Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Battlestar Galactica as a Human Rights Narrative

Hey all, I promise this will be my last longform essay for a bit. I've been aching to write about Battlestar Galactica since the first time I watched it. Below are some musings on the role of Edward James Olmos as actor and director on the show.

Battlestar Galactica as a Human Rights Narrative

In 2003, Ronald D. Moore rebooted the 1970s television series Battlestar Galactica with Edward James Olmos in the star role. Unlike the campy Star Wars-inspired original, post-9/11 politics directly motivated the reboot as Moore and the cast, particularly Olmos, sought to explore human rights through a violent division between human and nonhuman (Woerner). While one could criticize the show for being post-racial, the discussion is shifted to human rights as humanity and the human-looking robots called Cylons attempt genocide against each other. Space might seem borderless, but a key image from season one remains the border between human and Cylon planets, and destruction of that border sparks war. By delineating human and Clyon spaces with a border, the line also decides who is human, thus uniting popular culture studies and human rights through the explorative lens of science fiction. While the entire series is beyond the scope of this paper, I apply James Dawes’ human rights subgenre theory to a close analysis of Olmos’ directorial debut on the show, “Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down” (2004). The popular culture nature of the show might seem dichotomous to human rights theory, but the 2009 presentation by the showrunners and actors, including Olmos, at the UN to discuss human rights suggest the cultural importance of Battlestar Galactica (Woerner).

When the reboot first aired with a miniseries in 2003, Edward James Olmos had a storied career ranging from his Oscar-nominated performance in Stand and Deliver (1988) to a starring role in Miami Vice (1984-1990) to the cult classics Blade Runner (1982) and Selena (1997) (“Edward James Olmos”). While only a sliver of his long career, these performances seem dichotomous from the role he often discusses: Commander Adama. A seemingly unusual turn in Olmos’ career, the show represents one of the only shows from that era with a person of color in the leading role, let alone a Chicano actor. While shows like Lost, Desperate Housewives, House, ER, Grey’s Anatomy,  and the standard CSI and Law & Order dominated the small screen, only Ugly Betty (2006-2010) overlaps with Battlestar Galactica. Unlike Ugly Betty, the show did not focus on the Latino/a/x experience but demonstrated a post-racial attitude. That being said, Battlestar Galactica strived for diversity before diversity became mandated by millennial audiences and had near gender parity, attempts at queer representation, disability representation (though not by disabled actors), and an ensemble cast featuring enough diversity that white actors did not dominate the screen. All of this is not to dismiss the problematic representation in the show, particularly with which characters experience violent deaths and villain-as-disabled trope. Yet, the show represents a network television show actively engaging with not only diversity but post-9/11 thinking. Indeed, the United Nations’ Assistant Secretary-General for Policy Planning Robert Orr commented that “if [Battlestar Galactica] can get us thinking about [post-9/11 issues], then Amen, because it isn’t easy” (Woerner). Few shows on network television have as successfully demonstrated these commitments—and surely not on the Sci-Fi/SyFy channel, though The Magicians (2015-present) makes similar attempts. Current scholarship on Battlestar Galactica examines the show’s diversity and exploration of othernesss through the Cylons, but much of the scholarship focuses on the show’s connection to international relations. This paper argues that show represents an early presentation of human rights post-9/11 and creatively engages with what James Dawes’ calls “literature and human rights:” “[It] is not only a name for an academic subfield; it is a descriptor of increasingly deliberate institutional relationships and collaborations” (128). During the years that Dawes argues the field was solidifying (around 2007), Battlestar Galactica also explored these ideas on the small screen.  

While different season arcs develop and create complexity from 2003-2010, a singular concern on Battlestar Galactica remains survival. The opening miniseries shows the hatred between humans and Cylons as Cylons destroy the majority of the humanity with a nuclear holocaust. Less than fifty thousand people survive, including Commander Adama (Edward James Olmos), commanding the only remaining battlestar, a military ship. After the genocide, Commander Adama and his crew represent the remaining human military force and only protection against the Cylons’ military presence. A few civilian ships escape and form a fleet under Commander Adama and the new president of humanity, Laura Roslyn, who was sworn in because she was thirty-fourth in line as minister of education. This power imbalance between experience and lack thereof (and between civilian and military authority) creates much of the tension around Commander Adama’s character arc in the first thirteen episodes. In season one, two main conflicts dictate the arc: general survival after the nuclear destruction of humanity and uncovering the human-like Cylons in the fleet.

