Battlestar Galactica (#BSG)—The Triumph of Tragedy is Empathy


I must admit from the outset that I didn’t watch the original series during the late 1970s, and I didn’t watch the new series during its original run on TV, from the airing of the initial three-hour miniseries from December 2003 until the final episode on March 30, 2009.   The reason why I didn’t watch the original series or the new series when it first came out on television was not because I don’t like science fiction.   I tend to read a lot more science fiction and fantasy than I watch either on television or in movies.  My cousins in St. Louis, on the other hand, are avid fans of both media science fiction as well as written science fiction.   They had raved about the series, so I figured I would give it a try.  I decided to give up cable TV last year as part of a New Year’s Resolution to conserve both my time and money,  and this was my impetus for purchasing the series on DVD that I could watch each weekend as a “carrot” to keep me working hard during the week on various professional and educational projects.  I’ve been watching about an episode a week and I got to the final episode of the final season of Battlestar Galactica or BSG (the newest series) just last night.

I’m still reeling from the impact that the series has had on me.  The first emotional response I took from the series, besides my love of the individual characters portrayed, was the message that it is important to have empathy for one’s adversary.  The Cylons are a race of man-made robots that end up turning against the Colonials, the human inhabitants of the Twelve Colonies of Kobol.  The entire four-season series deals with the relations between the Colonials and the Cylons, who go from being implacable enemies to allies whose futures are intertwined.

Aristotle was said to have lectured on both the comic and tragic emotions in Greek theater.    According to Aristotle, the comic emotion is that of joy.   BSG does have moments of joy and humor, which are greatly appreciated given the darker nature of most of the material.    Aristotle’s lectures on comedy have unfortunately been lost.   As a side note, the entire plot of the historical mystery novel called The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, set in a Benedictine monastery in the year 1327, is based on the idea that a lost copy of those lectures by Aristotle was found.  The threat of the subversive power of laughter that the book represents to the Church authorities sets off a series of murders in the monastery which Franciscan friar William of Baskerville is ordered to investigate.

Aristotle’s lectures on the tragic emotions, however, have survived in his work the Poetics.   Tragedy serves a social function by being a catharsis or public release of emotions.  There are two cathartic emotions associated with tragedy:  pity and terror.  Pity is defined as whatsoever is grave and constant in human affairs which unites the audience with the human sufferer.  What makes a tragic work universal are the key words “grave and constant in human affairs”.  If you tell a personal story of loss, that may have meaning to those that know you personally, but to tell a universal story of tragedy, you have to tell a story that any audience member can relate to.  If they can relate to the hero or protagonist, then the suffering that the hero undergoes will create sympathy from the audience and attract them to the story you have to tell.

The emotion of terror seems similar to that of pity, but with a twist:  it is whatsoever is grave and constant in human affairs which unites the audience with the secret cause of the suffering.  The suffering of the human protagonist is caused either by another antagonist or it could be something more elemental such as the workings of fate, time, or Providence.  Terror in this context is secret empathy for the adversary, and Hitchcock was famous for being a master of terror for this very reason.  At the same time you are watching one of Hitchcock’s films and thinking that a murderer is despicable, Hitchcock manipulates you through point-of-view shots, etc., to have some sort of empathy for the character nonetheless.  As Nathaniel Hawthorne once wrote, “Man must not disclaim his brotherhood, even with the guiltiest.”

The simultaneous sympathy for the hero and empathy for the adversary are the elements of what takes a work of tragedy from the beautiful to the sublime.  In the case of Battlestar Galactica, the heroes among the Colonials are seen as good but flawed people, and this naturally evokes the emotion of pity or sympathy in the audience.  But the triumph of Battlestar Galactica is that you end up having empathy for those who are ostensibly the enemy, the Cylons.  And in the end, you realize that they are both grappling with the same issues of survival and the search for meaning.   The series makes us ask ourselves:   are there Cylons we meet in life that we confront as adversaries who might become our allies someday?

Learning to have empathy with one’s adversary is a principle which has guided me throughout my life, and it’s one of the reasons why BSG has meant so much to me this past year or so.  I am sure it will continue to resonate with me to the end of own personal tale of survival and the search for meaning along the way.

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