Adama's Question

Commander Adama and his ship are going into retirement. The fleet, it seems, doesn't need them anymore, the new technology and the younger officers have made these two obsolete. And Adama is old -- he's known as "old laser face" due to a long life of acne scarring -- and the ship is a barely-space-worthy bucket. Besides, the colonies are experiencing a time of peace. The cylons haven't tried to wipe out humanity in 40 years. At his ship's decommissioning, Adama begins his to-be-expected speech before abandoning his note cards to ask, "Is humanity worth saving?" He's not demanding it; he comes across as world-weary and tired, and he's wondering if perhaps the cylons have good reason for trying to kill us off.

As the show progresses, Adama's speech from that first episode kind of hangs in the background. Well-fleshed out characters commit acts of cowardice, choose to protect themselves at the expense of others, breach loyalties, become alcoholics, despair, and perform executions (with only 45,000 people left in existence), and, though culpable, I don't want to condemn them because I can't see myself doing better in their shoes.

For a sci-fi show, it's pretty Earth-bound (pun non intended). The ships are very industrial looking, their walls the color of soot; the sounds of boots on steel, pistol shots and lockers closing make up the sound effects; the camera moves around at eye level showing faces and conversations rather than the wide panning of space.

Oh, I'm talking about Battlestar Galactica, by the way, a concept with a bag of TV-series attempts with mixed results. The Riverside West crew watched the 2004-09 one in its entirety. I'm continuing the watching-sci-fi-shows-on-Netflix tradition by going through Star Trek: The Next Generation in my unemployed free time.

Star Trek is much more airy. Their guns shoot orange lasers. Large windows are a part of every room and show the Windows screensaver. People dissolve into light in one place to reappear in another.

Despite these differences, the pilot episodes confront the same question.

The very powerful and ornery being, Q, challenges the newly-minted Enterprise. He stops them mid sub-space voyage and says that due to humanity's history he can no longer let them exist. In this and subsequent episodes, Captain Picard and other crew members prove their good natures to Q. Picard insists that though humans have a sordid past, they have changed for the better.

Humanity's evolution to a peaceful morally-viable race is a condition of the Next Generation series. They explore vast areas with no move to conquer or control. They work and live without prejudice among lifeforms and cultures very different from their own. Their power does not corrupt them. Humanity is worth saving because humanity has become worthy.

I found a remarkable tie-in between Star Trek and Galactica a couple of episodes ago (season 2, episode 9). Lieutenant Commander Data, an android, refuses to undergo dismantling (research, in hopes of being able to duplicate Data) by a unqualified scientist. Starfleet will not allow him to refuse because he is a machine. This is taken to court.

Whoopi Goldberg, as Ginan, warns the captain (who is Data's advocate) of a whole race of Datas in subjugation to humanity if the court rules Data as Federation property. In court, the JAG officer even calls Data a toaster -- a slur against Cylons in BSG.

Cylons were created by humans and given artificial intelligence; they evolved into a mechanized race and rebelled. (Slavery, it seems, doesn't go over well with robots either.) One of the central conflicts in BSG is whether or not Cylons should have the same rights as humans. Certain models of cylons look and move exactly like people; they build relationships, are self aware and have emotions. Data, while short on emotions, also looks like a person and he is a distinct character to the viewer. No one watching episode 9 of season 2 is saying, "Yeah, he's just some fancy box of bolts."

And while BSG takes 75 episodes to work it out, Star Trek takes care of it in one. The court grants Data's right to choose, and in doing so, protects the rights of sentient lifeforms everywhere. (Q smiles upon them.) While the folks in BSG struggle to get people to stop rioting.

And in the end of Battlestar, the narrative strand the writers emphasize is the "humans v robots" one. They seem to be cautioning viewers against the mistreatment of automatons in the hopes of preventing a future cylon war. They abandoned their themes of justice and human identity to briefly touch on the possibility that increases in technology are not always good.

I'm borderline obsessed with the way these shows treat the justification of humanity. Star Trek acknowledges that we, in the twenty first century, were pretty bad, but it can get away with imposing only vague judgment upon us because in the twenty fourth century, the answer to Adama's question is an easy yes.

And BSG lets the question slide.

Maybe Q is in the wrong televisional universe.

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