Battlestar Galactica: Disability In Space

Please be aware that this post contains spoilers for all four seasons of Battlestar Galactica! If you haven’t seen the show and are planning to, stop reading. Really. This is not a show you want to be spoiled on.

I’ve recently been tearing my way through Battlestar Galactica, and there’s a whole lot of stuff to write about, but I wanted to start with the show’s depiction of disability. I find it remarkable that we are seeing positive depictions of disability in science fiction before we see them in mainstream television, and it speaks to a general trend in science fiction which is very interesting. Despite the fact that some people turn up their noses at science fiction and all it stands for, it is often the most striking television in terms of depicting equality; on BSG, for example, we see women and people of colour working in key positions and it’s not a Special Moment or anything particularly remarkable. Likewise, science fiction and fantasy books are sometimes much more remarkable from a social justice standpoint than Great Novels.

The show’s depiction of disability centers around the idea that disability is no reason to sideline someone or to believe that someone can’t function because of ability status. What I like about the handling of disability is one of the key points on my lists of things I look for when seeking good depictions of disability: Battlestar Galactica shows characters who happen to be disabled. It’s part of them, but it doesn’t consume them, and the characters are not about their disability.

Given the setting of the show, what we see the most of is acquired disability and the impact that it has on the lives of the characters.

The scene that really encapsulates the handling of disability on the show, for me, is actually a montage on the hangar deck which is supposed to convey frantic motion and everyone pitching in together to get something done. We get stirring music and a series of close up cropped shots of hands busily working on wiring, furrowed brows, people sliding under aircraft, and an amputee replacing part of an engine. No muss, no fuss. No one is behaving at all oddly, the character (we only see the person’s arm) is simply fitting in a part with a prosthesis and locking it down with the other hand, and the camera cuts quickly to another person working, underscoring the fact that there’s nothing remarkable about it, it’s just a person doing ou job.

Disability, the scene says, doesn’t bar someone from pitching in.

Saul Tigh, the XO of the Galactica, is a disabled character we get more up close and personal with. He loses his eye in Cylon detention on New Caprica, and there’s another scene that really struck me, with Tigh looking in the mirror while he struggles to fit a fresh bandage over his eye socket. The scene reminded me of my own struggles with bandage changes in the days and weeks after my first eye injury, as I looked into the mirror and watched my hands wander all over my face with the new bandage because everything was off kilter and unfamiliar and I couldn’t seem to get the bandage to go where it was supposed to.

I like that we get to see Tigh adjusting, over time, and that no one ever questions his fitness for duty. Sure, he’s missing an eye, but how does that in any way impede his ability to serve in the command room? Of far more concern is his drinking and emotional anguish over the loss of his wife, which I think that the show also deals with really well. Seeing Saul with his eye patch, I start to forget that we ever saw him with two eyes at all; Michael Hogan plays the role very naturally and well.

In the fourth season, Felix Gaeta loses his leg because he’s shot and he can’t get to the doctor in time to save the leg. In recovery, as he tries to cope with phantom limb pain, he starts singing. I thought this was a great scene because it depicted how agonizing pain from phantom limbs can be, and how there are a variety of ways to try and process that pain. We weren’t treated to a scene where we were supposed to be impressed by his stoicism or any such nonsense; the show allowed us to see the character feeling the experience and reacting to it, and I liked that.

Laura Roslin’s cancer is another disability-related theme, one which runs throughout the series. One thing which I found really pleasing about her character was that no one suggested that she should step down as President simply because she had cancer. Even when the public became aware of the fact that she was hallucinating because of her cancer medications, there wasn’t a clamor to remove her from office. So what, the show says, she has cancer. Big whup. She can still be President!

Yet, the show didn’t sugarcoat cancer, either. We didn’t see President Roslin relentlessly perky. We saw her struggling with side effects from medication, we saw her bald, we saw her weak and sick. We saw her terrified of death and dying and trying to process it in a variety of ways, and the show did not shy away from pain and suffering. I didn’t always like what President Roslin did, and sometimes her character made me deeply infuriated, but they managed to depict cancer honestly and dynamically, without making Roslin into any of the troped depictions of disability I’m used to seeing on television.

I can think of loads more depictions of disability on this show which I like, but I think this is a good stopping point. For folks who have seen Battlestar Galactica, how did you read/respond to disability on the show? If you’ve experienced any of the disabilities experienced by the characters, and you’re comfortable talking about it, did the depictions on the show ring true to your own experiences? Were there depictions of disability on the show you didn’t like, and if so, what were they, and why?

