bsg: religion and paying attention

All over discussions of the finale I’m hearing the same parrot squawk:

“The show’s ending isn’t deus ex machina because it’s been about God from the BEGINNING! Weren’t you paying ATTENTION?”

Yes, I was, frak you very much. We all were. But introducing religion doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want in your story and just point to God as your explanation.

The problem isn’t that there’s divine intervention in the story. I don’t accept that as an explanation for anything in real life, but I’m okay with it in fiction if it’s earned. That is, it’s written well, it’s used sparingly, it’s connected to story values (courage vs. cowardice, compassion vs. hatred, etc.), and it doesn’t substitute for the active choices characters make to participate in their own lives.

I can accept the angels as messengers of a higher power. A big reason for that is that they represent a different point of view for Baltar and Caprica Six — they serve as conscience, as perspective, as champions of faith (not necessarily religious faith so much as faith in one’s own strength and intuition). Think about all the “miracles” head!Six kept perpetrating through Baltar. If we take these at face value — miracles for the sake of miracles, or of encouraging belief in higher powers — they fall horribly flat, unless you are already convinced that belief in a higher power is an end in itself. The angels fortunately permit different readings that all have some resonance within the story.

I find Starbuck harder to accept because she has been set up as a mystery since “Maelstrom,” flying into the abyss a clear suicide, repeatedly telling us “I don’t know what I am” — and in the end we are simply told we must take her at face value. She flew into the maelstrom for no reason, emerging simply as God’s compass, a solid ghost — and what this means is that her story ended in that episode. She is NOT Adama’s “daughter.” The Starbuck we’ve seen ever since then is an unperson — and yet we’ve been asked for an entire season to feel along with Starbuck’s ghost her confusion and struggle, something we thought she was flying into the maelstrom to end. What does her decision to trust her father’s apparition — an angel in the head of an angel! — actually mean to her character, if her character has been transformed into God’s Starbuck Action Figure? Her nature from “Maelstrom” onward is arbitrary. So the story values she embodies — intuition? perseverance? — mean nothing to Starbuck the human being. That individual is a rotted corpse. What’s left is the shadow of that person, or at best a ghost that can’t rest until it’s been able to do its duty.

In other words, there’s no real subtext because we finally learn that she is wholly and only what she appears to be: the solid ghost of herself, a star to follow to Earth. The only way for this to pay off in terms of values is for her to have a profound influence on the other characters in the show in a way she could not have done as a Real Live Girl. I would argue that generally she did not. We have every reason to view her as an actual person who is determined to lead her people to the Promised Land, and every reason not to care once it turns out she’s just a pawn. Granted, pawns only move one square at a time, but that’s because chess has rules. God can reach down and move the pieces however It wants to. That’s what “God” means.

My girlfriend’s prediction, based on Starbuck’s return and Roslin’s dreams about death as a river, was that Earth would be a sort of afterlife or underworld, a place people must die to reach. This would have explained why Starbuck’s Viper had to explode to get her to Earth. It would have been her voyage to and from the underworld, like that of Odysseus or Aeneas or Orpheus (who perhaps liked to sing “All Along the Watchtower” in a voice 180 degrees from Dylan’s?). She would have had to come to terms with the fact that she’d actually died, to accept it, and to convince everyone else to leave off their attachments — to survival at any cost, to resurrection, to the endless cycle of reincarnation — and make peace with death, which would in turn allow them into the underworld, which turns out to be Arcadia, Valhalla, Nirvana. They would have escaped the wheel of repetition and found ultimate peace.

It would have been a bit of a downer from one point of view, but really fucking cool. And still very spiritual and nonscientific (unless maybe death is “through the black hole and into a parallel universe where Earth isn’t a Cylon world,” which would have worked too), mixing elements of Greek mythology and Buddhist philosophy. Her choice of death and her return would have meant something other than a rather clumsy, elaborate “miracle.” She would have remained, in some sense, an actual human being capable of continuing to learn. And the characters would still have been making choices, rather than being led down a preprogrammed path.

What I’m trying to say is that, like many fans, I’ve known and accepted that there would be a spiritual element to the show all along. But it’s not a Get Out of Jail Free card, a way of dismissing all the mysteries that kept us riveted, expecting answers that, even if they defied rational explanation, at least resonated in terms of the overall story. Playing that card isn’t a slap in the face of ontological materialism — well, it is, but that’s not the point. The point is that it’s a slap in the face of good storytelling, and from what I’m reading, the critics who have been following this show as attentively as anyone else, not to mention RDM himself, are fully aware of this shortcoming.

