Counting Down Galactica (4 of 4)

[This is the last of four posts counting down the final episodes of Battlestar Galactica. To see the others, click here.]

I’d meant to write my final entry in the “Counting Down Galactica” series before the airing of the finale on Friday night; a power outage in my neighborhood prevented me from doing so. Hence everything I’m about to say is colored by having seen the two-hour-and-eleven-minute conclusion, and spoilers lie in wait.

On the topic of spoilers, I know of a few ambitious souls (hi, Suzanne!) who are holding the finale in reserve, planning to watch it next week. Let me note how sympathetic I am toward, and dubious about the chances of, their or anyone’s ability to navigate the days ahead without having the ending spoiled. I haven’t even dared to visit Facebook yet, for fear of destabilizing my own still-coalescing thoughts on the experience; similarly, I won’t go near the various blogs I read. When I got up this morning, I turned on NPR’s Weekend Edition, only to find myself smack-dab in the middle of a postmortem with Mary McDonnell. It was like coming out of hyperspace into an asteroid field, or — a more somber echo — waking on the morning of 9/11 to a puzzled voice on the radio saying, in perhaps our last moment of innocence, that pilot error seemed to be behind a plane’s freak collision with the World Trade Center.

Comparing BSG’s wrapup to the events of 9/11 might seem the nadir of taste, except that Galactica probably did more in its four seasons than any other media artifact besides 24 — I’m discounting Oliver Stone movies and the Sarah Silverman show — to process through pop culture the terrorist attacks and their corrosive aftereffects on American psychology and policy. It became, in fact, an easy truism about the show, to the point where I’d roll my eyes when yet another commentator assured me that BSG was about serious things like torture and human rights. But then I shouldn’t let cynicism blind me to the good that stories and metaphors can do; I myself publicly opined that the season-two Pegasus arc marked a “prolapse of the national myth,” a moment at which BSG “strode right over the line of allegory to hold up a mirror in which the United States could no longer misrecognize its practices of dehumanization and torture.” And who am I to argue with the United Nations, anyway?

But maybe the more fitting connection is local rather than global, for losing power yesterday reminded me how absolutely dependent the current state of my life is on technology: the uninterrupted flow of internet, television, radio. My wife and I were able to brew coffee by plugging the pot into one remaining active outlet, and our cell phones enabled us to maintain contact with the outside world (until their batteries died). After that, it was leave the house and brave the bright outdoors and actual, face-to-face conversation with other human beings.

I bring this up because, in its final hours, BSG plainly announced itself as concerned, more than anything else, with the relationship between nature and technology — between humans and their creations. In retrospect, this dialectic is so obvious that I’m embarrassed to admit it never quite came into focus for me when the series was running. Sure, the initiating incident was a sneak attack by Cylons, a race of human-built machines who got all uppity and sentient on us. (Or maybe it’s the case that the rebellious Cylons descended from some other, ancient caste of Cylons — I’m not entirely clear on this aspect of the mythology, and consider it the show’s failing for not explaining it more clearly. But more about that in a moment.) Even in that first, fateful moment of aggression, though, the lines between us and them were blurred; in “reimagining” the 1970s series that was its precursor, Ronald D. Moore’s smartest decision — apart from scuffing up the mise-en-scene — was to posit Cylons who look like us; who think, feel, and believe like us. As the series wore on, this relationship became ever more intimate, incestuous, and uncomfortable, so that finally it seemed neither species could imagine itself outside of the other. It was differance, supplement, and probably several other French words, operationalized in the tropes of science fiction.

A more detailed textual analysis than I have the patience to attempt here would likely find in “Daybreak” an eloquent mapping of these tense territories of interdependent meanings. One obvious starting point would be the opposition between Cavil’s Cylon colony, a spidery, Gigeresque encrustation perched in a maelstrom of toxic-looking space debris, and the plains of Africa, evoked so emphatically in the finale’s closing third hour that I began to wonder if the story’s logic could admit the existence of any sites on Earth (or pseudo-Earth, as the story cutely frames it) that aren’t sunny, hospitable, and friendly. In this blunt binary I finally saw BSG’s reactionary (one might say luddite) ethos emerge in full flower: a decision on the undecidable, a brake on the sliding of signifiers. For all the show’s interest in hybrids of every imaginable flavor, it did finally come down to a rejection of technology, signaled most starkly in Lee Adama’s call to “break the cycle” by not building more cities — and the sailing of Galactica and her fleet into the sun. Even as humans and Cylons decide to live together (and, it’s suggested in the coda, provide the seed from which contemporary civilization sprouted), it seems to me the metaphor has been settled in humanity’s favor.

