Friday, April 17, 2009

Season in Review: Battlestar Galactica S4

It's taken me a considerable amount of time to get my head together regarding the final season of "Battlestar Galactica"; to be honest, I'm still feeling a bit conflicted regarding the series' conclusion.

I'm always a bit sad when an amazing, well-written series goes downhill. "Heroes" has recently become so insufferable that I've finally dropped it mid-season, which I've only ever done once before ("Lost", towards the end of season 2). For perspective's sake, I stuck by "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" to the bitter, bitter end, long after it went from bad to offensively bad. I suppose that's my preference for modular storytelling coming to the forefront: if a serial narrative starts to go sour, I'd rather wait for a proper jumping-off point so I can get some kind of closure. This is also a useful approach for older series, because you can avoid the Jumping of the Shark altogether if you know where to stop. Going further back, the end of season 2 was the best place to quit "Party of Five", because it was the happiest ending that miserable family would ever get.

The thing about jumping the shark, though, is that most of the time - especially in television - the downward trend can't be reversed. Once you cross that line, everything just slides further and further down, or it'll move laterally: the sixth season of "Buffy" was nauseating, the seventh was just plain stupid (or maybe I'd just gotten used to the Vortex of Eww by that point, I don't know).

But there's always a measure of consistency, and if we take my most recent example again, the second season of "Heroes" was bad, sure, but it had some kind of basic structure and almost every character still maintained a measure of appeal held over from the first season. Conversely, the current storyline is a jumbled, useless mess without a single sympathetic focalizer in the entire cast.

That's the pattern I consider to be represented fairly strongly in mainstream media. And it doesn't apply to "Battlestar Galactica". Because depending on your interpretation, it either jumps the shark at the start of the fourth season and then recovers, or it jumps the shark in the last five minutes of the series finale, or it doesn't jump at all and the intense backlash is coming from somewhere else entirely.

As I've mentioned in my talks with Kazekage both here and at the Witless Prattle, I think the problem with BSG - going all the way back to the Kobol storyline of season 1 - is that the series ended up gelling into two very different (and practically antithetical) stories. On the one hand, you had "realistic" character-centric science-fiction (or Syphy as I understand it's being called now): the Pegasus, life in the Fleet, the Mutiny, Lee and Kara, Kat's redemption, Dee giving up, Roslin's hand trembling at her inauguration, Adama waiting for her in a Raptor, Baltar's trial and so on. Stories about people. About who they are, why they do what they do, about their pain and fear and love.

And then you had the pseudo-religious story. The Lords of Kobol. God's plan. Oracles. Bob Dylan music. Angels. Hybrid-speak. The living dead. A view of the universe where every single event can be (and is) attributed to one (or more) omnipotent, perpetually-unknown higher power(s) whose aims and desires are completely unknown.

Needless to say, these approaches don't co-exist comfortably, and that schism bothered me from the very beginning. But up until the aftermath of New Caprica, it was tolerable because there was no obvious preference for one or the other: Roslin might be having prophetic visions or she might be having drug-induced hallucinations that just happen to coincide with actual events. U Decide.

But once you got to the Eye of Jupiter story, the divide between religion and... hell, let's just call it realism for the sake of terminology... that divide started to filter into the actual structure of the season. Entire episodes were devoted exclusively either to God's Plan or to the women and men of the Fleet. And nowhere does this become more evident than the fourth and final season.

It began with "Razor", a feature film that leaves absolutely no room for amorphous pseudo-mythology: it's the True Story of the Pegasus as seen through the eyes of Kendra Shaw, the last survivor of Admiral Cain's inner circle. Needless to say, I really enjoyed it: we get to see the Fall from another, much darker perspective - because Cain didn't have a Roslin figure to keep her grounded - and through Shaw we can also see exactly how the crew of the Pegasus became what they were by the time they met Galactica. It's a human story.

Unfortunately, we then get ten straight episodes of people chasing visions and spouting prophecies. Baltar, Roslin, Starbuck, Caprica-Six, the Final Five, all running after cryptic half-assed riddles, following "hunches" that miraculously work out for the best... and unlike earlier seasons, there's no rational explanation that can serve as an alternative if you're not inclined to do the whole God Mode thing. How does Starbuck know where Earth is? She just does. She can feel it. Why? Nobody knows.

Meanwhile, we have the Cylon Civil War, culminating in the destruction of the Resurrection Hub. I'm torn about that particular story: it certainly diminished the threat (and unique nature) of the Cylons, but it also highlighted the central contradiction of their existence - namely, that the peak of their self-evolution is represented by human replicas with human personalities. Caprica-Six falls in love, D'Anna's a zealot, Cavil's a bitter old man, Boomer always wants something other than what she has, and so on. They're not Terminators who only look like people: take away their resurrection and there's no real difference between the Cylons and the Colonial survivors at all. And that's a really original way to resolve this sort of conflict, especially in science-fiction where wars typically end with one side obliterating the other.

Still, for the first half of the last season, the dominant arc was God's/Gods' Plan(s). And then we got to Earth, and everything snapped back into focus. No more invisible people, no more prophecies, no more Hybrid babble, just a sudden and horrible lapse into bleak depression. And it's brutally effective, dramatically speaking, because we've been with these characters for years. We've seen them suffer, we've seen them die, and we believed it'd all work out for them in the end, that they'd find Earth and it would be worth the price they paid.

