Some 40 years after a ceasefire that ended the Cylon wars, the 12 human colonies across the galaxy have been lulled into a state of calm complacence.  This is abruptly interrupted by a Cylon attack that annihilates billions of humans, leaving only 50,000 survivors in a small fleet of ships, led by the one remaining ship from the Colonial Fleet, the Battlestar Galactica.  Fleeing the Cylons, they set out to find the legendary 13th Colony: Earth.


Although Science Fiction has long recovered from its undeserved reputation as the trashy stuff of pulp novelists and cheap-setted television shows, few were prepared for the extent to which Battlestar Galactica would re-imagine the short-lived 1978 television show of the same name as a meditation on the nature of humanity.  Of course, the show is full of soapy drama, there are a disproportionate number of strong-jawed men and well-toned women amongst the 50,000 human survivors, and there are deadly warrior machines, but this is not a show that denies its status of Science Fiction or the baggage that comes with it; Battlestar Galactica embraces it, and in this context explores the ethics of torture and vote-rigging, forcible occupation of an enemy, suicide bombing, the compromises of leadership, and the role of religion in wartime.  In a show running from 2003 to 2009, it did not shy away from explicitly drawing upon contemporary themes (at one with its quasi-Nietzschean view that what once happened will happen again).

While the series would touch upon many of the keywords in the database (family relationships, freedom, power relations, racism, rape, rebellion, urban violence), there is a partircular focus on specific medical issues.  One of the show's recurrent characters is the medical doctor, Dr Cottle (Donnelly Rhodes). Cottle is a chain-smoking old scowler, in the fine medical tradition of belligerent humanists who are also caring curmudgeons (and hence his name is somewhat ironic: he is neither a coddler nor a cuddler).

Unlike Star Trek's Bones McCoy, who could always be counted on to speak for humanism, Cottle is full of compromises, though he ostensibly adheres to familiar medical ethics.  He refuses to differentiate between cylons and humans, but nevertheless colludes in stealing a baby from her mother and telling the mother the baby has died, and participates in torture (before calling it to an end, insisting he will have nothing more to do with "this freak show" - but only once the torture has been perpetrated).  He is fundamentally a collaborator who may voice his disapproval, but then his disapproval is hardly convincing coming from someone who appears to disapprove of just about everything.  Indeed, in what may be one of the slyest representations of a familiar medical figure, we begin to see how dangerous the impression of wry benevolence may be - and how disapproving acquiescence is still acquiescence. 

A number of episodes are devoted to medical ethics (the distribution of limited supplies of vaccines and the refusal of medical treatment) and medical issues. One of the show's central characters, Lara Roslin (Mary McDonnell), had been diagnosed with cancer immediately prior to the Cylon attack.  Death and dying from a chronic disease are often discussed and even become the core theme in several episodes (for example, The Passage).  The effects of the disease and the treatment, including baldness and fatigue, are detailed. 

Ultimately, in Battlestar Galactica, the question of what distinguishes a human from a machine is one of the most dramatic and compelling narratives: technology, medicine and illness, ethics, religious belief, and politics all provide various answers, and all are tested.  It is a tribute to the show's dramatic and narrative ambiguity that one is never quite sure that these distinctions are sufficient.


Primary Source

Sy-Fy (series from 2003 - 2009)