That’s fine; at least the show had the courage to finally call heads or tails on its endless coin-flipping. Interesting, though, that the basic division over which the narrative obsessed was reflected formally in the series’ technical construction and audience reception. I refer here to a dialectic that emerged late in the show’s run, between visual effects and everything else — between space porn and character moments. Reading fan forums, I lost count of the number of times BSG was castigated by some for abandoning action sequences and space battles, only to be countered by another group tut-tutting along the lines of This show has never been about action; it’s about the people. For what it’s worth, I’m firmly in the first camp (as my post last week demonstrates): the best episodes of Galactica were those that featured lots of space-set action (the Hugo-winning pilot, “33”; “The Hand of God”; most of the first season, for that matter, and bright moments sprinkled throughout the rest of the series). Among the worst were those that confined themselves exclusively to character interaction, such as “Black Market,” “Unfinished Business,” and most of the latter half of season four.

It’s not that the show was ever poorly written, or the characters uninteresting. But it did seem for long stretches to develop an allergy to action, with the result a bifurcated structure that drove some fans crazy. Much like the pointless squabbles around Lost, whose flashback structure still provokes some to shout “filler episode!” where others cry “Character development!”, debate on the merits of BSG too often devolved into untenable assertions about the antithetical relationship between spectacle and narrative, with space-porn fans lampooned as short-attention-span stimulus junkies and character-development fans mocked as pretentious blowhards. Speaking as a stimulus junkie and pretentious blowhard, I feel safe in pointing out the obvious: it’s hard to pull off compelling science fiction characters without some expertly integrated shiny-things-go-boom, while spaceships and ‘splosions by themselves get you nowhere. You need, in short, both — which is why BSG’s industrial dimension neatly homologized its thematic concerns.

I’m relieved that last night’s conclusion managed to reconcile the show’s many competing elements, and that it did so stirringly, dramatically, and movingly. I expected nothing less than a solid sendoff from RDM, one-half of the writing team behind perhaps the greatest series finale ever, Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s “All Good Things …” — but that’s not to say he couldn’t have screwed it up in the final instance. Indeed, if there is a worm in the apple, it’s my sneaking suspicion that the game was fixed: the four episodes leading up to “Daybreak” were a maddening mix of turgid soap opera and force-fed exposition, indulgent overacting and unearned emotion. It’s almost as though they wanted to lower our expectations, then stun us with a masterpiece.

I don’t know yet if “Daybreak” deserves that particular label, but we’ll see. In any case, there is something magical about so optimistic an ending to such a downbeat series. If the tortured soul of this generation’s Battlestar Galactica was indeed forged in the flames of 9/11 and the collective neurotic reaction spearheaded by the Bush administration, perhaps its happy ending reflects a national movement toward something better: the unexpected last-minute emergence, through parting clouds, of hope.

9 thoughts on “Counting Down Galactica (4 of 4)

  1. Hi Bob! This is the first essay of yours that I’ve read. Makes me want to come back and read some more. Engaging, funny, thought-provoking.

    On Facebook I mentioned that I have a long list of grievances about the show’s finale–I really hated it. But I’ll get to that in a minute.

    I think your zeitgeist analysis is spot on. I agree that the finale captured the right tone: a fresh start brimming with optimism. And I loved the idea of the musical refrain pointing the way to our own ancient earth. If it had been done right, it could have been as mind-blowing as the last frames of Planet of the Apes. But I thought that the conclusion utterly failed at reconciling the show’s many competing elements. Or at least, that it did so in the laziest and most unsatisfying way possible.

    There are several failures to reconcile (or weak reconciliations) that bothered me, but the one that bothered me the most was the decision to tell the viewers: “You know all that God and angels and destiny stuff? We meant that literally. Here, you want a surprise ending? You weren’t watching science fiction, you were watching faith fiction. Surprise!” Wait, what? Kara was *literally* a corporeal angel sent by God on a God-ship? God just raptured her away when her work was done? And Lee didn’t even blink?!? Asking characters to take a leap of faith is all well and good, but asking the audience to do so is a big fat cop-out, IMHO. I’m all for suspension of disbelief in science fiction–plausible-sounding mechanisms that are currently (and perhaps forever) impossible are a huge part of sci-fi’s stock-in-trade–but “God did it” does not count as a plausible-sounding mechanism. What made this all the more disappointing for me is that I thought I knew where they were headed, at least the general compass-bearing, with the Kara/musical refrain thread of the story, which I thought was the heart of the story. So here’s a sketch of my alternate ending (I haven’t gone back to see if it conflicts with the rest of the series as written, but I think the general outline works):

    In place of the time-wasting flashbacks that did exactly nothing to advance the plot or close any loops, the finale has some expository reveals.

