance of this can be seen in the figure of the Hybrid, whose interrelation with technology exists beyond an epidermal relation to become, in fact, an actual incorporation of the body within technology. The Hybrid’s body is coterminous with the Cylon ship itself, whose movements she directs, and who, in a fantastic example of the pleasures that technology seems capable of bringing, seems ecstatic at the release of this unlocked potential. Thus, the Hybrid serves as the perfect figure of technophilia within the program. Of course, answers to the questions of sexuality and the Cylons readily come to mind when one considers the narrative appeal and significance of the show to viewers: but, more than that, this question illustrates the position of technology within the economy of our own desires.

As living embodiments of technology, the Cylons represent the fears of the excess potential that may be unleashed by the super-productive capabilities of rapidly evolving technological forms; at the same time, they give us an example of the paranoid logic inherent in a suspicion that some form of an independently desiring technology might deliberately stand between us and the objects to which we are drawn. In terms of the archive, the Cylons represent this technological form at two distinct levels. First, within the narrative of the show, Cylons exist as the logical culmination of the archive: as the perfect system for the preservation and transmission of knowledge in what amounts to an embodied system of serial immortality. Each individual Cylon is a “living” archive of experiences that are passed on whenever one body is killed. Rather than perishing, the consciousness is downloaded and inscribed into a new body that exactly replicates the old in a system of pure memory. And just as the technology of the archive is fundamentally oriented towards the future, so too are the Cylons as they seek guidance through prophecy, search for Earth, and exhibit an interest in the mysterious shape of things to come.

The Hybrid’s ecstatic expression as she directs a faster-than-light jump

The Hybrid’s ecstatic expression as she directs a faster-than-light jump

Yet, most significantly for us, as viewers, is the second level at which the Cylons represent and figure the archive, which takes place not within the narrative of Battlestar Galactica but through the way that TV itself functions within this framework of technophilia. One might say that by showing us these representations of technology through the example of the Cylons and the narrative flows of Battlestar Galactica, television is the technology that is actually responsible for bringing these technophilic dimensions to our attention. Thus, television enacts the very mechanisms of technologized desire in how it displays those things that we want yet simultaneously proves to be the barrier through which we can never reach. Television also serves as an archival technology along similar lines to the Cylons through the way that images and sounds are recorded and transmitted. And as TV continues to intersect with new digital media, the possibilities of archiving continue to multiply — as do the promises and limitations, the opportunities and manifestations of technophilia.

Author Bio:

David Bering-Porter is a doctoral candidate in the department of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University, studying new media and bio-power through mediations of the body and the archive. His dissertation explores the expression of uncanny vitality in psychoanalysis, science, and zombie movies.

Image Credits:
1. The interpenetration of machine and flesh, screencap provided by author.
2. The Cylons interface with the control center of their ship, ibid.
3. The Hybrid, ibid.
4. The Hybrid’s ecstatic expression as she directs a faster-than-light jump, ibid.

Please feel free to comment.

Cataloging Knowledge: Gender, Generative Fandom, and the Battlestar Wiki

Battlestar Insignia

Battlestar Insignia

In December 2003, the re-envisioned Battlestar Galactica premiered on the Sci-Fi Channel. Unlike the earlier Glen Larson Battlestar Galactica, this new series quickly offered a darker fictive universe, integrating issues like government corruption, post-9/11 terrorism, the status of propaganda, religious extremism, and genocide that few other American television shows have dared to tackle in such depth. Just as the Sci-Fi Channel has endeavored to move into uncharted BSG territory with the new series, so have BSG fans charted the course. For example, female-led fanfic and icon sharing BSG communities set up on LiveJournal generate content on a daily, if not hourly, basis. These fanfic communities have attracted much attention in recent years as media scholars study fans’ innovative work. However, other BSG fans find their creative outlet in another format: the wiki. Unlike the online fanfic communities, the few BSG wiki communities — most notable of which is a group of twelve-hundred-plus users on Battlestar Wiki — tend to be heavily male. The Battlestar Wiki collects and catalogs ships, spaces, characters, and vocabulary related to Battlestar Galactica: a series that’s own diegetic world collects and catalogs everything from missing colonists to Cylons to all information about Earth. (Interestingly, these common practices in data collection, both to remember the past and to gain a better knowledge of the future, cross from Galactica’s memorial hallway to Battlestar Wiki’s online articles.) Through the reappropriation of images and an almost encyclopedic knowledge of all things BSG, fans on the Battlestar Wiki gain ownership by unhinging parts, rebuilding texts, and re-exhibiting the series online. While wikis are popularly understood as stemming from a “collective impulse” (i.e. gathering “just the facts”), I’ll explore the Battlestar Wiki to address its users’ “creative impulse” as well as to consider how gender may or may not impact the generative activities surrounding wiki construction.

Battlestar Wiki front page

Battlestar Wiki front page


Observations of gender divides forming around reading practices and fan community construction are by no means new. In 1986, reader-response critic David Bleich surveyed how male and female students read canonical literary texts. He concludes that the men that he studied tended to read for authorial meaning, noting a “strong narrational voice” shaping the text, whereas the women “experienced the narrative as a world, without a particularly strong sense that this world was narrated into existence.” ((David Bleich (1986). “Gendered Interests in Reading and Language.” In Gender and Reading: Essays on Readers, Texts and Contexts, eds. Elizabeth A. Flynn and P. P. Schewickert. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 239.)) Bleich also observes that female readers saw their own “tacit inferences” as part of the story, whereas men disregarded such inferences and focused more on textual “accuracy.” Henry Jenkins (1992) adopts Bleich’s conclusions, translating them from the literary to the televised with his comparison of female Star Trek fans with male Twin Peaks fans. ((Henry Jenkins (1992). Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge, 108.)) Jenkins suggests that while the two communities’ activities parallel one another, as each engages in repeated re-readings of common narratives and draws on secondary texts for added information, differences still appear. To summarize, Jenkins notes that women read Star Trek associationally, looking for interrelationships between their lives and the characters’ lives, while men read texts linearly, looking for additional information from characters and their relationships to resolve their own syntagmatic questions concerning plot development. Jenkins’s and Bleich’s conclusions, however, focus more on finding gendered differences in fans’ applications of texts, rather than looking at one important commonality: all fans studied are interested in better understanding characters and relationships in order to answer their own questions about the text. To bring this back to the Battlestar Wiki, male wiki contributors likely watch the series with the same interest in Lee Adama’s marriage or in the latest new clue toward finding Earth as female fanfic writers; however, wiki contributors choose to add a stub rather than write a drabble. In both cases, fans build off the text by creating their own versions of characters, plot points, or story arcs.

In addition to reading strategies, a sense of identity and “belonging” also plays an important role in online community construction. In a study of children’s social networks and fandom in southeast England (2002), Suki Ali looks at how reading strategies are used by friends in the process of formulating ethnic and gendered identifications. She finds that the notion of “belonging” to a particular social circle influences tastes and media consumption. Rather than thinking about group organization as “like finds like,” Ali suggests that children become like and “like like” because of social pressures to belong to a specific group. ((Suki Ali (2002). “Friendships, Fandom and Power: Gender and Cultural Expertise’ in Discourse.” The Journal of Culture in Education. Special Edition on Friendship.)) Although this conclusion resembles the traditional concept of “peer-pressure,” if we take Ali’s findings into adult fandom, they point to a process of media consumption based not only on personal tastes but the tastes and suggestions of online friends (or prospective online friends). Television fan communities thus can be formed partially through a sort of prosyletization process in which one “converts” or “is converted” into both a fan and a member of a specific fan community. Further, one may be “converted” into a fan of technological formations themselves: that is, online community members become taken with a technology just as much as they’re taken with a text or an online buddy.

Ali’s concept fits with the crossover between the popular Wikipedia and the lesser-known Battlestar Wiki. Once one learns a particular platform, for example, it becomes easy to participate in other incarnations of that digital format. Those Wikipedians who assiduously filled out the original Battlestar Galactica entry thus likely went on to participate in the Battlestar Wiki and other wiki communities as well. In practice, the Battlestar Wiki community formed not necessarily because of a common reading strategy, but because of a devotion to the BSG text and the wiki format.


In order to contribute to the wiki, one must have knowledge of BSG as well as wiki operation and edit culture. In addition, knowledge of other texts is also helpful, as users construct complex cross-listings for characters and terms. Sometimes these complex cross-listings can become sites of play. The entry for “toaster,” for example, not only contains a definition and an etymology, but the toaster even has a “user profile” that includes a both a photograph of a Cylon Centurion soldier (nicknamed by colonists a “toaster”) and a picture of an everyday American toaster used to toast bread. A disclaimer on the page notes the comical link between BSG fantasy and everyday life: “This page is Silly.”

Battlestar Wiki entry for Toaster

Battlestar Wiki entry for “Toaster”

These instances of inside jokes on the wiki suggest a more dynamic community generating this content than, say, occurs with Encyclopedia Britannica. The toaster entry displays users’ attempts not only to construct meaning and order for the BSG text, but it also shows users drawing interrelationships between the text and their everyday lives to create a “hybrid toaster,” which is half fantasy-robot-soldier and half common-American-kitchen-appliance. This layering of texts therefore does something very different than a conventional encyclopedia: it intentionally complicates an entry rather than providing “transparent” clarification.

The general goal of most wiki contributors, however, is not to draw connections between the text and real life but to catalog and clarify all things BSG. Unlike much fanfic that speculates on what happens before or after a particular episode or show ends, wiki users cast their nets wide, creating thousands of short articles. Their work, therefore, initially resembles less the creative process of an MFA graduate and more the indexical aim of librarian. Each BSG episode, for example, is given its own page complete with sub sections. The “Downloaded” episode contains eight sections, including: “1 Overview, 2 Summary, 2.1 Teaser, 2.2 Act 1, 2.3 Act 2, 2.4 Act 3, 2.5 Act 4, 2.6 On Galactica, 3 Notes, 4 Analysis, 5 Questions, 6 Official Statements, 7 Noteworthy Dialogue, and 8 Guest Stars.” Furthermore, in “Downloaded,” a Number Three introduces the verb “to box.” Shortly thereafter, someone created a “Boxing” entry on the wiki, complete with specific examples, images, and a disambiguation clause differentiating between “boxing a Cylon” (downloading a Cylon’s consciousness into cold storage indefinitely) and a “boxing” match (the combat sport). Users’ attention to detail causes the wiki to resemble the “fact-based” Wikipedia or traditional encyclopedias. Yet, it’s important to remember that the Battlestar Wiki collects “facts” about a fantasy series. The character biographies, episode summaries, and noteworthy dialogue stem from fan speculation as users choose and edit their favorite BSG highlights.

This choosing process leads wiki users to construct boundaries: speculative issues surrounding gender and sexuality, for example, have little to no place on the wiki. Thus, while the site offers a detailed list of usage examples for the word “frak,” there is still very little discussion on the wiki surrounding potentially gay characters — a topic well examined in fanfic communities. In fact, when one types “queer” into a Battlestar Wiki search, a page appears with auto-generated text stating, “Man created the Cylons, but man has yet to create the page titled ‘queer.’” ((Battlestar Wiki users started a gender and sexuality discussion in May 2007. In December 2007, a page was created to redirect “queer” searches to discussions of sexuality in both the original and the reimagined series.))

