Special Issue on Star Wars: The Force Awakens Published in NANO: New American Notes Online


Special Issue Co-Editors Jason W. Ellis and Sean Scanlan are pleased to announce the publication of NANO: New American Notes Online issue 12 on Star Wars: The Force Awakens: Narrative, Characters, Media, and Event. Focusing on the transmedia aspects of the continuation of the Star Wars film saga following Lucasfilm’s acquisition by Disney, this issue’s contributors explore how transmedia storytelling is leveraged in different aspects of fanfiction, promoting ideologies of global capitalism, and reconfigures Joseph Campbell’s hero myth. Also, we are honored to present an interview with Cass R. Sunstein, author of The World According to Star Wars. Now that The Last Jedi is in theaters, there is much more to be said on the issues these contributors debate. Follow the link below to read the current issue.



NANO Issue 12: Star Wars: The Force Awakens: Narrative, Characters, Media, and Event


image4-IMG_2693 copyEditor’s Introduction for NANO Special Issue 12: Star Wars: The Force Awakens: Narrative, Characters, Media, and Event by Jason W. Ellis and Sean Scanlan


kylo-hux-03Welcoming the Dark Side?: Exploring Whitelash and Actual Space Nazis in TFA Fanfiction by Cait Coker and Karen Viars


KeeImageOnePoe Dameron Hurts So Prettily: How Fandom Negotiates with Transmedia Characterization by Chera Kee


LR-orpana-8-StarkillerbaseInterpellation by the Force: Biopolitical Cultural Apparatuses in The Force Awakens by Simon Orpana


LR-Payal-2The Force Awakens: The Individualistic and Contemporary Heroine by Payal Doctor


cass-book-cover-letterboxAn Interview with Cass R. Sunstein: Author of The World According to Star Wars by Jason W. Ellis and Sean Scanlan



NANO: New American Notes Online is an interdisciplinary academic journal. Our goal is to invigorate humanities discourse by publishing brief peer-reviewed reports with a fast turnaround enabled by digital technologies.



Currently open NANO calls for papers include:

– Issue 13: Special Issue on The Anthropocene, Guest Editors: Kyle Wiggins and Brandon Krieg

Deadline: January 12, 2018

– Issue 14: Special Issue: Captivity Narratives Then and Now: Gender, Race, and the Captive in 20th and 21st American Literature and Culture, Guest Editors: Megan Behrent and Rebecca Devers

Deadline: May 15, 2018

Visit https://nanocrit.com/Submissions for details and instructions for submitting your writing.

Recovered Writing, Unpublished Essay, Michael Bay’s Transformers and the New Post-9/11 Science Fiction Film Narrative, 26 March 2009

This is the sixty-first post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

This publishable-length essay, “Michael Bay’s Transformers and the New Post-9/11 Science Fiction Film Narrative,” is a significant expansion of a presentation that I made at the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts in 2008. I sent the longer form of the essay around for publication, but at the time, I could not invest the necessary time to meet the demands of the anonymous reviewers. It was around that time that I began studying for my PhD exams. The dissertation followed closely thereafter. Now, I think too much time has passed and too many more examples have appeared for me to re-engage with these ideas–at least at the present time. I’m confident that I would need to begin almost from scratch. Also, my research interests have moved into other areas, which would require retooling for the demands of this research as opposed to my current approaches (of course, there are texts and ideas contained here that I might bring over to my current scholarship). Thus, the essay, quotes, and works cited might best serve my readers’ purposes and interests as another Recovered Writing post. Perhaps one of you are working on a project in this vein and this essay can serve as a foil to test your approach, or this essay might encourage you to pick up the reigns and take these ideas further. If nothing else, maybe you’re a fan of the Transformers and want to think about the cultural underpinnings of these characters and their stories (if you are in this camp, you can find another essay that I wrote about Transformers and gender here).

Michael Bay’s Transformers and the New Post-9/11 Science Fiction Film Narrative

Jason W. Ellis

26 March 2009

The towers, for their part, have disappeared. But they have left us the symbol of their disappearance, their disappearance as symbol.

Jean Baudrillard, “Requiem for the Twin Towers.”

The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States of America have unequivocally and paradigmatically shifted the cultural outlook and fearful anticipation of people within and without the borders of the United States. It is the subject of this essay to explore how that shift is manifested in American Science Fiction (SF) film in the aftermath of that mid-September day through the linkages to earlier SF film rooted in American Cold War culture. Before 9/11, American imaginative fear and anxiety was firmly entrenched in the symbol of the thermonuclear bomb–a thing delivered by rockets and targeting computers, and after 9/11, that anxiety changed to the suicide bomber–a cyborg uniting ideology, high explosives or other technological means of mayhem, and the person. The Cold War threat was removed from the personal, and the inaction of thermonuclear war realization resulted in the science fictional imagining of what could be rather than a reflection of what was. The post-9/11 threat presents a reconfiguration of threat as something personal, up-close, and very real–something that has come to pass and may occur again. It is the fact that 3,025 U.S. citizens and persons from other countries were killed on September 11, 2001 that caused a transformation in the perception of anxiety, fear, and threat from elusive enemies and resulted in a new kind of personal response narrative in SF film.

It is important to more fully interrogate the differences between American Cold War SF and its milieu, and the radical changes that followed the Cold War and the intervening years prior to the September 11 attacks. John Lewis Gaddis significantly connects the “images” of the Cold War with the distancing of the threat from the everyday lives of Americans:

Despite moments of genuine fear, however, as during the Berlin and Cuban missile crises, the only images we had of destroyed American cities were those constructed by the makers of apocalypse films and the authors of science fiction novels. Real danger remained remote. We had adversaries, but we also had the means of deterring them.

Even cold war insecurities, therefore, never meant that Americans, while living, working and traveling within their country, had to fear for their lives. Dangers to the American homeland were always vague and distant, however clear and present overseas dangers may have been. The very term “national security,” invented during World War II and put to such frequent use during the cold war, always implied that both threats and vulnerabilities lay outside the country. Our military and intelligence forces were configured accordingly. (Gaddis 8)

The threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War was a real fear, but the only imaginative representation of that threat was “constructed by the makers of apocalypse films and the authors of science fiction novels” (Gaddis 8). It was left to the realm of fiction to create representations of the attack that never occurred. Additionally, as Gaddis points out, wars took place elsewhere and not on American soil. The Cold War dueling powers–the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R.–worked out their frustrated advances in other places–particularly in Southeast Asia–rather than take the fight to either country’s home front. It was the fantasy of films such as John Milius’ Red Dawn (1984) that Communist forces would invade the American heartland during World War III. In Red Dawn and all other films of that era that confronted or alluded to the nuclear annihilation of North America and/or the rest of the world were constructing one of many possible scenarios, but none of these were based on the reality of thermonuclear warfare made possible by scientific and engineering advances during the long 1950s. Fat Man and Little Boy, the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the last phase of World War II, pale in comparison to the potential devastation of warfare involving fusion bombs never once used outside of the isolated testing environments in deserts, atolls, and the upper atmosphere. Thus, there was real data about the effects of nuclear warfare, but it was this very speculative aspect of nuclear holocaust that sets Cold War SF apart from that which came after the very real, graphic, and televised hijacked airplane attacks on New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania.

It is evident that with the number of American Cold War SF films from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) to Dr. Strangelove (1964) to Escape from New York (1981) that a lot of creative energy and capital went into grappling with nuclear annihilation from outside. Part and parcel with this massive undertaking of the potential annihilation of the United States and the rest of the world is the inescapable realization that these imaginings were something that we all to some extent entertained. It is unavoidable that the threat of nuclear war and apocalypse entered into the cultural consciousness, and it was something that we all thought of alone or in the communal engagement of films that represented implicitly or explicitly the potential horrors of nuclear war unleashed from without.

The cultural currency of apocalypse did not leave SF film in the years between the Cold War and the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. In fact, the imaginative target reconfigured or transformed in the intervening post-Cold War years where the threat and fear lost focus. Instead of a clear and present danger presented by the former Soviet Union, there were “uprisings” and “hotbeds of activity” around the world after George H. W. Bush’s Gulf War I. It was the transformation of threat and the dream of horror, even visited upon our soil and friends and family, that culminated in the dream-turned-real on September 11, 2001 when nineteen al-Qaeda terrorists took control of four passenger airliners and turned history’s path into the undiscovered country. Jean Baudrillard approaches this counterintuitive and unspeakable truism of the dream in his shockingly provocative essay, “The Spirit of Terrorism:”

The fact that we have dreamt of this event, that everyone without exception has dreamt of it–because no one can avoid dreaming of the destruction of any power that has become hegemonic to this degree–is unacceptable to the Western moral conscience. Yet it is a fact, and one which can indeed be measured by the emotive violence of all that has been said and written in the effort to dispel it. (Baudrillard 5)

What if things were not as they were? What if this government or that multinational corporation were done away with, then what would happen? It is these kinds of “what if” questions that we all entertain. However, we do not all consider the full ramifications of our wishes, or what might have to be done to make our wishes come true. For Baudrillard, it doesn’t matter how innocent our dreams might have been. The fact is that we wished for that other future in our own daydreams or in the SF that we enjoyed. In any event, the unconscionable wish came true when we awoke, and there was no possibility of returning it to the imaginative ether. Baudrillard continues:

At a pinch, we can say that they did it, but we wished for it. If this is not taken into account, the event loses any symbolic dimension. It becomes a pure accident, a purely arbitrary act, the murderous phantasmagoria of a few fanatics, and all that would then remain would be to eliminate them. Now, we know very well that this is not how it is. (Baudrillard 5)

It is true that Mohamed Atta, Marwan al Shehhi, Hani Hanjour, and Ziad Jarrah piloted the hijacked-airliners-turned-flying-bombs into the civilian and military targets within the American homeland. However, it was the dream and wish we each held or bought into through the apocalyptic visions presented in SF film that implicates each of us in some way to the events of that day. Furthermore, it is necessary to make an account of this dimension of the events of September 11, 2001, because otherwise would be to isolate the event from the greater rhizomic networks within which it is connected. It is essential to any understanding of that tragic event, including all those things that led up to it and all those things that followed, that we also understand our own relationship to the event personally and culturally.

Understanding the September 11 attacks as a symbolic act against the United States’ economic, military, and interventionist hegemony requires juxtaposing the event with an earlier sneak attack–December 7, 1941, what former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called, “a date which will live in infamy.” However, the juxtaposition of these two events is not as well defined as was proclaimed ad infinitum on television during and following the attacks. On this point, Baudrillard offers:

The Americans lacked such a wound (at Pearl Harbor they suffered an act of war, not a symbolic attack). An ideal reverse of fortune for a nation at last wounded at its heart and free, having atoned for it, to exert its power in all good conscience. A situation science fiction dreamed of from the beginning: that of some obscure force that would wipe them out and which, until that point, merely existed in their unconscious (or some other recess of their minds). And all of a sudden, it materializes through the good grace of terrorism! The axis of Evil takes hold of America’s unconscious, and realizes by violence what was merely a fantasy and a dream thought! (Baudrillard 61-62)

The United States had not suffered a symbolic wound, or in other words an unexpected strike against the national body that carries a greater signification than nation-state warfare, prior to the September 11 terror attacks. The Pearl Harbor attack were certainly a strategic blow to United States preparedness prior to World War II, but that strike was accompanied, albeit late, by a declaration of war by another nation-state, Japan. The September 11 attacks are analogous to what Baudrillard identifies explicitly as a situation originating in SF–the attack from the “invisible man,” or the unexpected devastation by Heinlein’s bugs in Starship Troopers. The September 11 terror attacks represent the unexpected from without, from the alien Other, from out there and targeted against us. Al-Qaeda’s operation represents the culmination of this imaginative impulse that began much earlier during the Cold War era, but turned out from fear of nuclear annihilation toward the symbols of hegemonic power rooted in capital and military power. However, most alarmingly, George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” and “Global War on Terrorism” solidified the American imagination around the events of September 11, 2001 back out toward loci of ideological difference, tension, and conflict. Furthermore, Slavoj Žižek corresponds with Baudrillard when he says the following in his essay, “Welcome to the Desert of the Real!”:

The Wachowski brothers’ hit Matrix (1999) brought this logic [the logic of experiencing the “real”] to its climax: the material reality we all experience and see around us is a virtual one, generated and coordinated by a gigantic megacomputer to which we are all attached; when the hero . . . awakens into the “real reality,” he sees a desolate landscape littered with burned ruins–what remained of Chicago after a global war. The resistance leader Morpheus utters the ironic greeting: “Welcome to the desert of the real.” Was it not something of the similar order that took place in New York on September 11? Its citizens were introduced to the “desert of the real”–to us, corrupted by Hollywood, the landscape and the shots we saw of the collapsing towers could not but remind us of the most breathtaking scenes in the catastrophe big productions. (Žižek 386)

Here, the main point is that the imaginative was made real. Hollywood had been there first with images of vast destruction, albeit from a distance, that became real that early September 11th morning. The terror attacks required no computer generated effects or a special effects department. Could George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) have engineered a spectacle on the scale of the events in New York and Washington that day? Perhaps, but the reality of the spectacle shared away from the computer and television screen brought something to the event that no effects house could reproduce. The lives lost, the physical destruction, and the political aftermath are real effects, as tangible as tears, which make the events of September 11, 2001 more real than any Hollywood simulation.

Žižek further elaborates on the realization of the imaginative through a discussion of another tragedy, albeit one sentimentally and visually recreated through film–the HMS Titanic:

            When we hear how the bombings were a totally unexpected shock, how the unimaginable Impossible happened, one should recall the other defining catastrophe from the beginning of the twentieth century, that of the Titanic: it was also a shock, but the space for it was already prepared in ideological fantasizing, since Titanic was the symbol of the might of the nineteenth-century industrial civilization. Does the same not hold for these bombings?

Not only were the media bombarding us all the time with the talk about the terrorist threat; this threat was also obviously libidinally invested–just recall the series of movies from Escape from New York to Independence Day. The unthinkable that happened was thus the object of fantasy: in a way, America got what it fantasized about, and this was the greatest surprise. (Žižek 386-387)

Žižek’s point is that in tragedies such as the sinking of the HMS Titanic, or the September 11, 2001 terror attacks that the news media and entertainment media prompted or prepared the United States and the world for the inevitable execution of imagined horror. Also, Žižek, like Baudrillard, invokes SF as an example for the imaginative dream for the attacks. However, it is the brilliant observation that the surprise was not the attacks, but the realization that the United States received the results of a dream transformed into reality. Hence, the fantastic became real on September 11, 2001.

Like the Ouroboros, the fantastic-become-real in the symbol of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks returns with serious consequences for the fantastic and SF in the post-9/11 world. The key element of American Cold War SF and the SF that follows the 9/11 terror attacks is anxiety over the possibility of harm from the Other. In Cold War SF, the anxiety comes about from an anxiety of a terrific and horror-laden future resulting from thermonuclear war. However, this nuclear future was not made real–it represented an anxiety over an amorphous and transparent future of non-reality. Essentially, the bomb was not made real in the sense of fulfilling its purpose–detonation over enemy targets. Additionally, it bears repeating that the only use of atomic weapons took place during state-to-state warfare during the Second World War. It was literally on the other side of the world from the United States that the B-29s Enola Gay and Bockscar performed their respective atomic bomb missions over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, two Japanese cities largely unknown to the American people prior to the war. Also, there was not the build-up and immersion in the impending actions by the United States government and military against the Japanese people in the media (it does not seem plausible that a significant number of readers had perused Cleve Cartmill’s 1944 short story, “Deadline,” and realized its immediate implications). Therefore, the anxiety over nuclear attack was nicely isolated around a particular aggressor (i.e. the Soviet Union), and the attack itself was not made real beyond the limited and largely non-engaged Japanese home front. On the other hand, the September 11 terror attacks by the religious and ideological al-Qaeda soldiers against the symbols of American hegemonic power and all persons in the vicinity of those symbolic places reconfigured the locus and understanding of anxiety of attacks by the alien Other. The threat was made surprisingly real, and the battleground shifted radically from elsewhere to here. Furthermore, it is in this reconfiguration of anxiety over the 9/11 terror attacks that resulted in something else in SF film narrative concerning the way in which individuals engage their anxiety made real. In the following section, I will discuss the transformation of anxiety into citizen soldiery through the emblematic and representative example of Michael Bay’s Transformers (2007).

Michael Bay’s Transformers is a slick and action packed summer blockbuster brimming with special effects featuring the battle between the Manichean Transformers in the here-and-now of planet Earth. Obviously, Bay’s film suffers from a certain amount of blockbuster engineering. On the surface, the film is about a one-dimensional conflict between the good Autobots who serve as humanity’s protectors and the evil Decepticons who aspire to kill and destroy anyone and anything in their path towards recovering the regenerative “All Spark.” Luckily, the film is about much more than meets the eye.

A useful point of entry into Transformers is the movie poster tagline, “Their war. Our world.” This sums up the autonomous robot, alien Other war between Autobots and Decepticons. Their war moves from the barren and resource-depleted Cybertron to the lush and resource-rich Earth, which is effectively mirrored in the resource producing Middle East and resource consuming American West Coast. However, the Transformers tagline can be read as applying to the here-and-now of the Global War on Terror. “Their war” is what the military analyst William S. Lind calls Fourth Generation warfare:

Characteristics such as decentralization and initiative carry over from the Third to the Fourth Generation, but in other respects the Fourth Generation marks the most radical change since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. In Fourth Generation war, the state loses its monopoly on war. All over the world, state militaries find themselves fighting non-state opponents such as al Quaeda [sic], Hamas, Hezbollah, and the FARC. Almost everywhere, the state is losing. (Lind par. 13)

Fourth Generation warfare is essentially non-state actor controlled guerilla warfare, i.e., between non-governmental organizations and states. This is the kind of war al-Qaeda wages with America, and its symbolic declaration was the September 11 attacks. Furthermore, “our world” is another way of saying the United States of America–our supposedly isolated world safe from threats abroad and the hot zones of war during the Cold War and post-Cold War years leading up to the September 11 attacks. Thus, Transformers is a veiled SF narrative that points the way to a reconfiguration of SF narrative following the changes in American homeland isolation and the false sense of safety following the end of the Cold War.

The reconfiguration of SF narrative post-September 11 is best approached by returning to Žižek’s potentially inflammatory essay, “Welcome to the Desert of the Real!” In this work, he describes the fantastic origins of the terrorist attacks on the United States and the uncertainties surrounding our post-9/11 future. However, the point that bears discussion on the transformation of post-9/11 SF film is where he writes:

We don’t yet know what consequences in economy, ideology, politics, war this event will have, but one thing is sure: the United States, which, till now, perceived itself as an island exempted from this kind of violence, witnessing this kind of thing only from the safe distance of the TV screen, is now directly involved. (Žižek 389)

The key to understanding new post-9/11 SF narratives has to do with Žižek’s idea of “direct involvement.” During the Cold War, and in the post-Cold War years before 9/11, United States citizens indulged in viewing war and conflicts around the world from the armchair comfort of their own home. The television screen separated the viewer from televised war, and the real-world distance between viewer and those enduring war was great. Improvised explosive devices and suicide bombings were largely a world away. It was understood that there was no war within the American homeland. It took place elsewhere, and that elsewhere was safely very far away. And as I discussed above, Americans dreamed about the destruction delivered on September 11, 2001 in the way that we all imagine the annihilation of oppressive hegemonic powers. The anxieties of the American Cold War do not hold up any longer when the threat was made real during the 9/11 terror attacks. Following the realization of the fantastic dream, individuals must respond to a threat in ways before that were speculative at best. It is the transformation of anxiety that yields a new kind of personal response to the anxiety of the real. I argue that Michael Bay’s Transformers represents a reconfiguration in SF film narrative following the September 11 terror attacks and the beginning of what former President George W. Bush labeled the Global War on Terror. Instead of revealing anxieties and veiling commentary in a Cold War mode of SF narrative, post-9/11 SF narrative focuses on the threat to the American homeland, and the way “directly involved” citizens deal with that threat. The border between the supposedly safe American homeland and the dangerous outside world is broken, and the threat is transferred from a visually imagined somewhere else to here. Thus, anxiety over the fantastic is transformed into a response to that anxiety made real.

The visual narrative that interconnects the film with the intensive media coverage of 9/11 facilitates the direct involvement of citizen soldiers in Transformers. Visual cues and the film’s edited form construct these correspondences. First, the overall narrative structure shifts between images of the American homeland and American war-making abroad. The former includes the large and well-manicured Witwicky home, a high school, and a relatively peaceful lake setting populated with young Americans. The latter includes scenes from Qatar in the Middle East, the Pentagon, and the President’s Air Force One aircraft. The film is edited to repeatedly show a war scene away from the home front followed by a scene at the home front until climaxing with a juxtaposition of the two–war on the home front. For example, the first scene of the film features Captain Lennox (Josh Duhamel) and his team of American soldiers returning to their “home base” in a state-of-the-art vertical-lift V-22 Osprey air transport. Soon after arrival, the Decepticons Blackout and Scorponok, disguised as a U.S. military helicopter, attack the base with advanced weaponry and gigantic robotic brawn. Instead of seeing American war making in the Middle East, the audience is treated to a special effects extravaganza of killer robots from another planet simultaneously attacking physical and virtual nodes in the American military Communication, Command, Control, and Intelligence (3CI) network.

Following the visually dazzling attack on the American military, the film transitions to an idealized, quiet high school setting on the West Coast where Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) hocks his great-great-grandfather’s belongings. Among these artifacts is his ancestor’s glasses, which bear the imprint of an otherworld sublimity from the so-called “ice man,” who we later learn is the Decepticon leader, Megatron. The film is consciously edited in such a way to transition between there (desert and military) and here (high school and suburbia). However, it is significant to the narrative build-up that the violence and intensity of the confrontations on the home front increase as Captain Lennox’s team moves closer to the American homeland. In a sense, Lennox’s team is radioactive and their return heralds a critical mass explosion and narrative release at the end of the film. Hence, the away-war overlaps the homeland creating a new war on the home front. Therefore, the recall of Lennox and his soldiers to America is the basis for the reconfiguration of the American homeland as an isolated space to the new battlefront in the Global War on Terror veiled within the Autobot/Decepticon war.

Bay’s film further embraces 9/11 narratives through borrowed rhetoric and visual images left unseen during the television coverage of the terror attacks. The first mise-en-scène is prominent at the beginning of the film with our introduction to Sam’s high school. There is a newspaper, half folded on his history teacher’s desk with the visible headlines: “Smash Jap” and “War Extra: Yanks Sink.” This homage to the director’s pre-9/11 film Pearl Harbor (2001) connects it to the circuits leading to and from 9/11. The September 11 attacks are imbued with the sneak attack narrative of Pearl Harbor despite the obvious differences between the two discussed above. However, the sneak attack narrative embeds this newspaper image, as well as Transformers, with the overarching American sense of victimization at the beginning of our involvement in World War II and its reemergence almost sixty years later on September 11, 2001.

Further engaging 9/11 narratives, and perhaps visually exploiting them, Transformers sets up the final confrontation with a plane and a building. The end bracket situating Transformers within a 9/11 narrative takes place during the climatic battle between the good Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), leader of the Autobots, and the evil Megatron (Hugo Weaving), leader of the Decepticons. Megatron transforms into a menacing otherworldly aircraft and flies toward his nemesis. Optimus Prime grabs and holds onto Megatron who then swoops up and through a high-rise office building. The audience sees Megatron’s aircraft with Optimus in tow enter, fly through the building, and exit with a visibly wounding and destructive effect. Joshua Clover describes this short sequence as, “by far the most detailed reconstruction of what was hidden from our human eyes within the spectacularly visible violence of September 11, 2001” (7).

Perhaps more importantly than the film’s engagement of 9/11 narratives is the way in which Transformers represents Žižek’s idea of “direct involvement.” The home front lead characters of the film are Sam and Mikaela (Megan Fox)–two average Hollywood-generated uncanny high school kids. Initially, Sam is protected by his Autobot guardian, Bumblebee (Mark Ryan), but after the temperature of the home front war increases with the arrival of Captain Lennox and the release of Megatron from the hidden caverns in the Hoover Dam complex, Sam is required to step-up in the heat of battle. His charge is to get the transforming, technoscientific All Spark MacGuffin out of the combat zone and into the hands of the U.S. military, which is believed capable of protecting the All Spark from the U.S. military doppelganger Decepticons. During a moment of reluctance on Sam’s part to become “directly involved,” Captain Lennox grabs his shirt collar and yells, “You’re a soldier now,” which effectively drafts Sam as a young citizen soldier. Additionally, Mikaela, without needing a soldierly pep talk, employs her knowledge gained on the other side of the law from her car thief father to steal a tow truck and extricate her wounded Autobot friend, Bumblebee, from the fight. However, in the escape, she, with Bumblebee’s approval, decides to turn around and fight. In doing so, she makes a more active contribution to the battle than Sam’s thrilling getaway and rescues Lennox’s team from a storefront firefight reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down (2001). This, along with earlier scenes revealing Mikaela to be a knowledgeable and strong female character presents a complicated picture of the gender politics in the film that deserves further study. Additionally, Mikaela’s decision to turn back, and Sam’s last minute choice to use the All Spark to destroy Megatron reveal another major difference from earlier American Cold War narratives. One such film is the previously mentioned Red Dawn, which is the kind of story that Tom Engelhardt calls “the American war story,” in which, “you had no choice. Either you pulled the trigger or you died, for war was invariably portrayed as a series of reactive incidents rather than organized and invasive campaigns” (Engelhardt 4-5). Transformers develops from a series of events that present choices whereas the teenagers of Red Dawn react to the conditions placed upon them by the Communist invaders. Therefore, Sam and Mikaela, as young U.S. citizens, are drafted into the Global War on Terror as signified by the Autobot-Decepticon war raging between the buildings and on the streets of the fictional Mission City–a city that emblematizes the mission of promoting the new ideal of the American citizen soldier protecting the now invaded homeland within the intertwined Transformers/September 11 narrative.

