Many years ago, I think it was during the TV writers strike of 2007-2008, I introduced a friend of mine to Ron Moore’s remake of Battlestar Galactica. Though she wasn’t much for science fiction, I convinced her to give BSG a shot. She was a big fan of Firefly;I found BSG to be superior to Firefly, so by the transitive property, she should have also loved Battlestar. She approved of my logic, and I handed over my season 1 and 2 DVDs.
Weeks passed. We traded a few emails on various episodes. I spent a considerable amount of time apologizing for Tigh me up, Tigh me down. Overall, she liked what she saw, until she got to Season 2 Episode 10, Pegasus. On that day she called me and told me to pick up my DVDs as she was finished with the show.
Picking up my DVDs took about six hours as it led to coffee, dinner, and drinks as she prosecuted BSG for its use of rape as a narrative device.
At the time, I was more a fanboy than a critic, so I didn’t really hear what my friend was trying to say about that particular scene. I defended the show, and I defended the writing. Because if those things were faulty, then I might be faulty for liking it, and we couldn’t have that now, could we?
Now, half a decade later – and hopefully a bit wiser – I want to offer up what my half of that conversation should have been. Let’s start with the obvious, and then move into the more murky waters.
First and foremost, I whole heartedly reject the notion that rape and sexual assault can’t be used as narrative instruments. Terrible though they may be, these sorts of things happen in our world. Art gives us a safe lens to explore why these things happen and how we, as a society, respond – or ought to respond – to them. The opposite side of this coin is that sexual assault is too often used as a lazy gimmick for attempting to convey the evil nature of a person or people. I see this in my work as a submissions editor, and I have seen it in the novels and short stories that I have reviewed, or refused to review, over the years.
Sufficed to say, my golden rule when it comes to rape and sexual assault in fiction is quite simple: if you’re going use it, then it has to do something other than send up a “this is a bad person” signal flare. It should also go without saying that a rape scene, in any medium, should always be written as a violation. It must not be used to glorify or sensationalize the act.
There are two incidents of sexual assault in Pegasus. In the case of Pegasus’ Gina/Number Six Cylon, the assault is implied. For Galatica’s Sharon Cylon, the assault is witnessed. Despite the differences, both incidences are brutal and as far from a glorification as can be. When we’re introduced to Number Six she is a bound, battered, and near-catatonic person. Sharon, though a captive, is afforded the status of a prisoner of war on Galactica. In the broad strokes, Sharon’s rape at the hands of Lt. Thorne is primarily a means of illustrating the differences between the command styles of Commander Adama and Admiral Cain. Granted Admiral Cain had some personal reasons for ordering the mistreatment of her Cylon prisoner, but we don’t find out about any of those until Battlestar Galactica: Razor, so I would file that character development as not relevant to this discussion.
Since Sharon’s rape is functionally an “us versus them, and they are terrible” moment, I don’t know that it meets my criteria for effective use of sexual assault. Between Colonel Fisk’s story about Admiral Cain shooting her executive officer for refusing an order, the inflexibility of the Pegasus’ CAG, and Admiral Cain’s interference in Adama’s command, the writing very clearly shows “us versus them” without resorting to rape.
However, it could be argued that Sharon’s rape at the hands of Lt. Thorne is what ultimately what catalyzes conflict between Pegasus and Galactica – thus it has value beyond showing the Pegasus’ crew as bunch of dicks. Indeed, I have made that argument many times. However, Adama doesn’t launch Vipers against Cain because of the way she treats Cylon prisoners. He pushes the fleet to the point of a shooting war because Cain wants to execute Helo and Chief Tyrol for inadvertently killing Lt. Thorne when they came to Sharon’s defense. Sharon’s mistreatment is secondary to Adama’s loyalty to his crew and/or his refusal to be undermined by Admiral Cain.
Granted, the fallout from Sharon’s and Gina’s abuse becomes more important in the episodes after Pegasus. Within the limits of the episode, itself, these abuses only exist to drive home the point that the crew of the Pegasus will do the unspeakable to survive. On that count, it’s not looking good for Pegasus. Even though these abuses are properly aligned with the series’ ongoing motif of humanity as its own worst enemy, which is why they aren’t a tonal abnormality for the series, I don’t think they have enough depth to justify their own existence. Arguably, Admiral Cain could have extradited Helo and Tyrol on the grounds that both have consorted with the enemy, and the Chief is inadvertently responsible for letting a suicide bomber on to the Galactica. We could have got to the shooting war without having to sacrifice Sharon’s humanity, so to speak, on the altar of plot progression.
As for Gina/Number Six, I would submit that hearing the Pegasus’ crew talking about giving her a little of the “oh yeah, oh yeah” is banging too hard on the drum of misery. One of the most powerful moments of the series is when Gaius Baltar offers a plate of food to the abused Cylon. It is some of James Callis’ and Tricia Helfer’s best acting, bar none. The tight shot of Tricia Helfer’s hand reaching for a piece of fruit is the definition of Mise-en-scene. We don’t the dialogue and exposition from throw-away characters as antecedent to that moment. Television is a visual medium and the visuals are strong enough to stand on their own merit in that moment.
So my dear friend, Jennifer, I think you were much more on the mark in your analysis of Pegasus than I was, all those years ago. I apologize for being such a pig-headed git.