    Not necessarily in this order, and not necessarily explicitly in each case:
    Reveal 1: Kara’s dad is Daniel (the sensitive, artistic Cylon that Cavil snuffed out); Kara is a half-breed
    Reveal 2: The Final Five created Daniel as a hedge against Cavil when they realized that he was unpredictable and sociopathic; they entrusted him with a lot of knowledge and made him very smart
    Reveal 3: Daniel survived Cavil’s genocide in some non-corporeal form on 13th-Colony-Earth
    Reveal 4: Daniel discovered, or, depending on how skillfully it was written, the Final Five entrusted him with knowledge of, Our-Ancient-Earth
    Reveal 5: Daniel had prepared a way to resurrect half-breed Kara, his daughter, after luring her to 13th-Colony-Earth
    Reveal 6: Daniel used the musical refrain, the visions, Kara’s paintings, etc., to orchestrate the reconciliation of the races, Cavil’s defeat, and the fleet’s arrival at Our-Ancient-Earth
    Reveal 7: Daniel is “God”

    I also would have waited until the last five minutes to reveal that this planet they found to call home is Our-Ancient-Earth. Have them settle on the planet, wrap up all the relationship stuff, explain why they’re ditching their technology, etc., then at the last minute have someone come across Homo Erectus or something. OMG, is that what I think it is? Zoom out to show the clear outline of Africa. NO FRAKKIN WAY! Do the little Mitochondrial Eve coda thingie. THIS IS THE BEST FRAKKIN SCI FI SERIES EVARRRR!!!

  2. Gabe, thanks for writing, and for your excellent (if revisionist) thoughts on the finale. You make a convincing case!

    The problem for me, I suppose, is that I lost track of the mythology right around the time that Daniel was introduced; he never really registered on me as a player in the drama, so the show’s ultimate neglect of him in favor of a blunt but conclusive ending came as a relief. As for the god/faith stuff, I’m telling myself it was less about some actual deity and more about “higher powers” constituted through advanced technology — as in the old Arthur C. Clarke aphorism that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistiguishable from magic. RDM pretty much ruled out that we’d ever meet aliens in the BSG universe, but that’s not to say that a higher level of being (some kind of advanced human/cylon hybrid, engaged in its own act of species creation?) wasn’t involved.

    I guess such matters are what we have left to debate, now that the show is finished …

  3. Gabe–I much prefer your conclusion than the one we got. For a series that offered so muc originality and really sought to shake up the genre, to have a typical sf ending–superior humans arrive on a primitive planet and settle it with no resistance from the “natives”–was disappointing, maybe even heartbreaking. It was jarring to have ugly imperialism rear its head in the conclusion of a show that always seemed to question our baser imperialist tendencies.

  4. Bob, I think you might be right about the idea that the BSG deity is “some kind of advanced human/cylon hybrid, engaged in its own act of species creation”. Who knows, it may actually turn out to be Daniel. I was just remembering something either Angel-Caprica-Six or Angel-Gaius said in the last scene–one of them said something about “God” and the other responded with something like “You know he hates it when people call him that.” Are the writers saving the real mind-frakking for the “Caprica” prequel?

    Unfortunately, the possibility annoys rather than excites me. If true, it means they sacrificed a true masterpiece on the altar of franchise exploitation.

  5. I really hated the second part of the finale. In some ways, for the same reason I hated Matrix: Revolution, because I feel like I can see a way to make the thematic ideas of the creators work far better, even with the constraints of budget and genre and form. Which is a classic geek thing: it’s what produces fanfic and a lot of other transformative art. But I’m lazy: I want the core text to do better work, to suggest and nurture more stories rather than force me to do the imaginative equivalent of the 12 Labors of Hercules to make it even minimally satisfying.

    The best episodes of the show were about taking the premise seriously: what would a fleet of refugees trying to escape a technological apocalypse of their own making be like, and especially what would it be like once it started to dawn on them that what they’d made with their own technology was in some ways very close to themselves? This is the bleak situation that Dr. Frankenstein and his unnamed creation are in when they’re out on the ice together: the problem isn’t distance, it isn’t the alterity of the monster from the man, it’s the accursed proximity.

    So when the show shined, it was often because it was thinking about what a complex, messy situation the individuals were in, and the range of complex, messy actions they’d pursue in that situation. There were characters whose contradictions worked and some who really did feel like random writer-of-the-week plot contrivances, but the overall situation felt really well realized. So we get a dramatic guns-blazing first half and then the characters come to their final destination. Ok. I wasn’t wild about aspects of the scene with Cavil and the Final Five and so on in C-and-C, but ok. We get to Earth-2, and…

    the wonderfully human, contradictory situation suddenly resolves into everyone just accepting that they’ll have to go off and die as primitives on a new world. Lee Adama says we should and so we will. We get a single line from the new President about how everyone is in agreement–no dissent, no conflict, no drama–and they disperse into the mitochondrial dust. Wrong, wrong, wrong. It just doesn’t work at all.