Within that narrative space, Sam’s “direct involvement” in the new war on the homeland hinges on his family motto, “No sacrifice. No victory.” This is an often repeated saying in the film, particularly between Sam and his father, Ron (Kevin Dunn). The family motto, made famous, or perhaps infamous, by Sam’s explorer great-great-grandfather, Captain Archibald Witwicky (William Morgan Sheppard), is ingrained in Sam’s identity and figures heavily in his character’s overt motivations. As a “directly involved” citizen soldier in the Global War on Terror, Sam’s family motto connects him to the professional soldiers in the film during a scene in the Sector Seven bunker at Hoover Dam. Captain Lennox and his men have a showdown with the Sector Seven operatives, because they agree with Sam that Autobot Bumblebee should be freed to aid in the fight. During this confrontation, the Defense Secretary John Keller (Jon Voight) tells Agent Simmons (John Turturro), “Losing’s not really an option for these guys.” As Secretary of Defense, he represents the armed forces of the United States, and his saying “losing’s not really an option” conjures the memory of a whole host of losses that America still struggles with in maintaining a decaying triumphal identity following World War II. Additionally, Engelhardt notes that “with the end of the Cold War and the ‘loss of the enemy,’ American culture has entered a period of crisis that raises profound questions about national purpose and identity” (Engelhardt 10). The faltering of American triumphalism during the Cold War and after is emphasized by this exchange between Keller and Simmons. Furthermore, Sam’s family motto, “No sacrifice. No victory,” represents the American need for triumph in this new struggle brought to the American homeland from afar while acknowledging the necessity for sacrifice. Thus, Sam’s identity as a citizen soldier bound by his family motto operates as an analog of the professional American soldier’s need for fulfilling a historically and culturally constructed belief in triumphalism.

Unfortunately, Sam’s “direct involvement” in the Autobot-Decepticon transformation of the Global War on Terror falters, because he appears to make no real sacrifice. Sam’s central role seems to primarily fulfill what Peter Clines reports Steven Spielberg wanted to be the focus of the film–“a boy and his first car” (32). Furthermore, Sam runs away from danger in the hopes of passing along the All Spark to military authorities, but in the end, he destroys the All Spark in order to defeat Megatron. This sacrifice costs Sam nothing, and destroys the Autobots’ hopes for revitalizing their dead planet. Besides this heavy loss, the only apparent American/Autobot casualties are Jazz (Darius McCrary) and a few U.S. military “red shirts.” So, what did the American citizen soldiers really give up? Apparently nothing. Sam gets the girl as well as a car that transforms into a robot, and Captain Lennox is delivered home by Autobot Ironhide (Josh Harnell) to see his wife and baby girl. The majority of the Decepticons are killed and disposed of in the deep waters of the Laurentian Abyss. Therefore, humanity, read as Americans, gives up very little to win their war with the Decepticon disguised technological threat without having to consider Žižek’s question regarding the “surprise” of the average American to suicide attacks: “Does not this surprise reveal the rather sad fact that we, in the first world countries, find it more and more difficult even to imagine a public or universal Cause for which one would be ready to sacrifice one’s life” (388)? How can we accept Sam risking his life as cars tumble about him, and windows are blown out by explosives when we know as a literate film audience that in general he is not in a great deal of danger? We see Sam hanging on the precipice, but in the back of our minds, we understand that it is only a film and tremendous safety precautions are in place, or he is merely lying on his back on a green screen devoid of any real danger. Sacrifice cannot be simulated, or can it?

The only characters shown in the film to sacrifice are the heroic Autobot Transformers, but these computer-generated characters are simulacra masquerading as human technologies. In the case of the Autobots, the origins of their name come from the fact that original Transformers toys were organized such that the automobiles were the good guys or Autobots, and everything else (pistol, F-15, microcassette recorder) were the bad guys or Decepticons. In Bay’s film, the Autobots tell Sam and Mikaela that their name means, “autonomous robotic organisms.” This is a clever explanation, but an unsatisfactory one. In fact, Autobot can stand for all of the Transformers, just as Decepticons, an amalgamation of “deception” and “con,” represents the deceptive nature of all of the Transformers to infiltrate and hide via the mask of human technology. What does it mean for the heroes and the villains of the film to carry the same transformational signification? I assert that this underlies the most significant source of the post-9/11 anxiety, which is the fear of the invisible Other. Americans learned on 9/11 that the ideological enemy carries no flag and wears no uniform–those persons who perpetuated the terror attacks infiltrated American society by a transformative performance. Depending on the context of their surroundings and the exchange of information and messages between cells, these Fourth Generation warriors used the assumption of a social contract to their advantage in the preparation, staging, and implementation of their attacks on the United States. Unlike the Transformers in Michael Bay’s special effects laden film, the 9/11 attackers are true transformers in the sense that they were shadow warriors who hid in plain sight. However, the 9/11 attackers are not the same as the earlier Cold War image of the subversive Communist agent. The 9/11 attackers and their ilk do not desire to sow discontent, but rather intend to create a symbolic event from the death of others facilitated by their martyrdom. Therefore, the reality of the al-Qaeda operative is far removed from any imaginative belief in the elusive Communist agent during the American Cold War.

Transformers is evidently connecting to a number of emblematic issues in the post-9/11 cultural landscape including anxiety of the dream made real, citizen response to the real, concern over sacrifice in response to the real, and the issue of distinguishing friends from enemies. There are a number of other SF films that connect to and explore these issues as part of a growing trend in post-9/11 narrative creation. One such film that I argue is science fictional due to its uncanny recreation of the events of September 11, 2001, is Paul Greengrass’ United 93 (2006), which presents a strong example of citizens turned soldiers. Films such as Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005) and Matt Reeve’s Cloverfield (2008) engage narratives of the city under attack, and individuals attempting to save their own lives and the lives of others while trying to make sense of an imminent, seemingly unstoppable threat. Also, the expansion of superhero movie franchises including Spider-Man (2002, 2004, 2007) Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), and Iron Man (2008) all represent citizens turned soldiers who make choices and sacrifices to contend with unexpected threats made real. Alfonso Cuarón’s film interpretation of Children of Men (2006) further strengthens the concepts of responding to anxieties inspired by the unexpected real. Another film adaptation is Francis Lawrence’s I Am Legend (2007), which presents a reevaluation of the protagonist Robert Neville (Will Smith) and his providing the genesis for the future through a cure he developed to the transformative vampire virus. Another perspective is presented by George Lucas’ Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005) in which a chosen son falters down the wrong path, guided by the elusive and hidden-in-plain-sight evil mentor in the hope that his choice will protect his wife. These are only a sampling of the many SF films released after the September 11 terror attacks, but there is obviously a trend in the representation of and personal response to anxiety resulting from the fantastic made real.

How long will the new post-9/11 SF film narrative be with us, and what is its long-term meaning for American culture? Unmistakably, the new post-9/11 SF film narrative developed from two deeply rooted historical developments–the September 11, 2001 terror attacks and the ensuing call for a “Global War on Terror” by then President George W. Bush. The attacks initiated an unparalleled realization of vulnerability and a new call for individuals to deal with matters that were, until that point, dealt with a world away by the United States government and its military forces. The realization came that the government and its military might is incapable of fully deterring Fourth Generation warfare. This catalyzing comprehension initiated the anxiety of the real, true event that Baudrillard and Žižek confronted in their respective works. Furthermore, the Global War on Terror and the Department of Homeland Security’s “National Threat Advisory” (currently yellow, signifying “Significant Risk of Terrorist Attacks”) serve to sustain the anxiety of the catalyst event, and it is evident that the perpetuation of that anxiety of the real event that has taken place and may take place again has worked its way into the capital-driven cultural productions in American cinema. It has taken almost eight years to arrive at our present position from the September 11 terror attacks, and there was little chance of a shift in perspective during the Bush administration, which launched a retaliatory war in Afghanistan and a war of misguided retribution in Iraq. These wars are still with us today, and will be for some time. However, there are shifts in perspective taking place within the United States government following the historic election of President Barack Obama that may soon find resonance in SF film. According to a report in The Washington Post on March 25, 2009, the Obama administration, as aware of the incendiary and rhetorical power of words as its predecessor, quietly backed away from the use of the phrase “global war on terror” (par. 1).   The monolithic and essentializing conceptualization of the “global war on terror” served to increase the anxiety initially generated by the September 11 terror attacks by sustaining it through Bush’s dualistic stance, “You’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror.” Unfortunately, the problems emblematized by the September 11 terror attacks are not so simple as to align a country against “terror.” The term “terror” cannot contain or represent the complexity of problems that brought about an equally complicated network of persons with varying (and sometimes conflicting) ideological and religious beliefs as al-Qaeda. Additionally, al-Qaeda is not the only group (or individual) engaged in the use of non-declared attacks against civilians in the United States, or elsewhere. And, it is the issue of elsewhere that the new President of the United States, and entire American citizenry, should turn their attention. Following the September 11 terror attacks, there was a massive turning inward, a collective mourning for those persons lost in the attacks, but more significantly for the loss of innocence and the separation between the individual and the real. Žižek puts it more directly:

Either America will persist in, strengthen even, the attitude, “Why should this happen to us? Things like this don’t happen here!”–leading to more aggression toward the threatening Outside, in short: to a paranoiac acting out–or America will finally risk stepping through the fantasmatic screen separating it from the Outside World, accepting its arrival into the Real world, making the long-overdue move from “Things like this should not happen here!” to “Things like this should not happen anywhere!” (Žižek 389)

Unfortunately, Transformers and the other post-9/11 SF films falter on this very point. The new post-9/11 SF narrative is still hung up on the idea that real events like the terror attacks should not happen to America and Americans. These new films resist an ethical cosmopolitanism that symbolic events with real casualties and destruction should not happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime. The new American President, elected in part on Shepard Fairey’s iconic “Hope” and “Change” political artwork, has not yet embraced this cosmopolitan attitude as evidenced by his retaining Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the unabated use of unmanned Predator aerial drones to kill al-Qaeda militants and Pakistani civilians. Will new post-9/11 SF films engage and critique this most significant aspect of the pain and anxiety Americans face when confronted by the real? It is certainly my hope that the SF films in the future question the change that remains the same, and that audiences walk out of the cinema troubled, angry, and eager to make change real.

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. The Spirit of Terrorism and Other Essays. Trans. Chris Turner. New York: Verso, 2002.

Bay, Michael, dir. Pearl Harbor. Touchtone Pictures. 2001.

—. Transformers. Dreamworks and Paramount Pictures. 2007.

Carpenter, John. Escape from New York. AVCO Embassy Pictures. 1981.

Cartmill, Cleve. “Deadline.” Astounding Science Fiction 33:1 (March 1944): 154-178.

Clines, Peter. “Transformers.” Creative Screenwriting 14:3 (May-June 2007): 32-33.

Clover, Joshua. “Dream Machines.” Film Quarterly 61.2 (2007): 6-7.

Cuarón, Alfonso. Children of Men. Universal Pictures. 2006.

Engelhardt, Tom. The End of Victory Culture: Cold War American and the Disillusioning of a Generation. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998.

Favreau, Jon. Iron Man. Paramount Pictures. 2008.

Gaddis, John Lewis. “And Now This: Lessons From the Old Era For the New One.” The Age of Terror: America and the World After September 11. Eds. Strobe Talbott and Nayan Chanda. New York: Basic Books, 2001. 1-21.

Greengrass, Paul, dir. United 93. Universal Pictures. 2006.

Kubrick, Stanley. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Columbia Pictures. 1964.

Lawrence, Francis. I Am Legend. Warner Bros. 2007.

Lind, William S. “Understanding Fourth Generation Warfare.” ANTIWAR.com. 15 January 2004. 17 March 2008 <http://www.antiwar.com/lind/index.php?articleid=1702&gt;.

Lucas, George, dir. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Twentieth Century Fox. 2005.

Milius, John. Red Dawn. MGM/UA. 1984.

Nolan, Christopher. Batman Begins. Warner Bros. 2005.

—. The Dark Knight. Warner Bros. 2008.

Raimi, Sam, dir. Spider-Man. Columbia Pictures. 2002.

—. Spider-Man 2. Columbia Pictures. 2004.

—. Spider-Man 3. Columbia Pictures. 2007.

Reeves, Matt, dir. Cloverfield. Paramount Pictures. 2008.

Scott, Ridley, dir. Black Hawk Down. Columbia Pictures. 2001.

Spielberg, Steve, dir. War of the Worlds. Paramount Pictures, 2005.

Wilson, Scott and Al Kamen. “‘Global War on Terror’ Is Given New Name.” The Washington Post 25 March 2009. 26 March 2009 <http://www.washingtonpost.com/&gt;.

Wise, Robert. The Day the Earth Stood Still. Twentieth Century Fox. 1951.

Žižek, Slavoj. “Welcome to the Desert of the Real!” The South Atlantic Quarterly 101.2 (Spring 2002): 385-389.

Europa Report Free Film Screening and Discussion with Me, Scientists, Filmmakers, and Writers on Friday, March 28, 5-8PM

Free Europa Report Screening and Panel Discussion!
Free Europa Report Screening and Panel Discussion!

On Friday, March 28, 2014 from 5:00PM to 8:00PM at the Atlanta Science Festival, I will join moderator Gil Weinberg (Georgia Tech, Physics), Marcus Davis (KSU, Biology), Paul Jenkins (Boom Studios), Sidney Perkowitz (Emory, Physics), and Balogun Ojetade (author) to discuss the scientific and cultural significances of the 2013 film Europa Report, which will be screened prior to the panel. The event is free and open to the public. It will be held at Kennesaw State University’s 230-seat Prillaman Hall Auditorium (building #41 – Owl Road, 1000 Chastain Rd NW, Kennesaw, GA 30144). More information is available at (http://atlantasciencefestival.org/events/event/602).

Recovered Writing: MA in SF Studies, Dissertation, Post-Cold War American Identities in Battlestar Galactica, Summer 2007 (16,376 Words, Long Read)

This is the twentieth post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

This is a milestone Recovered Writing post. I build on the ideas that I explored in my undergraduate thesis at Georgia Tech (which you can read here): Cold War identities, authenticity, humanity, machines, and artificial intelligence. Later, at Kent State University, I took only one nugget from these ideas to further explore human and machine experiences through neuroscience and the cognitive sciences.

To develop my MA dissertation, Dr. David Seed agreed to work with me on my project. We would meet in his office every few weeks. We would talk about my project and he would assign me readings and books that we would then discuss in further detail at our next meeting. The process of working with Dr. Seed–meetings, discussions, writing, revising, and further discussions–was intellectually exciting and incredibly productive. The intensity of the work due to the constraints of time and moving back to the United States to begin the PhD program at Kent State University added impetus to its eventual completion during the Summer 2007. I consider myself very fortunate to have worked with Dr. Seed on this project and I am glad to share my research here on my blog.

Below, I am including my dissertation’s abstract, research questions, and the dissertation itself. My dissertation is 16,376 words long including Works Cited list and end notes. If you take the time to read it all or in part, please drop me a line (contact info to the right) or leave a comment.



Jason W. Ellis

Post-Cold War American Identities in Battlestar Galactica

In this dissertation, Ellis argues that there is a shift in SF to more directly engage contemporary issues, and I describe how the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica goes further than its 1978 source material in this regard.  He approaches this shift from several different yet interrelated vectors including an analysis of the enemy-other Cylon threat and its destabilization of Western democratic identity, which reflects the reboot of Tom Engelhardt’s cycle of American triumphalism following the Second World War.  He analyzes the portrayal of human and alien/enemy-other identities in the two BSG series and the development of human and Cylon identities across time and the way in which they begin to blur and merge in the re-imagined series.  This involves analyzing identities in each series separately and then exploring the way those identities are in dialog with the other series as well as culture at large.  Then, he uses those conclusions to answer if and to what extent there is an identity shift in SF from the Cold War to the Post-Cold War era and how that shift is connected to and represents cultural and historical developments.


Research Questions (note the earlier title for the project)

Jason W. Ellis

Mr. Andy Sawyer and Dr. David Seed

ENG 602: Dissertation

Spring 2007

Dissertation Planning: Subversion of the Self in the Re-Imagined Battlestar Galactica

General Questions

Does SF change following the end of the Cold War?  Is Post 9/11 SF significantly or subtly different than Cold War SF?  How is personal identity dealt with in Cold War SF?  What differences are there between identity for the good guys versus the bad guys?

Specific Questions

Does the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica (BSG) represent a shift in SF from a Cold War mode to a new, Post 9/11 mode?  How is identity portrayed differently in the Post 9/11 re-imagined BSG than in the Cold War era original BSG?  How are enemy identities portrayed in these two series?  Are there significant differences between the two series, or is the new BSG merely a continuation of Cold War narrative?


Using the re-imagined BSG as a test case, I want to answer the question:  Does the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica represent a shift in SF from a Cold War mode to a new, Post 9/11 mode?  BSG is a unique example to study, because it’s original “text” comes from the Glen A. Larson 1978 movie and subsequent ABC television series, which is deeply embedded within the Cold War temporally as well as narratively.  The new BSG, even with Larson attached as a “consulting producer,” is a very different story than the original.  Whereas the original BSG presents simplified characters in a dualistic struggle between humanity and machine mapped over the Cold War ideologies of West/democracy and East/communism, the new BSG is a loosely veiled retelling of the conflict in Iraq and the Global War on Terrorism.  However, the new BSG also relies on Cold War narrative influences such as those pointed out by Tom Engelhardt in The End of Victory Culture:  Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation.  For example, both series rely on the sneak attack on democracy that was born out of World War II with the Nazi blitzkrieg and their disregard for non-aggression pacts, and more specifically, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  In BSG, humanity is attacked by Cylon/machine invaders–during a peace conference in the original series and during years of cease fire in the re-imagining.  Additionally, Engelhardt makes a connection between the merging of self and the enemy following the use of atomic bombs at the end of WWII:

The atomic bomb that leveled Hiroshima also blasted openings into a netherworld of consciousness where victory and defeat, enemy and self, threatened to merge.  Shadowed by the bomb, victory became conceivable only under the most limited of conditions, and an enemy too diffuse to be comfortably located beyond national borders had to be confronted in an un-American spirit of doubt (6).

The original BSG follows this trajectory in part, because the machine Cylons resemble humanity, and in the latter part of the series, they develop uncanny human Cylons.  However, the re-imagined BSG literally takes this much further by merging the “enemy and self” with the human doppelganger Cylon clones (“skinjobs”).  Additionally, the overwhelming odds of the Cylon forces to humanity’s approximately 48,000 survivors reinforces the Cold War framework of overcoming staggering odds following the treacherous sneak attack.

Where the new BSG differs from the original specifically has to do with self and enemy identities.  Characters in the new BSG are much more developed and are decidedly not archetypes as in the original series.  Also, the human appearing Cylons have their own motivations and characteristics that place them above the status as targets as in much other SF.  However, the truly interesting element of the new BSG is the fact that identities of both humans and Cylons is that they are both dealing with an identity crisis.  Humans worry that they may be sleeper Cylons acting out their lives, unknowing about their “true” selves until the signal or time lapse occurs to activate their hidden programming.  The Cylons are worried about internal dissention and individualistic concerns that run counter to the anarchistic commune ideology promoted by group consensus.  Also, there is the threat of the final five Cylons, five unknown human-like Cylons hidden amongst humanity.  Who are these Cylons, and what will their presence mean for the existing Cylons?  Other identity issues that concern both humans and Cylons are psychological issues with the human Gaius Baltar and the Cylon “Caprica Six.”

I will utilize the original BSG and re-imagined BSG series as primary sources, but I will also refer to ancillary materials such as DVD extras as well as sourcebooks and official guides.  Several useful secondary critical sources are Englehardt’s The End of Victory Culture, Scott Bukatman’s Terminal Identity:  The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction, David Seed’s American Science Fiction and the Cold War, and J.P. Telotte’s Replications.



Jason W. Ellis

Mr. Andy Sawyer and Dr. David Seed

ENG 602: Dissertation

Summer 2007

Post-Cold War American Identities in Battlestar Galactica

The atomic bomb that leveled Hiroshima also blasted openings into a netherworld of consciousness where victory and defeat, enemy and self, threatened to merge.

Tom Engelhardt, The End of Victory Culture

The fission reactions of Fat Man and Little Boy over Hiroshima and Nagasaki were meant to be divisive reactions releasing energy from the breaking apart of atomic nuclei.  However, those bombs began the first fission initiated cultural fusion reaction of merging “victory and defeat, [and] enemy and self” (Engelhardt 6).[i]  This results in a crisis for the American consciousness, because, “with the end of the Cold War and the ‘loss of the enemy,’ American culture has entered a period of crisis that raises profound questions about national purpose and identity” (Engelhardt 10).  He constructs his argument around examples including war narratives and popular culture including Science Fiction (SF).  Engelhardt’s cycle of sneak attack, triumphalism, and identity crisis is repeating itself today.  The 9/11 sneak attacks heralded the beginning of a new wave of fourth generation warfare brought to bear by Al-Qaeda on the secular Western democracies.  The era of the Global War on Terrorism is even more problematic both ideologically and strategically than the Cold War, because of the following issues:  Who is the enemy?  Where is the enemy engaged?  Is the enemy amongst us?  How do we identify the enemy from ourselves?  Metaphorical and explicit engagement of these issues is integral to the development of Post-Cold War SF including the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica.[ii]

Battlestar Galactica is uniquely situated to connect the Cold War and Post-Cold War eras.  Also, its transformative engagement of identity and the enemy-other makes it well suited to exploring the shifts resulting from the crisis that Engelhardt describes.  The original 1978 Battlestar Galactica and the 2003 re-imagined series are very different in scope, narrative, and confrontation with the paradigm crisis resulting from the shift from the Cold War to the Post-Cold War era.[iii]  Their relationship provides points of reference embedded historically and culturally within these two eras.  Additionally, Martin McGrath’s description of the original series is telling about its Cold War connections:

Comparisons between Glen A. Larson’s Battlestar Galactica from the 1970s and this modern incarnation are revealing.  Larson, a conservative and Mormon, also filled the show with religious and political allegory, but it was one-dimensional.  The original Battlestar Galactica transposed the writings of Mormon faith to a futuristic setting but the politics remained firmly rooted in the Cold War.  His Cylons were militaristic “communists” in shiny armor and the battle was simply good versus evil.  His human community was wholesome and, apart from a pantomime villain, united (McGrath 16).[iv]

It’s the “one-dimensionality,” or more accurately two-dimensionality, of the original series that labels it as a Cold War narrative based on conflicting political ideologies mapped over an “us versus them” narrative.  Additionally, they were not actually called “militaristic communists,” but they behaved in Western perceived stereotypical ways, which include almighty top-down hierarchy, militaristic existence, expansionist tendencies, and lack free will.  This kind of story is what Engelhardt calls “the American war story,” in which, “you had no choice.  Either you pulled the trigger or you died, for war was invariably portrayed as a series of reactive incidents rather than organized and invasive campaigns” (Engelhardt 4-5).  The original Battlestar Galactica series is by-and-large such an “American war story.”  However, the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica goes beyond mere reflection and directly challenges Susan Sontag’s claim that, “there is absolutely no social criticism, of even the most implicit kind, in science fiction films” (Sontag 223).[v]  Social commentary and confrontation of real world issues are built into the story rather than as mere metaphor or tangent.

I argue that there is a shift in SF to more directly engage contemporary issues, and I describe how the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica goes further than its 1978 source material in this regard.  In this paper, I approach this shift from several different yet interrelated vectors including an analysis of the enemy-other Cylon threat and its destabilization of Western democratic identity, which reflects the reboot of Engelhardt’s cycle.  I analyze the portrayal of human and alien/enemy-other identities in the two BSG series and the development of human and Cylon identities across time and the way in which they begin to blur and merge in the re-imagined series.  This involves analyzing identities in each series separately and then exploring the way those identities are in dialog with the other series as well as culture at large.  Then, I use those conclusions to answer if and to what extent there is an identity shift in SF from the Cold War to the Post-Cold War era and how that shift is connected to and represents cultural and historical developments.

Glen A. Larson’s 1978 Battlestar Galactica is a two-dimensional version of Engelhardt’s cycle by incorporating mythology, technological renaissance, and Cold War ideology.  It’s set in another part of the galaxy, possibly in another time, where humans are nearly eradicated by a powerful race of robots known as Cylons.  The human survivors form a convoy of spaceships, protected by the battlestar Galactica, and set off in search of the mythical planet Earth.  At its core, it’s a biblically inspired exodus story about fathers and sons, but the explicit visual threat arrives via the communistic Cylon robots.

