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The Case for the Cylons

9:29 AM, Feb 12, 2009 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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In a moment of weakness, Goldfarb sent me this brilliant essay on Battlestar Galactica by Robert Farley. Writing as a concerned Colonial citizen, Farley makes that case that during the recent unpleasantness, Vice President Tom Zarek and Lieutenant Felix Gaeta--who lead a mutiny onboard the Galactica and then a military coup against the democratically-elected government of the Twelve Colonies--were, in fact, revolutionary heroes and not traitors.

Farley's case rests on a number of contentions about the wisdom of integrating the Rebel Cylons into the fleet. I won't try to summarize the full majesty of his argument (you should read it yourself, including the very clever comments at the end) but it rests primarily on three contentions: Humans cannot trust Cylons; the Cylons can't trust any concessions made by the humans; and ultimately an alliance between the humans and the Cylons provides little added tactical or strategic benefit to either camp. As such, the Adama-Roslin political clique is placing humankind in (added) existential peril by proposing to grant the Rebel Cylons full citizenship; Zarek and Gaeta were right to try to stop them, by any available means.

I find Farley's argument persuasive (then again I would); yet perhaps not entirely dispositive. So in the interest of a full exploration of the matter, let me try to mount a counterargument. Anyone who isn't deep into BSG nerd-dom should check out now have checked out two paragraphs ago.

(1) There is a good case to be made that bringing Cylons into the Colonies as a full citizens will confer significant military advantage to the Colonials. In addition to the upgraded FTL drives the Cylons possess, their Basestar, even crippled, doubles the fleet's number of capital ships. But perhaps most important, the Basestar presumably comes with a full complement of nuclear warheads, the most decisive weapon available. The fleet currently possesses, at most, two such weapons. Someone geekier than I will have to go back and do the math on this. I have some dignity, you know.

(2) Breeding. The fleet needs warm bodies, which is why President Roslin outlawed the practice of abortion. The addition of (one assumes) a few hundred Cylon model 6's and 8's, who are interested in procreation, is immensely helpful to the fleet's demographic struggle. (And by-the-by, should certainly appeal to single, marriage-age men in the fleet.) Finally, let us not discount the potential upside of more Cylon-human hybrid children.

(3) Even if you grant the Zarek-Gaeta premise, mutiny is a high crime, punishable by death. Unlike revolution, it is often explicitly regulated by articles of war or military law. Committing mutiny is fundamentally different from declaring revolution. If the issue of a Cylon-human alliance did indeed require civil war, then there are honorable ways to initiate and prosecute an intra-national military conflict. By choosing mutiny and a blood-soaked coup against the civilian government, Zarek and Gaeta traveled a particularly dishonorable road.

(4) It is worth defending, conditionally, the honor of the Cylon. The Cylon first strike against the Colonies certainly looks bad, and might well be unmitigated genocide. For all we know now, this appears to be the case.

Yet I would suggest that we simply do not know enough yet to say, with total authority, that this is the case. For instance, we do not know the origin or course of the First Cylon War. (We'll have to wait for the Caprica prequel for those answers.)

But in the current conflict we cannot pass final judgment on the Cylon until we know what their original plan was. I remain convinced that one of the most crucial parts of the BSG mythology is a phrase that was included in the beginning of every episode for three seasons:

The Cylons were created by man. They rebelled. They evolved. And they have a plan.

What was the original Cylon plan? Was it a crusade to kill or convert the pagan humans to monotheism? Was it a plot to create a hybrid species, in the hope they would lead to lasting peace between the cultures? Or was it simply a war of revenge, or expansionist aggression? Or perhaps it was something else altogether. Until we know what the plan was, we cannot make final determinations on the moral standing of the Cylon empire.