Last night, visitors to the United Nations came to a fork in the hallway. To the right was the General Assembly where staffers lingered near the dais where Khrushchev banged his shoe. They smoked cigarettes — just as they did in the North by Northwest U.N. scenes a half century ago — in front of the placards of nations running from Albania to Zimbabwe. But the crowd bypassed history and headed into the adjacent ECOSOC chamber. There, the placards read Caprica, Leonis, and the names of the other twelve colonies of Kobol.
No, seriously. The chamber was filled to capacity for a discussion of the sci-fi drama Battlestar Galactica, with clips from episodes dealing with real-life U.N. issues, including human-rights violations, children in armed conflicts, terrorism, and dialogue among differing civilizations.
On the surface, it was an event ripe for parody — earlier this season on 30 Rock, Liz Lemon dated a man from the U.N., and they made nerdy jokes about the organization being like the Intergalactic Senate on Star Wars — but this sort of worked. Whoopi Goldberg moderated the panel, so there were some iffy moments, most provided by the actor Edward James Olmos, who plays Admiral Adama on the show. (Before the show, Olmos asked me if I had a match for a cigarette Whoopi had hidden in her sleeve. When I said I did not, Olmos commanded me: “Find one.”)
Still, Battlestar Galactica has addressed the issues of the paranoid post-9/11 world without flinching. The show, which airs its final episode on Friday, tells the story of the last survivors of an Earth-like planetary system destroyed in a nuclear holocaust orchestrated by the Cylons, synthetic humans who live amongst them. The 50,000 survivors wander the space desert and are alternately captors and captives, executing enemies for treason but also using suicide bombers when it suits their political motives. Already it’s hard to remember how courageous this was back in 2003 when the show was first aired. If every generation gets the TV show it deserves, and the comic nihilism of Seinfeld and the vapidity of Friends pretty much captured the nineties, then shows like 24 and Battlestar Galactica capture the ethical bankruptcy needed to wage a war on an undefinable enemy. “We are continually committing crimes to convince ourselves that we are right,” said Mary McDonnell, who plays President Laura Roslin, who alternately orders waterboarding of opponents but draws the line at Galactica soldiers serving as suicide bombers.
The evening was divided into four parts with a clip played and then a U.N. representative speaking about how it related to their work. After a scene where a Cylon is waterboarded, the U.N. human-rights aide Craig Mokiber turned to McDonnell and gravely said, “I just wanted to say, ‘Shame on you, Madame President.’ ” There were some chuckles, but then Mokiber smiled sadly and added, “You have no idea how many times I wanted to say that in this room.”
By the end, even Galactica partisans seemed to have grown tired of Olmos, who riffed about there only being one race, the human race, then led the crowd in chanting the show’s catchphrase: “So say we all.” Still, it was hard not to take away the lesson that moral relativism, whether it is on a TV show or in the actual war on terror, leads to decisions that haunt victims and victimizers alike. As a particularly creepy and prescient Battlestar Galactica character says, “It’s hard to claim the high ground when you’re standing in the mud.”