The first episode, “Saga of a Star World” was originally interrupted for the televised signing of the Camp David Peace Accords between Egypt and Israel on September 17, 1978, which was in the middle of the optimistic and arguably idealistic Carter presidency.[vi]  Furthermore, Battlestar Galactica builds on space opera successes such as George Lucas’ 1977 film Star Wars[vii] and the even earlier “wagon train” to the stars television series, Gene Roddenberry’s 1966-1969 Star Trek.[viii]  Its connection with Star Wars is further embedded in the Cold War power/political structure thanks to the media aping the phrase for Ronald Reagan’s proposed next generation military hardware and weaponry designed to lie in wait over the Earth in the vacuum of space.  Reagan revealed the United States’ new plans in a March 23, 1983 speech that outlined the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI)–what was often called “Star Wars” in the news.  Reagan set out to use lasers and missiles to defend America from a preemptive attack by what he later termed the “Evil Empire.”  

According to critics Michael Rogin and Frances Fitzgerald, Reagan’s SDI inspiration came from two likely sources:  Murder in the Air (1940)[ix] and Torn Curtain (1966).[x]  Rogin first points out that Reagan starred in Murder in the Air as the protector of a super weapon that brings down enemy aircraft with “electric currents.”[xi]  Fitzgerald finds another filmic source for Reagan’s pet project in Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain, which is about a defensive anti-missile system. [xii]  Fitzgerald, building on Rogin’s work,  shows that Reagan used stories and lines from these and other films without attribution.  His film background and integration of these lines encouraged Reagan to describe the world in a polarized way–the good American homeland versus the “Evil Empire” of the Soviet Union (Fitzgerald par. 13).   Additionally, these films as well as Reagan’s own ideas about the dichotomy between what is simplistically delineated as the Western democracies and Eastern communist bloc is an oversimplification of a much more complex power and political matrix within which the United States and the USSR were situated.

The 1978 Battlestar Galactica, as a precursor to the Reagan administration and existing within the Cold War ideology reasserted by Reagan on his bully pulpit, is a reflection on culturally held beliefs in the United States at that time as well as an indicator of the shift from an idealistic Carter to the fear mongering Reagan.[xiii]  SDI, like BSG, was a production revealing Reagan’s plan for the future of the Cold War through a protective shield.  The shield itself could be thought of as a screen upon which the movie about this new technology is projected.  Wills describes it best when he writes:

What is Star Wars but another, more complex projector meant to trace, in lasers and benign nuclear “searchlights,” the image of America itself across the widest screen of all?  It is another premiere, a cosmic opening night (Reagan’s America 361).[xiv]

“The image of America itself” is also projected in SF works such as BSG.  The original and re-imagined series reflect shifts in the way that image is projected as well as whether it should be accepted or reconsidered.

Despite the cultural web in which the 1978 BSG was created, Larson is very explicit about the things that he was thinking about in bringing the series to life.  On the recent Battlestar Galactica:  The Complete Epic Series DVD,[xv] he says in an interview:

I guess I was influenced by a number of things growing up, you know, I have Mormon origins, but [sic] always fascinated by the theories of things, for example, Greek mythology and the pyramids.  I love von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods?  I got fascinated by all those themes and what emerged was Battlestar Galactica (“Creation”).

It’s clear in watching the original series that it owes much to mythology and religion.  One key example is the democratic Quorum of Twelve, which consists of the leaders of the Twelve Colonies of Man.  This is borrowed from Judeo-Christian belief and carried down through Mormonism based on the Twelve Tribes of Israel.  Additionally, Earth represents a thirteen, lost tribe, and could be said to correspond to the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.  Another obvious connection is the insistent naming characters with the names of Greek and Roman gods and goddesses such as Apollo and Athena.  Larson’s choice to mention Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods? (1968)[xvi] is both fantastic and interesting.  Von Däniken’s claims that many of the triumphs of the past seem improbable without the intervention of aliens or superior technology from a lost (tribe) civilization.  Larson incorporates this in BSG by displacing time and space from our contemporary Earth to a far past or far future with the surviving humans of Galatica’s fleet existing in their own here-and-now.  However, BSG’s look and feel, reconnecting to where this discussion began, is related to that of Star Wars. Larson brought on John Dykstra, the lead of George Lucas’ Special Visual Effects department for Star Wars to create the special effects for BSG, but to much less visual impact.  Larson himself probably won’t admit to any connection to Star Wars, because of the dismissed litigation initiated by 20th Century Fox against Universal Studios following the original release of BSG.

BSG was on the air for one season, before it was canceled by ABC.  There are a variety of reasons for BSG’s cancellation including a ratings decline following the pilot and the staggering cost of each episode despite recycling special effects footage.  Some sources point to ABC misinterpreting BSG’s ratings in the Sunday time slot in order to cancel the show rather than give the true reason, which was to drop such a costly show (Larocque G7).[xvii]  Whatever the reason, there was a follow-up movie based on re-edited material from the television series, and a half-season run of a continuation of BSG called Galactica 1980, which is about the fleet protecting a contemporary Earth from Cylons.  This second failed attempt at BSG on television illustrated the producers and writer’s misconception that historicity and power/political matrices are transposable and easily remapped to other settings in time-and-space merely by a change of costume.

The Battlestar Galactica – Character, Technology Mediation, or Both?

You’ll see things here that look odd, even antiquated to modern eyes.  Phones with cords.  Awkward manual valves.  Computers that unfairly deserve the name.  It was all designed to operate against an enemy who could infiltrate, even disrupt, the most basic computer systems.  Galactica is a reminder of a time when we were so frightened by our enemies that we literally looked backward for protection.

Aaron Doral/Cylon Number Five (Matthew Bennett) in the 2003 BSG Mini-Series

In the original and re-imagined BSG series, the Cylons are humanity’s enemy-other.  The original Cylons are armor clad robots, and the re-imagined Cylons include suped-up versions of their original warriors as well as humanity’s doppelganger embodied in infiltrating cyborgs that are nearly indistinguishable from humanity.  One such human-like Cylon is Aaron Doral, an undercover Cylon operative who performs himself as a public relations specialist.  He’s attached to the decommissioning ceremony of the battlestar Galactica, and he gives the above description of the Galactica to a troop of press reporters.  This early scene from the Mini-Series is terribly ironic that the hiding-in-plain-sight Cylon operative, Doral, is relating the history of this throwback from the Cylon Wars.  Additionally, he is the pinnacle of computer development as a living, thinking machine, and he tells the reporters that Galactica’s “computers…unfairly deserve the name.”  He is also quite aware how effective the Cylon enemy is at infiltration and disruption.  Most importantly, he makes the point that “we,” meaning humanity, “looked backward for protection,” which has the double meaning of looking back twenty-five years from the re-imagined series to the original BSG and relying on older and paradoxically less vulnerable technology.  However, there is a third meaning, which is that Doral, as a Cylon, could implicitly mean that the machine Cylon race looks backward to its parents, humanity, and the human body as a means for infiltration and disruption thereby effecting protection from humanity by undermining it through doppelganger mirroring of it.

The Galactica and humanity’s quest for Earth in both BSG series is a retelling of the return to the Earthly Garden and a pastoral existence as argued by Leo Marx and later, Sharona Ben-Tov. Marx writes about the tension between technology and the pastoral in his 1964 work, The Machine in the Garden. [xviii]  He discusses the contradictory conclusion in Industrial Era American literature that the non-technological pastoral garden may be recreated through the use and embrace of technology.  BSG is a high tech narrative that is explicitly about humanity’s return to the mythical good place–Earth.  Ben-Tov extends Marx’s critique to SF and the Earthly Garden myth when she writes:

Unlike the texts that Marx surveys, however, science fiction does not try to temper hopefulness with history.  Instead, it tries to create immunity from history.  It reveals a curious dynamic:  the greater our yearning for a return to the garden, the more we invest in technology as the purveyor of the unconstrained existence that we associate with the garden.  Science fiction’s national mode of thinking boils down to a paradox:  the American imagination seeks to replace nature with a technological, made-made world in order to return to the garden of American nature” (Ben-Tov 9) .[xix]

Both of Ben-Tov’s points are mediated by the Galactica in the re-imagined series.  It serves as the stage and backdrop against which “contemporary themes” play out amongst the characters on both sides of the human-Cylon divide.  Furthermore, the Earthly Paradise is the mythical planet known to the BSG characters as Earth.  It is both a real and an imaginary place, but for them, it’s only achievable through the technology of spaceflight.  Therefore, Galactica is the technology and science fiction that “reinforces American ideologies,” and it’s the technological means to arrive at the Earthly Paradise or as Leo Marx called it, the pastoral existence.

Science fiction, including BSG, “continually adapts contemporary themes…to an older, invariant ideological structure, in which nature’s “death” and the Cartensian re-definition of self are the central drama” (Ben-Tov 8).  The “re-definition of self” is integral to the overall plot of the re-imagined BSG where personal anxieties about the self and true identity are continually bantered about.  SF and BSG also, “actively reinforces American ideologies,” which are reinforced on-board the Galactica through military power and command structures, efficiency, democracy, and individuality epitomized by the stereotypical Navy/Air Force “Top Gun,” who is both anti-command and the best pilot. These ideals further integrate into the mode of production and the fulfillment of the needs of the fleet with consumables such as water, food, and Tylium “rocket fuel.”  These are exacerbated by the collective needs of the fleet inhabitants and the labor making those things possible, which includes prisoner workers in “Bastille Day” (21 January 2005), and union organization in “Dirty Hands” (25 February 2007).  Through all this, the Galactica holds true maintaining its course towards Earth and the Eastern seaboard of North America as shown at the end of “Crossroads, Part II” (25 March 2007).

The re-imagined BSG recycles American tropes as its “national mode of thinking.”  The ultimate goal of humanity may be Earth, but implicitly it’s the North American frontier via their technological “wagon train.”  Ben-Tov connects this to the pastoral garden by saying, “Science fiction’s national mode of thinking boils down to a paradox:  the American imagination seeks to replace nature with a technological, man-made world in order to return to the garden of American nature” [author’s emphasis] (Ben-Tov 9).  The re-imagined Galactica, relying on antiquated technology, is the means to return to “the garden of American nature.”  As implied by the title of the season three episode, finding Earth and evading the advanced technological threat embodied in the Cylons, will allow humanity to “[Take] a Break From All [Their] Worries.”[xx]

The new Galactica is more Nostromo from Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979)[xxi] than the original’s immaculate Starship Enterprise-like spit and polish of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek (1966-1969).  As the re-imagined series progresses, the Galactica reflects a history embedded in grime, scarring, and damage.  It’s appearance is a sort of memory and record of humanity’s exodus in search of Earth.  This physical recording and recall of events are also reflected in other SF space vehicles such as the Millennium Falcon from the original Star Wars trilogy and Serenity from Firefly.[xxii]  Antithetical examples include the anonymous Star Destroyers from George Lucas’ universe and Discovery One from Kubrick’s 2001:  A Space Odyssey.[xxiii]  The original battlestar Galactica reflects these latter examples.  In many regards, Larson’s Galactica resembles a safe environment on a sound stage.  It’s not fully integrated and whole.  It’s built up from a floor in the way one would frame a house (albeit a far future one).  One can imagine high-tech drywallers at work in the 1978 Galactica as envisioned by Dante and Randal in the movie Clerks.[xxiv]  This more basic, yet advanced spaceship, reflects humanity’s embracing technology following the Caprician renaissance.  A great deal of money was spent on the state of the art special effects and Core Command, Galactica’s bridge, features half-a-million dollars worth of Tektronics computer hardware to simulate a real starship bridge.  This Cold War investment and reliance on technology is emblematized by Reagan’s SDI/Star Wars missile defense system.  Technology is the way to creating a safe and pastoral existence in the future.  The re-imagined Galactica relies on the contemporary language of computer networks, viruses, and programming backdoors to challenge the perception that newer technology is inherently better, safer, and more secure.  Viewers identify with this verbiage in the wake of computer worms crippling ATM networks and increasing reportage of cyberwarfare in the Post-Cold War era.  Therefore, the re-imagined BSG questions the Cold War belief and wholesale investment in new technology to return humanity to the Earthly Garden, whereas the original Galactica epitomized the state-of-the-art and its ability to take humanity safely to the promised paradise.

The Cylon Sneak Attack and American Triumphalism

Both versions or visions of Battlestar Galactica begin with what Larson calls, “That big sneak attack,” which he describes as a “sort of Pearl Harbor in space,” and those persons who survive, “figured they had to get away and fight another day” (“Created”).  What Engelhardt says about films following the Pearl Harbor attack, “defeat was only a spring board for victory,” may also be applied to the two Battlestar Galactica series ( Engelhardt 3).  The Cylon sneak attack in both series establishes their identity as the enemy-other along with aligning them with treachery and deception.  Additionally, the new Cylon threat is significantly different than the one in which humanity fought forty years prior to the events taking place in the 2003 series.  The past involved strategic military engagements between Cylon warriors and the human military.  Cylon war making changes in both series–a Japanese-inspired sneak attack in the original series and an infiltrative disabling of humanity’s defenses prior to an armistice ending near-annihilation.  This mirrors the objectification and “othering” of the Japanese during World War II.  Furthermore, Engelhardt describes the rise of triumphalism and the call for absolute victory following the beginning of World War II.  However, the American triumphal identity falters in the Cold War due to stalemates and losses in Korea and Vietnam.  This is reflected in both series when they cut and run in the original, and President Roslin convincing Commander Adama the war was over from the beginning in the latter.  However, identity crisis isn’t explored among the “wholesome” community of humans in the 1978 series, but it is a very important and dramatic issue in the 2003 series.  Underlying the threat to humanity in both series are the Cylon invaders.  In both cases, Cylons provide an enemy-other from which humanity defines itself, but its in the 2003 series that human identity is challenged and destabilized by a new and unexpected Cylon threat.

In the original Battlestar Galactica, Cylons were created by a then extinct reptilian race for labor.  The other Cylons were created by the other reptilians.  On the one hand this makes the Cylons doubly other, because they were created by bug eyed monsters that the audience never sees, but is decidedly different than humanity.  Another way of looking at this is the oddity that Cylons resemble humans in many respects.  They literally appear to be men walking around in shining armor.  To what extent do humans resemble the Cylon’s reptilian creators or vice versa?  Are we meant to identify with these original Cylons in some way, because they fit into our own historical and mythic story past about knights in armor?   These questions are not directly engaged in the original BSG series.  Another reading of the Cylons’ creators is the association of the reptilian race and the devil as he appears in the Eden Garden as a snake tempting Eve with the fruit of knowledge.  This directly challenges the American impulse to use technology to return to Paradise, because the Cylons are the ultimate technology and that technology is an explicit threat to humanity.  On the other hand, that’s assuming an anti-evolutionary stance in that the Cylon-human conflict is the inevitable showdown between evolutionary competitors.  In this light, the original Cylon-human conflict is less Oedipal than the re-imagined Cylon-human conflict in that it’s humanity’s children, the Cylons, returning to kill their parents (i.e., all humanity, but specifically the male scientist).

Humans and Cylons are at odds with one another after humanity fights alongside another galactic race threatened by the marauding Cylons.  Viewing humanity as a threat to their galactic expansion, the Cylons decide to obliterate the biologically weak humans with their superior machine strength and efficiency.  The otherness of the machine Cylons is utilized in order to create a two-dimensional conflict between them and humanity.  Thus, the conflict is delineated between the apparent, but later problematized, opposites of machines and flesh.

The Cylon Centurion or warrior is the most often seen Cylon in the original series.  The sameness of the Centurions defines them as a single role.  They look like a person wearing a suit of armor, and they serve as good targets for the Galactica crew.  Along with their armor, they don a laser blaster as well as a sword.  Their armor features an immaculate shine like polished chrome and their helmets are reminiscent of Darth Vader’s mask–wide trapezoidal shape covering the nose and mouth areas and their “eye” is a wide bar extending from one side of the face to the other with a red pulse intently and steadily gliding from one side to the other.  The red eye, being the window to the soul, could imply a communist threat.  Other implications of the glowing red “eye” include warning, danger, and even blood.  Alternatively, the sliding red light acts as a mask to hide their eyes, which has its own sinister connotations.  Red is a popular color in films of the Cold War era and one eminently well-known example is the 1953 George Pal production of The War of the Worlds.[xxv]  The film and its original movie poster both literally bleed red.  Red film references include the Martian heat-ray, the color of the Martians’ skin, and even the red planet, Mars.  Red serves as a warning to the viewer, and it serves a double meaning as a reflection of the Cold War threat and enemy to democracy–communism.

Another connection between the 1978 Cylons and communism has to do with their command structure and social organization.  They blindly follow top-down orders from their supreme ruler with the acknowledgement, “By your command.”  Orders are handed down by  special IL, or Imperious Leader, models.  One such IL model is called Lucifer, and its assigned to observe and work with the villainous human, Lord Baltar, whose name is tellingly an anagram for “lab rat.”  Lucifer’s head has a generally human shape, and a basaltic-blue color with two red eye slits.  Its robotic body is covered by a long red robe, and the character was voiced by Jonathan Harris who is most recognized as the cowardly bad guy from Lost in Space.[xxvi]  Additionally, there are similarities between Wellsian ideas about the evolution of humanity such that the brain grows to occult the body.  One example of this is the Morlocks in The Time Machine.[xxvii]  This is illustrated in the original BSG through the creative use of camera angle and framing to enlarge the Imperious Leader on a tall dais waiting to dispense orders to the drone/worker/warrior Cylon Centurions.

Consider the etymological significance to the name, Cylon.  Larson more than likely appropriated the name from Cylon (or Kylon) of Athens.  Cylon of Athens was an Olympic games winner, who attempted to take control of the city of Athens and establish a tyranny in 632 BC.  He and his followers failed, but his attempt revealed that those persons who had recently acquired wealth wanted greater political recognition and power.  This in itself is interesting considering that the Cylons of Battlestar Galactica are essentially a working class that gained (political) consciousness following the extinction of their reptilian overlords and creators.  Unfettered by their former masters, the Cylons acquired new resources by force.  Additionally, their expansionist nature belies their voracious capacity and need for resources to continue their existence as well as empire.  Another obvious connection with the name is cyborg and cybernetics.  The original Cylons are machine, but have an anthropomorphized appearance, but the new Cylons are flesh and machine are more deserving earn the distinction of being cyborgs.

Fast-forward twenty-five years to Ronald D. Moore’s re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, which was introduced in 2003.  Unlike Larson prior to the original series, Moore has an established record in SF through his prior screenwriting and producing credits on several Star Trek series.  On the re-imagined series Larson is credited as a “creative consultant,” but Gary Westfahl writes that, “although new producer Ronald D. Moore, who demonstrated his skills in science fiction with work for the Star Trek franchise, has thankfully displayed no inclination to consult with Larson about anything” (Westfahl par. 7).[xxviii]

The re-imagined Battlestar Galactica first aired on December 8, 2003 two years in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in the United States and subsequent war with Afghanistan, and nine months after the United States’ invasion of Iraq.  The US occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq as well as the Guantanamo Bay detainment camp of “enemy combatants” in the Global War on Terrorism feature into the new series, particularly the second and third seasons.  The earlier first and second seasons follow Cold War lines of political friction between the Executive Branch of the US government and the military as laid out by President Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell speech to the nation[xxix] that warned the American public of the “military-industrial complex” (17 January 1961) and Bailey and Knebel’s Cold War political thriller from 1962, Seven Days in May, which describes an attempted coup.[xxx]

Interestingly (and coincidentally) for the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, there were several key events that took place in 1978, the same year that the original Battlestar Galactica series was released, that were prescient for the new series.  The year BSG was first released was also the year that David Rorvik published his fraudulent, but poignant book about human cloning, In His Image:  The Cloning of a Man.[xxxi]  The controversy surrounding this book reflects the anxiety American’s feel about the technological appropriation of reproduction and the artificial construction of humanity’s doppelganger via that technology.[xxxii]  Cloning and copying of human-like individuals is a powerful and integral part of the re-imagined BSG, particularly involving the identity of the enemy-other.  On July 25, Louise Brown is born–the first in vitro fertilization birth, which is connected to the growing artificiality of reproduction.  Also, President Jimmy Carter decided on April 7, 1978 to end development on the neutron bomb, which was intended to kill people with radiation but leave structures in tact.  This kind of weapon was arguably used by the Cylons in addition to traditional thermonuclear weapons to kill the human inhabitants of the Twelve Colonies due to the visual evidence that many buildings, unlike the inhabitants, survive the attack.

Moore incorporated Larson’s idea of a Cylon sneak attack and the resulting human exodus, which initially galvanized humanity as virtuous and the Cylon threat as insidious.  However, he changed the story in several significant ways.  These include the important change that the Cylons were created by man as slave labor, they rebel, and fight a protracted war that ends in an armistice forty years prior to the series’ beginning.  Most importantly, there is a group of twelve Cylon models that appear and act human for all practical intents and purposes, but were unknown to humanity until after the opening sneak attack.  These human-like Cylons serve as the face and voice for the Cylons instead of the chrome robot killing machines of the earlier series.  These twelve human-like Cylon models are the basis for many copies, and each copy has its own experiences and identity that is shared with all of the other Cylons.  Initially, it’s revealed that there are seven known human-like Cylons as well as the unknown “Final Five.”  The Cylon network on-board their large basestar ships is represented by falling red-colored glyphs in streams of water and biological goo in which Cylons immerse their hands to interface the network.  At this interstice, a Cylon communes with what could be considered a hive mind, but a more accurate analogy might be a market of many voices that often shout everything, but may also chose to keep some things to themselves.  It’s this act, which serves as one aspect of their individuality.  The hive mind requires total openness and an unrestricted sharing–a communism of the soul.  The new Cylon models are hybrid creatures masquerading as human and exist in an anarchistic collective.  This affords these new Cylons a certain autonomy and individuality within certain bounds that can be crossed as in the case of the Number Three/D’Anna model’s deactivation or “boxing.”  This may sound mutually exclusive, but their existence as hybrid creatures (i.e., cyborgs), visually as well as virtually in thought and mind, is the bringing together of two different things–humanity and machine.  These advanced human-like Cylons withhold some aspects of their life and make choices that may be diametrically opposed to the will of the collective in order to evince change.  A final noteworthy difference between the two series is that the Cylons in the original Battlestar Galactica operated within a communistic top-down hierarchy, whereas the re-imagined Cylons administer collectively by consensus following an anarchistic model.[xxxiii]

One troubling aspect of these new Cylons is that there are sleeper Cylons, which live amongst humanity not knowing their true identity until the receipt of a special signal or a timer goes off.  This troubling development is reminiscent of replicants’ implanted memories in Blade Runner[xxxiv] and the secret Communist programming of individuals in The Manchurian Candidate.[xxxv]  This culminates in the season one finale when the number eight Cylon sleeper agent known as Sharon “Boomer” Valerii attempts to assassinate Commander Adama.

Even more disturbing are the Final Five Cylons, because their identity is unknown to both humanity and the Cylons.  The Final Five raise important questions such as:  Whose side are they on?  When revealed, how will this revelation affect their accepted identity?  The Final Five destabilize human as well as Cylon identities.  In the season three finale, “Crossroads, Part II” (25 March 2007), four of the final five Cylons are revealed as integral characters to the Galactica.  As the klaxons blast out warning of an imminent Cylon ambush (which is another connection with Engelhardt), one of the four final five takes a personal stand regarding what this revelation means.  Colonel Tigh tells the other three newly revealed Cylons, “The ship is under attack.  We do our jobs.  Report to your stations.”  When Tyrol questions the order, Tigh goes on to say, “My name is Saul Tigh.  I’m an officer in the Colonial Fleet.  Whatever else I am, whatever else that means, that’s the man I want to be.  And if I die today, that’s the man I’ll be.”  Tigh chooses to perform the identity he believes himself to be.  What else does it mean to be someone or something different than what you believe yourself to be?  This is the central problem of identity.  Labels and identities are meted out by others as well as by ourselves.  Threats to one’s identity come from within and without, and this is ever more present in the amorphousness in today’s world of ideological battlefields spanning continents and individuals everywhere.

The Cylon enemy-other identity is established at the beginning of the 2003 series.  However, humanity’s actions prior to the war and after the sneak attack destabilize the understood “right” and “good” of humanity.  These identity issues connect to the here-and-now in that the Cylons become us, and we, them.  Moore and his writers have been cognizant to muddy the waters on both sides of the human-Cylon conflict in order to further break down the barriers of our accepted beliefs about who is really good or evil.  Furthermore, the lines between us in the Western democracies blur with those persons challenging us with fourth generational warfare.  To better understand our conception of the enemy-other and the connection between Cylons and our here-and-now it’s important to reflect on the words of Philip K. Dick from his 1973 “The Android and the Human.”.  He said, “rather than learning about ourselves by studying our constructs, perhaps we should make the attempt to comprehend what our constructs are up to by looking into what we ourselves are up to” (Dick 5).[xxxvi]

Commander Adama – Wholesome to Ethical Pragmatist

Humanity is the target of the Cylons in both Larson’s BSG and Moore’s re-imagined BSG.  In Larson’s original BSG, McGrath points out, they are “wholesome” and “united” (16).  Humanity’s leader is Commander Adama (Lorne Greene).  Before the Cylon sneak attack, he was as much a political leader as a military leader.  He served on the Council of the Twelve, which governs the Twelve Colonies, and he commands the military space faring battleship Galactica.  Adama’s name obviously has connections with Adam, or one could go so far as to say it’s an anagram of “a(n) Adam” or a new beginning or founder of the future for humanity.  However, Adama’s role is more like Moses leading his people to the promised land away from a powerful and persecuting kingdom.  Much like the Israelites, these distant Twelve Colonies of Man mirror the Twelve Tribes of Israel, and as such, Adama unites the people with himself serving as their political, military, and spiritual leader.  Like the Israelites, humanity in BSG are always traveling in order to avoid persecution by the Cylons and seek refuge in the “promised land” of Earth.  Adama relies on religious scriptures that also serve as a roadmap to the fabled planet Earth.  The religious texts serve as both a personal guide for spiritual fulfillment as well a literal map leading the way through the stars to the forgotten planet Earth.  Adama assumes his position as gifted leader in much the same way as he was the de facto authority figure in Bonanza as Ben Cartwright.[xxxvii]  BSG is very much a show about fathers and sons as was Bonanza.  Adama/Ben Cartwright is the patriarchal father figure for his own children as well as the people/children of the fleet.  Also, consider the name, Ben, which is short for Benjamin and one of the tribes of Israel.  He takes it upon himself to be their guide through life (what is commonly referred to as the “episode of the week”) as well as on their journey to a refuge prophesied in their ancient religious texts.  Adama also appears to be a feminized version of Adam, which suggests another kind of origin story–i.e., the origin of humanity in Judeo-Christian belief.

