Saturday, March 21, 2009

And All Of This Will Happen Again

Review and Discussion: Battlestar Galactica finale

Television's most underrated show finally came to an end this weekend. It's a show that's drawn many parallels to my favorite show, Lost: a complex mythology, shifting alliances, a huge cast of complicated characters. And apparently the two also share the knowledge that ending the series when it's time to end just makes the series better. Galactica--the show or the titular spaceship--probably couldn't have lasted much longer anyhow.

It's interesting that Galactica (the ship) lasted as long as it did, only with the help of Cylon technology. Galactica is a symbol for humanity's resilience and survival in the most desperate situations. As the war goes on, humanity begins to realize that first, they might not be so different from the Cylons after all, and second, that they need the help of the Cylons to survive. This is reflected in Galactica's growing more decrepit but relying on Cylon technology to survive.

Structurally, Ronald Moore and company have laid out a nice Shakespearean arc, with the two-hour-plus finale's climax really happening in the opera house meets Galactica's bridge scene only about an hour and fifteen minutes into the finale. It's fitting for the climactic moment of the series finale to take place in Galactica's bridge, the scene of so much of the show's development, conflict, and resolution; it's even more fitting for the hallucinatory opera house to represent the same control room.

This structural approach was well done, because it allowed a good hour of falling action and denouement, an integral part of the story that most modern storytellers brush under the rug as if it were optional. Thinking back on the rest of the series, what is the overall climax of the series? I'd say the destruction of the Cylon resurrection hub, as that moment proved a turning point in both the war and the motivation of many of the protagonists and antagonists.

The "antagonist" of Battlestar is a tricky thing to nail down. For the first three seasons, it was "the Cylons", the faceless, massive, brooding threat--and that was a compelling villain. From the end of the third season through the fourth, the antagonist redefined itself into "the rebel Cylons", then finally to "Cavil's forces". I think some of the impact of the overall conflict was lost with each successive reduction. As my friend Mike pointed out, it changed from a class struggle to some dude's daddy issues. It's not to say that Cavil isn't a terrible person, or a compelling villain, but next to the enigmatic, omnipotent might of "the Cylons", he lacks a little.

The more important event to the finale, though, is the climactic confrontation with Cavil in Galactica's control room, and it delivers. The symbolic arrangement of the Final Five on the ledge as Baltar and Six enter the room echoed what we'd been hinted at for the past season and a half in half-lucid dreams of the opera house. A major theme of the show is that the distinction between what's human and what's machine is only as sharp as you want it to be; alternatively, Cylon is in the eye of the beholder.

So it was fitting and necessary that the confrontation here featured juxtaposition of human and Cylon at least five times. Roslin and Athena, both women with motherly connections to and visions of the child Hera, mirror each other's movements as they follow Hera toward the control room. Baltar and Six, after seeing angelic visions of themselves, are the ones to bring Hera to safety. The conflict is over Hera, herself half-human and half-Cylon, and prophesied to be critical to both species' ultimate fate. Naturally, the conflict was fought between the human faction, led by William Adama, and the Cylon faction, led by Cavil. Finally, the Final Five were the ones to mediate the conflict, themselves Cylon but the closest Cylons to human.

Probably the most shocking twist came in the moment when the Final Five were re-assembling the resurrection technology, and the Final Five knew all there was to know about each other for a few minutes. I sort of assumed the worst things that would come out were Ellen's "exploits"; they did, but that was only the beginning. All of the intensity in that scene made me completely forget Tory airlocking Cally, so it was almost as much a surprise to me as it was to Tyrol. Tyrol flips out, as could be expected, and the deal was off.

My question: did Saul Tigh ever intend to make a deal? I think it's entirely possible that Saul knew that Tory's past deeds would rise to the surface, that Tyrol would not take too kindly to that, and that the resulting chaos would give the Final Five a way out of giving resurrection back to Cavil. When Leoben accused Tigh of tricking Cavil, of course we're supposed to assume Leoben is merely being paranoid: trust and forthrightness aren't exactly Leoben's strong suits.

Then, with maybe ten minutes to go, Tigh sneaks in a seed of doubt: "For what it's worth, if that had been Ellen instead of Cally, I'd have done the same thing."

We get a little clarification about one of the central mysteries from the very beginning of the show: what's going on in Baltar's head? Apparently, an agent of God, or the gods, or "it", or whatever quasi-spiritual muck is really in charge of this universe, saw fit to manifest as Six, just so Baltar would listen to it--and the same went for Six, in the form of a virtual Baltar. In the second-biggest twist of the finale, it seems like Baltar isn't crazy after all. And here's yet another example of the human-Cylon merge theme: the supernatural feels the need to speak to both, knowing the future of intelligent life lies in both.

A note on the spirituality: it's interesting to know for sure that some supernatural force exists in the universe of Battlestar Galactica. It can explain many things, like what the heck Starbuck was after her apparent death on Earth (apparently some angelic manifestation of her own, though this is never fully detailed). It's a lot better than just having some void of misplaced belief. But in the end, it's such a loose, amorphic theology that Pope Benedict would have a field day with it.

Ultimately, the finale dealt with the refuge that the human survivors have been reaching toward ever since the destruction of the colonies. They get there, so for all intents and purposes we have a "happy ending". It contained moments of sadness, like when Roslin died--but surely even Adama saw that coming. Roslin finally fulfilled her own mystical destiny of being the dying leader who lead her people to Earth, even if Adama sort of made that a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Why was it so important for humanity to preserve Hera and reach its new home on Earth? Baltar, through his angelic agent; Roslin, through her Pythian prophecy; and others all think so. It's a common thread in science fiction: Leto II, with his Golden Path, the contemporaries and descendants of Ender Wiggin, with their colonization, and even some real-life scientists have the idea that humanity cannot advance any further except for by diaspora followed by divergent evolution. Is that another plank in God's plan, to force a dispute between Cylons and humans so that the future of intelligent life can be furthered in a similar manner?

If the scene in Galactica's control room was a huge twist, and Baltar's Six actually being some manner of angel was merely the second biggest twist, what was the biggest? The instant we found out we'd been duped with the first Earth we saw. In one moment, the entire chronology of the series was turned on its head. It was the logical assumption for four entire seasons that we were watching our own post-apocalypse, maybe a few thousand years in the future. Turns out we were watching our own progenitors, who vowed to give us the best parts of their civilization without the worst.

Never mind the continuity errors: the fate of all the mechanical technology the colonists brought to Earth, the reason that it's called Earth again after our own history says it wasn't called that for several thousand years, the flourishing of the Gods of Kobol for one specific period in our history. It made for a finale that made you think on plenty of different levels, and a fitting end for the show.

So say we all.

Currently listening: "All Along the Watchtower", Jimi Hendrix

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