Battlestar Galactica: Subversive Sci-Fi?

Curator's Note

Time Magazine has hailed BSG as the best program on television. Critics praise its under-dog protagonists' perspective on torture, insurgency and suicide bombings as a clever criticism of the Iraq War and the 'war on terror.' BSG is more oppositional to the current US regime than much else on television. But viewing figures remain low and I find myself continually recommending it to people who have not seen it (no doubt including some of you). Might its relatively low ratings paradoxically account for its subversive capacity? Can basic cable channels, with their limited viewership, be more daring than the big four opposition? Does the oft despised science fiction genre, which many people refuse to watch on principle, offer more scope for metaphoric critique than more realist ones (c.f. Star Trek' various incarnations)? How does the case of BSG illuminate the structural determinants of subversion within the hegemonic media? Note: This post was originally published May 7, 2007, and is reprised here for BSG week. — Editors


Roberta As another BSG fan, I am glad you posted this. (Can you believe we have to wait a year for the next season?!) And as for subversive story lines, I was pretty blown away by the union episode...harkening back to the Ford strikes that took place in the U.S. during WWII. There is so much to love about this show. For example, Laura Roslin's powerful, older, and attractive female protagonist...a rarity on American television. But it seems to me that the show appeals to the political middle by promoting some pretty contradicting ideologies (ie: Roslin's dignified portrayel vs. the slinky Cylons). And as for the sly critique of the war in Iraq, I catch myself eagerly anticipating the pyrotechnic fight scenes and rooting on the Admirel to "take charge." (ie: the coup) He may be a kinder and gentler military man, but Adama always gets his way, no?

Chris is right to point the contradictory elements of BSG -- babes and battles aimed at the fan boy demographic coupled with a dignified older woman aimed at my demographic. Popular culture is popular precisely because of its polysemy; a collection of disparate elements designed to appeal to the greatest number of viewers. We need to be aware of these contradictions when assessing the subversive possibilities of popular media. Formulaic elements added for fan boys, can, for example, transmute into something much more interesting as with Seven of Nine, the babe added to the Star Trek Voyager cast to up the ratings. She turned into oneof the series most provocative characters with regards to issues of gender and the nature of humanity.

I wonder how the underdog status of the human characters is overlaid by viewers' sense of the underdog status of the show and even the network in the programming universe. I think this was at work in the way many responded to BTVS as well--wanting Buffy to survive and wanting the show to be continued (like so much, this didn't transfer to Angel...). If this is a factor, it possibly heightens the self-congratulatory element of consumer "subversive" culture, but would it also both align and oppose viewers' interests with those of the networks?

That's a really fascinating question, Michael, and one which was easier to answer in the era of network hegemony. Back when original Star Trek aired on NBC, it was easy to for fans to love Gene Roddenberry and hate NBC (although, as producer Herb Solow pointed out to my co-author in an interview for our article in Michele Hilmes' NBC book, why would a network want to sink its own show?) Fan culture has, until now at least, congratulated itself on its opposition to the mainstream. But what happens when there really isn't any longer a mainstream? I'm afraid I don't know anything about BSG fandom, but do they love Ron Moore and hate the Sci-Fi channel? Somehow I don't think so or at least not at the moment, when things are going well for both. But, of course, as happened with Whedon and Angel, the network can turn against the creator as soon as its in its interests to do so (although I've never quite figured out why the WB cancelled the show since the ratings were apparently okay -- something to do with repeat viewing ratings?). But I do think that Michael's right about self-congratulation. If you see a show as edgy, subversive, outside the mainstream, then it might be easier to overlook its faults, including some of the perhaps problematic aspects of bSG's racial representation discussed this week. Anyone out there know what, if anything, the fans are saying about this?

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