Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Other: The "Battlestar Galactica" Finale

WARNING: There will be spoilers here for the last episode of "Battlestar Galactica" herein, as well as spoilers from the rest of the show. Do not read further if you haven't seen the show and think you might want to be surprised by stuff later.

[Deep sigh]

This was, as one of the commenters at rifters.com said, one of those endings that made me wish I'd never started watching the show at all. It was probably too much to hope for, that Ron Moore and the writers had actual answers in mind for the various questions they'd been teasing us with. (Not just teasing, but all-out promising, over and over and over, that all would be revealed. This actually made me a little nervous at the time, because I didn't see how they were going to have time to get to all the questions they'd left dangling, even given a two-hour episode to do it in, but they'd done enough fascinating twists and turns prior to this that I thought, well, if anybody could do it, it'd be this group. So I reserved judgment. I would decide whether they'd pulled it off when I saw the ending.)

Most of the cast, in a promotional photo. Last Supper reference is totally intentional.

But the ending turned out to be mostly handwaving and some stupidity about God. So here's how I picture a conversation with me and Ron Moore going:

What was Starbuck? How did she go to Earth and die and come back in a brand-new Viper, and then find her own dead body? What was her special destiny that we've been getting anvilled into our heads since season 1?

Dunno. God did it, or something.

Who are Head Six and Head Baltar? Why do they look like those characters? What's their agenda? Is Head Six a Cylon implant? Part of Baltar's subconscious? Something else?

Dunno. Angels, I guess.

(L-R) Head Baltar, D'Anna (No. 3), Caprica Six. You can tell it's Head Baltar because he always wears that suit.

Well how come all of a sudden Baltar and Six can see one another's [eye roll] "angels," then? That's not supposed to be possible, according to the rules you set up previously. What gives?

Oh. Um, well, now they can see them. 'Cause God wants them to see them, or something.

What was the point of the original genocide on the Twelve Colonies? Millions of people died, and everybody keeps saying, over and over, that all of this has happened before, and it will all happen again, so why are we being shown this particular iteration of it? What's special about this time? Are they going to figure out how to stop it?

No, not really. It was just God's will that the Cylons would wipe out 99ish percent of the human species in a really horrible and painful genocide, because . . . He wanted the humans and Cylons to get together and frak and eventually create us?

Well so what about "Kara Thrace will lead humanity to its end," or whatever it was the Hybrid said? Humanity didn't end.

It didn't?

No. It didn't. In fact, we know that in one way or another, humanity has continued for 150,000 years after the story we were just following. Nothing ended at all, much less the human race.

Oh. Well, the Hybrid was being metaphorical or something. [pause] Angels!

None of the "answers," in short, are answers in the usual sense of the word. They all just push the "answers" back one level, so that now instead of wondering about why the Cylons attacked the Colonies, we're left wondering why God wanted (apparently) the Cylons to attack the Colonies. Instead of wondering what Head Six is, we're left with questions about why everybody doesn't have these angels, why angels are necessary in the first place, why if God is going to deliberately intervene in the plot He can't do so without so much needless suffering. Instead of answering the question about why "All Along the Watchtower" keeps popping up throughout the show, as opposed to some other song, the answer turns out to be, why, silly, that's the song that has the notes in the right sequence for the coordinates of Earth. Well who set that up? And what for? Was it really necessary to disguise it as a song, rather than just a string of digits (4815162342, perhaps?)?

The Temple of Five.

What I liked about the show, originally,1 was that it seemed to be aiming for realism, more or less. I mean, realism with killer sexbots and faster-than-light space travel and all that, but still. It was about the sorts of real feelings and thoughts that people have; they were just having them in reaction to weird science-fictiony events. They did stupid stuff because of emotions, like real people do. They were loyal to one another, and conflicted, and treacherous, and frightened, like real people. And unlike certain other shows I could mention, they had adversaries who were actually scary, and moral gray areas, and they showed war and social dissent and all these other things in ways that were more or less like actual people behave. It was about how people deal with having enemies, and it was about that on several different scales simultaneously.

As time went on, of course, they left more and more of that behind, but still. The wars looked like wars, the people looked like people (even the robots looked like people), the bad choices looked like bad choices. And if there had to be some mysticism, some hallucinogenic spiritual visions, to drive the plot, well, I was okay with that, because the bulk of the show was still solidly rooted in human psychology, and it's awfully churlish to complain about a little mysticism making the thing unrealistic when we're talking about robots that are increasingly indistinguishable from human beings and faster-than-light travel and such.

But somewhere along the way, the whole thing went off the rails, and realism stopped being such a big deal. I think "Maelstrom" (3.17) is the episode where they finally said, fuck this realism thing, let's just start trying to be surprising all the time for no reason. And they killed Kara, and although there were good episodes after that, I believe the mutiny episodes ("The Oath" and "Blood on the Scales," 4.13-14) were the last good episodes they did. At the very least, they seemed like the last episodes where people were reacting like people. (Bad people, frequently. But recognizable as human beings.)

