Third Annual Symposium on Pop Culture and International Law: When Toasters Commit Genocide – Law, Public Institutions, and Society Under Threat of Extinction

Third Annual Symposium on Pop Culture and International Law: When Toasters Commit Genocide – Law, Public Institutions, and Society Under Threat of Extinction

[Dominique Dalla-Pozza is a Senior Lecturer at ANU College of Law who also teaches into the ANU National Security College.

Tamsin Phillipa Paige is a Senior Lecturer with Deakin Law School and periodically consults for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in relation to Maritime Crime.]

In 2019 the television show Battlestar Galactica (BSG), as re-envisaged by Ronald D Moore and David Eick and which aired between 2004 – 2009, was included on a list of  ‘The 20 Best TV Dramas since The Sopranos’  BSG was listed ‘[b]ecause …[the show] reduced humanity to its essentials’. This is evident in the show’s premise.  BSG focuses on the 50,000 human survivors of a surprise genocide launched by intelligent robots, known as Cylons.  These remaining humans are protected by a military ship, the eponymous Battlestar Galactica.  The Moore/Eick reboot began with a mini-series  which aired in 2003 and depicted the Cylon attack and humanity’s initial responses to it. 

Season One of BSG focuses on the flight of the civilian fleet, protected by the Galactica, from Cylon pursuit (who are intent on completing the genocide started in the miniseries), and a negotiation of how the society of humanity in exile will function. This includes questions around the ethics of forced labour (and the status of incarcerated people), how the civilian government will be structured, the role of the military within their society, and what will be maintained from the pre-genocide society to give a sense of continuity and normality and what will be excised out of the necessity to adapt to a new reality.

BSG  has sparked  much critical analysis. One strand of this emphasises that BSG portrays a group of humans who (at least initially) operate in an environment with a limited system of ‘law’. Such analysis suggests that a legal system,  or at least one based on the ‘rule of law’  is one of the things which is stripped away when humanity ‘is reduced to essentials’.  We contend that one of the things BSG is, in fact, exploring is how society and law respond to a continuing threat of swift and immediate societal level extinction. 

How do Public Law Institutions Respond When Faced with Societal Level Genocide?

Under ordinary circumstances, a key organising principle for liberal democracies is that ‘the law’ plays an important role in mediating the relationship between the military and civilian authorities.  In an  Australian context  scholar Cameron Moore  maintains (at p 92) that ‘the principle of military subordination to the elected civilian government is of fundamental value to the constitutional order.’  While accepting that, formal constitutional and legal requirements alone cannot guarantee that the relationship between the military and the civilian arms of a liberal democratic government remains healthy,  his work does suggest that law remains important to maintaining this balance.

Some BSG scholarship has argued that ‘the law’ plays a much more limited role in the television show.  Kieran Tranter suggests the show depicts a system of social order where the military is clearly dominant. He argues that, while there is clearly an order to the way in which life is structured in BSG at the base of this order is death (or the fear of it).  Tranter argues that this is the antithesis of a legal system where the ‘rule of law’ is the predominant feature (pp 50-51)

We agree that what is depicted in BSG is a social system where the military is important. We also agree that the system in the show departs in key ways from the ideal of democratic systems who profess fidelity to the ‘rule of law’. Nevertheless, a key theme of the first season of BSG is the way in which law and public institutions are adapting to extreme circumstances.  Of interest to us is the way in which the show depicts the way those adaptations come into being.  We are intrigued by the shows suggestion, that in order to keep functioning under the stress of an extinction level genocide event, both the civilian and military institutions cleave to as much of the ‘old’ system of law as they can to provide legitimacy for their actions. 

The ability of public law institutions to adapt to serious crises is present in the way the mini-series elevates Laura Roslin (a member of the pre-conflict civilian government) to the position of civilian leader of the surviving humans.  The miniseries establishes that Roslin is fairly far down in the ‘line of succession’ for President. The fact that Roslin is so far down the ‘line of succession’ suggests that her eventual installation as President is actually a crisis response for the public law institution of the presidency.  However, it seems clear that she assumes leadership responsibilities in part because she is the ranking surviving civilian government representative.  So, these scenes can be seen as both signalling that there is still a role for law and public institutions to play in the midst of a crisis, but that we should expect some deviations from what would be the normal (peacetime) expectations. The key to ensuring fidelity to rule of law in these circumstances is to ensure that, despite these deviations, authority can still be seen to rest on the operation of something that is recognisably law (or at least is not entirely based on military might and the threat of death). 

Episode Three of the series develops this idea by making it clear that even the military derive their authority from a system of law. This episode revolves around a riot in a prison transport spaceship.  The leader of the prison rioters argues Roslin lacks democratic authority (as a member of an appointed cabinet) she has not been elected leader.  The crisis is resolved, partially due to a compromise that commits Roslin to holding elections in seven months. In the episode it is explained that this was the amount of time remaining before elections would have been held in the Colonies, had the Cylon invasion not occurred.