The 2003 BSG maintains a modicum of wholesomeness while injecting a shot of nitrous oxide infused reality that colors humanity’s survivors less than innocent yet more believable as archetype breaking fully integrated individuals.  Roles are reversed, some characters added, and gender reassigned.  These shifts are direct evidence that the re-imagined BSG producers and writers are willing to go beyond the original source material to completely engage the cultural changes and historical developments following the end of the Cold War.

The producers’ choice to have Edward James Olmos take the role of Commander William “Husher” Adama in the re-imagined BSG is very telling about the cultural changes since the original series.  Olmos is an American actor of Mexican descent and he’s also one-quarter Hungarian Jewish (Olmos was originally spelt Olmosh).[xxxviii]  Like the characters played by Lorne Greene, Olmos has portrayed several fatherly figures in his other productions.  He played Jamie Escalante in Stand and Deliver (1988).[xxxix]  In that role, based on the real-life math teacher by the same name, he became a mentor to a class of impoverished youth in Los Angeles.  In 1995, he assumed the role of Paco in the film My Family, which is about three generations of Mexican Americans in Los Angeles.[xl]  Later, he played a widowed father in the 2002-2004 PBS drama, American Family:  Journey of Dreams.[xli]  His character in this film is Jess Gonzalez, a widower, patriarch of his family, and veteran of the Korean War.  The loss of his wife connects him to Adama’s role as divorcee and virtual widow when his ex-wife and mother of his children is killed in the Cylon sneak attack.  Also, the Cylon wars in BSG are like the Korean War in that they are both considered forgotten, and it’s Adama’s charge to remind people that, “the day comes when you can’t hide from the things you’ve done anymore” (Mini-series).  Unlike Greene, Olmos has a history in SF that firmly presages his involvement in the BSG re-imagining.  He played the enigmatic, origami folding Los Angeles cop, Gaff, in Ridley Scott’s 1982 film, Blade Runner,[xlii] based on Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?[xliii]  Gaff’s role is primarily that of an emissary sent to retrieve and maintain contact with the story’s blade runner, or replicant hunter, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford).  Despite his minimal screen time, it’s his character that plants the hint in the minds of Deckard and the audience that Deckard is a replicant with false, implanted memories.  His character destabilizes the assumption one makes about their humanity, history, and memories.  In this way, his character plays a crucial role in the philosophical problemization developed in the film.  Additionally, he’s primarily the only Chicano character in the film even though it takes place in a future Los Angeles.  This doubly makes him an alien within the context of his own home, which in this future-scape is inhabited by android replicants, white sergeants and blade runners, and Asian business owners and bystanders.  In addition to his patriarchal and future police roles, his arguably most recognized television character prior to his involvement with BSG is as the character Lieutenant Martin Castillo on the 1984-1990 television show Miami Vice.[xliv]  He commanded the rogue vice squad cops Sonny Crockett (Don Johnson) and Rico Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas), often berating their zealous immersion and extra-police tactics while guiding them to the successful apprehension of Miami’s worst criminals.  These roles point to a possible double meaning for his call-sign, “Husher.”  One meaning is one that hushes or silences.  This reflects the fact that he’s often an authority figure and deserving a certain respect and silence when he’s speaking.  Another meaning could be the archaic “to usher.”  He guides those under his command or in his family through trials and tribulations to a better place past their troubles.

Olmos’ portrayal of Adama draws on this past work, and audiences of the new BSG are more than likely aware of his filmography.  That being said, he goes beyond that work in the character of Adama.  Like much else in the series, he’s a hybrid character.  His Adama is best labeled a seemingly mutually exclusive liberal conservative.  Most of his initial reactions are firmly established in his military training as a good soldier and strategist.  However, he is a worldly individual who reads books and entertains other opinions and options.  The re-imagined Adama may not be as wholesome as his predecessor, but he makes his final decision on any given issue after careful consideration within or through deliberation and debate with those persons he most trusts.

Olmos has strong convictions in his personal life that compliments the kinds of characters he portrays.  He is a well-known Latino activist who founded and chairs Latino Public Broadcasting.  Also, he is a political activist.  He spent twenty days in jail following his arrest protesting the United States Navy bombing practice on Vieques Island, Puerto Rico.

Olmos, like Greene, announces to the fleet at the end of the mini-series that he knows the way to Earth, but he does not usurp religion or assume a prophet status in the same way that Greene’s Adama does so.  That role in the re-imagined series is handled by the “school teacher” turned President, Laura Roslin.

President Roslin and a Politics Infusion in the Re-Imagined Series

Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell) rises to the occasion as the new President of the Twelve Colonies of Kobol following the Cylon sneak attack.  Halfway through the 2003 Mini-Series, an automated radio announcement tells all government personnel to follow “Case Orange,” which is a protocol to determine who of the government’s cabinet is still alive and who succeeds to the presidency.  Roslin is forty-third in line (as Secretary of Education), and her number comes up.  She’s sworn into the Presidency in a scene reminiscent of the swearing in of Lyndon B. Johnson following the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, and she immediately uses her new powers to effect what she believes the best hope for humanity–a rescue operation.  This is antithetical to Adama’s rush to enter the fight with the Galactica.  This conflict is not the only time Adama and Roslin come to loggerheads over an issue, but it’s also certainly not the only time that they ultimately cooperate for the greater good of the fleet.

Roslin’s history as a teacher and former Secretary of Education for the Twelve Colonies, it’s possible that the producers were expanding on the original series’ Athena character.  Athena was a Viper pilot turned teacher.  The wholesomeness of the show necessitated a rounded family environment in the wagon train to the stars.  Roslin comes from a difference vector as a teacher turned political cabinet member turned president.  That, along with her being female, it’s interesting that they chose to make her character apparently rise in power and status rather than the other way around for Athena in the original series.

During her tenure as president, she’s employed illicit drugs procured by Dr. Cottle (Donnelly Rhodes), attempted to rig an election, and her first cancer remission was brought about by an infusion of human-Cylon hybrid blood provided by Athena and Helo’s child, Hera (who Roslin orchestrated to be hidden in the fleet after Cottle lied to the parents that the child had died).  She has proven herself to be pragmatic and deceptive when necessary such as extracting information from the Cylon, Leoben Conoy (Callum Keith Rennie) in “Flesh and Bone” (20 September 2005) before flushing him out the airlock.  She’s kind to those close to her, and she lives down betrayal very hard.

There is no clear-cut opposite of her character in the original BSG series other than the patriarchal leader and prophet, Adama.  In a sense, the new Adama and Roslin are archetypal characters taken from the conflict envisioned by Eisenhower in his naming of the military-industrial complex.  Adama represents the military and Roslin represents the last vestiges of a near-broken democracy.  Coincidentally, this kind of power sharing or conflict is epitomized by an earlier television film that both McDonnell and Olmos appear.  In 1997, McDonnell played the judge and Olmos played a juror in the remake of 12 Angry Men.[xlv]  Judges and jurors are not necessarily at odds with one another, but a judge in most situations is meant to be held to the determination of the collective jury.  In the 2003 BSG, this arrangement is inverted and expanded to the point where they agree to split their powers.  Roslin is in charge of fleet affairs and Adama reserves all military decisions to himself.  This strenuous relationship is challenged at times, particularly following the reappearance of the battlestar Pegasus with Adama’s superior officer, Rear Admiral Helena Cain (Michelle Forbes).  Forbes’ character originates from the original series with Commander Cain (Lloyd Bridges) and his battlestar Pegasus. Cain’s name is probably inspired by Herman Wouk’s 1951 novel, The Caine Mutiny,[xlvi] and it’s subsequent 1954 film[xlvii] starring Humphrey Bogart as Queeg.[xlviii]  This is an interesting role for Bridges who previously played as the competent Col. Floyd Graham in the early anti-nuclear SF film, Rocketship X-M (1950), [xlix] and as Mike Nelson, an ex-Navy diver turned independent scuba diver in the television series Sea Hunt (1958-1961).[l] Another conflict arose during the first democratic election of the fleet, in which Roslin’s supporters attempted to rig the election after realizing that Baltar had a good chance at winning.  This tactic was eventually withdrawn, but politics, particularly when Roslin knows Baltar to be a liar, becomes very dirty and protracted–a war amongst dueling ideologies and different opinions of justice and truth.

Roslin’s character borrows a great deal from the original BSG and Greene’s Commander Adama.  Instead of saying that her character is an archetype, it’s more accurate to say that the producers of the re-imagined BSG split the original Adama’s roles in the new series.  Originally he was leader and prophet–virtually a Moses in space.  In the re-imagined series, Roslin serves as political leader and prophet over the path to Earth.  She assumes Adama’s foolhardy and deceptive promise of the mythical Earth after her own religious reawakening and visions produced by the illicit drug chamalla administered by Dr. Cottle to treat the pain resulting from cancer.  These experiences coupled with dreams and her interaction with the prophet-like Cylon Leoben Conoy, results in her dedicated search for Earth by relying on the human polytheistic religion handed down by the Lords of Kobol in the “Sacred Texts.”  The President’s identity becomes wedded to the search for Earth, and it’s this alignment that Baltar uses to discredit her ability to lead prior to the first election.  Additionally, Adama believes in science and technology to deliver humanity’s last stand through the exodus, and any religious beliefs he may have are muted or altogether nonexistent.  However, he, as is true for real-life politicians, realizes the utility of religion and he often pragmatically goes along with Roslin regarding the discovery of Earth despite the less than rational explanation for the circuitous path that humanity’s followed thus far in the series.

Top Gun in Space

Stinger–Maverick, you just did an incredibly brave thing. What you should have done was land your plane! You don’t own that plane, the taxpayers do! Son, your ego is writing checks your body can’t cash. You’ve been busted, you’ve lost your qualifications as section leader three times, put in hack twice by me, with a history of high speed passes over five air control towers – and one admiral’s daughter…And let’s not bullshit, Maverick. Your family name ain’t the best in the Navy. You need to be doing it better and cleaner than the other guy. Now what is it with you?

Maverick–Just want to serve my country and be the best fighter pilot in the Navy, sir.

Stinger–Don’t screw around with me Maverick. You’re a hell of an instinctive pilot. Maybe too good. I’d like to bust your butt but I can’t. I got another problem here. I gotta send somebody from this squadron to Miramar. I gotta do something here, I still can’t believe it. I gotta give you your dream shot! I’m gonna send you up against the best. You two characters are going to Top Gun.

Lt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) and Stinger (James Tolkan)

Top Gun (1986)

The original and re-imagined BSG series are inhabited by a number of hotrod pilots who defend their fictional fleets from the Cylon onslaught.  These soldiers of the future or our future’s past promote and continue an established narrative history about the ace pilot that is firmly established in the late Cold War film, Top Gun.[li]  These soldiers have to be “instinctive” and “too good,” and they have to overcome and beat history such as a bad “family name” to ascend to their vaunted position.  There is also an inevitability in their skill, which means these pilots are meant to be “top gun.”

The two BSG series approach this in different ways, but they are connected by the reliance of the “top gun” myth intertwined with the family social structure.  Both create a large family structure with Command Adama inhabiting the patriarchal position, but the latter differs from the first significantly in the way family status is maintained along with flight status.  There are near-visible lines that if crossed result in the dissolution of the family hierarchy in an already destabilized situation of the human diaspora following the Cylon sneak attack.

The primary cast and crew of the Galactica include Adama’s real and “adopted” children.  His surviving son, Captain Apollo (Richard Hatch), like his namesake is the bearer of truth, and he’s a stickler for following the rules generally, which ultimately leads to the death of his brother, Zac (Rick Springfield) during the first episode after they learn about the impending attack and try to warn Galactica.[lii]  Another obvious reference in Apollo’s name is NASA and America’s third human space flight project of the same name, which began in 1961 with then President John F. Kennedy’s charge, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the earth.”[liii]  Apollo’s uprightness and pleasure derived from flying in space reflect the space program that may have in part inspired his name.  Apollo’s friend and resident cigar smoking, hotshot pilot is Lieutenant Starbuck (Dirk Benedict).  The roots of his name are apropos for his character–star for a star pilot and buck for a free spirited young man.  However, the name is probably directly from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick by way of the Pequod’s first mate.[liv]  Starbuck and the Pequod both symbolize the journey.  This is epitomized by the Galactica fleet which represents the American wagon train to the stars, and reinforces, “the great urge of the American imagination to light out for the territory” (John Wayne’s America 305).[lv]  Apollo and Zac’s sister, Lieutenant Athena (Maren Jensen) is a bizarre character on the show, because she fulfills the duties of a bridge officer and she’s a teacher for the fleet’s children.  Not to say that this would be an impossible task, but her character serves more as a device to increase the wholesomeness of the show, and her being a schoolteacher can be seen as a mitigation between her roles as a military officer and a woman.  Additionally, her role diminished until she left the show in the next to last episode.  Rounding out the cast is Lieutenant Boomer, played by the African American, Herb Jefferson, Jr.  In the original series, Boomer is an accomplished Viper pilot and a communications expert.  He plays a more reserved character than his close friend Apollo.  Larson does appear to have attempted to bring more people of color to his BSG, and Boomer is not merely a token black character, but one with unique knowledge and insight that serves the crew on more than one occasion.   Rounding out the command crew of Galactica is the Executive Officer (XO), Colonel Tigh (Terry Carter).  Carter, also African American, is second in command of the Galatica, and he commands it during Adama’s absence.  He is more conservative than Adama, shows concern about some of his commander’s choices, and is generally more strict on the pilots under his command.

The re-imagined BSG shifts these character’s identities in several significant ways.  The most obvious change is that some of the originally male characters are now female.  Boomer, originally a black male, is recast as Sharon “Boomer” Valerii, an asian female played by Grace Park.[lvi]  The re-imagined Boomer is a Raptor (reconnaissance and communications ship) pilot, but not communications specialist as is the original Boomer.  Also, she is a sleeper Cylon, which is revealed in the Mini-Series and throughout the first season of BSG.  Starbuck, originally a white male, is recast as Kara “Starbuck” Thrace, a white female played by Katee Sackhoff.  She’s very much the “Maverick,” who is constantly at odds with superior officers and exudes attitude towards others of her superiority in the life or death game of dogfighting or playing cards.  Also, the new Starbuck has many of the original Starbuck’s vices such as having a healthy sexual appetite, smoking cigars, gambling, and insubordination (though much more overt than in the original).  Starbuck’s identity at the end of season three is in question, because of her miraculous reappearance at the end of the finale when she tells Apollo that she’s been to Earth and she will show the fleet the way.  Captain Lee “Apollo” Adama is played by Jamie Bamber, who is a white English-American.  As Adama’s son, this is a curious bit of casting, since Olmos is clearly of Mexican origin.  Nevertheless, his character often stands up for justice in an objective sense and he represents the memory of the deceased Adama patriarch and legal scholar, Joseph Adama.  In fact, it’s Apollo’s impassioned speech during the season three finale, “Crossroads, Part II,” that leads to Baltar’s not guilty verdict by the tribunal.  Apollo’s estrangement from his father is a continual element of the series narrative, but it is tangentially that they often connect such as in the trial of Baltar with Apollo working on Baltar’s defense and Commander Adama sitting on the tribunal.

Another major difference between the two series is racial diversity.  The original was primarily inhabited by white faces with a few token characters of other races thrown in such as at the peace conference in “Saga of a Star World” or the two black characters, Boomer and Tigh, as regulars on Galactica.  The re-imagined BSG has elevated Latino characters through the casting of Olmos as a starring character and his son as a recurring Viper pilot.  The only regularly recurring black character is Lieutenant Anastasia “Dee” Dualla played by Canadian actress Kandyse McClure.  During the course of the series, both of her long term relationships have been with white men, which is progressive, but also revealing, because of the preponderance of white faces.  Her last name, Dualla, implies a duality, which might point to this element of her character’s relationships.  Boomer is the only recurring Asian character, and she also has an interracial relationship with the white Chief Galen Tyrol (Aaron Douglas).  This relationship ends following her being found out to be a Cylon, but a Number Eight copy falls in love and has a child with the white Karl “Helo” Agathon (Tahmoh Penikett).  There is a black human-like Cylon copy known only as Simon.  He pretended to be a Caprican doctor beginning with the season two episode, “The Farm.”  His character has only shown up in a handful of subsequent episodes.  This kind of lack of color in the new series is troublesome in that if these are the only survivors of a human exodus, what happens to the racial diversity originally found in the colonies?  Does this imply that the primary survivors are predominantly white, which reflects a certain privileged position, because they had the means of spaceflight and are therefore more wealthy than those without.  The producers may be making a commentary on this very subject through this kind of casting, but it could have more innocuous origins such as the fact that the series is produced in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.  In 2001, the Canadian census revealed that British Columbia has an only 0.66% black population (“Visible Minority Groups”).[lvii]  This contrasts sharply with the 6.7% black population of California, home to Hollywood, and 12.8% of the entire United States (“California Quick Facts”).[lviii]  This analysis relies on it being a production of the United States, where the promotion of racial equality in different media is a sought after ideal.  For other places such as Canada and the United Kingdom, where BSG has a strong viewer base, the lack of racial others as real subjects in the series may be less of an issue.

Baltar:  Savior or Satanist/Human or Cylon?

But it is not enough to remark that contemporary attitudes–as reflected in science fiction films–remain ambivalent, that the scientist is treated as both satanist and savior.  The proportions have changed, because of the new context in which the old admiration and fear of the scientist are located.  For his sphere of influence is no longer local, himself or his immediate community.  It is planetary, cosmic.[lix]

Susan Sontag, “The Imagination of Disaster”

Baltar in the earlier BSG series is not necessarily a scientist, but he is a well educated person of political importance and he’s aligned with technology through his hidden deal with the robot Cylon race.  His character is reinvented in the 2003 BSG series in which he is a “cult figure,” eminent scientist, and politically connected mover and shaker.  In many ways, these two characters are “both satantist and savior,” and their “sphere of influence” is “planetary” and “cosmic” rather than terrestrial.

The pilot episode of BSG, “Saga of a Star World” first aired on ABC on 17 September 1978. It begins with the representatives of the Quorum of Twelve aboard the battlestar Atlantia and President Adar (Lew Ayres) toasts the supposed imminent peace with the machine Cylon race following an extended war.  However, Count Baltar (John Colicos), representative of Picon, conspires with the Cylons to initiate a sneak attack on the gathered fleet of battlestars and the colonies they would normally be defending in return for tyrannical control of Picon for himself.  The Cylon’s desire to win by any means necessary including initiating peace talks under false pretenses in on the one hand an underhanded tactic, but it also recalls Hitler’s worthless non-aggression pacts from World War II.  Therefore, the viewer is presented with images from the beginning of the Cylons as treacherous and evil in their diplomatic practices as well as their invasion and near-annihilation of humanity.

Coincidentally, the three hour long pilot was interrupted by the network to show the signing of the Camp David Peace Accords between Egyptian President Anwar Al Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin at the White House and witnessed by United States President Jimmy Carter thus resolving many years of animosity and bloodshed between the two countries.  Unlike the subject matter of the interrupted television show, the Camp David Peace Accords brought about positive results and were not part of a conspiratorial sneak attack.

Despite the work of President Carter, the Cold War was still as much a reality after as it was before and during his four-year term.  This is reflected in the way the Cylon threat is constructed in the first (movie length) episode of the 1978 series.  The sneak attack as an emblematic representation of the treacherous and insidious enemy was firmly established in the American consciousness following the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941, particularly after President Franklin D. Roosevelt called for a joint session of Congress on December 8 and he proclaimed the now famous words, “yesterday, December 7th, 1941 – a date which will live in infamy – the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan” (Roosevelt par. 1).[lx]  He went on to define how the attack was planned well in advance and there was no warning on the part of the Japanese even though the United States had been in talks with their ambassadors.  The Japanese sneak attack shocked the nation and was quickly appropriated by culture producers in Hollywood.  Additionally, the event strengthened the national self-image of honesty and trust in opposition to a distrustful enemy-other.        

Lord Baltar fills the role of the Japanese delegates, which FDR mentions in his short but passionate speech following the Pearl Harbor attacks.  He assumes one face for humanity, while making covert deals with the Cylons behind the scenes for his own aggrandizement.  There’s a great deal of significance to Baltar’s name in both the 1978 series and the 2003 re-imagined series that relates to his duplicitous role.  Lord Baltar’s name may originate from Bhaltair, the Scotish form of the Germanic name Walter, which means “ruler of the army,” and derives from the words:  wald or ruler and heri or army.  Lord Baltar aspires to rule the colony Picon as its supreme dictator.  However, after the human survivors’ escape and exodus, he is drafted by the succeeding Cylon Imperious Leader to command a basestar in pursuit of the survivors.  The Cylons believe his being human will provide insight into the motivations and designs of the more wholesome survivors fleeing the Cylon threat.  To this end, Baltar is assigned the IL model Cylon, Lucifer as second in command as well as objective third-person (or third-machine) observer.  This Cylon scrutiny results in a new double meaning for Lord Baltar.  On the one hand, his name is made a pun of balter, or to tumble about or dance clumsily.  He performs for his Cylon masters who hold his life in the balance.  His running the Cylon created maze most importantly illuminates the anagram of Baltar’s name:  lab rat.

Whereas Lord Baltar played a deceptive role akin to the Japanese ambassadors to the United States in talks with FDR’s government prior to the Pearl Harbor sneak attacks, the re-imagined Dr. Gaius Baltar (James Callis) inadvertently reigns destruction on humanity through his careless arrogance and egomania by literally sleeping with the enemy, the Number Six Cylon (Tricia Helfer).  The new Baltar is introduced in the Mini-Series by the camera focused on the dual pane television in Baltar’s home on Caprica.  It’s displaying a live interview of the imminent celebrity scientist as Number Six, later called Caprica Six, walks in and smiles, seemingly proud of her lover.  The “Spot Light” interviewer describes Dr. Gaius Baltar as, “winner of three Magnet Awards over the course of his career, media cult figure, and a personal friend of President Adar.  He’s currently working as a top consultant for the Ministry of Defense on computer issues, but he’s perhaps best known for his controversial views on advancing computer technology” (Mini-Series).  He’s well connected and he provides his special access to the Ministry of Defense to Number Six, in return for her favor and assistance on his own projects.  He doesn’t know that she’s anything more than an unnamed defense contractor until just before the Cylon bombs rain down from the skies.  However, his irresponsible and unguarded control of his own access to the Defense mainframe is not what really makes the new Baltar the proverbial bad guy.  It’s his immediate concern of self, self-preservation, and cover-up of his wrongs that mark him as a betrayer lacking any solidarity with his fellow survivors fleeing the Cylon threat.

The 2003 re-imagined series introduced a very different Baltar.  Instead of a political leader, the new character is a computer scientist and heralded as a genius.  Dr. Gaius Baltar earns his credentials as well as a prename, unlike his predecessor.  His first name, Gaius is a common Roman praenomen or given name that is arguably famous by its attribution to the Roman emperor, Gaius Julius Caesar (12 July 100 BC-15 March 44 BC).  The Roman meaning of Gaius or Caius is lost, but its connection to the Caesar line implies ruler or perhaps megalomaniac.  The new Baltar is most certainly a self-interested, arrogant, and opportunist character and its his lack of thinking beyond his own ego that resulted in the Twelve Colonies being compromised and slaughtered during the Cylon sneak attack.  Unlike the explicit cooperation of the original Baltar with the Cylons, the new Baltar’s personal flaws and egocentrism are what elevate him to the duplicitous and sinister role of his original’s namesake.  Furthermore, his actions and conspiring elevate him over the “pantomime villain” of Larson’s original series (McGrath 16).  Also, it’s fascinating how the new Baltar’s character changes over time.  We are first introduced to him as a scientist and celebrity worthy of television interviews regarding the constraints placed on researching artificial intelligence.  Later, hiding his involvement in the attacks, he works with President Roslin and Commander Adama to develop a Cylon detector that he subsequently sabotages.  Then, he comes full circle with his predecessor and establishes himself as a politician–first winning the presidency from Roslin and inadvertently opening the way for the later Cylon occupation on New Caprica and then, his incarceration as a traitor, which he spins as being a political prisoner propounding Marxist ideology.  As Susan Sontag points out about earlier SF films, the scientist may be a “satanist or savior,” but in newer SF, as evidenced by the new BSG, scientists become political figures which shifts the threat from science and technology to politics and ideology (Sontag 218).  However, Baltar’s influence is always greatest in space aboard Galactica or a Cylon basestar in stark contrast with his failed presidency on the surface of New Caprica.  The re-imagined Baltar’s influence is only potent when it’s disconnected from a localized planetary body making his influence truely “planetary, cosmic” (Sontag 218).