While popular culture has not always handled human rights issues with sensitivity, Battlestar Galactica’s season arcs align with the creation of James Dawes subgenre of human rights literature. Dawes describes the paradox of human rights literature: “That representations of atrocity are both ethical interventions and acts of voyeurism; that human rights work protects the dignity of the human by juridically restricting what counts as human; or that it grounds itself in the integrity of the unviolated body even as its theoretical dualism denigrates bodily experience” (130). Exploring atrocity through speculative fiction shortcuts some of these issues—particularly voyeurism—but creates another: does treating such human rights violations as science fiction or fantasy dissociate from the reality of these lived experiences? Perhaps speculative fiction works best in concert with other works of literature and scholarship but not in isolation. Indeed, speculative works allow for theories in addition to experiences to be translated to a popular audience through the lens of popular culture. It also allows for subversion across partisan lines. For example, in Battlestar Galactica a season-long arc dramatizes a new colony of humans occupied by the militarily superior Cylons. The humans respond with suicide bombers, and while some characters discouraged the action, one of the main characters (Adama’s best friend, Saul Tigh played by Michael Hogan) deems the suicide bombers necessary to drive away the Cylons. This arc not only critiques the US invasion and occupation of Iraq but also demonstrates how that occupation radicalizes people. Here lies the power of speculative stories—they can distill ideas into a popular framework. 

Notably, the show engages with both plot structures that Dawes describes in “The Novel of Human Rights:” the justice plot and the escape plot (137). The first half of the series demonstrates the justice plot: “In the justice plot, the central narrative is a narrative of return, of violation and its investigation, of the pull of past crime and attempts to repair it” (137). Especially in season one, investigation of who might be a Cylon, how the Cylons were able to destroy humanity, and how the Cylons are able to track the remaining humans creates much of the tension. In addition, revenge for the genocide of humanity also provides character motivation. During the second half of the show, as Cylons and humans intermingle and form partnerships (including the first Cylon-human child), the plot shifts to the second plot identified by Dawes, the escape plot: “In the escape plot, the central narrative is a narrative of departure, of accumulating, forward-pushing violations, of escape as opposed to repair” (137). Rather than looking backward and remembering their human cultures, humanity and Cylons alike search for a paradise-like planet, prophesized as the home world of human and Cylon: Earth. The focus becomes escape as life is no longer sustainable on the worn-out ships.    

Significantly, Edward James Olmos’ first turn as director on the show address the concern of who is human and who is Cylon in season one’s “Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down.” The A plot and B plot of the episode revolve around accusing multiple people of being Cylons. President Laura Roslyn believes Commander Adama is a Cylon after being lied to by another Cylon. Her fears are only supported by Adama’s strange behavior, which is caused by the random appearance of Ellen Tigh, his executive officer’s wife. Of course, due to her sudden appearance on a civilian ship, Adama fears Ellen could be a Cylon. A few minutes into the episode, President Roslyn approaches Commander Adama on his command deck, a space that he very much controls. As a Cylon detector has just been created, Roslyn asks Adama to have his blood checked first: “I completely agree [that people in sensitive positions should go first]. How about you? […] If you’re a Cylon, I’d like to know” (Olmos). This question immediately others him, and while the show attempts post-raciality, a powerful white woman asking an equally powerful Latino to prove himself—by extension, his humanity and loyalty—creates a tense scene that crosses into Dawes’ justice plot as finding the Cylons means exacting revenge not only for the genocide but the deaths that occurred since humanity has been forced to flee. If Adama were a Cylon, enacting justice against him would provide closure for the deaths that happened since humanity fled the genocide. These moments more clearly resonate with post-9/11 fear, but the fact they continue to resound over a decade later speak to how show tapped into a larger US-cultural fear.

