Visual Style of Humanization in Battlestar Galactica


LMC 3252-F Spring 2013 – J. P. Telotte

Battlestar Galactica’s 2003-2009 re-imagining of its original incarnation challenges what is means to be human, or a person, and what evil lurks in the hearts of humans and machines. This distinction between human and machine is the first challenge that the show presents to its audience, as robots known as Cylons have evolved to a pod-people-like state reminiscent of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, making people thought to be trustworthy humans be suddenly recast as a completely separate group: non-human, alien, and fearsome. Characters’ reactions to them earlier in the series are often repulsion or paralyzing disbelief. In the pilot a femme fatale humanoid Cylon, later known as a Number 6, strolls up in a red outfit to an incredulous Caprican diplomat on a space station, asks if he is alive, and starts kissing him. Despite his initial shock, he returns her kiss, and continues with a growing look of fear and almost repulsion as the ship is destroyed around him—a sign of things to come. Further challenges to what is human and what is machine, the visual style of both, and whether there is really a distinction in character and raison d’être. Executive producer and effective creative director Ronald Moore ensured these answers were not simply rehashed common science fiction tropes; rather, the production quality and visual style of the four-season television series was comparable to theatrical productions and kept true to his intention of “nothing less than the reinvention of the science fiction television series” (Moore).

What is a machine in Battlestar Galactica?

Whereas a machine has classically been something functional and austere—like a shovel, loom, or engine—the last several decades have seen a more rapid integration of technology into aesthetically well-designed products. As more people identify a significant technological achievement with a consumer-friendly packaging—such as an iPod or robotic dog—the easier it can be to attribute some affection or humanity to it. The distinction between a classical machine and something more affectionate is blurred in the case of the robot Cylons who fought humans before and the humanoid Cylons who fight now. The classical machine style of Cylon Centurions, for whom the humans provide the epithet “toasters,” are styled to seem more oppressive and antagonistic, and they are depicted as static and a means to an end for all but the end of the series. Their functional, exposed chassis attests to this role and instills the fear of machinery in the same visual style as Moloch in Metropolis or Terminators in its franchise. This sort of machine is more easily alienated and identifiable to antagonize; however, a different type of machine, something more outwardly affectionate and organic, can belie its more fearsome nature. That is, the humanoid Cylons are a part of the science fiction representation of humanoid aliens being an impostor, sowing anxiety or an identity crisis in its wake. Combined with the science fiction theme of the unknowable future, the visual style of a humanoid being the object of the audience’s consternation is more visceral, like an act of betrayal despite its completely non-human existence. The visual style of machines is a pylon for Battlestar Galactica to challenge the concept of humanity.

Living walls, silent beasts

The biggest machines in the series—the battlestars and basestars—are the most important and yet underappreciated. Despite hits from nukes, missiles, and even other ships, the most thanks the battlestar-class ship receives is a damage report and post-battle cleanup. Until Chief Tyrol informs Admiral Adama of the Galactica’s failing condition, the ship receives very little affection from its crew, despite its traditional personification in naval culture. It took a social revolution, recognizing the emerging culture of post-Caprican human society and acceptance of certain Cylons, to truly lend any emotion and care to their only means of survival: the Galactica. Despite this, Tyrol’s suggestion of using Cylon gel-metal hybrid technology is applied too little too late to save the ship from its deteriorating condition. It is ironic that the humans’ battlestars prior to that revolution are considered unemotional classical machines, and styled as such, and the Cylons consider their basestars as living, socially venerated beings. While the battlestars are internally styled similar to an older, stuffy submarine—no direct battlefield vision, airlocks and compartments, and DRADIS as a sort of periscope descending from the ceiling—with a crew, the Cylon basestars are styled more as a futuristic home or base, with bedrooms, well-lit hallways, and a more aesthetic-minded design. The set design of Basestars evoke a sense of bleakness in the same way as Gattaca or 2001: A Space Odyssey, keeping their surfaces clean, brightly lit, and painted with a very minimal color palette. Despite its bleakness, this does still seem like a more comforting, humanistic design compared to the humans’ own Galactica. The basestars’ form-over-function design, though ascetic, is further humanized by the hybrid, controlling almost all of the basestar’s functions by physically interfacing with the ship. As the series progresses and the Cylons are given more opportunities for an emotional connection with the audience, the basestars and battlestars themselves are also given the same opportunities by how the crews interact with their crafts.

The style and look of interaction between ship and human/cylon crew show a more explicit example of adapting person to machine. The Galactica’s human involvement with the machine stops at the level of console interaction by compartmentalized human officers, manning each station like they are all wrestling a giant beast. The colonial fleet is shown as something controlled and regimented to ensure it works according to human whim. When Sharon Agathon is enlisted in the episode “Flight of the Phoenix” to save the day, she directly attaches herself to the ship by inserting a wire into her wrist. By doing so, she commits a desperately needed perversion in the onlooking humans’ eyes by violating their accustomed level of interaction with machines. The mise-en-scene here shows her in a style not unlike robot Maria in Metropolis as she works toward her goal by putting herself on a stage as the others watch transfixed. Her reward for such perversion is fittingly a trip back to the brig and no respect, and the people watching, like in Metropolis, miss her intention entirely and proceed as if it was their own efforts that saved the fleet. Although, at the end of the series, as the crew comes to terms with Cylons assimilated into the human society, another assimilated, but comatose, Cylon Samuel Anders is permitted to take control of the Galactica via its datastream installed after many other Cylon technologies are patched into the ship. His acceptance scene is more of a baptismal nature, with his potential for Cylon evil washed away in a bright white pool, similar to the Cylon birthing tanks or tank that holds each ship’s hybrid. Allowing this circumvention of human controls again prevents the ship from being destroyed in the final attack, and it again involves less thanks and more marvel, ending with him sacrificing himself to drive the fleet into the new Earth’s sun in the final episode.

