*First published in The Stake
Terrific explosions rock ships. Wood and metal splinters fly everywhere, bodies and people spin out into the smothering void, never to be seen again. Desperate captains shout orders and even children lay down their lives in a great and terrible war. Sound familiar? Whether you’re Captain Jack Aubrey on the ocean in “Master and Commander” or Commander Adama in space in “Battlestar Galactica,” the problems remains the same: how to win the war, find safe passage and keep ship and the crew from falling apart.
As I started watching “Battlestar Galactica”, I was struck by the beautiful long shots of ships in deep space, utterly alone in a great expanse of black and stars. Instead of believing the starships were high overhead, the cinematography brought them to a closer and more familiar world under the waves. Starships shoved aside black space just as our vessels on earth do oceans.
“Battlestar Galactica” follows in the great tradition of beloved seafaring tales, such as Patrick O’Brien’s “Master and Commander”, C. S. Forester’s “Horatio Hornblower,” and Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick”. Farther back in time is the great Roman epic, “The Argonautica” (or Jason and the Golden Fleece); and before them all came the great granddaddy of seafaring, Homer’s “The Odyssey”. From our earliest stories, humanity’s imagination intertwined with ships, adventure, and prayers for safe passage into the dark. We circle the great body of the sea, so foreign and familiar, weave endless stories, and try to make sense of the mystery. The setting for “Battlestar Galactica” is space, but also the sea, just as vast, dark, and unknowable.
The Galactica herself invokes the sea, resembling a hulking antediluvian turtle, awkward but effective in her plunge across the stars. Her smaller fighter planes, Vipers, eject smartly from the great turtle’s sides but upon return, they roll and sway over their landing targets, using puffs of air to steady themselves. Buffeted by unseen currents, they ease unsteadily onto the mark.
The magnificent enemy ships opposite Galactica evoke the life of the sea as well. The Cylons, robots created by and turned against humanity, construct Basestars that resemble silver starfish stacked in threes upon each other. Their own fighter pilots, Raiders, are stylized stingrays that cut through the currents of space like tiny razor-sharp crescent moons. The Resurrection Ships, containing endless Cylons in constant rebirth, are reminiscent of barbed viperfish travelling in the black fathoms.
On sea or in space, the crew must find meaning in the twins of destruction and beauty. Captain Jack Aubrey, fighting the Napoleonic wars aboard his brig, invoked the might of England and God’s will. If you assume God is on your side, everything makes more sense, after all. Odysseus, Jason and other ancient sailors were far less certain any god was on their side. Cajoling and wooing the gods, they made perpetual offerings to as many as could help their cause.
Of course, these aren’t gods piloting Galactica’s vipers. “Apollo” is the call-sign of Lee Adama, a man trying to do his best in disastrous times. Kara Thrace’s call-sign isn’t Artemis, but “Starbuck”, a direct reference to the opposing First Mate in “Moby Dick”. Kara may not be Artemis but she certainly invokes the goddess’s swagger and unstoppable plucky will to bring down her prey. Jason, captain of the Greek ship Argo, preferred to give his offerings to Apollo. God of balance, moderation, sunlight and colonials (plus a whole lot more besides), Apollo streams down from the hills during sunrise’s first flames. He makes an appearance on board the Galactica, this time as captain of the Viper pilots and son of the Commander. He’s a top fighter pilot, a man who treasures moderation and balance. He flies out with his twin, Artemis, a woman obsessed with the hunt, her skill equal or greater to Apollo’s.
The gods of Galactica, the Lords of Kobol, carry the same names and attributes as our own Greek gods, but they encompass an entirely different history. In an earlier era, they lived side-by-side with humanity on an earth-like planet, Kobol. The humans eventually departed from Kobol and founded the Colonies, a conglomeration of life-supporting planets in a distant solar system. Now, with the Colonies extinguished by the Cylons, survivors continue to pray and worship Artemis, Athena, Poseidon and rest of the Pantheon.
Just as captains and sailors of old have done in troubled times, the Scriptures are combed for comfort and direction. In this telling, the story of Earth is read over and over in the Scrolls, the mythical carrot leading the fleet onward. Earth is the final dwelling place of a lost tribe, a group of people split from the Colonies after Kobol. They left bread crumb beacons along the trail should anyone care to follow them in the centuries afterwards.
While “Battlestar Galactica” rings true in the tradition of sea-faring tales, one great difference remains. This series is not another spin on Captain Aubrey battling the French during the Napolenic wars, though the series does contain plenty of war. Nor is it another telling of Odysseus’ perils with monsters on the ocean, though the crew does face their own monstrous perils. “Battlestar Galactica” is about a civilization brought to its knees, decimated by its own choices and creations. The crew aren’t swashbuckling heroes, swaggering amongst the stars. They are refugees, weary and tempest-tossed, crawling on their knees towards survival. They must carry on for all of humanity lies in the balance.