United Nations Sends 'Battlestar Galactica' Off With Great Diplomacy

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 19, 2009

UNITED NATIONS -- How do you bid farewell to a critically acclaimed but little-watched television science-fiction series that has won a Peabody Award and several Emmys?

If that show is "Battlestar Galactica," and its lofty episodes tackle themes no less weighty than moral justice, equal opportunity and the fate of humankind itself, then nothing would do short of a full-on retrospective at no less than the United Nations, which is, after all, dedicated to moral justice, equal opportunity and the fate of humankind.

Other, far more popular television series have gone out with a bang after far-longer runs -- think "M*A*S*H," "Seinfeld" or "The Sopranos." But none has managed "Battlestar's" coup, a packed chamber Tuesday night at the U.N. headquarters in Manhattan. There, top diplomats sat next to the actors and producers from the Sci Fi network's "Battlestar," debating everything from the use of child soldiers in wartime to whether water-boarding could ever be permissible, on humans or on the robotic creatures the show calls Cylons.

Oh, yes, and add in Whoopi Goldberg, a self-professed "Battlestar" fan, as moderator.

"The writers write incredible shows," boasted Edward James Olmos, who plays the crusty old admiral, William Adama -- and who had a little trouble disassociating himself from his character. He frequently used "I" when speaking about his character. Noting that the series had already won a Peabody Award in recognition of its excellence, Olmos gleefully added: "Now with this? We're blowing them away!"

It hardly seemed to matter that two of the top U.N. officials who spoke on the four panels admitted that they had never really watched the show.

Radhika Coomaraswamy, the special representative of the secretary general for children and armed conflict, said she was a fan of Goldberg's movies from back home in Sri Lanka, but she had to spend the weekend watching videos of past "Battlestar" episodes to prepare for the event.

Famatta Rose Osode, deputy head of Liberia's mission to the U.N., who spoke on the theme of reconciliation, conceded she didn't know she was supposed to speak before last Friday and "I didn't see the show."

"You had no idea what you were getting into," Olmos reassured Osode later. "The last thing you have time to talk about here is a television show."

Of course, Osode would not be alone. Despite the critical acclaim and considerable buzz among its intensely loyal fans, "Battlestar," since its most recent incarnation in 2004 as a dark, space-based drama series has catered to a relatively small audience: 1.7 million people tuned in for the first part of the "Battlestar" finale (with the second part scheduled for tomorrow).

A particular demographic -- young men -- was very well represented in the audience at the U.N. Economic and Social Council chambers Tuesday night, which with an impressive light show and some well-placed placards came to resemble an assembly of the 12 Colonies, as they were portrayed at the beginning of the series.

For those who haven't seen the show, tens of thousands of human survivors have escaped annihilation at the hands of the man-made Cylons and taken refuge aboard a rag-tag group of ships, centered on the aging warship Galactica. As they search for the mythical 13th colony, called Earth, they are led by the admiral and, on the civilian side, by President Laura Roslin, played by Mary McDonnell, who was also on hand at the U.N.

The invitation-only audience included 100 students from New York-area high schools, who seemed well-versed on all of "Battlestar's" plot intricacies, asking detailed questions such as whether "airlocking" -- shooting someone out of the air lock into space -- constitutes a human-rights abuse.

Olmos, who seemed to stay in character most of the night, spoke directly to the students in the audience early on when he declared, "It's unbelievable we're all doing this, in this manner," and then launched into a speech about how race was an outdated concept, that the only race was "the human race."

"So say we all!" Olmos cried out into the microphone.

"So say we all!" his loyal young fans cried back in unison, repeating the ritual several times.

After the unusual outburst, Goldberg tried to reestablish diplomatic decorum by quipping, "I love that you did it here at the United Nations."

At times, the forum seemed to be directly addressing the policies of Bush administration in the war on terror, and it was sometimes difficult to tell whether the speakers were referring to al-Qaeda detainees at Guantanamo or captured Cylons in space. In one scene from the series played over the TV monitors, a Cylon's head was dunked into a bucket of water as a form of torture -- but of course, not being totally human, a Cylon cannot die. Only his consciousness is transferred.

"Suddenly we are presented with this false dichotomy of security versus human rights," said Craig Mokhiber, deputy director of the New York office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. "That slippery slope shows up so much in the show, and so much in real life."

In a case of life imitating art, Mokhiber went on to declare: "We are all Cylons. And every one of us is a Colonial."

The unusual event was presented by the Sci Fi channel and the U.N. public affairs office, as part of the world body's new "creative community outreach" initiative.

For the cast, creators and producers, it was a chance to show that this show could reach beyond its niche market of sci-fi buffs and geeks, to impart its themes of reconciliation and justice to the entire planet -- something not even Seinfeld or Tony Soprano aspired to.

"This is an extraordinary opportunity for artists to be able to connect themselves to the world," McDonnell said.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company