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

19 thoughts on “Battlestar Galactica: Disability In Space

  1. SPOILER IN THIS COMMENT!! BIG ONE!

    I am interested in any thoughts you might have about Sam becoming a hybrid. It left a bad taste in my mouth when they just sent him into the sun…I felt like they couldn’t understand his mode of communicating, and he needed to be hooked up to a machine to live, so he wasn’t “useful” anymore and they sent him to die. Honestly, I don’t think pre-hybrid Sam would have approved and I was surprised that Kara just kissed him goodbye. Maybe it was just rushed writing, but I don’t know. It makes me sad, and I definitely think there was disability imagery involved in his whole transformation into hybridness.

    Am I totally off base? What do you guys think?

  2. Wow thank you for posting this! I’ve been watching this show nonstop lately and was excited to see a post about it. I haven’t really thought about it in terms of disability–my reaction has mostly been delight at the varied portrayal of female characters, and disappointment that despite gender supposedly not being a big issue in their society, no one is ever queer. (Apparently Felix is bi, and Admiral Cain and Gina were in a relationship before Gina was revealed as a Cylon, but I’ve just read that these things were portrayed in extras and webisodes. They weren’t in the show, so it’s kind of like Dumbledore all over again. Also, while Felix is awesome, Admiral Cain is not exactly the kind of queer character one hopes for.)

    I haven’t quite gotten to Felix’s amputation yet (I’m a few episodes into season four) but I got the impression that he becomes a somewhat villainous and irresponsible character and that this is supposed to be a reaction to the trauma of losing his leg. That doesn’t seem good, but have I misunderstood what I read?

  3. Yes, I should note that I wrote this post when I was about halfway through season four, which means that I hadn’t gotten to the part where Felix turns into the Tormented Disabled Villain yet -or- the situation with Sam, which also left me with a bad taste in my mouth, bsgfan/fwdlurker! It is interesting to note that I felt like the show’s depiction of disability was overall positive until the very end; I wonder what happened there exactly. (And contrast Felix/Tigh, both of whom acquire disabilities and respond very differently to them!)

  4. I think the Felixfail, in addition to being a disability fail, was connected with a larger failure to betray his revolutionary group with complexity and as principled and worthy of empathy… although they were on the opposite side of most of the characters we were generally asked to identify with, I think the series could’ve done a better job allowing viewers to identify with the revolutionaries’ position as well, which I think also would’ve made Felix less pathologized villain and more an individual w/ integrity occupying a particular political position.

    This Sam critique makes a lot of sense, and in general, I think the hybrids invoked a lot of disabilities imagery but were treated as objects and devices.

    I would be interested in hearing whether anybody “reads” the Cylons and their stigmatization and “otherness” and part-“human/part-“machine”-ness more generally in terms of disability, and also in terms of the relationship between “posthuman” theories and gender and disability-related theory and practice.

  5. One of the reasons I’ve been a sci-fi fan since childhood is because of the themes of acceptance, social justice, etc in many of the books I read. I could never get behind a lot of fantasy, which often has more “classic” (ie, noninclusive) themes.

  6. I liked it when Kara Thrace injured her leg and it wasn’t just forgotten about next episode. You saw her still using crutches and having to do painful exercises over successive episodes, and gradually getting back into her work. Not a permanent disability, but a realistically-portrayed impairment, which I really appreciated.

    I think Tim Jones-Yelvington is right about Gaeta-fail. When I watched the show I thought at first that Felix was meant to be the underdog we root for, because so many of the others were angry with him for his role in the revolutionary group. And it took me ages to realise that he was being *presented by the show itself* as a bad guy, or at the very least as untrustworthy, for having been a double agent. Even though that was necessary. Even though it has parallels in a thousand real-life wars and other situations where people have been oppressed. Even though it seemed obvious, to me, that he was trying to do the right thing.

    I don’t know if it’s some kind of cultural difference between the UK (where I’m from) and the US, that Felix would be seen as utterly disloyal for having done what he did. Or if it’s another manifestation of the show’s homophobic fail, with ‘this LGBT character is bad, because LGBT, and must be shown to be bad’. Because in the special, Razor, the latter was REALLY obvious and unpleasant, re: the lesbian relationship.