Battlestar Wiki search results

Battlestar Wiki search results

While users reserve the wiki for publishing “facts,” they’ve established another space to catalog fans’ parodies and satire. The Wiki Frakr is “a mockapedia, an encyclopedia dedicated to mocking and having fun at the expense of Battlestar Galaxitive.” Making light of the wiki format as well as the often dark BSG universe, the Wiki Frakr exists separate from the official wiki, allowing allows contributors to speculate wildly on the series outside the Battlestar Wiki’s indexical aim. The humor, however, which includes an index of “notable b00bz in BSG,” embraces male heterosexuality often at the expense of female or potentially queer characters. Here, a search for “queer” reveals an entry for Felix Gay-Duh (a poor pun on the character Felix Gaeta’s last name). While the Frakr thus was established to be a generative play space for fans, it operates as a segregated space, keeping “what’s creative and funny” off the Battlestar Wiki’s “fact-based” pages.


While the wiki does not include fanvids or drabbles, Battlestar Wiki users write about beloved characters, items, and practices. In fact, they interact with BSG not just through what Bleich or Jenkins might call “collecting,” “mastering,” or “conquering” a text, but through a generative process requiring both an intimacy with the text and a creative drive. Unlike the common assumption that the wiki is seen and used as an introductory reference source, wikis and other archival systems in effect produce modes of thinking through how they define “fact.” Julia Martin and David Colman remind us that the archive is “a living ecosystem, where information and its delivery systems are recognized as dynamic, highly changeable, and inhabited by humans.” ((Julia Martin and David Coleman (2007). “The Archive as an Ecosystem” Journal of Electronic Publishing 7.3.)) The wiki as an ecosystem is created and maintained by fans of the series and should be viewed as a changing site of opinions and observations rather than a static reference tool.

Thinking about the wiki as fundamentally generative brings the Battlestar Wiki much closer to fanfic and other the creative endeavors classified traditionally as “female fan initiated.” Still, while the Battlestar Wiki provides a site for subversive narratives, the community tends to adhere to a “just the facts” approach. This, however, may not derive from strict Battlestar Wiki community boundaries as much as from how Battlestar Wiki users, and wiki users more generally, see the wiki itself. Rather than being viewed as a tabula rasa to be filled and edited by fans, wikis have been seen and used largely as online encyclopedias (likely due to Wikipedia’s popularity). Thinking about the wiki as a space always created and maintained by people could significantly change not only popular understandings of wikis and how they work, but also the makeup of wiki communities and the type of content ultimately produced. As online technologies like the wiki continue to develop, fans seeking to update and preserve texts will be faced with a growing number of options. Conceptualizing the content they create not simply as a “fact based” reference tool but as a changing, dynamic text in itself will help establish more diverse uses for the growing array of formats as well as draw important connections between communities, content, and modes of delivery that may initially appear dissimilar and even contradictory, thereby opening up even more possibilities for thinking through and across techno-cultures and texts.

Author Bio:

Sarah Toton is an American Studies PhD student in Emory University’s Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts. Her research interests include media studies and twentieth-century American popular culture.

Image Credits:
1. Battlestar Insignia
2. Battlestar Wiki front page, screen capture provided by author.
3. Battlestar Wiki entry for “Toaster,” ibid.
4. Battlestar Wiki search results, ibid.

Please feel free to comment.

Hera Has Six Mommies (A Transmedia Love Story)

Girlslash goggles

Girlslash goggles

Cult television’s signature allure is the romance it mediates between a show and its audience. Being in a room with Mary McDonnell, a convergence that felt as vertiginously improbable as stepping into a sci-fi plot, was a perfect illustration of this libidinal potency. Programs like Battlestar Galactica promise fans that, if our devotion is strong enough, it can penetrate the dimensional barrier of the TV screen, allowing us to reach through the glass and bring our reality into contact with a parallel universe. Indeed, love is cult TV’s reproductive technology, because it is only by inspiring our passion across this gap that television succeeds economically, spawning the serials, franchises, and spinoffs that are its forms of self-perpetuation. On Battlestar Galactica, love is also the Cylons’ reproductive technology: they believe, for example, that only cross-species romance could have produced Hera, the first Cylon-human hybrid baby and “the shape of things to come.” Cult TV is likewise “the shape of things to come,” as television at large is increasingly embracing its strategies for generating fan desire, deploying complex and fragmentary worlds that demand creative involvement and discontinuous storytelling that bridges time, space, and media formats in order to intensify viewer engagement. Television is learning that its offspring can be most fruitful when, like Hera, they’re orphaned: disseminated outside their biologically, technologically, and patriarchally authorized families and adopted by their audiences.

Unlike in the Colonial Fleet, where computer networks are forbidden because they’re vulnerable to Cylon hacks and viruses, Battlestar Galactica‘s Powers That Be welcome fandom’s hive mind into their textual networks. One of the franchise’s innovations is to make the process of TV production itself available as content, offering a smorgasbord of excess onscreen and behind-the-scenes material on its official web site. TV form has always been characterized by diffusion, collaboration, and contingency, but rarely has it marketed and propagated these qualities so openly, endlessly recycling and reworking the show’s text and putting the show’s metatext in intercourse with fans. These open networks, like the Fleet’s computers, are vulnerable to media technologies. I’d like to introduce you to one such apparatus from the fan’s toolkit: the “girlslash goggles.” I have a prop to illustrate this prosthesis, but you don’t actually need enormous pink sunglasses to engage this specular technology — I invite you all to put on your own imaginary pair now. First, though, let me explain what girlslash goggles do: they enable you to see lesbian desire where it might otherwise be invisible (there’s a corresponding male version, boyslash goggles, that you may wish to test drive on your own). Now that we’re properly equipped, I can tell you a love story about how six women on Battlestar Galactica (three human, three Cylon) made adoptive families for Hera into and out of their passion for each other, and about how some fans craved these families enough to breach the TV screen to find them.

Laura hands Hera off to Maya

Laura hands Hera off to Maya

Girlslash goggles represent a visual machinery that interfaces with television’s contradictions, excesses, gaps, and fragments — what I’m calling its orphans. Battlestar Galactica‘s messianic child, Hera, isn’t literally an orphan; she’s the baby, biologically, of a Cylon-human couple. But before she’s even born, she’s tied by blood to President Laura Roslin, who is miraculously cured of cancer on her deathbed by an injection of Hera’s hybrid cells. Laura ordains the genesis of a new family for Hera when she secretly hands her off to a foster mother, Maya, with the collusion of the doctor and Laura’s trusted advisor Tory. This family is thus, on the one hand, authorized under presidential control, but, on the other, it’s outside the control of closed lineages of genes and parentage; it’s already, in this sense, a “queer” family.

The first narrative orphan I’d like to look at (through our girlslash goggles) is similarly un-linear: this is the temporally disconnected 20-minute segment that closed season two with a 1-year jump into the future. With explanation of the political and interpersonal configurations suggested here deferred over the summer hiatus, this stray scenario provided a fertile medium for the cultivation of fans’ imaginative desires and their ensuing pre-rewritings of the lost year.

Laura and Maya at school

Laura and Maya at school

A 90-second scene of Laura and Maya co-teaching and, as many conjectured, co-parenting at the settlement’s school is a case in point. Take a moment to speculate, via these spectacles, on the disproportionate intimacy of this quasi-domestic tableau: instead of the typical shot-reverse-shot structure, this conversation is edited with both characters in the frame, standing close and touching easily. The triangulation of this intimacy through their shared connection to Hera, even or especially in this minute installment, spawned a full-blown and deeply invested fan narrative of maternal lesbian romance. This dyad was amplified in season three by equally fleeting scenes that projected Tory into Roslin’s inner circle during the lost year planet-side and thereafter.

Tory apologizes to Laura

Tory apologizes to Laura

Of course, there were orphans of this storyline in turn. In the podcast for the episode “Collaborators,” for example, producer Ron Moore describes shooting a subplot wherein Tory betrays Laura politically, feeding information to her rival that results in underground executions. When these events were cut during the production process, the remaining interactions between Laura and Tory were sutured back together around the death of Maya and the loss of Hera, whose escape Tory was supposed to help orchestrate. The fervor of Tory’s emotional apology exceeds the pared down narrative basis of its reorganized timeline. This overflowing intensity, screened by the girlslash goggles’ optical algorithm, materializes as love — the love of these women for the child, for her adoptive mother, and for each other. Fostering this prophetic and apocalyptic child, outside the bounds of an authorized origin story, is what brings Laura, Maya, and Tory together within the program. In parallel, this frayed maternal thread provides the seam for similarly unauthorized modes of seeing and desiring among queer fan families.

Three, Caprica, Hera and Boomer

Three, Caprica, Hera and Boomer

Admittedly, such love stories tend to remain invisible to viewers not equipped (metaphorically, that is) with specialized eyewear — at least, I’d suggest, among the human characters. In Battlestar Galactica‘s symbology, most questions and figures of difference are displaced onto the Cylons, including sexual deviance. When Cylons Three, Caprica, and Boomer inherit the mantle of motherhood from their human counterparts, this Cylon foster family is of a piece with Three’s fascination with Caprica, a configuration that shades gracefully into the infamous implied threesome. This is, for the record, the only queer sex on Battlestar Galactica to date that can be seen without custom glasses. ((The recent TV movie “Razor” offered Battlestar Galactica‘s first explicit acknowledgement of a gay relationship: a retroactively-established romance between Admiral Cain and the Six clone known as Gina. While sex between the Cylons+Gaius triad was provocatively implied, however, Gina and Cain’s private intimacies are left entirely to our imagination (which is more than up to the task).))

Gaius, Caprica and Three in bed together

Gaius, Caprica and Three in bed together

On the one hand, Cylon sexuality offers a quasi-utopian vision of a world where boundaries are more fluid. Lucy Lawless (who plays Three) described this permissive philosophy on a 2006 Comic-Con panel: “Cylons… haven’t attached some sort of morality to nudity and sexuality and all that stuff, and they’re extremely experimental.” On the other hand, this move marks bisexuality as categorically alien, as if it is only in a culture of evil robots that such sexual “experimentation” could take place. Moreover, such non-procreative sex troubles reproduction even for the unrepressed Cylon “family.” The Cylon system of direct, asexual replication — cloning bodies and memories within each model — is disrupted by the individual desires of Cylons in love: for her perversions, Three is ultimately sentenced to the Cylon version of death. The parallel Cylon project of human-like sexual reproduction is equally flummoxed by the multiplication of mothers, as evidenced when Hera contracts a mysterious illness under Boomer’s care, and only a return to her bio-family offers hope for a cure. Thus ends the saga of Hera’s lesbian mommies, at least for now. So while the spaces for queer families and lesbian spectacles are there in the interstices of the program, it’s difficult to avoid the impression that, when all is said and done, a child belongs with her (heterosexual, if perhaps otherwise “queer”) birth parents.

Three and Caprica share an intimate moment

Three and Caprica share an intimate moment

The persistence of heteronormative containment within this storyline speaks to the ways that Battlestar Galactica‘s promiscuous textuality, its diffusion across multiple sites outside the show itself, its refreshingly open canon, still doesn’t escape a hierarchy of form with the TV episodes at the top. The deleted scenes, the commentary, the interviews are still bastard children, and the families of fan desire that bloom around them are still by some measures illegitimate. Battlestar Galactica offers the ground for collective cultivation of epic lesbian love stories, in the furrows between the fragments of the text and the technologies of seeing that it puts into play. At the same time, it offers conditions of visibility that make these families always possible but never perceptible to the naked eye, that writes lesbian (and other queer) desires out of the story as it is authored and authorized (as Ron Moore put it in a blog post, “I think homosexuality definitely exists in the world of Galactica, but I frankly haven’t found a way to portray it yet”). Now, this is not to say that this erasure doesn’t bring its own pleasures. If cult TV holds out as its lure a love that I’ve called interdimensional — love that spans the gap between televisual and real worlds — this potential is, by definition, never fully realized. By not giving us what we want, by leaving some stories orphaned and some desires unrequited, TV keeps us coming back for more, thereby reproducing its audience. The play of queer visibility across textual conventions, media formats, and optical equipment leaves apertures for our labor, for our imagination, and for the love that brings viewers together into our own reproductive, mediated families.

