Against my better judgement, I’ve become addicted to the sci-fi TV series Battlestar Galactica.
I say “against my better judgement”, because I don’t normally watch much TV – much less sci-fi (I still think StarTrek = idiots in pyjamas), so this took me rather by surprise.
The show’s premise is this: sometime in a distant future (no pyjamas), humans are at war with robots they created. The robots look convincingly human, so nobody knows who is who. In episode 1, all human planets are destroyed in a nuclear holocaust; the only survivors are 50,000 poor sods who were travelling in outer space while it happened. These 50,000 become responsible for the survival of the entire human civilisation (no pressure) on a dozen spaceships. Unbeknownst to anybody, there are human-looking robots onboard the human fleet.
So far, so sci-fi.
What makes it compelling of course, are the stories of the people we follow – the fighter pilots who go out everyday to protect others, the admiral who keep things together when everyone else is freaking out, the civilians who have lost all they had with no hope of return, and the robots who, despite being robots, fall desperately in love with humans (and reciprocally).
Kudos to the cast and writing team, some of these stories are among the most deeply touching you can imagine – stories of courage and impossible love, of loss, hope, faith, and finding soul where there is only chaos. Beyond the sci-fi flick, it’s a story about being human – what makes us human, what makes our individual destinies, and what legacy we may have as a species.
It’s also a story about heroes, and how we are all, in our small everyday ways, appealed to be heroes.
I’ve learnt a great deal from observing life onboard Galactica for 80-odd episodes:
- Nothing is for ever and nothing can be taken for granted. Just like the humans in the story have lost their old homes and families, life as we know it may come to an end at any time, through no fault of our own. The people and things we love one day may be no more, and life will go on regardless. And that’s okay.
- Humans will do stupid things. You’d think with only a few survivors in the universe people would try to get on. Of course not – they still hurt each other out of fear or greed, of cowardice or pride. In the face of difficult choices, even those who love each other often don’t realise or act on it until it’s too late. As a viewer you want to shout at them “go on, life’s too short for this!”. A bit like real life then.
- We all have a role to play. Destiny is one of the series’ strong themes. The main characters (humans and robots alike) all have a strong sense of a mission they need to accomplish, although they usually don’t know how or why. As the story develops, all their separate missions come together for Humanity to be saved – salvation is only possible because each single person played their role, as pointless or insignificant as it might have seemed at the time.
- Our calling may take us by surprise. Human-looking robots don’t usually know they’re robots. They go about living a normal human life, until one day a programme is activated in their brain that will reveal their true nature. Did this ever happen to you in real life, suddenly feel the urge to do something out of character, learn a new skill, meet new people, visit a new country? Following those hunches might just lead you to your true nature too.
- We may need to go a little mad. In the process of following our callings, others might call us mad. As we starting seeing or doing things differently, we might even wonder about our own sanity. When the Battlestar’s best fighter pilot disappears in mission and reappears 2 months later with no recollection of what happened to her, the others assume she’s a robot, and she starts doubting herself – she’s no longer sure who or what she is. But out of this confusion emerges a new, clearer sense of purpose. A nice metaphor of how we sometimes need to let go of our old lives to find meaning.
- We should allow ourselves to be driven by love. Even the most level-headed, rational characters will risk everything for their one true love – trecking alone through the entire universe to rescue a parent or a lover. That’s because even though it makes no rational sense, they know life wouldn’t be worth living if they lost those they love most. That’s pretty cool.
- We can choose everyday to do good or bad. We all have a part to play and it’s up to us to honour or ignore it. The things that are worth doing are often pretty damn scary, and we can choose to go for our dreams or to do nothing and keep going. Every small choice adds up to what we do with our lives. It’s all up to us, really.
- Heroes never give up. For the one day of glory when they will save Humanity, the heroes have had a thousand so-so days when things didn’t go to plan. They had to turn up to work everyday (even if “work” was flying a fighter jet); their bosses got on their nerves, they were bored out of their minds, or hungover from the night before. They were sometimes betrayed by the people who should have had their backs; often the mission seemed impossible. They had plenty of opportunity to doubt themselves and give up. But they didn’t. And that’s what made them heroes.
And that, my friends, is what I learnt from my stay in outer space. As well as having a jolly good time.