  7. For what it’s worth–if I’m correctly understanding that you’re talking about “Collaborators” and Felix passing information to the resistance on New Caprica–I’m American and it didn’t occur to me that we were not supposed to root for him. I definitely thought we were supposed to root for him, feel sorry for him that other people thought of him as a traitor, and basically think that Starbuck et. al. were being really cruel. I even thought it was a little cartoonish how evil they were being.

    hopefully you’re not referring to episodes I haven’t seen yet and I’m misunderstanding. I don’t think he’s any kind of double agent when he does the mutiny, though, is he?

  8. I thought we were supposed to be sympathetic towards Gaeta throughout the coup. I thought it was clear that he was doing what he thought best, that he was representing a good number of people in the fleet that were crushed by finding Earth desolate, and that he was also responding to the fact that the existing leadership was often quite despotic – it was very much a situation of their own making. He wasn’t necessarily right; it was a complicated situation and ultimately, I guess, fate was on the side of Adama and Roslyn. But he could have been, and I thought the show acknowledged that. Zarek was the one who really twisted the coup in terrible ways, I thought, making it much more violent than it necessarily would have been otherwise.

  9. (Though I guess I should say that I haven’t seen it since it aired, and I might very well have missed crucial digs at Gaeta that I’m not remembering.)

  10. @AWV – Cain and Gina’s relationship is pretty clearly spelled out in the move Razor, but I’m not sure that everywhere bothered to screen it since it doesn’t slot in neatly between seasons! Definitely canonical though and not treated as anything other than two people having a relationship – the protagonist Kendra seems weirded out by the fact that Admiral Cain’s being affectionate and flirty with another person much more than by the fact that the other person is a woman. Of course that also put an entirely different horrible horrible spin on what happens to Gina afterwards for me.

  11. I never read the Gaeta thing as an issue with his disability. It’s not a Bad Cripple Villain part to me. Gaeta has been shown to play sides before like this on New Caprica. He works for Baltar and the resistance AND conspires with a Cylon. He isn’t morally black or white, but like most of the characters a gray area. I also believe that he largely blames the situation on the Demetrius on Kara (even though Helo shoots him in the leg). He does harbor anger over his loss. Furthermore, to some extent Gaeta is not a strong willed character and is easily controlled (The Eight, Baltar, etc) and Zarek controls him easily. This isn’t a disability issue to me, it’s a character issue.

    As for Anders – again. I just don’t read it as a disability issue. The technology of the colonies and cylons cannot continue to exist. The Hub is destroyed, leaving Anders the only Hybrid. It’s not a matter of “we can’t communicate with him, toss him!” – it’s a matter of starting anew.

    As for Admiral Cain and Gaeta and the “Homosexuals are bad” – still not buying it. There’s never an explanation for why they are gay. There are explanations for why they do bad things. It’s not the classic “they were abused and so they’re evil Gay Villains!” – Cain lost a sister at a young age, to the the cylons. It’s not surprise that should would torture a cylon period, let alone one who betrayed her trust in such a way.. Gaeta is shown repeatedly to play sides for whatever reason, and his change isn’t all that out of line with his character – disability or no disability.

  12. AWV – yes, I was thinking of the period on New Caprica. It’s interesting to hear a different perspective on it!

  13. Oh yeah, on New Caprica I a 100% thought he was totally in the right and that the show made this clear. It was tragic that he was almost killed for collaborating when he had actually saved them all, not something he deserved, and it was indicative of how out of control and morally wrong the group doing the revenge killings was. Of course, we didn’t know, for quite a while, when we were watching it that Gaeta was actually helping out the resistance on New Caprica. But once we found out, I think there was no question that we were supposed to sympathize with him and respect him (even if we question his judgment for trusting Baltar in the first place, he couldn’t have known where it would lead).

    His behavior during the coup was the much more ambiguous, I thought.

  14. Has anyone been watching the new Caprica prequel? So far it isn’t as anti-sexist and POC positive as BSG, but by the second episode we have an openly queer character. There is also a plural marriage, but I’m afraid the polyamorous folks are supposed to be villains. 🙁 I don’t recall any characters with disabilities either, unless you read Zoe Graystone that way.

  15. Yes, Lake Desire, I am watching Caprica! And I actually just watched the episode with the plural marriage last night so it’s very fresh in my mind. I think that Caprica is going to delve more into racial and cultural divides, or that seems to be where they are going with it, and I hope that they are going to touch upon the class system which became so contentious in BSG, where Capricans were basically elevated over everyone else. Given that we’re only two episodes in I’m not quite ready to make sweeping judgments about it, though.

