Battlestar Galactica and Labour Narratives

I’m gearing up for another Battlestar Galactica rewatch, and so I’m trying to get ready ahead of time by thinking about some particular themes I’d like to focus on and pay special attention to during my rewatch. One of the things I like about this show is the layers of narrative, and the ability to get new and different things out of it when I watch again, something not always possible with pop culture in general. I think that television provides a really rare and excellent medium because of the epic nature; for shows that get serious, there are a lot of opportunities for playing with themes over the course of five, six, seven seasons. Not all shows take advantage of this ability and I’m glad to see that this one did.

Labour in Battlestar Galactica is a particular interest of mine because it’s generally something that interests me, and it is something I think about with futuristic and dystopian science fiction. In utopian narratives, labour doesn’t come up at all; things just kind of happen and the workers are nowhere to be seen. In dystopian work, it often becomes a key issue, with class, class wars, and labour issues playing a central theme, reflecting back on the issues we are having even now. As science and technology improve, uncomfortable questions about labour arise, ranging from who is assembling your iPad to how to make technological and social advances accessible to everyone, not just the wealthy. When we are talking about rebuilding a society or looking at people learning lessons from what we messed up, labour becomes a key issue.

This is a show where the fragments of human society are clinging together and trying to rebuild, and labour becomes one of the themes. The class structure of the military is imported essentially wholesale thanks to the circumstances surrounding the creation of the fleet, with people assuming positions of authority and power on the basis of their military status, while the civilians are relegated to a lesser level; they are less useful than pilots and engineers and they are not, by and large, the focus of the series.

But things get much more complex than this. There’s a convict ship, and it’s assumed that the convicts should and will continue to labour for minimal compensation to support the work of the fleet and the survival of humanity. We see this mirrored in the way prison labour is used today; even in nations with strict labour laws, convict labour is routinely exempted. Convicts can be worked harder, longer, and for less pay than civilians, under the rationale that they are getting what they deserve. As in Battlestar Galactica, convicts are also told that their labour supports them as well, even though the proceeds primarily end up in the pockets of free people.

It is perhaps not surprising that under conditions of forced labour and limited rations, people start to become restive and ultimately to revolt, as they do on Battlestar Galactica. The series even takes the time to humanise some of the people who are revolting to make the situation more complicated; we see, for example, the considerable dangers of working on the production line, and we see characters in positions of power questioning whether this is ethical and asking if there is, perhaps, a better way.

The resistance movement flits at the sidelines of the show, periodically becoming centric and then drifting back again. It is the consequence of creating a clearly stratified society where, inevitably, the heroes of the piece are in the upper echelons. The show can depict the resistance, can humanise it, can give it some storylines, but ultimately it wants to return us to the main characters, and it cannot leave us feeling like we are watching a bunch of oppressors parading around. So there are always reasons and excuses, justifications, or the resistance getting its comeuppance when the measures it pushes for turn out to not work out so well.

What are the ultimate lessons when it comes to Battlestar Galactica and labour rights? We get little tastes, here and there, of the stratification of society, the valuation of different kinds of skills and abilities; pilots are more important than mechanics, military better than civilians, free people more valuable than convicts, etc. We can see this reflected in our own society right now and in many ways what they create is a mirror of what we are living, but what do viewers take away from it? Do people leave the show with thoughts about labour rights and resistance and striking and class war, and what are those thoughts?

When everyone is living on New Caprica, we get perhaps the closest glimpse of an egalitarian society, one where everyone lives, and suffers, equally, no matter what their previous rank. The theme is one of deprivation and constant struggle, while the antiquated social regimen is maintained in space above among people who choose not to settle. In a way, it reminds me of the contrast seen in many cities, where the bulk of the populace lives in squalor while a handful of people live in comfort, providing all sorts of reasons why, but ultimately finding themselves unable (or unwilling?) to free the rest of society, to try and create a world where everyone is truly equal.

I’m looking forward to keeping my eye out for labour themes during this rewatch and pondering the way the show explores class and struggle a bit more. Familiarity with the plot and the characters allows me to look through that and past it, into the core of the show and the messages embedded within.