Historical dramas have a lot in common with science fiction when you consider how alien/exotic the settings might seem to a contemporary audience. As a kind of squeakquel to the Arthur C. Clarke maxim; “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” I’d like to assert that any sufficiently different set of social mores in a historical context is indistinguishable from an alternate universe. Consider the following bizzaro dimension: limited electricity, paranoia related to class struggles, shifting loyalties, and rigid caste system. Could it be Battlestar Galactica? Yes. But it’s also Downton Abbey!
What does Downton Abbey have in common with Battlestar Galactica? Well, both shows have two central cores that make them thematically identical; all the characters are struggling against outside influences to maintain the status quo and preserve a way of life which is threatened. Second, and probably more effective; both shows constantly tease the audience with secrets, and star-crossed lovers.
Spoilers for both shows ahead.
Briefly, Battlestar Galactica and Downton Abbey don’t have exact parallels. It’s not like Lord Grantham is the captain of a boat called Downton, and the various players of the show aren’t secretly German spies. (Though I’ve been hoping Mr. Bates was a cylon for ages now.) The real and eerie similarities between the two shows are more thematic; the ways the shows make you feel. Now, a reductive (and dull in my opinion) response to this, is the old adage that there are only X number of plots and therefore all storytelling is bound to have things in common with other storytelling. I think the characters on BSG would say “this has all happened before, it will all happen again.” Whether BSG showrunner Ron Moore and his cohorts were making a meta-commentary on plotting with this line is unknown, but it’s certainly true.
What is the distinction between stories then? Easy: it’s all about style. And it’s in style where I find BSG and DTA to be kindred. Don’t get me wrong, there’s no shaky cam at Downton, nor would it be appropriate. I’m referring to the style in which the character conflicts are rendered and unpacked throughout the course of the show. Here’s what I mean:
The main strength in Julian Fellowes’s writing of Downton Abbey is the conflict it creates from the outset. The Titanic has been sunk and, as a result, the heir to Downton Abbey is thrown into question. Enter Matthew Crawley, a distant cousin who is the only true legitimate heir by blood. Matthew and his mother are outsiders to the level of pomp at Downton, so you’ve already got characters struggling to understand each other in an umfamiliar circumstance. Add to this the introduction of Mr. Bates, a crippled veteran of the Boer War who is assigned to be Lord Grantham’s valet in the first episode. This guy walks with a cane, and is supposed to be a servant, which people are suspect he can even do. Again, we’re given an outsider clashing with an established group of people, setting up a lot of character conflict. Should an alcoholic like Saul Tigh really be the second-in-command of Galactica? Adama trusts and knows Tigh, and Lord Grantham trusts and knows Bates.
Battlestar Galactica didn’t sink the Titanic in its opener, but instead blew up the home planets of the humans, sending them fleeing through space. Like DTA, this thrust a lot of people together in a situation where they normally wouldn’t be interacting. Matthew Crawley and Cousin Isabel showing up at Downton and shaking things up isn’t too different from former Secretary of Education Laura Roslin, suddenly becoming President. She’s the heir to Downton Galactica, deal with it. The notion of who is going to be in charge of the colonial fleet is a big deal in BSG. Between Admiral Cain and the Pegasus trying to take over, to Roslin’s illness in later seasons, the idea of the future of the status quo is constantly in play.
Similarly, Downton Abbey frequently throws a curve ball as to the future of their status quo. Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess is the usual defender of the old guard on DTA, but has the ability to subtly shift with the times. Because it’s Maggie Smith, she truly has no equal and, as such, is not a direct analog on BSG. In a way, she’s Adama, Roslin and Tigh with a dash of Doc Cottle all rolled into one.
But DTA’s scandals are just a real as BSG’s cylons. Will Cora’s pregnancy at the end of season one suddenly render Matthew’s status as the heir illegimate? Then you’ve got a faux-heir showing up in the form of a man claiming to be a disfigured member of the Crawley family. Finally, and most relevantly, as a result of his service in WWI, Matthew is paralyzed from the waist down, again putting his ability to carry on the future generations in jeopardy.
This opens up another window (or airlock) between the two shows in the territory of love triangles. When I recently watched the scene in which Lavinia Swire (Matthew’s fiancé) declares she’ll never leave his side after he is wounded, I was reminded of something else. In Battlestar Galactica, Lee Adama is shot accidentally in the episode “Sacrifice.” Subsequently, Anastasia Dualla declares she’ll never leave his side, as Kara “Starbuck” Thrace watches from a distance, clearly distraught.
Lee and Kara are the Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley of BSG. Both are in love with each other, and both have numerous other suitors who prevent them from getting together. Mary is actually a lot like Starbuck insofar as she’s a bit of a rebel, and is constantly refusing to do what she’s told. Matthew is very much like Lee in that he’s loyal, by the book, and a little more aw-shucks than Lady Mary. The parallel runs even deeper here when you consider Mary’s main suitor, newspaper man Sir Richard Carlisle to be an analog for Starbuck’s Cylon-lover Leoben. Both are “bad guys” and both have genuine, if distorted affections for Lady Mary and Starbuck. In fact, Richard Carlisle and Leoben would probably get along.
Visually, the most evident parallel between DTA and BSG is in the costumes, or rather, what it means when a character changes costumes. When Lee Adama stops wearing his flight suit and resigns being a Viper pilot, there’s visual and emotional shift. He starts wearing ties, etc. Similarly, at the start of WWI, Thomas, William, and Matthew all don millitary uniforms. This is mostly relevant for Thomas because he goes through a series of costume changes. At first he’s a footman working downstairs. Then he’s an officer, then a businessman working for himself, and then back to a footman again. Because the show is ultimately an ensemble, there has to be a way for characters to occupy a position to where they are useful to the narrative of the show. No matter how hard Lee Adama tries to get out of that military uniform, the show keeps putting him back in the flight suit or the fatigues. And as much as Thomas might have tried to hang up his livery, he’s back in it by the end of season 2 of Downton Abbey.
This happens with other characters on both shows, but it’s instructive for one main reason. The visual cues of costume changes are indicative of the same over-riding theme: the ceremony of keeping a type of lifestyle together will be difficult for some to maintain, while impossible for others to escape. No matter how many times people try to resign on BSG, the Cylons keep putting them back in the cockpit, or in government work, etc. In DTA, despite history shaking up the differences between classes, Lord Grantham can’t escape his role as an aristocrat, no more than Thomas can escape his lot as a servant.
Battlestar Galactica’s refrain of “this has all happened before, it will all happen again” is similar to the way things have gone down at Downton Abbey. Because the more things change at Downton, the more they stay the same.
Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com. His favorite “character” in Downton Abbey is easily that flower petal which falls so aggressively in the opening title sequence.