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‘Battlestar’ goes for the god

Battlestar Galactica (Sci Fi, Fridays, 10 pm)

Three years ago, the Cylons, a race of androids, completely destroyed the 12 colonies of Kobol and most of the human race that resided there. The survivors formed a ragtag caravan looking for the mythical Earth. The Battlestar Galactica is their only defensive ship.

In an age of bad TV, a crappy network has somehow remade a dumb, disco-era space opera about evil chrome robots into a probing, subversive commentary on democracy, war, religion, and power. It’s been a relentlessly thrilling, thought-provoking three seasons. There’s speculation, though, that in turning from war and occupation to flight and salvation, season four won’t offer the critical lens on our times that previous seasons did, especially season three, with its good-guys-as-insurgents plotline.

I’m not worried at all. Rather than abandoning social critique, the writers have poised themselves to go deeper into root causes, moving from questions of occupation and sovereignty that touch on our entanglement in Iraq and Afghanistan to questions of ideology and belief that underpin not only America’s tense relationship with the Arab world but, to some degree, basically every conflict in the history of humanity.

There’s always been a highly spiritual element to Battlestar. The Cylons have their god. The humans have many, each faction and culture worshipping the series’ Romanesque pantheon a little differently. The human president is an occasional day-tripper, hallucinating on her cancer medication and believing herself the key to humanity’s salvation. Opening season four, scoundrel, genocidist, and frequent comic relief Gaius Baltar finds himself the messiah of a cult of women. Even the self-destructive, agnostic fighter jockey Kira Thrace is in the mix as possible clairvoyant savior of humanity.

As the series gears up for its conclusion, it’s actually downshifting, becoming more contemplative, agonizing over how there can be faith without tests of that faith, and thus how real prophets can exist without fake ones — how humans, tortured beasts that we are, can have certainty in anything without uncertainty about most everything else.

The writers, in their love of drama, have had the extreme, un-liberal audacity to suggest one of these prophets is real — someone who would lead humanity to salvation. The writers, too, though, in their ardor for the progressivist, utopian tradition of science fiction, have built in enough feints that every one of these half-mad gropers at god’s hems — including a messianic Cylon or two — might be holding a piece of the truth, and salvation will ultimately hinge on cooperation and unity.

The series has excellent special effects; its space battles are unequalled in the history of television. But what makes Battlestar Galactica the best science-fiction television ever are those increasingly long stretches of time when not a shot is fired. •

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