They’re satisfied anyway. Maybe, with enough time, I will be too.

battlestar galactica: daybreak

Battlestar Galactica is finally over. I’m okay with it. Right now I have very mixed feelings about how it ended, and I want to get my thoughts out before I dive into the online discussions.

First, let me review my predictions. If you are afraid of spoilers and you haven’t seen the finale yet, stop now.

1. Death is the way home/Earth is an afterlife: didn’t happen.
2. The Colony is near Earth: nope.
3. Galactica as battering ram: yep. Obvious.
4. Boomer helps Hera escape: yes.
5. Baltar and Six died on Caprica: no.
6. Helo and Athena die to let Baltar and Six raise Hera: no, thankfully.
7. Baltar stays on the “suicide mission”: yep.
8. Roslin’s health tied to Hera’s: no.
9. Ellen kills Cavil: no. In fact, Cavil’s death is anticlimactic as it gets, and didn’t feel believable to me.
10. They go through the black hole: nope. I’m still not sure what the hell that was even for.

So I was 3 for 10 on my predictions. I don’t mind being wrong, though I think some of them might have improved and explained some elements of the finale and the episodes leading up to it.

On to what DID happen.

– The flashbacks were very cool but only some of them seemed necessary. We see Adama turning down a desk job to fly Galactica and demonstrating, as if we didn’t already know, how important to him his word is. We see Roslin losing her family and frakking a younger guy before deciding to go into politics, and this is the one that seemed especially superfluous to me: I guess her character turns here seemed too subtle. We see Kara and Lee showing that they’ve been near-missing each other since they met, and always will. And we see Six helping Baltar’s father in what might or might not be a selfless act, and Baltar sticking his neck out for Six “for love,” which we could have inferred anyway, I think. So I’m glad they were there, but in terms of storytelling they were a bit redundant.

– A big old firefight between humans, humanoid Cylons, and Centurions old and new! I want to say it was exciting, but mostly it was mildly cool. I guess I knew the battle wouldn’t be lost or won on a military scale, so it was just robot porn. Again, welcome, but not really the focus of the episode.

– Boomer saves Hera. And we get a kind of unnecessary flashback to explain that a scene we’ve never seen before, in which Adama and Tigh are pretty abusive to her, is the reason why she’s sticking her neck out now. It’s not “I owe Adama one” because she, you know, SHOT him in season 1. It’s because he gave her another chance to fly her Viper correctly. It’s not because she loves Tyrol and wants to see him survive; it’s not because she doesn’t want to see Hera sliced and diced after all. It’s just a little weird to insert this character point here and now. But I’ve always liked poor Boomer, even through all the bad stuff she’s done, and I hated to see Athena gun her down, even though it probably had to happen.

– We learn The Truth of the Opera House. But there isn’t much to it, frankly. There’s really no significance to the moment I thought would be scary, when Roslin and Athena lose Hera and Baltar and Six take her through this apparently doom-laden door. It’s just a vision of Galactica after all, a fateful moment but not one that really required Baltar and Six to take Hera. Anyone could have brought her onto the bridge, provided that Baltar had been there to give his little speech.

– We learn the Truth of the Angels and Starbuck, which is no truth at all, but a vague allusion to God, made worse by its agnostic bent: is it God, or Gods, or just a force of nature that somehow has sentient emissaries (the angels) and can raise the dead Starbuck as semi-angels (substantial and visible to everyone, yet capable of vanishing when their work is done — I guess like Shelly Godfrey). It’s not that I object to agnosticism (quite the opposite), but the actions of this “higher power” have been so specific and intentional that the “force of nature” explanation I’d prefer in real life doesn’t seem to fit here. And as I feared, this is not a REAL explanation. “God did it” doesn’t really cut it for me. It feels coherent, but so does “the authors wrote it that way.” So BSG officially leaves the realm of science fiction, if it hadn’t already.

– Baltar talks Cavil down. Cavil decides to trust the “parents” he murdered. Yeah. Didn’t quite buy this either. I thought Cavil already HAD the secret of resurrection; he just didn’t have any more copies of himself. I guess maybe he didn’t know how it worked, he just ran the machines. In any case, he seemed awfully easy to convince.

– Tyrol breaks the chain and Tory’s neck. Poor Tyrol: all his women kill each other. I kind of liked things going “wrong,” here, though it’s kind of convenient, as is Cavil’s suicide, precluding any payoff to his monologuing in “No Exit.” Why would a fierce machine like Cavil just decide to give up and turn off? Not that I was sorry to see it happen, but his character didn’t get a lot of resolution.

