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?