21 March 2009

Battlestar Galactica: Riding Off Into the Sunrise


Battlestar Galactica (BSG) came to a close last night (Friday, 20 March 2009). Such a fitting close, I think -- for all of its resolutions, for all it left us to ponder about the show and about ourselves.
Very quickly, of course, opinions are divided about what happened in the finale. People are unhappy or unsatisfied with some things, even angry or disappointed or feeling betrayed. People are questioning the logic and plausibility and appropriateness of what happened to some of the characters. I’ve even seen comments already claiming that the ending has ruined the entire series for them, that the finale’s second half in particular didn’t fit with the series and its mood and all that it promised.

To all of these criticisms, I would say that perhaps having some trust in Ronald D. Moore and the show’s producers and writers to finish BSG on their terms should be our starting point. We do get personally invested in shows such as BSG; they can become a source of meaning and inspiration for us. Such personal investment, however, often leads to a kind of need to criticise and dismiss a show when it doesn’t satisfy our picture of what it should or should not do. This is not, I think, the position from which to assess the finale or BSG as a series.

On that note, here are my thoughts on what I saw and what I took from the finale.

The most controversy and dissatisfaction with the finale appears to focus on the second half (or, more accurately, the final third) of the episode. Yet I found it to be incredibly fitting, especially when I look at it in the context of where BSG began and what the characters have experienced.

Really, since the miniseries, BSG has been predominantly dark, brooding, and harsh (as Thomas Hobbes wrote, life is nasty, brutish, and short). Humanity -- even the Cylons -- has been on the knife’s edge of war, genocide, and despair for over four years. At the end, we need to allow these people light, peace, rest, resolution, freedom, the abundance of life, and the wonder of the new without the fear and anxiety of staving off the extinction of their species. We need to permit these people the bright greens, blue skies, sunny days, and open savannahs that they find on new Earth, which they deserve after years of space’s blackness and the confinements of battlestars and vipers and raptors and baseships. We must give them the right to choose their way of life and their ends, especially after so much time either without choices or making awfully difficult, confused, and sometimes soul-destroying choices.

Adama going off to build a cabin with Roslin, away from Lee and Tigh? We’ve known about this since their days on New Caprica. We’ve seen it in the way they were both sliding into depression, until given the singular purpose of one last, all-out mission to save Hera. Moreover, Roslin gets to die and be buried amid a riot of life, under a vast blue sky, atop a high hill. “So much life,” she says, before slipping peacefully into death ….

Galen wanting to find somewhere in the mountains away from humans and Cylons, where he would be utterly alone? We’ve seen this in his desperate need for and confusion about a sense of identity since he knew he was a Cylon, since Cally’s murder, since learning his son was not his son.

Lee discovering the zest and desire to explore, everything? After all the tensions and conflicts he experienced, with his father and with Kara and as an officer and in politics, why not the pure joy of adventure, of going wherever he wants on new Earth, without complications or hard choices? In many ways, I think where we leave Lee Adama stands as one of the most satisfying conclusions to a character’s arc in BSG.

Kara as an angel, a spirit, an embodiment of a collective, consensual delusion? Admittedly, at first I did not understand her disappearance. Yet the more I think on it, and Lee’s simple acceptance of it in saying “Goodbye, Kara Thrace,” I see it as fitting in the sense that for all of BSG’s spaceships and Cylons and FTL drives, the show gave us a world (rather, a universe) that contained mysteries, miracles, unexplainable things. She tells Lee that her journey has ended: spirit or consensual delusion, at the last this is her choice to make, her sense of a purpose fulfilled, particularly after so much pain and intensity and uncertainty and seeking after clarity. In some respects, Kara Thrace becomes the symbol of what humanity was and has gone through in its fight for species survival. On new Earth, that humanity and that fight are done, and thus so is she, exhausted and no longer … necessary. She brought humanity to its end, as prophesied, an end that is a beginning.

Why, I ask, shouldn’t we leave these characters at the point of possibility, hope, love, laughter, tenderness, and the desire just to let the past rather literally go up in flames in order truly to end and then begin again?

I have also seen some dissatisfaction expressed regarding the last few minutes of the finale, where we go 150,000 years into the future from the point when BSG’s people land on new Earth and arrive at New York today. In a nutshell, the dissatisfaction focusses on the feeling that this ending hits us over the head with the show’s message too heavily and obviously, as well as on the discomfort with Head Six and Head Baltar walking through Times Square talking of God and the like.