– Racetrack blows everything up and forces Starbuck to jump Galactica, leaving the dramatic potential of the black hole completely untapped, a total red herring. So “All Along the Watchtower” was a way to get to Earth. How did her dad know it? Was it just a song repeating through history — first Anders, then Dreilide Thrace, and later on Bob Dylan? And jeez, RDM, why THAT song? Couldn’t you have picked something a little more melodic and mythic-sounding? I guess the lyrics sort of fit, but most of the time we encounter the song in the show it’s an instrumental. Oh well.

– And yay, here’s real Earth. It was here, a million light-years away, this whole time! Who knew? This is more or less the ending many people have predicted for a while: the BSG crew end up on “our” Earth in its distant past and influence its development, probably entering into its myths as well, since Apollo, Athena, and Hera all survive. The loveliness of this ending almost makes up for its glibness. So everyone really agreed to give up all their technology and start over? They really thought they’d have a better chance if they spread out over the world instead of staying together and pooling their skills? Nobody thought it would be a waste and an awful risk to fly all their ships into the sun, especially now that the Cylons are over? And what did they do with all the plastic stuff they had, the artifacts that wouldn’t biodegrade, and that Raptor Adama flew off into the wilderness? We’re supposed to believe no modern humans ever found that stuff? Just repeat to yourself: it’s just a show, I should really just relax.

– BSG’s unsettling trend of killing off its women continues. Tory dies (though I’m not sure I mind), Roslin dies, Kara is revealed to have been dead all along. This is quite a raw deal for the Adamas, but a rawer deal for our favorite female characters, who just peter out. And what’s the deal with people just deciding to go off by themselves on unfamiliar planets? First D’Anna, now Tyrol, Bill, and presumably Lee as well? Would you really do that, just go off by yourself and probably starve to death if you couldn’t develop hunting skills fast enough? Seems like suicide to me, but I guess it’s a more elegant version.

– So I don’t really see how Hera was the key to anyone’s survival, except Roslin’s. I guess she helped Kara with the song, and she helped create a situation where the Good Guys could confront and win out against Cavil’s forces. But biologically, there doesn’t seem to be any reason why she was special to humanity’s survival, since humans could already have kids. She was key to the Cylons’ survival, sort of, since presumably all the kids she had were part Cylon, if less and less as time went on. And who did she mate with, anyway? The human children of the survivors of the fleet? The children of Caprica Six and Baltar? The indigenous human tribes?

– We learn that Hera is actually Mitochondrial Eve. This isn’t the same as being an origin point for all of modern humanity, but it does, if I’ve understood this confusing concept correctly, mean that all of humanity has her mitochondrial DNA. Which we could maybe think of as a Cylon trait. So we’re all part Cylon today. That could be cheesy, but I’m cool with it. I’m even okay with Ron Moore being the guy holding the issue of National Geographic, and with the implication that our modern advances in robotics MIGHT someday lead us to make Cylons who will rebel and start the cycle over again. What I’m not okay with is the awful, awful dialogue between the Angels spelling all of this out for us. It would have been far more effective without most or all of that. I did like the “it doesn’t like to be called [God],” but I’m not sure I got “silly, silly me” — I’ll have to watch it again to see what he was talking about.

So there we have it — the end and the new beginning. The mythic part was satisfying, for me, and I didn’t feel quite as let down on the mysteries part as I’d expected to, though it was still cheaper than I’d hoped for. Character-wise, I’m not sure yet how I feel.You notice that of the major couples, no human-human pairings survived? I guess that stacks the deck for “us” to be part Cylon. I knew they wouldn’t live forever, and that not everyone would live happily ever after together, but it still felt pretty hollow and sad. Still, if I were into “favorite couples,” I was always rooting for Helo and Athena most of all, so I was glad they made it.

I’m glad it’s over. Not because I wanted it to end, but because I wanted it to end well. It didn’t end perfectly, but it ended well.

battlestar galactica: revised predictions

If you haven’t seen “Daybreak, Part 1,” this past week’s episode, you probably should watch it first, though frankly there was really nothing to spoil in it.

So to review my previous predictions:

1. I’m not longer sure what to think about my girlfriend’s idea that death is the way home. Production photos I’d seen of various characters in what is clearly a civilized nightclub, and rumors that certain dead characters were going to show up in the last episode, lent support to this theory, but now we know that those dead characters are in flashbacks (which are wonderful, by the way).

2. The Colony turns out to be on the accretion disk of a black hole, not on or near “real” Earth as I’d predicted. On the other hand, what was it that Racetrack and Skulls saw when they were in the asteroid field? Was it the Colony? Or was it Mars and Earth, seen from the asteroid belt in our solar system? Probably the Colony, honestly, since they wouldn’t have any clue what Earth looked like and they couldn’t just see that it’s a habitable planet. Oh well. 🙂

3. I’m still expecting Galactica to be used as a battering ram, but I’m not as sure as I was.

4. No question this will still come to pass: Boomer will help Hera escape, or at least betray Cavil and set events in motion.

