The Political Science of Battlestar Galactica

We welcome another guest post from Stephen Benedict Dyson.  His previous post on the political science of Star Trek is here.


Battlestar Galactica, a science fiction drama, was an extended allegory of war on terror-era American politics. As President Obama tries unsuccessfully to move beyond the perpetual conflicts and roiling liberty-security debates of these years, this is a good chance to reflect upon one of the more profound cultural artifacts of the period. I should begin, though, by pointing out one major difference between this fiction and our reality: the civilization in Battlestar, fearing the downside of big data, had the good sense to give up computer networks and wireless telephones many years prior to the events depicted in the series.

Debated at the United Nations and honored as the best show on television, Battlestar offers several rich points of analysis. I focus here on the remarkable portrait of a political leader operating in a time of crisis, President Laura Roslin. The political history of the Roslin administration allows us to reflect upon leadership in wartime, the malleability of constitutional forms in radically changed circumstances, and the role of faith in guiding our leaders. As with my earlier analysis of the politics of Star Trek, I discuss significant plot points and so those who have yet to watch the show may wish to come back to this post after having done so.

Roslin’s presidency begins with a near-extinction event for her civilization. At the time of the surprise attack Roslin is secretary of education in the administration of President Adar, a Clintonesque figure high on charm and of flexible principle. Roslin survives the attack through serendipitous means – she was visiting the obsolete Battlestar Galactica (essentially an aircraft carrier-in-space) on the day of its decommissioning. Roslin, 43rd in the line of succession, is sworn in as president when it becomes clear that the existing political structure has been obliterated. The creator of the show was an avid student of political history, and deliberately reconstructed the iconic scene of Lyndon B. Johnson taking the oath of office after the assassination of President Kennedy.

President Roslin’s early decisions mirror those made by the U.S. leadership on 9/11. Whilst the attack is still underway, she has to make sense of the situation. She does so more effectively than the military authority figure, the commanding officer of the Galactica William Adama, who is determined to launch a futile counter-attack. Roslin accurately appraises the situation: “I don’t know why I have to keep telling you this,” She says to Adama. “The war is over. We lost.” Her leadership in convincing Adama to run rather than fight allows a rump remnant of colonial civilization – 50,000 or so souls – to survive.

Roslin has to quickly learn how to lead in this perpetual crisis, and her growth into the office is a prime feature of the series. In the first days of flight she is faced with an incomprehensible dilemma. A passenger airliner carrying several hundred people, lost in the chaos, suddenly reappears and approaches the fleet. Unable to establish contact and suspecting the airliner has been commandeered by the enemy, Adama recommends to the president that it be shot down. Roslin has seconds to decide, mirroring the situation faced by Vice President Dick Cheney on 9/11.

Roslin’s presidency often involved ad hoc judgments on major matters of constitutional interpretation, and a recurrent theme is the tension between the system of laws that existed prior to the attack and the new realities. Battlestar Galactica portrayed its characters as flawed and the decisions they made as complex mixtures of good and bad motives, judgment, and luck. The storytelling challenged us to reconsider simple verities and to see people we admire making decisions we abhor, an experience uncomfortably familiar to liberals considering President Obama’s drone policies. Adama, the military commander, turns out to be far more committed to civil liberties than the president, who develops a policy of eliminating enemy agents by tossing them out of an airlock.

Roslin is an unelected president serving the final months of her predecessor’s term. When a challenger emerges in the person of Tom Zarek, an imprisoned utopian revolutionary reminiscent of Vladimir Lenin, Roslin argues that holding an election runs counter to the core mission of survival. Roslin’s fears are at the core of the most compelling arc of the series. She is eventually opposed for the presidency not by Zarek but by Gaius Baltar, a celebrated yet narcissistic public intellectual. Baltar’s campaign is opportunistic. The president, bowing to demographic realities and overturning a lifetime of pro-choice commitment, had banned abortion, a decision Baltar cynically exploits. Then, in the midst of the campaign, there is a universe-sized October surprise – the discovery of a planet that could offer a permanent safe haven. Roslin believes the planet to be unsafe. Baltar offers disingenuous assurances to the public, and surges ahead in the polls.

Tragedy follows. Roslin, convinced that a Baltar victory would be disastrous, has her operatives rig the vote. Only at the last moment, under sad counsel from Admiral Adama, does she back away from the scheme. Baltar is elected president and proceeds with settlement on the planet, whereupon the enemy returns and begins an occupation. Roslin becomes the leader of an insurgency, showing American audiences sympathetic figures making unconscionable choices in the course of resisting an occupying power. Baltar remains as a Quisling president, and challenges Roslin on her use of suicide bombers. It is a quintessentially Battlestar exchange, as both human beings are simultaneously right and wrong, operating from necessity and from a position of deep moral ambiguity. Baltar, a collaborationist president with blood on his hands, challenges Roslin, an insurgent leader sending young people to their deaths, to look him in the eye and say that she endorses suicide bombings.