Author Bio:

Julie Levin Russo is a doctoral candidate in Modern Culture and Media at Brown University. She has presented on such topics as media convergence, online TV fandom, and cybersexuality at numerous conferences, and her work was recently published in Camera Obscura and the anthology C’Lick Me: A Netporn Studies Reader. Her dissertation project is entitled Indiscrete Media: Television/Internet Convergence and Economies of Online Lesbian Fan Communities, and includes case studies of Battlestar Galactica, Law & Order: SVU, and The L Word. She welcomes you to find her online.

Image Credits:
1. Girlslash goggles, photograph by author.
2. Laura hands Hera off to Maya, screencap by author.
3. Laura and Maya at school, ibid.
4. Tory apologizes to Laura, ibid.
5. Three, Caprica, Hera and Boomer, ibid.
6. Gaius, Caprica and Three in bed together, ibid.
7. Three and Caprica share an intimate moment, ibid.

Please feel free to comment.

Ownership and Desire: Fans’ and Producers’ Polymorphous Triangulations

A passionately antagonistic triangulation

A passionately antagonistic triangulation

Although heralded by critics as a sophisticated reinvention of science fiction, the 2004 version of Battlestar Galactica also reserves significant screen time and receives significant fan devotion for its portrayal of romance and love triangles. Often denigrated as “low” entertainment, the use of prolonged, convoluted courtship narratives to sustain viewers’ emotional involvement may appear paradoxical for the critically acclaimed new Battlestar. However, as Battlestar Galactica continues to make itself (in)famous for launching drastic changes in cast, location, purpose, and characterization with little or no notice, its writers and producers walk a fine line, both depending upon and toying with viewers’ affections as they manipulate beloved characters’ romantic destinies. Eve Sedgwick theorized that Victorian literary romantic triangles sustain intense attraction and aggression while establishing equivalence between antagonists for a shared object. ((Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men. New York: Columbia UP, 1985.)) Analogously, fans propose their own equivalence to culture industry producers by retaining their investments in non-canonical romantic relationships even after the “official” narrative triangle collapses on-screen, sometimes postulating an alternate, independent existence for their couple of greater value than the professional version. Thus producers’ and fans’ negotiation of the ownership and control of present-day popular culture and mythology manifests in passionate parallel triangulations through the shared romantic object; as fictional characters vie for libidinal fulfillment, they also stage larger struggles over the value and validity of viewers’ libidinal investments.

Battlestar Galactica’s use and abuse of its viewers’ affections offer one lens for thinking about the way that audiences interact with producers’ intentions and genre conventions in a media environment increasingly characterized by postmodern genre hybridity and convergence. Two other case studies outline similar tensions at play when producers and academics attempt to come to grips with increasingly heterogeneous, stratified, and vocal audiences. First, in his 2002 book Using the Force, Will Brooker discusses the “Campaign for a Female Boba Fett,” a web project designed by a female Star Wars fan both to convince other fans that the Boba Fett of the original trilogy could have been female and to convince George Lucas to explicitly make her so by casting an actress to play Fett in the prequels. ((Brooker, Will. Using the Force: Creativity, Community, and Star Wars Fans. NY: Continuum, 2002.)) Citing Lucas’ characterization of Star Wars as a “boys’ film,” Brooker questions what devotees of a female Boba Fett will do after the prequels explicitly assign a male sex and gender to the character. To some extent Brooker’s concerns derive from the site owner’s explicit intention to see her investment appear on screen. However, given that the web page moved to a new service provider and still appears fairly active even years after a professionally produced male Fett appeared on-screen, the suggestion that additional source material may render void the pleasures that viewers find in earlier material seems fundamentally inadequate. ((Toryhoke. The Campaign for a Female Boba Fett. October 31, 2007.)) Fan enjoyment in thinking about Boba Fett as a woman does not simply evaporate in the face of a louder pronouncement of George Lucas’s intentions and pleasures. Yet, this anecdote also outlines the unequal struggle waged between producers and groups of fans over the fate of serialized film and television narratives.

As a second example of the challenges presented by multi-vocal audiences, Scott Rogers presented a paper at the 2007 Southwest/Texas Popular Culture and American Culture Associations Conference on Lost fans and their extensive inter-media networks for gathering and sharing information pertinent to the program’s slowly revealed puzzle. ((Rogers, Scott. “The Lost Fan’s Burden: Class Consciousness and the Price of Lost Fandom.” Southwest/Texas Popular Culture and American Culture Associations Conference. Albuquerque, NM, February 15, 2007. Rogers also offered a cogently argued Marxist critique of the ever higher thresholds of monetary investment necessary for full appreciation of Lost’s transmediated plot.)) While Rogers argued that fans work collaboratively, he also characterized their activities as inherently competitive because individuals race to be the first to figure out all of Lost’s clues. In the question and answer period Rogers readily allowed that his population of interest represented merely one of many entrances into Lost viewership, but he seemed unable to imagine the nature of other viewers’ interests and investments. Thus, he discounted the possibility that Lost will provide anything to inspire fans’ continued involvement once all the island’s puzzles have been revealed, largely because he had previously argued that viewers couldn’t possibly be interested in the dramas of individual characters’ lives apart from those characters’ roles as puzzle pieces. Yet, even when cataclysmic events further Lost’s momentum toward its endgame, many viewers mourn the loss of beloved characters whom they would rather see week after week as happy and fulfilled, or at least growing and interacting, than as dead but symbolically useful. The inability to theorize both romantic and analytic pleasures simultaneously, as well as to infer the emergence of entirely new patterns of viewership, represent central challenges in the analysis of new media and hybrid genres.

These anecdotes begin to suggest the difficulties involved in studying hybrid genres and their stratified audiences, particularly as academics and producers attempt to come to grips with a range of pleasures traditionally coded as feminine. In his discussions of “convergence culture” as exemplified by the program Heroes, Henry Jenkins writes that producers have increasingly turned to elements of melodrama, soap opera, and romance to ensure a wider audience for otherwise traditionally masculine-coded genres like science fiction. ((Jenkins, Henry. The Magic of Back-Story: Further Reflections on the Mainstreaming of Fan Culture. December 5, 2006. Confessions of an Aca-Fan: The Official Weblog of Henry Jenkins.)) Rather than functioning merely as supporting or tertiary storylines, Jenkins argues that characters’ growth and interpersonal relationships have become the central focus for a wave of characteristically postmodern, genre-crossing new television programs like Lost, Heroes, and Battlestar Galactica. However, if, as Jenkins argues, producers have infused androcentric genre codes with supposedly “female” storylines due to viewer demand, these elements often remain strange bedfellows and require constant delicate negotiations between producers, writers, and various groups of fans who often find fulfillment in a program for vastly different reasons.

Thus, by juggling all of the potential payoffs and narrative arcs associated with science fiction, the romance, and soap opera, Battlestar Galactica treads a fine line, always risking the alienation of one or another market share with each narrative decision. Particularly, sudden compound triangulations of on-screen relationships which had seemed fairly fixed and headed toward what many fans saw as a fulfilling romantic conclusions have resulted in heated on-line debates. Commentators charged producers and fellow fans with racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, and sundry other vices based on the position that each implied by preferring or performing one or another conclusion to the complexly triangulated characters. As tempers frayed and insults flew fast and loose, it became quickly apparent that fictional characters’ love lives involve significant stakes and pose wide ranging cultural significance, not only in terms of representational politics but also in terms of how producers and viewers understand their roles in unfinished serial narratives.

Known for its markedly large, racially and ethnically diverse, and gender-integrated cast of characters, Battlestar’s early episodes appeared to offer virtually limitless opportunities for fan investment in particular interpersonal relationships by allowing nearly all of its characters to meet and interact on-screen while also providing copious romantic hints and little romantic closure: a formula that can ideally facilitate fans’ interest in numerous subtextual relationships without formally validating or invalidating any of their pleasures. Thus, while certain characters spent more time together and expressed more positive and negative affect toward each other than other characters, producers could largely avoid slighting groups of fans with wide arrays of investments, including those who found pleasure in non-character-oriented story elements. ((In The X-Files fandom such fans called themselves “noromos,” a designation describing their interest in program elements other than romance, including criminal case studies and/or the program’s supernatural mythology.))

However, producers simultaneously introduced two major plot elements that caused considerable strife. First, as the show continued, a number of initially subtextual relationships became explicitly canonized, providing fans of these pairings with evidence that the “official” version of events supported their interpretation while slighting others. Although this state of affairs and the resultant fan arguments and subsequent stridently subversive readings are hardly unusual — and the specific romantic pairings included portrayals of still contentious inter-racial relationships, both as understood by modern viewers and as understood by the quasi-futuristic inhabitants of Galactica — it is notable that a program widely hailed as genre-expanding and cutting-edge included no explicit depictions of same-sex erotics and few gender atypical couples. In other words it adhered fairly rigidly to broadly heteronormative conventions, refusing, for example, to pair older, high status women with younger, lower status men. ((While the multiplicity of human relationships portrayed on Battlestar Galactica do encompass an impressive range and complexity, they also tend to reinforce the normative position of monogamy, marriage, reproduction, and heterosexuality. The potential non-heteronormative value of the program’s canonical polyamorous relationship between two women and one man was heavily mitigated by the positioning of that relationship as the result of two female Cylons’ desire for the same human man; thus, because the human-form Cylon machines are usually coded as “the enemy,” and the relationship revolved around otherwise heterosexual women’s rivalry for a male heterosexual partner, Battlestar Galactica appeared to code lesbianism as deviant and structured by male desire.))

Nevertheless, producers and writers followed this initial step in a fairly predictable and teleological movement toward closed heterosexual stasis with a key element of soap opera, rather than classic romance narrative. Instead of allowing the conclusion of romantic arcs in a monogamous happily ever after, they turned to a complicated series of triangulations to upset and prolong the drama of Battlestar’s romantic escapades. While nearly every romance eventually became densely triangulated, or even quadrangulated, the already vexed and overly melodramatic association between pilot buddies Kara “Starbuck” Thrace and Lee “Apollo” Adama accumulated a particularly intense network of crisscrossing passionate entanglements.

Battlestar Galactica’s love triangulations

Battlestar Galactica’s love triangulations, interactive visualization

For producers, the introduction of canonical wrinkles in their established interpersonal narratives allows for a nearly infinite re-playing of the well-recognized interest evoked in a courtship plot. However, for fans who deeply involve themselves in both canonical and non-canonical relationships, rapid shifts in characters’ affections for the networks’ fairly transparent market purposes may appear to mock their own deeply passionate investments in one or another erotic outcome. Overall, such tactics complicate Battlestar Galactica’s genre-borrowing. What may at first have appeared to viewers as a fairly straightforward romance in space began to undermine the potential pleasures of romantic closure by offering an unexpected new range of potential desires.

As characters battle through endless romantic obstacles, they also dramatize latent struggles over the validity and meaning of producers’ and viewers’ beliefs, intentions, and ownership of the text. Increasingly multi-vocal, hybrid genre forms often acknowledge the heterogeneity of their audiences by combining stereotypically “male” and “female” pleasures in a single text; yet such layered structures also constantly run the risk of alienating particular devoted viewers by failing to sustain the validity of all these viewership practices simultaneously. Romantic triangles thus serve as one key location where producers and groups of fans demonstrate their influence and cultural power, infusing minute, fictional, interpersonal decisions with broad significance. While producers experiment with pursuing closer ties to fan communities and denigrated genre forms to revitalize series television in an era complicated by new media, fans concretize their own increasing importance to the emerging media landscape by asserting their equivalence with professional producers and entering into their own passionate triangulated antagonisms over the fate of the published text.

