“Are you alive?” Cylons, Consciousness and Humanity in Battlestar Galactica

"Cylon Basestar" | Art by OtisFrampton. Used with permission.

Though the Cylons haven’t been seen in over forty years, a representative from the Twelve Colonies annually visits a space station to maintain diplomatic relations.

This is the first scene of the Battlestar Galactica TV movie reboot. Sitting at a desk, a human representative thumbs through a file on the Cylons, the drawings depicting the familiar “toasters” of the original series. When the doors at the other end of the room open, much to this man’s surprise, two new Cylons enter. They’re different than the drawing—bigger, sleeker, their hands alternating between guns and fingers—but their shape is recognizably machine. The two Cylons take position on either side of the door as a third figure enters: a statuesque blond woman in a red dress. She walks over to the startled envoy, sits down on the table in front of him, leans in close to his ear and asks, “Are you alive?”

This question serves as the lynch pin for the thematic aspects of the show. We learn that some Cylons have evolved beyond metal and circuitry; thirteen replicated humanoid forms that have infiltrated the Colonies and are virtually indistinguishable from humans. The revelation of who these humanoid Cylons are makes up much of the series’ storylines as many aren’t aware of their own identities as Cylons. Some, upon discovering their true origin, attack their former friends; others, most notably Athena—a version of Cylon Eight who is aware of her Cylon nature but exercises free will—choose to live as human. Athene even takes a human partner and gives birth to child.  In defying her “programming” and deciding her own course of action, Athena is “alive,” which is most clearly evident by her giving birth.

And this all speaks to the most remarkable aspects of Battlestar Galactica: the multiple layers of complexity added to the representation of the series’ main antagonists, the Cylons.  Perhaps the most iconic image from the original Battlestar Galactica series, the thing most people remember, is the uniform silver visage of Cylons with that red LED moving back and forth where their eyes should be. Rather than the soulless robots threatening to wipe out humanity as they had been portrayed, the revised show explores the Cylons’ development of consciousness and progression of thought. They are more than simply “bad guys” bent on taking over the universe; they wrestle with issues of mortality and purpose, losing much of their mechanical-ness (like their ability to replicate themselves, transferring their consciousness into another body, their shared hive-mind).

Out of the division, hostility, and hatred comes life. Our life.

When the series ends, human and Cylon survivors find themselves on a prehistoric earth, starting a new life. In a flash-forward 150,000 years to modern-day New York, two characters comment on the archaeological discovery of “mitochondrial Eve,” the earliest common human ancestor: Sharon’s daughter. “With her Cylon mother and human father,” quips one, amused at the irony. Out of the division, hostility, and hatred comes life. Our life.

Building on the original show’s use of religious concepts and imagery (creator Glen A Larson drew on his own Mormon faith when developing the series), the writers of the updated Battlestar Galactica connect much of the show’s most profound religious ideas—like the development of the monotheism and the concept of a loving god—with the Artificial Intelligence of the Cylons. In other words, the very essence of the Judeo-Christian perspective on God comes, in this universe, from outside humanity. It comes from characters that start off as the obvious villains, machines that are developing their own understandings of self.

Battlestar Galactica isn’t unique in exploring the nature of humanity through robots. This ground has been well charted in fantasy and science fiction and, along with examining what makes us human, is typically advocating for a more generous perspective on the value of other cultures. What makes it unique is how the show resolves. By portraying Cylons as part of human culture, as having integrated into humanity in Earth’s pre-history, by having them introduce the monotheistic God of love of the Judeo-Christian tradition,  Battlestar Galactice argues not that we have much to learn from other cultures, but that we have already learned much from other cultures: Jewish Christian proselytized the Greco-Roman world, changing their perspective; Muslim scholars introduced science and mathematics. Our culture, which is sometimes portrayed as a monolithic, homogeneous “thing” is a rich tapestry containing colours and patterns from all over the world. And perhaps the universe.

Michael Boyce

Michael Boyce

Contributing Writer at Area of Effect
Michael W. Boyce is afflicted with severe boredom because he has a brain the size of a planet and he seldom gets the chance to use it at its full capacity. He boasts of a Ravenclaw education and we consider him to be our Yoda.

Michael teaches English Literature and Film Studies. He is a professor at Booth University College in Winnipeg and his other publications are scholarly works. He's published on Hitchcock, Alec Guinness and James Bond. He likes coffee. A lot. And Jonah Ray follows him on Twitter.
Michael Boyce