Watts (chipotle) wrote,

Battlestar Galactica's Angels and Demons

The acting and (most of the) dialogue on “Battlestar” has consistently been some of the strongest on television, and despite inconsistencies, the characterization’s also been strong. This stayed true to the end. And the plots of individual shows are usually quite good. The show’s Achilles heel has always been the plotting of the overall story arc, though. The Cylons have a plan! Wait, the Cylons have a civil war! The religious prophecies are real! No, they’re just whatever you interpret them to be! No, they’re Cylon projections! Wait, maybe they are real! The final five are among the fleet! Wait, I’ve got something better—they created the Cylons to start with, so they’re Cylons but different Cylons!

Every show needs a twist occasionally, but twist enough and the seams start showing. Ron Moore and David Eick, the show’s creators, have been fairly up front about not knowing exactly where the show was going when they started—they had a premise and what amounted to a set of end conditions. This isn’t intrinsically bad, and changing directions on the way to the end conditions isn’t intrinsically bad, either—but changing directions in a way that’s really visible, not so good. Witness the earlier sci-fi show “Andromeda,” which started out premised on rebuilding what was essentially the “Star Trek” Federation after it had fallen—and then, halfway through the second season, the producers decided that they didn’t want the show to be so complex and it abruptly became “Star Trek.” Except stupider.

As “Battlestar” hurtled toward its finale, Season 4 all but abandoned the military action to get progressively more soap-operatic. This, again, isn’t intrinsically bad, but the shift back to the Way The Show Had Been in the final two-part episode—at least the first two-thirds of it—was abrupt. I suspect that’s an inevitable consequence of not as much placing a gun over the mantelpiece as having spent two seasons methodically turning the living room into an armory. After the discovery of burned-out Earth, I had the suspicion that there would be simply no way to pull together a finale that wasn’t either unbelievable or anti-climactic. While Moore avoided the quite possible outcome of being both unbelievable and anti-climactic, he did so by going for the first choice. As Josh Tyler on Cinemablend put it,

Why the frak does Baltar have an imaginary friend? Answer: It’s God! Why isn’t Starbuck dead and what the frak is she? Answer: Oh it’s God! Why did the Cylons destroy the colonies? Oh it’s God! How are the humans going to find a home? Oh it’s God! Every remaining question was answered tonight and the answer to every question was: Oh it’s God.

I admit that, at least at first, I didn’t take it that way; while Baltar came to believe he was seeing angels, one has to keep in mind that Baltar was, well, kind of nuts. We didn’t get an explanation for why the music translated into jump coordinates for (presumably our) Earth, but I didn’t assume that was divine intervention.

Then again, what was it?

Writer Gary Farber’s proposition—echoed by IO9’s critic Annalee Newitz—is that the “angels” leading them to this resolution were essentially aliens akin to the ones from 2001, so advanced they were godlike. Farber believes this is a reflection of the angel-like beings in the original series that fans of sufficient nerdosity have been waiting for throughout the new one. (Nearly everything else in the old show made an appearance in the new one in one form or another, and it’s perhaps significant that this last episode is the only one since the first that we heard the original theme song.) And given the show’s consistent drumbeat about repeating cycles of birth and destruction and trying to break the cycle, one could make the case that if we broke that cycle, the advanced godlike beings might well be us.

You might accuse Farber and Newitz of ex post facto rationalization—Ron Moore didn’t really say any of this. It’s a structure we’re imposing on it because having godlike Spielbergian aliens is on the balance less irritating than Touched by an Angel with Tricia Helfer instead of Della Reese. Even so, changing the resolution from “divine intervention” to “godlike alien intervention” may (may) mollify the atheists, but for writers, it just takes us from literal deus ex machina back to metaphorical.

Yet one can mount a defense of the ending which works regardless of what the “angels” actually were, based not on events but themes. What’s really been the recurring question throughout most of the new “BSG,” after all? One Big Thematic Question—and only one, I’d argue—has remain consistent from the moment we learned Cylons have a monotheistic religion in contrast to the humans, and from the moment the Six In Baltar’s Head started talking about God’s plan. This question wasn’t about war, or technology versus nature, or man versus machine. It was about the nature of divinity.

As much as it makes some atheists grit their teeth, religion isn’t likely to go away until unanswerable questions do. Tremendous one-in-a-billion coincidences only happen, well, one in a billion times, but happening just once is enough to found dynasties on—or for life as we know it to evolve. Providence does happen, even in science fiction universes. No, what bothers me is using it as a catch-all: to my mind, you get a pass on leaving one and only one Big Question apparently (but never definitively) resolved with, “Oh it’s God.”

How would I have done it differently? Probably I’d have started by having Baltar’s One Supremely Good Act—convincing Cavil to stand down—to actually stand, without having Galen screw it up by choking the shit out of someone who richly deserved it. Let him take her out after that, but don’t make him stupid enough to jeopardize the entire human race over the death of his wife. Let Cavil and Kara Thrace together have the pieces to at least partially explain the music: he could plausibly have a lot of information the other characters aren’t privy to and that he had no reason to share before the truce. Get them to Earth, without requiring the Cylon colony ship to be ham-handedly blown up. Don’t make giving up technology sound like a philosophical stand: the resources to keep the fleet’s tech going are finite and probably already quite low, and starting over from scratch is a practical requirement. Have Baltar and Six’s brief conversation about the cycle possibly being broken happen in the primitive time period, not modern. The final scene in the modern day is only the news about “Mitochondrial Eve”; maybe pan out to a shot that has an Asimo in a store window, but don’t linger on it in a sort of weirdo whimsical ominousness.

And Kara Thrace? Don’t have her teleport back to heaven, for fuck’s sake, but don’t explain her, either. She remains the Big Unanswered Question that fans get to argue about for the next decade.

All right, let me catch my breath. Enough bitching and armchair scriptwriting. The series deserves to not just be toasted, but to be drunk under the table in celebration. Yes, there was an oft-recurring sense that the writers decided they were going to find some really tough whitewater rapids and ride them with inflatable pool toys. You have to wonder just what the hell they were thinking, but at the same time you have to admire the sheer chutzpah. “Battlestar Galactica” explored themes and took chances that no other science fiction show has ever taken. It was the first science fiction show that treated acting and direction and cinematography as things that matter. And it was the first science fiction show that had mainstream critics talking about it as being one of the best dramas on television. It accomplished what it really set out to do: get audiences realizing that TV sci-fi didn’t have to be like, well, nearly all the TV sci-fi that came before it. If better shows follow it—and better shows almost certainly will—they’ll have the space to succeed because this show cleared the way.

And I’m certainly interested in seeing where Ron Moore goes next. But I hope he doesn’t take his angels with him.

Tags: writing
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