‘Battlestar Galactica’ star discusses art mimicking life

Monday, March 5, 2007

Academy Award-nominated actress Mary McDonnell spoke to an energetic, packed Salomon 001 Friday about playing President Laura Roslin on the popular television series “Battlestar Galactica” as part of a panel discussion on the show.

The panel also featured speakers from the Departments of American Civilization and Modern Culture and Media and the Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women.

The panel, on “(Re)producing Cult TV: Battlestar Galactica,” addressed the science-fiction show’s relevance to current political events and media affairs as well as its insights into contemporary ethics and the formation of modern identities.

“Though an entertainment program, ‘Battlestar Galactica’ offers the most serious, sustained and never cut-and-dry look on television at life in a post-9/11 world,” said Lynne Joyrich, the panel’s moderator and associate professor of modern culture and media.

While the show’s premise may seem simple, Joyrich said, it engages viewers to review their own stories, histories and possible futures by blurring the lines between literal and figurative messages. “Many of the program’s plots have complex allegorical dimensions,” she said.

The narrative of “Battlestar Galactica” presents a futuristic plight for human survival and self-definition in which the Cylons – a machine race developed as slaves but which evolved, some of whom are able to mimic humans – launch a nuclear holocaust on their former masters, leaving a small band of survivors searching for safe haven on the mythical planet Earth.

McDonnell’s character – who was 43rd in line to the Presidency – is thrust into supreme power in a time of crisis and forced to grapple with such issues as ethnic cleansing, torture and counterterrorism.

“I’ve lost sleep over it, because it haunts me,” McDonnell said about the challenges of reconciling her character’s tough decisions with her own beliefs. “It’s very awkward, it’s very frustrating at times – but it’s also very real,” she said.

Other panel members addressed the connection of “Battlestar Galactica” to issues and ideas including technophilia, homosexuality, television media and cult culture.

In a presentation called “Hera has Six Mommies (A Transmedia Love Story): Orphan Television and Lesbian Spectacles” – a reference to a hybrid human-Cylon character of questionable parentage – Julie Levin Russo GS discussed how television utilizes viewers’ sexual desires.

“By not giving us what we want, by leaving some stories orphaned and some desires unrequited, TV keeps us coming back for more,” she said. “Love is cult TV’s reproductive technology.”

Melanie Kohnen GS addressed the show’s relevance to the ongoing “war on terror,” suggesting that “Battlestar Galactica” prompts audiences to reevaluate their opinions about violent conflict.

“The fact that the show raises such questions without answering them encourages viewers to move beyond the simple binary of friend versus enemy, us versus them,” she said.

In a question-and-answer session following the panel, McDonnell – who received reverent bows from panelists and was addressed as “Madam President” – was asked how it feels to be part of a cult community in which her television identity usurps her own.

“I like it,” said McDonnell, who noted that her family has suggested the line between herself and President Roslin has become blurry.

McDonnell also talked about her tense relationship with the show’s writers, with whom she sometimes disagrees over the direction of the show’s narrative or the portrayal of her character.

“She has her own existence and she’s trying to push her own image of power forward, and the writers are grappling with her,” McDonnell said of her character. “It feels good to facilitate her.”

The first incarnation of “Battlestar Galactica” was a high-budget 1978 television space opera that, despite lasting a single season, subsequently developed a substantial cult following. A 2003 miniseries revival on the Sci-Fi channel piloted the regular television series, now in its third season.

Herald Cartoonist Nate Saunders ’07, a self-described sci-fi buff, said he mainly watches the show for its entertainment value, but is pleased to see the genre tackle difficult issues like religion and genocide. “It is interesting to see a sci-fi show that addresses such serious topics,” he said.

McDonnell received Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actress for 1990’s “Dances with Wolves” and Best Actress for 1992’s “Passion Fish.” She has since appeared in movies such as “Independence Day” and “Donnie Darko.”

“She definitely has a great sense of humor, and was very bubbly,” said Kelly Sanford ’10, who said she thought the panel’s academic approach to the show helped to unveil many of its undercurrents. “I think it’s definitely going to enrich my viewing pleasure,” she said.

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