Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Battlestar Galactica: Admiral Adama goes to the United Nations

Last night, I had one of the coolest/geekiest experiences of my career, as I got to attend a panel discussion on "Battlestar Galactica" at the United Nations' Economic and Social Council Chamber, featuring Edward James Olmos, Mary McDonnell and producers Ron Moore and David Eick and several UN reps, moderated by Whoopi Goldberg.

After the jump, a breakdown of how the evening went...

Sci Fi Channel went to the trouble of dressing up every seat in the room with placards designating the 12 Colonies. Caprica, naturally, was the primo seating area. I wound up getting a very good view but a very uninspiring colony by sitting in the Leonis section. At first, we wondered if they were maybe pre-existing props from the series (maybe from season one's "Colonial Day"), but the corners weren't cropped, and a friend who used to work on the show pointed out that for that to be true, someone would have needed to know this event would be happening before production wrapped almost a year ago so they could be saved, and that's unlikely. By the end of the evening, a lot of the placards had disappeared into people's bags.

Three things to keep in mind before I get to summarizing the event:

1. The evening was as much about the UN as about "Battlestar Galactica," if not moreso. There were four segments, devoted to issues like human rights, terrorism, and children and armed conflict. After a clip reel illustrating how the series at one point or another tackled that issue, the UN rep gave a long speech discussing the current state of that problem in our world, often making a token attempt at best to connect their subject to the show. Then Whoopi tried her best to balance discussing the issue currently and discussing it in the context of "BSG." Some of the panelists admittedly had never watched the show before they were invited to do the event, and some of the subjects had only a tangential connection at best ("BSG" really only dealt with kids and human trafficking in "Black Market"), and it felt like a lot of the night was an attempt to introduce "BSG" fans to issues that the UN deals with as opposed to introducing the geo-politically-inclined to "BSG."

2. Eddie Olmos likes to talk. The guy's opinionated, and he's passionate, and he'll go on a while. (Whoopi had to cut him off a few times.) But he also has a sense of self-deprecation about it. "You should've never invited me here," he admitted, right before he went on a rant about his hatred of the concept of referring to different ethnic groups as "races." (Said rant climaxed with him leading the crowd in a call-and-response of "So say we all!")

3. Considering 1 & 2, Whoopi did a very good job. Obviously, part of her job on "The View" is to try to maintain control of a chaotic discussion among strong personalities, and she's an unabashed sci-fi fangirl, so she was well-suited to keeping the conversation moving and trying to find a balance between "BSG" talk and UN talk.

Now, onto the four segments:

Human Rights

We started off with clips of Kara torturing Leoben in "Flesh and Bone," then The Circle conducting their executions in "Collaborators," and then Lee's speech in "Crossroads, Part 2" about how they've become a gang. Craig Mokhiber, Deputy Director of the New York office of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, seemed the most plugged-in to the show of all the UN reps, making several references to the show -- "We are all Cylons," he said at one point, while discussing the idea that we dehumanize our enemies to allow ourselves to do horrible things to them, "Every one of us is a Cylon, and every one of us is a Colonial."

Moore and Eick talked a lot about Leoben getting waterboarded, and Eick noted that they went out of their way to make it ambiguous whether he actually had the nuke Kara was looking for, which made it even harder to get on her side as she tortured him.

This segment is when Eddie's rant about race happened, because Mokhiber quoted the founding documents of the human rights office in his speech, and it contained references to different races. When the mic got turned back to Mokhiber a few minutes later, he seemed mortified and went out of his way to explain that the document he was quoting was 60 years old, and featured other outmoded terminology like referring to the two "sexes." And he said he would support any effort to get that language changed.

"When a bug doesn't like you," Eddie said in response to the offer, "that's racism."

"That is so deep, I'm going to take a question (from the audience) now," Whoopie interjected.

There were a few hundred NYC high school students in the crowd, and they were occasionally allowed to ask questions, starting with one about whether our current obsession with technology could lead to the creation of actual Cylons. Moore cleverly brought this back on topic by noting that we're a few years away from actual artificial intelligence, and that there's going to come a point where we have to decide whether to extend human rights to artifical but self-aware creations.

Children and Armed Conflict

Again, this one had very little connection to the show, and the UN rep, Radhika Coomerswamy, admitted she had only watched a couple of episodes to prep for the panel, and was pleasantly surprised to find it was "a deeply moral show" and not just a showcase for special effects.

Whoopi adroitly picked up on some of Coomerswamy's stories about horrific things done to young girls in war-torn countries and used that to spin the discussion around to gender on "Galactica." Moore and Eick talked for a while about how, once they made Starbuck a woman, they decided they wanted her to not be the first female Viper jock, but one of many, in a gender-neutral society, in which all the female officers were called "sir," and in which gender-related epithets were never used. (The closest they came, they admitted, was whenever someone would dismiss Laura Roslin as "a schoolteacher.")

