Who Am I, What Am I, and From What Do I Derive My Existence: Skepticism and Self-Knowledge in a World Where Even You Could Be a Cylon
“So that’s it. After all this time, a switch goes off, just like that.” –Tyrol in “Crossroads: Part 2”
A flip of a switch. Identity shifts are a part of everyone’s life, from a shocking revelation of new family controversy to something as simple as marriage or the birth of a child. Many questions arise when these shifts happen and people begin to discuss self and the knowledge or awareness of self. How do people define self? How much stock do we put into our memories to define our own self-knowledge? Is there an indefinable element of self-knowledge that falls outside the realm of memory and recallable elements of self? The text Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy functioned as the inspiration and the machete to help navigate this philosophical intellectual thicket. The essays that led assistance with this pondering, in particular, are “The Narrative Disruptions of Model Eight” by Daniel Milsky and “Am I a Cylon? Self Knowledge at the Crossroads” by an unknown contributor.
When it comes to identifying self and attempting to understand how we make up our own identities, we reference our memories. Whether they be of the people or situations involved, it becomes a database that is a primary reference when a person attempts to identify self. This is the route that Sharron “Boomer” takes, when she is faced with the idea that she may not be who she thinks she is in season one. In the episode “Water,” not only does Boomer not remember setting off the explosives herself, but when she is piloting a scouting trip for more water, it visibly takes much indefinable internal conflict for her to even say the word “positive” with the discovery of a water source that her own people in the fleet are in such desperate need of. At this point it is easily assumed, by a viewer, Boomer is a cylon (#8 specifically) because she is present in two simultaneously running plot lines. With this there is also an occurrence of dramatic irony and factual disruption. Boomer is classified as a “sleeper” and therefore doesn’t know she is a cylon because she is unaware that the other version of her exists. In the other Sharron plotline, there is a focus on the #8 later dubbed “Athena”. She is a cylon who knows and understands her role as one.
Both of these versions of the cylon #8 have been given different tasks. Boomer’s is given two, one by Admiral Adama and the other by her cylon programming. While Athena’s mission is a cylon ordered one. Both of these cylon focused missions function as a way to bring down the humans. But, the problem arises when the Sharrons start to have conflicting ideas about themselves based on this new information. Athena begins to identify herself as one of the humans because of how her life has changed. She has developed feelings for and been impregnated by one of the humans Carl “Helo” Agathon (which was part of her original mission along with killing Helo afterward, not unlike a praying mantis) and has now become someone who cares for not only the hybrid child that she carries, but also the father of the child and his happiness. It is complicated be the fact that she has the memories of Helo from Boomer; because that is the identity she was originally masquerading as. Whereas Boomer’s self-knowledge changes drastically when she discovers she is a cylon. As Milsky states, “The plot development was based on inaccurate facts about the world…This factual disruption is a possibility for all sleeper Cylons, but obviously doesn’t affect their narratives until they discover the error.” This “error” becomes a traumatic and jarring experience. She tries to kill herself because she can’t imagine that she is a copy of one of the things that she has despised her whole life. In one instance her self-identity changes and she can’t bare it.
What would happen in a person’s life when they learn that they are the one thing they hate the most? This happens in the lives of other characters in the show as well. The primary group of people, besides Boomer, that struggles severely with how they understand self is the remaining (living) four cylons of the Final Five. These characters, some of whom are B-Team characters (Samuel Anders and Tory Foster), while the writers threw a curveball with the revelation of A-Teamers, Saul Tigh and Galen Tyrol, are rocked by the discovery of their own cylon origins. The element of this that is so jarring is that they actually start to think back on how they have behaved. They rely on their memories to give them insight into how they could have suspected this before. Even Tigh responds with the idea that regardless of what he has just discovered about himself, he is still the man that he was and will remain to be, “My name is Saul Tigh, I am an officer in the Colonial Fleet. Whatever else I am, whatever else it means, that is the man I want to be. And if I die today, that’s the man I’ll be,” ("Crossroads: Part 2") Tigh finds a way to work with what he is given and how he feels about his own self-awareness. There is an internal conflict with all three of these characters being changed forever by this knowledge and they all react differently, but the common element is trying to remember their lives when they knew they were cylons and what evidence there might have been prior to this revelation. It is a pop of a balloon or a flip of a switch that changes these people’s lives forever.
The issue with using memories as a reference for self-knowledge is the sudden jarring change of the previously believed true knowledge around seemingly true memories. All of these characters have memories that lead them to believe who and what kind of being they are, but in the end those memories are proven to be false. Boomer must convince herself that she is who she always thought she was in spite of the increasing evidence of the contrary. Finally when she is faced, literally, with multiple versions of other #8s she is forced to accept that she is, in fact, not the person she always thought she was; she’s not actually a person at all. This is a traumatic experience for Boomer, and would be for anyone. These characters have to face the facts that their parents aren’t who they though they were and all of the memories she has from being raised on their respective planets aren’t their real past at all. These memories were programmed into their beings. They had no way of knowing that they weren’t what they thought they were.