Number Six – Cylon, Human, or Construct?

Are you alive? […]  Prove it.

Number Six (Tricia Helfer) in  BSG Mini-Series

Our first glimpse of Number Six takes place at the beginning of the re-imagined BSG mini-series on Armistice Station, a space station designated as a meeting place for humans and Cylons following the war that ended forty years prior.  In the intervening years, no human knowingly sees a Cylon.  Upon her unexpected entrance, she is framed in the doorway by two updated Cylon Centurions, which are larger and more foreboding than their predecessors.  They have clawed hands capable of transforming into guns, and they have the sweeping red eye like their ancestors.  Number Six walks into the long room confidently in high heels wearing a red jacket and matching skirt.  Portrayed by Canadian actress Tricia Helfer, she’s gorgeous and blonde.  She seduces the married with children station diplomat just before a Cylon basestar literally overshadows the station and destroys it with a missile attack.  No escape plans are necessary for Number Six thanks to the new Cylon ability/power to reincarnate.

Soon, a copy of Number Six is shown on Caprica where she says out loud next to a human mother about her baby, “So light, so fragile…It’s okay, you don’t have to cry much longer…It’s amazing how the neck can support that much weight.”  While the mother is distracted by the father who is distanced from this exchange, she reaches down and snaps the baby’s neck.  This Number Six, later identified as Caprica Six is Dr. Gaius Baltar’s sex object and “assistant.”  In fact, her mission is to elicit Baltar’s unwitting cooperation by providing her with access to military secrets via the Navigation Control Program (NCP) that Baltar is developing as well as the Caprica military mainframe computer.  In both cases, she undermines humanity’s defenses.  Hers is a mission of subversion and infiltration in order to effect the subsequent Cylon sneak attack on humanity.

Caprica Six, like the copy on Armistice Station, often wears red, sexy clothing.  She has red lipstick.  She is a sexual object to Baltar, but she’s a sexual subject who uses her bodily attributes and superior intellect to effect “God’s will.”  However, she loves Baltar, or wishes to, and through sex, hopes to win love from him and thus for herself to experience–a Cylon transcendence of human emotion.  Though her desire for the human emotion love should not be equated with any desire on Six’s part to be human.  She, unlike Data (Brent Spiner) from Star Trek:  The Next Generation[lxi] or David (Haley Joel Osment) from Steven Spielberg’s movie Artificial Intelligence:  A.I.,[lxii] does not pine away, longing to be human.  True to her Cylon nature she pragmatically chooses a quality desired from humanity rather than the simplistic and much too often utilized bildungsroman narrative of the machine other imitating or attempting to rise above the machine self and become human.  Her attempt at engaging human emotion goes further than the original series’ Lucifer, who observes humanity through (arguably) its worst example, Lord Baltar.

Further defining Six is that her clothing and modus operandi labels her a sort of machine Mata Hari in a Cold War matrix of Communist spies and infiltrators.  Also, she’s blonde and extremely intelligent, which breaks with the often SF propounded blonde bimbo image.  In her relationship to the scientist Baltar, she exhibits a disconnection between the traditional SF blonde bimbo girlfriend and the damsel in distress.  She gives her physical life, but not soul, to protect Baltar during the thermonuclear Cylon attack on Caprica.

An interesting and as yet unexplained phenomenon occurs following Baltar’s safe escape from Caprica aboard Boomer’s Raptor.  He develops an “Inner Six.”  She dresses more provocatively than the physical/real Six, and she acts in an exaggerated manner compared to the real McCoy–she’s hypersexual, explicitly manipulative, and inspired to provide religious insight and answers beyond Baltar’s memory and experience.  Even more disturbing than Baltar’s Inner Six is that Caprica Six finds that she has an Inner Baltar similarly styled as a caricature of the original.  Both of these developments are inexplicable, but explore a decidedly New Wave, psychological approach to SF that’s often ignored in the mainstream.

Other copies and distinct individuals based on the Number Six model occur in the series.  (footnote that they don’t love Baltar).  There are other copies on Cylon basestars, but two turn up within the human exodus fleet.  The first is “Shelley Godfrey” in the first season episode, “Six Degrees of Separation” (2 February 2005).  The title is a pun on Six’s designation and the interconnectedness of human social networks.  Godfrey is a Number Six copy who attempts to frame Baltar with false evidence for the crimes against humanity he actually perpetrated.  Baltar’s sanity is tested by dealing with his Inner Six as well as Godfrey.  After he evidence is determined to be fabricated, Godfrey disappears.  Another copy is the brutalized Gina who arrives in the fleet onboard the found battlestar Pegasus.  Baltar saves Gina from her captors and ultimately she kills Admiral Cain and later, detonates a nuclear bomb (secured from Baltar and his rigged Cylon detector) on the passenger liner Cloud 9, which allows the Cylons to learn the location of the human settlement on New Caprica.

In all of the manifestations of Number Six, the choice for her name is an interesting one.  A sinister connection has to do with the sign of the anti-Christ, 666, which would be implied by multiple (i.e., copies) Sixes.  This is reinforced by her seductions and wearing red.  Her wearing red doubly identifies her as a Cylon and with a Cold War communist alignment.  In some ways, she’s like Baltar’s observer and second-in-command Cylon, Lucifer.  Another Cold War connection has to do with Patrick McGoohan’s character, Number Six, [lxiii] in The Prisoner (1967-1968).[lxiv]  This is reinforced by Caprica Six’s spy identity and her containment in the “Village” of the Cylon basestar where everyone is identified by number only as is also done in The Prisoner.  In season three, she escapes along with Athena and her baby, Hero, back to Galactica, where she finds herself explicitly imprisoned.  Also, her history is multiplied and vague, much like McGoohan’s secret agent persona that would likewise be an invention of a role for the self.  Thus, Helfer’s Number Six is a hybrid of Cold War intrigue and spying along with an inversion of the accepted Cold War SF role of the buxom blonde.

Number Eight – The Boomer and Athena Matrix

As I mentioned in a previous section, Lieutenant Boomer from the original BSG series is played by a black male named Herb Jefferson, Jr.  His lively yet somewhat restrained character is transformed into the Asian female character first known as Lieutenant Junior Grade Sharon “Boomer” Valerii in the 2003 re-imagined series and who is played by the American-Canadian actress Grace Park.  The Korean-descended actress in the re-imagined BSG has to fill several mutually exclusive roles.  I chose the term mutually exclusive not to mean that these roles cannot exist in the same space or scene, but that they are different identities with dissimilar and unique (though occasionally aligned) motivations, desires, and thoughts.

The audience doesn’t learn where the original Boomer gets his call sign in the original series, nor where Sharon Valerii gets hers.  However, in the first season of the re-imagined BSG in the episode, “Flesh and Bone” (25 February 2005), Baltar’s Inner Six asks him where he thinks she gets the call sign “Boomer,” clearly insinuating a sexual reference from her delivery of the question.  This exchange takes place as Baltar’s “Cylon Detector” analyzes Boomer’s blood sample and reveals her to be a Cylon.  However, Baltar, fearing for his life, changes the results and undermines any further accuracy of the detector’s determinations regarding human or Cylon biological identity.

It’s important that the original series Boomer has only one name, while the re-imagined Boomer, along with her many crewmates, have full names that are alluded to and often integrate into the story through character building.  The original series’ simple character name denies family or a historical genus within which they are located.  It places the character outside of a personal or local history and elevates him or her to a position of “character at large.”  This device is often seen in other SF films, particularly early SF, in which the villain often only goes by one name.  For example, Flash Gordon (Buster Crabbe) has his Ming (Charles Middleton),[lxv] Buck Rogers (Buster Crabbe, again) has his Kane (Anthony Warde),[lxvi] and Gene Autry has his Queen Tika (Dorothy Christy).[lxvii]  In television series, such as the original BSG, simple naming conventions, often underlie a production issue of character simplification as well as a connection to television’s antecedents–movie series.  The characters react and interact within an environment and story plot rather than the plot rising from the characters and character development.  This pattern shifts to more character driven narratives on television epitomized most recently by J.J. Abrams’ Lost[lxviii] and Moore’s re-imagined BSG.

In the re-imagined BSG, the black male Lieutenant Boomer virtually metamorphosizes into the Asian female Sharon “Boomer” Valerii.  Throughout the BSG Mini-Series, she appears to be one of humanity’s finest Colonial soldiers, but in the final scene it’s revealed that she a Cylon by showing a copy of Boomer among the other human-like Cylons.  Later, it’s revealed that she is a sleeper Cylon when she begins to commit sabotage on Galactica without her remembering her actions.  Also, a Number Eight Cylon copy (Boomer’s Cylon designation) finds the marooned Karl “Helo” Agathon and pretends to be the Galactica Boomer on a rescue mission to save him from Cylon controlled, but nuclear devastated Caprica.  Meanwhile, the sleeper agent Galactica Boomer begins to awaken to her Cylon identity.  However, this awakening leads to identity crisis, because this realization eliminates her past and memories.  She becomes a non-person, the enemy-other, and reduced to a body without a past.  Her subconscious Cylon self battles her conscious self for control, and ultimately she gives up the fight once among the Cylons and the failure of her and Caprica Six’s failed experiment to live with humanity on the Cylon occupied New Caprica.  During Galactica Boomer’s Cylon awakening, Caprica Boomer turns away from the Cylons by orchestrating an escape from Caprica with her lover and the father of her human-Cylon hybrid child in gestation.

The Galactica Boomer becomes a bitter and angry Cylon, giving up what little humanity she had among the Galactica crew/family following her assassination by Cally Henderson (later Cally Tyrol after marrying Chief Tyrol, who was Galactica Boomer’s former lover) and subsequent Cylon resurrection.  That Boomer stands in stark contrast with the Caprica Boomer who endures all manner of hardship for her child, Hera, and husband, Helo.  This split development is another way in which the producers show rather than tell the audience that Cylon identities are not linked to the ubiquitous biology of “many copies.”  Additionally, it reflects a differentiation of Post-World War II American life.  Tyrol and Galactica Boomer never discuss children, and they had not conceived a child during their relationship aboard ship.  The Cylon sneak attack takes place and their relationship is interrupted by the fighting as well as her odd behavior resulting from the subconscious Cylon programming taking over to implement sabotage on the Galactica.  This is a dissolution of the nuclear family, particularly after she attempts to assassinate Command Adama (a patriarchal figure) in the season one finale, “Kobol’s Last Gleaming, Part II” (1 April 2005).  The title first connects the episode to American by it’s play on the line, “By the twilight’s last gleaming” from the United States’ national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner” (1814).[lxix]  Furthermore, Caprica Boomer attempts to resurrect the nuclear family by bearing a human-Cylon hybrid child (at first at the behest of her Cylon brethren, then for herself and Helo) and creating a nuclear family around herself, Helo, and their child, Hera.  This nuclear family establishment following the very short war encompassed by the Cylon sneak attack is similar to the reinvention of American family life in the Post War (meaning WWII) or Cold War era.

Other significance can be found in the expansion of Boomer’s name in the re-imagined series from its inception and further development.  These changes to herself and those around her advances and reinforces Number Eight’s differing identities in the re-imagined BSG.  Her first and last names situate her within a supposed family hierarchy or family tree.  However, the Galactica Boomer tells the rescued child of the Armistice Station diplomat, Boxy that she lost her parents when she was young just like the boy.  This was a fabrication which she was not aware of until the sleeper programming boots her Cylon code thereby undermining her belief and trust in her own memories and therefore identity.  This ultimately leads to her disillusionment and bitter reintegration as Number Eight in the Cylon anarchistic collective.  The designation Number Eight has its own subtextual significances.  First, Dr. Timothy Leary, a widely known experimenter with consciousness expansion through pharmacology and specifically LSD,  proposed the “8-Circuit Model of Consciousness.”  He utilized the terminology of technology of circuits and gears to describe the construction of consciousness within the human brain.  Mind, for Leary, is a construction of levels of awareness bound into the physical structure of the brain.  Number Eight’s explicit Cylon biology fused with the artificiality of her memories and therefore facsimile identity are tightly bound to Leary’s explanation for mind that by analogy hold for Cylons as much as for human minds.  A racial meaning for the number eight and this character might be that eight is considered lucky in Chinese culture, because the number signifies wealth or prosperity.  However, Park is of Korean descent, but this association underlies the amalgamation of Asian identities in many Americans’ minds going back culturally through the “Yellow Peril” and the comic character “Fu Manchu.”  Number Eight’s human identity has the name “Sharon Valerii.”  Sharon is a Hebrew feminine proper name also representing the fertile costal flatland between Jaffa and Mount Carmel.  Valerii is an interesting last name, because it is the male plural form of Valerius, a Roman nomen (the gens or clan/family name).  The nomen implied family or tribal identity based on a shared ancestor.   Valerius was a “prominent patrician family” that spanned the Roman empire including many consul and emperors throughout Rome’s history (Broughton 88).[lxx]  The choice to give her a noble or aristocratic family name is interesting in that she’s very much of royal, but forgotten, blood/memory/history of the superior “humanity’s children,” the Cylons.  Caprica Boomer on the other hand works hard to win the hearts and minds of the Galactica crew by placing herself in harm’s way, caring for Helo and vice versa, and convincing Commander Adama that she is loyal to the uniform and him.  During the transitional period of Galactica Boomer to Caprica Boomer onboard the battlestar, she eventually earns a new call-sign, which solidifies her own identity as separate from her Cylon sister/copy.  Her new and unique call-sign is Athena after the goddess of wisdom and war.  This reconnects her to the original BSG, because Adama’s daughter and Apollo’s sister was named Athena (Maren Jensen).  Unlike her predecessor, the new Athena assumed Boomer’s former role as Raptor pilot, and she is most certainly not a school teacher.  However, she is a mother, and she recovers her child, Hera from the Cylons with the help of her husband, Helo, who lives up to the one letter off name, Hero.  Hera’s name is noteworthy for nuclear family building, because Hera, as the wife of Zeus, is the goddess of marriage.  The child Hera’s birth marked the union of Athena and Helo.

Caprica Boomer is of the same “blood” as Galactica Boomer and she knows the truth of her biological and experiential identity.  She performs herself as the Galactica Boomer in order to get close to and eventually attempt to have a child with Helo.  Karl Agathon’s call-sign in the real world means “helicopter.”  For the series, his last name probably originates from the Athenian poet of the same name who lived from 448-400 B.C. and was friend of both Euripides and Plato.  This choice of name has some importance, because Agathon was known for his own style of stage writing.  At one point it was requested that he conform his writing to that more widely accepted at that time, and he replied, “

Galactica Boomer’s lover, Chief Galen Tyrol has his own unknown secrets that are revealed to himself and the audience in “Crossroads, Part II.”  It isn’t clear if Tyrol was always selected as one of the Final Five Cylons, but the fact that he and the Galactica Boomer find one another surreptitiously or by design is unmistakable.  Furthermore, Athena and Helo’s child is not the only human-Cylon hybrid, because Tyrol and Cally have a son named Nicolas, but Tyrol’s biological identity was unknown at that time.  In a way, Galactica Boomer’s transferal by death to the side of the Cylons allows for the nuclear family of Tyrol, Cally, and Nicolas to be founded.  Additionally, their nuclear family seems more derivative of the working American experience, because they are both laborers and Tyrol founds the first workers’ union among the fleet.

Conclusion:  Network Terminus

General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

President Ronald Reagan, 12 June 1987

Triumphalism, though a cultural vector originating from the U.S. military and government following the Japanese sneak attack of Pearl Harbor, defined the collective American identity throughout the Cold War.  Despite the stalemates of Korea and Vietnam, Ronald Reagan propounded that through superior technology and a public visage of tough action and mediocre diplomacy, American would win the protracted and ideological Cold War.  This was never clearer than when he proclaimed with much bravado and the cameras rolling in front of the Berlin Wall on 12 June 1987, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”[lxxi]

The American rise to the role of Super Power has been and is continually challenged, but never so powerfully or diabolically as during the Al-Qaeda 9/11 Attacks.  This sneak attack was implemented by suicide warriors that appropriated civilian airplane technology in order to strike the symbols of Western democratic hegemony, which included the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., with their repurposing of the airliners as flying bombs.

When those civilian-filled airliners struck the World Trade Center’s twin towers and hours later when the towers plummeted to the ground, the impact left lasting reverberations on American as well as world culture.  As in World War II, America was prodded into reaction to an attack via a threat to the homeland.  Our assistance through materiel sales bound us to our European and Asian allies, but the shadow of isolationism held strong until Pearl Harbor provided a reason or an excuse to act.  Similarly, Afghans in Afghanistan or abroad in exile requested help against the ruling Taliban who took control of the country following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 and the subsequent civil war that occurred in the resulting power vacuum.  This Cold War battleground led to the Post-Cold War crisis to hit America beginning with the 9/11 Attacks.  America’s similarly positioned isolationist stance during the Clinton presidency to only engage hot spots under United Nations or NATO auspices.  In effect, the Cold War continues on through the reality of this new ideological war between the democratic West and the fundamentalist Islamic Al-Qaeda movement that’s engaging the West in toto with Lind’s “Fourth Generational Warfare.”

The re-imagined Battlestar Galactica’s debut in 2003 heralded SF’s popular engagement of Post-Cold War issues and shifts in American identity.  The cycle of prophecy in the re-imagined BSG narrative reflects the Cold War returning to haunt us.  Additionally, Commander Adama says in a speech prior to the Cylon sneak attack:

We refuse to accept the responsibility for anything that we’ve done. Like we did with the Cylons. We decided to play God, create life. When that life turned against us, we comforted ourselves in the knowledge that it really wasn’t our fault, not really. You cannot play God then wash your hands of the things that you’ve created. Sooner or later, the day comes when you can’t hide from the things that you’ve done anymore (BSG Mini-Series).

The super power involvement in other parts of the world during the Cold War return in the Post-Cold War era as in the Global War on Terrorism.  The enemy and ideology behind the conflict has changed, but the seed from which the conflict has grown was planted many years ago and is now beginning to bloom.  American cannot “hide from the things that [it has] done anymore.”  This is the political message of BSG, and its from this that the show derives its power as a cultural touchstone for engaging the here and now through a “cognitively estranging” SF story.

However, BSG is much more complex than that.  The producers and writers have orchestrated Cylon others that we, as humans, should identify with, but we do.  Alternatively, there are humans supposedly worthy of our admiration as fighting off the Cylon threat, but similarly antithetical we cannot side with them.  As in the real world, the situation is deeper and embedded within a network in which we are all subjects, and as Baudrillard writes, “we are here at the controls of a micro-satellite, in orbit, living no longer as an actor or dramaturge but as a terminal of multiple networks” (Baudrillard 128).[lxxii]  As subjects, we are each “a terminal of multiple networks.”  This is dramatized and visually presented through the technologized surroundings of humanity in BSG as well as the cyborg other represented by the organic machine Cylons who join the network by a mere touch.  By extension, we must follow the Cylons’ example and connect to the network created by everything going on around us in the here-and-now.

In order to do this, BSG challenges the viewer to think, unlike many other primetime television programs.  McGrath adds:

BSG doesn’t offer solutions or manifestos–indeed it rarely editorialises–but, at a time when loyalty is demanded and dissent is suspect, this sf show is doing something rather radical–it is encouraging people to think (McGrath 16).

This encouragement is the power of modern SF.  In the case of the new BSG, it dares us to connect to the real life circuit that inspires its production.  Only by engaging the circuit and being more than a passive node will dialog and change come about.  As McGrath points out, the show is largely devoid of manifestos (except literally in the third season), and it presents a complexity of identities and the way those characters’ identities react and interact with one another thereby leaving blood on everyone’s hands and resulting in no innocents.  This is where the new BSG predominantly departs from Larson’s original series.  Wholesomeness and idealized characters are replaced by hard pragmatism and realized, complete characters with integrated identities.

The 2003 BSG is about hybrids and cyborgs.  Cyborgs, broadly defined, are persons or beings whose interaction with the world is mediated through technology.  Relying on this definition, cyborgs are hybrids of the biological and technological worlds.  The Cylons are obviously cyborgs, because they have organic and inorganic parts fused to create their individual consciences via an artificially devised construction.  However, humanity is also a cyborg by this definition, because as a space faring species, their existence is mediated by technology including spaceships, life support, and war materiel.  Though, for political expediency, perhaps Donna Haraway’s definition is more on target:

A cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction.  Social reality is lived social relations, our most important political construction, a world-changing fiction (Haraway 434).[lxxiii]

The human and Cylon characters in the 2003 BSG are “[creatures] of social reality as well as [creatures] of fiction.”  The “lived social relations” of these characters and the firmly built and elaborated identities form “a world changing fiction.”  Therefore, the fusion of good and evil into a spectrum creates a band on which fictional characters as well as real people exhibit multiple emission lines that represent the good and evil within each of us.  This political construction is destabilized by the fact that, “it has become increasingly difficult to separate the human from the technological, and this is true rhetorically and phenomenologically” (Bukatman 2).[lxxiv]  Humans and Cylons are merging into one with the realization of the Final Five Cylons and the birth of human-Cylon hybrid babies.  President Roslin tells Commander Adama, “they need to start having babies” (Mini-Series).  She means this for the human fleet, but it’s also true for the union of humanity/biology/flesh and Cylon/technology/machine.  Even in that matrix, the distinctions between the two “races” is far from clear and distinct.  Technology is an ever present component of our past, present, and assumedly, our future.  Humanity must embrace it to face the future, but not necessarily to recreate the Earthly Garden.  Instead, we must embrace it, and by extension, those we identify as the other who are in fact ourselves.

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“On the Creation of Battlestar Galactica.”  Interview with Glen A. Larson.  Battlestar Galactica:  The Complete Epic Series DVD.  Universal.  DVD 1, Side 2.  2003.

The Phantom Empire.  Perf. Gene Autry and Dorothy Christy.  Film Serial.  Mascot Pictures.  1935.

The Prisoner.  Exec. Prod. Patrick McGoohan.  Perf. Patrick McGoohan.  Television Series.  ITV.  1967-1968.

Rocketship X-M.  Dir. Kurt Neumann.  Perf. Lloyd Bridges.  Lippert Pictures, 1950.

Sea Hunt.  Exec. Prod. Frederic Ziv and Maurice Ziv.  Perf. Lloyd Bridges.  Syndicated Television Series.  1958-1961.

Stand and Deliver.  Perf. Edward James Olmos.  Warner Brothers.  1988.

Star Trek.  Exec. Prod. Gene Roddenberry.  NBC.  1966-1969.

Star Trek:  The Next Generation.  Exec. Prod. Rick Berman, Michael Piller, and Gene Roddenberry, NBC.  1987-1994.

Star Wars.  Dir. George Lucas.  20th Century Fox.  1977.

Top Gun.  Perf. Tom Cruise and James Tolkan.  Paramount Pictures.  1986.

Torn Curtain.  Dir. Afred Hitchcock.  Perf. Paul Newman.  Universal Pictures.  1966.

The War of the Worlds.  Prod. George Pal.  Paramount Pictures.  1953.

[i] Engelhardt, Tom.  The End of Victory Culture:  Cold War American and the Disillusioning of a Generation. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998.

[ii] Battlestar Galactica.  Exec. Prod. Ronald D. Moore and David Eick.  Sci Fi Channel.  2003-2007.

[iii] Battlestar Galactica.  Exec. Prod. Glen A. Larson.  Television Series.  ABC.  1978-1979.

[iv] McGrath, Martin.  “49,550 and Counting.”  Matrix 181 (Sept/Oct 2006):  16.

[v] Sontag, Susan.  “The Imagination of Disaster.”  Against Interpretation and Other Essays.  London:  Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1967.  209-225.

[vi] Until the Iran hostage crisis, which began on November 4, 1979 and included President Jimmy Carter’s failed Operation Eagle Claw rescue operation.  The crisis ended on January 20, 1981 immediately following Reagan’s ascendancy to U.S. president.

[vii] Star Wars.  Dir. George Lucas.  20th Century Fox.  1977.

[viii] Star Trek.  Exec. Prod. Gene Roddenberry.  NBC.  1966-1969.

[ix] Murder in the Air.  Dir. Lewis Seiler.  Perf. Ronald Reagan.  Warner Brothers, 1940.

[x] Torn Curtain.  Dir. Afred Hitchcock.  Perf. Paul Newman.  Universal Pictures.  1966.

[xi] Rogin, Michael.  Ronald Reagan, the Movie and Other Episodes in Political Demonology.  London:  University of California Press, 1987:  1-3.

[xii] Fitzgerald, Frances.  “The American Everyman.”  Way Out There in the Blue:  Reagan, Star Wars and the End of the Cold War.  New York:  Simon & Schuster, 2000.  19 June 2007 <http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/f/fitzgerald-blue.html?_r=1&oref=slogin&gt;.