Which leads to the Mutiny and its aftermath - again, a story about the people. It's about Gaeta driven by guilt and paranoia, and Zarek finally making his move, and Tyrol bleeding for his ship, and Roslin taking a stand with a voice that still gives me goosebumps (seriously, Mary McDonnell did some outstanding work on this show and I hope to see her in another central dramatic role again very soon). We also have Ellen and Sam giving us partial answers about the Final Five which surprisingly held up under scrutiny.

I think the turning point, for me, was "Someone To Watch Over Me". It's the episode that promised an answer to what was probably the biggest mystery left on the show by that point: the Question of Starbuck. Or, to be more elaborate: Kara Thrace followed a vision into a gas giant. Her Viper exploded. Months later and light-years away, she turns up again and rejoins the Fleet, having gone all the way to Earth and back in the interrim. She's not a Cylon. So how did she do it?

To understand why this episode bothers me so much, I need to go back to the exposition-heavy "No Exit", where Ellen Tigh reveals that there had been a thirteenth Cylon model, Number Seven, whom she'd named Daniel. She describes him as a sensitive artist. The Sevens had apparently been exterminated by Cavil prior to the banishment of the Final Five and the fall of the Colonies. Two episodes later, Kara has an extended hallucination of her father, and eventually ends up playing a song he taught her as a child - the Final Five recognize it as the same Music that "activated" them at the end of the previous season.

The dots practically connect themselves: a Daniel model survives, fathers Kara, teaches her the song he learned from the Five. Kara dies and gets resurrected somewhere near Earth, which explains the gap in her memories. And maybe someone helped her get back to the Fleet, et cetera.

Within the context of this fictional universe's logic, that's a reasonable explanation. And then Ron Moore, series creator, goes on a podcast and tells everyone that no, that's not it at all, there's no significance to the Daniel story except highlighting what an asshole Cavil is. Never mind that Moore never actually answers the Question of Starbuck, except to say that she's "whatever you want her to be" (THAT'S NOT AN ANSWER).

At that point, there were only three episodes to go, and it became pretty clear to me that the two parallel tracks - realism and religion - were about to collide. And one would emerge to define the series as a whole.

I want to skip ahead to the finale at this point. I've already talked about it, but I think it still warrants discussion because... well, up to a point, the finale served the characters: Racetrack gets post-mortem revenge on the Cylons, Boomer makes her last choice, Helo and Athena and Hera get to be a family at last, the Colonials find their new home... and I'll admit that I cried during Laura Roslin's last scene. It just broke my heart despite the fact that I'd known her story would end that way, prophecy or no prophecy.

And if the show had ended with that last shot of Adama at Roslin's grave, ready to build that cabin he promised her, it'd be great. I could handwave the little things that bothered me: sending the Fleet into the sun? Well, that would ensure that no one (read: the enemy Cylons) would ever find the Colonials again. Letting the Centurions go? Eh. Maybe they finally got over the whole genocide thing.

But there's a coda. And I honestly believe that coda is singularly responsible for my mixed feelings, for the very vocal post-finale backlash... all of it. The coda jumps forward 150,000 years and reveals that the Colonials' new home is, in fact, our home: that Hera is our Mitochondrial Eve, and Virtual Six and Virtual Baltar are walking among us, wondering if the cycle of violence is going to begin again, because we're experimenting with artificial "life" and we're probably going to repeat the mistakes of the past.

The more I think about it, the more I believe that Moore probably didn't intend to send the astonishingly Luddite message that the coda puts out there - an anti-technology warning set to the tune of Jimi Hendrix's "All Along The Watchtower". The larger problem, of course, is that this coda completely demolishes the realistic track of the series: the story of "Battlestar Galactica" isn't about the people after all, because if their world is our world then they were totally erased. And even if we're meant to infer that we got some traits from them, like the Olympian pantheon and monotheism, the history of Earth-born humanity doesn't quite suit the Colonials' optimstic tones in the pre-coda scenes. The cycle of violence is, sadly, very much alive and kicking. And yet the Virtuals are patting themselves on the back, praising God's Plan. Which means "Battlestar Galactica" was about God's Plan after all.

And... yeah, that's not what I was expecting. In fact, that's very much the opposite of what I wanted to see, and I can't help feeling a bit "betrayed" - as if Moore pulled a stealthy bait-and-switch to get me to swallow a religious parable while thinking I was getting character-centric realism.

I honestly wish I could just write the whole show off, because that ending is such a turn-off... but I can't. Because when it was on - and it was on for most of its run - it was probably the best drama on TV. I just wish Moore had allowed us to celebrate the conclusion in the same tradition as the rest of the story: if you want to ascribe religious machinations, you can do that, but there's also a perfectly reasonable explanation if you're so inclined.

Ah well. An excellent series with an intensely problematic ending... it is what it is. Of course, now that it's over and "The Sarah Connor Chronicles" is ending and "Dollhouse" is hanging by a thread, I seem to have run out of science-fiction series. All at the same time, more or less. I wonder whether there's a broader implication for that with regards to generic trends in American television...