Robots Like to Do It with the Light On

“Are you alive?” a Cylon we later come to know as a Six (Tricia Helfer) breathes seductively to a human ambassador in the opening moments of Ronald D. Moore’s 2003 reimagining of Battlestar Galactica. The doomed man is baffled. “No one has seen or heard from the Cylons in over forty years,” the titles tell us. So we can appreciate the middle-aged man’s confusion when instead of a clunky anthropomorphic chrome robot he is lip-to-lip with a gorgeous blonde seductress wearing a short red dress and knee-high boots. But his bewilderment –and make-out session– is short lived. However hyper-erotic these new Cylons will prove to be (and they will prove it) they are here to make war, not love. They proceed to carry out the almost total genocide of the human race.

Battlestar Galactica has changed greatly from its original incarnation, a silly 1978 television series that many view as essentially a Star Wars clone. Though science fiction often acts as a mirror to modern outlook, the new series heightens the allegory to increasing levels. While the Cylons begin nominally as the villains, the show evolves into a more “dual protagonist” format, as the producers describe it. A comparison begins between human and cylon on a much more nuanced level than the us versus them, good-guy against bad-guy format of the original. Life is full of messy choices, and we are not always as removed from our enemies as we would like to believe. We, the viewers, are presented with two opposing ideologies of society, both flawed, and must decide for ourselves where to stand among them.

To this point, one of the more prominent changes Moore made to the campy seventies series was the transformation of the Cylon race from cyclopean metal soldiers into idealized bioengineered humanoid “machines.” Also they have also become a product of human invention rather than an alien species. These alterations make the Cylons not only more relatable to ourselves physically, but give us the cultural template to analyze how this robotic society would develop in relation to a human context of history. So while the ambassador, like most of humanity in the Galactica-verse didn’t really have the luxury to consider how the Cylons had developed culturally, as well as chestily, we at home are left to wonder: How do machines playing man live in this dystopian future, and what does they say about our own way of life?

Architecturally, the show’s creators give us only hints at first. We mostly see the machines assimilating the dwellings of a destroyed humanity, as if to take their place. Only bits and pieces of a Cylon aesthetic, which would seem to be typified by the Basestar, are seen. Basestars are a distinctively star shaped spaceship, with two radially symmetrical “Y” shaped hulls joined together at the center by a single pylon; already a particularly inhuman look. These vessels can’t be simply classified as warships like the titular Battlestar, in which production designer Richard Hudolin expands on the military designs of modern day aircraft carriers and 1940s submarines, with bulky equipment, heavy monotone materials, confined, hard edged corridors with harsh and messy lighting. The Galactica has a specific function, and operates with other varieties of human ships: some made for accommodation, others transport, and many industrial. But the Basestars, blur the distinction between military and civilian design. There is no separation between soldier and civilian with the humanoid Cylons. Unlike the militaristic Galactica and the rag-tag fleet, that are forced to become residential out of necessity when the human planets are destroyed, Basestars are designed to be more intentionally reflective of Cylon society in general.

But a thorough exploration of the design of the Basestar interior isn’t presented until the third season of the show. In the season three episode, “Torn,” which aired in March of 2006, the fragments of visual information we have seen come together to reveal a larger Cylon story. Their society springs from an obvious, albeit antithetical, blending of the human with the machine. While pure humanity on the show is messy and analog, the humanoid Cylons show a much more surface level of order and attention to appearance. But, their dichotomy is further designed within the more specific contrasts: light and dark, mechanization and sex.

An interesting setting occurs early in “Torn” under the supervision of Hudolin and art director Doug McLean. In the scene Dr. Gaius Baltar (James Callis) awakens after being taken aboard the Basestar. He is the first human to have seen this interior in the series, and we experience this first encounter along with him. My first impression was what a remarkably minimal, yet beautiful, environment the design team have created. The space is open and uncluttered, and doors are eschewed in favor of partitions. It is alien, but grounded in contemporary reality through a very Bauhaus approach to its design. I am particularly reminded of Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion of 1929. Even the color palettes are similar: black white and red and touches of natural texture (stone and wood). These signposts to Modernist design are perfectly suited to a machine made society. The Cylon models themselves are designed objects: there are seven types of humanoid models, with thousands of identical copies of each in operation. Each model has a distinctive personality types but cooperate as an egalitarian society. In machine terms they are parts of a set, mass-produced and serialized.