  16. About the Anders/Hybrid storyline–I wasn’t too into it, but there’s something interesting about it from a real-life perspective. The actor, Michael Trucco, was in a car accident before they started shooting the last season, and fractured his neck (almost exactly the same injury Christopher Reeve had). I’m not sure if he still wasn’t able to walk during filming, or if they just weren’t sure when they wrote the episodes how much/if he would recover from the injury, but at any rate they wrote it that way because he was disabled and they wanted to find a way to accommodate that. So many people got killed off on that show, and it would have been really easy to just have his character die, and say to the actor, “Sorry, we care about you, but you just can’t do the part we wanted for you anymore, so you’re out of a job.”

    I also agree with the people who thought Felix Gaeta’s final storyline fit with his character development and that we weren’t supposed to see him as the bad guy. Even if (almost) all the characters did in the end. Something I liked about that show was that sometimes all the “really good” characters–Adama, Kara, etc–would just NOT GET IT and sometimes never see the other side. In Gaeta’s case it was only very slimy Gaius Baltar who ended up telling him, genuinely, that he knew Gaeta and that he was a good person. In a scene which totally made me cry.

    The sexuality stuff, I am ambivalent about. On the one hand, when they addressed it, it came up as a matter-of-fact thing. However, it was only shown directly in the “extras.” I bet most fans watched those, honestly, because they (um…we) were an obsessive bunch. But still, the same sex kissing not shown in the normal series. (Indirectly I think it was portrayed from the beginning. I was certain in season one that Gaeta had a serious crush on Baltar, and there was speculation for a long time was that the character was gay.)

  17. That’s so awesome that they did it to keep Michael Trucco in the show when he was injured! Given how many shows are reluctant to hire actors with disabilities, etc., as there are FWD posts about from time to time, it’s really refreshing that they found a way to work around their actor’s temporary disability, instead of just assuming he couldn’t do his job anymore.

    And I’m excited that there will be a nice scene between Felix and Gaius; they’re two of my favorites. It’s funny that when I saw this original post I immediately thought of Gaius, and then realized there was no feasible way to read him as disabled. I just relate to his apparent absence from himself during periods of stress, even though I don’t have a HeadSix.

  18. In addition to the killing off of Sam, I think the whole “let’s renounce technology!” decision at the end of the show was fairly ableist. What about all of the people who need technology to survive? Getting rid of technology means getting rid of all of the medical advancements that have been made, that many people rely on to live (baby Nicky anyone?). It also means getting rid of all prosthetics and wheelchairs.

    @Lake Desire

    There’s an interesting interview with Jane Espenson over at AfterElton, and she talks about the potential problem of their (so far) only queer and poly characters being villainous. At least we know that the writing staff for Caprica is aware of the issue, so I am hopeful.

    @Marie

    The technology of the colonies and cylons cannot continue to exist . . . It’s not a matter of “we can’t communicate with him, toss him!” – it’s a matter of starting anew.

    There’s never really any solid reason given for why they absolutely have to abandon tech. Lee just kinda feels like it would be a good idea and everyone else miraculously goes along with it. I find it telling that they don’t consider the life of Sam (and other people who require technology to live) as a worthy reason to continue to use technology. The message that sent to me was that the lives of disabled folk were considered expendable for the supposed greater good of the abled.

    RE: Gaeta and Cain. The problem was not that the show tried to correlate their sexuality with evilness, it’s that the only queer characters depicted in the show were evil and had to be killed. There are no positive portrayals of queer characters (given that Hoshi was never written to be queer, it was tacked on after they completed filming season four) on the show. Quoting from here: “[If] there is no context for this group outside of the token character you’ve included, [that] means that the weight of your opinions, feelings, etc. about that group only have an outlet through that character.” If Moore et. al had done a better job writing non-heterosexual characters into the show, then Gaeta/Cain wouldn’t have mattered because they wouldn’t be the sole representations of queerness on BSG.

  19. I think you’ve articulated a big critique of the primitivist ending of BSG, oliemoon. It echoes the eugenics mentality of the early 1900s… letting the “undesirable” population die for the “greater” social good. No thanks!

    I like that Lee proposed giving up technology because it makes for an interesting discussion, but I think it should have been a point of conflict. Since when have the 50,000 survivors ever agreed on anything in BSG? A pro-tech faction could have broken off and left Earth, or some catastrophe could have prevented the remaining humans & cylons from building a new civilization.

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