Everybody has a 9/11 story, and I’m no exception. It’s like asking where you were when JFK was shot or when the Challenger exploded — the details rub off, with the telling. My story now is simple:
I was working at the Sephora store in Rockefeller Center. I hadn’t been clocked in for long, but I was already in my uniform. The morning was chilly, but the afternoon ended up being unseasonably warm. We watched the world fall apart on an old TV with a wire hanger as an antenna. When our building was evacuated, it took me six hours to walk from Manhattan to the Bronx, and I saw things that will never leave me.
I generally avoid all media as the anniversary rolls around, and the entire country starts reliving, mourning, and some of us can’t help but indulge in a little performative grief-wanking. If you’ve seen one Twin Tower collapse in hopeless flames, at this point, to me you’ve seen them all. Since the advent of Netflix, I’ve started spending the first two weeks of September binge-watching whatever show is least likely to make me remember, and most likely to help me forget: Endless seasons of “The Office,” rewatching “Lost,” all the old episodes of “Law & Order: SVU” I’ve already seen at least five times.
This year, I chose “Battlestar Galactica.” Although everyone I know has been singing the praises of this show since it aired, I went in relatively blind. I had a vague idea of what it was about — Robots? Space? Edward James Olmos’ magnificent face? — but that was about it. As the story unspooled, I found myself seeing parallel after parallel to our collective post-9/11 lives — stuff they couldn’t have known that would happen long after the show was finished; stuff we all would have shied away from predicting.
The thing about streaming a show as opposed to watching it weekly, often with months in between breaks and seasons, is the clarity it gives, parsing themes as it flows: The entire sheet of music at once, rather than one bar at a time. As a four-and-a-half-year symphony that debuted just three autumns after that day, it’s a lot to take in at once — but one whose motifs, as they repeat, keep the song tight and the music going.
Even though showrunner Ronald D. Moore has denied 9/11 directly influencing his writing, you can feel its shadow. When the miniseries first aired in 2003, we were still trying to find our footing as a country, and as a people discovering their vulnerability for the first time.
When Adama asks the tragic sleeper agent Boomer (Grace Park) why the Cylons want to destroy them — the source of their hatred — her response is chilling and dry: “You said that humanity never asked itself why it deserved to survive. Maybe you don’t.”
You don’t ask yourself those questions until you must, of course. Death and destruction are much cheaper, elsewhere in the world. It’s not a sign of weakness to wonder and to grieve, when that sense of safety is ripped away, but Boomer was speaking to something we were still asking, in 2003, and 2008, and 2016.
But “Battlestar” doesn’t really feel like commentary — it feels like soul-searching; it has the true and hallowed ring of a nation, a particular long-past spirit, talking to itself. The answers it wants are the same we demanded. How do we come to terms with our sudden, unimaginable frailty? Who could hate us, me, this much? Why? Who do we blame? How far do we go with that? What part did we play in our downfall? What questions are even worth asking? How do we measure that loss, otherwise?
It’s been 13 years. Those of us who needed those questions answered have settled on our truth. But when this show began we were still struggling mightily. The show garnered a reputation for being dark and gritty, to the point of redundancy, but that may just be because we assume a certain amount of escapism in our genre fiction.
Think of “Black Mirror,” how its reputation for being dark, intense, stomach-churning dystopia so easily distracts us (necessarily, I’d say) from the fact that it actually takes place in the most realistic, day-after-tomorrow world (short of “Orphan Black”) that you can imagine. Think of “Game of Thrones” and its reputation for fantastical horrors and shocking twists — that all happen to recall basic Western history.
We want our fantasy and sci-fi to be hyper-realistic and will complain mightily that it isn’t, but once you hit the uncanny valley of realism, darkness seems to be all we can see.
But watching from 2016 — in the midst of surely the most dystopian political environment this country has ever seen, from “Running Man” corporatism and “Handmaid’s Tale” assault on women’s bodies to the “Hunger Games” cheapness of black lives — and the daily dose of media hysteria, “Battlestar” feels nothing short of hopeful to me.