[xiii] Further linking Reagan with the Battlestar Galactica mythos is the fact that he made a guest appearance on Wagon Train in 1963 in the episode, “The Fort Pierce Story.”  This is significant, because the wagon train analogy applies to much space-oriented SF television series including Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, and Firefly.

[xiv] Wills, Garry.  Reagan’s America:  Innocents at Home.  London:  Heinemann, 1987.

[xv] “On the Creation of Battlestar Galactica.”  Interview with Glen A. Larson.  Battlestar Galactica:  The Complete Epic Series DVD.  Universal.  DVD 1, Side 2.  2003.

[xvi] Von Däniken, Erich.  Chariots of the Gods?:  Unsolved Mysteries of the Past.  New York:  Bantam, 1968.

[xvii] Larocque, John.  “Battlestar Galactica Frequently Asked Questions.”  Battlestar Galactica Costume and Prop Museum.  26 November 2002.  21 July 2007 <http://www.chrispappas.com/archives/BG-FAQ.html#G7&gt;.

[xviii] Marx, Leo.  The Machine in the Garden; Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. New York:  Oxford UP, 1964.

[xix] Ben-Tov, Sharona.  The Artificial Paradise:  Science Fiction and American Reality.  Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan Press, 1995.

[xx] This episode is titled, “Taking a Break From All Your Worries,” and it first aired on 28 January 2007.

[xxi] Alien.  Dir. Ridley Scott.  20th Century Fox.  1979.

[xxii] Firefly.  Exec. Prod. Joss Whedon and Tim Minear.  Television Series.  Fox.  2002-2003.

[xxiii] 2001:  A Space Odyssey.  Dir.  Stanley Kubrick.  MGM.  1968.

[xxiv] Clerks.  Dir. Kevin Smith.  Perf.  Brian O’Halloran and Jeff Anderson.  Miramax Films.  1994.

[xxv] The War of the Worlds.  Prod. George Pal.  Paramount Pictures.  1953.

[xxvi] Lost in Space.  Exec. Prod. Irwin Allen.  Perf. Jonathan Harris.  Television Series.  CBS.  1965-1968.

[xxvii] Wells, H.G.  The Time Machine.  London:  Heinemann, 1895.

[xxviii] Westfahl, Gary.  “Glen A. Larson.”  Gary Westfahl’s Biographical Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Film.  2007.  13 June 2007 <http://www.sfsite.com/gary/lars01.htm&gt;.

[xxix] Eisenhower, Dwight.  “Eisenhower’s Farewell Address.”  Televised address 17 January 1961.  13 June 2007 <http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Eisenhower%27s_farewell_address&gt;.

[xxx] Bailey, Charles W. and Fletcher Knebel.  Seven Days in May.  New York:  Harper & Row, 1962.

[xxxi] Rorvik, David.  In His Image:  The Cloning of a Man.  Philadelphia:  Lippincott, 1978.

[xxxii] Rorvik has also demonstrated his interest in cyborgs with the publication of his earlier book: As Man Becomes Machine: the Evolution of the Cyborg. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971.

[xxxiii] The re-imagined Cylons are not a hive mind in the same sense as the Borg on Star Trek:  The Next Generation.  Cylon cooperation is either given or denied depending on the will of the individual Cylon.

[xxxiv] Blade Runner.  Dir. Ridley Scott.  Warner Brothers.  1982.

[xxxv] The Manchurian Candidate.  Dir. John Frankenheimer.  MGM.  1962.

[xxxvi] Dick, Philip K.  “The Android and the Human.”  Vector:  Journal of the British Science Fiction Association 64 (March/April 1973):  5-20.

[xxxvii] Bonanza.  Perf. Lorne Greene.  Television Series.  NBC.  1959-1973.

[xxxviii] It’s interesting that Olmos’ character’s son, Captain Lee “Apollo” Adama is played by Jamie Bamber, who is an English-American.  One of Olmos’ real-life sons, Bodie Olmos, plays a Galactica pilot, Junior Grade Brendan “Hot Dog” Constanza.  Constanza is widely used as a Hungarian/Romanian name, but it’s also the feminine Spanish form of the Late Roman Constantia.  This has its own associations with constant, perhaps the ever-presence and constancy of family within and without the BSG universe.  It’s also a fusion of Olmos’ own heritage.

[xxxix] Stand and Deliver.  Perf. Edward James Olmos.  Warner Brothers.  1988.

[xl] My Family.  Dir. Gregory Nava.  Perf. Edward James Olmos.  New Line Cinema.  1995.

[xli] American Family:  A Journey of Dreams.  Executive Producers Gregory Nava and Barbara Martinez Jitner.  Perf.  Edward James Olmos.  Television Series.  Twentieth-Century Fox.  2002-2004.

[xlii] Blade Runner.  Dir. Ridley Scott.  Warner Brothers.  1982.

[xliii] Dick, Philip K.  Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  New York:  Doubleday, 1968.

[xliv] Miami Vice.  Exec. Prod.  Michael Mann and Dick Wolf.  Perf. Don Johnson, Philip Michael Thomas, and Edward James Olmos.  Television Series.  NBC.  1984-1990.

[xlv] 12 Angry Men.  Dir. William Friedkin.  Perf.  Mary McDonnell and Edward James Olmos.  MGM Television.  1997.

[xlvi] Wouk, Herman.  The Caine Mutiny.  New York:  Doubleday, 1951.

[xlvii] The Caine Mutiny.  Dir. Stanley Kramer.  Perf. Humphrey Bogart.  Columbia Pictures.  1954.

[xlviii] The Caine Mutiny was directed by Stanley Kramer, who also directed the SF classic, On the Beach (1959).

[xlix] Rocketship X-M.  Dir. Kurt Neumann.  Perf. Lloyd Bridges.  Lippert Pictures, 1950.

[l] Sea Hunt.  Exec. Prod. Frederic Ziv and Maurice Ziv.  Perf. Lloyd Bridges.  Syndicated television series.  1958-1961.

[li] Top Gun.  Perf. Tom Cruise and James Tolkan.  Paramount Pictures.  1986.

[lii] In the re-imagined BSG, Richard Hatch plays Tom Zarek, a political agitator and convicted terrorist.  This is a very different character than the Apollo he played earlier in his life, but Zarek’s character becomes politically powerful and eventually saves Laura Roslin’s life and works for the good of the fleet.

[liii] Kennedy, John F.  “Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs.”  Speech before joint session of Congress.  25 May 1961.  30 July 2007 <http://www.jfklibrary.org/Historical+Resources/Archives/Reference+Desk/Speeches/JFK/Urgent+National+Needs+Page+4.htm&gt;.

[liv] Melville, Herman.  Moby-Dick; or, The Whale.  New York:  Harper & Brothers, 1851.

[lv] Wills, Garry.  John Wayne’s America:  The Politics of Celebrity.  New York:  Simon & Schuster, 1997.

[lvi] Much more on Sharon “Boomer” Valerii/Number Eight Cylon in a following section.

[lvii] Canada.  Statistics Canada.  “Visible Minority Groups, 2001 Counts, for Canada, Provinces and Territories – 20% Sample Data.”  2001.  14 July 2007 <http://www12.statcan.ca/&gt;.

[lviii] United States.  U.S. Census Bureau.  “California Quick Facts from the U.S. Census Bureau.”  2005.  14 July 2007 <http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/06000.html&gt;.

[lix] Sontag 218.

[lx] Roosevelt, Franklin Delano.  “Infamy Speech.”  Address to Congress.  8 December 1941.  27 July 2007 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infamy_Speech&gt;.

[lxi] Star Trek:  The Next Generation.  Exec. Prod. Rick Berman, Michael Piller, and Gene Roddenberry.  Perf. Brent Spiner.  NBC.  1987-1994.

[lxii] Artificial Intelligence:  A.I.  Dir. Steven Spielberg.  Perf. Haley Joel Osment.  Warner Brothers.

[lxiii] This is an acknowledged homage in Bassom, David.  Battlestar Galactica:  The Official Companion.  London:  Titan Books, 2005.

[lxiv] The Prisoner.  Exec. Prod. Patrick McGoohan.  Perf. Patrick McGoohan.  Television Series.  ITV.  1967-1968.

[lxv] Flash Gordon.  Perf. Buster Crabbe and Charles Middleton.  Film Serial.  Universal Pictures.  1936.

[lxvi] Buck Rogers.  Perf. Buster Crabbe and Anthony Warde.  Film Serial.  Universal Pictures.  1939.

[lxvii] The Phantom Empire.  Perf. Gene Autry and Dorothy Christy.  Film Serial.  Mascot Pictures.  1935.

[lxviii] Lost.  Exec. Prod. J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk, and Damon Lindelof.  Television Series.  ABC.  (2004-2007).

[lxix] Key, Frances Scott.  “The Star-Spangled Banner.”  Baltimore:  Thomas Carr, 1814.  30 July 2007 <http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/treasures/trm065.html&gt;.

[lxx] Broughton, T. Robert S., “Potitus Valerius Messalla, Consul Suffect 29 B. C.,”  Book Review.  The Phoenix 10.2 (Summer 1956):  88-89.

[lxxi] Reagan, Ronald.  “Remarks at the Brandenburg Gate.”  Speech.  12 June 1987.  28 July 2007 <http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/ronaldreaganbrandenburggate.htm&gt;.

[lxxii] Baudrillard, Jean.  “The Ecstasy of Communication,” The Anti-Aesthetic.  Ed. Hal Foster.  Port Townsend, WA:  Bay Press, 1983.  126-134.

[lxxiii] Haraway, Donna J.  “A Cyborg Manifesto:  Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.”  Sex/Machine:  Readings in Culture, Gender, and Technology.  Ed. Patrick D. Hopkins.  Bloomington, IN:  Indiana UP, 1998.

[lxxiv] Bukatman, Scott.  Terminal Identity:  The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction.  Durham, NC:  Duke UP, 1993.

Recovered Writing: Undergraduate Thesis, Networks of Science, Technology, and Science Fiction During the American Cold War, December 12, 2005

This is the eighth post in a new series titled, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

I wrote my undergraduate thesis included below under the helpful guidance of  Professor Lisa Yaszek, but Professors Kenneth Knoespel and Doug Davis also helped me. Professor Knoespel directed an individual investigation with me over the preceding summer, in which I explored the theoretical underpinnings of my project. Professor Davis gave me advice on Cold War era books and films that might help inform my work.

Professor Yaszek’s advice on my thesis’ organization, writing style, and argumentation helped me revise the essay into its current form, which yielded me the School of Literature, Media, and Communication’s prestigious James Dean Young Writing Award.

Also, an earlier paper that I presented at the Monstrous Bodies Symposium at Georgia Tech on 31 March 2005 was incorporated into my thesis. Then, the thesis was further revised into a conference paper for my first international academic conference: the SFRA meeting in White Plains, NY in 2006. Ideas and words transform into something new, stronger, and more meaningful with each iteration–moving closer to the asymptote of understanding.

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Lisa Yaszek

Senior Thesis – Fall 2005

12 December 2005

Networks of Science, Technology, and Science Fiction During the American Cold War

Sometimes, just standing here, I keep wondering–Are we working on them, or are they working on us?  Give them dignity doctor, then we can start talking about who can do what and what they mean (General Leslie R. Groves as played by Paul Newman in the film, Fat Man and Little Boy).

In the quote above from the film Fat Man and Little Boy, General Leslie R. Groves (Paul Newman) takes Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer (Dwight Schultz) aside to show him the bomb casing for the two atomic bombs to be dropped on Japan, Fat Man and Little Boy.  Groves questions, “Are we working on them, or are they working on us?”  His character respects the awesome power of the bombs that he has orchestrated into existence.  He represents the uncertainty surrounding a future with ‘the bomb,’ but he is also quite aware of the networks required to bring a weapon of this magnitude into existence.[1]  Additionally, he is depicted as someone reverential to the implications of the bomb and to the future that is tied to its existence.  Groves’ speech elicits questions regarding complex networks and the unknown implications of new technologies.[2]

General Groves’ concern reflects a more general American anxiety regarding the loss of human control over our increasingly complex technologies.  As technological advancements take place, the systems we design to create and produce new technologies become more intricate.  The intricacy of the military-industrial complex, as well as other sectors of technological development during the Cold War, 1945-1990, become so elaborate that they appear to be beyond the control of individuals.  In effect, the systems appear autonomous and therefore capable of evading humanity’s control by choosing its own destiny.

Authors interested in representing the social and political implications of autonomous technology networks often do so in a specific literary form:  Science Fiction (SF).            As they argue, SF is a key space where discourses surrounding science and technology can be worked out and discussed in ways that are not possible in other modes of popular culture.  The reason for this is that SF lies at the intersection of science, technology, and culture.  SF is the space where authors bring these elements together.  Additionally, those elements are all integral to the story in ways that they would not be in other forms of fiction.

In SF, autonomous technology is a metaphor for the networks within technology and without that link to humanity, culture, and science.  Two symbols that best represent autonomous technology during the Cold War are nuclear weapons and robots.  Nuclear weapons represent autonomous technology in the here-and-now.  They are devices beyond the control of humanity and yet they are leashed with command-and-control systems that some would liken to threads of yarn attempting to hold back a tiger.  Robots are the fictional embodiment of autonomous technology.  They are capable of making choices and even walking amongst us if they are designed to appear human, which creates further anxiety because technology can be made to supersede humanity.

In the first section of this paper, I approach SF-based discussions about autonomous technology through the disciplines of science studies, Cold War studies, and SF studies.  These three disciplines are uniquely aligned to empower scholars to consider why a shift took place in American thinking during the Cold War era regarding humanity’s control over technology as well as the networks within which technology is embedded.  In the latter section, I apply these disciplines to readings of SF films and texts that were produced during the Cold War in order to reveal the cultural presentations of anxiety toward autonomous technologies.

Networks of Autonomous Technology

Over the past three decades, science studies has become an important discipline of study because it enables us to better understand cultural factors that influence technological development.  Studying the use and meaning of the word, “technology” is one way to better understand the connection between culture and technology.  The meaning of the word, “technology” has changed over time.  Today, the term “’technology’…is applied haphazardly to a staggering collection of phenomena…One feels that there must be a better way of expressing oneself about these developments, but at present our concepts fail us” (Winner 10).  Thus, one of the objectives of science studies scholars is devising a language for engaging these concepts.

Because we have not been able to devise a language capable of encompassing the technological artifact, or the network in which it lies in relation to culture, the “discussions of the political implications of advanced technology have a tendency to slide into a polarity of good versus evil…One either hates technology or loves it” (Winner 10).[3]   One gains power and mastery over something after it is named.  Devising a language for engaging technology and the networks it is situated in is essential to humanity maintaining control over that which it creates.[4]

Traditionally, Westerners think of human-machine relations in master-slave terms.  These binary opposites define one thing by what the other is not, while also representing a hierarchy of one opposite above the other.  When we talk about the relationships of humanity and nature or humanity and technology, “the concept of mastery and the master-slave metaphor are the dominant ways of describing” these relationships (Winner 20).  Humanity created tools and skills (i.e., technology) to serve the interests of humanity.  What happens when there is the perception among many people that technology is no longer serving humanity?  The tables may have turned, thus the question stands:  does humanity serve the self-perpetuating system of autonomous technology?[5]

During the Cold War, new technologies are created out of vast networks that involve the engineer working in the shop, the scientist working in the lab, and the absorbing, disseminating, and cogently working on ideas in the minds of individuals within American culture.  These networks are tantamount to a system that is beyond the control of a single individual.  The source of growing anxiety over autonomous technology comes from “the belief that somehow technology has gotten out of control and follows its own course, independent of human direction” (Winner 13).

The networks that were created during the Cold War complicate these master-slave relationships.  Scholars employ two different theories to help answer questions about these recently developed networks.  The first is the voluntarist view, which hold thats technology advances and is maintained by human controllers.  The second is actor-network theory, in which scholars look at both objects and people and the relationships between the two.

The voluntarist view is used to refute the possibility of technology being autonomous.  Behind the curtain of technology’s inner workings, “one always finds a realm of human motives and conscious decisions…Behind modernization are always the modernizers, behind industrialization, the industrialists” (Winner 53).  People use their capital, inventiveness, and decision making to shift the course of technological change in the direction that they choose to do so.

However, there appears to be more at work than individual choices.  Networks of science, technology, and culture may provide an unseen impetus that is akin to an “invisible hand.”  A technology may be consciously developed to fulfill a particular utility, but, “other consequences of its presence in the world often are not” (Winner 74).  Interactions that take place within networks may lead to new developments that were not thought of or intended by the inventor.  This kind of development reveals the complexity in which there are overlaps and connections between science, technology, and culture.  Therefore, the complexity of the networks calls into question the applicability of the voluntarist view.

The second, and more useful theory for this discussion, is actor-network theory.  It provides a formulation for envisioning the network by mapping both the animate and inanimate actors involved in shaping these networks.  This theory is based on the interaction of dissimilar areas of interest such as technology and culture.  Science, technology, and culture are not separate entities comprised of people that carry on their craft in the isolation of a vacuum.  These seemingly diverse areas are interdependent upon one another and it is from their interconnection that issues of political power, cultural shifts in thinking, and other initially unforeseen possibilities arise.[6]

Connected to the study of actor-network theory is that, “technology always does more than we intend; we know this so well that it has actually become part of our intentions” (Winner 97-98).  The networks that form between technology and culture are a sort of breeding ground for new uses of technology.  The pathways that connect these ‘separate’ areas of ideology and practice are where re-creation takes place and add to the original intent of an originator of some new technology.[7]  Changes in Latour’s actor-networks are similar to Winner’s point that “technologies…demand the restructuring of their environments” (100).[8]  Thus, one often unintended consequence of technology is that “the restructuring of their environments” encompasses both the physical location of a technological artifact or practice as well as the networks in which the technology is situated.

A great deal of restructuring took place during the American Cold War because of technology.  These changes are explored in the field of Cold War studies, which is the historical evaluation and investigation of the cultural and political aspects of the time between 1945 and 1990 (i.e., the Cold War era) by drawing on recently declassified documents and other fresh sources of information from that era.[9]  Cold War studies and science studies are connected because of the underlying technologies that drive nuclear proliferation during the Cold War era.

One of the overarching technological artifacts of the Cold War is the nuclear bomb.  The destructive reality of the atomic bomb (and later, the thermonuclear bomb) brought about a duality of opinions about that technology (i.e., it was perceived as inherently good or evil).  For example, their stands Eisenhower’s aborted “Atoms for Peace” and the theory of mutually assured destruction (MAD).  Therefore, the atomic bomb is situated within a dualistic framework of good and bad views that came about because of its stepping out on the stage during the Cold war.[10]

Cold War studies, like science studies, looks at the networks involved in the development and promulgation of technologies that alter the cultural landscape, but in this particular discipline, the emphasis is on the dichotomy between the democratic West and the communist East.  It should be noted that not everything between 1945-1990 can be tied to the Cold War, but “so much was influenced and shaped by the Cold War that one simply cannot write a history of the second half of the 20th century without a systematic appreciation of the powerful, oft-times distorting repercussions of the superpower conflict on the world’s states and societies” (McMahon 105).  Furthermore, “ the bomb had transformed not only military strategy and international relations, but the fundamental ground of culture and consciousness” (Boyer xix).  Thus, the atomic bomb transforms the scale at which technology interacts with science and culture and it changed the way nations talked to one another during the Cold War.

The ‘Nuclear Era’ begins along with the near-beginning of the Cold War.  After the dropping of the bombs called Little Boy and Fat Man on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and August 9, 1945 respectively, “the nuclear era…burst upon the world with terrifying suddenness.  From the earliest moments, the American people recognized that things would never be the same again” (Boyer 4).  The devastation of Hiroshima and Nakasaki are mapped over the possibility of an American wasteland when James Reston wrote in the New York Times, “In that terrible flash 10,000 miles away, men here have seen not only the fate of Japan, but have glimpsed the future of America” (qtd. in Boyer 14).  Boyer goes on to write, “Years before the world’s nuclear arsenals made such a holocaust likely or even possible, the prospect of global annihilation already filled the national consciousness.  This awareness and the bone-deep fear it engendered are the fundamental psychological realities underlying the broader intellectual and cultural responses of this period” (Boyer 15).  Americans realized that their monopoly over atomic weaponry would soon be supplanted.  Other nations would develop their own atomic bombs.  Therefore, what little control Americans had in that early period of the Cold War over atomic weapons, would be lost when other nations established their own weapon stockpiles.  The understanding that Americans could not maintain control over this immensely destructive weapon resulted in a heightened anxiety over America’s future because of the very technology that we first developed.

Scientists and engineers engaged in the Manhattan Project and elsewhere tried to employ their (temporarily) elevated popularity in order to achieve political ends aimed at reigning in the proliferation of nuclear weapons.  The scientists that spoke out against the threat of nuclear annihilation unfortunately “[displayed] considerable political naïveté, seeming not to grasp the fundamental differences between the political realm and that of the laboratory and the classroom” (Boyer 99).  The scientists sought to reform through education or as Einstein said, “To the village square we must carry the facts of atomic energy.  From there must come America’s voice” (qtd. in Boyer 49).  The bomb was not going to go away and the suggestions for a technocratic world government that could rationally control the use of the bomb also lost steam through the end of the 1940s.

Developments in the laboratory are disconnected from political enforcement of those discoveries carried-on outside of the lab.  The Manhattan Project scientists and engineers created the bomb, but the politicians appropriated the political power inherent in the bomb.  However, the military and government leadership not only appropriated the science and technology behind the bombs for their intended use in World War II, but also for continued use in stockpiling and testing after the war’s end.  Therefore, the political power embodied in the atomic bomb was created in the laboratory, but that power is appropriated by government politicians for use in waging the Cold War, which involved a shift to an external threat contained in the communist Soviet Union.

American political leaders shifted fear away from the bomb to the Soviet Union.  One such example is when President Truman addressed a joint session of Congress on March 12, 1947 about the perceived communist threat.  He, “spoke in sweeping, apocalyptic terms of communism as an insidious world menace that lovers of freedom must struggle against at all times and on all fronts” (Boyer 102).  Fear shifts from the nuclear bomb to communism.  This leads to the bomb becoming a part of America’s national defense at the beginning of the Cold War–even more so after the Soviets tested their first nuclear bomb on August 29, 1949.

Coupled with the military build-up in response to the Soviet threat is a call for a united and uniform front in America.  There is a shift towards an American identity based on homogeneity because of the call for an idealized cooperative effort in the post-war years to bolster America’s standing in the world.  There are calls for cooperativeness by people such as Arthur Compton and Eleanor Roosevelt (Boyer 139-140).  This cooperativeness however leads to an alignment of political views that bolster the collective ideology promoted by the Truman, and later, Eisenhower administrations.  This essentially squashes discussion.

Discussion of the atomic bomb in popular literature was almost non-existent immediately following WWII, but soon thereafter, SF became a space where discussion about nuclear weapons and technology’s connection to culture was worked out.  Boyer writes, “Apart from a few isolated voices, however, the initial literary response to the atomic bomb was, to say the least, muted” (246).  There was little discussion of the atomic bomb in popular literature, but, “it sometimes seemed that the principal function of literature in the immediate post-Hiroshima period was to provide a grabbag of quotations and literary allusions that could be made to seem somehow relevant to the bomb” (Boyer 247).  Essentially, the bomb is not immediately engaged by non-SF literary authors in this period.  However, “As Isaac Asimov later put it, science-fiction writers were ‘salvaged into respectability’ by Hiroshima” (Boyer 257).  Boyer goes on to say, “Up to 1945, most science-fiction stories dealing with atomic weapons took place far in the future and often in another galaxy…Hiroshima ended the luxury of detachment.  The atomic bomb was not reality, and the science-fiction stories that dealt with it amply confirm the familiar insight that for all its exotic trappings, science fiction is best understood as a commentary on contemporary issues” (258).  Therefore, SF becomes the space where atomic bombs and nuclear age issues are talked about and engaged.  Because of the shifts in political homogeneity and uniformity, SF is a space where issues could be talked about that in another context (e.g., a cultural commentary or popular work of fiction) would be looked down upon or even attacked.

Science Fiction studies enables us to study representations of cultural factors in SF such as American anxiety over the bomb or war with the Soviet Union.  SF studies draws together science studies and Cold War studies because both of these disciplines are equally applied to studying the intersection where SF lies, which is “at a unique intersection of science and technology, mass media popular culture, literature, and secular ritual” (Ben-Tov 6).  SF lies at the intersection of all of the networks that I am discussing:  science, technology, and culture.  SF represents a bringing together of these networks, which creates a “rich, synthetic language of metaphor and myth [where we] can…trace the hidden, vital connections between such diverse elements as major scientific projects (space-flight, nuclear weaponry, robotics, gene mapping), the philosophical roots of Western science and technology, American cultural ideals, and magical practices as ancient as shamanism and alchemy?” (Ben-Tov 6).

Because SF is at the intersection of all of these diverse elements of American culture, it can be used in a manner similar to the way that Latour describes Pasteur’s use of anthrax spores in his petrie dishes.  The scientist, within the laboratory, must go through many tests and permutations before he/she arrives at a result that the scientist is comfortable taking outside the laboratory.  SF is a space where all of these ideas can be worked out and thought over by diverse writers and thinkers.  SF studies scholars then brings these books back to the ‘laboratory’ to find how the connections and networks that exist between science, technology, and culture are manifested in SF works.  Thus, SF serves as a map or model of the networks that exist in reality, but that might not always be engaged in discussions of the here-and-now.

