Battlestar Galactica is probably the last piece of pop culture I got too invested in, where thinking about the show and worrying about the characters got me shaky, got me anxious outside the window of the viewing hour to the point that I had to detatch myself from it. So I was interested to see We Are All Cylons, Ilana Rein’s documentary about fans who have kept the flame alive after the show’s finale. The movie’s very good at outlining why Battlestar Galactica resonated so deeply with so many people. Though the ending is controversial, the idea that we’ve all got a little machine in our DNA is a useful way to grapple with the idea that we may end up increasingly integrated with machinery, whether we’ve got artificial joints or end up with implants that connect our brains directly to the internet.
But I’m increasingly interested in the role of fandom as an organizing principal for communities, and so I called up Ilana to talk about what she thought the people she interviewed at the Shore Leave convention got out of their participation in Battlestar Galactica conventions and costuming — and what being a fan means to her. It turns out, this Ilana’s first dip into hardcore fandom.
“Flashes of it would enter my mind at random times,” she told me. “It was also really disconcerting…I took these still images of Six and Baltar in the opera house and made very large prints…I was hoping that would be a way for me to exorcise this from my system, I’ve never really been this invested in a show before…It’s hit me over the head like a giant, amazing hammer that exploded my world, to tap into this community where people were saying similar things, they weren’t being mocked for saying things, for going off on theoretical fantasies.”
Fandom strikes me as an interesting intermediate phase. We’ve had communities based on affinity for millennia, of course. And it’s not as if, say, Christianity was immediately considered a legitimate thing to be interesting in on a widespread scale. It takes a while for people to get used to the idea that their neighbors are giving up their discretionary time and income because of a story about a guy who came back from the dead. It’ll take a while for it to become genuinely commonplace to see these communities emerge at a rapid pace. Time legitimizes even the silliest things.
“People can think ‘Oh, these losers, they just hate their lives, they’re escaping,’” Ilana said. “But why think of it that way? Think of it as enhancing your life! Why is it different from someone who spends twelve hours a day on the golf course, and they fetishize their golf clubs, and they dress up in their golf outfits, and they memorize the golf course. Why is there a hierarchy? Why is sci-fi getting this bad rap from mainstream culture?”
There’s no clear reason for it, of course. But it’s clear from We Are All Cylons that there’s this profound hunger to connect through art and stories that feel directly relevant to the challenges of the modern day. Traditional holy texts have enduring power, but their timelessness can be limiting when you have to stretch tenets or questions to fit dilemmas that would have been unimaginable to their early prophets, to the rabbis who churned out midrashes (and after all, what’s a midrash but fan fiction?), to the men who worked together to create the King James Bible. Fandom provides a respectful context for that need to engage with immediate questions, to suggest that we might need a different set of questions for a long time to come. And conventions are the new churches, refuges for those seekers. “[One of her interview subjects] said she comes to these conventions because it’s like coming to family reunions, but you choose your family,” Ilana said. There are worse things to use as criteria when you pick your tribe.