Thursday, March 26, 2009

God's Plan, Men Laugh?

By which I mean, you only have to mention God and Angels in these irreligious times of ours and a great many people will just find it all a bit silly. Both have featured heavily throughout the four (or some would say five) season lifespan of Battlestar Galactica, a sci-fi series that by its nature and tone looks to its audience to take it seriously. And I think when it comes to the conclusion of this epic journey, with all the compelling questions and mysteries raised along the way, we tend to look for a serious science fiction answer.

And I'm glad to say, from what I saw, it delivered. Mostly.

Hopefully anyone who hasn't seen the series finale yet will have looked away and pointed their browsers elsewhere by now. If not, do so now. A spoiler free review would be nice, but basically would amount to me summing it up – as I did on a mailing list at the weekend – as a 'qualified awesome'. Or words to that effect. And fair to say, it seems like ages since I blogged about any TV and as such I feel I ought to say a bit more. So, this one very much contains SPOILERS.

Now, declaration of interest: I love this show and so you can expect a degree of bias in anything I have to say on the subject. But at the same time, with a greater enthusiasm and emotional investment in the characters and the unfolding storyline, there are greater expectations riding on the resolution and greater potential risk of disappointment. So when it came to sitting down to watch the finale, it was with mixed feelings – anticipation (ooh exciting) and tension (please please don't let us down) and, not least, the firm and certain knowledge that we were all going to be left depressed that this terrific series was soon to be over.

At least with this one, it wasn't being canned before its time like a number of other favourites of mine (Firefly, Carnivale, Deadwood, for example). And it was effectively being given the full 3-parter treatment without the torture of having to wait an extra week. But even with the 3-episode runtime to play with, there was a perhaps inevitable impression of too many questions left unanswered and not enough time to cover them all and wrap up the storylines for the main characters satisfactorily.

When the series returned after its hiatus and that incredible scene of everyone, Cylon and human alike, standing on a devastated Earth, it did so with a good balance of oh-my-god revelations and ooh-that's-interesting reveals, and with a crisis in the fleet that (finally) addressed Gaeta's issues with having been tried and nearly executed by people who turned out to be Cylons. (Something my good friend Stuart and I had been hoping for.) It was during that edge-of-the seat stuff that we discovered Galactica's ailing condition. The fact that the two ladies in Bill Adama's life were both riddled with cancer provides a potent emotional core through the rest of the series and – especially if you, like me, happen to love the character of Laura Roslin and the 'old girl' Galactica herself – you'd really have to be some sort of toaster not to feel Adama's pain. And – not for the first time - Edward James Olmos breaks down brilliantly.

(And by the way, if I ever have to serve on a starship, I'm not saying I'd want to do so in the BSG universe when the remnants of humanity are on the run from Cylon persecution, but please, just make sure Adama's in command and not that useless lardboy, Kirk, or indeed any of the wet-blanket Starfleet brigade.)

In some respects it's unfortunate that it also vividly paints for us the general shape of the finale. Or a key part of it anyway. Because as horrible as it is to watch the Galactica being cleared out and 'closed down' like a high street store in the depths of the credit crunch, we know they're not going to let her go out like that. We know she's going to go out in a blaze of glory.

Events then are steering towards that and although Boomer's abduction of Hera is an effective enough shock moment, we are primed and prepped for a finale that has to centre around a rescue mission and a confrontation between Galactica and the Cylon colony. In that sense, it is not going to surprise us, so we merely have to trust that it will amaze – and be wrapped in that all-important satisfactory resolution.

We have by this stage already learned the identity of the last Cylon. And I'll admit to a measure of disappointment on that score – if only because Ellen Tigh was not my favourite character, so the idea of her coming back did not fill me with excitement. Still, in her defence I will say she returned as a different person – transformed, if not reformed. We learn a great deal about the nature of the Final Five, their background, their prior existence on Earth. My main gripe about that is that the majority of this reveal is dished out in a lot of tell, rather than show. So what you have are a lot of satisfactory answers delivered in an unsatisfying way – a large proportion of them served up by Sam, another of my least favourite characters, before he totally succumbs to data-delirium and rambles incoherently in a campaign to out-cryptic Babylon 5's Ambassador Kosh. However, the character's ultimate conversion into a Cylon hybrid is a fitting and satisfying twist.

