Six astronauts on the moon encountering evidence of other life in the universe. Two small children trapped in a car being terrorized by a long extinct apex predator. A team of space miners seeing a creature burst from the chest of one of their crew. These scenes from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Jurassic Park, and Alien are examples of science fiction at its most memorable. But we do not hail these works as masterpieces for their roles in pushing science to its limits. Instead, we view them as pieces that can evoke in us a sense of awe, anxiety, or dread, regardless of the imaginative scenarios in which they are couched. Sci-fi that portrays humanity under “what if” conditions—conditions that make us ask ourselves, “What are they going to do? What would I do?”—lets us unconsciously suspend our disbelief. We willingly ignore the technobabble, the magic green rocks, the kooky physics, and the improbable leaps of science so that we can see and feel characters’ reactions and interactions under stressful conditions.
In the epic space opera Battlestar Galactica, the technology, instead of being clean, sleek, sterile, or anything interesting at all (there is no touch screen anything, military moves are plotted on white boards and with figurines, various life-support and communication systems are manual and often break down), is secondary to the plot. It exists as a given. The calendar year in which the story is set is not revealed. It is simply not important; we assume it is the future. We are thrown in to the characters’ lives with no time to question how or why their ships can travel faster than light, or how or why they inhabit other planets, none of which is Earth. The plot is driven not by trailing behind answers to these questions, but by the characters and their humanity, their ability (or not) to perform under pressure, to grapple with choices no one ever wishes to make, to fight the good fight when all seems lost, and to deal with losing everything they ever knew.
These are the “what if”s of Battlestar’s first three episodes: What if your entire species was nearly wiped out in minutes by cybernetic beings you once manufactured as workers? What if you survived only because you happened to be on a space ship at the time of the strike? What if you were charged with protecting a fleet of civilian ships housing a few thousand survivors? What if your enemy, who does not need sleep, food, or medicine, appeared behind you to attack every 33 minutes for 130 hours straight? In these first few hours of the program, we wonder not, “How can this happen?”; We wonder, “How will they make it?” Hair unwashed, beards grown, eyes puffy, complexions pallid, conversations slow and tense under the harsh light of the space ship, the crew of the Battlestar cannot make one mistake, lest a ship get left behind. As a figure of authority, the commander of the ship must look the part, so he shaves. But he slips, and cuts himself. He has shaved countless times, yet repetition is not enough to stave off the effects of insomnia on his motor skills. In another part of the ship, the flight captain tells the fighter crew after its 237th “jump” away from the enemy, “Look, you’ve all done this 237 times. You know what to do.” Yet the crew still makes mistakes. Exhausted pilots get blown from the sky, the cabin crew doesn’t have time to rescue people, and finally, an entire passenger carrier is lost when the President (the Secretary of Education five days prior, thrust into command because all 42 other people in line of succession above her were killed) orders a passenger ship to be destroyed because she thinks it has been infiltrated. What would you do?
During their five day run, the characters are still coming to terms with the loss of those who were not fortunate enough to have been in space. Cut to an unnamed young man in charge of sorting through the billions of lives lost. His face is stoic, sagging, the immensity of what has happened already lost to him as he deals with hundreds of crew members who would like to know how many, if any, of their families’ colonies survived. After he turns away communications officer Anastasia Dualla when she presents her family’s photo, he calls forward the next person in line: “Next. Colony?” The question as written hardly deserves a question mark as there is no inflection in his voice. He is simply reciting words he has spoken over and over again in a sleep-deprived haze. Do we expect him to show compassion?
Dualla shuffles down a harshly lit hall where countless photos are posted along the walls. She is tiny, physically, her smallness accentuated by the height of the ceiling and length of the passage. At the end of the hall she turns, perplexed. Though her photograph, like she, is small, there is nowhere for her to put it. She is lost among the dead, and she feels her smallness, smallness which translates into hopelessness. We forget that it was robots in space that destroyed everything she knew. We remember to feel the moment, to feel her frailness and desperation, and to ask ourselves, “What would I do?”