Monday, March 23, 2009

A great ending - so say we all. Well, some of us.

The big controversy this weekend: not how Tottenham beat Chelsea, but the end of one of TV's greatest ever space operas.


The internet backlash to the finale of Battlestar Galactica has been enormous, way more than The Sopranos' cut to black, and I will admit to being pummelled into a deathly tedium by the apparently neverending parade of Act Breaks throughout the last forty minutes. Every time I thought the story was good and finished, we faded up on yet more billowing grassland.

However, this is not what has incensed most of the finale's detractors. There are two sore sticking points - the "god did it" explanation, and the decision of the rag-tag fleet to abandon their aimless exodus and settle on "our" Earth sans technology.

I have no problem with either.

God has been a major part of the show since the mini-series. As sci-fi fans we may have wanted a rational explanation for God and God's plan but, actually, there was none. Could be none. It was God's plan, not for us to understand, and in the end these people experienced their fates as he planned them, with no recourse to appeal. Which is very bleak and depressing, but hey, that's BSG.

The show lays out a pretty clear mythology, and never tries to explain all the wierd shit as anything other than God working in his mysterious way. You don't want to accept that's the truth of the situation? Fine, but Battlestar Galactica's God is real, and unknowable, and his existence is proven by the text.

For those who weren't listening, the cycle of Humans beget Cylons beget armegeddon, has been repeating for eons. God, for whatever reason, is fed up of it. When he sees it happening on Earth 1, he sends his angels to avert the catastrophe, but they're ineffective. When he sees it happening on the colonies, he decides to get interventionalist. By the time he's finished frakking with everyone, they're a million light years from home, on a fleet of ships held together by gaffa tape and pessimism.

When it comes to the decision to turn away from advanced technology, the show has already established that these ships are falling apart, and with no means of manufacturing new parts are desperate to scavenge spares from the Galactica. Once that old bird makes its final jump, you might be able to make some pretty bangles from several components, but there’s not a lot left that’s functional. No, having found a habitable planet, they really have no option but to settle there. Bleak, and depressing sure, but hey, that's BSG.

The 30,000 survivors of the 50,000,000,000 strong twelve colonies don't have the knowledge or skills to rebuild and maintain an industrial society. They tried it on New Caprica, and were clearly failing there, despite having more resources. They were never going to be able to do it on Earth. However, the species would survive and have a second chance - through Hera. God wins, barring free-will ruining things again.

Does anyone get a happy ending? Laura dies after leading her people to the promised land; Galen runs off to Scotland because he just can't trust himself to trust anyone else; Kara's bought back to life, relearns how to love, and is then snatched from existence; Lee is abandoned by everyone he loves; Baltar's scorned inheritance turns out to be the only thing capable of keeping him alive; and the whole human race is placed under the care of President Rollo Lampkin. Doesn’t sound too good, does it, but every one of those fates has an undeniable silver lining, and I'll leave it to you to figure out how the end of each character's story was perfect in its way.

The chronology has been puzzling. Why have the colonists land on Earth 150,000 years ago, instead of at a later time when they could have plausibly introduced agriculture (say 9000 years ago - certainly recent enough to hasten the end of prehistory)?

The timeframe of 150,000 years ago roughly coincides with the evolution of modern homo-sapiens and the development of behavioural modernity. From our 21st century viewpoint, we tend to be terribly condescending about our neolithic ancestors, but the truth (as far as we know it) is that they were quite societally advanced. The colonists may have lost a lot when they threw their ships into the sun, but they retained enough to leave a lasting legacy of language, art, cooking, humour, games, distance trading, tools, fishing, music and religion.

Let's not forget that, also within this time frame, the planet has experienced an ice-age, a super-massive volcanic eruption, plagues, and any number of near misses with extinction, that would have left any and all archeology destroyed and any memory of the colonists subsumed into the collective unconscious.

Is it so hard to imagine that, even if the remaining colonists had built homes with plumbing and running water, chicken coops and vegetable patches; that even if they had continued writing letters to each other, in the end their population simply wasn't large enough to exist, in the long term, on more than a subsistance level? Humanity's history is a cycle of dark ages - civilizations fall, and technologies are invented, forgotten, reinvented, over and over again. Over the generations they would have regressed - as a result of their low numbers and inability to transmit information. This was inevitable: whether they threw their ships into the sun or not, they would eventually forget, if not how to use them, how they worked. A population needs to reach a certain level before it can maintain a certain quality of life. The oncoming deterioration reminds me of the conclusion to Earth Abides, where in the end, bows and arrows prove more useful than rusting sidearms.

We now find ourselves at the same point the Colonies were (minus the spacefaring) about a century before the first Cylon war: on the verge of the singularity. The question is: are we going to end up on a distant planet, reduced to a fraction of our numbers, traumatised and debased, doomed to regress to the stone age, or are we going to break the cycle?

Daybreak was, most fittingly, a challenging and polarising ending, but one that I think was consistent with everything that’s gone before in Battlestar Galactica. The story was always about the characters, and in the flashbacks to Caprica before the fall, the journey was completed by showing us the beginning,. With this structural trick - the beginning is the end, the end is the beginning - Moore completes the circle. The cycle is broken, and whatever happens next is new.

A great show, a great ending.

1 comment:

  1. I could spend half an hour saying the same thing, but in an attempt to save pixels:

    Hear hear.

    BSG has always been about the relationship of Humanity with God, from the very beginning. (And I think it's fair to cap both those fuckers.)

    The themes of the show were addressed and answered - conclusively, within the bounds of the work - in the last episode.

    The text is complete in and of itself. And it's fine to say "But that's not what I wanted..." but as a work, Battlestar Galactica is complete. The questions posed are answered within the bounds set in the miniseries.

    And emotionally, as I just said to Housemate Nick:

    They earned my tears.