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Ruminating on community in 'BSG: Razor'

Warning: If you haven’t seen Battlestar Galactica: Razor and still plan to, there are spoilers ahead.
Admiral Adama and his son Lee Adama (call sign, Apollo) are in the Admiral’s quarters, reflecting over the events that had transpired over the previous few months since Apollo took command of the Pegasus, in particular the death of Major Kendra Shaw and the legacy of Admiral Cain, whose actions after the Cylon attack were alarmingly questionable at best and brutally evil at worst—especially Admiral Cain’s orders to Major Shaw and other officers to kill the families of individual civilians who refused orders to leave their ships, join the Pegasus and surrender supplies which left the rest of the civilians helpless before the Cylons.

Adama: But I’ve been going over Cain’s logs. And from a tactical perspective it’s hard to find fault with anything that she did. Or that Kendra did.

Apollo: They butchered innocent civilians, Dad.

Adama sits at his desk. Apollo looks at him incredulously:

Apollo: C’mon. How can you ignore that?

Adama looks up at his son and speaks softly.

Adama: I know that I didn’t have to face any of the situations that she did. I had the President in my face, arguing for the survival of the civilian fleet. I had Colonel Tigh keeping me honest, balancing my morality and my tactics. And I had you.

Apollo looks at him.

Adama: Now, you don’t have any children so you might not understand this but you see yourself reflected in their eyes. And there are some things that I thought of doing with this fleet but I stopped myself because I knew that I would have to face you the following day.
These are some of the closing lines from Battlestar Galactica: Razor, a two-hour television movie which I finally watched last night (it aired last fall). I found these words a profound light in such a dark-but-all-too-accurate vision of human choice and reality.

Cain’s voiceover at the beginning of the film hints at what is to come. She tells us that “you make your choices and you live with them, and in the end you are those choices.” Early on (in an effective scene with Cain on a treadmill which drips of symbolism), we realize that Cain is well down a path almost completely void of family and friends. Following the Cylon attack (which occurs early in the story), Cain reveals that her choices are governed by the philosophy that there are times in life that one must become like a razor if one is to survive—a choice which under girds her morally questionable choices to kill an officer point-blank with his own gun when he objects to one of her commands and orders the execution of family members of civilians who refuse join and give their supplies to the Pegasus (and effectively abandon their ships—and families—to the Cylons). In her isolation, others have little ability to challenge or affect her choices. But her choices definitely affect others.

Kendra Shaw joins the Pegasus as an inexperienced officer just prior to the Cylon attack. She’s somewhat isolated herself and looks to Cain as a mentor, inevitably starting down a path guided by the Admiral’s philosophy. After Cain is killed, Shaw isolates herself even more (just as Cain had) and the Admiral’s philosophy drips from her words and actions.

But unlike Cain, Shaw (who calls herself “Cain’s legacy”) is not yet Cain. One of the most effective scenes in the film involves Shaw and the execution of the civilians. In several flashbacks, we see her staring at the gun in her hand with a surreal detachment after the executions, trying to put together that it was her finger that pulled the trigger. Later, as she walks away, she turns to look behind her, her face bathed in light. Then she turns away and walks into darkness. These scenes stand in direct contrast to Cain, who hasn’t looked back in so long that she can no longer see the light. It helps us understand that Shaw—even as she strains to embrace Cain’s philosophy—walks with remorse and regret. And that affects the choices she makes. And, while she’s walked down the same path long enough to suffer the consequences, that affects how her life ends. In the end, she sacrifices herself, yearning for forgiveness and atonement for her actions (unlike Cain, who remained resolute in defense of her choices even to her death).