At the same time, much focus is – rightly – given to the question of who or what is Kara Thrace? It consumes her and it's no coincidence that we'd very much like to know too. The episode where she cracks the musical code, coached along by the 'ghost' of her father was an interesting one that raised further questions about her nature. Couple that with the chillingly memorable image of her finding and torching her own corpse on Earth and you pretty much have the definition of a burning question right there.

These are just some of the ways in which the hook is baited. There are a lot of other threads and factors to be considered and tied up, and key ones for me included Gaius' religious experiences and where they were ultimately taking him, and what role Caprica – both the real one and the one in his head – was to play in that. Boomer and Athena, of course, and the significance of Hera. When you have that many fish to land, there are bound to be a few catches, so as with anything you're attempting to review it all boils down to how you measure its flaws against the positives. And the feeling, on balance, you're left with at the end.

So where, in my view, did it fall down and where did it succeed?

Falls, just for a change, can come before pride. A very minor issue, but I wasn't convinced by Cavil's suicide. It seemed a little too convenient and ran counter to a character who, I'd imagined, would want to take down as many as possible with him when everything was going to hell in a handbasket. It's something that gave me pause to question in the midst of an otherwise truly awesome moment (see later). Then there's Hera, whose importance seems to have been more symbolic than actual. Maybe it's just that she is the first one, when she grows up, to mate with a Neanderthal and (as Eve) mother a new race, priming us with her half-Cylon DNA and that imperative to fashion machines in our own image. But I think I expected something of her nature to play a key role in the resolution, rather than just have her serve as Cavil's hostage. Still, most disappointing by a Caprican mile has to be the 'answer' to the question of Kara Thrace – which seems to be “take your best guess”. Well, okay, I can only assume she's an angel in this scenario – but with the key difference that she can be seen by everybody, and that she came back with her very own 'sweet chariot' – her miraculously remade Viper - coming for to carry everyone home. She might even be the Saviour figure, died and resurrected. But more than left guessing, I did feel we were left begging, rather. I liked the character a lot and I think both she and we deserved more. Probably those who couldn't stand the character will be even more miffed.

However, her final scene and departure, leaving Lee alone, does spare us the possibility of these two ending up together. That would have been wrong.
And so to other things that weren't wrong. In fact, things that were, to my mind, very right indeed.

On a purely superficial level, the battle – as expected as it was – was massively impressive. A great many boats were pushed out on this one and the colony's position amid all that cloud and tumbling rocks made for a busier and more colourful space battle than we're accustomed to – all with some nice sharp cutting between that and the bloody gun battles on board the colony and Galactica. Blaze. Of. Glory.

And even if it all accelerated to the fairly unoriginal hostage situation, what followed was (as I think I mentioned before) truly awesome. Gaius, of all people, is the peace broker and an agreement is reached. Then as the Five mind-meld to provide Cavil with the gift of resurrection, Tory sweats – and Galen flips. One act of revenge and all hell breaks loose. Not only awesome, but key to what we learn subsequently.

The rest is (Kara Thrace aside) as neat an exercise in wrapping as you'll find this side of Christmas. There's real tragic beauty in the Roslin/Adama resolution and the Galactica's own death, flying off into the heart of the sun is almost – almost – as emotive as the shutting down and demolition of B5 at the close of that series. The use of the old Battlestar theme was a slight distraction in that part of my attention is briefly given over to recognition, rather than just getting on with crying my eyes out. But the scene does tug at the heart strings and/or give the tear ducts a decent poke.

There's tons more material that demands comment here, but by this stage I'm sure you'll be impatient for me to hurry towards my own finale and I may as well jump to what's likely to be the most contentious aspect of BSG's resolution. Which is, of course, that...