One of the student questions went back to the human rights discussion, asking Mary whether she thought that Roslin was committing crimes when she threw people out of airlocks. Mary said she did, and that it troubled her personally, but that in character, she was absolutely committed to the belief that it was necessary.

"Mary can say she was haunted by airlocking," said Eick, "But she was the one who made it a verb."

Eddie noted that they had deliberately made Laura "the 214th person in line to get this job," and Mary, mock indignant, interrupted to check with Moore that she was, in fact, the 43rd person in line for it.

After another monologue about whether the UN should intercede with the problems in Mexico, Eddie talked about how he as Adama never listened to Roslin on military-related decisions, "And that was a mistake." Moore said they wanted to explore how fragile the law is at times of war, and Eick noted, "You get a brief glimpse into the dynamics of the set when you hear Mary refer to the President as 'Laura,' and Eddie refers to the Admiral as 'I.'"


Whoopi noted that we were running way behind at this point, so the last two segments were briefer than the first two.

The clip reel, not surprisingly, focused on the New Caprica arc and Roslin and Saul Tigh's debate about suicide bombing. Moore said he wanted Tigh to have a strategic rationale for ordering the bombings, that it would be much more frightening if he was logical than if he was crazy.

Reconciliation and Dialogue Among Civilizations and Faiths

There was a lot of talk here about the decision to make the Cylons (the ostensible villains) the monotheists and the humans the polytheists. Moore said it happened almost by accident. He was writing a Caprica Six scene in the miniseries and, on a whim, had her say, "God is love," and a Sci Fi Channel executive liked the line and told him to run with it.

"The network wanted more religious tension," said Eick. "How often do you hear that?"

"Other than on my show," said Whoopi.

They started wrapping up. Moore said that he wanted the show to entertain, but also to make people think -- that even if people came out of episodes like "Flesh and Bone" or "Occupation" with the same beliefs they had when they went in, "at least you thought about it."

Eddie talked about the incredible journey, how they made 84 hours of television. There are some shows or movies that you spend time watching, or working on, where you might regret those lost hours when you're on your deathbed, and he didn't think either those who watched or worked on this show would feel that way.

Mary said she felt "honored to have participated in such profound simplicity," and she and Eddie both expressed their gratitude for being able to participate in an event like this.

And on a lighter closing note, Whoopie said, "I thank God for the word 'Frak,'" which she's used a few times on "The View," to the confusion of her co-stars.

Finally, let me remind you once again that this is not a political blog, and any comment by someone who jumps on here to complain about the UN, or US foreign policy, or anything else unrelated to "BSG" itself will be deleted. Period. I'm halfway tempted to just turn off comments for this post, as I'm afraid the political talk will be unavoidable, so just know I'm going to have a quick trigger finger today.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the writeup!

Anonymous said...

Good to know they're really addressing the pressing issues of our times.

gina said...

Thanks for the recap, Alan!

Steve B said...

Wish I was there, it sounds like it was a good time.

Since finding out that you've seen the finale, I've been wondering whose position is worse: Me, for knowing the finale has been screened, but still having to wait two more days for it; or you, for having seen it, but being unable to talk about it under threat of airlocking?

I wouldn't worry too much about political talk in this post. I think most of the people who watch Battlestar are used to discussing politics in the context of that show. We'll keep it clean.

Anonymous said...

I am a bit puzzled about how this all came about. Why is the United Nations discussing a TV show?

(I confess, at the risk of turning this political, that my first thought was to wonder what they said about Israel, given that anti-Israel sentiment seems to be fashionable in both Hollywood and the UN)

Anonymous said...

Thank you Alan for your excellent re-cap of the UN/Battlestar Galactica event. I must say I thought it was "weird" to have it, but I see people took turns taking it seriously and having some self-deprecation over how an entertainment show could possibly change someone's mind about, say, waterboarding. that's asking an awful lot from an hour of tv filled with commercials for, say, a Frak Pack of Fried Chicken.

That said, I STILL would like to see it, or read a transcript, any word on the event being made available for viewing online or a transcript?

Anonymous said...

Tracey: Same here, but check out hte official UN website. Apparently, in May, there is a UN sponsored symposium on the impact of the end of "According to Jim" in may and the effect on the world economic downturn and its relation to third world economics and also those of developing nations. Poignant, timely stuff.

Unknown said...

I think the coolest thing about panels like this is how obvious it is that the actors like Olmos and McDonnel (spelling) really love what they're doing. I think it's hard to find actors who are that into what they're doing.

For instance, a lot of the actors from Lost seem like they couldn't care less about the mythology and the bigger picture of the show.