In later seasons, Roslin’s presidency becomes inseparable from her faith, a situation not unprecedented in the politics of our world. She becomes less of a secular figure and more of a charismatic leader. Suffering from cancer, she is driven by a sense of destiny and by religious visions. Roslin’s faith is dealt with sympathetically in the show. Her great interlocutor, Adama, does not believe and is teased as “Admiral Atheist” by the president. As the final season progresses the storytelling becomes increasingly metaphorical and poetic. Adama’s secularism and Roslin’s faith are portrayed as unresolvable projections of human needs and negotiations. Toward the end of the series we see a dying Roslin experiencing what could be a preview of the afterlife or just a side-effect of medication. It is moving and beautiful, and represents the effective end of her presidency.

Whereas Star Trek offered an optimistic vision about human nature evolving in a progressive direction, Battlestar Galactica portrayed a flawed species doomed to repeating cycles of violence and self-destruction. This was a hard-sell to TV audiences. The intricacy of the storytelling made it difficult for casual viewers to begin watching halfway through, and the dark profundity of the themes was not to all tastes. These very features, though, magnified the show’s ability to tackle complex political issues and to offer a comprehensive and nuanced representation of executive leadership in a time of crisis.

14 Responses to The Political Science of Battlestar Galactica

  1. John June 13, 2013 at 2:26 pm #

    And they say we don’t deserve NSF funding.

  2. TTP June 13, 2013 at 3:14 pm #

    I think you’re going too easy on the show. The complete lack of any credible dissent in the human population is noticeable. I mean, who are the human opposition? 1) Judas-as-scientist, 2) cynical left-wing demagogue (comparing him to Lenin is beyond charitable), and 3) the revenge cripple. Among the Cylons (once we get beyond Cylons as pure evil robots, whether in male soldier form or temptress female form) we eventually get an actual Lucifer-type who hates his creator for not doing a good enough job creating him (the supernova monologue).

    This isn’t a show about moral dilemmas; it’s a right-wing power fantasy about getting to outlaw abortion and execute leftists as traitors. Apparently, if only liberals would understand that we’re in an existential war for our very existence, they’d be cool with outlawing abortion and privileging the military over every other aspect of society. (We draw the line at rape rooms, though; we’re not savages, jeez.) This is why the show opens with the near-genocide of the human race: it’s the start point of the show’s logic. How we got to that point is completely irrelevant and any potential responsibility on humanity’s part is beyond asking and then eventually subsumed into the ridiculous phrase, “this has all happened before, and it will all happen again.” Eventually we get some half-baked episode how Adama made actually accidentally restarted an old war with a recon mission in preparation for a human attack on the Cylons, but of course this has to be covered up for morale reasons.

    In short, it’s a great show. It’s also pretty much everything that’s wrong with America including a completely illogical and unexplained episode of divine intervention from Starbuck.

    • Stephen Dyson June 14, 2013 at 8:59 am #

      Hi TTP, interesting points and thanks for commenting. On dissent amongst the fleet, you cite some examples yourself (Zarek and Gaeta’s mutiny, not really leftist but motivated more by Xenophobia as I read it), and we might also consider the rebellion after Adama’s coup that leads to the imposition of martial law, the hostage taking in season two’s “Sacrifice”, the Cylon-sympathizers sub-plot also in season two, and the excellent depiction of class politics and a general strike in season three’s “Dirty Hands.”

      On Starbuck and divine intervention, opinions differ on this, but I went with it. I loved how the music of the show became so integrated into the storytelling, and the ultimate payoff of “All Along the Watchtower” seemed fitting. I know many had a problem with the resolution of Kara Thrace’s arc, but as I say in the post, by the final season the show seemed to have shifted genres from military documentary to something akin to epic poetry. Under the rules of that genre, Starbuck’s fate seemed fine to me.

      Finally, I do think the “resposibility of humanity” is addressed directly and early in the miniseries. Here is Adama’s speech at Galactica’s decommissioning ceremony:

      “The Cylon War is long over, yet we must not forget the reasons why so many sacrificed so much in the cause of freedom. The cost of wearing the uniform can be high, but…sometimes it’s too high. You know, when we fought the Cylons, we did it to save ourselves from extinction. But we never answered the question “Why?” Why are we as a people worth saving? We still commit murder because of greed and spite, jealousy, and we still visit all of our sins upon our children. We refuse to accept the responsibility for anything that we’ve done, like we did with the Cylons. We decided to play God, create life. And when that life turned against us, we comforted ourselves in the knowledge that it really wasn’t our fault, not really. You cannot play God then wash your hands of the things that you’ve created. Sooner or later, the day comes when you can’t hide from the things that you’ve done anymore.”

  3. RobC June 13, 2013 at 10:43 pm #

    With respect to TTP’s comment that the show is a right-wing power fantasy, let it be noted that the program’s showrunner, Ronald D. Moore, contributed at least $1,750 to the 2008 Obama campaign. He reports that he is a recovering Catholic and agnostic. To the extent that the program reflects a right-wing worldview, it’s more likely that it’s a left-wing fantasy of how a right-wing president would govern. (I myself offer no opinion on the program’s worldview, having never seen it.)