Author Bio:

Anne Kustritz recently completed a PhD at the University of Michigan, American Culture Department, and she received her BA in Cultural Studies and Psychology from the University of Minnesota. Her dissertation combined post-structuralist, public sphere, queer, and other cultural studies theory with cyberethnographic study of slash fan fiction communities. Her research interests include creative fan practices, copyright, sexuality, representation, and constructions of deviance and desire.

Image Credits:
1. A passionately antagonistic triangulation, screencap provided by author.
2. Battlestar Galactica’s love triangulations, interactive visualization; data set by Anne Kustritz and Julie Levin Russo.

Please feel free to comment.

Exogenesis: Mind Children and Cultured Images in Battlestar Galactica

Cylon Resurrection Ship

Cylon Resurrection Ship

In “The Work of Art in the Age of Biocybernetic Reproduction,” W.J.T. Mitchell claims that we live in an era where biocybernetic technologies such as cloning, genetic engineering, and artificial intelligence have actually made possible the uncanny fantasy of “the double” come to life. ((W.J.T. Mitchell, “The Work of Art in the Age of Biocybernetic Reproduction,” Modernism / Modernity. 10.3 (Sept. 2003). 481-501.)) At the same time, we are dominated by another form of reproductive technology: visual media and the mass reproduction of images.

The convergence of these two strands of reproductive technologies is ghosted by that seminal text of popular imagination, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The monster of that novel, so often conflated with its creator, initiates a series of fantasies that cross breed with scientific facts around the phenomena of ectogenesis: reproduction outside of the human body. Ectogenesis ranges from the existing technology of invitro (literally “in glass”) fertilization (and, interestingly, the first test tube baby, Louise Brown, was born in 1978, the same year that the original Battlestar Galactica debuted), to as yet science fictional fantasies of gestation, often of mass produced copies, such as the current Battlestar Galactica’s Cylon reproduction, by which dead Cylons resurrect after downloading into new, fully grown bodies in vast vats of goo. From Shelley’s novel onwards, fantasies of ectogenesis have been accompanied by the drive to make visible what has remained hidden: to render the body, and thus knowledge, transparent (or invisible, in the erasure of the mother’s body from the spectacle of reproduction). As relatively routine examples, we see this in the promise of genetic testing to reveal a child’s future or through visual representations of fetal life such as ultrasounds. As a more fantastic televisual example, in season three of Battlestar Galactica, we see the Cylon Three’s serial suicides, motivated by the hope that, if she can just keep her eyes open long enough while being reborn, she will gain a prophetic and complete knowledge of the faces of the “final five.” Her ecstatic knowledge, though, results less in clarity than obscurity: punished for her epistemophilia, her model is now “boxed” and out of view.

Three resurrects

Three resurrects

Of course, the Cylons, for all that they participate in the visual tradition of ectogenesis, are not human offspring merely grown outside the womb. Instead, they are what Artificial Intelligence researcher Hans Moravec has termed “mind children” — the constructed offspring of human mental labor — and like ectogenesis, which divorces humans from birth as the traditional process of entering into the family and the human community at large, mind children hopelessly problematize the question of origins. ((Hans Moravec, Mind Children, Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1990.)) Here, we witness the slide from ectogenesis to exogenesis (meaning “outside origin”). Sometimes used to refer to the theory that life on earth originated elsewhere in the universe, the proximate homonym of exo and ecto straddles a gap that echoes that of the human/Cylon relation. The continuing suspense around identifying the Cylon (for both humans and Cylons with the “Final Five”) marks a failure of recognition, undoing the ability to recognize not only the other but, more insistently, the self. Nowhere was this made more evident than the slow dawning of self-recognition in the episode “Crossroads II” as Tigh, Tyrol, Anders, and Tory recite the lyrics of a remade version of the popular song “All Along the Watchtower,” their own bodies having become mediums of reception and ambivalent repetition.

Where did they Cylons come from? Originally, these mind children were “toasters” (objects), visibly different from their human creators; but the missing link between the toasters and the “skin jobs” has remained a mystery thus far. What is disturbing is how these mind children have come to resemble the human in bodily form. The exogenesis of the Cylons enacts confusion between mind and body, between spirit and corporeality, between content and expression. As Brian Rotman writes, “A principal mode of exogenesis is synthetic assemblage, the coming (or putting) together of independent activities to form a new, functionally unified, and autonomous entity with emergent properties not present in its components” (436). ((Brian Rotman, “Corporeal or Gesturo-haptic Writing,” Configurations 10.3 (Fall 2002), 423-38.)) In other words, Cylons are more than the sum of their parts, exposing the failure of origin as explanatory model.

Made, not born, and then reborn outside of the body, the Cylons manifest an interior made exterior and visible, but also a failed transparency that calls attention to the vital force of images themselves. What results from making the internal activity of human reproduction visible is not an inverted relation between interior and exterior, but a topological uncertainty between the two. A topological relation is one of connection and movement; the Cylons are an example of this as a networked society, but the humans are also subject to this topological sense of the self. Returning to Shelley’s Frankenstein to explain this, while, in the novel, the monster’s birth is a clear example of ectogenesis, this birth is doubled by another origin. In her introduction, Shelley writes: “When I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie” (8-9). ((Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, New York: Penguin, 1992.)) That she would proceed to write a drama of reproductive technology is no surprise, and Battlestar Galactica has extended this theme by explicitly linking the reproductive imaginary force of the Cylons to another form of making the interior visible: the proliferation of hallucinations and the externalization of memory amongst humans and Cylons alike. The Cylons are thus also connected to a different form of exogenesis explicitly linked to visions, yoking the reproductive technologies of biology and media through the play of hallucination, prophecy, and vision. Just as the Cylons render the humans into unwilling nomads by destroying the colonies, so too they have made their own sense of self into a nomadic one. That which we might think of as the most personal experiences of an interior subjectivity — memories, imagination, fantasy — emerge into the environment beyond the boundaries of the corporeal self.

Six and Three in their projected environment

Six and Three in their “projected” environment

Indeed, their ability to project an inner state onto the world around them is a key element of Cylon psychology. As Caprica Six describes it to Baltar in “Torn”: “where you see a ship, I see a beautiful forest.” This immersive relation to the world is what individuates the Cylons, rather than being distinguished visibly from each other by an individual body. They project a subjective experience of the world onto their externalized surroundings, weaving a lived world out of a fabricated fantasy. The precise nature of the mechanism is as yet unclear. Nevertheless, this suggests a relation to the environment that does not stop at the skin and that addresses an incorporeal dimension of the body — that is, if the Cylons are a form of extended mind, we should necessarily see that as a form of extended body as well.

The relation between Baltar and Caprica Six is a key example that exists at the nexus of these logics of reproduction, in which reproduction moves away from being an originary event to an ongoing negotiation with the world. Baltar has a “virtual Six,” and more recently, Six has been shown to have her own “virtual Baltar”: the question of what exactly they are has remains active. As viewers, we have a doubled vision of these encounters as well, both from the point of view of Baltar and Six and from the often-hilarious perspective of an outside onlooker wondering what exactly these two are up to. That so much of this “virtual interaction” has centered on question of identity (Baltar repeatedly asks if he is a Cylon, while Six is accused by virtual Baltar of wanting to be human) but also around the question of reproduction, in which Baltar and Six imagine themselves as Hera’s true parents, makes the link between these two types of reproductive technologies explicit.

But the destabilizing effects of the Cylons are not limited to the boundaries between human and Cylon; they have bled over into the everyday experience of the humans themselves. In other words, like the Baltar/Six relation, we also have a host of other “mixed reality” experiences that signal the topological landscape of interior/exterior, public/private, actual/virtual indistinctions that characterize the series. For example, President Roslin was subject to a series of hallucinations in the first season of the show when, diagnosed with terminal cancer, she began taking the hallucinogenic herb chamalla as a treatment of last resort. Roslin’s visions bled over into diegetic “reality” in several ways, not only finding echoes in sacred texts, but in the indistinction between physical and mental disease that her condition implies. It is fascinating that she was only (temporarily) “stabilized” by an infusion of the blood of the hybrid child Hera. This clarity is tenuous at best, as Roslin is now (ambiguously) part Cylon.

Gaius’s nightmare of resurrection

Gaius’s nightmare of resurrection

Other human characters have likewise been subject to visions: Tigh is haunted by glimpses of his murdered wife, a constant catching her out of the corner of the eye that is the paranoid legacy of the multiple copies of the Cylons themselves. In “A Day in the Life,” we see William Adama constructing a “memory palace,” a mnemonic technique that is supposed to assure mastery of memory by calling all the experiences of life to hand. Once again, though, there is a shifting topology: when Adama externalizes what we normally think of as internal — our memories — as he seeks to recall the names of his crew by locating them in objects in his garden, we see him existing within the memory itself, a shifting geography both spatially and temporally. In a later scene with Roslin, he addresses himself equally to the present (speaking to Roslin), the past (speaking to his wife), and in many respects to the future as well. There is an intimate and vivid reality to his interaction with what seems to be the memory of his wife that is framed by repetition and images — he seeks to contain and locate the memory in the framed photo of his wedding day and in the anniversary, but the temporal repetition of “that date” undoes his efforts. There are many copies, and each copy carries the force of exogenesis or outside origin.

While Shelley’s book asks us to rethink the nature of the human when confronted with its anthropomorphic other, Battlestar Galactica is moving beyond ectogenesis to exogenesis and extending the question to the “incorporeal nature” of the human body itself through models of distributed cognition, extended body, memory, and the virtual reality of images. As such, the Cylons are not simply mind children, but themselves are a kind of cultured image, a term that suggests the uncanny vitality and inhuman liveliness at the heart of our image culture. The Cylons have at best an ambiguous relation to their so-called creators. The humans do not occupy the place of god, and it is this black box of origin (in the non-committal repetition of “they evolved”) — the displacement of the origin, or what Gilles Deleuze might call the “faithlessness of the bad copy” — that inspires a vertiginous relation to the self that marks the indistinction between biological reproductive technologies and the media. ((Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton, New York: Columbia UP, 1994.)) The Cylons, mind children of the human, are at the same time cultured images: images in the sense that there are multiple copies, but also images that are cultured, as in a Petri dish, imbued with a disturbing liveliness beyond any analogy or resemblance to the humans they visually echo. Cylons as such gestate invitro, within the glass of the TV screen: not test tube babies but boob tube babies. As the made, the Cylons displace the idea of original in favor of a model of creative evolution, of which the humans are absolutely a part. What happened in the gap so inadequately filled at the beginning of each episode by “they evolved”? This seems less important and interesting than the ways in which, as cultured images, Cylons both evoke and exceed biological and media technological reproduction alike, a viral infectious non-human form of reproduction — there are many copies.

Author Bio:

Alanna Thain is an assistant professor of cultural studies in the department of English at McGill University in Montreal. Currently, her research focuses on questions of affect, expanded bodies and distributed cognition in the intersections between dance and audiovisual images in the works of William Kentridge, Norman McLaren, Marie Chouinard, David Lynch and others.

Image Credits:
1. Cylon Resurrection Ship
2. Three resurrects, screencap provided by author.
3. Six and Three in their “projected” environment, ibid.
4. Gaius’s nightmare of resurrection, ibid.

Please feel free to comment.