But it's pretty obvious that Olmos and McDonnel truly love the show BSG and enjoy getting into the nitty gritty and what the show has to say about the world.

Now, I'm not saying that I don't like actors who see their jobs as mercenary. That's fine. But it's just a real thrill when you see actors geeking out as much as the audience.

Alan Sepinwall said...

I am a bit puzzled about how this all came about. Why is the United Nations discussing a TV show?

Like I said, it seemed like they were using the relative popularity of "BSG" -- a show that grappled with many of the subjects the UN deals with daily -- to bring attention to those subjects from people who would otherwise have no interest in hearing about human rights violations, child trafficking, etc.

Alan Sepinwall said...

That said, I STILL would like to see it, or read a transcript, any word on the event being made available for viewing online or a transcript?

There was talk last week of a video and/or a transcript, but I don't know any concrete details.

Francisco said...

but the corners weren't dropped, and a friend who used to work on the show pointed out that or that to be true, someone would have needed to know this event would be happening before production wrapped almost a year ago

C'mon Alan!! Of all people you should know all of this has happened before, all of this will happen again.

Mrglass said...

Thanks for the writeup, sounds like a great way to promote both the UN and Galactica.

Next, The Sopranos panel at Goldman Sachs.

Carolyn said...

Funny, I had the same experience with EJO at Dragon*Con, every time he was either the one asked a question / or he decided he wanted to be the one to answer, he went on and on and ...

brettspiel said...

It makes perfect sense to me that this kind of event happened. Science Fiction asks questions about our own time, set in a future/alternate society. Social Science Fiction. The writers of BSG have engaged the viewers with relevant issues, both personal and global. It is a wonderful thing to recognize that and parlay it to a real world interaction.

Anonymous said...

The UN has the video of the event available on its website at Its the first event listed for 17 March.

Eric Webb said...

Thanks for the write up and all the great coverage you've been doing of Battlestar in general.

The UN panel video is already archived here:

Warning: You'll need realplayer to watch the video!

Anonymous said...

What happened to not allowing political comments. I thought Tracey's ridiculous assertion about anti-Israel bias is out of place here. (Feel free to erase my message also but I don't think it's fair to leave that assertion unchallenged.)

Cory Martin said...

Alan, thank you so much for the UN recap! It sounds like it was a lovely, thought-provoking event that won't soon be replicated. I mean, how can it be? No other series deals with these issues and themes week after week, and certainly not with the intensity and scrutiny that BSG never wavered on. When I heard about this panel, I was speechless, but somehow, it truly made sense. And was no doubt a great honor for the creative team. Thank you for the little glimpse into the evening!

Rick's Time On Earth said...

Terrific break down of the night! You have a new fan of your blog here!

Craig Ranapia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Craig Ranapia said...

For instance, a lot of the actors from Lost seem like they couldn't care less about the mythology and the bigger picture of the show.

Chris: Quite seriously, I don't think that's entirely fair. Do any of the actors on Lost have any more of a clue about "the mythology and the bigger picture" than anyone else. Terry O'Quinn's been pretty explicit that he doesn't ask any more (because nobody's telling him nothing), but invests a very high degree of trust in the writers and producers that he's not going to left (figuratively speaking) with his ass hanging out.

In the end, all I'm saying is that Lost and BSG are very different shows, and that's worth keeping in mind.

Anonymous said...

Being from a (Jewish) family that lost most of its members in the Holocaust, I know where Tracey is coming from with her comments, which weren't political, just an observation.

Karen said...

"Every one of us is a Cylon, and every one of us is a Colonial."

I really like this line from Mokhibar, because I think it digs directly to a core issue, which is that it's impossible to say which side is right, which side you'd "take," which side represents the U.S., say, or its enemy, etc. It's the complex shadings of each conflict, the ability to completely see the argument from either side, that makes the show so rewarding.

Anonymous said...

Calling Hollywood or the UN anti-Isreal is a political comment, one that a reasonable person can disagree with. Without belaboring the issue, it's exactly the kind of comment Alan said aren't appropriate for this blog, which is why I raised the point.

Anonymous said...

For those with real player, its available in segments at:
EJO's 'So Say We All' is also on youtube:

Unknown said...

Craig Ranapia:

Point taken regarding Lost's mythology. My point was that it seems to me that Olmos and McDonnell seem to revel in their show when some of the actors on Lost see it as more like a job you punch into.

There are exceptions of course. Jorge Garcia and Michael Emerson seem to genuinely dig the show they work on and are excited by the material like how Olmos and McDonnell do for BSG.

I wasn't trying to put down the actors on Lost. I was just saying it's really great as a fanboy to see that the actors love it just as much as I do.

Anonymous said...

Come on UN, wikipedia BSG and read the summary before the panel discussion. Then just bluff the rest.

Anonymous said...

So Say We All!