Against this bleak yet all-too-real narrative, the conversation between Adama and Apollo stands out as a declaration of the considerable power of belonging to a strong community—indeed, of a community that has become a family—in the choices we make. The community that Adama references in his conversation is far from perfect. Its people struggle to be guided by the principles of democracy and, for some, a religion that values life while fighting against the very extermination of humanity. They struggle to balance the good of the many and the value of individual life in a desperate fight for survival. This community is made up of deeply flawed humans who make some really bad choices, yet they are people who struggle to live by respect, love and trust. (This consistent portrayal of humanity as flawed folks who struggle with these issues is one the reasons I admire BSG. It is a realistic and biblical view of humanity—one which, oddly enough, is also reflected by the Cylons.)

This kind of community is something Cain and Shaw lacked (and in Cain’s case, both rejected and prevented). They isolated themselves instead of walking with others. Adama struggles with what he may have done in Cain’s place, but he has long walked a different path from Cain. Both Adama and Cain lost family (Adama to divorce and death, Cain to the Cylons), but Adama chose to walk life in trust and relationship with those around him whereas Cain, with few exceptions, chose to walk alone. And those relationships—that family made up of broken and flawed people who nonetheless struggle to live in trust and respect—helped to guide Adama and the choices he made. And those choices made him a different person than Cain—and helped grow and strengthen the community in which he lives. It could even be argued that Shaw’s invitation into and experience with that community stirred her moral conscience and influenced the choices she made at the end of her life.

I like Adama’s words. They project a compelling image of the power of community—and I think I resonated with it so strongly because it is an echo of a truer community: the people of God as they are called and enabled to be. But that community—this living-together of those who follow Jesus, this “church”—does more than guide its members on the straight path, to walk justly, humbly and rightly. This Kingdom living-together explodes in Light, Life and Right-ness. This kind of Kingdom living-together changes the world—not because we change it but because God changes it through us together.

Community itself is no guarantee against wrong choices that lead to the paths of darkness. BSG illustrates that all too well. As does Scripture. And life. But I’ve long been enamored by how the choices we make determine the paths we walk. Walking with God isn’t free of pain, suffering and loss. But if we choose to walk with God, if we choose to live in him, then we find he lives in us (Romans 8:5-8). Inherent in that kind of life is the call and imperative to love and walk with others. Indeed, as we begin to experience God-in-us, it becomes impossible to live in God and not be drawn to (even as we struggle with) walking justly and humbly with him and each other.

Choices like these change us. Choices like these grow God’s Kingdom community, inviting others into the Light. And those are choices we can live—and die—with.

As for Razor itself, it’s not the best of the series, but it did have its moments. All in all, it was good to be back in the BSG universe—and I’m all the more eager to see how the story plays out.

For more on BSG from this blog, go here, here, here and here. And a friendly word of warning: BSG episodes can (and often do) contain strong violence, sexual content and adult themes.

(Images: SciFi) bsgctgy


Ken Brown said…
Good thoughts. My only objection to that scene is that Adama seems willing to whitewash the mistakes Cain made. How he can say "it's hard to find fault with anything she did," even from a tactical perspective, is difficult to understand. If nothing else, surely her attack on the Cylon fleet was a poor tactical choice guided by revenge rather than survival.

As you say, such mistakes can be attributed to her chosen isolation, but why Adama seems willing to overlook them is beyond me.

Ack, sorry if I'm taking over your comments!
Carmen Andres said…
ken, i think there's a couple of plausible explanations for why adama voices these thoughts.

first, at the end of the conversation above (which i didn't transcribe), he and apollo reflect on whether cain's choices were ultimately right or wrong, and adama says that if he "believed in the gods" then cain will be judged. apollo points out that adama doesn't believe in the gods, to which adama responds that then it is history that will judge her--and history begins with their reports of her actions. from this part of the conversation, one could argue that adama's lack of moral guidance from religion leaves his morality a bit unmoored. also, (if i remember right) cain's goal wasn't the survival of the human species but guerilla warfare. perhaps, from a purely military standpoint, caine's actions could be judged as appropriate - a show of force so that the Cylons will think twice before attacking again (though, as you pointed out, it appeared to be motivated from revenge more than tactical. i'm going to run this one by folks i know who research and teach militiary studies and see what they say.) in addition, adama's latter comments about history beginning with their reports indicates that he does view cain's actions as questionable and hints that perhaps his own report will paint the events in a way that isn't too hard on cain and kendra.

