Doomed to Repeat It: Battlestar Galactica, Thoughts at the End
I truly do believe that if Moore and his writers don't find a way to tell a story that mirrors present-day events without being overwhelmed by symbolism, Galactica will flounder. In all forms of writing, story must come first: the characters need to be real, the plot needs to make sense, you can't demand too much suspension of disbelief from your viewers. Place story second to ideology, and you'll soon find yourself with neither.Battlestar Galactica has been a recurring theme on this blog for three and a half years, nearly its entire existence. Going through my post-episode, mid-season and end of season posts from earliest to latest is like watching my fannish enthusiasm for the series curdle and die in stop motion: from a generally positive if somewhat cautious note, to mounting dismay as the second season unravels in its latter half, to exasperation and disdain during the third season, and finally to a dull rage and grim bemusement as the series draws to a close. I expected as much when I made such a review yesterday evening before starting work on this post, but what startled me was the realization of just how early on in my writing about the show I had expressed my main criticism against it--in my very first essay-length post about Battlestar Galactica, quoted above. Everything I've written about the series since then has been an expansion on, a distillation of, or additional examples supporting, this one single criticism."Dear Ronald D. Moore: Scattered Thoughts at the End of Battlestar Galactica's Summer Season", September 27th, 2005
I think Moore is going to slide into the realm of metaphysics and go completely insane and I want to be there when it happens, not because I think the end result will be moving or awe-inspiring or even any good, but because I think it's going to be really, really big."The Episode That Broke Me and Other "Crossroads II" Thoughts", March 27th, 2007
Oh, God, it's totally going to end in mass suicide, isn't it?Private e-mail, January 19th, 2009
So, for me, the important question as I come to make a final (though how many times have I told myself that this one post was going to be the final one?) statement about Battlestar Galactica is not whether it was a good series--it wasn't, not since the middle of its second season at the very latest--and not why it failed--I've gone over that ground too many times, most recently and, I think, most comprehensively just a few weeks ago--but why I kept coming back. Why did I keep watching a show that did nothing but disappoint and infuriate me? Why did I keep writing about it when all I was doing was saying the same thing over and over again in slightly different ways?
Popularity is a big part of the answer. It's doubtful that I would have been as invested in debunking the perception of Galactica as the best science fiction series of the decade, and a smart, well-written show in any genre, if these were not such commonly held and frequently voiced opinions both in and out of genre circles. Rage is another component. You can drop a show that bores and fails to engage you, but it's a lot harder to walk away from a series whose writing infuriates you, and whose every plotting and characterization choice seems calculated to belittle your intelligence. Galactica's mistakes were all driven by the same core flaw, but every time it made one I just got angrier, and when I get angry, the only way I can regain my equilibrium is to write about it. But most of all I kept coming back to Galactica because of fear. Fear that the plaudits and awards and (utterly inexplicable) invitations to speak at the UN had tapped into something true, or rather that they were creating truth simply by being repeated so often: that Galactica is the shape of science fiction television to come.
The general reception of "Daybreak II," and particularly its post-space battle segments, has been negative. People more knowledgeable about these subjects than myself have spoken about the dodginess of its evolutionary history and the plan it charts for Colonial humanity's survival as subsistence farmers, and many have expressed dismay at the show's sudden shift to an anti-science position. As problematic and disappointing as these elements are, they pale, to my mind, beside the fact that in its final episode Galactica once again, to borrow Dan Hartland's phrase, eviscerates itself. From its earliest episodes the show prided itself on being about the messiness of the human condition, about our tendencies toward war, violence, racial and religious strife. After four seasons of this the conclusion the show comes to is not that we should strive to be better, not that we should learn from our mistakes, not even that such betterment is impossible and that these blights are the unfortunate cost of being human, but that we should just walk away from the whole mess. History is rife with examples of man's inhumanity to man? Then end it.
There have been many complaints about the lack of an overarching plan to Galactica's plotting, but "Daybreak II" reveals that its political storytelling was just as haphazard. After so much time spent on tortured real-world analogies, so much of what made the show worthwhile sacrificed so that its writers could pat themselves on the back for asking the 'tough questions,' it turns out that the only answer they could come up with is one that even the most pretentious undergraduate would find painfully dumb. Don't learn from your mistakes, and don't repeat them either. Don't face up to the crimes and guilt in your past, and don't deny them. Don't forgive your enemies, and don't continue to make war on them. Don't come up with new ways to govern, and new ways to subvert those governments. Just forget. Forget about cities. Forget about communities. Forget about recording history for future generations. Forget the quest for knowledge. Forget about learning to understand your surroundings. Forget everything that makes us more than mere animals. We all made a big mistake coming down from the trees in the first place.
In a way, this is mass suicide. Not only of individuals, few of whom will survive long in small, isolated groups without the medical, agricultural, and industrial tools that the show so blithely dismisses as 'creature comforts' (one wonders whether the writers realize what they're implying when they say that the unearthed body of Hera is that of a young girl--that Hera not only died young but had children young, the latter possibly causing the former) but of Colonial civilization itself. Its history, culture, art and science lost forever, willfully and deliberately destroyed by its last few survivors. There's something almost laughable about the scene in which Adama decides to name the Colonials' new home Earth--as if it matters what these people call their planet when every hint that they ever walked upon it is going to be lost forever. By taking the fleet to Earth, Kara Thrace is the harbinger of Colonial humanity's doom, but it is her fellow Colonials, led by Lee Adama, who with Stepfordian gladness finish the job the Cylons started.
