Spoilers for the series finale of Battlestar Galactica coming up after the jump:
Series finales are hard, but they’re especially demanding of sci-fi series. People expect many things of the end of a realistic drama—closure, catharsis, justice, maybe—but sci-fi has the special burden of providing explanations. Why did this thing cause that thing? What’s the big secret? Where did it all come from and where does it end up? What are the answers? A non sci-fi series may be savaged for its finale, like The Sopranos or Seinfeld, but only the most aggrieved will say that these finales retroactively ruined everything that came before it. Whereas with sci-fi, a finale is often not just the end, but the culmination of the show—it is the answer, and there’s a great temptation to judge on whether the answer was right or wrong.
Battlestar Galactica has always been marked as being not just a sci-fi show, which is to say that it was not just about the mythology, the science or the special effects but the ideas and the characters. (This is unfair to pretty much every good sci-fi show ever created, but there you have it.) Which if anything just doubles the expectations of it.
This is all way of leading up to saying that—yeah, I had some problems with BSG’s finale. I also loved it: I was thrilled by big chunks and cried big wet tears at others. And the things that did and didn’t work for me reflect a lot on BSG’s dual demands as a sci-fi drama and a character drama.
Let’s start with the most superficial thing I loved: the action—really, the entire first half. We all know that BSG is not about eye-popping special-effects, that it made a virtue of being low-tech and grungy. But for the finale Moore, Eick and Michael Rymer clearly broke the piggy bank on the CGI and the visuals generally; from the moment Galactica jumped in front of the Colony and the firefight began, BSG was like the mousy girl who took off her glasses and let down her hair. Ba-BOOM! Where have you been hiding, miss?
Fields of pulsing gun turrets! Galactica getting lit up! Old-school Centurions! But underpinning the dramatic fight, and the cat-and-mouse mission to recover Hera from the Colony’s beehive-like tunnels, was a characteristically BSG sense of finality and grit. Just take the logistics of the battle, for one thing: the battlestar crunching headfirst into the Colony was a close-quarters clinch unlike nothing I recall seeing in a previous space battle. It wasn’t some breathtaking, balletic dogfight—it was like a barroom brawl between two spaceships, locked in a deathgrip, determined to scratch and choke and swing broken bottles until one of them could not get up. It would be a gun battle, Adama said, in one of his last, best speeches before a mission: “Then I want [you] to start throwing rocks.”
As thrilling as the battle, or more so, was the cat-and-mouse chase of Hera, particularly the way in which the visions of the Opera House came together as a kind of road map out of the Colony. As for the resolution of the battle, it was satisfying in some ways and frustrating in others. The idea of swapping Resurrection technology for Hera, then parting ways, seemed like classic BSG: the idea of humans and Cylons breaking the cycle and reaching a truce–or here, an amicable divorce–seemed like where the series was headed. The idea, or at least this was what I thought the series was telling us, was that human and Cylon had to find a resolution other than one side obliterating the other.
So while the surprise resolution—Tyrol killing Tory after learning of Calie’s murder in the mind-meld, then Racetrack accidentally nuking the Colony from the grave—was a cool, chaotic twist, I’m not sure I like the human-Cylon war finally being resolved, essentially, by an accident. Was the fleet right to cut a deal? Was Cavil finally to be trusted in the end? (He was, at least, funny in his last moments: “Hey, I don’t mean to rush you, but you are keeping two civilizations waiting!”) Would they have broken the cycle? We’ll never know. Although Cavil, blowing his brains out, must have gone to his grave believing that he was right, that the humans betrayed him, and that he and his race died in a noble failure because of the perfidy of man.
And Baltar’s speech, declaring that much of what humans and Cylons had witnessed—the visions, the appearance of “angels” like Starbuck—was explicable only by a spiritual force that “our two destinies are entwined in.” In other words–not explicable at all, in the traditional sci-fi sense. Want to understand Starbuck’s return? Head Baltar and Head Six? The Opera House? Humans evolving separately on two planets? Shrug. It’s a miracle.
I don’t mean to sound flippant. I kind of like the audacity of a sci-fi series getting this explicitly spiritual in explaining its mythology. (And this, I expect, is a foretaste of where we’re going with Lost, with some phenomena explicable by scientific forces, others by spiritual ones.)
In some ways, it’s poetic. In the Q&A after the finale screening this week, I asked Ron Moore what he thought were the origins of The Song, which, by one reading, led some fans to believe that Starbuck’s father. (The implicit chronology being: it originated on Old Earth, where Anders recalled playing it; The Five passed it on in Daniel’s consciousness; Kara learned or absorbed it from him.) Moore said that for him the song represented a recurring thread in consciousness, an inarticulate idea that occasionally arose over the ages in the mind of human, Cylon, hybrid, Bob Dylan. That’s certainly more moving than saying it was programmed into Daniel’s brain like an operating system.
