Part allegory, part space opera, and part technological dystopia, the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica series presents a future rife with twenty first century concerns. The show, a remake of the 1978 series of the same name, consisted of a two-part miniseries (2003) followed by four full seasons (2005-2009); I will focus on the events of the miniseries. At the onset of the program, the world has undergone a “technological transformation,” falling into William’s fourth category of dystopia, where the “conditions of life have been worsened by technical development” (Utopia and Science Fiction, 204). We join our protagonists in a futuristic universe wherein the now endangered human species tries to escape a race of sentient machines known as Cylons. Rather than their original 1978 conception as “ambiguous alien antagonists,” the mechanical Cylons of the revived BSG represent “an evolution of human engineering run amok; a contemporary parable illustrating what can happen if technology is allowed to advance unchecked,” (galactica.tv). With the advent of the new series, the show underwent an upgrade for the new millennium and the cultural concerns that came with it, situating itself into contemporary social consciousness. BSG therefore features the potential dangers of human hubris, the creation and consequences of artificial intelligence, and highlights the moral and ethical quandaries that arise from notions of humanity when applied to man or machine.

The miniseries begins with lines of text that addresses the fears at play: “The Cylons were created by Man. / They were created to make life easier on the Twelve Colonies. / And then the day came when the Cylons decided to kill their masters,” (BSG, “Night 1”). Humankind arrogantly assumed they could control their technology because they created it. Indeed, the very purpose of the Cylons was to serve mankind as a sentient robotic labor-force that would not come with the complications and rights that humans possess. However, the sentient Cylons refused fulfill their ordained purpose as laborers and instead rebelled. In “The Cyborg Handbook,” Mark Oehlert asks us to confront “our own fears concerning the cyborgs themselves. Are these images of our post-modern Frankenstein monsters? If these cyborgs are so powerful, then how do we, as normal (?) homo sapiens, stand a chance if they ever turn on us?” (226). The Cylons, having already turned against humanity and committed genocide at the onset of the series, highlight this fear. What happens when we can no longer control our technology? And where do we go next?

As a result of the first Cylon War, humanity had to revert back to an older form of their technological culture. The series aptly takes place on a battleship known as Galactica, run by Commander Adama. At the advent of the series, the ship is about to be decommissioned and turned into a museum. Certain artifacts on the ship appear “odd or even antiquated to modern eyes, like phones with cords, awkward manual valves, computers that, well, barely deserve the name,” (BSG, “Night 1”). These “old” technologies were purposefully installed on the ship so that the humans could operate against an enemy who, themselves computer based, were capable of infiltrating and disrupting computer systems. The Galactica thus served “as a reminder of a time when we were so frightened by our enemies, that we literally looked backward for protection,” (BSG, “Night 1”).

In 1863, Cellarius offered the following proclamation against technology:

Let us at once go back to the primeval condition of the race. If it be urged that this is impossible under the present condition of human affairs, this at once proves that the mischief is already done, that our servitude has commenced in good earnest, that we have raised a race of beings whom it is beyond our power to destroy, and that we are not only enslaved but are absolutely acquiescent in our bondage. (Darwin Among the Machines, 185)

In order to exist in a world overrun with their advanced creations, humanity had to revert back to a time when limited technology existed in order to survive. The Galactica took heed of the past and the dangers that technology afforded as indicators for their future. Thus, by not progressing, they were able to escape extinction. And yet, so much of our own culture is digitized now that to threaten the computer system is to threaten society as a whole. To Cellarius, we have already failed. BSG then serves an allegory forcing humanity to deal with the consequences after a computer revolution.

With the advent of our increasingly digital culture, the human brain has taken on a comparison to a computer: a machine that can store and sort data, make connections and computations, access old information and assimilate new. Humans are becoming more and more like machines, and so the AI narrative addresses these concerns by in turn creating machines that appear more and more human. The Cylons of BSG, wearing human skins rather than robotic shells, are no exception. While the Cylons may appear human, they are not as varied as the human species. There are set number of models for Cylons, and as such there are multiple copies of the same android existing at once. While individual units among the same models may exhibit different personalities, they are at their core the same “being.” This parallels humans in the digital age and how we possess multiple versions of ourselves. Real selves, online selves, social media selves, and in this technological age we must find a way to assimilate them all. The Cylons with their multiple copies mirror our own inner divide back to us.

In “The Cyborg Handbook,” Jennifer Gonzáles states:

Visual representations of cyborgs are thus not only utopian or dystopian prophesies, but are rather reflections of a contemporary state of being. The image of the cyborg body functions as a site of condensation and displacement. It contains on its surface and in its fundamental structure the multiple fears and desires of a culture caught in the process of transformation. (267)

When boundaries between man and machine become blurred with living much of our lives online, we run the risk of losing the essence of what makes us human. BSG highlights the fear that modern culture will be eradicated with the advent of new and more advanced technology. If the Cylons look like humans but are more intelligent, capable, and advanced, then humankind becomes redundant. BSG thus presents a scenario that has been occurring for the past few decades on a much smaller scale where, as Cellarius would have phrased it, “we are ourselves creating our own successors” (182). Machines increasingly replace the jobs of human workers, rendering them unnecessary. As humans delve further into developing more advanced technology for more specialized means, humanity runs the risk of becoming itself irrelevant.

The most unsettling aspect of the Cylon body is that on the surface, it becomes impossible to differentiate between human and machine. This presents challenges for both humans and Cylons on the show; the former oftentimes cannot perceive of a threat due to the Cylon’s disguise while the latter are forced to question the nature of their existence. The Cylons are so human-like that occasionally a Cylon copy does not even realize they are a machine. Such is the case with Lieutenant Sharon “Boomer” Valerii, who believes herself a human yet secretly is a Cylon sleeper agent (model Number Eight) programmed with false memories. This presents an entirely new existential complication. Man and machine become indistinguishable not only from mankind’s point of view, but from the Cylon’s. As technology in the form of supercomputers and Artificial Intelligence becomes more advanced, moral and ethical questions begin to take form. If a Cylon looks human, acts human, and believes itself to be human, is it morally right to treat it as a thing? Battlestar Galactica not only presents the fears of technology advancing too far for mankind to control, but the problem of how any advance in technology can change the mindset of a culture, forcing people to reevaluate their ideals, ethics, and how they view the world.

Works Cited
Cellarius, “Darwin Among the Machines [To the Editor of the Press, Christchurch, New Zealand, 13 June, 1863.]”
Gray, C. H., ed. 1995. Part 4: In the Imagination. In The Cyborg Handbook. New York: Routledge.
“Night 1.” Battlestar Galactica: Miniseries.
Williams, Raymond. 1978. “Utopia and Science Fiction.” Science Fiction Studies 5(3):203-14
www.galactica.tv