20090319_battlestar_560x375Yes, I know that it was broadcast months ago… but I’ve been following BSG on DVD, and the second half of season four was just recently released. I watched it over the last week or so, culminating in the extended, nearly three-hour version of the finale just a couple of nights ago.

I discovered my reactions were somewhat mixed. I had gone out of my way to avoid spoilers, but fair warning: the commentary below is chock full of ’em!…

The finale did an impressive job of drawing all the show’s myriad threads into convergence, with the kidnapping of the human/Cylon toddler Hera providing an impetus for a rescue mission that was at once a final showdown against Cavil’s enemy Cylons, a test of the new alliance with Six’s rebel Cylons, a moment of truth for several key characters, and a last blaze of glory for the battered Galactica herself. (And oh, yes, an opportunity for some spectacular action sequences; they must’ve spent a season’s worth of SFX budget on this episode.)

The flashbacks to past moments from several characters’ lives, mostly before the fall of Caprica, provided both a link and a juxtaposition to where the show started, reinforcing the minor theme of shattered families and  underscoring how seemingly minor decisions set the characters on the path(s) they’re on today. The flashbacks also contributed to the building suspense, which was strong, as we know from experience that the show hasn’t shied away from subverting its own formulae or killing major characters.

The treatment of Admiral Adama through it all was interesting as well, as the story emphasized once again how despite the incredible loyalty almost every other character offers him, Adama’s “leadership” has feet of clay. Here again as with almost every major decision he’s made over the course of the series, Adama’s instincts are prejudiced, authoritarian, stubbornly status quo; he digs in his heels against a chance at a solution, and has to be talked, cajoled, or argued into it by those around him.

As the episode drew to a climax, my reaction was fairly positive:  I was prepared to enjoy a genuinely redemptive resolution to events, as the humans and Cylons reached a negotiated treaty-of-necessity. It seemed like an opportunity to end “the cycle of violence,” as Baltar said, and set aside prejudice… a positive outgrowth of the show’s recurring themes of humanity’s better impulses in conflict with our baser ones. (A theme some right-wingers have consistently missed, BTW, thus completely failing to understand the show.)

And then it all went to hell in the meld of the Final Five, as Chief Tyrol learned of the hidden murder of his wife Callie and—despite an explicit mutual promise to avoid recrimination for any such revelations—allowed his anger to drive him to violence that scotched the fragile deal. The moment of moral redemption fell away, and things quickly descended into a stereotypical Hollywood climax, with lots of shooting and explosions and a last-second escape. It was hugely disappointing: Tyrol had long been established as a basically decent character at heart, but here he allowed his impulse for personal revenge to put the survival of two species at risk.

After the climax, though, came an extended denouement… and it’s here that the show really subverted expectations. Galactica’s final jump, it turns out, led the fleet to Earth—our Earth. One hundred and fifty thousand years ago. Thus the ruined “Earth” of the mid-4th-season was revealed as a red herring, and all past speculation about the connection between Kobol’s colonies and our own familiar humanity was cast in a completely new light.

It was clever and audacious (a barely veiled twist on the hoary old SF cliché of two space explorers stranded on an unsettled planet whose names turn out to be “Adam” and “Eve”). It was also unsatisfying.

Our surviving protagonists discovered that the native hominids (presumably early homo sapiens, glimpsed only at a distance, across the Africa veldt) had compatible DNA. They could interbreed, they decided, and even teach them how to use language.

Here’s where things got intolerably implausible, in a couple of ways. How did this amazing coincidence come to be? No idea: the characters explicitly chalk it up to nothing less than fate and/or divine intervention. (The less said about that notion, the better… although some have said it very eloquently… especially when it comes to the unexplained post-death survival of Kara Thrace. The show went very mystical very quickly, but without any actual coherent metaphysical underpinnings.)

More importantly, how do they deal with said coincidence? Well, see, Lee has this idea…

Lee Adama has always been an idealistic character, and admirably so (far more than his father), but he’s not a fool. It defies belief that he would be so enamored of a new unspoiled world as to propose that the last 40,000 civilized humans in existence voluntarily give up every trapping of their culture and their technology, split up to spread across the planet, and live off the land. In a show that has always been brutally realistic about the political difficulties of large-group decision-making, it defies belief even more that those 40,000 people would readily agree to this idea. Having the lawyer character hang a lampshade on it by saying he’s “shocked” at how easily they did so doesn’t make it any more credible.

Setting the fleet’s arrival, say, 5,000 years ago, at the dawn of civilization, would have made at least a little more sense, both of known human history and of the decision to “go native.” As it stands, what Lee’s plan did was send everyone out to face an unfamiliar world full of unknown dangers and hostile predators, with no modern tools, shelter, health care, or means of communication—nothing to rely on except hunting/gathering skills virtually none of them had. The show didn’t present an actual “first contact” between the colonists and the natives, but I imagine it might well have resulted in those natives fearfully tossing the pointy spears they were shown carrying. And if the colonists actually succeeded in surviving, interbreeding, even passing along language… well, they certainly didn’t manage to pass along anything useful about writing, or medicine, or even agriculture, among other things.

Lee essentially doomed his descendants for the next 150,000 years—some 6,000 generations of humanity, give or take—to lives that were far more nasty, brutish, and short than what he and his contemporaries had taken for granted.