which leads to something else at play here. i think adama is feeling his vulnerability and flaws. part of what i like about adama (who is brilliantly written by the writers and also brilliantly brought to life by olmos) is his humble awareness of his own failures and mistakes. it gives him wisdom and compassion. and, in the end, it allows him to hear and empathize with the stories of others. his own brokenness makes him sympathetic to the brokenness of others. i think that's a lot of what's going here in regards to his feelings about cain. he realizes that but for the community he has, he could have made the same decisions as cain. i think that's unlikely, given the road Adama's walked. but then, real life gives us far too many examples of how quickly we can slide from the right path.

anyway, my .02. and, as i've said before, i love conversations like these, so comment away!
Carmen Andres said…
i've thought of this some more and need to modify what i said. i don't think adama's words are referencing her decision to attack the cylons BUT her decisions to shoot civilians and her officer. and, rethinking it, she did say her goal was guerilla warefare coupled with survival (the whole "razor" speech was about doing what it takes to survive). but her definition of survival of humanity was far more narrow than Roslins or Adamas. in that light, it makes her attack on the Cylons questionable (unless it really was militarily solvent), but her other decisions fit in this philosophy. if the goal is to fight the best they can (a valid military perspective), then stripping civilian fleets, taking on only essential civilians and doing what it takes to be the best fighting machine is tactically excusable (if morally reprehensible). adama probably recognizes that.

for what it's worth, barbara nicolosi touched on this BSG exploration of morally questionable actions of leadership at war (much better than i) in one of her posts at church of the masses. she mentions it gives us understanding of why people do what they do without excusing their actions - i think this might be one of those situations. if indeed adama is viewing her actions from the (guerilla) military standpoint of warring against the Cylons rather than running, then we are invited to understand Cain's actions through adama's own vacilating without having to excuse her.

what do you think?
I think this is an apt post for Ash Wednesday. I'd love to use the imagery for my service tonight but the explanation would take way to long. However, for those who already know the background, it is a great setting for an examination of conscious and invitation to the observance of a holy Lent. Thank you
Carmen Andres said…
thank you so much, vicar! one of the things that's hard about exploring themes like these in tv shows (or film) is indeed the amount of background explanation it takes. i would love to teach a class someday showing films or a show like BSG in class (or as homework) so that everyone could talk with the background in place. in fact, i would like to take a class like that, heh.
Ken Brown said…
I think that's probably right, Carmen. The show has certainly emphasized the difficult situations and choices faced by the fleet's leadership (and everyone else), and has never shied away from letting the viewers decide for themselves whether the right choices have been made (even when it was obvious they hadn’t). The only thing that bothered me was Adama's statement that history would judge Cain based on what he himself wrote, since he seemed to be implying that he was willing to "fudge" that historical judgment in her favor. Certainly it wouldn't be the first time Adama had been willing to put a good public face on "facts" he himself did not believe (e.g. the existence of earth), but given the whole conversation with Lee, I would hope better from him.

But maybe that was the point. By leaving some ambiguity about what Adama really would write, perhaps the show's creators were hoping we would ask that question?
Carmen Andres said…
heh, i'm sure if we sat a bunch of people in a room and asked them that question we'd get a range of answers. which is probably what makes this show so darn good. personally, i think adama would have kept the facts pretty straight but wrote with a sense of compassion - or lack of judgement at the very least. he's demonstrated a pretty strong moral center (and a community with whom to keep that center there), even if it's edges are somewhat maleable. he's also got a capacity to confront the worst of himself and keep going (and he's helped others do the same). and he's into giving second chances - and maybe in some way that's what he's giving cain.

at any rate, i'm impressed with the writers who've created such a character, one so real it makes us ask questions like these. i'm interested to see how the rest of the story plays out, the rest of the choices adama makes. thanks for taking the time to put to text all your thoughts - blessings.