Battlestar Galactica versus Star Trek Voyager: a curious case of public demand

Crew of Battlestar Galactica (left) versus crew of Star Trek Voyager (left).

Crew of Battlestar Galactica (left) versus crew of Star Trek Voyager (right).

Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek Voyager are painted on two galactic canvases of seemingly parallel universes. This makes for a compelling comparison between storylines because, inevitably, the two shows get juxtaposed against each other. Both series are popular by science fiction standards, together they unite in their endeavour to find Earth. The polarizing characters and sordid settings of Galactica are vastly different to the scrubbed world and refined logicians of Voyager. Nevertheless, the verdict is in; most fan rating sites appraise Galactica to best Voyager – in fact Galactica usually ranks number one for overall sci-fi series. Why is this so? This essay aims to distinguish the uniqueness of the two shows, to point out the differences and similarities in the representations of science and scientists, and finally to fathom and comprehend the unanimous ranking.

The first point to note is that few scholars have reflected on these two specific TV series although many have analysed them individually. Buzan (2010), one of the exceptions, compared the two series as allegories for different US approaches to foreign relations. Voyager is assessed as depicting an optimistic or utopian vision of the United Nations at the interplanetary scale, whereas Galactica is pessimistic reflecting post-911 attitudes of the US government.  The second point is that previous analyses of Voyager comment on the portrayals of future science and technology noting its positivist and optimistic ideology (Geraghty 2003; Epsicokhan 1997), whereas previous commentaries on Galactica have focused on religion (Neumann 2012), politics (Milford 2012) or, most commonly, issues of race and gender (Tranter 2007; Hellstrand 2011; Koistinen 2011; Kustritz 2012).

This essay began with a statement of intent. It now goes on to examine the authority and role of science in society, and then moves on to the characterization and differentiation of scientists and science in the two series of choice. Finally the essay contrasts secular moral ideologies with sacred beliefs, before ending with a section on how Galactica separates “us” from “them”.

Authority and Role of Science in Society

Science and power

The role of science with respect to power is portrayed very differently in Voyager and Galactica. In Galactica, the military and political leaders – Admiral Adama and President Roslin, respectively – are non-technical, unscientific characters that display few signs of harbouring intellectual prowess outside their field. Scientists and their discoveries are used to benefit the politician’s objectives; science and technology only come to the fore as engineering improvements to military hardware. It’s a case of science serving society.

In Voyager, on the other hand, Captain Janeway is not only the commander-in-chief, but she’s also an outstanding physicist and engineer. Furthermore, technological advancements and scientific endeavours almost always advance society, whether it’d be the crew of Voyager, or other alien races that the spaceship encounters throughout the program. Definitely, the show epitomizes the theory that science and technology are the future (NASA 2009).

By the same token, science dictates the universe of Voyager; and scientists are the authorities that run its governorship. Whenever moral choices or ethical dilemmas arise – and they do present themselves repeatedly – these are resolved along rational-humanist lines; science is law. Conversely, machinations reign supreme in the world of Galactica; knowledge and advancement are merely tools or means to other ends. Power lies with the “guys with guns”, ultimately.

Scientists and society

The pedestal height upon which scientists are placed is dependent on the society’s values and attitudes within the two science fiction series. The community that populates Voyager is a relatively homogenous group with the dominant manner being professionalism of the highest order. Social and cultural tensions that surface tend to be instigated during meetings with “others” rather than from within the group. While initially internal conflicts do crop up in the drama, they are speedily resolved for the story to move on to more interesting aspects, like exciting discoveries.

In contrast, the people in Galactica are a heterogeneous bunch, a gamut of the personalities mankind has in stock. Not to mention that Galactica encompasses a spectrum of occupational pursuits and, with it, hazards. These include, for example, rowdy soldiers, a soft-spoken teacher, a selfish genius, gangsters, idealistic terrorists, spies who don’t know they are spies, oracles, and icy priests – talk about a Noah’s Ark. Consequently, it should come as no surprise that the frictions in Galactica come from within the cohort of travelling spaceships, not from the primary enemy, the “Cylons”.

In summary, the impression one gets from viewing the interactions on board the spaceship Voyager is that of “everyone is a scientist of some kind”, a collection of “Scientist as adventurer” (Haynes 2003). Undoubtedly, scientists have a central role in this adventure. Conversely, those scientific characters present in Galactica are portrayed as mentally or physically dirty; their cameos, while important, are not crucial unless assistance is desperately needed by someone with significance.