5. There’s still a possibility that all is not as it seemed with Baltar and Six. The flashbacks involving them make me wonder. But I think the Baltar we have now needs to be real and human still, and the Caprica we have needs to be real and Cylon. It would just be too weird if they hadn’t been “real” all along.

So a few new predictions:

6. Helo and Athena surely die so that Baltar and Six can raise their child. A lot of other people are saying this and I think it’s got to happen, especially since Athena is just totally broken now.

7. Baltar finally passes the Gaius Baltar test somehow. Fan speculation is that he stows away on the Galactica suicide mission without telling anyone he’s going to. His arc almost makes BSG the “Gaius Baltar story” in the same way the Star Wars trilogy has turned out to be the “Anakin Skywalker story.”

8. Roslin begins to recover the closer she gets to Hera. Somehow her health is tied to that kid now, probably because she has some of the kid’s magical blood.

9. Ellen herself kills Cavil. I’m not sure how this would be arranged, but it feels right. I don’t think he can just be blown through a crack in the Baseship hull — too anticlimactic.

10. Someone or something is going into the black hole. I mean, duh — it’s a gun in the first act and needs to go off in the third. Whether it’s Galactica, the Colony, or just a few unfortunate Vipers, I don’t know. I also don’t know if someone’s going to come out on the other side. My most far-fetched idea for the ending: the ruined Galactica goes through the black hole to a parallel universe! They crashland on our Earth! Adama and Roslin drive off into the sunset wearing studded leather on a bitchin Harley!

battlestar galactica: predictions

Here’s what I think we’re going to see in the Battlestar Galactica finale. If you haven’t seen tonight’s episode (“Islanded in a Stream of Stars”), you should watch it first. To give you a little spoiler space, I’ll start with some of the less specific stuff, including the big one, #1, which is something my girlfriend thought of last year and is looking more and more likely.

1. Death turns out to be the way to a new home for humanity and Cylons alike. They will break the wheel of fate and end up in what amounts to Nirvana. Kara has already done this and come back for everyone else, but she doesn’t know it yet. Perhaps Caprica Six and Gaius Baltar have done the same, and the versions of them we’ve been seeing are “dead” in whatever sense Kara is dead. When they get there, they’ll encounter some characters we’ve known to be dead, including Dee and Zak and maybe even Billy. This is how Kara can be “the harbinger of death” and “lead humanity to its end,” but actually be doing everyone a favor.

2. We’ll see “our” Earth — the planet at the end of season 3, which the clever frakkers at have been telling us is different from the “Earth” everyone landed on and found a charred cinder in the middle of this season — the home of the Final Five. As that website has predicted, it will turn out that Cavil has brought the incredibly-cool-looking Colony to our solar system. I didn’t think to look closely tonight, but it’s probably either floating in space or it’s on, like, Mars or something. I’m not sure how this theory works with #1, but they both seem likely.

3. Adama is going to ram Cavil’s Baseship with Galactica, or maybe even the Colony itself. This was not-so-subtly foreshadowed by Hera playing with strategic models at the beginning of this ep, as well as the painfully dragged-out talk of Galactica “dying.” What’s less clear is who will be on board at the time. Probably Anders has to be, but maybe Adama will stay too. Roslin might even stay with him, but then again she’s got to show up for the Opera House, either physically or mentally.

4. Boomer’s going to betray Cavil and help Hera escape. Boomer betrays everyone, after all, though I just can’t bring myself to hate her. She’s a sweet girl, but everybody uses her except Tyrol (her “dad” — sorry, not really buying that rhetorical line). She’s a super-terrible mom-substitute, but when she calms down and starts to treat Hera like a little person, you can see she has a heart. And Hera has to make it to the Opera House.

5. I’m not sure what to make of the so-called “head!characters,” or “angels” as I think we have to acknowledge them. I think it’s significant that the only people who have seen them, as far as I can remember, are Caprica Six, Baltar, and Kara Thrace, which is partly why I’m speculating that Six and Baltar truly died in the nuclear blast and that only the undead are seeing angels. But then apparently the Final Five saw them too. So are they “dead”? Or did they just resurrect in the non-Cylon (according to Baltar) way that Kara did? In any case, I’m wondering (as others have been) whether the Six and Baltar in the Opera House are in fact their Angel versions. Seems likely.

That’s all I have so far. What do you think?