R.I.P. Laird. *sniffle*

And it's not only the God stuff I object to. The fleet deciding to junk all their technology, all the ships, scrap metal, antibiotics, literature, and start over civilization entirely from scratch, is completely unsupported by anything. There's not even a debate. Like, nobody in the entire 30,000+ population is shown even hesitating: they're all just like, yeah, let's build huts out of grass and die of malaria, 'cause that whole civilization and being able to defend ourselves thing sucked ass. Nor, for that matter, has any of this been particularly foreshadowed. Yes, there was all that at the beginning of the show about how networked computers were bad and everything, but people still acknowledged that without any computers, they would be lost: they didn't get rid of all the computers, they just didn't link them together. Well, having landed on Earth, you know what? They're still lost, without any of their technology. It's just as necessary as it ever was, and it makes no sense that they'd just fire it off into the Sun.

On New Caprica.

So I don't buy it. In fact, I don't buy it so hard. Talk about your jarring, wrenching, out of nowhere plot twists. None of them -- and I mean none, okay, none -- would even be alive without the tech they're all blithely rejecting, and they don't even hesitate. ("Oh! They have antelope here! We're saved!") Dumb dumb stupid stupid stupid dumb dumb.

And so, knowing that this was what it was all leading up to, that all the (relative) realism and mystery and endless "THE ANSWERS WILL BE REVEALED" and "AND THEY [the Cylons] HAVE A PLAN" and whatever were just so many carrots dangled in front of the audience to keep us watching: turns out the carrots were wax and plastic after all. I'm really, really disappointed. I'm probably buying the Season Four DVDs anyway, but I'm going to have to stop watching at "No Exit" (4.15), because honestly everything after that was just Moore & Co. shucking and jiving to try to get us to think that the show was going somewhere.

I do appreciate some of the character arcs: many of the characters did get appropriate, poetic, even, endings. Boomer was handled well. It was nice to see Doc Cottle start to mist up: we always knew there was a softie in there somewhere. I'd always kind of hoped that Baltar & Caprica might get together again.2 It made me happy that Hoshi was the designated substitute Admiral: he may or may not have been the ideal person for the job, of course, but it's always nice to see family do well.3 I wasn't especially happy with the endings for Sam (why, exactly, was he okay with suiciding himself?) or Tory (yeah, she probably deserved to die, but a better show could have made me feel bad about it4). Roslin had some good moments too: the one moment that got to me above all others in the episode was the simple bit of her trying to tell the wounded guy that he'd be all right, trying to comfort him, and having Ishay come by and X his forehead. There was something very honest-seeming about that particular shot; I don't know what about it got to me so, but it was the one moment where I came close to crying. (Mary McDonnell should get all the Emmys.)

The Tighs, doing what Tighs do best.

So it was certainly not all bad, especially at the micro level. But the ending as a macro, big-picture kind of thing, took a rich allegory, with interesting stories and full, three-dimensional characters, and turned it all into . . . well, as one of the commenters (starlitskyy) at Television Without Pity put it,

. . . now we find out that, no, really, it was about killer robots after all . . . . God(s)/It doesn't care about slavery, genocide, etc. God(s)/It doesn't care if you kill each other because you are different races or religions or ethnicities. As long as you don't create killer robots, you're doing great.

This does answer the question of why, if all of this has happened before and will all happen again, this particular round of it is worth paying attention to. However, unlike what I was expecting, that the point was that we have the ability to stop the cycle, that we're not doomed to repeat this over and over again, that things really can be different if we try to make them so, it turns out that we were just supposed to pay attention to this iteration because it was All About Us, and our ancestry from 150,000 years ago. I.e., it's not important because there's anything to learn from it, it's important because we share genes with them.

[another deep sigh]

As this show aired, human beings have some real problems. Wars, climate change, economic crisis, torture, suicide bombing, what have you. I'm not saying I was looking to "Battlestar Galactica" to provide the answers for all this, because who looks to a TV show for that, but it would have been nice to be told that it was worthwhile to look. Instead, what we heard was that coming up with answers or not coming up with answers isn't even up to us, we have no direct control over any of it, it's all for God (or whatever It wants to be called) and prophets and angels to sort out for us. Which is an order of magnitude worse than the nihilistic, everybody-dies episode that I was expecting to see last Friday.

Nihilism can be rebelled against. Optimism can motivate one to try doing something new and wonderful. But what Moore & Co. gave us was helplessness, and admonishments for making leaps of faith and against making killer robots. OMG how very fucking useful.


Photo credits: Various points in the show, taken from the Battlestar Wiki. I believe this is fair use, though admittedly I'm really unclear on what constitutes fair use anymore.