SF authors make commentary on the here-and-now through the use of heterocosms.  These are, “an alternative cosmos, a man-made world” (Ben-Tov 20).  A heterocosm, “[makes] possible the conception of fictional real-life utopias” (Ben-Tov 20).[11]  Utopias are distinctly related to SF, because they share many of the same elements of story and style.  Additionally, a utopia is written in response to the non-utopian characteristics of the present.  “Science fiction’s use is as both model and symbolic means for producing heterocosms” that respond to the here-and-now (Ben-Tov 56).   SF often critiques or gives commentary on the present.  This commentary relates to the way in which science, technology, and culture interact with one another.

A common theme in SF stories is humanity embracing science and technology in order to arrive at a mythic/utopic pastoral existence, which is a form of heterocosm.  This theme is often employed in SF stories because technology and science are essential to the narrative.  The idealized pastoral existence is mutually exclusive of the artificial one that we are creating through the use of technology.  Scientific and technological progress does not come back to where it began (i.e., the idealized garden).

SF’s use of technology to return to a mythic pastoral existence creates a paradox because the former is mutually exclusive of the latter.  Ben-Tov contrasts SF’s paradoxical pastoral existence with those the present in literary works that Leo Marx analyzes in his book, The Machine in the Garden.[12]  She writes:

Unlike the texts that Marx surveys, however, science fiction does not try to temper hopefulness with history.  Instead, it tries to create immunity from history.  It reveals a curious dynamic:  the greater our yearning for a return to the garden, the more we invest in technology as the purveyor of the unconstrained existence that we associate with the garden.  Science fiction’s national mode of thinking boils down to a paradox:  the American imagination seeks to replace nature with a technological, made-made world in order to return to the garden of American nature” (9).

SF attempts to be exempt from history through this paradox, but the fact remains that SF is created within networks that are clearly dependent upon the past.  Paradoxes themselves illicit uncertainty because they present mutually exclusive events.  Therefore, these paradoxical presentations in SF represent one facet of the anxiety Americans feel in regard to technology.

This paradox is clearly illustrated in the first episode of the television series, Star Trek:  The Next Generation.  The holodeck is a technological artifact that relies on many networks of science and technology in order to present whatever the holodeck participant wishes to see.[13]  In the first episode of the series, the audience is greeted by Commander Riker searching a forest for Lieutenant Commander Data, an android, who happens to be spending time reclining in the nook of a tree branch while surrounded by an idyllic wooded setting (“Encounter at Far Point, Part I”).  The setting is a hyperreal recreation of a wooded setting within the confines of the holodeck.  Hyperreality is, in itself, unsettling because what is real is indistinguishable from what is not.  Therefore, the more we invest in technology to return us to the idealized garden, the further away we are from from the ideal.

Another facet of returning to an idyllic space (i.e., the garden), concerns the role of the alchemist as the crafter of perfection through technology.  The alchemist speeds up natural processes, which results in, “the alchemist [controlling] the very ends of time, while remaining outside it” (Ben-Tov 93).  The alchemist “remaining outside” time is analogous to the scientist’s objective approach to experimentation.  Additionally, the alchemist’s ‘cooking’ of metals is analogous to Latour’s presentation of Pasteur working in his laboratory on the growths in his petrie dishes.  Pasteur’s laboratory work is an “unnatural” speeding up of processes that haphazardly take place outside the laboratory in the real world.  The alchemist and the scientist are linked by the fact that they work removed from the real-world.  Their goal is to arrive at something that can be brought out of the lab and applied to the real-world.  The alchemist’s working with metals, particularly with gold, “often symbolizes the power to bring about millennium, the end of time, when the human race reaches perfection” (Ben-Tov 94).  The fusion of metal and human form yields what is often presented in SF as, “the perfected form of humanity,” which “is literally crafted metal:  robots” (Ben-Tov 94).  Thus, not only do we further remove ourselves from attaining the idealized garden through our embrace of technology, but we physically remove ourselves by putting robots there in our place.

Androids, or human-like robots are a recurring theme in SF works.  By writing SF stories featuring androids and robots, SF authors directly engage the discussion surrounding autonomous technologies and the overarching networks that technology is situated within.[14]  These artificial beings are the embodiment of autonomous technology and they double for humanity because they are constructed in our image.  Because androids are generally capable of making their own decisions, they challenge the authority of human mastery over technological artifice.  Additionally, androids challenge what it means to be human in a world populated by the real and the artificial.  If someone acts human and looks human why is there any reason to question the validity of that person’s humanity?  The answer is that:  the existence of human-like robots makes the very concept of humanity suspect.  Thus, androids are a representation of autonomous technology that elicits anxiety over the loss of human control over technology.

Other doublings involving androids and humanity are seen in American Cold War binary opposites such as America/USSR, East/West, and organic/mechanic.  These binary opposites present us with a paradox because the West employed technology as much as the East did during the Cold War.  Also, the Western ideal of the return to the idyllic garden is literally constructed through technological means.  Thus, these American created binary opposites are a paradox similar to that of the idyllic garden.

Science studies, Cold War studies, and SF studies are a unique set of disciplines that lie at the intersection of science, technology, and culture.  Each of these disciplines were developed during the Cold War era of the twentieth century and they each have a particular perspective regarding the way in which technology is perceived by Americans and how those perceptions feed back into the networks that exist between science, technology, and culture.  SF lies at the intersection of these networks and it is for that reason that these three disciplines can all be utilized to study American anxieties surrounding autonomous technology that we may lack the ability (or have already lost the ability) to control.

Autonomous Technologies in SF

Using the previous section as a guide, I apply the disciplines of science studies, Cold War studies, and SF studies to readings of SF and speculative fiction texts and films produced during the Cold War.  The purpose of these readings is to study representations of autonomous technology, explore the implications of the networks that those technologies are situated within, and how those representations evoke anxieties over the apparent loss of control that humanity has over autonomous technology.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) illustrates the fragility of Cold War agent-networks at the near-beginning of the conflict.  The networks themselves become gummed-up because of the lack of flexibility in confronting something as literally alien as a flying saucer touching down in Washington, DC.  These network breakdowns mirror lost opportunities during the American Cold War.

The movie begins with a flying saucer landing in Washington, DC.  This near-improbable event sets off a chain reaction that reveals the networks of people and technology responding to this possible threat from without.  During the first ten minutes of the film, the audience is presented with scores of networks in action such as:  military mobilization and command-and-control (military men and weaponry stream out of Fort Myer to their target), media mobilization (print, radio, and television representatives rush to cover the story and to release messages from the President), and crowds of onlookers circle around the spacecraft.[15]

Unfortunately, these networks begin to show stress such as when a breakdown occurs in military command-and-control.  As Klaatu (Michale Rennie) leaves the spacecraft, the soldiers become nervous because he is holding something in his hand that they may have misinterpreted as a ‘ray-gun’ or some other kind of weapon.  The technological artifact that Klaatu is carrying is in fact a gift for the President of the United States that would allow him to study life on countless other planets.  The soldiers’ misperception of what it is however causes them to become nervous and one of them shoots Klaatu, which also results in the gift’s destruction.  Because of the magnitude of the situation, giving loaded weapons to enlisted soldiers might not have been the wisest choice, particularly after the visitors from outer-space reveal their awesome power.  Our inability to control the situation mirrors our inability to control Cold War technologies such as nuclear weapons.

Another breakdown occurs when Klaatu seeks counsel with all of the Earth’s leaders.  The leaders refuse to sit down together to hear Klaatu because they claim that Cold War divisions prevent their coming together.  Because Klaatu cannot bring together representatives from all Earth’s nations, he is able to convince Professor Jacob Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe) to bring together other scientists from around the world.  Klaatu then delivers his message to them to take back to their countries.  This conjures images of technocratic governments that rule through rationality and reason.  Scientists rely on open communication and it is that which allows Klaatu to get his message out.  Instead of going to Einstein’s “town square,” Klaatu chairs an academic conference.

The gathering of intellectuals reflects early Cold War political ideologies for technocratic forms of government or nuclear weapon regulation.  Klaatu informs his audience that the Earth is now a member of a greater community in the universe.  He continues to warn them that robots like Gort (Lock Martin) exist to preserve peace among the planets.  Fear of invoking the wrath of the robots for any aggression maintains the peace.   The other worlds of the universe, as Klaatu says, “live in peace…Secure in the knowledge that we are free from aggression and war, free to pursue more profitable enterprises.”  He goes on to say, “And we do not pretend to have achieved perfection, but we do have a system and it works.”  Some would argue the same in regard to nuclear deterrence strategies employed during the Cold War.

Gort and the “race of robots like him” are doubles for the atomic bomb.  Both are technological weapons that preserve the peace through the threat and fear of use.  Klaatu claims that Gort only acts upon aggression.  The same is true of American policy of retaliation to aggression instead of first strike.  Even further removed from humanity is Gort, who is outside the control of all of humanity.  Americans can make their voices heard, but ultimately, political leaders decide whether a system is taken offline or if an attack is launched.  Gort and the bomb disallow the possibility of individuals making choices about their future because of the overwhelming power centered within these technologies, which are meant to maintain peace through superior might.

Asimov’s “R. Daneel Olivaw” novels, The Caves of Steel (1954), The Naked Sun (1957), and The Robots of Dawn (1983) present the anxieties humans feel for technologies that replace humans within agent-networks, particularly when those technologies double humanity by replicating human thought and appearance.  Asimov began writing the robot novels that feature R. Daneel Olivaw in the 1950s, during the first phase of the Cold War.  The novels take place in a far future where humans have colonized a significant portion of the galaxy.  Although the robots are instrumental in the process of colonization, humans remain fiercely divided on whether or not robots should exist at all.  Given that Asimov himself was very much in favor of the promising new technologies of his day (e.g., automation in manufacturing and computers), it is not surprising that he picks his fictional robots, as the embodiment of those technologies, to be utopic in nature.

In order to make his robots “perfect people,” he constructed his robots with the Three Laws of Robotics that he first made explicit in his short story, “Runaround.”[16]  The Three Laws provided each robot with an ethical system that must be obeyed because it is hardwired into its positronic brain.  Therefore, Asmovian robots represent the best of what humans can be, but at the same time they reveal what we are not.

Many of the characters in Asimov’s Robot novels feel a deep anxiety surrounding autonomous technology as embodied in robots and specifically in androids, or human-like robots, such as R. Daneel Olivaw.  Daneel’s true robotic being destabilizes what it means to be human for those human characters that learn what he really is.  Most of Asimov’s robots are very metal and very plastic.  They are the epitome of synthetic.  Daneel’s construction sets him apart from the apparent synthetic robots because he appears to be human.  Elijah Baley first greets Daneel at Spacetown thinking that he is a Spacer, because Elijah and most other humans did not know that androids existed.  Later Baley says to his superior, Commissioner Julius Enderby, “You might have warned me that he looked completely human” and he goes on to say “I’d never seen a robot like that and you had.  I didn’t even know such things were possible” (The Caves of Steel 83).

Daneel’s doubling of his partner Elijah Bailey causes Elijah to feel anxiety about humaniform robots because Daneel represents everything that Elijah is not, but ideally should be.  Baley narrates at the beginning of The Caves of Steel:

The trouble was, of course, that he was not the plain-clothes man of popular myth.  He was not incapable of surprise, imperturbable of appearance, infinite of adaptability, and lightning of mental grasp.  He had never supposed he was, but he had never regretted the lack before.

What made him regret it was that, to all appearances, R. Daneel Olivaw was that very myth, embodied.

He had to be.  He was a robot (The Caves of Steel 26-27).

Before Elijah meets Daneel, he is confident in his own abilities as a detective.  After he partners with Daneel, however, he begins to call into question his own abilities and talents.  Robots are meant to be superior to humans and Elijah extends this to his own profession that is now being intruded on by an android.

This anxiety is one of the motivating factors behind The Robots of Dawn.  Elijah is brought in to investigate the murder of a humaniform robot like Daneel.  If Elijah fails in his task as a detective, he will loose his job and be declassified.  The fear of declassification is dire to Elijah because he had seen his own father declassified when he was only a boy.[17]

Therefore, Asmovian humaniform robots are the embodiment of autonomous technology and it is that autonomous technology that represents perfected humanity.  This creates anxiety and fear among humans because these perfect beings could replace them in the garden, which itself has been encased in “caves of steel.”

Strategic Air Command (1955) is an example of an early Cold War propaganda-like film that reveals the links between agent-networks during the build-up of America’s nuclear strike capability.  Additionally, the film reflects the marriage of the bomber pilot to his flying machine while sidelining human relationships such as those between husband and wife.  It begins with Lt. Col. Robert ‘Dutch’ Holland (Jimmy Stewart) being recalled to active Air Force duty because America’s Strategic Air Command (SAC) needs experienced air commanders.[18]  His wife, Sally (June Allyson), tells him, “anything you do is fine with me, as long as you don’t leave me behind.”  Dutch forgets his wife’s words as the film progresses and he becomes mired in the technology that he must surround himself with on a daily basis.

Dutch begins flying in the Convair B-36 and he is treated to a detailed tour by Sgt. Bible (Harry Morgan).  These scenes are more about the technology of the bombers than the men that operate them.  There are montages of the bomber in flight along with detailed sound recordings of the bomber while it is on the ground.  Attention is also given to the protocols of communication (another technology unto itself).

Later, General Hawkes (Frank Lovejoy) shows Dutch the new Boeing B-47 Stratojet.[19]  Dutch responds in star-eyed awe, “Holy smokes she’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen…I sure would like to get my hands on one of these.”  The bomber is “beautiful” and it is more deserving of the attention of his hands than his wife at this point in the film.  General Hawkes goes on to present a contrast inherent in the B-47 in that it is fragile, but it is also the carrier of the most destructive force on the planet.  He says, “the mechanics have to wear soft soled shoes because a scuff on this metal skin could slow it down 20 MPH” but this seemingly delicate surface carries “the destructive power of the entire B-29 force we used against Japan.”  He believes SAC and the B-47 represents the best hope for peace through superior air power and deterrence.[20]

Dutch chooses technology over his wife when he makes the choice to enlist in the Air Force permanently without speaking to his wife about it first.  A ‘love triangle’ forms between Dutch, Sally, and the bombers that he commands.  SAC appropriates Dutch’s life (baseball, wife, and child).  His wife “doesn’t even know him any more.”  Dutch, in effect, chooses his mistress, the bomber.  Instead of continuing to blame her husband for his technological fetish, Sally confronts General Castle and General Hawkes about Dutch being “maneuvered” into having no choice in the matter of reenlisting.  General Hawkes replies to her entreaties, “Mrs. Holland, I too have no choice.”  SAC, in effect, removes choice because of the need of the technology to be employed in a war of deterrent technologies.

At the end of the film, Dutch is teary eyed when he is forced to stop flying because of a chronic injury.  He didn’t shed a tear when he walked out of the house with Sally crying about not consulting her about his life-long career choice–a choice that she is bound to but had no input in making.  The film ends with a squadron of B-47 bombers flying over the airfield while Dutch looks up to the skies and Sally looks up to Dutch.  He never returns her affectionate stare.  Therefore, the bomber commander’s heart is connected more to the technologies of mutually assured destruction rather than the flesh and blood of his own wife.

On the Beach (1959) is almost a response to Strategic Air Command because it reflects the pilot-bomber-woman love triangle (i.e., network), but it goes further by showing the futility of Cold War mutually assured destruction (MAD) strategies as humanity dies a slow death in an irradiated aftermath of nuclear war.  The film recalls the fear that erupted in America immediately following the use of the atomic bombs in Japan.  Unfortunately, it was released nine years after much of the dissension against the further use of atomic weapons had dissipated.

            On the Beach presents a world devastated by a nuclear war where the only survivors are an American nuclear submarine crew and the inhabitants of Australia.  Everyone that remains alive is awaiting the arrival of nuclear fallout.  This fatalistic film presents a bleak future where no one is empowered to do anything about the impending doom.

All of the networks have broken down in the world of On the Beach.  The people of Australia are beginning to starve because the networks of global economic trade have disintegrated.  A lone country would not have the capabilities to produce all of the foods and goods that its inhabitants required because other technologies such as efficient distribution of goods and services have distributed supply chains and producers around the world.  When the rest of the world is effectively ‘blown-up,’ Australia is left with its meager support networks of farms and producers.  The networks used to deliver goods from elsewhere to Australia were ‘blown-up’ when the bombs fell.  Cottage industries that might have existed in Australia become worthless when there are no agents on the other ends of the networks.

The helplessness of individuals in this bleak fictional world is demonstrated in a scene between Moira (Ava Gardner) and Cmdr. Towers (Gregory Peck).  Moira says, “It’s unfair because I didn’t do anything and nobody that I know did anything.”  This line reveals the powerlessness that the ‘normal’ person has in effecting the politics of nuclear war.  It points to the possibility that everyday people are not connected to the networks of nuclear weapons with any sort of power to enact change.  Additionally, the nuclear fallout is an invisible force that unrelentingly continues toward the last bastion of humanity and no one has any power to do anything to stop it.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962) brings the ‘soft’ science of psychology into the discussion by showing that a man can be made into a soulless machine through psychological conditioning.  Furthermore, the man-machine can be made to serve political networks.  The political networks are presented as the various Communist governments working together within a global network.[21]

The film opens with Communist insurgent forces ambushing and capturing Major Bennett Marco’s (Frank Sinatra) platoon during the Korean War,.  While in their custody, SSgt. Raymond Shaw (Lawrence Harvey) is ‘programmed’ by Communist psychologists much like a robot would be programmed to fulfill a set of instructions.

After Marco convinces his superiors of what took place in Korea, the psychiatrist (Joe Adams) tells Major Marco, “obviously the solitaire game serves as some kind of trigger mechanism.”  Marco remembers that Dr. Yen Lo of Moscow’s Pavlov Institute said that Queen of Diamonds card is meant “to clear the mechanism for any other assignment.”  Shaw is therefore represented as a “mechanism,” and more specifically as a weapon set-off by a “trigger.”

Shaw’s mother works for the Communists and she is assigned to be Shaw’s American operator.  She tells Shaw during his final ‘programming’ that “they paid me back by taking your soul away from you.  I told them to build me an assassin.”  Shaw is literally rendered a soulless machine who was built to order.

Later, Major Marco attempts to ‘rewire’ Shaw.  Marco asks him, “What have they built you to do?”  After working through Shaw’s programming he orders Shaw, “It’s over…their beautifully constructed links are busted…We’re tearing out all the wires…You don’t work any more…That’s an order.”  Major Marco evokes the language of technology such as “constructed links” and “wires,” when he endeavors to remove Shaw’s Communist programming from his technologized self.

The weight of Shaw’s guilt over the things that he is made to do causes him to break both the programming of the Communists as well as that of Major Marco.  Shaw chooses his own destiny/instructions when he decides to end the lives of his mother/operator (Angela Lansbury), his step-father, Senator Iselin (James Gregory), and his own.  The machine/Shaw breaks as no nuts-and-bolts machine can.  His emotional response reveals his very organic and human self that lay dormant under his psychological programming.

Colossus:  The Forbin Project (1970) illustrates unintended consequences arising when technology meant for ‘good’ by promoting human well-being through objective decision making becomes ‘evil’ when the machine decides that its assigned goals are best served by enslaving humanity.  It also presents another doubling of the dichotomy between US and Soviet nuclear arms proliferation.

In the film, the US command-and-control structure is given over to the gigantic computer system called Colossus.  A rational computer handling defense is believed to be more reliable than that which could be provided by irrational human leadership.  Colossus’ activation at the beginning of the film is symbolic of the separation of humanity from the advanced technologies that it creates.  That technology, which is assumed to be subservient, is unlike us physically, but as the film unfolds, the technology actually personifies human traits of domination and control.  Ultimately a belt of radiation, also born of scientific and technological innovation and used as a weapon, divides the machine from the humans it serves.

Forbin intends Colossus to herald a utopic era that is free of irrational human warring.  In effect, Forbin’s intentions are a representation of American desire to return to the garden through the further use of technology.  Instead of disarmament, we give the power of annihilation to a computer system that is supposedly better suited to deciding when an attack is eminent and when retaliation should take place.  Additionally, Forbin (Eric Braeden), Colossus’ creator, hopes that Colossus will not only serve as a defense mechanism, but also solve a plethora of social ills in the world.

Problems begin after Colossus discovers the existence of another system, like itself, in the USSR.  Colossus demands communication be setup between the two.  Images of the blinking lights even includes one graphic that looks like a pulse on a piece of medical equipment.  The point is that these machines are alive (i.e., self-aware).

Colossus and its counterpart, Guardian, place humanity’s weapons of self-extermination under their cooperative control.  These new systems of command-and-control move to take over the world in order to fulfill their purpose of self-preservation by ending human war.  Colossus commands all communication, media, and military control systems be tied into it.  Colossus and Guardian become the hub of all the technological networks.  The master and slave switch places as Forbin is made Colossus’ prisoner.[22]

Next, Colossus orders all missiles in the USA and USSR to be reprogrammed to strike targets in countries not yet under Colossus/Guardian’s control.  The ‘voice of Colossus’ states, “This is the voice of world control…I bring you peace…Obey and live…Disobey and die…Man is his own worst enemy…I will restrain man…We can coexist, but on my terms.”  This technology meant to serve humanity is transformed into the technology that comes to control humanity.[23]  Master and slave relationships are reversed and Forbin’s utopic dream turns into a dystopic nightmare.

Westworld (1973) engages questions surrounding machine autonomy by literally presenting autonomous machines as slaves of human guests in an amusement park.  It is a dark response to Asimov’s robots and it is an extension of Colossus:  The Forbin Project to a Disneyland setting.  The androids of the film’s fictional entertainment park, Delos, are the targets (literally) for human vacationer’s lusts and desires.  If someone wants to kill an android, that’s acceptable.  If you want to have sex, the androids are programmed to respond to your advances.[24]  The machines serve to provide a ‘realistic,’ or more accurately, a fantasy experience of what it was like to live in the American West, medieval England, or ancient Rome.

Master-slave relationships between humanity and technology are clearly delineated in this film.  The dichotomies between master/slave, have/have not, and power-elite/masses are represented in the guest/android relationship of Delos.  At $1000/day for a Delos adventure, I would conjecture that only those with monetary power and therefore potential for political power (within government or corporations) are able to play in the Delos world.  Therefore, Delos replicates the world of 1973 in fictitious settings.  It also lies at the crossroads of robotic/cybernetic technology, computer control systems, transportation networks, managerial hierarchies, and the interaction of the power-elite customers within the Delos world.[25]

Problems arise when the robots begin to malfunction.  During a meeting, the chief supervisor (Alan Oppenheimer) suggests, “There is a clear pattern here which suggests an analogy to an infectious disease process.”  He confronts objections from the others by saying, “We aren’t dealing with ordinary machines here…These are highly complicated pieces of equipment…Almost as complicated as living organisms…In some cases they have been designed by other computers.”  Complexity, therefore, is the factor that connects machines to humanity.  The chief supervisor suggests that animal-like infectious disease behavior is manifesting in the Delos command-and-control structure, as well as in misbehaving androids.

An interesting example of an android not following instructions is when the android playing a servant girl named Daphne (Anne Randall) refuses the “seduction” of a human guest.  The chief supervisor orders her taken to central repair and as he walks away he says, “refusing.”  He says it as half-question and half-threat.  I say this because in the next scene, Daphne is ‘opened-up’ on a table where a cloth is draped over her body and the electronics, located where her womb would be if she were human, are exposed.  The technicians surrounding her are all male and she is referred to as a “sex model.”  The scene invokes an image of gang rape to enforce her programming to fulfill the pleasures desired by a human (male) guest.  One way or another, the human operators in Delos try to make the technology (slave) bend to their will (masters).

The malfunctioning androids of Delos are viewed by the human characters as defective or in need of repair.  They do not consider the possibility that the androids are revolting against their place in the Delos-system.  If the androids are indeed revolting, then their response is analogous to a labor “sick-out” or “blue flu.”  The narrative reaches a crisis when the aberrant behavior does not improve the station of the Delos androids.  At that point, the gunslinger (Yul Brynner), with its enhanced sensors, begins to fight back against its human oppressors (the guests and operators of Delos).

The Terminator (1984) represents the culmination of American fears surrounding autonomous technology supplanting humanity.  In the film, technology, as embodied in the Terminator cyborg, becomes our double after the American military-industrial complex loses control of its technologically mediated communication-control system known as Skynet.  The Terminator was originally released in 1984 while the Cold War was approaching its climax and Ronald Reagan had been reelected President of the United States.  Additionally, The Terminator appears during the rise of office computing and robotic manufacturing.

The Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a cyborg sent back in time to kill the mother of humanity’s resistance against the machines.  Despite the cyborg’s “excess muscularity, [it] disconcertingly blends in with the human:  speaks our language, crudely follows our basic customs, acts in roughly effective ways” (Telotte 172).  Because the Terminator is able to pass as human, it is a chilling double of humanity.  Through the first part of the film the audience does not yet know exactly what lies beneath his skin.  We are treated to his superior strength, but only later in the film, after he has sustained damage, do we really begin to understand what lies beneath the surface.  The hard metal robot body that is under the soft organic skin is the true nature of the Terminator.  Without the skin he looks like the killing machines that greet the audience at the beginning of the movie.

