Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The Rule of Law on the Final Frontier

I've recently started watching Battlestar Galactica on DVD, and despite my early reservations (it is a remake of one of the cheesiest SF shows ever) it's actually pretty good. It's no Firefly, that's for sure, but the mini-series/pilot was pretty well written, very well acted in places, and it had some compelling fight scenes and space battles.

So yesterday, I rented the first disc of the actual series, and watched four episodes. The first two were quite good. The third, Bastille Day, was a bit of a dud. And it brought up an issue that shows up with alarming frequency in SF, and is usually handled badly. No exception here.

Bastille Day is about a prison riot. The fleet of about 50,000 people is running out of water, thanks to some sabotage in the previous ep. They've found an ice moon, but mining it will be labour intensive. They need workers. For some reason, the Commander Adama and President Roslyn decide that prison labour will be just the ticket. (The 40,000 or so civilians on passenger liners and cargo ships were busy, I guess.) There happens to be a transport ship of convicts that made it into the fleet. The labour will be voluntary, and the prisoners will earn "points" towards their release by participating. (Interesting aside: the prisoners were on their way to parole hearings. Some of them should, in all likelihood, already be released by this point. Nice of the powers that be to offer them "points towards release.")

When Captain Lee "Apollo" Adama and a few other crew and civilians go on board the prison ship to make the offer, they are ambushed and captured by the prisoners. The jailbirds are being led by a terrorist/freedom fighter called Tom Zarek. There is much bloviating among the cast members about which category he falls into, and it seems from their exposition he blew up a government building, with people inside. So I'd say he falls more on the Timothy McVeigh side of the ledger, whether he was standing up for his oppressed people or not.

(As a side note, Zarek is played by Richard Hatch, one of the stars of the original Battlestar Galactica. He couldn't act then, he can't act now. It's like watching a block of wood. Why, why couldn't they have stuntcast Dirk Benedict instead! Give us cheese!)

To this point, my response to this episode is "Eh." I've seen this plot, or a variation of it, several times before on SF shows and military/cop/politicial dramas. Star Trek: TNG and DS9 used the Maquis for this particular plot device, on Babylon 5 the Martian colonists sometimes filled this role. It gives the writers a chance to talk about when you cross the line from a just rebellion to terrorism.

Unfortunately, the writers almost always give in to the need to make things simpler. The lead bad guy usually turns out to be either A) a snake who only wants personal aggrandizement or B) an ideologue so warped that he is willing to destroy anyone and anything to get his way.

Bastille Day has it both ways. From Television Without Pity, here's part of the episode recap where Apollo realizes Zarek's "plan" just as commandos storm the prison ship.

In the control room, Apollo realizes, "You want them to storm the ship."

The Marines begin to cut through the hull of the Astral Queen.

Apollo continues, "You don't want elections, you don't want your freedom -- you want a bloodbath." He says that Zarek's been forgotten for twenty years, and that this is a chance to "go out in a blaze of glory."

The Marines enter the Astral Queen and move past a prisoner that they've already tied up and gagged. Before he could sound the alarm. Gee, that was lucky.

Zarek enters full-on crazy as he declares, "Once Roslyn uses Adama's soldiers to massacre the people on this ship, prisoners and hostages alike, the people in the fleet will never, never forgive them. The entire government will collapse." Yay?

Real world freedom fighters, even real world terrorists, usually have much more transparent aims than this. They're pretty up front about what they want. Even al Qaida openly acknowledges that they're trying to spark a big war between the evil, nasty, secular west and purified Islam. But in TVland, everybody's got some weird, psychological, hidden motivation.

Anyway, Apollo saves the day, interestingly, by saving Zarek from getting his brains splattered by a sniper. (Usually writers kill these terrorist characters off.) Apollo then promises free elections, and leaves the prisoners in charge of their ship, taking off the crew and guards. It's the first novel thing this episode has done. Then Apollo has to go explain himself to the higher ups, including his father, the military commander.

The Prez is stuck on the idea of holding elections within a year. Apollo notes that former President Adar's term is over in seven months, and according to the law, there should be elections then. Adama growls that Apollo sounds like a lawyer. Apollo clenches his jaw and says that he has sworn to defend the law, and that the law says there should be an election. He adds, "If you're telling me [that] we're throwing out the law, than I am not a captain, you're not a commander, and you are not the president. And I don't owe either of you a damned explanation for anything." And once again, I love their different reactions to this. The Prez looks rueful, but like she agrees, as she says, "He's your son." And Adama just looks infuriated as he rasps, "He's your advisor." He glares at Apollo for a second and says, "I guess you finally picked your side," before leaving. Which...yeah, I don't know. The side of the law? Stupid laws!

It's a better ending than I was expecting. The convicts will mine the ice, voluntarily. They're dependent on the rest of the fleet for food resupply and protection from the Cylons, so they have a powerful incentive to not attack anyone else.