In this context, the character who engineers the compromise (and is a member of the military) makes a strong statement about the importance of adherence to the ‘rule of law’ for both the military and the civilian authority.  He says:

‘the law says there is an election.  I only committed you to obeying the law…. I swore an oath to defend the articles.  The articles say there’s an election in seven months. Now if you’re telling me we’re throwing out the law, then I’m not a Captain, you’re not a Commander, and you are not the President.’

This quote indicates that everyone (whether military or civilian) ultimately derives their authority from the law. It underscores that it is fidelity to these ideas of the law, even in situations of crisis, that provides legitimacy.

Cleaving to Law to Create a Sense of Stability

What we also see in BSG is a society caught in existential crisis regarding its continued existence looking for a source of continuity and stability through the chaos and insecurity. In addition to seeing public institutions turn towards law for legitimacy through these crises, we also see society turn to law to provide a sense of security and normality. We see this in a number of ways: the appeal of Roslin to Commander Adama (the leader of the military) on the need for a civilian government in order for society to function; the discussion around the use of forced prison labour to secure the necessities of survival; and the need for a re-adapted and reliable economy and government with checks and balances discussed as a “return to normal”.

The societal desire to hold to an established norm, adapted mutatis mutandis, is first demonstrated at the end of the miniseries when discussing the division of responsibilities between civilian government and the military. In making this appeal, Roslin grounds her argument in the need for society to be run by civilian government in order to maintain functionality. She further highlights that this civilian government needs to be run by the President of the Colonies – indicating the continuance of pre-existing governance structures in order to create a sense of stability and continuation of society in the immediate aftermath of the Cylon genocide. This need for the sense of familiar and a continuation of the previous normal even though it is not possible to return to that situation is further highlighted by the fact that national identity of the surviving population continues even though the Colonies that they refer to no longer exist. Instead, they tie their identity to the colony of origin of the ship in the exodus fleet that they now call home – operating in a sense on the principle of the flag state identity but in reverse.

In Episode Three, before the prison riot and compromise solution discussed above, there was a discussion around how the people incarcerated on the prison ship could be used to engage in the dangerous and physically demanding labour mining ice to re-provision the fleet’s water supplies. The argument is initially floated that the prisoners could be forced to engage in the ice mining because they had been sentenced to hard labour. Roslin immediately rejects that notion on the basis that what was being suggested was tantamount to slave labour and that that could not be made acceptable in society. The compromise between the need for people to engage in physically demanding and dangerous work for the survival of the fleet, and the need for continuation of norms prohibiting slavery, was a decision to only accept volunteers and to offer incentives leading towards the end of incarceration for those who volunteer. This demonstrates a clinging to the sense of stability provided by the law by holding on both the prohibition on slavery, but also the continued status of criminality for those within the prison ship – even though it is noted that all of the incarcerated people on the prison ship were en route to parole hearings. So while Roslin clings to the socially positive norm of the prohibition on slavery (and the maintenance of labour standards), she (and the rest of the people in charge) also hold on to a prejudice of criminality that is both no longer relevant in the fundamental change of circumstances in society but was also potentially no longer relevant given that all of the prisoners were potentially up for parole.

The final example we wish to discuss regarding the turn towards law and legal institutions by societies in crisis is how the re-establishment of the Quorum of Twelve is framed in Episode Eleven. The media coverage (which is used as a proxy for general social discussion in the episode) praises the re-establishment of the Quorum, which is heralded as a re-establishment of checks and balances on the civilian government. Within the Quorum itself we see the delegates frame a clear line of succession through the appointment of a new Vice President as the key piece of business. It is also argued that the re-establishment of a functioning economy (while noting that the old economy is impossible in the new reality) and move beyond emergency protocols around rationing are a key need for the civilian government to address. Even though the show makes it clear that the ongoing threat of immediate extinction is still present for the entire fleet, what we see around the civilian population is a level of tiredness with the state of emergency and a need to return to a sense of the normal and familiar. This tendency articulated in the show mirrors what we’ve seen over the last few years in relation to social responses to the global pandemic – with a shift from containment and prevention in the immediate wake of outbreak to a change in rhetoric that has focused on a “return to normal” and a need to “live with the virus”.


What we hope to have demonstrated in this piece is that Battlestar Galactica, beyond being a thoroughly entertaining sci-fi drama (at least for the first two seasons), gives public lawyers a conceptual lens to explore how society might respond in circumstances of sudden collapse. In looking at the show through this lens, what we see is a society not solely reduced to a framework of authority based on might; rather we see a society that attempts to cling to what is lost through the institutions of the law. The law is used to provide a sense of continuity and authority in public institutions, and a sense of stability and security within the population at large in the face of total annihilation.

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