Then we get to Earth. Actual Earth, our Earth. Which is where some of the finale’s most stirring moments, and its biggest problems, transpired.
Earlier this season, I hit on something about the destroyed “Earth”–not that I was the only one to notice this–that I wish I had followed up on more: There were certain things that simply did not add up if it was our Earth, and we were the Cylons. “Now that we know the origin of the Cylon models, ” I wrote, “what does this mean about the relationship of BSG’s “Earth” to our Earth? Is it our Earth or, as it would now seem, a similar planet that, in this story, happens to have the same name? That is, the Earth Cylons, if I’m not mistaken, knew that they were Cylons, and knew how they came to Earth, correct? They didn’t believe they had evolved from Australopithecines and later come to discover their true origins, right?”
I didn’t guess, though, that the Galactica would discover Earth for a second time, and find ours. So: points for surprising me.
The longstanding prophecy was that Starbuck would lead the fleet “to its end.” And she did, in an unexpected way: the fleet decided to commit a sort of cultural suicide, giving up its technology and blending in with Earth humanity’s hunter-gatherer forebears.
OK, intellectually, narratively, structurally that makes sense. The story ends where ours begins. Kara leads them to their end, but it’s a voluntary one. The war-ravaged civilizations choose en masse to strip away everything that led them to war and start again, and hopefully start better. They become us; we never know they existed. It ties up nicely. And it syncs nicely with the opening credits of the original BSG. (“There are those who believe that life here began out there, far across the universe, with tribes of humans, who may have been the forefathers of the Egyptians, or the Toltecs, or the Mayans…”)
As an idea, I like it. As a fact, do I buy it? No. A population, ravaged by war, more than decimated, emerges from a hellish odyssey into the promised land. And then decides to give up every technological advantage it has, and embrace a pre-civilized, red-in-tooth-and-claw, nasty-brutish-and-short, hunter-gatherer existence? They agree to die of exposure and starvation and watch their babies die of once-easily curable diseases?
Keep in mind we’ve seen the civilian population of the fleet willing to revolt over Cylon alliances, poor living conditions and so on. Now they’ve unanimously embraced a future existence that’s maybe one step above Cormac McCarthy’s The Road? I mean, I’m sorry, those African vistas were gorgeous, but it rains there too. And come drought time, I’d like a Raptor to head north, please. And maybe something to shoot the odd sabretooth I encounter while I’m there.
OK, I’m snarking. But this is a big leap, one that takes more than an offhand line about “the desire for a clean slate” for me to accept.
My final big beef: the very ending, with Angel Baltar and Angel Six walking through Times Square, which was disappointingly tell-don’t-show and on-the-nose for a show as sophisticated as BSG: “The question remains—does all this have to happen again?”. (Though I enjoyed Ron Moore’s cameo reading National Geographic.) After Angel Six argued that Earth was likely to break the cycle, for some unsatisfying reason having to do with complex systems, I half expected her and Baltar to turn to the camera and say, “Well, will you? WILL you break the cycle?” (And didn’t you have to wonder: if this is our Earth, then clearly they failed, right? I mean, holy wars, Hitler… looks like a cycle to me.)
Reading over this, my complaints seem very long, and I feel like I’m being unfair to a show that I loved. Partly it’s that, because I love the show, my complaints need more justification than my praise. But I guess my issues with the ending amount to this: the Times Square scene, the robot montage, flying the fleet into the sun–it all put the emphasis on runaway technology getting ahead of morality. That’s an ancient sci-fi theme, but it’s not the BSG that I know. Lee talked about jettisoning the machines so that the newcomers could give our ancestors “the best part of us.” But so much of what we’ve seen in BSG says that the problems of man and Cylon ultimately come down to what’s inside of them. You can toss away your jump drives, but if you don’t fix your soul, you’ve fixed nothing. Over four seasons of this fine series, the warning hasn’t been: Don’t lose control of your robots. It’s been: don’t lose control of your gods.
That part—the human part (in the broad sense)—has always been what BSG has done best. And it was what was best in this finale, so let’s get back to that. Starting with Adama and, especially Roslin. Mary McDonnell has owned this series, and here you could practically feel her shaking flesh and sense the cells dying as she willed herself into a few more days of life to see her people through until the end. But for me her crowning moment was that last scene, sitting outside with Bill, minutes of breath left in her. She admires the herd of antelope. He asks her if she’d like to get a better look. There’s this wonderful sly flash in her eye as she says yes. She’s tired, she’s dying—and yet, for a flash, she’s that cougar who took her old student to bed, she’s a young woman on a date, she’s a girl seeing the world for the first time again.