Downloads, Copies, and Reboots: Battlestar Galactica and the Changing Terms of TV Genre

Sharon, Helo, Priestess Elosha, and President Roslin read scripture on Kobol

Sharon, Helo, Priestess Elosha, and President Roslin read scripture on Kobol

    “If you believe in the gods, then you believe in the cycle of time, that we are all playing our parts in a story that is told again, and again, and again throughout eternity.”
    —Laura Roslin, “Kobol’s Last Gleaming I”

To write about Battlestar Galactica at this juncture is a mixed pleasure. Suspended like a ragtag fleet in the trackless months between the end of seasons three and four, digesting a cliffhanger that many fans, including myself, found weak, and contemplating the knowledge that the coming batch of episodes will be the series’ last, my mood toward Galactica has soured. I won’t say the show has jumped the shark. But certainly it has squandered much of its punch: the taut dramatic sinews and bleakly urgent logic of mimesis and subterfuge that made the 2003 miniseries and first season the most wide-awake science fiction on television at the time no longer seem to define the program.

But the very question of shark-jumping — of marking the point at which a TV program ceases to be a unique and pleasurable engine of stories — lies at the heart of Battlestar Galactica’s popular and industrial fortunes, its cycles of renewal and reinvention. Before its sun sets completely, I want to comment on Galactica’s lessons for students of TV’s evolution. For like the endlessly-reproducing Cylons that form one pole of its narrative, Ronald D. Moore’s series is itself a copy, a “download” of generic material from one moment in broadcasting to another. Operationalizing a key line in the Sacred Scrolls of Kobol (“What has happened before will happen again”), Battlestar Galactica is a particularly successful example of TV’s self-cannibalizing habits. Alongside its explorations of gender, race, and politics — and the equally exciting ways in which it is reshaping models of TV distribution — Battlestar Galactica demonstrates how outdated material can be “rebooted” into something bracingly relevant to contemporary audiences.

Undeniably, one of the things that makes today’s Battlestar Galactica so compelling is its sense of speaking with unusual directness to current times. Apocalyptic sneak attack leading to an endless war on terror; the anguished self-justifications and self-recriminations of a democracy turned overnight into imperial war engine, thief of civil rights, and practitioner of torture; and, most subtly and significantly, an edifice of patriarchal privilege wobbling like a Jengo stack amid the destabilizing forces of nth-wave feminism — Battlestar Galactica remaps the confusions of the spanking-new 21st century through the ever-adaptable lens of science fiction.

The original Battlestar Galactica (1978)

The original Battlestar Galactica (1978)

But there’s another kind of remapping at work here, one based more on the rhythms of franchise than of zeitgeist. Moore’s Battlestar Galactica is, of course, a remake or — his preferred term — “reimagining” of Glen A. Larson’s Battlestar Galactica, which ran from 1978-1979. Even in that first, Carter-era incarnation, the show occupied an undecidable space between copy and original; it was judged by many, including George Lucas and 20th Century Fox, to be a bald steal of Star Wars (1977). (Evidence of thievery was not merely textual; two of Lucas’s key behind-the-scenes talents, conceptual artist Ralph McQuarrie and visual-effects guru John Dykstra, defected to the Galactica team.) And following its first cancellation by ABC, the series was followed by the much-loathed “relaunch,” Galactica 1980, which ran just ten episodes before dying on the Nielsen vine.

The irony is not just that the 1978-1980 versions of Battlestar Galactica have now come to be seen as canonical by a subset of fans who reject Moore’s version as being GINO (“Galactica In Name Only”). Popular culture, especially from the 1950s onward, is marked by an alchemical process of nostalgia by which even the most derivative texts (Star Wars being the chief example) grow a callus of originality simply through continual shoulder-bumping with the ripoffs, sequels, and series that follow. Such is the nature of the successful media franchise, doomed to plow forward under the ever-increasing inertia of its own fecund replication.

No, what’s striking about the many iterations of Galactica is how cleanly the coordinates of its fantasy lure have flipped over time, illustrating the ability of genre myths to reconfigure themselves around new cultural priorities. Larson’s Battlestar Galactica, even in its heyday, was pure cheese, a disco-hued mélange of droning chrome robots, scrappy space cowboys, a cute mechanical dog, and endless space battles (whose repetitive nature can be attributed to the exigencies of weekly production; as with the first Star Trek, pricey optical effects were recycled to amortize their cost). Back then, it was fun to fantasize planetary diaspora as effervescent escape; the prospect of being chased from our homeworld by cyclopean robots with a mirror finish seemed, by the late seventies, as giddily implausible as Ronald Reagan moving into the White House.

The reimagined Battlestar Galactica (2006)

The reimagined Battlestar Galactica (2006)

But nowadays, the dream embodied in Battlestar Galactica has inverted frictionlessly into nightmare. The shift in tone is reflected in a new design scheme of drably militaristic grays and browns, brutal drumbeats on the soundtrack, and jittery camerawork on both actors and spaceships — thanks to the digital-effects house Zoic, whose signature visuals lend zoomy, handheld verisimilitude to the combat scenes. It all comes inescapably together to suggest a very different mindset: hunted, paranoid, and starkly conscious of the possibility of spiritual, if not physical, annihilation.

Of course, I’m not saying anything particularly shocking with all this. Identifying 9/11 as a fault-line in the Western imagination had already become a cliché by the morning of 9/12 (though it’s worth noting that, while movies quickly reverted to their old habits, TV, as a more absorbent, responsive medium, has made nihilism and ambiguity the signature aesthetic of dramas like Lost, Heroes, and Mad Men).

What I do see Battlestar Galactica bringing to the table with fresh force is the useful concept of the reboot as a strategy for dealing with franchise fatigue. A liberating alternative to the depressingly commercial and linear “sequel,” the reboot signals a profound shift in how we perceive and receive serial media. We are coming to see serial dramas as generative systems, more about ground rules and conditions of possibility than events or outcomes. (And I would argue that the only sane serial aesthetic is one that allows for occasional misfires; one bad episode does not a series invalidate.) Like the terms canon and retcon, the reboot borrows from brethren like comic books and print lit. Like the term game-changer, it characterizes TV production in computational terms, as ludic algorithm. And like the term show-runner, it signals our growing comfort with the notion of series as industrial product, indeed, as series: a potentially unending churn of a diegetic engine rather than a standalone text.

So what does the future hold for Galactica? I suggested at the beginning of this piece that Moore’s show is dying; the start of the cancer was probably season two’s breathtaking “Pegasus” arc, which strode right over the line of allegory to hold up a mirror in which the United States could no longer misrecognize its practices of dehumanization and torture — of, in a word, terrorism. For me, that prolapse of the national myth marked the beginning of the end. Alternatively, the series carries the seeds of implosion in its governing problematic: once the fleet and its pursuers reach Earth, what can possibly happen next? But whatever the cause, whenever it comes, the demise of this Battlestar Galactica should not be taken as the end of anything. “What has happened before will happen again”; the tale is destined to be told anew, beckoning simultaneously to future and past in the echo chamber of TV genre.

Author Bio:

Bob Rehak is an assistant professor of film and media studies at Swarthmore College, where his teaching and research focus on special effects, animation, videogames, and new media. His work has appeared in the Video Game Theory Reader (2003), Film Criticism (2007), and the upcoming second edition of the Cybercultures Reader. He invites you to read his blog.

Image Credits:
1. Sharon, Helo, Priestess Elosha, and President Roslin read scripture on Kobol
2. The original Battlestar Galactica (1978), screencap provided by author.
3. The reimagined Battlestar Galactica (2006), screencap provided by author.

Please feel free to comment.

Battlestardom: Conversations with Mary McDonnell

Interview by Julie Levin Russo
with Lynne Joyrich and Stephanie Nicora

On March 2, 2007, Brown University had the honor of hosting Mary McDonnell, the acclaimed actress who portrays President Laura Roslin on Battlestar Galactica, at a panel discussion entitled “(Re)Producing Cult TV“. Following an introduction by Lynne Joyrich and short talks by Melanie Kohnen, Alanna Thain, David Bering-Porter, and Julie Levin Russo (which are reprinted, along with three other essays, in this issue), we opened the floor to Mary and to audience questions. Below is a reconstruction of core conversations and statements from the hour-long Q&A. The dialogue has been reorganized around sequential themes, and, because it is compiled from notes, all quotations here are approximate. Following this introductory recap, we are delighted to present the full text of a follow-up interview with Mary. You can also listen to it here:


Mary opened by graciously acknowledging how thankful she was for the opportunity to be part of “a creative event that has stimulated this level of discourse.” She commented that you don’t realize, when taking on a role, quite the repercussions it may have and that it can be hard to relax into those responsibilities. “It takes a different part of the brain to analyze than to act,” she said, and she has to “move herself into that level of thinking.”


One attendee asked: “When we look at you, we see more Laura than Mary — how does that feel to you?”

Mary replied: “I like it!… I love being able to speak for Laura…. I don’t experience her as my creation…it feels good to facilitate her…. According to my family, it’s getting very blurry at home!”

Mary mused on the difficulty that she faces in reconciling her own beliefs with Laura Roslin’s tough choices. She finds that, in inhabiting Laura’s life, she often has to disengage from her feelings. For example, regarding her character’s decision to infect Cylon-kind with a deadly virus, she said: “I haven’t found a way to order a genocide with compassion…. You have to really figure out how to plant your feet and stand there and support genocide… as a person first, a woman second, a leader third, an actress last… if you feel it, it’s torture…. I’ve lost sleep over it, because it haunts me…. It’s very awkward, it’s very frustrating at times — but it’s also very real.”

While acknowledging that “this season [the third] has been a very difficult thing with Laura Roslin’s marginalization,” Mary nonetheless emphasized that she sees “strength in [Laura’s] writing in some very brief moments…. She has been reduced on one hand, and strengthened in another.” She also rationalized that “the producers are always a little afraid to box [Laura] in a corner before seeing where they’re headed with her… to leave her in that position of confusion seems to be where they’re comfortable.” For her, these limitations translate into part of the reality for her character, and she sees the two of them — Mary and Laura — as partners in a struggle on both of these registers to create more possibilities for women like Laura. She doesn’t want either of them to be cast as a victim. “[Laura] has her own existence and she’s trying to push her own image of power forward, and the writers are grappling with her.”

Laura Roslin is sworn in as President

Laura Roslin is sworn in as President, in an emergency ceremony reminiscent of the inauguration of Lyndon B. Johnson


From the audience, Stephanie Nicora noted that Battlestar Galactica is superficially feminist, with women in charge — but this seems to be true more of the Cylons than of humanity. In fact, Rousseau’s notion of separate spheres seems to be entrenched in the show: Roslin is President, but she can’t do anything much without the support of Galactica — headed by Commander Bill Adama, a man. When Admiral Helena Cain arrives, a female military leader, both Roslin and Adama agree that she’s a dire threat. Roslin doesn’t even have control over her own body — no one asks her whether or not she wants the cure from Hera’s blood — and by extension she is forced to adopt a pro-life stance and ban abortion. Her question: as a feminist, what’s your interpretation of these narratives?

In the ensuing discussion of the labyrinthine gender reversals and contradictions in play in the characterization of Laura and Bill, Mary observed that “they’ve given him all the feeling… I call him Adama-Mama, because he’s more emotionally involved with his son, the Cylons, the people.” Laura has by some measures become more extremist while Bill has become more moderate, and if, in fact, she inflects toward a more “feminine” role, then she must become more rigid in other ways to compensate. This is one rendition of the traditional duality (madonna / whore, loving mother / ruthless politician) that structures Laura. Mary described this as the problem of “how the feminine in nature finds a way to open itself without being killed,” and went on to say that “the human element of being divided into opposites…is very real to me. Sometimes I hate it, and sometimes I love it.” Ultimately, she’s aware that she’s negotiating with story-telling form a very male point of view, but her job is to facilitate what she’s been written.

Reacting to the ambiguity of Laura and Bill’s relationship, Mary was adamant that “a sexual involvement [is something that] Laura can’t even comprehend at this moment; no matter her emotional relationship, she can’t do it. She wouldn’t let it in, in order to keep her focus on her ultimate goal: getting these people to Earth.”

