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Battlestar Galactica: Season 4

I don’t want to be human! I want to see gamma rays! I want to hear X-rays, and I — I want to — I want to smell dark matter! Do you see the absurdity of what I am? I can’t even express these things properly because I have to — I have to conceptualize complex ideas in this stupid, limiting spoken language! But I know I want to reach out with something other than these prehensile paws, and feel the solar wind of a supernova flowing over me! I’m a machine, and I could know much more, I could experience so much more, but I’m trapped in this absurd body! And why? Because my five creators thought that God wanted it that way!

– John Cavil, No Exit

We could feel a sense of time, as if each moment held its own significance. We began to realise that for our existence to have any value, it must end. To live meaningful lives, we must die and not return. The one human flaw that you spend your life times distressing over – your mortallity – is the one thing which makes you whole.

– Natalie Faust, Guess What’s Coming to Dinner

There’s a moment in the show which perhaps best symbolises the sense of trepidation that I felt in sitting down to watch the final episodes of the show. We had alread witnessed three phenomenal years, so wasn’t it worth getting worried about the endgame? Admiral William Adama sits in a chair beside the dying President Laura Rosalin, his favourite book in hand. He reveals that he’s never finished it. And yet it’s still his favourite book. Because finishing it would be to acknowledge that it was the end – there was nothing afterwards. You had experienced how good it had been, but that was in the past. There is another familiar sense of dread that must be acknowledged: What if the ending doesn’t live up to expectations? What if it disappoints? How can it not?

From the look of it, Giaus was about as confused as I was when he found out how this was going to end...

I’ll talk about the final episode, Daybreak, at the end of this review. I may even discuss it in another post, as it stands so markedly distinct from what came before. The fourth season deserves to be more than an afterthought in a rant about the equal brilliance and idiocy of that final half-hour. And what a final season it is.

Realising what we’re in for, the writers cleverly eschew the format of the previous two years. There’s really nothing episodic about the episodes collected here. The events of the individual hours flow into one another, with foreshadowing and cliffhangers a-plenty. Not necessarily “duh-duh-duh” moments with big white letters on the screen, but individual plot threads that are slowly and constantly advancing towards a conclusion.

The threads which offer continuity with what we’ve already seen are the most satisfying. It’s all about faith. I say faith, because faith – by it’s very nature – is abstract and unrewarded. It receives no confirmation. It is something you treasure precisely because of its uncertainty, not because of its material value, which is nil. Faith suggests that angels may walk among us, but does not demand that they vanish into thin air when we turn our back. Faith hints that a rogue piece of rock could move a dead woman’s hand and launch a nuclear missile, but not give us common hallucinations. The series works its best when it acknowledges the mysteries of the universe, but it’s a fine line to walk before labelling it as “God”. Given the vast nature of the dominion the description implies (there is a lot of mystery), I can see why “it doesn’t like that name”.

The series works a lot smoother when it deals with the abstract principles of faith and religion. John Cavil’s anger, so succinctly expressed towards his ‘mother’ (which, for those keeping track, makes him a ‘motherfrakker’ if you will), is man’s anger towards those powers above him. “Why was I made like this?” is the desperate moan of a creature unwilling to accept themselves and responsibility for themselves. Those of us reading this blog may look out our window ask why the world was made so imperfect, but is truly us who have made it so. Who do we have to account to, if not ourselves, or does it allow us an excuse to question ourselves while shunning responsibility? In Guess What’s Coming to Dinner?, Natalie questions her planned abduction of the President not by exploring the morality of her own decision, but by wondering what the “final five” – the Cylon gods hidden in the fleet – would make of their actions. “What if they’re watching us?” she asks her colleagues.

The revelation that the “final five” were the creators of the Cylons we’ve seen in the series makes sense, particularly thematically. It gives the Cylons a chance to interacter with their makers, offering us the chance to ponder what might happen were we to encounter our own (if he even exists). I’d argue that the series offers enough meditation on the philosophy of belief and religion, but goes too far in tilting its hat. By proving that God exists without a shadow of the doubt, you remove that most essential incredient of faith – the uncertainty. Instead of being one of several subjective views of reality (reality being inherently subjective) it becomes the sole objective one. There is a definite creator. I prefer the notion of vaguely distinguishable shape visible amidst all the randomness, like the Hybrid pursuing the Resurrection Hub in Sine Que Non and The Hub. After all, what is faith if God reveals himself to us? Why can he not simply remake the universe in his own image if he seeks to guide us so? Surely sending us angels to tell us what to do is akin to cheating if you believe in free will?

I’ve adored the meta-fictional aspects of the series. The conscious suggestion that this is but on an on-going story being told again and again. In many ways, in acknowledging God, the story acknowledges its author. As the person responsible for charting the four-year run of the show, Ronald D. Moore is effectively God to this universe. The problem with a piece so readily acknowledging the present of its author as an architect is that it runs the risk of being used to justify shoddy storytelling. If the heroes need to cross a canyon, then sure the author could just add a bridge right, even if there’s no logical need for it? Unless it’s handled near perfectly, the hand of the creator is arguably best served moving sight unseen behind the scenes. In fairness, Battlestar Galactica doesn’t handle this aspect of the story poorly, but it doesn’t handle it near-perfectly either.