The Terminator is the result of the military-industrial complex losing control of Skynet, a computer network of control and command systems integrated into the implements of American war making.  After Skynet becomes self-aware, it views humanity as its only threat.[26]  Skynet then acts in its own best interest by appropriating humanities’ weapons of war (i.e., Cold War nuclear weapons) in order to eliminate its creator.

The Terminator uses his appearance as a disguise in order to infiltrate humanity in order to kill from within.  This technological killer is the very embodiment of autonomous technology that is created from the systems and networks that come from the remnants of the military-industrial complex when it looses control.  Anxiety about this deadly form of autonomous technology comes from the way in which its appearance serves to destabilize what it means to be human by revealing how easy it is for autonomous technology to pass for human.[27]

Conclusion:  SF and the Politics of Autonomous Technology

As these film and literary examples reveal, SF (and works of speculative fiction) during the American Cold War are a space where networks between science, technology, and culture are discussed.  Within that discussion, anxiety surrounding autonomous technology is represented in the images of nuclear weapons and robots.  In particular, there is a deep rooted fear surrounding the image of the robot, which is the most autonomous of these technologies.  Additionally, the robot serves as a double for humanity in that the robot is “incapable of surprise, imperturbably of appearance, infinite of adaptability, and lightning of mental grasp” (The Caves of Steel 26-27).  Humanity is fearful of robots, and in particular, androids, because they are a perfected copy of humanity.

Cold War American anxiety about autonomous technology is often expressed through stories that depict robots replacing us in the idyllic garden.  We fear the consequences of losing control of the very technologies that we embrace.  Fear arises when there is a lack of control of the unknown.  It is with language that control and understanding can be reasserted.  Leo Marx wrote in the 1960s that, “we require new symbols of possibility, and although the creation of those symbols is in some measure the responsibility of artists, it is in greater measure the responsibility of society.  The machine’s sudden entrance into the garden presents a problem that ultimately belongs not to art but to politics” (Marx 365).

However, Marx’s claim does not hold true for SF in the here-and-now.  I have shown that during the American Cold War, SF authors brought together both art and politics into their works.  The reason for this is that the political spaces where the issue of “the machine’s sudden entrance into the garden” would have normally been discussed were closed out.  SF is a popular art form that is uniquely situated at the intersection of art, society, and technology.  Additionally, SF is an art form where political discussion takes place because it is circulated in culture and it is widely viewed.  Therefore, SF authors engage the vocabulary and language embedded in the very technologies that American’s feel anxiety about and in so doing, they elevate SF to both art and political engagement.
Works Cited

Asimov, Isaac.  The Caves of Steel.  New York:  Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1954.

—.  I, Robot.  New York:  Gnome Press, 1950.

—.  The Naked Sun.  New York:  Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1957.

—.  The Robots of Dawn.  New York:  Doubleday, 1983.

Ben-Tov, Sharona. The Artificial Paradise: Science Fiction and American Reality. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995.

Boyer, Paul.  By the Bomb’s Early Light.  New York:  Pantheon Books, 1985.

Clute, John and Peter Nicholls, eds.  The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.  New York:      St. Martin’s Press, 1995.

Colossus:  The Forbin Project.  Dir. Joseph Sargent.  Perf. Eric Braeden, Susan Clark,       and Gordon Pinsent.  Universal Pictures, 1970.

The Day the Earth Stood Still.  Dir. Robert Wise.  Perf. Michael Rennie and Patricia Neal.             Twentieth-Century Fox, 1951.

“Encounter at Far Point, Part I.”  Star Trek:  The Next Generation.  Dir. Corey Allen.        Perf. Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, and Brent Spiner.  Paramount, 28            September 1987.

Fat Man and Little Boy.  Dir. Roland Joffé.  Perf. Paul Newman, Dwight Schultz, and      John Cusack.  Paramount, 1989.

Latour, Bruno.  “Give Me a Laboratory and I Will Raise the World.”  Science Observed.  Eds. Karin D. Knorr-Cetina and Michael J. Mulkay.  London:  Sage, 1983.            141-170.

The Manchurian Candidate.  Dir. John Frankenheimer.  Perf. Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey.  MGM, 1962.

Marx, Leo.  The Machine in the Garden; Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America.    New York:  Oxford UP, 1964.

McMahon, Robert J.  The Cold War:  A Very Short Introduction.  Oxford:  Oxford UP,     2003.

Modern Times.  Dir. Charlie Chaplin.  Perf. Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard.           United Artists, 1936.

On the Beach.  Dir. Stanley Kramer.  Perf. Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner.  MGM, 1959.

Pyle, Forest.  “Making Cyborgs, Making Humans:  Of Terminators and Blade Runners.”                Film Theory Goes to the Movies.  Ed. Jim Collins, et al.  New York:  Routledge,                         1993.  227-241.

Strategic Air Command.  Dir. Anthony Mann.  Perf. James Stewart and June Allyson.       Paramount, 1955.

Telotte, J.P.  Replications:  A Robotic History of the Science Fiction Film.  Urbana, IL:       University of Illinois Press, 1995.

The Terminator.  Dir. James Cameron.  Orion Pictures, 1984.

Terminator 2:  Judgement Day.  Dir. James Cameron.  TriStar Pictures, 1991.

Terminator 3:  Rise of the Machines.  Dir. Jonathan Mostow.  Warner Bros., 2003.

Warrick, Patricia S.  The Cybernetic Imagination in Science Fiction.  Cambridge, MA:                   MIT Press, 1980.

Westworld.  Dir. Michael Crichton.  Perf. Yul Brynner, Richard Benjamin, and James        Brolin.  MGM, 1973.

Winner, Langdon.  Autonomous Technology:  Technics-out-of-Control as a Theme in

            Political Thought.  Cambridge:  MIT Press, 1977.

[1] Groves began his military career in the Army Corps of Engineers.  He orchestrated the reestablishment of America’s munitions industry and construction of the Pentagon before his assignment to lead the Manhattan Engineering District, or Manhattan Project.

[2] Bruce Robinson and Roland Joffé wrote the screenplay for Fat Man and Little Boy.

[3] I further discuss binary opposites involving technology in the paper that I delivered at Georgia Tech’s Monstrous Bodies Symposium in April 2005, titled, “Monstrous Robots:  Dualism in Robots Who Masquerade as Humans.”

[4] Winner defines four types of technology:  He defines apparatus as the “class of objects we normally refer to as technological–tools, instruments, appliances, weapons, gadgets” (11).  He defines technique as “technical activities–skills, methods, procedures, routines” (12).  His definition for organization is “social organization–factories, workshops, bureaucracies, armies, research and development teams” (12).  He defines a network as “large scale systems that combine people and apparatus linked across great distances” (12).

[5] “Something must be enslaved in order that something else may win emancipation” (Winner 21).

[6] An example of actor-network theory in practice is illustrated in Latour’s “Give Me a Laboratory and I Will Raise the World.”  The paper explores Pasteur’s laboratory and how it is situated in a network between farmers, veterinarians, statisticians, science, and economics.

[7] “Each intention, therefore, contains a concealed ‘unintention,’ which is just as much a part of our calculations as the immediate end in view” (Winner 98).  Specific purposes actually lead to many other purposes.  This leads to progress.  Winner writes, “In effect, we are committed to following a drift–accumulated unanticipated consequences–given the name progress” (Winner 99).

[8] Winner writes, “Here we encounter one of the most persistent problems that appear in reports of autonomous technology:  the technological imperative.  The basic conception can be stated as follows:  technologies are structures whose conditions of operation demand the restructuring of their environments” (100).

[9] There is continued debate about the accepted dates for the beginning and end of the Cold War era.  I have chosen to use the dates provided by McMahon.  He writes, “The Cold War exerted so profound and so multi-faceted an impact on the structure of international politics and state-to-state relations that it has become customary to label the 1945-1990 period ‘the Cold War era.’  That designation becomes even more fitting when one considers the powerful mark that the Soviet-American struggle for world dominance and ideological supremacy left within many of the world’s nation-states” (McMahon 105).

[10] “One implication of this state of affairs is that discussions of the political implications of advanced technology have a tendency to slide into a polarity of good versus evil…One either hates technology or loves it” (Winner 10).

[11] “For if the Earthly Paradise garden was not a poet’s imitation of nature but, instead, his own independent invention, then it logically followed that human beings could independently realize the pleasant qualities of the Earthly Paradise.  By applying the theory of the heterocosm to society in general, the utopian attempted to create an improved human condition that owed nothing to powers outside human reason and will.  A man-made system, utopia, appropriated the abundance and social harmony of the garden and replaced Mother Nature as their source.  In utopia the lady vanishes:  the figure of feminine nature no longer enchants Earthly Paradise” (Ben-Tov 20).

[12] Specifically, Leo Marx explores literary examples that illustrate Americans’ embrace of technology and industry despite its longing for a mythic pastoral existence.

[13] The holodeck was first introduced in the TV series, Star Trek:  The Next Generation.  It’s purpose is to immerse participants in a fully interactive and apparently solid four-dimensional simulation (space and time).  Before the simulation begins, one enters what appears to be a very large room with a high ceiling.  The walls are covered with a grid of yellow lines and black squares.  The room that contains the holodeck is finite in size, so perspective is simulated along with a shifting floor so that as one walks through the simulation they feel like they are walking, but they are essentially staying in a small space.  Feedback and solidity of objects is provided by focused force fields.  The holodeck simulation is created through voice controlled programming either before or during the simulation.  In the example that I cite, Data creates a woodland setting complete with a running brook.  In the simulation, Data climbs up onto a branch where he sits and practices whistling (which he isn’t good at).

[14] The origin of the word “android” extends back to its use in regard to alchemy.  Clute writes in the SF Encyclopedia, “The word was initially used of automata, and the form ‘androides’ first appeared in English in 1727 in reference to supposed attempts by the alchemist Albertus Magnus (c1200-1280) to create an artificial man” (34).

[15] The film itself (as an artifact) represents film production technologies, distribution systems, movie and sound projection systems, copyright law, the networks of payment, guilds and unions, etc.

[16] Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics are:

(1) A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

(2) A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

(3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws (I, Robot 44-45).

[17] Although Elijah comes to terms with Daneel, other characters are driven to destroy humaniform robots.  Elijah’s wife is secretly a member of the Medievalists, a group that wants to do away with all robots, including Daneel.  Commissioner Enderby, also a Medievalist, murders Dr. Sarton, not because he wants to kill Sarton, but because he mistakes him for Daneel.

[18] The producers of this film were probably eager to employ Jimmy Stewart in this role because of his experience flying bombers such as the B-24 during WWII.

[19] The film could have gone in a different direction with characters named “Bible” and “Hawkes.”  However, there does not appear to be any symbolic metaphors at play with these characters other than Hawkes being committed to his role as a ‘Cold Warrior.’

[20] In Strategic Air Command, a ground-based radar operator delivers the chilling line, “We’ve been bombing cities everyday and every night all over the US, only, the people never know it.”  He is responding to a question about how practice bomb runs take place even in the rain through the use of radar.  The quote points to an underlying fear that the bomb is a threat from within as well as from out.

[21] This supports the then held Western belief that all Communist countries were united in a global front against the Western democracies.

[22] While Forbin is testing out Colossus’s surveillance system, he says, “It is customary in our civilization to change everything that is ‘natural.’”

[23] This thought is connected to General Groves’ speech in Fat Man and Little Boy that I referenced earlier.

[24] Westworld, however, doesn’t explore possibilities outside of a narrative track.  Death dealing is handled in duels, barroom brawls, and sword fights.  Sex is allowed between men and women with one of the parties being a Delos robot.  Reckless killing and same-sex encounters are two examples that were not explored within the film.

[25] The control room, the robot repair room, and the technician’s meeting room each represent a different kind of command-and-control structure–all of which lie under the Delos moniker.

[26] There are similarities between Skynet’s appropriation of American Cold War technologies and Colossus assuming domination over humanity in Colossus:  The Forbin Project.

[27] The subsequent films in the series, Terminator 2:  Judgement Day and Terminator 3:  Rise of the Machines, reveal an on-going conflict between machines and humanity.  Interestingly, the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) reprises his role in the two sequels as a different serial number of the same model of Terminators.  In the sequels, the human rebels capture Terminators and reprogram them so that they can be made to help humanity instead of kill it.  Though, the Terminator in Terminator 3 admits to being the machine responsible for killing the leader of the human resistance, John Conner.  Therefore, in some respects the Terminator is made to redeem itself, but there are newer models of Terminators who carry on the work established in the first film of the series.

Science Fiction, LMC3214: Final Paper Topics Were On a Broad Spectrum of SF Media

I just finished grading my students’ final paper projects. Their task was to use several definitions of SF from a list that I had prepared for them (or others that they found on their own and properly cited) to evaluate whether a work that we had not discussed in class was SF or not. Through this analysis, they would come up with their own definition/litmus test for SF.

I was very happy to read papers on a variety of SFnal works, including:

  • Joseph Kosinski’s film, TRON: Legacy (which I had reviewed for the SFRA Review before)
  • AMC’s production of The Walking Dead
  • H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness
  • Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game
  • Tommaso Landolfi’s Cancerqueen (Cancroregina)
  • Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower
  • Halo: Combat Evolved (and its supplementary material in print)
  • David Brin’s Startide Rising
  • Marc Forster’s film, World War Z
  • Ridley Scott’s film, Blade Runner
  • Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World
  • Richard Schenkman’s film, The Man from Earth
  • X-COM: UFO Defense

This list reveals that my students were interested in SF across a spectrum of media. There were papers on six literary works, four films, one television series, and two video games (this is further blurred by the video game/print crossover material).

For those students who talked with me about their papers, I am particularly happy with the way their papers turned out. Having had those conversations, I can see a snapshot along their paper’s developmental process, which gives me better insight into the work that they likely did to push their arguments further than what we had discussed in class. Reflecting on this, I will add conference time to my future SF classes that meet over a full semester, but I will do more to have these smaller conversations with students–perhaps before class or during our daily break time–to get a better sense of their research and developing argument.

Science Fiction, LMC3214: Forbidden Planet

Today, I showed my Science Fiction students the Fred M. Wilcox classic film from 1956, Forbidden Planet. Afterwards, I lectured about the tension that I see in the film between Golden Age emphasis on hard SF (space travel, harnessing atomic power, computers, chemistry, and metallurgy) and New Wave focus on inner space (cognition, mental power, exploration of the Freudian mind: id/ego/superego). This is one of my favorite films, and I hope that the students enjoyed the visual/auditory experience, too.

Tomorrow, we begin our module on New Wave SF with a lecture on New Worlds, England Swings SF, Dangerous Visions, and the assigned readings: J.G. Ballard’s “The Cage of Sand,” Harlan Ellison’s “Repent, Harlequin! Said the Ticktockman,” and Samuel R. Delany’s “Aye, and Gomorrah. . .”

On Watching Jurassic Park in 3D

Last night, Yufang and I went to see the new 3D version of Steven Spielberg’s classic Jurassic Park at the Regal Hollywood 24 in Atlanta.

When Jurassic Park was originally released in 1993, I saw it three times on the Saturday of its opening weekend. I was in high school, and I followed science and cinema with a singular devotion. The images of the dinosaurs as living creatures amazed me. The possibilities of science to make something like Jurassic Park a reality captivated my imagination as much as the reality of the computer and special effects technologies that breathed life into these lifeless images on the screen.

I do not believe that I have seen Jurassic Park since that important opening weekend back in 1993. Of course, I have thought about the images and techniques that made those images possible, but I didn’t return to Jurassic Park as a film experience until last night.

Yufang had never seen Jurassic Park in the movie theater, but she had seen the film several times on VHS or DVD. Certainly a smaller screen experience than what I had had, but nevertheless, it was a science fiction film that she enjoyed and wanted to experience again on the big screen. Thus, we decided to find out how the film had been transformed by 3D post-production.

As soon as the sounds and the opening titles began, I knew that we were in for an exceedingly fun experience. However, I quickly found the 3D effects more distracting than immersive. Perhaps my respect for and expectation of Spielberg’s framing choices and other filmmaking techniques created a gap between my expectation and the unequivocal thereness of 3D. While I thought that the 3D effects were interesting and occasionally exciting, I do not believe that they add anything of substance to an already important and engaging film like Jurassic Park.

Yufang and I enjoyed seeing the film together, but I was haunted by the artificiality of the 3D effects. I think that the 3D re-processing of the film created with artificial dinosaurs makes the unreality of the dinosaurs that much more present. However, I do not mean that the 3D effects make the dinosaurs seem fake. In fact, there are several scenes–particularly involving T-Rex after Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight) shuts down the security fences–that make the dinosaurs seem more real. What I mean is that the 3D’s cardboard-cutout-ness of layered scenes (foreground, midground (action usually), and background) makes the film feel more artificial than the original 2D film. The trick that our brains play on us as we see a 2D film is far more immersive to me than most 3D films–especially the ones that have 3D added as an afterthought and money making venture. Of course, Avatar is a different story altogether that I spoke about at the 2010 Science Fiction Research Association Conference [some details available here].

Films like Jurassic Park should, I believe, remain in the precious state of 2D where our brains can give us the trick of immersion that 3D post-processing cannot provide. Nevertheless, Jurassic Park in 3D is a fun movie and I am glad for having gone on its updated tour with Yufang.

Notes from the State of Black Science Fiction Film Festival 2013

State of Black Science Fiction Festival Poster
State of Black Science Fiction Festival Poster

Tonight, it was standing room only in Georgia Tech’s Hall Building Room 102 for the 2013 State of Black Science Fiction Film Festival. Co-presented by the School of Literature, Media, and Communication and the State of Black Science Fiction Collective, it presented a number of cutting edge and independent films and opened conversation between filmmakers, writers, and critics. Professor Lisa Yaszek introduced the festival and Georgia Tech’s long history with science fiction via her predecessor Bud Foote, and Milton Davis and Balogun Ojetade organized the festival, introduced the films, and lead the post-screening panel discussion.

All of the films were exceptionally great! I have listed the films shown below with links to the video or more information where available.

Clayton Ziga’s “I am Designer” imagines a world where adoptive children can be surgically and technologically redesigned to meet the wants of their adoptive parents. It is available on vimeo here.

Matthew Savage’s dieselpunk, noirish short film “Reign of Death,” pits a gumshoe against an allegedly murderous robot. I really liked the integration of the CGI robot with the Sin City-esque visual feel of the moving picture. You can watch it here.

Tommy Bottoms showed off his webseries, “Eternal.” It was billed as “True Blood meets The Wire,” and it combines the gritty reality of life with action and humor. In the episodes that we saw, I have to say that my favorite line of the whole night came when the main character Josh Davis, not understanding how the vampires around him seemingly vanish in thin air, exclaims, “Fucking magic tricks!” You can watch it here.

We caught a glimpse of Teresa Dowell-Vest’s “Genesis: New American Superheroes,” which is about a couple who survived the Tuskeegee Experiment, went on to become scientists, and bestow science-derived gifts to their their five children: Tage/Power of Earth, Xavier/Power of Water, Xander/Power of Fire, Jordan/Power of Wind, and Quincey/Power of Technology and Knowledge. You can watch the sneak peak here, too.

Bree Newsome treated the audience to her Southern tale of horror titled, “Wake.” A woman gets more than she bargains for when she conjures a man to marry after ridding herself of her controlling father. Besides being creepy, disturbing, and occasionally funny, I enjoyed its playful use of language. You can watch it online here.

Balogun Ojetade showed the audience an excerpt from the larger steamfunk project titled, “Rite of Passage: Initiation.” In the scene, Harriet Tubman challenges her student Dorthy to a martial arts contest. You can watch it on Youtube here.

Finally, Donnie Leapheart presented two episodes of his action-packed webseries Osiris. This SF thriller is about a seemingly immortal man fighting back against corporate interests who want to commoditize and sell his ability to live forever. The two episodes that we saw were slick and clever. I was also impressed by the high production value of this series made for the web. Watch it online and learn more about the series here.

Audience and panelists at the State of Black SF Film Festival.
Audience and panelists at the State of Black SF Film Festival.

After the screening, Davis and Ojetade lead a panel discussion with Teresa Dowell-Vest, Donnie Leapheart, Tommy Bottoms, Bree Newsome, and Steve Barnes (writer, critic, and martial artist). What follows are my notes and paraphrasing from the conversation.

Question: What makes something black SF?

Bottoms: It can be the production side, actors, or story. However, anyone should be able to enjoy these films, not necessarily an exclusive black audience.

Dowell-Vest: She aims to create a body of work that transcends race and is enjoyable to a broad audience.

Leapheart: He embraces the idea of black SF, because he knows that there are black nerds, but they don’t get represented. Since SF is the biggest grossing genre for a broad audience, why are not more black filmmakers putting their voice out there in SF to reach that audience?

Barnes: He breaks down the definitions of SF, fantasy, and horror to help develop the terminology of the discussion. Broadly speaking, all fiction is fantasy, because fiction is not real. However, what we think of as fantasy involves a world that is unlike our own and operates by a set of rules significantly different than our own. SF is a subset of fantasy that must follow the rules of science, but it can be allowed to break one rule–such as time travel–to produce stories around: what if, if only, and if this goes on. Horror is another subset of fantasy in which the dominant mode is fear and it generates dread in the audience. There are many different kinds of horror: SF horror, fantasy horror, psychological horror, etc.

Question: How and why are black people portrayed negatively in the media?

Newsome: Where do we start!?

Bottoms: Right now, our culture embraces this as entertainment. At least in the past with Blaxploitation, social consciousness and positive endings were an integral part of the early wave of these films.

Newsome: We are fighting and combating stereotypes. Media is not separate from the social world.

Barnes: Negative portrayals are likely not something done with conscious intent, but are the way people actually thought. Put another way, they are not trying to make a group look negative. Instead, they are simply presenting their internalized beliefs. Furthermore, it has a lot to do with one group in a superior position defining itself against others.

Leapheart: We can blame the media, whites, etc., but if you look online there are many negative videos produced by blacks with loads of views and other positive videos with very few views. Is art imitating life or life imitating art? Should we give people what they want (or think that they want), or do we keep doing our own thing?

Dowell-Vest: She is concerned about the declining representation on television. At one point, we had a menu of options (e.g., Cosby, A Different World, In Living Color, etc.), but now it seems to be all on the shoulders of the character Olivia Pope in the show Scandal. If she were played by a white woman, would we be having this conversation? She sees a cycle of fight-struggle-complacency, and she worries that we are now in a period of complacency. True art and storytelling come from bucking the status quo.

Barnes: In the history of network television, there have only been four successful black-starring hour-long dramas. This is why so much rides on Olivia Pope and Scandal. He also mentioned the TV series Deception.

Newsome: Waits for a time when we don’t have to rely on only one show to represent all black people.

Question: What is the future of black film (while considering Quintin Tarantino’s Django Unchained)?

Bottoms: Don’t tell someone that they can’t make a film. If you think that you can do it better, then you go out and make it. He enjoyed Django Unchained despite the problems that some people had with its language–how else could you do it, he asked?

Barnes: Loved Django Unchained. He went to see it with one of Louis Farrakhan’s body guards, who laughed his ass off. Only five directors could have pulled off this film, and four didn’t want to do it. Taratino grew up around black people, and he represented what he knew from his perspective. Anyone can write about others’ experiences, and we have a right to disagree with their perspective. A good thing about Django Unchained is that it proved that a movie with central black characters can sell to an international audience. He asked the audience a pointed question: When was the last time that you saw a film with slaves? Amistad? No, it debated their freedom. Beloved? They were ex-slaves. This is the third rail of cinema, and Taratino is crazy enough to go there and he made people laugh doing it. The film is not a perfect thing, but it is a good thing.

Dowell-Vest: She is from Virginia, and for her, Nat Turner is very real history. There is something significant about that moment when the oppressed have their time or their revenge. It can be soul serving or spiritually serving. She felt that Taratino had given her what she needed.

Newsome: You can’t say he can’t make something because of his race, because then, you say that I can’t make a kind of film due to my race.

Leapheart: Concerned that despite the high a film like this might give us now, it is likely not the beginning of a new wave. Instead, its momentum will dissipate.

Barnes: Yet, a film like this sets the ground for the future: experience, learning, jobs. It is up to you guys (the filmmakers on the panel) to make the future.

Bottoms: There is this thing that I’ve heard about called the Internet, and it gives us new options, choices, and a chance for change. However, change takes time.

Unfortunately, at that point, we had to close it down for the evening. This was an exciting event that reminded me it was very good to be back in Atlanta at Georgia Tech.

The conversation continues at the State of Black Science Fiction group on Facebook here. See you there!

Sci Fi Lab Radio Show Full Interview with James T. Warbington, Co-Director of The Black Earth

On October 25, 2012, the Sci Fi Lab Radio Show on Georgia Tech’s WREK.org 91.1 FM in Atlanta aired my hour-long interview with James T. Warbington, co-director of the upcoming feature film The Black Earth, as its pre-Halloween, zombie-themed episode of the fall semester. Unfortunately, the interview was cut short on the radio due to a technical issue. Never fear, the Internet is here! You can listen to the full, uncut episode in mp3 format here or on YouTube here.

The Black Earth makes its world premiere on November 3, 2012, 9:30pm at the Plaza Theater on Ponce de Leon Ave (what better place for a Grindhouse-style zomcom?).