God did it.

God was behind it all. And God, like magic, can be a bit of a cop-out in science fiction. When you have a universe so rooted in gritty 'reality', God is a tough sell. And I can see where a lot of people would have a problem. Myself, I don't think it's nearly sufficient an explanation of the nature of the resurrected Kara Thrace, for example.

That said, for all its grit, BSG was threaded all the way through with mystical happenings and what Han Solo liked to call hocus pocus religion. And I was left in no doubt that this resolution was where they were headed all along. That in itself is a satisfying feeling. The Six in Gaius' head and the Gaius in Six's head were revealed as 'Angels' quite late in proceedings, but even though they are confirmed in that final scene as absolutely real – no figment of anyone's imagination except perhaps God's – it's all a question of interpretation. Like God himself, it's a question of what you call it.

Say, instead of Angels, we call them 'avatars'. Say, instead of God, we call it 'Creation'. Whatever you choose to call these things, whatever your own view of the BSG universe, what you have is a system that is constantly repeating a pattern in search of some 'winning move'. Like Joshua in that movie, Wargames. And I like the idea of that concept applied on a universal scale. The coin is being flipped over and over in the hope that it comes up heads. Trouble is, BSG has always shown us that the coin has more than two sides and the odds are stacked against the desired result.

Then, in the light of that revelation, you reflect back on Galen's actions and you appreciate fully why that is. The pattern had every chance to change – humans and Cylons had many chances along the way to change the pattern. There at that crucial point, revenge destroys that chance. Galen may have been Cylon, but what he does is a very human reaction. He's too good a copy of a human. Even Tigh assures him he would have done the same in his position. And frankly there aren't many characters here who could claim they would have done any different. Athena's answer to Boomer's act of contrition (returning Hera) is to blow her away. Adama, Roslin, they've all had their vengeful moments. There are few people, human or Cylon, who are especially big on forgiveness when it comes to the crunch.

The pattern's doomed to repeat again. Until next time. Or next time. Etc.

Insufficiently explained or no, Starbuck's deliverance of Galactica and – as a result – the rest of humanity to Earth (our Earth), backed up by the Dylan track - “There must be some way out of here...” - is a brilliant TV moment and for my money it illustrates that far from...

God did it

...the message here is that the blame lies squarely with humanity. Us. Whatever you call it, the portrait painted is of a God (or Creation or system) that gives humanity every possible chance, but His creations (i.e. we) keep screwing up. Not a new concept by any means but a message that maybe does bear repeating until we get it.

That's the warning that's implicit in that final scene and for me it was a satisfying footnote to a series that managed to impress, excite and give me plenty of food for thought over the space of five years. A series that also bears repeating, so I'm already looking forward to watching it all through again on DVD. Even if it turns out the same in the end :-)


Anonymous said...

Spot on, Mr F. Spot on. Couldn't have put it better myself!


Stuart Douglas said...

Lovely review Simon, to which I've nothing to add really.

Except to say that I was a little more forgiving of the religious elements than you were - I had no issue with Starbuck as the Messiah, for instance.

And Cavil's suicide was actually one of my favourite bits of the whole episode - it seemed like one of those tiny perfectly done character beats which people are always claiming of Russell T Davies but which I can never quite see. Cavil was shown at the end to be completely human in his reaction - terrified of what the humans might do to him in defeat, he chooses a very human way out, a quick 'Frak' and an equally quick suicide.

But nearly everything was marvellous - from huge sections like Galactica ramming the Cylon Base all the way down to the humour of the laconic (to nick someone else's phrase) '150,000 Years Later' caption.

If only the scene where the crew are spying on the cavemen hadn't been so reminiscent of Hitchhikers...

Like you, I'm looking forward to watching it again - I think it's probably the only really top notch science fiction series of this decade.

SAF said...

You know, that's a very interesting point about Cavil's suicide, and it'll be interesting to view that again in the light of that. It's no surprise that a fellow of your discernment knows better than me :-)