- The Washington Times - Friday, January 16, 2009

The most interesting television show about American life in the age of terror hasn’t focused on Fox’s Jack Bauer and CTU on “24,” or CBS’ band of jihadi-hunting supersoldiers on “The Unit.” No, the most probing examination of the conflict between public safety, civil liberties and the necessities of war has, until now, been set billions of miles from Earth. The show in question is “Battlestar Galactica,” and it’s starting the second half of its final season tonight.

“Battlestar Galactica” (“BSG” to aficionados) is the intense Sci-Fi Channel continuation/re-imagining of the campy “Star Wars” knockoff of the same name from the 1970s. Picking up some decades after the end of that series, “BSG” kicks off with a bang: the nuclear near-annihilation of humanity by the Cylons, a group of evil space robots that have turned on mankind.

Whereas the Cylons from the original series were all clunky, shiny and easy to spot, the new models are different - they look human and have integrated themselves into human society. Their infiltration is so complete that Cylons secretly roam the cramped hallways of the starship fleet housing humanity’s remnants. These new Cylons also happen to be religious fanatics dedicated to wiping out nonbelievers.

Sound familiar? The eponymous spaceship shepherding the few survivors around the galaxy is under the command of one Admiral William Adama (Edward James Olmos); his duties as a military man put him into direct conflict with both his own ideals (his father was a civil rights lawyer) and President Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell), a politician committed to saving humanity while also maintaining some semblance of a liberal democracy.

Over the past four years, co-creators Ronald D. Moore and David Eick have tackled any number of sensitive issues - torture, freedom of the press, insurgency tactics against an occupying power - and have done so in a genuinely smart, interesting way. Contra “24’s” take on “enhanced interrogations,” for example, “BSG” goes to great pains to inject ambiguity into the actions of its heroes.

How far can one go when roughing up a robot? Is there a limit? Does a soldier have a duty to prevent the mistreatment of an enemy, even one who has called for your species to be wiped out? There are no easy answers, and neither end of the ideological spectrum can claim the show as its own.

Another political lightning rod was the show’s depiction of an Iraq-like insurgency - an insurgency made up of the show’s protagonists. At the end of the second season and beginning of the third, the last remnants of humanity have settled down on a small planet, tired of running from the robot threat that plagues them. The Cylons finally catch up and invade, propping up a puppet government and using any means necessary to end the violence plaguing the occupation.

“Battlestar Iraqtica,” as some came to call this story line, raised more discomfiting questions about progress in Iraq and the nature of America’s enemies than any of the myriad antiwar films to hit theaters over the past five years. Those who viewed the arc as a simplistic liberal fable - and conservatives who quit watching the show in disgust - missed the point.

Mr. Moore and Mr. Eick weren’t siding with the terrorists, just as they didn’t side with a human terrorist trying to take out President Rosslin in previous episodes. They simply were asking the audience to consider in a realistic way the broad range of options that can be employed in war and the implications of their implementation. Those who try to draw a one-to-one comparison with real-life events are doing little more than projecting their own assumptions onto the screen.

As the show winds down, audiences are sure to have their assumptions challenged on a weekly basis. “Battlestar Galactica” will be gone soon, but it won’t soon be forgotten.

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