A Belated Farewell to Battlestar: Religion, Clarity, and War

To this point, I’ve avoided writing on the series finale of Battlestar: Galactica – partially because it’s not really over yet, and partially because the subject has been done better by others. Curse you Salon! But I’d like to revisit it, oh these four months later, however briefly.

Life here began out there.

Life here began out there.

Recall that the original Battlestar series was something approximating a (re?)- fictionalization of the Book of Mormon, to the point that the home of old-Battlestar’s gods, Kobol, is a not-too-subtle anagram of the planet closest to the Mormon God, Kolob. Whatever the original show’s merits (and they are debatable), the writers approached allegory in much the same way as C.S. Lewis — by taking a mallet to the reader’s head (cf., Tolkein, who discovered “monomyth” before Campbell, but abhorred allegory).

New Battlestar (hereinafter, Battlestar) freed itself of its partial indebtedness to Mormonism, except with regards to its placenames. Indeed, its approach to religion generally is all its own, even if, in hindsight, there appears to be little material difference. The Hand of Fate is very strongly felt in the Battlestar universe, to be sure, but not until the series’ ending does it ever approximate benevolence. The colonies destruction is pre-ordained (“All of this has happened before, all of this will happen again”), humanity’s gods have abandoned it, and if the villainous Cylons owe their monotheistic God anything at all, they owe Him everything. Whenever religion functions in the colonists favor, i.e., to guide their way to Kobol and then old-Earth, it functions only to push them back into a cycle of violence that repeats over the millenia — they survive not because “God loves them,” as the ever-present “Number Six” insisted, but because their survival is part of God’s brutally amoral cosmic ballet. Humanity’s triumphs come in breaking the cycle and defying fate: “All of this has happened before…” — “but it doesn’t have to happen again,” Apollo reminds us. Man’s fate is his own.

That is, until the finale, when this reaffirmation of free will comes crashing down. In the series’ two greatest unsolved mysteries — who is Starbuck, and who is the literal voice in Baltar’s head? — God literally fills the gaps. Apparently, they’re both divine messengers. Far from being just a cheap way out, a true deus ex machina if there ever was one, these revelations deprive humanity’s struggle for survival of any real meaning. Starbuck’s quixotic quest to buck Fate, Doom, and whatever God exists in her universe all at once, by finding a habitable world for humanity, with nothing but a ship and her wits, fails utterly. Humans as a species are unequipped for both the goal and the journey, and her Grail quest ends in frustration and bloodshed, providing the cause for Battlestar’s own private little civil war. Ultimately, when Starbuck does lead humanity to its new home, it’s by divine revelation. God saved us. Our only contribution was to shake off the Cylons. And we couldn’t even do that properly.

After the “nature of fate,” the series’ second greatest metaphysical struggle was to define the role of technology, when the good so often goes hand-in-hand with the devastatingly horrific. The question is all too obviously posed by the series premise:

The Cylons were created by man. They rebelled. They evolved. They think – and feel – human. Some have been programmed to believe they are human. There are many copies. And they have a plan.

Man’s relationship with technology is not healthy, at least at the outset. But instead of learning to deal with the very real and very modern challenges of advanced, potentially dangerous science, Battlestar’s heroes, in the finale, decide to simply torpedo the whole damn thing. Given an idyllically beautiful world and a chance for a fresh start, with complete knowledge of the mistakes made and at least an inkling of how to avoid them, the Battlestar crew instead send their ships, and all their supplies and technology more advanced than tents, straight into the sun. They start over. It’s infuriatingly irresponsible to the future generations for whose benefit this step was purportedly taken. Imagine you had a fresh planet on which to rebuild humanity. Imagine solving the great problems of our day, like pollution and overpopulation, before they even existed? Galactica’s crew, somehow, found this opportunity far less than irresistible.

Rather than solving this existential struggle, then, Battlestar’s humanity essentially punts the question to the next generation, and disintegrates into the African tundra. So much for Adams’ patriotic wisdom: “I must study politics and war, that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy.” Because their ancestors so thoroughly dropped the ball, not only will the descendants of the colonial “exiles” have to grapple with the ethical and environmental problems that stumped their ancestors, but they’ll have to do it while re-inventing antibiotics. Best of luck!

In the end, though, how much can we complain? Even if the finale was objectionable on a moral level, it was still good TV. And, it’s just a TV show. We’re hardly bound by television characters’ mistakes, and it’s hard to take offense at the shallow worldview that the show embraced only in the last episode, when it had built such a deep, believable, and topical universe for four long seasons. But in a way, that makes the disappointment worse. Science fiction is a powerful lens to evaluate the human condition, capable of creating a philosophical distance that lets us dispassionately analyze our world, and maybe, sometimes, start to fix it. Battlestar strove for and achieved that pinnacle of the genre for a long time. Looking back on earlier seasons, though, and knowing how it ends, it’s a shame they lost the moral clarity that made the show so compelling.

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11 comments

  1. I guess at some point I am gong to have to rent the DVDs and watch the series. I think I saw 20 minutes of an episode once. Battlestar, 24, The Wire… thank goodness they put these things on video.

  2. Frak! Now I will have to watch the whole bleeding thing. Thanks Ames – does Netflix get a cut of your promotional revenue?!?!?!

  3. I haven’t read the post yet, since I haven’t watched Season 4 yet for reasons explained previously elsewhere, and I’m worried the post may contain spoilers. Do it?

    1. Oneiroi · ·

      Yes.

      1. Yeah to the point that I feel guilty :(. I thought 99% of the people who read this site would’ve seen it all the way through — I’m sorry Mike & Philip!

        1. Ames,
          No worries. I haven’t actually followed much of the show, owing to the fact I don’t have cable. I watch it mainly when I’m visiting Seattle on business – my former housemates have the entire collection on DVD which I just borrow. So I’m WAY behind.

  4. James F · ·

    Next month, I get to see Edward James Olmos, Mary Mary McDonnell, Aaron Douglas, Kate Vernon, Kandyse McClure, Michael Trucco, Luciana Carro, Alessandro Juliani (not to mention Dirk Benedict and Richard Hatch). :D

  5. It was a great show. The Plan will be a nice bookend.

  6. I thought 99% of the people who read this site would’ve seen it all the way through

    Oh, don’t worry, Ames—I have no interest in seeing it anyways : ) Terribly sorry, but after coming across a particularly savage review of the show (here, if you care to read it), I lost any determination to see it.

      1. While I disagree with Easterbrook on some things, I think his reviews of BSG – which Wikipedia doesn’t list – were spot-on with regard to the bigger issues that made me quit watching. His harping on Tricia Helfer’s costume was silly, I thought, but the bigger “The plot has more holes than a Swiss mountain” issues, he summed up nicely. (Incidentally, Switzerland’s mountains make Swiss cheese look positively solid. Why, you ask? Well, you know the end of Dr. Strangelove, “We must not allow a mine shaft gap”? Yeah, Switzerland’s already set up to do that – with their entire population.)

        I’ll say this for the show: everything other than the writing (and not even all that was bad – just the major plot elements) was excellent. Bear McCreary is a musical genius, the cast had some damn fine actors (even – maybe even especially – the ones playing utterly despicable characters you wish had taken a bullet to the skull in the pilot episode), and Zoic Studios have done for Outer Space what WEPA did for Fantasy.

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