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Battlestar Ends As It Went

Wednesday, May 13th, 2009


This is about the end of Battlestar Galactica, which started in 2003 and wrapped up just a few weeks ago.

Naturally, spoilers abound. If you haven’t watched the series yet and plan to, you should go. Well, wait actually -  let me preface your departure with a clarification. If you watch Battlestar Galactica like you do other serialized shows, say Lost, Battlestar will let you down. What I mean is that you cannot watch Battlestar with any kind of expectation that it will ever answers the narrative questions it asks.

It is not that type of show, as in a type of show that makes sense from one episode to the next. Battlestar is not about continuity, either in narrative or character. One episode a character is a fighter pilot, and in the next episode a lawyer, and the next vice-president. I think it’s all just to maintain the facade of a geek-ed show, but really…the show is one big character lab.

Battlestar is at times an amazing show. There are moments that, as far as I am concerned, may go down in television history books. But it is no The Wire, which plods gracefully with brilliant consistency, like a donkey in a never-ending ballet. Battlestar can veer from dazzling  esotericism to barely above freshman creative writing class within the span of episodes, even scenes sometimes. In this respect, it reminds me of another great piece of scifi: the writings of Philip K. Dick.

So, if you haven’t watched Battlestar, you should. Just don’t look at it as a story, but rather a playground. Let the spoiling begin. I’ll assume at this point you’ve watched the finale.

You’re probably miffed. Allow me.

A few retrospective thoughts on a show that has occupied my consciousness and time for many years now. My first impression after watching the finale was deep disappointment. But since the show has simmered in my brain, I actually have liked it more and more. With that in mind, I’d like to comment on the abandonment of technology, and the employment of God as a plot device.

First, I don’t think it’s outrageous for the Colonials to have abandoned technology. Put yourself in their shoes. You’re one of 30,000 people that have survived a holocaust of billions at the hands of technology. The odds that you die in some technology-related incident, be it death by Cylon, or death by exploding control panel, or death by viper collision, are pretty high . We know that the Fleet still harbors anti-Cylon resentment as late as the first few episodes of this second part of the season. And since the holocaust, Cylons have hunted you down for years, slowly culling the ranks. The non-Cylon technology you do have is falling apart. The best piece – Galactica – is a wreck. I imagine there is very little salvageable after the battle at the black hole.

Then you factor in that the Colonials basically lost all political will. They tried democracy. That got them New Caprica, and intern camps and suicide bombs. They tried a spiritual leader. That got them to a boring, dead planet. They tried dictatorship. That got them a bloody room full of slaughtered leaders.The fleet leadership is down to a barely noticed Lt. as Admiral (who is that guy anyway?), and a washed up, blind lawyer as president. The Colonials are spent.

So the only people with any kind of power at all,  the Adamas, come to you and say, “Screw it. Let’s just give everything up and start again.”

Compared to the way things have been going, I don’t think a pastoral, boring life would sound all that bad. You probably are not a fan of technology – what has it done for you besides kill your family? – and even if you are a fan, what kind of political backbone do you have? If you had any, you’d be dead on the floor of Colonial One. So you might die of dysentery…so what? Is that so bad? It’s better than being captured and put in a Cylon breeding factory. Maybe.

My guess is that most Colonials said, “Why the hell not,” and anyone with any disagreement just lacked the energy to fight back.

I’m intrigued by the vitriol on the web and among critics towards the seemingly anti-technological ending. I think that our reaction to this finale should raise questions about our own understanding of happiness and satisfaction. There’s a misconceived correlation in our society between progress (aka technology) and happiness, that of course people in the past were unhappy because they died all the time and got sick and only lived until they were 32. The idea that they might have actually lived more fulfilling and rewarding lives than we do is anathema. Maybe the Colonials had reached a very different conclusion than we have, after building up 12 planets of vast cities (Roslin remarked how there was more life on one continent on “Earth” than in all the colonies combined), and then being nearly destroyed by machines they built.

And then there’s the deus ex machina: God. Well, honestly, what did you expect. This show was never about the mystery or narrative. That was just to keep us tagging along while the writers wrote about the characters (sometimes doing it well, sometimes not so well). The fatal flaw of Battlestar’s writers is not that they made it up as they go – every show does that. It’s that they were too attracted by cool ideas without contextualizing them. Cylons chase Colonials every 33 minutes. Why? Who knows. Boomer shoots Adama. Why? Because it’s a cool way to end the season. Lee likes being a lawyer – er – president – er pilot…Starbuck dies and rises again…Baltar becomes president…er..priest..er…war hero….Battlestar is like a room of writers in a candy store. Sometimes this worked out well and the writers picked the write chocolate bar off the shelf. The one-year time jump that segues with a slow zoom out of the Baltar shot (heavy wears the crown?) will go down in my books as one of the greatest televised mindfrak moments of all time. Other (maybe more than not) times, not so well.

So how were they going to tie up so many dangling threads? There was no way to do it. They’ve never demonstrated any capacity to do it in the past, so why start now? Once I let go of the geeky obsession to to piece together the mysteries about the show (ala Lost), the finale became much better. It was like opening the curtains into a dark room; with the facade of the narrative now gone, the character experiments seemed more lovely, bolder, a little braver than I had originally thought.

As a sidenote, I think it’s a fun idea that in Battlestar’s universe,  Earth’s religion descends back to these Colonials. Imagine 30,000 people who have seen miracles over and over, and then are seeded into our population 150K years ago, with a diverse variety of religious beliefs from monotheism to polytheism to agnosticism to cynicism. Of course they’d be telling their kids and grandkids and great-grandtribe about the time a risen-from-the-dead girl received coordinates from God(s) and brought them to their new home. Or that she didn’t. Etc.

And then maybe God isn’t God. When the two In-Heads (Baltar, Number 6) are talking about God/It in our own Times Square, they’re looking over the shoulder of Battlestar’s reimagineer, Ron Moore,  an implication perhaps that the deus ex machina is not spiritual but creative in nature – that is, The Writer == God – which of course he or she always ultimately is in any creative work (“You know It doesn’t like to be called that.”). If there is any 50 hour televised body of fiction in which that is true, Battlestar is it, for better or worse.

So, my suggestion to those of you distressed by the conclusion of  Battlestar is to just relax. Let the show be the show it pretty much always was: deeply flawed, using plot devices as a way to drag us geeks along while the writers had at various experiments in charactor-ology at the sake of coherence, at times quite horrible and other times perhaps the best TV show on our Earth.