Public and private faces of Laura Public and private faces of Laura

Public and private faces of Laura


One audience member asked: “How is it possible that, given that it’s an amazing show on so many issues, Battlestar Galactica hasn’t had any gay characters?”

Regarding the show’s portrayal of gender, Mary had lamented that, “at the starting gate, there was a chance to blow it apart, and there was a retreat”; though she added that, “I state this all as part of a positive process.” This theme recurred when the issue of sexuality was broached. Speaking frankly about the climate in the writers’ room, Mary speculated that, as a group of primarily young straight men, “there isn’t necessarily a burning desire on [the writers’] parts to allow, particularly, lesbianism a full throttle on their show, because they are afraid.” That is, they tend to take baby steps toward novel and progressive perspectives and then get scared and pull back.

Another audience member said: “It’s outrageous to think of a woman as powerful as Laura tied to a man like Adama. As a lesbian myself…what we want for her character…”

Here Mary interrupted gleefully to affirm the sentiment: “I hear what you want — you want her to come out!” “Where are the goggles?” she joked, referring to the pink sunglasses (aka “girlslash goggles”) that speaker Julie Levin Russo used as a prop to illustrate queer reading strategies. In fact, Mary’s first action when she stepped up to the podium was to don the goggles, a dramatic gesture that made the crowd go wild. “So, I had no idea,” she said then, laughing. “I think I’m blushing.”

In response to the question, Mary referenced a TV Guide interview that was then on newsstands, wherein she had raised this same issue herself when she was asked: “What topic would you like to see the show address that it hasn’t explored yet?” At Brown, she paraphrased, “I would love to see us open up to the diversity of our sexuality as human beings.” (The actual published quote reads: “I know something that keeps being asked of Galactica is the sexuality issue. We haven’t really gone near that at all, and that would be kind of interesting. There’s so much to understand about procreation, sexuality.”) It was emphasized in the discussion, furthermore, that the heterosexual couples onscreen aren’t necessarily normative.

Laura consults scripture

Laura consults scripture with a priest on the mythical planet Kobol


Religion is one of BSG‘s most fascinating and provocative themes; the alignments here are not what we’d expect. Mary believes that the show has the potential to “move, in a very targeted manner, toward an explosion of the Judeo-Christian paradigm,” but she conjectured that the producers backed off on Laura’s religious affiliations because they were concerned about appearing too right-wing in projecting our current administration’s fundamentalist beliefs (“I guess I can say that; this is Brown University,” she quipped). This constellation also intersects — albeit, very paradoxically — with gender and sexuality: the monotheistic (some might say religious extremist) Cylons are all for sexual exploration, while the polytheistic humans seem much more repressed, with narrower sexual norms. Moreover, the lapsed storyline of Laura as the Pythian prophet references the stereotype that women are more religious (i.e. “natural” and “irrational”) than men, though it’s worth noting that religion and spirituality are far from equivalent. This gendering holds even among the Cylons: Brother Cavil comes across as a mercenary sceptic despite his role as priest or guru, while it’s the female Cylons Six and Three who believe fervently in their God and divine destiny. Laura’s “feminine” faith and visions are threatening — literally so when she sparked a military coup (season two).

Laura with Hera

Laura with Hera, the human-Cylon hybrid baby


Like Battlestar Galactica‘s portrayal of religion and politics, its portrayal of technology — particularly as manifested in the “skin job” Cylons, who embody a racialized iteration termed “technicity” — pushes beyond a conventional opposition between positive and negative representations. This ambiguity may make viewers uncomfortable, but hopefully in ways that are thought-provoking and productive. Referring, in her talk, to the injection of Hera’s blood that cured Laura’s cancer, Alanna Thain commented that “Roslin herself could be considered part Cylon.” Mary shook her head and made a face. Yet she later underlined the import of Laura’s hybrid constitution, noting that Laura could be regarded as Hera’s daughter and Helo and Sharon’s granddaughter! She said that she hopes that following this connection will help the writers to loosen Laura from her gendered paradigm. Nonetheless, Mary maintained that Laura makes a lot of her choices through “fear of the other,” and thus her own perspective is “filtered through a purposeful ignorance. I don’t spend a lot of time contemplating Cylons; I just throw them out of airlocks!”

One attendee, citing the captions in BSG’s credits sequence, which explains the initial Cylon resurgence, asked: “What lies between ‘they rebelled’ and ‘they evolved’? Why decide to be human?”

Similarly questioning the human/Cylon boundary, and pursuant to the revelation of the “final five” (since, at the time of the Brown event, the season three finale, which outed four “sleeper” Cylons among the humans, had not yet aired), another member of the audience inquired: “as an actor, do you know if you are a Cylon? Have you gone and asked? Would that change your interpretation of the character?” Mary responded: “I would definitely ask for more money [laughter]. I have seen the final five [dramatic pause]. But I don’t know who they are. We have asked; they won’t tell. We sometimes beg them, because, as an actor, you make choices based on a narrative, [for instance] if you were going to be a toaster. We don’t know, [and] in truth it’s better — the limitations of ignorance are very human, unfortunately. We have to be innocent to this stuff.”


Mary echoed the enthusiasm and engagement of the audience when she suggested that we might move beyond the corporate paradigm of current television into something much broader, a “liberating possibility” latent in the media’s capacity for participation. She called Ron Moore “brilliant.” “We were all at his house drinking wine, and Moore asked me to be in a podcast and I sat in the corner and said, ‘No!’ because the idea of sitting there watching myself as people so far away were watching me at the same time blew my mind! [laughter] … Maybe it’s time for me to step up to the plate.” What she learned at the panel, she concluded, is that “the show needs another ten years.”

November 2007: Mary graciously called from the set of Battlestar Galactica in Vancouver to speak with Professor Lynne Joyrich and Julie Levin Russo in the offices of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University.

LJ: One of things that we wanted to start with was just what is different for you, if anything, about engaging with an academic forum and scholarly publication in talking about this, in contrast to participating in events that are more oriented to your cult audience and your fans and popular viewers. Not that we’re not also part of that.

MM: I understand what you’re saying. There is a difference. From my point of view, it’s context, in that when I’m talking to the fans who are not coming from an academic point of view, the questions have more to do with plot points and [the] experiences of the actors performing and things like that, which is also great to talk about. When in conversations with an academic audience, what you’re also doing, what you’re bringing as well is almost a sociologist’s look at the world of Battlestar and its implications on a social and political level, so that it becomes a broader questioning. [In fact, my sister Judith McDonnell is a Professor of Sociology and a fan of the program, and we often discuss it.] It’s more complex. It’s more thematic. And, therefore, I get to take a look at the show other than for its entertainment value or storylines; you know what I mean? So that’s what I’ve noticed, is that it just has a much more sociological feeling about the discussion.

LJ: [Laughter] Well, hopefully, you also find it interesting and fun.

MM: Oh, I do, I do. I mean, that is what I find really interesting and fun about it, other than the fact than that you’re delightful people.

LJ: Thank you so much.

Laura chronicles the New Caprican resistance

Laura chronicles the New Caprican resistance

MM: Part of what excited me about becoming an actor when I was in college, which is where I started, is that my brain woke up. I started to think about all aspects of life through the lens of the theater, whereas, prior to that, I’d be sitting in a chemistry class or a history class or a math class, and none of it really tied together in my brain as something that was very interesting to me. But when I had to start studying roles and worlds, something came together about history, politics, shifts in culture, psychology. And so to be able to go back out and have people who are looking at it that way and writing these extraordinary papers about it and have the opportunity to think along those terms: to me it’s like having, you know, the cherry on top of the sundae. It makes it all more interesting for me.

JR: That’s fantastic. And we also wanted to ask you, speaking of your position as an actor: it seems as if you’re put in a somewhat paradoxical or contradictory position where, because you’re the public face of this show or these texts, you’re put in the spotlight in terms of talking about them and speaking about what they mean. But behind the scenes, you may have much less control over the shape and the way they’re structured, so I was just wondering how you negotiated that.

MM: In the past, I would negotiate it — literally negotiate it — a lot more carefully according to a certain set of rules. I felt, “well, what I would like to really talk about is this, what I know the reality is is that, therefore, you know, I’ll talk a little bit about this and a little bit about that.” But as I get older and I’m in the profession longer, I’m starting to see that neither one has clear boundaries. In other words, things that I might say are the reality in an interview as I perceive the character: it’s putting that idea out in the world. Then, the next time I go to play her, because I said it out loud, we may have a different discussion on the set about how this may be written. So it sort of feels to me that it’s all part of the same evolution, because we have writers who evolve and are very, very open, and they become more so every year. I think that the feeling of two different realities is lessening; it’s getting a little more grey, and therefore to me, once again, more exciting. The character can’t be everything you want it to be because you’re not writing it — I would never want to write it — but you still have your point of view regardless of what you end up having to do, and sometimes your point of view may be her point of view even though what she says might be something else. So you can make the thing that she says fit into a sort of social or political obligation. But the person that the character is can incorporate and have within [her] energy at the moment all of the thoughts and ideas that you yourself have gathered out there in the field of Laura Roslin and Battlestar, you know. I don’t know if that makes any sense.

JR: It makes perfect sense. It’s really fascinating and I think a very insightful perspective. It’s like a textual network.

MM: It is. It absolutely is. And it seems even more so, the longer we do it. Experiencing it this season, as everybody becomes more and more trusting of each other and the story, it evolves in a way that’s being informed now by the story and the universe coming back at us. It’s kind of an interesting thing. It’s like somebody writes the story, and then you all gather around and bring the story to life, and then you send it out — I was going to say through film, but now it’s digital — and then the story is out there, and it comes around back and informs itself again.

JR: It fits with the theology of the show certainly — “All of this has happened before and all of it will happen again” — these temporal loops.

Final Five Cylons

Three’s prophetic vision of the Final Five Cylons

MM: Oh my gosh, that never occurred to me; that’s absolutely right. It is, and I think that the imprints, the idea of the imprints, where there’s a print and there’s an imprint and then there’s a reflection and then there’s another image that comes behind that, and then you find yourself — we find ourselves as actors sometimes, and this is an incredibly disciplined group of actors. This is not the kind of group of actors who can’t remember what they did in the last episode because we’re all disciplined storytellers. We bring our storyline, you know, every single episode. However, the accumulation of this sort of image out there in the world of Battlestar and its imprint has become its own thing, and sometimes you’re in the middle of something and you really can’t remember the past. The present has become so informed; it’s odd. You become very, very present with the now, and then you try to go back, and it’s almost like what really happens in life, which is [that] you really don’t always remember what happens. You just know who you are, and then the pieces of information that make you who you are are there, but you have to stop and think about them.

LJ: Well again, as a continuing TV story, it does have [that] growing memory.

JR: It’s one of the most wonderful things about television narrative.

LJ: So you mentioned the writers a moment ago, and this ties to an issue that had come up when you were here [speaking at Brown University], which is: it’s true that Battlestar is written by some amazing people, and that, in particular, they’ve really created some amazing female characters, probably because there are also some amazing female writers on the show. But you’ve also talked about how you still had some questions about the gender politics of the show or wish it could go in some other directions. So what are your thoughts about that?