In Admiral Adama, we have the competent and kind father figure we so longed for in the aftermath of 9/11; in President Roslin (Mary McDonnell), the no-nonsense mother bear. He is calm, assertive, decisive, deeply moved and deeply moving. She is firm but loving, kind but careful, intelligent and emotional — and so very present. These two are the core of the family, the center from which goodness radiates outward. To imagine what it would’ve been like to have Barack and Michelle Obama in the Oval Office during 9/11 is to imagine the closest thing to an Adama and Roslin we will ever see.
Instead, we had Bush, who in his best moments channeled a bit of Dr. Gaius Baltar (minus the whole scientific genius thing). Through Baltar (James Callis), we’re able to explore the roots and consequences of our own cowardice, greed and ego — and as the show continues, able to find real compassion for him. To find him in ourselves, and give it peace.
Do bravery or heroism count, if performed in the wreckage of the world you burned? Do we credit your good deeds, when misdeeds are your true legacy and ours? Baltar is a layered person, fearfully and wonderfully made, like all of us. Chosen by God, in fact, just as he always thought. He is equal parts sniveling d-bag and reluctant humanist; we hate him and we love him because that’s even less contradiction than we ourselves contain.
The Cylons, too, are achingly real — every nation we’ve invaded, occupied, terrorized, tortured, raped, or murdered in the name of freedom. We create the monsters that lurk under our beds — the Sharon (Park) that we work with, the Six (Tricia Helfer) whose heart we break, the endless disenfranchised and disillusioned we’ve left in our wake. And sometimes, we’re the victims: When humanity sets down on New Caprica, their enslavement looks a lot like someone else’s sensible immigration policy.
It took a city smothered in ashes to make us ask: Just because we can, does it mean we should? We don’t ask ourselves that anywhere near as often as we must, whether it’s claiming “free speech” after Internet abuses, or chalking racial profiling up to the numbers, or ignoring the decades of rage and fear that threaten to put a fascist, racist demagogue in office.
Man created Cylons because he could, never stopping to think if he should, to wonder at what it would mean for the future. We’re make Cylons in our own image every day. So… where’s the hope? It’s where it always is, in the stories we tell each other and ourselves.
It’s in Adama’s impromptu kiss for a dying Laura Roslin, as beautiful as anything ever captured on film; it’s in her delighted, surprised giggle immediately afterward, as she sees how quickly the world can open up. It’s in the way Starbuck’s (Katee Sackhoff) love is so powerful it only ever escapes through her eyes, and President Laura tenderly moving a single lock of hair from the forehead of the only family she had left. It’s Apollo (Jamie Bamber), drifting peacefully beyond the war, as ships burn like stars.
It’s in the million ways we have to love ourselves, and each other: Gaius Baltar giving Gina (Helfer) a gun, and Helo (Tahmoh Penikett) begging for his child’s life, in the face of utter futility. Helena Cain’s (Michelle Forbes) eyes filling with tears, meeting her death with the straight back of a soldier. Adama begging a corpse for answers as he weeps, knowing the answer in his bones, ignoring it like cancer. It’s Starbuck remembering the name of every lost pilot, toasting them through angry tears.
They carry on, like we carry on, even when everything they knew goes up in smoke. The hope lies in the story, as they puts words to the unspeakable and meaning to their memories.
If this show were made today, I think it would be as beautiful as it ever was — but it would be weary, cynical, a little harder around the edges. Moore and his crew created a masterpiece of timing: A national moment centered on the unsentimental and the loving — surviving, rebuilding, hope and kindness. Togetherness forged from shocking loss. Loss of life, identity, loss of absolute certainty in our place in the world. We held hands in parks, we lit candles, we sang “New York, New York” as hot wax ran down our hands and into puddles at our feet. We raised our flags and ran fingers over thousands of names, saying them out loud like a rosary. We cried and we prayed and we promised revenge and forgiveness.
Of course 9/11 was Caprica, burning. And of course Adama knew in his gut something we still haven’t learned to ask, or to believe: “It’s not enough to survive. One must be worthy of survival.” But eight years on, seeing the story that came out of that moment — knowing the way our country gathered around its fire — seems like at least part of the proof that we are.
“Battlestar Galactica” is available on Hulu.