Compared to the humans, the Cylon-basestar interaction paradigm is much more hands-on than touching buttons on a console with a Star Trek command and control scheme. The Cylons’ version of the central operation center where the ship’s decisions are made is a much simpler, aesthetically pleasant room almost as if it were a meeting place in a planetarium. Its two purposes are to function as a war room for the humanoid Cylons to vote on a command decision and to then execute that decision by interfacing with the hybrid via the data-font, a small pool of water in the center of the room connected to the ship’s network.

The set design of both ships are a significant element in the delineation as well as blurring of humanity’s and machines’ defining characteristics.  Furthermore, the mobility within the space via two handheld cameras (“Production”) allowed the set to be fully explored and provide an early example of naturalistic science fiction while downplaying the grandiose spectacle of earlier science fiction that would distract from the intended realism (Kiersey and Neumann, 106).

The camera doesn’t lie

Ronald Moore’s creative direction strived to take the “opera” out of “space opera” (Moore) by introducing cinéma vérité style editing to science fiction, a genre grounded in speculation, fantastic, and the uncanny (“Science Fiction Film”, 11). Handheld cameras, practical lighting, and functional sets provide a sort of realism that allows the audience to more easily accept the show as a contemporary drama in a classic science fiction setting. What they are accepting, however, is left up to the audience, as the camera depicts both humans and Cylons in very similar styles. Though the series antagonizes Cylons up to the fourth season, their camera time does not depict them the way other films depict antagonists or aliens as “others.” The camera follows Cylon-centric drama and action the same as it follows what takes place among the Colonial fleet. By showing both humans and Cylons the same way, the visual style cannot mislead the audience; rather, it forces them to act and decide by the characters’ actions who to accept. Both humans and Cylons commit atrocities without the camera acting to defend one while damning the other. For example, in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the main character is the only violent one, taking a pitchfork to one and needles to two more, yet the camera diverts the audience’s gaze up to the uncorrupted human instead of the victimized pod people. Instead, Battlestar Galactica’s camera work is hand-held, operating not as a director’s omniscient eye but as a human eye directed toward the action no matter the victim. Overall, the visual style of this series is more space thriller than space opera, focusing on suspense and avoiding larger-than-life personalities.

In addition to the thrilling element is the complex dramatic narratives, permitted by the long-running nature of television series. Editing together these multiple complex narrative structures was helped along by the camera work. Whereas a classic film-based camera would significantly restrict mobility, the two handheld cameras that handled the majority of the filming allowed narratives to develop simultaneously via several devices. One is the jump cuts in “The Oath” with timestamps, using the fast-paced high-stakes visual style with shaky, highly mobile cameras similar to concurrent TV series 24. This portrayal of human folly is directly contrasted with the same reaction of the ironically panicking Cylons aboard the basestar in the fleet, who often vote on commands compared to the now quickly escalating authoritarianism among the humans, also ironic comparing real-life human democracy versus machine autocracy.

Visual style as a means of challenge

Since the narrative might be more easily understood than mise-en-scene and editing, why then would the series have a production value more expected from a Hollywood film? Furthermore, why would such petty elements such as personal drama and ethical quandaries be explored in lieu of exciting space battles and character personalities as big as the galaxy? The creative direction allows such elements to shine through in the portrayal of realistic characters in uncanny situations, or even bodies in an uncanny valley. The visual style of capturing these scenes of true human nature can provide volume and references to actors’ dialog and blocking alone. Science fiction’s concerns with reason can be broken by tropes such as the futuristic weaponry of Star Wars, shocking societal changes in Logan’s Run, heavy reliance on nascent video technologies in Tron, or inflated and stereotyped personalities of Star Trek and the original Battlestar Galactica. The re-imagined series confronts these tropes with the visual style that the audience would accept as reasonable to the point of harsh realism.


Bradley, James. “All of This Has Happened Before, and Will Happen Again.” Meanjin 67.4 (2008): n. pag. Print.

Kiersey, Nicholas J., and Iver B. Neumann. Battlestar Galactica and International Relations. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2013. Print.

Moore, Ronald D. “Battlestar Galactica: Naturalistic Science Fiction or Taking the Opera out of Space Opera.” N.p., 2003. Web. <>.

Production on Battlestar Galactica.” N.p., n.d. Web. <>.

Telotte, J. P. Science Fiction Film. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001. Print.

Telotte, J. P. The Essential Science Fiction Television Reader. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 2008. Print.