But the final explanation of why Apollo did what he did left me cold. I actually think that you should do what's morally right regardless of the law. But this kind of thinking, that the rule of law should always trump everything else, shows up in a lot of modern culture, from the West Wing to Star Trek. It implies that all laws are just and wise, which history (and the present) shows is simply not true. And there is another undercurrent, as exemplified by the final scene, that also bothered me.

The Prez is reading the book she got from Adama when Apollo enters her quarters. Apollo wants to explain that he wasn't being disloyal to her, and the Prez says that she admires his principles. Then she asks him to sit down, and after a slight hesitation, she tells Apollo that she has cancer. She swears Apollo to secrecy, saying, "Whether or not I survive this, it is of great importance to me that there's a future for the people. And I fear that knowledge of my illness will erode hope." Apollo assures her that she can trust him.

An ongoing subplot, never shown, is that there are riots in the civilian ships over water rationing. The military characters mock the civilians for their lack of discipline. Then the president decides to hide her illness, because the common people couldn't handle that, either. And the higher ups are hiding the fact that the Cylons have human-appearing infiltrators. Zarek doesn't tell his own supporters about his ultimate plan.

The ultimate lesson seems to be that the mass of people are too stupid and panicky to deal with the whole truth. In television, where the viewer ultimately has the most knowledge, we are invited into this elite club of the powerful. We assume ourselves to be as wise and calm as the leader-characters we watch. When in reality, 99 per cent of us would be on the outside.

Ironically, this episode about democracy has become a powerful example of elitism and anti-democratic thinking. The most disturbing thing about this is the fact that I can think of a number of other examples of similar plots on a variety of television shows.

Compare and contrast that with the plot of Serenity, or with the X-Files. Mulder, Scully and the Lone Gunmen were always trying to fight against just this sort of top-down, authoritarian secret-hoarding. Just like we should be in real life. The masses are not that stupid. Arguing that they are is just one short step from thinking that they shouldn't be able to make any decisions for themselves - like who to vote for.


Anonymous said...


Lately, due to events in the real world, I too have been pondering the rule of law. My musings have lead me into new and uncharted territory. What with the teacher's strike being illegal and all I've found myself of late siding with people breaking the law. I'm not a hugely Law and Order type guy, but I did used to believe in the rule of law. But now there are whole groups of people saying that the Law is the backbone of society. And these are people I hate and tend to disagree with.

And with all this talk of the Law being the backbone of society I've been thinking about it. It just isn't so. The Law is not the backbone of our society. The reason I don't kill someone, or rob them, or beat them is not because it's illegal. the reason I don't do bad things is that it is morally reprehensible to do so. As a society we have established a rough moral guideline to live by. This is the true backbone of society. Our collective unspoken agreement that certain acts are bad/wrong/immoral and others are not.

The Law is not the backbone of society, it is a funhouse mirror reflect of the true backbone of our society, our collectively established moral guidelines. And because we are trying to deal with something that is amorphous, when we make it more concrete it can become bloated and excessive. The Law is how we deal with people who cannot or will not abide by those guidelines. If the Law disappeared tomorrow, there might be an upswing in chaotic behaviour for a short time, but I think that would only be temporary, soon, most of us would get back following the moral precepts of our society, law or no law.

I don't want to live in a society without law, but we cannot continue to think of the Law as the basis of our society. We are the basis of our society and the Law sprung from us.

I wonder if what I'm saying makes any sense to anyone else.


Matthew said...

I certainly understand what you're saying. I've been too influenced by anarchist thought to mindlessly accept that you must follow laws; laws that don't spring from real moral and ethical values are essentially meaningless.

The teachers strike is a good example of that. But we shouldn't just reassess our views based on the fact that people we hate and disagree with hold certain views. Sometimes, the people we just can't stand, are in fact correct. Not in this case, of course.

Anonymous said...


I didn't mean to imply that I reassessed my views strictly because I intensely dislike the current government of BC. What I meant was that I found myself in a possition where i felt that the moral thing to dowas to support the law-breaking teachers. And being in this position as well as listening to the rhetoric on Law and order from the government and its supporters caused me to think philosophically about the nature of the Law in civil society andd whether it is of the sort of paramount importance that some have said it is. And I concluded that in fact it is not the be all and end all of society.

As the strike began I began by thinking of other instances of civil and not-so-civil disobediance which quickly lead me to the conclusion that most of the rights that we enjoy today were bought and paid for by acts of civil disobediance, violence, riot, and civil war. And this really goes right back to the foundation of our democracy when in 1215 the Barons of England forces King John to sign the Magna Carta at Runymede.

As for the idea that sometimes people who I tend to disllike or disagree with politically have something valuable to contribute I also heartily agree. If we do not hone our own ideas in debate with other well reasoned ideas, then we will stagnate intellectually. Furthermore, many people on the right have very sensible and similar ideas to us lefties.

On a slightly different tangent you should take a look at the speech given by Paul Summerville at the recent Federal NDP convention (called the Breakthrough Convention) about blending economic prosperity with public institutions and environmentally friendlly policies. Summerville is an investment banker who worked for the RBC and is now planning to run for the NDP in the next feederal election. And I always thought bankers were the enemy! Gee whillikers.