One of my favorite things about living in the greatest city in the world is that I frequently get to see movies weeks before the rest of the country. Yesterday the Sci-Fi Channel held a preview screening of the upcoming Battlestar Galactica movie, Razor.* The film reveals some of the untold story of the Battlestar Pegasus, the only military ship besides Galactica to survive the Cylon attack that decimated the human race. There's more to it than that—we also get an untold story set sometime during season 2 and a flashback to Admiral Adama's youth, and both subplots are chock full of fanboy references the original BSG and, a bit more oddly, to the A-Team). It was pretty darned good, and barring two clunky scenes of exposition it was on par with the better episodes of the regular series. The worst part about it was the planning of the event: Sci-Fi only gave a window of about 4 hours or so for people to RSVP, and I was the only one of my frak party posse who was able to sign up in time. This would be understandable if the event were overbooked, but nearly half the theater was empty. But I digress.
When the Pegasus was discovered halfway through season 2 of BSG, it opened up several moral cans of worms. The Pegasus, under the command of Admiral Helena Cain, had taken a markedly different route than the Galactica following the Cylon attack. Where the military leadership of Galactica was tempered by President Laura Roslin's civilian leadership, the Pegasus had no such checks or balances. Admiral Cain was a brutal leader, but her violence was a dark mirror of the atmosphere of Galactica's fleet, which had had its own brush with fascism just a few months earlier. (Indeed, Cain's leadership looks an awful lot like Colonel Saul Tigh's brief command at the beginning of season 2, and both include Boston-Massacre style altercations with civilian ships). But for a few different decisions, Galactica may have turned into the same sort of dystopia that the Pegasus became: there but for the grace of God(s) goes Adama.
Razor explores the story of the Pegasus in more detail, and it's no surprise that its main themes are sin, wrath, and whether might makes right. We see more of the cruelty with which Cain exercised her command, but we also see some of the complicated emotions behind her more heinous decisions. In BSG nothing is black and white, and Razor follows in the show's tradition of moral complexity.
That's not to say that it doesn't take a stand. The story of Razor questions the pragmatic militarism of both the Pegasus and Galactica, challenging the nobility of Doing What Had To Be Done. In a character-defining scene, Cain gives a speech to the crew of the Pegasus in which she defines their mission in the post-attack universe. Mangling Kantian ideas, she gives the ship a new "imperative"—revenge (explicitly stated as such) and endless war. She later admits that she was simply telling the crew what she thought they needed to hear to keep them going, and that she does not desire to send the Pegasus on an impossible quest to destroy the white whale of the Cylon fleet. Her speech and her later admission both mirror Admiral Adama's words at the conclusion of the miniseries that kicked off the Battlestar Galactica relaunch. Adama gave his crew a new mission—not revenge, but survival. They would find Earth, he told them, and make it their home. Like Cain, he later states that his speech was a fib; he doesn't even believe Earth exists, but knew that the crew needed something to keep them going. Adama gives hope and a mission of survival; Cain gives anger and a mission of revenge. BSG's attitude to these diverging messages is illustrated by the respective responses to these two speeches. Both are met with chants of "so say we all," but the tone of those battle cries is entirely different. Galactica's crew responds without hesitation, showing legitimate confidence in their Admiral's mission; the crew of the Pegasus takes up the chant slowly and reluctantly. The parallel gives a clear message: revenge is not as "imperative" a mission as survival.
The core concept behind the Sermon on the Mount (and thus of Christian ethics in general) is the idea that the ends do not justify the means. The merciful will be shown mercy; the treasures of earth are destroyed by rust and moths; not just murder but even anger is an evil act. The way that we do things, not our reasons for doing what we do, is what matters. Razor throws itself headlong into these moral questions, but at the film's end there isn't a moment's doubt that Adama chose the better path.
For more on religion and ethics in Battlestar Galactica, see chapter 7 of The Gospel According to Science Fiction and the following posts:
Battlestar Galactica 301-303: synthesis and syncretism
Battlestar Galactica 313: Is there Cylon redemption for human sin?
Free Will on Battlestar Galactica
*Of course, thanks to a leaked screener, the Internets have been watching it for the last week. (But on much smaller screens, I'll wager.)
Battlestar Galactica: Razor airs on the Sci-Fi Channel on November 24th, and an extended version will be released on DVD on December 4th.