Once again, I found this last twist to be entirely fitting. If anything, BSG never really let us rest for long at any point of resolution or happiness. At the very end, no matter how blatant or obvious the images of our current day robots might be, Head Six and Head Baltar return us to the show’s mantra -- “it has all happened before; it will all happen again” -- and remind us about the option to make choices, to do something surprising that might redirect the cycles of violence and ideological warfare into different, less destructive paths. Also, I really loved the “wink wink, nudge nudge” tone of their conversation, the show playing with us right up to the final second, intimating yet again (as it has from the beginning) of a mystery beyond us all. I see this ending functioning much like the verse underneath an emblem, with the show’s title Battlestar Galactica as the motto above the emblem, and the series as a whole the emblem itself. (Here’s an example of an emblem.) There’s perhaps a touch of awkwardness in the way Helfer and Callis play the scene. Nevertheless, it does ask us to consider what Battlestar Galactica as a series says, intimates, and leaves unsaid.

Another target of criticism so far is how the collective dream of the opera house (among Roslin, Athena, Caprica Six, and Baltar) doesn’t come to a suitable fruition in the tense showdown in Galactica’s CIC between Cavil and BSG, with Hera at the centre of it all. Yet such criticism forgets that dreams are never straightforwardly literal, forgets that Freud and Jung taught us that dreams speak the language of the subconscious and the collective unconscious, a language of metaphors and symbols. The trick is to recognise when those metaphors and symbols are being realized in one’s life, then to act accordingly. For me, the one truly off note in the finale occurred when Caprica Six and Baltar arrive in the CIC with Hera, and the Final Five are up on a platform bathed in light and standing as if waiting for this moment. That bit aside, the showdown in Galactica’s CIC brings the opera house dream into realization; concretizes it; forms the heart of the finale’s climax; sifts everything down to that small, ruined space and the people there who must negotiate the most delicate of peace treaties in the midst of chaos.

After the finale, while watching a series wrap-up special, I heard a comment about how the writers didn’t know what they were doing with the second half of the show. I think the writers knew precisely what they were doing. The finale wasted no time in getting right to the battle at the Cylon colony and the rescue of Hera, and its first two thirds were deliciously visceral and engrossing -- space opera at its grandest, really. With the finale’s last third, however, BSG attempts nothing less in the end than to explain humanity to us, our near and far history, our fundamental needs and desires and actions, why we end up doing what we always do, the consequences (good and bad) of our choices, our beauty and our ugliness, why we turn to a faith in something greater than ourselves. BSG seeks nothing less than to be our creation story, our myth of origins. As well, BSG leaves us with a cautious hope, coming out of the post-9/11 years and the shadows of Bush’s presidency into the tentative optimism and sunlight represented by Obama in a time of deep crisis. To say the writers didn’t know what they were doing is to suggest that they betrayed, were untrue to, their vision of the show, which is myopic at worst and na├»ve at best.

Was the finale perfect? Was the series perfect? John Keats, nearly 200 years ago, recognized that in a long work such as an epic poem (which he was trying to write at the time, resulting in his Endymion), not every single line can be brilliant and revealing of genius; he understood that there will be, so to speak, peaks and valleys, and so a work must be judged as a whole for the vision it manifests, not on the imperfections of individual parts. To quibble about the little things in BSG thus potentially misses the point. Sure, not every episode was brilliance. Overall, however, the show stayed true to its vision, and it has left us with striking, stunning, memorable images and moments and characters … not to mention a powerful story.

This morning, while walking my dog through the neighbourhood, I noticed that the grass is beginning to struggle into green, I heard birds singing in that way they do when excited about the fresh day, and I saw my first robins. Rebirth, renewal, awakening. I thought of the bright greens and blue skies of BSG’s final third. Possibility, hope, peace, freedom. Quite a journey the show took us on across a million lightyears from the Twelve Colonies to end up here, at Earth -- the dream we have always been chasing, as Adama says.

CODA: For an insightful recap of the finale and commentary on the series, have a look at Marc Bernardin’s piece for Entertainment Weekly; the comments are also intriguing. See also Mary McNamara's review of the finale for the Los Angeles Times. For reviews and responses in the SF&F blogosphere, check out the following links:


writtenwyrdd said...

I lost track of the series during the second season due to my work schedule; but it's nice to see your summation. The sense of ownership in a story that viewers or readers get can be quite powerful! Poor Stephanie Meyers is a recent example in the book world.

And thanks for linking to me! I feel very honored, you've placed my blog in such excellent company!

Travel By Thought said...

Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

That sense of ownership, I think, is one of the truly incredible things BSG achieved. The debates about and reactions to the finale serve as ample witness. This is the wonder of great and provocative art, no? BSG as a whole will be a work that people talk about for quite some time, and I do think it significantly upped the ante at least for SF on television, maybe even film (i.e., trailers for the upcoming Start Trek prequel reveal a gritty, realistic feel).

I must admit to not having read any Meyers, but her novels (the most recent one especially) do seem to polarize readers. Perhaps another good example would be the Harry Potter series, a publishing phenomenon we may not see again for a while.

I discovered your blog through the Books Blogs section of Blog Catalog and enjoyed poking around the resources and posts you've collected. (That's a great collection of links, by the way.) And I'm all for solidarity among SF&F writers! :-)