In particular, Roslyn plays detective while trying to discover why Adama has seemed distracted over the past few days, thus aligning with Dawes’ theory again: “The justice plot looks to the detective novel” (137). Indeed, detective novels are a leitmotif throughout the show, particularly between Adama and Roslyn. She continues the investigation by asking her assistant to question his girlfriend (an officer on the battlestar) about Adama’s actions. She even brings in Saul Tigh, Adama’s best friend, for interrogation with her assistant, creating a low-key good cop/bad cop situation as she and her assistant question Tigh. The tension rises as Roslyn says: “I advise you right now to not say anything you would regret” (Olmos). The investigation continues to unravel as Tigh reveals his wife’s name, cluing Roslyn into Adama’s distracted behavior and making her suspicious that Tigh’s wife could be a Cylon.

While the episode could continue to develop the tension between Adama and Roslyn’s relationship evident throughout season one, the episode takes an unexpected turn to humor, which also undermines the justice plot. Due to the serious topics of the show, humor rarely appears. When the studio asked for “Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down” to represent a less serious turn on the show, Olmos disagreed with the choice but said: “Okay, but if you guys want humor, then I want to direct it” (ScreenRelish). The required use of humor inspired Olmos directorial debut on the show, and certain moments of humor in the episode are decidedly directorial through blocking, framing, and camera angles, particularly in central ensemble scene: a celebratory dinner and a confrontation over who could be a Cylon. The dinner scene consists of five characters: Saul Tigh and his newly recovered wife Ellen Tigh; Adama and Roslyn who both believe Ellen could be a Cylon; and Adama’s son Lee, a fighter pilot captain. Adama and Roslyn each attempt to ensnare a drunken Ellen in her words, such as when Adama says: “Any one of us could be a Cylon” (Olmos). Even though intoxicated, Ellen eventually catches on. A series of quick cuts provide close ups of each actor as they consider whether Ellen might be a Cylon, interrupted by Ellen shouting “Boo!” A wider shot shows the startled reactions as the moment of tension—in the room and for the viewer—is broken as there is no way this drunken, silly woman could be a master mind of evil. As Roslyn says later: “You actually think that woman is a Cylon?” (Olmos). Ellen’s actions end the dinner, though Adama, Roslyn, and Lee compare notes afterward, leading to another moment of humor. After watching Saul and Ellen drunkenly stumble out, almost falling in the corridor, Adama says: “Ellen used to encourage the worst instincts in this guy. Bring out the self-destructive streak in him” (Olmos). His son Lee responds: “Used to” (Olmos)? They stop cleaning up the dinner plates, pause for an extended beat staring into the middle distance, then resume cleaning. In a cathartic release with the characters, the audience can laugh about how ridiculous the drunken Ellen can act. This beat also enforces that Tigh, a recovering alcoholic, is in serious trouble with the return of his wife.

Battlestar Galactica rarely uses humor throughout an episode, so the turn to humor could possibly undermine the show, one reason Olmos wanted to direct the difficult—though memorable—episode. Similarly, the novels James Dawes explores as part of defining the human rights subgenre are not comedies but serious explorations of atrocity. While the episode’s humor is decidedly dark—questioning someone’s humanity, which would lead to their execution, is not typical dinner table talk—it demonstrates how such atrocity deeply changes people until even what is acceptable humor changes. Overall, Battlestar Galactica questions what becomes acceptable after genocide—torture, suicide bombers, mandated childbirth, martial law. Part of this questioning eventually leads to what becomes acceptable for survival, including relationships with Cylons. Through the popular culture medium of a speculative television show on the often derided Sci-Fi/SyFy channel, Battlestar Galactica ultimately works to erase the imagined line between what is arbitrarily defined as human or alien.

Works Cited

Dawes, James. “The Novel of Human Rights.” American Literature, Volume 88, Number 1, March 2016. DOI 10.1215/00029831-3453684.

“Edward James Olmos.” Internet Movie Database,, Accessed on March 10, 2019.

Olmos, Edward James. “Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down.” Battlestar Galactica, Season 1, Episode 9, Universal, 2004.

Woerner, Meredith. “The Night Battlestar Galactica Took Over The U.N.” io9, 2009, Accessed March 10, 2019.

Screenrelish. “Edward James Olmos: Humor on Battlestar Galactica - Fan Expo 2014.” YouTube, 2014, Accessed March 10, 2019.

Phoebe Wagner currently studies at University of Nevada: Reno. When not writing or reading, she can be found kayaking at the nearest lake. Follow her at or on Twitter @pheebs_w.