MM: My feeling now is that the gender politics, or the experiences of gender in this role, have been utterly appropriate to the experience of the character in the world that she’s in. And that the writers and myself, who are the ones that negotiate her issues, have to a certain extent evolved together. And so what I’m experiencing, in retrospect, is that I learned through her evolution, through coming up against wanting it to be a certain way as a woman and having it go a different way because I wasn’t in control of the writing, [through] the experience of having the world around me not offer me the opportunity to be the kind of politician that I would like to be as a woman but to have to cope with the culture that’s coming at me which is not female. In the long run, I now feel like, if we could start this over, this story, and Laura Roslin had all this information, she would be able to maneuver through this particular political/social culture and maintain more of her desired agenda. [Laughter] It’s like, oh my god, we (she and I) have learned so much! [And we have excellent writers.] Because a lot of writing is at its best sometimes when it’s unconscious. And so, not intending anyone to go this way or that way, it evolves in such a way, and according to the energies of certain actors — you know, all the actors really — you find yourself in positions that you didn’t intend.

LJ: One of the things you mentioned when you were here was that you did sometimes wish that they wrote Laura more in relationships to other people. You talked about how there aren’t that many scenes with her and other women, or even with the male characters on the show. So, do you wish that, for instance, they [further] emphasized her friendships with other women, or even gave her a romance? Or is that the bind of women in power: they can’t be seen as both strong and sexual at the same time? [With] those kinds of things, would you want changes? Or no?

The Arrow of Apollo

In a rare scene shared by the two female leads, Starbuck gives Laura the religious relic the Arrow of Apollo, while sometime-opponent, sometime-ally Tom Zarek looks on

MM: Well, it isn’t so much that I would want changes; it’s that I can see the limitations of the culture as it exists in the writing. And certainly in the world of Battlestar, the duty to be performed, and the disease to be borne, and the ideas of isolating the female leader are very thematic there. As an actress, to play that is a very difficult thing at times because you can’t express who you are through relationships, given that she doesn’t have a relationship, a sexual relationship (we think…or maybe she does!). [Laughter] There certainly isn’t an expression of it in the writing; we don’t give it airtime, if it’s there at all. And so it does become difficult to have the opportunity to shape the full-bodied woman, because you’re only seeing her over and over again in specific [situations] instead. So sometimes that’s a little daunting, to find out how to be articulate within limited relationships with those around you. Whereas there’s lots of story about other people’s relationships, right? But as I have matured with her and played that fully, and played the limitation and played the isolation and watched what has evolved in her as a result of that and seen where they’re going now, I feel like it’s actually a good story, told this way. Because we get to see the example of a limited life.

Now, do I aspire toward that, and do I think that’s true for women in power? No; I think a lot of women have grown way beyond that. But I still do very much believe that women in power are threatening to the culture and that the culture continues to try to find ways to shape them and box them in. And I don’t think we’re beyond that. Can a woman be successful and overcome it? Absolutely. So I feel kind of mixed about it. To answer your question: on the one hand, I wish it was more [that Laura] had a fuller life, and we could see a full-bodied woman enjoying power and doing it well; on the other hand, there is something really gratifying about committing to the limitation. Because it is out there, and we do have to fight against it. I mean, it seems somewhat real to me, the more I play it. There are obviously very successful women in power, who have full lives, clearly. But I’m not sure that the prejudice is not right around the corner. And I’m not sure that these women haven’t had to continually try to overcome it.

JR: I think those limitations are all still there, even if people manage to find their way within them.

MM: Oh absolutely. I think we’re trying as a culture to move beyond it, but clearly, if you just look at what’s going on in the Democratic Party right now, we are definitely burdened still by these ideas. They’re projected all over the place…like giant projectiles.

JR: And another place where it seems some of these double binds come up is around motherhood, which is a theme we talked about when you were at Brown. So I’m just wondering what your wishes are for the way the dynamic of motherhood, both metaphorical and, by some measures, literal around Laura is going to play out, given how it’s such an ambivalent position for women.

LJ: Right, she’s sort of the mother of all the humans but then also has this particular relationship to this one child. And again it seems like, as Julie said, that double bind about a woman in power, [together] with these maternal qualities that are often seen in our culture as stereotypes, make those in contradiction. So, [what is] your sense of how that’s playing out, or what you would want for it?

MM: Well, to talk about what I want for it sort of no longer applies. [Laughter] And I don’t really mean that negatively. I just think it’s turned into such an astonishing role to play. But you know there are so many things I can’t really talk about without it being spoiler-ish.

JR: You can spoil us, we don’t mind!

MM: No, I can’t spoil you; I’ll get in so much trouble! My experience is that it’s very difficult to talk about that aspect of things without revealing more than I am able to at this point. But what I can say is that feminine responsibility, the responsibility that women feel towards survival and towards the betterment of humanity, is a very strong force in Laura. She may not identify it, and certainly doesn’t speak about it, because she doesn’t ever really have an opportunity to indulge herself or anyone else in what she actually thinks or feels. But she carries with her something I think that women carry, which is that we feel responsible for life, for human life. And that journey for Laura, and the experience of that responsibility for life, only grows deeper and gets more complicated in this saga.

LJ: Interesting, very interesting.

JR: I’m trying not to squeak because I’m so excited!

MM: No, it’s really — by the way, the whole thing that we’re shooting right now is so unbelievably…it’s not quite like anything I’ve ever experienced.

LJ: Oh, wow. You’re really whetting our appetite.

Laura in a Cylon prison on New Caprica

Laura in a Cylon prison on New Caprica

MM: It’s going to be great. Great and overwhelming, really. We are very, very under lock and key right now, more so than ever before, so I have to be careful. But I will say just sort of thematically, that being in the middle of the end, right? Which is kind of where we are — and then suddenly we’re going on a writer’s strike, so we’re being stalled. We’re all sort of looking at each other, and it became apparent to me a couple of nights ago that one of the reasons this is seeming to be so difficult to do at the moment is because it’s becoming a clearer and clearer and clearer reflection of the horror of life as it is occurring right now all around the world. That [with] the complexity of the dissolution, or the dissolving, or the disillusionment with our old ways of thinking, watching it is like turning on the news. It’s sort of like watching the world dissolve around you. And what that means for the feminine or the female experience: perceiving that is kind of an agony. So I think it continues to be, for Laura Roslin, an experience in under-expressed feminism or femininity, but deeply felt. And isn’t that the plight of women? I mean, not you guys. [Laughter] Not you gals. But women, you know what I mean, out there? They’re still not speaking. Anyway, don’t get me started on women.

LJ: I don’t know if you can answer this, but what you were just saying also seems like it ties into a lot of the religious aspects of the show, or the theological issues that the show brings up.

JR: We could extrapolate that, now that Laura’s cancer is back, it may also prompt a return to the Pythian prophecy storyline and that Laura’s theological status may again come to the fore. I know we talked in the past about some of the (gendered and political) troubling implications of that.

LJ: But also, [as] you were just suggesting, maybe the potential in that [is] the spiritual linking of ideas of life and feeling responsible for life. So, I don’t know if you had any thoughts about that you wanted to share.

MM: Well, I would love to, but I can’t.

LJ: Maybe in general, if you can’t tell us about the upcoming plot, do you have any thoughts about the way this show engages with those questions of religion and spirituality and theology? Which I actually think is quite rare for TV. I mean, a lot of television programs seem to deal with that, but in quite a simplistic way, and I think one of the things that’s amazing about Battlestar, as you were just getting at, is that it deals with issues of politics in a very complex way, issues of history, issues of gender, but [it also ties these] not only [to] political questions, but [to] people thinking about spiritual questions. So even if it’s not framed in terms of what will happen on the show, if you had any thoughts about just the fact that the show deals with that at all?

MM: Well, I agree with you in that I think Battlestar is unique in television. You have a television show over here and it will be dealing with politics or war or religion, and you’ll have a storyline that will talk about those issues. And people in the story are behaving in a way that’s familiar to us because we see it on the news, and we see it on entertainment news, and we read about it, and we go, “Those people are behaving [in the way they were behaving in] that story that I saw the other night. They’re talking about the same thing.” What Battlestar seems to always do, which is what it did for me in the miniseries — and [what] it continues to do, even as the issues get deeper and more complex and more bottom-line — is Battlestar brings up a question of how we perceive the issue that we’re in the middle of. So that we’re constantly being asked, as characters, [to] question ourselves and the perception and reality, rather than just playing out the issues in the dramatic form.

I just leapt from being a character to an actor really quickly. So there’s two different things: in a normal television show, the actors might be asking those questions but then playing the characters who are just playing the dilemma. In Battlestar, the characters are also playing the dilemma and questioning the dilemma simultaneously, because there is multi-leveled reality that is influencing how they are perceiving any given situation. So the beauty of that for me is that Ron Moore — and I do believe that it constantly really does come from that man — has a quest to understand perception. And out of his need to understand life as we perceive it or life as it exists (or are they the same?) comes these stories that replicate stories that are happening to us in life, but they’re infused with a wiser way of going at them. Because we’re bringing along belief and perception, belief as opposed to perception. Is faith something that you have, or is faith a belief that’s prescribed? What is faith, what is faith in God? Is that a dogmatic idea that seems to suit you, or is faith in God something that has to do with reality as you understand it? Can you be God? You know what I mean? So I think he allows this world, allows us a much more honest experience of how uncontrollable reality actually is. How beyond our control it actually is, if we want to actually sit in the moment; it doesn’t have the safety and control and the limitations that we would like to give it because it’s easier to see it in that way.

Laura's dream of the Kobol opera house

Laura’s dream of the Kobol opera house, a vision she shares with several Cylons

JR: I just wanted to comment that I think that incredible complexity and philosophical self-awareness, or self-reflexivity, in the show is a lot of what has gained it such a large and passionate following among academics. I mean, it has made a sensation within intellectual circles.

LJ: And like you were saying, the show is so complex because it’s layering all the issues together — politics, history, gender, spirituality. And it’s also showing debates among the different people or the different groups on the show about those things, so that it’s not just one version being played out: the Cylons have one way of thinking about things, the humans have another, [but] even within those, it’s much more complicated. Can we ask about — again, I don’t know how much you can say — either the further distinguishing between humans and Cylons or the further merging between them?

JR: Or, can I just add — and I think this is very much in this vein — I know in the past you’ve expressed some distaste at speculation about Laura being a Cylon, and I’m just wondering, within this world of complexity: What’s so bad about being a Cylon, and have you and/or Laura been forced to shift your position on this?

MM: Totally [from] her point of view, what would be so bad about being a Cylon would be that it would completely shake the foundation of what Laura believes she is even alive for. In other words, she should have died a long time ago, according to the pilot. But, instead, everyone else died, and she became President. And Laura has held a belief in [the] job [she must do], and so the idea of being a Cylon would threaten that so unbelievably that she can’t let it in as an idea, because she doesn’t know how to proceed…or perceives that she wouldn’t know how to proceed. However, for the actress, the challenge, then, is being able to see the world more clearly than your character can and being brave enough to be blinded…because you want to know everything so that your character comes out on top. [Laughter] You want to sort of have, “But I think she… I would be that smart, I would know that if I could blend myself, that peace would reign,” blah, blah. But you can’t, because that’s not your job. So the tricky part is asking Mary what would be so bad about being a Cylon, and she’d be like, “Well, hey, let’s go, because then I could carry both of those things in me and help deepen the fact.” My belief is — Mary’s belief is — that we’re all the same anyway.

LJ: Right, because the show really does question what even counts as life, what counts as human.

MM: That’s right!

LJ: What’s our relationship to technology — is that a totally separate thing, or are we all technological in a way and, at the same time, all human? What’s the value of human life? From the stories that they’ve done, that you’ve done, about torture to the stories about Cylons and technological beings, [Battlestar] really raises these questions about the status of life and how it should be valued and treated in a way that really complicates all that.