I might almost have respected the show if its writers had faced head on the implications of the ending they'd written, but with typical Galactican cowardliness they try to sugarcoat it. They pretend that a genetic legacy is the same thing or even better than a cultural one--because we all feel a deep personal bond to our great-to-the-nth-power-grandparents, but absolutely no connection to the people who shaped our national, ethnic, and religious identities--and decide that by some magical process Colonial society manages to shape modern American society in its image despite having been wiped away entirely--in the process all but saying that American civilization is the truest, most ancient civilization on the planet. Of course, these are the same people who have concluded their story by telling us, of every major question, coincidence, and plot twist, that God did it, but are so terrified of the religiosity of the resulting story that they desperately shoehorn in an escape clause at the last minute by suggesting that it's not God pulling the characters' strings, but a god-like alien.
Far worse to my mind than Galactica's ending being anti-science is the fact that it is anti-science fiction. Science fiction is the literature of change. It's about imagining the future--which things get better, which get worse, which stay the same; what new systems we come up with to live our lives, and how they fail under the weight of the same basic human flaws. Far from imagining it, with its final episode Battlestar Galactica has shown itself to be a series about ending the future. Everything that's happened in its four seasons, everything its characters have experienced, seen, or done, has been calculated to bring them to a point where they take their future apart, leaving nothing behind but their genetic code. And all this is so that we can arrive, not at an analogy or at an allegory of it, but at the actual, real-world present day and say 'we don't know what happens next.' Well, of course we don't, but that's just what science fiction is for--to say 'what if?' and then imagine the answer. And that is just what Battlestar Galactica has been desperately opposed to doing almost from day one.
What bothers me about this is less that Galactica itself isn't science fiction--I came to that conclusion at the end of the third season--but that there are still plenty of people who can't tell the difference between its stasis-oriented brand of pseudo-SF and the real thing. More importantly, it worries me that there are people, in and out of genre, who think that Battlestar Galactica represents a model of what science fiction television should be like--allegorical, present-oriented, cowardly and unimaginative. For better and mostly for worst, Galactica has been the dominant genre show of the last half-decade, and it has inspired and will continue to inspire other creators. Kings is very obviously taking its cues from Galactica when it neglects its worldbuilding and comes up with an imaginary world that doesn't suit its premise. Judging from its teaser trailer, the upcoming Stargate: Universe is desperately trying to ape the show's dark visuals and emotional tone (not to worry: the Stargate: Atlantis pilot was similarly a departure from its parent show, and that series bounced back to the SG-1 template before the first season was half over). When even Joss Whedon, a man who's forgotten more about good worldbuilding than the entire Galactica writing room ever knew, is reported to have said that "he aspires to make television like [Galactica]" you know there's trouble ahead.
I've been contemplating what I'd write about Battlestar Galactica's final episodes for weeks, wondering how best to sum up my feelings about it and its ending. For a while, I was toying with the idea of leading with a joke about our long national nightmare being over, but now I'm wondering, what if it isn't? I'm OK with Galactica itself ending badly, and not even a grand, bombastic bad but a dumb bad that hardly anyone can find it in their hearts to defend, because that's the kind of show it was--lots of buildup, very little payoff; lots of self-aggrandizement, very little justification; lots of talk, very little substance. But that's because up until now I'd been assuming that the show would end and that would be that. We'd get The Plan (the title and concept of which never fail to make me laugh) and however many episodes Caprica managed to last (all the soapy allegory of Galactica, none of the space battles--I'm guessing not many), and that would be it for this universe on our screens. But what if the series and its failings have an afterlife? What if the next big thing, the next genre series to dominate the television landscape, isn't another Buffy, or Farscape, or Deep Space Nine, but another Battlestar Galactica, because that's what people--creators, producers, critics, even some of the fans--want?
Galactica's writers can so cavalierly imagine the end of Colonial history, and paint that ending as a happy one, because that history was never real to them in the first place. In that sense, they're like the mainstream writers who write post-apocalyptic SF novels because it's so much easier to end the world than imagine it different. For all its SFnal pedigree, Galactica is the television equivalent of these novels--a science fiction series desperately striving to get away from everything that makes science fiction special and fun (and unlike at least some of these novels, it doesn't compensate for its shoddy worldbuilding in any way--beautiful writing, compelling character arcs, coherent plots). I'm terrified that there are writers out there who have learned all the wrong lessons from the protracted catastrophe that was Battlestar Galactica's rise and fall, and that in a few years' time all of this will have happened again: the cautious optimism, the dismay, the exasperation, the dull rage. Which, I suppose, is my reason for coming back to this show even though all I can do is say the same thing over and over again. Because I'm baffled, and angry, and worried, and the only thing I can do to exercise what miniscule amount of power I have to affect what gets produced for our screens and what the reaction to it is is to keep hammering in the same point: this is not science fiction. This is not good television. We deserve better.