Characterization and differences of scientists and science

Scientists and characters

In fact the number of scientific roles and their relevancy to Galactica’s plotline pales by comparison to Voyager’s myriad of personnel involved in at least one branch of science – as engineers, medical practitioners and researchers, astronomers, physicists and anthropologists.

Nevertheless, Galactica’s unconventional protagonist Dr. Baltar does break one or two preconceptions, to wit, he’s portrayed as a promiscuous and my-life-over-research-over-other-lives kind of scientist. However, once this “shocking” representation sinks in, the old one crops up, that is the archetypal “mad scientist”; he’s paranoid, obsessive, easily irritated, delusional about his own grandeur, and believes that he is the instrument of God. Haynes (2003) categorizes this as the “mad, bad, dangerous scientist”. Alternatively, the scientists in Voyager are professional in manner and speech, sociable but responsible, impeccably well groomed, and always seek results that benefit the greater good of the collective.

On top of that, in Galactica, the chief medical practitioner, Dr. Cottle, is a recurring scientist – read a tertiary role, as opposed to Voyager in which its holographic physician, the Doctor, is in the spotlight. Furthermore, the ways in which the two doctors are portrayed differ greatly in terms of refinement and bedside manners. What makes Dr. Cottle unique is his aptitude for smoking in front of his patients after the consultation has ended. While this is startling initially, the effect subsides once the audience realizes that his brusque approach, blunt persona, and rustic appearance are the backbones of many interesting medical portrayals on prime-time TV – see examples from House or Scrubs. Besides, doctors are historically negatively depicted (Flores 2002), and Dr. Cottle’s tendency to smoke in the hospital ward is merely a different colour for the same icing. Voyager’s Doctor, on the other hand, is a caring mentor, a charismatic and friendly ‘being’ to non-humans – he talks to his instruments and has a proclivity to break into an opera at suitable and inappropriate moments alike.

One of the main techniques put in place to create an overwhelming sense of science in Voyager is through the use of specialist technical jargon – technobabble for short. The dialogue in this series is saturated with novel terms that refer directly to actions and technologies of the future. In contrast, science fiction argot is capped in Galactica. As a result, the tête-à-têtes in Galactica are comfortably understood, whilst those in  Voyager more often than not leave the awed audience no choice but to take the terminology and its attached theory for granted.

Space and science

The Universe in which Voyager and Galactica journey through are tangential places; both offer polarized perspectives of “what’s out there”. Voyager is forever running into new stellar-phenomena and alien intelligences. It views the cosmos as this glamorous and mysterious space, positively flowing with excellent opportunities, enchanting wonders, and enticing adventures (Burns 2013). The idea of scientific life as exploration is a driving force in Voyager.

Space is not the final frontier in Galactica; it is the last resort. Galactica’s crew members are alone in an inhospitable and merciless firmament, wherein the only neighbours they have are the one’s they’ve created, and these are now on a course to pursue and eradicate them. The trips made in Galactica are of a spiritual nature; praise is awarded for the persistence and resilience that is exhibited during the difficult road trip, rather than for the propensity of human curiosity so prevalent in Voyager.

Further, technology is seen as a cause of problems rather than a solution. In fact, science and technology lead to the demise of mankind in this series – think revenge of the robots. Galactica takes on a very pessimistic view about the future of information and technology.

Contrasts of ideologies

Secular and sacred

Secular knowledge and sacred beliefs play distinct roles in the two series. Ethical and moral issues in Voyager are detached from religion. Creeds of any kind hardly make an appearance; paranormal phenomena or coincidences are subsumed under science through rationalistic explanations. The dominant ideology is humanism. Wars of words are staged in drastic circumstances only, and even then they are carried out politely with respectful argument and supporting documentation. In Galactica religion is acknowledged as another source of power, on par with politics, soldiering. and yes, science. The dominant ideologies are fundamentalist. The “bible” literally guides the remaining colonies, fortifying hope for mankind’s future (Neumann 2012); even sceptics are on the wane. Philosophizing in Galactica leads to debates on the interpretations of the words from the Gods and Goddesses.