The pairing of a single lounge chair and side table defines this Cylon interior, much as the Barcelona chairs define the function of that pavilion. But unlike Mies’ Modernist references to mass-production and machine manufacturing, both the Cylon table and chairs appear ornate and handcrafted; human rather than machine. They present us not with an industrial form, but an arched Victorian fainting couch, upholstered in red velvet, beside which sits a similarly sculptural wooden side table with decorative, though geometric, carved legs. Amidst their minimalism, the machines have distilled down the components of seduction, to be represented by these two pieces. They are not functional objects in any other way; it is interesting to note that Cylons almost never incorporate chairs in a standard manner. The furniture here, even within the fantasy of the show, is stagecraft. Through it the room becomes about relaxation, with an undercurrent of sex, but take out the couch and replace it with a conference table and it would become a boardroom just as easily. These human objects act in contrast to the alien interior that engulfs them, and yet these are what define that same space. The set up is a perfect metaphor for the conflicted Cylon Nature: superficial markers of individualism desperately trying to assert themselves above the underlying mechanization. And just as there was a point in our own modernism where we said, enough is enough, a human cannot live like a machine, here even machines cannot live like machines. They are approaching human design history in reverse.

But it is light, even more than Modernism, which defines Cylon interiors. While there is a pervasive darkness that always seems to lurk around their edges, the Cylons themselves seem always bathed in light. Look again at the lounge. The central chair rests on a square of intense up-light that not only frames and highlights that object but gives it the ethereal appearance of floating. Similar square lighting is embedded within the walls, ceilings and floors of the entire ship, giving the appearance of stars in space and give a similar weightless feel when movie through the corridors. A contemporary true-life architectural comparison that springs to mind is amazingly the NYU Department of Philosophy. We see Baltar, lead by Six, through sloped and arched steal blue hallways that begs comparison to the lighted squares in the ceilings of Steven Holl’s interior.

When we finally see the command center of the Baseship, similar to Holl’s signature NYU stairway, it is awash with porosity. The area is cavernous with a high ceiling defined by ascending columns of white light running up the edges and giving the room a rounded, planetarium-like feeling; the machines seem at home in outer space. Translucent walls of thin water and light are the only elements that break up the open floor plan of the room. Again like Holl’s space prismatic light is refracted and cast along surfaces and individuals, effectively merging them within the architectural scheme. Light, water and shape interplay to create a flowing and interactive space.

The Cylons operate in complete unity without boundary or division. They even interface with their ship controls by immersing their hands into the watery pools. They are even “born” in light. In the birthing pods, again minimalist rooms centered on a singular assigned function, we see the duplicate arise -in orgasmic fashion- from what appear as pools of liquid white light. An even more extreme example of this physical connection to the space is the “Hybrids” (proto-human Cylons) that function as a sort of main computer connection. These half-machine, half-human oddities spending their entire existence in a literal bath of light giving them a visceral link to the ship so intense it borders on passion.

The interior, much like Holl’s Wittgenstein inspired building, invites a heightened awareness and connection at every level. Light acts an intimate participant in a dissolution-of-self, erasing edge and enveloping forms in favor of greater connectivity and unity within the Cylon environment. As they move through the space the are penetrated and engulfed by reflective light, be it the white ambient lights that create angelic auras around the machine people, or the directed red lights that cast computer like informational glyphs intimately across their faces. Do the lights ever turn off? Darkness is sign of death for a machine, even more intensely than for humans. Light for an automaton would be a literal sign of life, an indication that the power is on.

Looking back at the classic Toaster (the old-school robotic centurion version Cylon) the iconic symbol of its “life” was the scanning red Cyclops eye. This red energy is still present and can be seen pulsing, like blood, through the interiors of the ships. But again, there is a sexual energy to this. We see it in the spines of humanoid models while engaged in sexual activity which pulse red with the same glow. Is the suggestion that the they are never more alive than when they make love? The throbbing red flush seductively flowing through the ship takes on a new meaning. The Cylon’s mixing of sex and light is pervasive.

What does it all mean? I’m taken back to the Cylons’ question to humanity: “Are you alive?” When our little ambassador answers “Yes,” Six responds, “Prove it.” That’s really the question of the show, isn’t it? Who is alive, and which species is more deserving of that life? The Cylons are portrayed as desperate to transcend their own mechanical nature, to prove they are living, even more so than their human progenitors. That is why they substitute biological reproduction for an assembly line and immerse themselves into an aesthetic of literal enlightenment. But they are also simultaneously an extension of humanities own attempt to reshape itself. Cylon architecture and design illustrate this at every level. But it also reveals the failings of their mechanical nature, echoing our own ideas about the failings of modernism. The Cylons, like the contemporary world, are reacting against the confines of a machine society; they become more intense, more passionate, more feeling. They have intensified the idea of what exactly humanity means.

While the Cylons insist that they are better than humans, maybe they are in fact, too human? The conflict of Battlestar Galactica becomes the postmodern struggle all over again, the need to reconcile the man with the machine, the individual with the group. Can the disparities coexist together? Or is one compelled to supplant the other; who lives and who dies? Battlestar isn’t over yet, and neither are we, so no easy answer can be given up, but the show offers this bit of wisdom, “all this has happened before, and it will happen again.”

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