1 The first episode I saw would have been "Occupation," the opener for Season 3, and the scene that made me want to keep watching the show was the dinner Leoben and Starbuck were having. Leoben puts the food out in front of her, she says she needs a knife to cut the meat, he comes over and cuts it for her, she says thank-you, he tells her she looks lovely, and then she stabs him through the throat with knitting needles. He tells her he'll be back. She says he should take his time, wipes her bloody hands on the carpet, and goes back to eating her food as he bleeds out on the floor.

The dinner.

It wasn't the best thing I've ever seen on television, but at the time, it struck me as being a very brave and unapologetic scene to show, and it still does. Unlike the angels and leaps of faith in this finale, which strike me as being the most craven admission that they had no idea where they were going with this story and didn't much care to figure it out.
2 A better show might have given a nod to the fact that Caprica Six was, up until episode 4.16 ("Deadlock"), apparently feeling close to Tigh, and vice-versa, and that losing the baby by itself shouldn't have been enough to just make all of that disappear. I mean, in real life, something like that would be emotionally messy, and people would get hurt, and it would take a long time for all involved to get over it, but I don't think it was even so much as mentioned again after 4.16. Which is weird.
3 Though, irritatingly, Hoshi is never actually revealed as gay within the series proper: you have to go to the "Face of the Enemy" webisodes, which I mostly did not watch first hand (it took more time to track them down than any of them actually ran: too high of a work-to-reward ratio), to find that out. I presume this is about the usual Hollywood double standard where it's okay to show lesbianism (Adm. Cain and Gina), because lesbians are titillating, for some reason, for straight men, but to even officially identify a character as gay is so potentially offensive to the audience (or to one's Mormon overlords -- let's not forget that Moore is Mormon, and the Mormon Church is an active enemy of GLBT people, whatever individual LDS members might feel or believe personally: we can't rule out a real-life religio-political motive for why Gaeta and Hoshi's relationship wasn't made part of the regular series) that it's just unthinkable. Note also, for the record, that the "Star Trek" franchise has never really acknowledged GLBT human beings either, despite years and years of promising fans that they would do so in the very next series. And Ron Moore came from "Star Trek," so . . . well, I'm not sure what my point is. It just seems noteworthy that popular televised science fiction still has such a big issue with this that it's now lagging behind the sitcoms, soap operas and daytime talk shows.
Nevertheless, Jane Espenson, bless her heart, offered me a chance to claim Hoshi for the tribe, so I'm gonna. (You straight people can have Gaeta. I'm pretty sure we don't want him. Though I liked him as a character, even when he mutinied.)
4 This, actually, is another thing that the show seemed to be promising and never delivered on: we know and understand more or less why Tory killed Callie (much of the understanding being because by that point we wanted to kill Callie too), but that was pretty much the last thing she ever did; we didn't see how the event played out in Tory's mind, whether she felt bad about it when she saw Chief reacting to it, etc. Tory, in fact, got fairly short shrift in the series as a whole, because we never really got to know her as anything other than a sort of cold, bitchy Bad Guy.


Anonymous said...

Indeed. "God did it" is just not an ending.

I was especially frustrated with Starbuck's ending. If you're going for religion, then maybe she was resurrected, in which case she's the savior character, but no, it was Hera. Or maybe she was another angel, but then she was a programmed angel just like the programmed cylons not knowing she was an angel until after her programming was complete? And all so that she could figure out the song was the coordinates for new earth. That's about it.

I could keep ranting about it too...

Kenneth Moore said...

The only reason I watched most of the fourth season was for all those promised answers--prior to 4th season, yes, they were awesome at filling in the gaps. But damnit, leaving all those holes? And how the hell do we know that the final "Earth" is truly OUR Earth? We don't! It could just *look* like Earth. With a "god" who spends millions of years playing the same game over and over (like I play Pokemon on my gameboy), that's entirely plausible. So there's even less reason to find any final value from this show. I got tired with the plugs for the prequel series. :-|

Sigh. The show was, overall, a good waste of my time, I don't deny that. But I'm glad you posted this, dude--it expressed all the pent-up frustration I've been holding in about that episode!

Diane said...

Hear, hear. I've been wrestling with the finale for days and am just completely unsatisfied by it. If I'd known that the theme of the series would be "God(s) work(s) in mysterious ways" I wouldn't have started watching in the first place. Most of the fun of delving into elaborate sci-fi universes is understanding the reasons behind everything that happens. Even if that universe has supernatural aspects, there are rules that must be followed (thinking Buffy/Angelverse here, where Jane Espenson learned how it's done but maybe forgot?) and we have the fun of figuring out how multiple Slayers could exist at one time within the rules of the 'verse.

Apparently in Galactiverse, God did it, and suddenly there's nothing else to argue and it has stopped being fun to figure out what was going on.

And finding the fossil remains of mitochondrial Eve? Oh please. Eve is a hypothetical construct filled with probabilities and stochasticity. What are the odds of finding the bones of the one woman out of all of human history who matches the hypothesized mitochondrial sequence? Even assuming the fossil has DNA still intact? Bleah.