Trust proves to be a dominant theme in both series. Much of the dramatic tension in Galactica emerges from loss of trust and persistence of faith and sacred. On the other hand, in Voyager much of the trust is derived from the humanism evinced by the leading characters. A case in point, knowledge claims in Voyager are rarely challenged from within; the principal scientists concoct cogent scenarios. It is a utopian and secular vision. Contrastingly, in Galactica solutions are hotly contested, as no one person can agree with the other. Besides, most of the solutions in Galactica are related to military strategies and courage in face of poor odds, as the administration’s exploitation and deceitfulness engulf the ship; there is no credit for promises. In this pessimistic view of science and society, the sacred vision is that only faith in God or Gods provides hope (Klassen 2008).

Artificial intelligence and racism

Galactica exploits people’s fear of biotechnology and artificial intelligence to continuously make clear the detrimental effects of scientific developments and technological improvements. The characters – and humanity for that matter – are in imminent danger because research took a turn for the worst and has “bitten back”. The net effect is to create scepticism about science. In contrast the artificial intelligences and non-human personalities in Voyager – the Doctor, Seven, and a Vulcan while robotic by nature and misunderstood originally – are peerless individuals who offer unparalleled assistance to better any cause the situation calls for; they are habitually depicted as heroes not villains.

Voyager has multiple species working side-by-side; racism seems to be a thing of the past. This is not the case in Galactica, where the theme of race is forever present: “us” against “them”. The main characters often speak derogatorily about people from different worlds than their own. People who cross the lines between social groups create endless dramatic tension. Taboo love between human and Cylon – Sharon and Helo, Baltar and Six – brings in extra tension and panache to the theatrics (Hellstrand 2011). In essence, the science in Voyager is able to differentiate and separate friend from foe, while in Galactica the inability for technology to easily distinguish “us” from “them” is a persistent source of fear that fuels mistrust and hostility.

In Voyager, debates about artificial intelligence come to pass when the conversation turns to its rights; or how many it should have. For example, an entire episode – “Author, Author” – is dedicated to exploring the Doctor’s entitlement over his “holonovel” (Strong et al 2001). Similarly, a rare parley in Galactica touches on topics like Cylon rights, i.e. do machines have laws protecting them? But such dissensions come at awkward moments – usually seconds before the Cylon is tossed out of an airlock. More typically, heated discussions occur when technology misbehaves, viz., what to do when a Cylon has a baby, to abort or not to abort? (Hellstrand 2011).

Popularity and communication

Given the comments made and the arguments put forward earlier, it can be deduced that Star Trek Voyager and Battlestar Galactica are amply dissimilar, yet close enough to be compared with some merit. The deciding factor that puts Galactica ahead of Voyager is that the former resonates with the concerns of a much larger audience, whereas the latter plays with the fantasies of a much narrower group. Historically, nerds, geeks, and scientists watch and worship Star Trek; NASA shamelessly borrows famous quotes from the show in key milestone speeches (NASA 2013). On the other hand, viewers of Galactica are typically the general public, including some scientists and science-fiction geeks. The networks are quite clear on this: Galactica was telecasted during “prime-time”, whereas Voyager held the Friday night “death slot” – to know of it one must be a Trekkie.

In brief, Galactica provides magical-real-religious entertainment in a character-driven political drama; Voyager tells scientific-utopian-ideological stories in a plot-driven space-frontier drama.

Conclusion

So, when it comes to science communication, what lessons are to be learnt from the comparison of these two science-fiction series?

Given the viewer demographics and subsequent ratings, it can be inferred that Galactica’s popularity lies in its readability and personal-connectivity with a much larger audience. Voyager’s angelic humans in a utopian universe seem un-realistic, even fanciful.  Galactica’s characters, in contrast, are deeply flawed, nervous about science and technology, suspicious of “others” and thus much more like the American “us”.

Thus, the key lesson to be learnt from this essay is a recipe for concocting a commercial science fiction TV series that underpins quality and nourishes originality. To achieve said miracle it seems that a purgatory state between devilish android and angelic flamboyant needs to be realized: sweet scientism from Voyager mixed with sour sociology from Galactica. Executive moguls from opera Galactica should think of incorporating compelling and flawed scientific characters into the libretto. Additionally, writers from oeuvre Voyager should accept the notion of setting such characters within their solidly scientific plotlines; after all, primetime television is as much about entertaining as it is about educating (Göpfert 1996). Together, Galactica’s preach of caution and Voyager’s optimistic prophecies make for a pragmatic science discipline and incentivized scientist disciples that are worthy of inhabiting any gilded century or palatial universe.   

References

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