⚠️ Warning: major spoilers for Battlestar Galactica. ⚠️
I recently got around to watching the finale of Battlestar Galactica, and there’s one moment that genuinely shocked me. I’d like to discuss Anders’ death. Why he didn’t have to die. Why that didn’t bother the writers. And why he did, after all, have to die.
Let’s set the scene. The last remaining people alive have finally resolved the cylon threat and reached a habitable planet. They’re preparing to settle on this new earth, and they decide that this time they’re going to throw away all of the technology that has led them to chaos and misfortune. They will leave the spaceships and tech behind.
Samuel T. Anders offers to make a valiant sacrifice. He will drive all of the advanced technology of humankind, the spaceships and everything on board, into the sun, destroying it forever and allowing them a fresh start.
Except… why? Even assuming that they had to destroy the technology, why couldn’t the ships auto-pilot themselves into the sun? Maybe that’s a thing they can’t do. But… why? The writers never committed to that earlier in the show. They were deciding in that moment whether it was possible, and the only implication of that decision was whether Anders needed to sacrifice himself. He didn’t have to die, the writers made the decision.
Why didn’t this bother the writers? I think that we, the audience, are not expected to accept this sacrifice because it’s necessary. We’re expected to think it’s not a big sacrifice. Because Anders’ life isn’t worth much. Because Anders is disabled.
In an earlier episode Anders suffered a gunshot wound. This left him in a precarious state; he can only survive plugged into bulky machinery and thus can’t move around freely. Because of his connection to the machinery, his brain has been altered and he is unable to communicate easily. But he isn’t comatose. He can communicate, and clearly has a rich inner life.
We are expected to look at a human being in this state, and think “this life is not worth living; the best they can hope for is to die heroically”. And the show provides us that ending triumphantly.
This is a horrifying thing to state, and so explicitly, too. I think it’s interesting to look at some other decisions that pushed the story in this direction. What are the reasons that Anders did, actually, have to die.
Let’s return to the decision to destroy all technology. That decision is a central precursor to Anders’ sacrifice, in two very different ways. First, in a literal sense Anders was sacrificing himself in order to destroy the technology. If the technology wasn’t going to be destroyed, Anders didn’t need to sacrifice himself.
But there’s a deeper level at which this is true. The writers run into a problem when they decide to destroy all technology. If there is no technology on this new earth, how will Anders survive? He is dependent on that technology to live. The show can’t move forward with him. He has to die in order to show what life looks like without technology.
This is a big problem for the anti-technology ideology the show is trying to deliver to us. What happens to disabled people who depend on that technology to live? The show gives us its answer: it’s valiant; it’s heroic; but ultimately they should die so that the rest of humanity can live untainted.
Another, less explicit ideology is notable at the end of the show: rugged individualism. All of the main characters of the show decide that what they want to do on this new planet is head off romantically into the hills or the woods alone and make a little house and farm for themself, or maybe explore and climb some mountains. This presents human endeavours as something that can, and should be pursued alone.
In reality almost everyone needs community to survive, and to thrive. But for someone like Anders, who cannot move on his own, it’s absolutely essential on a day-to-day basis. It becomes difficult to even construct a myth of his lone survival. He would disrupt the vision presented to the viewers. And so, in service of the fantasy, he is sentenced to death.
What does this case study teach us about myths and society? The central problem here is one of imagination. The show wants to imagine and romanticise a possible world, one without technology or community. This world can’t be imagined or romanticised with disabled people in the picture, so they’re removed.
Let me leave you with this thought: the kinds of people we imagine as part of our society is fundamentally intertwined with the kinds of societies we imagine.
* * *
A note on ideology and possibility: I think it is possible to construct an ending for the show that leaves Anders alive and mostly preserves the ideologies of anti-technologism and rugged individualism. They could have connected his machinery to the land itself, and he could have lived out his days communing with the earth.
But this is a concession on both counts. Allowing his technology to stick around is an exception to their anti-technology stance. Sustaining himself by communing with the earth, meanwhile, implies vulnerability and dependency on something outside himself, rather than only on the sweat of his brow, as is the implication for everyone else.