MM: And so the bottom line is that my character and several of us “humans,” quote unquote, on Battlestar: we have to root our perception of ourselves and our behavior in the emotion of fear. Because that’s what’s limiting our progress everywhere, right? Whether we’re Cylon or human, that thing that limits the wisdom and the progression of life anywhere is fear. So we have to root our experience in fear and protectiveness. That point of view is what creates these super-armies and anti-ballistic missile systems; you know what I mean? We’re afraid that somebody’s going to take something away from us that we own. And so you’re operating on holding on and being afraid, and so you defend — as well as protect, but your protection is defensive. So how does the human being evolve beyond fear? And, in terms of Battlestar, are the Cylons really that fearless? The humanity seems to be pretty apparent in both factions. The vulnerability to fear seems to be pretty apparent. So if there’s anything that’s tying them together, just in a general sense, it’s that the element of fear. In a perfect universe, if we could get beyond fear, wouldn’t things start operating on such a phenomenal level?

A space battle between basestars

A space battle between basestars

JR: This is, perhaps perversely, bringing me in mind of the writers’ strike. I think a lot of the human relationship to technology on the show seems to be so driven by fear because the Cylon intimacy and interdependence with technology is such a threat to what they at least started out as seeing as their humanity. And it seems that the writers’ strike is so much about the struggle between these much more retro media models coming out of broadcast and then these new formations that are happening around the internet. It’s just an interesting parallel struggle. [Since compensation for content produced for or distributed via “new media” is the central issue of the strike, the Guild and their allies could be seen to challenge our definition of what “television” is, and how we relate to it as techno-subjects, much like the Cylons challenge our definition of what “humanity” is.]

MM: It’s absolutely fascinating, and you’re absolutely right. We were talking the other day on the set — because we shut down in about five days. We only have five days of material left, and then we all go home and wait, right? And we are striking; we back the writers a hundred per cent. And the question is: are we going home for a few weeks, or are we going home for a year? Because, on some level, this is the reformation of the entertainment industry, and how long that may take — or will we go all the way…? Where are we going to go with it? Are we truly going to reform the entire system because it has outgrown the old modality, or are we going to get a little bit of a compromise and then everybody go back to work because the idea of reform at this time in the economy and this time in the state of the world is so frightening to everyone? And will there be a visionary person on either side of the issues that can create the new way for technology and artistry to evolve forward?

JR: Is Hollywood going to find Earth?

MM: [Laughter] Is Hollywood going to find Earth! And, when they get there, will it look good?

JR: And are they going to get there and then destroy Earth, or are they going get there and have a peaceful utopia? 

MM: Are you going to give them Earth? Are you going to give Hollywood Earth? What will they do with Earth? It’s once again a very interesting parallel. It’s now; this is what’s going on. Hollywood is just a little tiny example of how humanity does not really understand who it is in relation to technology, and a lot of humanity is being usurped by technology. And some other aspects of humanity are crying out to slow things down, to re-examine what it means — the children of today, their greatest social context is the internet.

JR: They’re totally Cylons.

MM: I mean they’re online instant messaging or Facebooking, or whatever, more than they are interacting [physically]. And that is just astonishing to me, coming from a generation that—I remember the big deal. I remember taking my bath and putting on my best little PJs and slippers and bathrobe and jumping into the nice, upholstered chair with my older sisters who were twins, and the three of us getting ready to watch Peter Pan on television. Because it was a major broadcast event.

LJ: A very different model of viewing. And it’s true, the way that the audience has fragmented into different narrowcast groups. And people watch on the internet now.

MM: This is just a constant interaction.

LJ: Speaking of the internet, I was going to ask: do you ever look at those things? What are your feelings about the fan community on the internet?

MM: Well, first of all, I do think it’s very exciting. I do think it’s a very exciting world that gets stimulated and then articulated, and it’s like when you throw a stone in the water and the ripple, ripple, ripple. But as an actress, I find that the most potent way to play a character is to play [her] with as little exterior information as possible, once you know who you are. So in order to not rob you all, the fans really, of Laura Roslin’s personal, simple experience, I have to stay away from all of the exciting ideas that come up and all the discussion and all of that. I think it would be something [that] I would love to go back and take a look at when I’m finished playing her. It would be really fun to go, oh my God, this was all going on! And then I’ll probably go, oh, I should’ve known about this; that would’ve been a good idea! I’m sure I’ll regret all of it!

Laura and her advisor Tory reading

Laura and her advisor Tory reading… fan fiction?!

LJ: As I’m sure you’ve heard, one of the things that a lot of fan fiction tends to explore are questions of sexuality that are not fully elaborated within the program itself. And, again as I’m sure you know, many viewers have called upon the producers to do more with sexuality and to include gay or lesbian characters more explicitly, etc. And we have all heard that in…well, we don’t have to talk specifically about what happens in Razor, but, to connect it with what we had been saying before is, again, there had been this request on the part of producers for more gay or lesbian inclusion.

MM: And it seems like they complied!

LJ: Exactly, but in ways that some people, I think, will think…well, I think there’s going to be debate about it.

MM: How will the debate be? Like in what way?

LJ: I don’t personally believe this, but I think that some people will say it plays into the evil lesbian [stereotype], where the lesbian characters either have to be sneaky and evil or else die. One or the other.

JR: Or both, in this case.

LJ: I actually think, as with everything with Battlestar, what it does with it is much more complex.

JR: I think that’s one major criticism that’s out there, and the other major criticism is that it’s subtle.

MM: That it is subtle?

LJ: Some people think it’s too subtle.

JR: Which is seen as a cop out. Now I don’t personally agree with any of those, but those are the two major strands of criticism that are out there. But it’s just a sign of all the double binds of representation: that there isn’t really a way to represent homosexuality on television that’s uniformly visible. There are always going to be ways in which it’s visible, axes where it’s visible, and then axes where it’s invisible.

LJ: And then people put very big demands on any one representation, because again there’s not a huge diversity of representations of queer folks on TV, and therefore, with each one that comes out, it’s like people want that one to be the perfect one. As opposed to this [is] one character; it’s not supposed to stand for all lesbians. But in a situation where there aren’t a ton of representations to choose [from], I think that people pin all their hopes on [one]. But I don’t know if you had any further thoughts about gay representation… 

MM: I do, I do. You know, without having seen Razor, but having read Razor, I certainly do know what we’re talking about here. And, to me, what’s interesting is that, once again, Battlestar brings up discussion and debate about the feminine and how women are portrayed in whatever circumstance they are in. And, once again, I’m reminded that Battlestar is a very male world searching for its femininity.

JR: And Razor is a real anomaly in that sense: it’s incredibly female-driven, and driven by relationships between women. Just to say my comment about Razor: which is that, in line with what we talked about at Brown, the most delightful aspect of it, for me, was that it provided this almost pedagogical example of the “girlslash goggles.” When you watch the dinner party scene, the way that it’s edited gives you this amazing demo breakdown of how to watch for lesbian subtext. And then it’s only retroactively that there’s a conversation where they acknowledge explicitly that that’s what was going on. So I just wanted to ask you whether trying on the girlslash goggles has changed your view of the show in any way.

Kendra watching Cain with girlslash goggles

Kendra watching Cain with “girlslash goggles” in a manipulated image

MM: I didn’t have them on long enough. [Laughter] I should wear them around for a while, you know what I mean?

LJ: But that one moment you had them on was a good moment, right Mary?

MM: It was a really good moment! [Laughter] Once again, as an actress, I try to take as little exterior view of the whole show as I can. If I were producing the show, directing the show, or writing the show, I would put myself in a different position. As an actress, I almost know at times less about what you can see on the show than you know. But underneath it, the innocence of that is where the implications begin.

JR: Well, in some ways I think you’re giving yourself too little credit, because you speak with incredible insight and intelligence about the big picture of the show.

MM: Well, thank you; I appreciate that. But part of the reason I like to communicate about the show is because I don’t get too involved in an exterior view. I really am talking about, most of the time, what I read and what I think that may imply, what I’ve seen in final cuts (because, boy, is it different than what we shoot) and what I sense underneath, what I really think is happening. And talking with you all is different. For example, I learned a great deal just coming to your event. It’s like, oh my God! Like, oh yes, I do believe or feel or understand the show from that point of view; it’s just I don’t spend a lot of time talking about it. And because I don’t blog, I don’t watch, I don’t participate in chat-rooms — I don’t do any of that stuff, [so] I don’t get into these discussions a lot.

LJ: Well again, when you’re in them you say amazing things. So we really thank you (and I know that we’ve gone an hour now).

JR: I just wanted to say, in conclusion, this conversation came full circle, because we ended up talking about the same kind of multivalent textual networks.

LJ: We don’t want to be keeping you, because we’re so appreciative you’ve given us this amount of time…[but] I don’t know if you had any final thing you want to say or, if not, we can end.

MM: I just want to say thank you. I mean, I really, really, really appreciate the level of intelligence that Brown University and all that it’s connected to is bringing to the show. I mean, I think it’s a wonderful event that can continue even when [the series has been completed]. The implications of the show are going to go on for a long time. I was thinking the other day that it’s going to be very, very fascinating when the show is done, and there’s a complete saga to be viewed and understood, then [to] pull out and understand it as a complete story. And then there [are] even more and more conversations to be had, and then I can talk freely about anything because I’m no longer under contract!

LJ: It will be really interesting. Well, again, thank you so, so much for your time and for all of this, and we would love to see you again in person one day if that’s ever possible.

MM: It would be great.

LJ: And good luck with everything with the show!


We’d like to thank David Udris for his invaluable technical assistance; Angela Fraga, Dana Rae, Becka Saalbach, Erika Villani, and Stephanie Yang for volunteering to transcribe the interview; and attendees and the Brown Daily Herald for their reports on the event.

Mary McDonnell Bio:

Mary McDonnell, who plays the lead role of President Laura Roslin on Battlestar Galactica, is an acclaimed actress working in theater, film, and television. Having performing for many years with the Long Wharf Theatre Company in Connecticut, she won a prestigious OBIE award in 1980 for her work in the play Still Life. On Broadway, she has performed in productions of Execution of Justice, The Heidi Chronicles, and Summer and Smoke. In 1991, her Academy- and Golden Globe- nominated supporting role as “Stands with a Fist” in the film Dances with Wolves brought her to international attention, and she was singled out again in 1992 with Oscar and Golden Globe nominations as best lead actress for her role in Passion Fish. Among her other films are Matewan (1987) Grand Canyon (1991), Sneakers (1992), Independence Day (1996), You Can Thank Me Later (1998), Mumford (1999), Donnie Darko (2001), and Nola (2003). She has similarly had a dynamic and varied career in television, even before joining the cast of Battlestar Galactica, starting in 1980 with a regular role on the soap opera As the World Turns. In 1984, she starred on CBS’s short-lived medical sitcom E/R, and later, in 2001, she guest-starred on the NBC drama ER , for which she received an Emmy nomination. She has also appeared in the 1995 CBS series High Society, in guest roles for other TV programs (such as Touched by an Angel), and in several TV movies or theatrical adaptations (such as, among others, PBS’s O Pioneers, TNT’s The American Clock, Lifetime’s Two Small Voices, Showtime’s 12 Angry Men, CBS’s Behind the Mask and The Locket, and HBO’s Mrs. Harris).

Image Credits:
1. Laura Roslin is sworn in as President; screencap provided by author.
2. Public and private faces of Laura, ibid.
3. Laura consults scripture, ibid.
4. Laura with Hera, ibid.
5. Laura chronicles the New Caprican resistance, ibid.
6. Three’s prophetic vision of the Final Five Cylons, ibid.
7. The Arrow of Apollo, ibid.
8. Laura in a Cylon prison on New Caprica, ibid.
9. Laura’s dream of the Kobol opera house, ibid.
10. A space battle between basestars, ibid.
11. Laura and her advisor Tory reading, ibid.
12. Kendra watching Cain with “girlslash goggles” in a manipulated image, ibid.

Please feel free to comment.