The Cylons of the new Battlestar Galactica aren’t quite like any other science fiction race I’m familiar with.
DJW once told me that he hated Star Trek: First Contact (one of my favorite Star Trek movies) because it gave up on the Borg. The Borg, according to Dave, were the only species in the Star Trek universe that had a concept of the individual that differed fundamentally from that of humankind. The Klingons, Cardassians, Romulans, and so forth were just thinly disguised ethnic stererotypes, but the Borg were genuinely different, novel, and scary. Giving the Borg a queen who understand and protected her own individuality ruined the species for Dave. The primary writer of First Contact was Ronald Moore, creator of the second Battlestar Galactica. I’d like to think that he’s redeemed himself.
Moore changed the origin of the Cylons from outer space to the Colonies. The Cylons of BSG 1978 were a conventional alien race, the product of some older group of aliens that no longer existed. The new Cylons “were created by man,” in the same sense as the enemies in the Terminator or Matrix trilogies. I wasn’t terribly happy with this at first, as it seemed derivative of other universes, but the decision has paid considerable dividends. First and foremost, the new origin for the Cylons has given them a close, complex connection with humankind. This relationship is not wholly antagonistic, although it does seem to grant the Cylons latitude to commit near-genocide. The close relationship between the Cylons and the humans also makes the success of their attack, and the survival of the Galactica, plausible.
The Cylons are a blend of the individualistic alien races we are familiar with and the hive mind of the Borg. Each Cylon is deeply tied to the rest of its kind, such that communication and control over wide distance seems to be possible. At the same time, individual Cylons have their own goals and motivations, although its unclear that pride, honor, or competition motivate them in any meaningful way. Moore has succeeded in creating a race whose actions are only partially intelligible, while at the same time convincingly suggesting that something important lies behind the mask.
Interestingly, the Cylons are deeply, deeply religious. Their actions only make sense in the context of their religious beliefs, yet the content of that belief, like any real religion, is not susceptible to rational analysis. The Colonials seem largely to be a post-religious society roughly akin to modern Europe, although a significant fraction of the humans remain committed to a polytheistic religion modeled on the Greco-Roman pantheon. Although the question hasn’t been examined in detail, it’s probably fair to say that the importance of religion has increased in the wake of the genocide. The Cylons, on the other hand, are committed monotheists. They are familiar with the human religion to the point of deep immersion in its texts. The war against humanity is motivated by their religion, but not in an evangelical sense. They have no interest in converting humans; rather, the destruction of humankind seems to fulfill some religious commandment. Even that isn’t the whole story, as its clear that the Cylons have certain plans for what’s left of the human race.
Most important, the Cylons are just really, genuinely WEIRD. The importance of maintaining weird in underrated, especially in the context of series television. At so many points, writers and producers have an incentive to reveal some aspect of “the plan”. While elements of the Cylon plan have been revealed, they tend to reinforce the alien nature of the Cylons, rather than to make them understandable to us. The Cylons do not act according to a wholly alien logical system, but they don’t act according to one accessible to us, either. We have glimpses of what they want, but even those glimpses are confusing and contradictory. That most of what we know about the Cylons is revealed through hallucinatory conversations with a possibly insane human only adds to the weirdness and maintains the mystery.
Maintaining the strangeness of the Cylons will probably be Moore’s most difficult task moving forward. As a television show like BSG develops, in must progressively reveal more of the mystery. In programs like Lost, the X-Files, and Alias this has had a detrimental effect. It will be interesting to see whether Moore can keep the Cylons weird without making them feel Byzantine or contrived.