    • Stephen Dyson June 14, 2013 at 9:05 am #

      Ronald D. Moore is a very interesting chap. The interview linked to above (“creator of the show”) is well worth a listen, as are the podcast commentaries he recorded for BSG episodes. I don’t really know how we would categorize Roslin in our ideological terms. I think, because of that, the depiction of her presidency is more interesting and challenging than Bartlet of West Wing, where the politics of the show-runner were never a mystery.

    • TTP June 14, 2013 at 9:46 am #

      No offense RobC, but I’m sort of astounded that you’d claim “it’s more likely that it’s a left-wing fantasy of how a right-wing president would govern” and then just parenthetically note that you’ve actually never seen the material in question. Nor does it even make sense because Roslin is almost always presented in a flattering light, and her failings can mostly be summed by the fact that she is not a military officer.

      This is leaving aside the entire problem that Obama is not a leftist, but a moderate right-wing president whose opposition is essentially the libertarian right, Christian fundamentalists, and xenophobes; that by 2008 BSG was over and had abandoned most of the political elements to focus on mysticism and some kind of weird Nietzschean eternal recurrence (admittedly pausing to execute the villains I mentioned earlier, bit of a tidying up, I suppose); and the ultimate fallacy that, because individual X, on one occasion, supported politician Y, individual X’s beliefs could not possibly encompass Z.

      • da June 20, 2013 at 11:21 am #

        Mr. Obama is not a leftist? not just a river in Egypt, huh? how is a progressive collectivist not left wing? and his opposition consists of everyone who favors individual liberty over dependence on a central government, rather than the narrow camps you’ve outlined.

  4. Anthony J. Langlois June 14, 2013 at 1:37 am #

    Check out:

    Battlestar Galactica and International Relations (Popular Culture and World Politics) [Hardcover]
    Nicholas J. Kiersey (Editor), Iver B. Neumann (Editor)

  5. Dan Nexon June 14, 2013 at 9:58 am #

    As Peter Henne and I note in the volume Lanlois mentions, it is fascinating to watch political scientists pontificate on BSG without mentioning two salient facts.

    1. It has angels and honest-to-goodness acts of God — the ambiguity you speak of is resolved;
    2. The cycle is one of the creation and enslavement of AI, followed by revolution and mutual destruction — the last sequence is a warning about our own future.

    You also missed one of the most teachable moment in BSG: Tigh’s defense of suicide attacks. One of my TAs used to show that to sections when we covered just war theory. It worked well :-).

  6. TTP June 14, 2013 at 10:41 am #

    Oh, I should have mentioned earlier… I think calling BSG “an extended allegory of war on terror-era American politics” overstates the influence of the period. If you look at what Ron Moore did with DS9 (and the writers he brought with him from DS9 to BSG), you’ll see that he and the writers were already dealing with these themes in the mid and late ’90s.

    The extended Dominion War, the introduction of Section 31, Sisko’s use of dirty tricks, etc. all suggest that BSG was not so much a reflection on post-9/11 politics, but a continuation of themes from Moore’s previous projects. Which might suggest that these themes are not so much about the war on terror as they are about American politics in general.

  7. Stephen Dyson June 14, 2013 at 1:21 pm #

    Hi again TTP – you can follow the link underneath the “extended allegory” text for an excellent treatment of that question. On RDM’s previous work, that’s a very good point. A lot of DS9 (a while since I watched it) was about ethnic conflict (esp. the Cardassian / Bajoran storyline) and seemed to reflect the politics of the 1990s. If you follow the “creator of the show” link it should take you to a long interview with RDM where he discusses how much he wanted to bring politics into his writing, and how his approach differed from Roddenberry’s desire for a conflict-free representation of humanity. My own pet theory, for what it is worth, is that BSG is essentially RDM’s highbred of two Trek films: the high stakes, navy-in-space sensibilities of The Wrath of Khan (along with the emotional father / son dynamics), and the resurrection theology of The Search for Spock. Put those elements together, and that is a lot of the core threads in BSG.

    • TTP June 14, 2013 at 5:58 pm #

      Stephen – I think you are correct about the early part of the show especially in light of conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, it’s worth remembering that the ethnic conflict themes were strongest in the first couple seasons of DS9, and that Moore did not work DS9 until the 3rd season, through its end. The last few seasons of DS9 are a serialized space opera involving massive space battles, genocide, and alien infiltrators posing as human. The last 4 seasons of DS9 are far more like BSG than any other seasons of Star Trek, including the first seasons of DS9 itself.

      I have not had the time to look at the link yet, but I look forward to doing so this weekend.

  8. carlos jugo August 11, 2013 at 9:53 am #

    Can you do one for Babylon 5?

    • Stephen Dyson August 11, 2013 at 8:15 pm #

      Hi Carlos – a fantastic piece of epic storytelling with an intricate, multiyear arc, all worked out in advance by the creator of the show. As you probably know, B-5 appeared just before Deep Space 9, and the concepts were so similar that B-5 creator J. Michael Straczynski came close to legal action. I agree Babylon 5 is one of the richest universes in the sci-fi / politics genre. It is several years since I watched the whole series but the arc of Londo Mollari and the rebellion against the totalitarian earth dictatorship would be good places to begin an analysis. I’ll look into your suggestion!