There is no way out of here

April 9, 2009

Battlestar Galactica is over after six great years, but did the finale match the expectations of its viewers?

SPOILER ALERT: This review gives away important aspects of the story line. Read at your own risk.

AFTER SIX wonderful years, it's hard to say goodbye to Battlestar Galactica (BSG), the most intelligent, provocative, unexpected and downright gods-damn enjoyable television series of our time.

The first three seasons gave us compelling characters and story lines while going against the grain of the post-9/11 political climate--undermining Bush's "us versus them" mentality and identifying with suicide bombers (humans have the right to resist Cylon occupation) and torture victims (no one should endure the brutalization meted out to Gina).

The show challenged nationalism and racism by exposing the fault lines--including class divisions--within, and the solidarities between, two warring "races." And, what's more, BSG made the overused "post-racial" tag almost a reality, in so far as it didn't matter who was Black, white or Asian on either side of the Cylon/human divide.

The last series delivered plenty of paradigm-shifting "what the frak?" moments. This includes when we learn that four of the "final five" Cylons are among the most loyally human and committed to pursuing the war, including Saul Tigh himself, the very symbol of military hierarchy and prejudice--wont to refer to Cylons with the derogatory "toasters" and "skin jobs."

The emergence of (another) Cylon civil war was a brilliant development, as was the rebellion on Battlestar led by the erstwhile obedient Felix Gaeta. And then there was the surprise revelation that the last of the final five was none other than Ellen Tigh, previously stereotyped as the "scheming wife" and "dumb blonde," but actually a Cylon genius.

The music was consistently outstanding, especially the use of leitmotif, from the Celtic folk melody-come military march for Bill Adama to Starbuck's haunting theme. The choice of "All Along the Watchtower" as the song that brings the final five together was inspired, emphasizing the parallel with our world, while continuing the antiwar theme.

The show's recurrent reminder that "all of this has happened before and all will happen again" is also echoed in this famously circular song that seeming to start at the end. And the line "there must be some way out of here" speaks to the increasingly desperate journey away from perpetual war and conflict, toward a new and better world.

BSG composer Bear McCreary explains:

The idea was not that Bob Dylan necessarily exists in the characters' universe, but that an artist on one of the colonies may have recorded a song with the exact same melody and lyrics. Perhaps this unknown performer and Dylan pulled inspiration from a common, ethereal source...The arrangement needed to sound like a pop song that belonged in the Galactica universe, not our own...

His composition is almost entirely original, keeping Dylan's melody and lyrics but introducing a global sound through the use of tabla and electric sitar. From the first faint echoes to the full heavy-metal style crescendo, the song brilliantly reflects and comments on the action.

The lyrics, which contain many biblical references, also contribute to the net of religious allusions. The producer of the original BSG was a Mormon, and some of the plot, themes and names in the show are from that religion--a prophet leading the remnants of a people to a new world; the Quorum of Twelve; Kobol, an anagram of Kolob, the "star closest unto God" in the Mormon book of Abraham; god telling the Cylons to "be fruitful."

In the new BSG, (most) humans are polytheists and Cylons monotheists. The story cleverly balances between religious and scientific explanations, keeping us guessing whether there really is a higher power manipulating events, or if the prophecies, visions and repetition stem from the longer cycle of history. Just when events seemed to point toward the former, something would happen to tip the balance in the latter direction.

The biggest shock came halfway through season four, when humans and rebel Cylons overcome their hostilities and unite to find a route to earth. After only a fleeting moment of euphoria on their discovery of the Promised Land, they arrive on an irradiated wasteland, looking a lot like a bombed-out New York City. We learn that millennia before, Cylons and humans destroyed themselves in a nuclear holocaust.

The second half of the final season begins with despair all round: Adama turns increasingly to alcohol; Roslyn retreats into personal life; Starbuck is tormented by her quest for a greater purpose, somehow connected with the Cylon song, her visions and the fact that she found the remains of her own body when she was on Earth the first time.

AND SO we come to the final episode. Appropriately, there is a great deal of repetition: Cylons and humans decide to collaborate; Hera, the human-Cylon child, is central to the future of both races; Cylons and humans find a land--New Earth--this time an intact and fertile planet where they can all start anew; we again have a false ending before the actual ending.

And after four seasons of mind-bending ambiguity, complexity and possibility, it has to be said that the end was a disappointment. The extended episode seemed rushed, lacking the show's usual trademark patient unfolding. There are certainly some great moments, such as when Starbuck converts the notes of the Cylon song into the coordinates that take them to the new planet.

But overall the conclusion wrapped up too much, stamping an uncharacteristically monolithic and didactic interpretation on to events, while simultaneously leaving many questions unanswered, or answered in an unsatisfying way.

The "false ending" was perhaps too easy, but it had some things going for it. Cylons and humans together agree to destroy the military fleet, free the Centurions and integrate themselves into the hunter-gatherer human society rather than try to reconstruct a version of their previous civilization. While the details are rather fuzzy, this is a somewhat coherent resolution: the historical cycle of repetition explains the development of different but overlapping religious belief systems; by breaking the cycle of war, exploitation and technological development, this generation has a chance to start afresh on a new basis. There is hope for Cylon-humanity.

The final ending jumps forward another 150,000 years, to Six and Baltar (are they hallucinations? Are they angels?) strolling through a modern city, where all the trappings of late industrial capitalism, including ominous toy robots, have returned, and the discovery of the genetic "Eve"--aka Hera, has just hit the news. The rather clumsy attempts at humor fall flat: a cameo appearance by Ron Moore; the comment from Six that "he doesn't like to be called God"; their joking exchange that a complex system may produce a different result this time.

The final message, though, couldn't be more obvious or clichéd: we are fated to repeat the errors of the past; social development inevitability leads to mutually assured destruction.

Sustained throughout by a critical position toward conventional thinking, in the end BSG suffered from a failure of imagination, and was unable to conceive of a future unlike our present. Perhaps we will have to wait for the current nascent political opposition in the U.S. to become more fully realized before the best of our popular culture is able to represent a way out of here.

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