Number seven on my list of the greatest television episodes is “Flesh and Bone” from the first season of the newly revamped Battlestar Galactica
. I never watched the original version from the 1970’s, but I understand the basic storyline to involve humans having created a series of robots called Cylons who then rebelled against them. In the newest incarnation, several decades have passed and the Cylons, who had left to inhabit their own section of the galaxy, now return and wipe out most of humanity in a sneak attack. The kicker is that the Cylons have created a new version of themselves in which they look, feel, and act like humans. They have flesh and blood, they sweat, hunger, feel pain – all the hallmarks of the human race.
In the episode “Flesh and Bone,” a Cylon has been discovered hiding on one of the ships belonging to the human survivors and he claims to have placed a nuclear bomb on one of the ships in the caravan. Consequently, Starbuck interrogates him in order to learn the location of the bomb.
The power of this episode lies in its examination of the nature of humanity. The Cylons gave themselves the ability to feel pain, hunger, etc. because they desire to be human. They even claim to have a soul – placed in them by the God they follow. (Another interesting aspect of the show is the contrast between the monotheistic beliefs of the Cylons and the polytheistic beliefs of the humans. One can even see reflections on contemporary terrorism issues as the Cylons believe their actions to be guided by God).
The contrast between the human Starbuck and the Cylon she interrogates drives this episode. Believing as most humans do that the Cylons are little more than glorified toasters, Starbuck lies to, tortures, and generally demeans the captive Cylon. In between, the two engage in debate over what makes one human. Is the definition of humanity reduceable simply to the presence of a soul or are we defined by our actions? As Starbuck’s torture of the Cylon progresses, one begins to wonder if the line dividing human and Cylon is being erased and whether true humanity must involve more than the possession of flesh and bone.