Somehow, despite the eager recommendations and even proselytising by my close friends, I never got around to watching the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica series until recently (I’m also one of those odd souls who has yet to finish Firefly.) I’m not entirely sure why I never bothered, but I’m glad that I eventually got around to it. If you’re familiar with the show then you don’t need me to tell you how grand its scope is; encompassing mythology, religion, scepticism, ethics, racism, terror and civil liberties crackdowns in times of war, monotheism vs. polytheism, prophecy, fate, freewill, the struggle between man and machine, the concept of divine intervention and a form of Eternal Return, etcetera.
Last night, and three years after everyone else, I finally sat down and watched the three-part finale, Daybreak. What follows are merely my thoughts regarding the outcome to this mammoth series and… it’s 2/3’s of nigh-on unparalleled excellence, with the final 1/3 being satisfying to some degree, so long as not much thought is given to it.
To begin, the battle between the run-down Battlestar Galactica and the black hole-orbiting, biomechanic Cylon Colony is something that I’ve hardly seen since the climatic battles in the early Star Wars films. Not since the Death Star assault have I felt that the stakes were so high in a space battle, and the odds so slim. Thanks to four seasons of character development, there was nary a character here whose well-being I didn’t fear for (and seeing Baltar do ‘a Han Solo’ and throw himself into the fray was a fantastic way to round the character – seeing this new Baltar sandwiched with flashbacks to his pre-Fall Caprican self showed just how far he has come since he inadvertently unleashed the apocalypse, and the same applies to Caprica Six) All in all, seeing Galactica ‘jump’ right into the Colony’s cannon fire, and seeing Centurions swarm both ships whilst the human and humanoid characters throw themselves at one another, was one of the purest, most exciting and giddying TV and film experiences I’ve ever had.
As for the dénouement…
To sum up the happenings: the humans and rebel Cylons find a new habitable planet which is peopled by a primitive, tribe-based society. This planet they call ‘Earth’, in homage to the annihilated world of the Thirteenth Tribe and in honour of their four-year quest to find a new home. Settling down and dispersing among its continents, the Colonials decide to rid themselves of their technology and fleet, bar some essential provisions, and to cohabitate and mate with the indigenous humans already living on this Earth. Hopefully, by starting anew, they can break the constant cycle of creation, war, death, and migration that has plagued their kind since the days of Kobol, and perhaps since before that too. So, as it turns out, modern day humans are the results of Colonial immigration and human/Colonial/Cylon interbreeding, beginning 150,000 years ago during the Middle Palaeolithic Age.
And here’s my ‘but’ – it stretches credulity somewhat (maybe ‘rankles the suspension of disbelief’ is a more appropriate term) to consider that a highly developed species would throw all of their technology to the (solar) wind and become subsistence tribes (no matter how much of a clean slate is desired.) It also rankles the suspension of disbelief to imagine that the remaining Colonial populace all unanimously agree to this move. Furthermore, it’s hard to believe that these sophisticated races manage to integrate into the New Earth tribal societies without splintering and falling again into internecine battles and tribalism. “No cities,” advises Lee Adama – so what are the new populations to do? Exist merely in cloistered little gangs and sequester themselves from thousands of years of their own cultural development? Lapse into a race of Luddite, primitive cave-dwellers? Looking at the 150,000 years later coda, that is exactly the fate of the Colonials/Cylons. To think that sacrificing their technological gains will reset the switch, as it were, is an overly optimistic wrap-up that sacrifices what was the series’ most notable element, that is, the “knowing, worldly stoicism that made Battlestar Galactica so refreshing to begin with”, to use the words of Salon Magazine.
The maligned ‘cycle’ seems to have come full circle again and again in the past because the participating races were either annihilated (as in the case of the Thirteenth Tribe) or because their histories and respective lessons fell into the arena of myth (the other twelve tribes). By discarding their technology (which, because the series now takes place in ‘our’ history or at least some version of it, includes every medical advancement in addition to any comforts), the Colonials also seem to shed their history and every lesson learned with it. By the time of the show’s coda, which takes place in present day New York, the Colonials and their history and hardships and their graft and every hard lesson learned along the way has been forgotten. Sorry Starbuck, but yes, ultimately, you were forgotten. The Colonials seem to trade their advanced culture for an extended period of 150,000 years where, in the words of Christopher Hitchens, “our species suffered and died, [with] most of its children dying in childbirth [and] most other people with the life expectancy of twenty five dying of their teeth. Famine, struggle, bitterness, war, suffering, misery, all of that…” Baltar may know a thing or two about farming, but the rest of humanity won’t until the Neolithic Revolution, 138,000 years later. The upside to it all is that, biologically, the human race and the rebel Cylons have prevailed, as evidenced by the bones of Mitochondrial Eve, aka Hera Agathon. But I was left wondering what the point was when their memetic legacy was completely wiped out as a result. My mind threw me back to the end speech of Metal Gear Solid 2:
Life isn’t just about passing on your genes. We can leave behind much more than just DNA. Through speech, music, literature and movies… what we’ve seen, heard, felt… anger, joy and sorrow… these are the things I will pass on. That’s what I live for.
We need to pass the torch, and let our children read our messy and sad history by its light. We have all the magic of the digital age to do that with. The human race will probably come to an end some time, and new species may rule over this planet. Earth may not be forever, but we still have the responsibility to leave what traces of life we can. Building the future and keeping the past alive are one and the same thing.
Overall, I would not say that I am necessarily disappointed, just somewhat perplexed at the decisions here. How the Colonials ever hoped to break the cycle when, to their descendants, their last physical remains are a museum curiosity, their culture and history is annihilated, their skulls packed with dirt, memories erased, experiences forgotten, and every battle won, lost, or pyrrhic is ultimately taken away from the needy eye of Posterity – admittedly, it does all escape me. For a show that stressed that the characters were framed by fate but ultimately guided by their own freewill (a very Kantian sort of idea in that you choose to be subservient to laws that are otherwise immutable) it does rankle me that they decide to rely on one long roll of the dice to decide the fates of their descendants, when in fact a tradition of continuing, rather than rebooting, the Colonial/Cylon race seemed like the smarter choice. Then again, Laura Roslin did chide Lee Adama for choosing what he felt was right over the riskier, but more intelligent and learned choice.
Or maybe, as someone without faith, I missed a major aspect of the show. I can only hope that the subsequent 150,000 years of Palaeolithic and Stone Age misery were ultimately worth it.
Now, on to Caprica and Blood & Chrome…