The problem here is clear: while the colonists’ new home provided a surprising and ironic fresh start for the characters, it also ran up against known facts. There’s obviously no archeological evidence whatsoever for an alien space fleet landing in the cradle of humanity 150,000 years ago. Therefore, the writers needed a way to link Galactica‘s characters to “our” Earth without having them leave an actual mark. In plot terms, giving the colonists matching DNA, and having them abandon the fleet and send it soaring gracefully into the sun, must have seemed like an elegant solution.

Or it would, if it weren’t so glaringly stupid a thing to do. It achieved bluntly literal plausibility only at the cost of thematic and psychological plausibility. It fell far, far short of what the show had the potential to be.

Battlestar Galactica has never been about literalism. Some SF expends great effort in building convincing alternative worlds; Galactica never did. With the notable exceptions of advanced robotics and FTL spaceships (the two McGuffins necessary to get the story rolling), the culture depicted on Galactica matches ours in every way—art and architecture, fashion and mores, politics and legal system, military ranks and hierarchy, and certainly technology (from cars to weapons to telephones and far, far more). As I’ve remarked before, there was never a serious attempt to treat these people and their culture as some lost historical offshoot of humanity, as was ostensibly the show’s concept. Clipping the corners off books and documents and giving everyone a superficially polytheistic religion doesn’t change the underlying fact: these characters aren’t just like us (as, say, Captain Kirk or Han Solo have identifiably 20th-century American attitudes in otherwise unfamiliar settings), they are us.

And that’s why the show always worked best as allegory… because it was none too plausible if taken literally. BSG‘s high-water mark was surely the third season, when it set aside the spacefaring for a while to explore a planetbound story on “New Caprica”… in the process inverting the roles of oppressor and oppressed between humans and Cylons, exploring the roots of terrorism and torture, and testing the most extreme boundaries of moral behavior. It was a daring confrontation of America’s role in the world, most particularly in the middle east post-9/11.

The finale, by contrast, sacrificed effective allegory for ineffective literalism… a story that makes sense on the surface, but doesn’t bear up to deeper examination. Its implicit notion of great, repeating historical cycles is not particularly profound, and is frankly more than a little depressing.

Still, it wasn’t a complete waste, which is why my feelings remain mixed. The long denouement certainly slowed down the story’s pace, but I appreciated it nonetheless; any denouement at all is more than many Hollywood stories give us these days. (Indeed, the notion of a TV series having a long-term arc with any sort of genuine conclusion at all is a fairly recent development, and still too rare. Babylon 5 probably did it best, and I’m keeping my fingers and toes crossed for Lost next season.)

In this case, after the washed-out metallic tones of shipboard life, the focus on blue skies, green grass, and golden sunlight was a refreshing change, letting the visual aesthetics emphasize the transition the characters were experiencing. And every surviving character got a moment or two in the sun (literally) to cap off his or her dramatic journey in a satisfying way, right down to the injured Helo, who had been seemingly abandoned earlier in the episode. We saw what happened to these people we had come to care about, and what they had learned from it all. Issues of overall plausibility, scientific credibility, long-term consequences, and thematic shortcomings notwithstanding, in strictly characterological terms, it largely worked.

That alone, though, doesn’t redeem the finale’s shortcomings. Indeed, those touching moments are undermined by the tragic meaninglessness of the fate we know awaits the colonists. They left no mark on humanity. They made no difference. Their struggles were all for naught.

All of which leaves me with just one major unanswered question nagging at me, a question that’s underscored by the present-day coda with Gaius Baltar and Caprica Six (or at least their avatars), and indeed a question that dates back to the pilot mini-series and that has been thrust forward in the credit sequence of every episode since.

It’s as simple as this:  we saw Baltar cowering and Six seeming to shelter him as the nuclear destruction of Caprica City blasted his home to shards around him, in a scene that cut away to black. We know that Cylons are no more invulnerable to such destructive force than are humans. So the question remains: how did Baltar survive to join the fleet in the first place?

Baltar’s journey as a character was perhaps more complex, and more compelling, than that of any other character on the show. I certainly don’t regret his presence. So why even include that scene… much less use it over and over again? For this puzzle, there’s even less of an explanation than for Kara’s continued existence… and frustratingly, it’s destined to remain that way.

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7 Responses to “The Battlestar Galactica finale”
  1. Mario Badescu hudpleje tilbyder et omfattende udvalg af produkter til
    alle dine behov.

  2. I never got a chance to watch any of the episodes. How does it compare to Star Trek’s Voyager?

  3. Andrew says:

    Surely I would have loved some more answers as well from the final chapter, but I assume that’s just the beauty and charm of the story, leaving us with more questions to answer them ourselves!

  4. Indeed. That second-season episode with the tomb on Kobol—and the projection of present-day Earth constellations—dropped a huge and obviously deliberate clue that the show must be set in the future, one that’s completely irreconcilable with the way they actually ended things. Even the show’s science advisor (who apparently wasn’t consulted on the finale, judging by the way they mishandled stuff like, e.g., “mitochondrial Eve”) admits that those star patterns amounted to a big FUBAR.

  5. Yeah. There’s that. And the whole “Tomb of Athena” clue business should have an honest, consistent payoff to it as well.

  6. Sometimes, ambiguity and open-endedness can serve a dramatic purpose, yes.

    But when one of the recurring aspects of a show is setting up mysteries about how certain circumstances came to be… those kinds of questions, you should get to learn answers to.

  7. Some questions you don’t get to learn answers to.

    As before, so into the future…?

  8.  
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