    I could tolerate the weak stuff about God and angels if they got this much right, if the moment of having to settle on Earth and accept a kind of “withering away” was full of vulnerability and contradiction and dramatic pathos. A lot of people have said, “But there wasn’t time to show that”. What, but there was time to stretch a mutiny plot over four episodes and have the awful melodrama of Ellen Tigh’s return to the Galactica and the time-wasting in general of this season? There was plenty of time, if the writers hadn’t had to invent the story they meant to tell at the last minute of the last day.

  6. Tim, I love your idea of the division of geek labor. I wonder if we’re starting to see (especially among fan-sensitive producers like Moore) a certain casualness — or in your term, laziness — when it comes to huge decisions like BSG’s resolution, believing that even if the showrunners screw it up, fans will “fix it in post,” revising and rewriting the unacceptable text.

    In the aftermath of the finale, I’ve been thinking about space porn and its effects on the execution of the whole. I keep seeing the suggestion in fan discourse that the reason the penultimate episodes dragged so egregiously is because BSG had to conserve its visual-effects budget for the big fireworks display at the end. Hence a string of “bottle shows” emphasizing mutinies, character studies, and melodrama. I don’t know where I stand on this theory, but there are a few interesting things to note:

    – It pretty much destroys the idea that FX and storytelling are two separate and interchangeable things

    – It definitely destroys the idea that the show “was never about the space battles”

    – It’s suspicious to me in the same way it’s suspicious that Joss Whedon got a pass for the lame early episodes of Dollhouse because FOX executives were “strangling his vision” — in other words, it becomes a fannish tactic of forgiveness, invoking a higher force to explain/excuse a series’ failings

    The last is accurate enough, I suppose, in terms of the actual production situation. But it still seems like an unsettling mutation in reading practices, a way of weakly reinscribing the author function (and excusing poor storytelling!) in an era where the production process is much more transparent and easily tracked from moment to moment.

  7. Even worse, RDM seemed to buy into the technological vs. personal binary in the end. Paraphrasing, he has commented that he thought it would be more interesting to focus on an emotional rather than an intellectual resolution, AS IF THE CHARACTERIZATION WAS EVER SEPARABLE FROM THE MYTHARC. The structure of the finale bears out this regrettable backpedaling from hybridity, with its bifurcation into one hour of space porn and one hour of sentimentalism, plot in the present and melodrama in the flashbacks. H8!

    One of my friends is already cutting the last 3 eps into a new and improved fan edit of the finale.

  8. I think one of the things that is most interesting about Battlestar is Moore’s refusal to plan things and actually revel in the process of discovery. One could argue that this parallels the character’s own search but I’ll leave that for others. What many fans, myself included at times, took for not knowing where the show was going and making it up as it was going along (as Lost in season2-3 seemed to be doing but now seems to be intricately and very meticulously plotted) Moore consistently in interviews and on the commentary tracks has praised as some sort of jazz improvisation and going more with his gut than his mind (to recreate that old binary…)

    For example I’ve heard Moore talking about the scene with the Apollo trying to get the bird out of Starbuck’s apartment and how Moore just liked the image and when he came up with it he didn’t know who was doing it or what it meant. As a viewer that kind of stuff drives me crazy because in a show with as many themes as BSG seems to be dealing with we are taught to examine every aspect and to expect that it means something.

    In some ways BSG is the anti-B5. On Babylon 5 every single thing was planned out and there were contingencies prepared for every character is the actor left the show or if the show were canceled before the story was complete. On BSG that obviously wasn’t the case. They were making it up as they went along. As fans we often see that as a negative because we are taught to look for those answers and meanings but, to use the jazz metaphor again, in other mediums and genres the ability to improvise and go with your instincts is seen as a great skill.

    I don’t know what I’m saying about that but of course that is something Moore would probably encourage…

  9. I think trying to do jazz improvisation in the middle of a classical symphony is a mistake. I’m all for this description of creative process, but it has to operate on the appropriate foundation: an improvisational ethos ought to be situated within an improvisational storytelling engine. You don’t start off a show saying “AND THEY HAVE A PLAN” and say, “oh well, I just throw shit out there and then figure out what to do next”, unless you want to come up with the conceit that your characters are delusional or wrong when they think they have a plan, which is potentially interesting. (And arguably a way to salvage some of the narrative wreck in BSG: that the Cylons presented as masterful villains with a plan because that was their self-deception, and they turned out to be as human and improvisational and just plain crazy-wrong as anyone else.)

    So an open-ended show like Star Trek strikes me as way more suited to an improvisational style than a show which is larded with prophecies, visions, mysteries and a sense of narrative direction.

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