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Over the past five years, there has been a rigorous, messy, emotional exploration of important questions facing our world, about torture, religious fundamentalism and genocide. And it's all been on one TV show, the SciFi Channel's "Battlestar Galactica." Well, tonight, the cult favorite ends its run, but before the show went off the air, its fans at the United Nations invited the cast and producers over for a visit. Lara Pelligrinelli went to the "Battlestar Galactica" panel at the U.N. and has this report.
LARA PELLIGRINELLI: If you remember the original "Battlestar Galactica" from the 1970s, the premise behind the current series is basically the same. Humans from the 12 colonies of Kobol are on the run from the Cylons, a species of genocidal robots they created to be their slaves.
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PELLIGRINELLI: This "Battlestar Galactica" is made to look and feel like a contemporary drama of the highest order, set on a grimy old vessel that's as much a coffin as a refuge.
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Mr. EDWARD JAMES OLMOS (Actor): (As William Adama) The very survival of this ship may depend on someone getting an order that they don't want to do. And if they hesitate, if they feel that orders are sometimes optional, then this ship will perish, and so will your son - the entire human race.
PELLIGRINELLI: There's a level of verisimilitude unusual for sci-fi, down to the subject matter. From sleeper cells to war crimes and secret tribunals, like this one, ordered by presidential decree.
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Ms. REKHA SHARMA (Actor): (As Tory Foster) The circle has examined the evidence and found you guilty of treason and crimes against humanity. Do you have anything to say before sentence is passed?
Unidentified Man #1: I was just trying to help people.
Mr. MICHAEL HOGAN (Actor): (As Colonel Saul Tigh) You didn't do a very good job then, did you?
PELLIGRINELLI: "Battlestar Galactica" is part of a tradition of science fiction, examining politics in society that goes back to H.G. Wells, says Lou Anders, editorial director for the sci-fi publisher Pyr Books. Take the third season, which hit the air in 2006, a bloody time during the Iraq war.
Mr. LOU ANDERS (Editorial Director, Pyr Books): We were in the midst of a war against an enemy which employed suicide bombers.
PELLIGRINELLI: And on "Battlestar Galactica," the humans, the heroes, were the insurgents against the occupying Cylons.
Mr. ANDERS: The protagonists turn into terrorists and bomb not only the Cylons, but their own people that they view as collaborators. The heroes took a sympathetic attitude towards terrorism.
PELLIGRINELLI: That's why the series caught the attention of the United Nations, where it became the subject for an unusual panel Tuesday evening. Some 500 people took seats in the chamber, a stiff, formal space with miles of dull blonde wood. Delegates to the U.N. may come from some exotic-sounding faraway places, but it was probably the first time they'd represented other planets.
Unidentified Man #2: Representative of Caprica, representative from Aragon.
PELLIGRINELLI: Whoopi Goldberg, a UNICEF ambassador, as well as an Oscar winning actor, served as the moderator.
Ms. WHOOPI GOLDBERG (UNICEF Ambassador, Actor): It is such an honor, number one, to be here at the U.N., but to be here with…
PELLIGRINELLI: Ready to talk about the issues explored in the show, the same ones struggled with on a daily basis in that very chamber, U.N. representatives joined actors Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell, Ron Moore and fellow producer David Eick.
Mr. DAVID EICK (Producer, "Battlestar Galactica"): The show tried very hard over the course of its run not to sort of say guess what, here's the answer to these problems, here's how we're gonna solve torture, here's how we're gonna solve this kind of ticking bomb scenario. It was essentially to say, think about this scenario.
PELLIGRINELLI: McDonnell plays President Laura Roslin, who on the show sacrificed thousands of innocent civilians and nearly stole an election.
Ms. MARY MCDONNELL (Actor): People who are taking these actions that we find unacceptable are sometimes in positions where they don't see the solutions, but the experience of that is something we wanted to also expose to people.
PELLIGRINELLI: Although debates about terrorism and human rights have receded to the background for many Americans, "Battlestar Galactica" may help the U.N. meet the challenge of reaching a broader audience. Naimah Hakim, a 16-year-old sophomore from Westchester, was one of 100 New York high school students in attendance. She says the show brings home issues in a way that most classroom lessons don't.
Ms. NAIMAH HAKIM: When you're watching the show, you don't question why you have to learn it, you understand because it's something that hits the nail on the head, you know?
PELLIGRINELLI: The series finale for "Battlestar Galactica" airs on the SciFi Channel tonight.
For NPR News, I'm Lara Pelligrinelli in New York.
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