Which, of course she is.
Like a lot of finales, this one seemed to have a lot of ending scenes before it actually ended, and I’m fine with that. Tyrol’s closure—not regretting killing Tory, but realizing that a life among other people was no longer for him—was suitable and sad. (There were fewer deaths of major characters than I expected, but in a way, and ending like his—essentially accepting his stay on Earth as a kind of prolonged suicide—was even more wrenching.) I was deeply relieved to see Helo (who I thought was going to bleed out), Sharon and Hera together and happy on Earth—even if I believe they must have a rough existence ahead of him before Hera goes on to have a million Earth babies and become great-great-grandma to all of us.
I even found myself mourning characters I didn’t like that much in the series’ run. Anders was always a bit of a blank space for me, but his 2001-like starchild ending was, if nothing else, beautiful. Likewise, I never cared much for Lee Adama, but his final scene moved me—probably because it was also Starbuck’s. Katee Sackhoff has been the Kiefer Sutherland of this series, playing with such intensity and commitment that she completely sells a character who, with another actor, might have seemed over-the-top in her pathos. I suspect some fans may not be happy with her just vanishing while Lee’s back is turned, but what matters to me is her resolution: “I’m done here. I’ve completed my journey. It feels good.”
And then there’s the old man. There are several scenes I could single out here—his last moments on Galactica, “She will not fail us if we do not fail her,” that gorgeous, awful pullaway from him at Laura’s grave—but I have to come back to watching the antelopes with Laura, when she asks him what this beautiful planet is called, and he says, “Earth.” She laughs. He’s serious. All they have lost and suffered, everyone they have lost, have brought them to this tauntingly living planet. No: it is Earth. “Earth is a dream. One we’ve been chasing for a long time. We’ve earned it. This is Earth.”
That, to me, more than any part of the ending, is pure BSG, a distillation of why I love this series. What finally makes your destiny is not prophecy, not gods, not a certain set of coordinates and constellations. What tells you you have reached the place where you should be is that you journeyed there. You fought and grieved and loved, did the right thing as much as you could, did the wrong thing more often than you care to remember, and did the necessary thing as often as it took. You spent nearly every ounce of life and will and got somewhere with as many people you loved as you could bring along with you. You have expended yourself and provided for the next generation and are getting ready to die, and you are in your last place.
And that place is Earth, no matter what planets were destroyed, no matter what prophecy says otherwise. It is Earth because it is where you are. It is Earth because you have made it so. It is Earth because you say so.
And so say we all.
I’ve written so much, I can’t believe I have leftovers for a hail of bullets, but one last round before I fire the rest of them into the sun:
* Anyone surprised by how not dark the finale was generally? No unexpected major character deaths—if you don’t count Boomer and Cavil—the fleet survives, good guys win, Earth found. (I was betting on, at least, Baltar having a Sydney Carton moment of self-sacrifice—instead, Boomer did.) Didn’t you suspect they’d leave you wanting to kill yourself?
* Maybe I’m being dense, but… so why was Hera essential to humanity’s survival? Yes, I know she proved to be the biological Eve (a real scientific concept), but that doesn’t mean that without her we would not exist. Kara translated the song into the numbers that made the jump to Earth possible. Am I missing something? (That’s entirely possible.)
* I am not joking about this: I thought it was surprisingly touching to see the Centurions being sent off on their own with the basestar to start again. They only ever wanted to be happy! And considering they didn’t return to incinerate the cavemen, I’m guessing they did a better job of not breaking the cycle than we did.
* Also a serious question: what if the remainders of the fleet did NOT, in fact, pass “the best of themselves” on to us when they merged with Earth-humanity? What if they passed on the myths (carried on in our Greek legends, etc.) and planted the seeds for our wars? Earth humanity would have existed with or without them. Would it have been better off had the Cylons and humans exterminated each other? (Asking this question is not a criticism: it’s testament to how thought-provoking BSG is. Or to how big a cynic I am, take your pick.)
*As poignant as this finale was, I was glad it still had a sense of humor. Case one: the crew ribbing Baltar about looking for a cavewoman booty call when he talked about perpetuating the species. Case two: Roslin’s bittersweet words to the Doc, after he gave he enough shots to keep her on her feet: “Don’t spoil your image. Just light a cigarette and go grumble.” Case three: President Romo Lampkin. (That brought down the house at the finale screening.)
* Loved, loved the musical callback to the original Battlestar theme as the fleet flew into the sun. Any other original series shout-outs that I missed? Where were the Lucifers?