Compare the reveal of the great intelligence behind it all and compare to the wonderful handling of spiritualism and mysticism over the years. “All of this has happened before and will happen again”. This year the theme is hammered home with the revelation, in Faith, that Roslin’s mother – also a teacher – died of cancer as well. John Cavill seeks to become the worst of his progenitors and perpetrate the genocide again – it’s no small irony that this is a very human trait from an entity who despises the idea of being human. In the end, we all become our parents.

Or do we? For a series so carefully choreographed and foreshadowed and prophesised, it seems that this year we are out beyond the familiar. The pattern may be broken. Like the rebel Cylons, we can walk our own path. And the relief is obvious, as Lee Adama notes in discussing how the quorum has just given up after going through the cycle again and again and again. Now imagine a cycle spread acros millenia. How exhausting that must be. The hint is that the cycle may be broken, through these strange bedfellows and alliances – althought the final shot seems to suggest it isn’t so simple.

Hybridisation is the answer. That Kara Thrace might “lead humanity to their end” isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The logical way to bring piece between two is to make them one. The Colonial Vipers on board the Rebel Cylon Basestar. The use of Cylon technology to preserve Galactica. The existence of Hera. Such things are not truly humanity, at least not as it existed before the fall. But, then again, they were not really humanity. The series suggests that the product of generations of Cylon-colonial-neanderthal breeding is what we know as humanity. It’s infinite, the symbol of the true god. Everything that ever will or could be united, not distinct. One smooth and flowing line looping across. Infinity is one. One big joint existence that cannot be broken down into its elements. Because then it would not be infinite.

Sometimes the union can be violent (as observed through the reaction of the mutineers to the union of Cylon and Human in The Oath and Blood on the Scales, probably the two best episodes of the year). But violence never resolves the conflict. It repeats. It falls back upon itself, becoming recursive. Cavil’s murder of the mythical seventh Cylon Daniel is but a long-distance echo of Cain and Abel. Baltar himself compares the destruction of the colonies to the great flood in The Hub.

The choices presented are clear: start living or finish dying. It’s that choice which confronts Laura when she stands face-to-face with the possibility of letting Baltar die: she can choose to let him bleed out or she can, in the words of her guide, “choose love”. It’s a fundamental choice, but a difficult one – and one that has far-reaching repurcussions. Get busy living or get busy dying, to borrow from another source.

Somehow I sense that this was not the only type of grass involved in the production of the series finale...

On to the ending. Daybreak is… okay. It isn’t the disaster that some would have you believe, nor is it the stroke of genius that others would have it heralded as. The ending pretty much hinges on a massive character derailment. We can accept that the majority of the fleet go along with the return to nature, but why does this come from for Lee? “Don’t underestimate the desire for a clean slate,” he suggests. is this the same Lee who stood up for democracy so often? The preservation of the ideals of civilised society. A clean slate wipes philosophy clean as well, because philosophy is far more dangerous than a few flying ships and some essential medical supplies.

The whole series has been about holding on to what really matters after the fall, despite the temptation to treat this as an end of civilisation. Those who forget they ideologies and beliefs of what make humanity important, and accept the end as ‘the end’ are the dangerous individuals like Admiral Helena Cain. To start from scratch is a dangerous proposition – to abandon lessons learned and leave them to random chance is contrary to everything that has occurred. The only episode which wholeheartedly embraces this Luddite philosophy is The Woman King. And I’m a little disturbed that that episode should become essential to viewing the series.

The truth is we don’t get a clean slate. The only way to clear our slates is to die. We live our lives and we carry that all through our lives with it. We can’t simply leave it on autopilot to fly into the sun – we have to learn to live with it, to deal with the good and the bad alike. To adapt, not to collectively shrug our shoulders off the legacy of years lived. Running from that – forgetting it – is something the series has always taken great care to condemn. It’s our collective amnesia more than anything else that led to the cycle of violence.

I’m not too disappointed with the whole “it was actually the past” bit. It makes sense in a show which has treated the concept of time as flexible and cyclical. Earth is ahead of the refugees, but it is also behind them in a manner of speaking. The final five all live their lives after their deaths. I don’t know why we needed the coda other than for a ham-fisted “it could happen again”-style twist.

It’s a solid series and it works really well. I have a few misgivings about the finally, but – for the most part – it works. The themes all tie together. I don’t think there’s been a more consistently intriguing show on the air since. It’s certainly thought-provoking.

Interested in Battlestar Galactica? Check out our complete archive of reviews and discussions of the relaunched show:

4 Responses

  1. Just read this. I appreciate your review. I think a lot of fans have been far too critical of this season because it focuses on religious concepts, whereas I suspect many BSG viewers initially thought the series was going to be “hard sci-fi.” It’s certainly not perfect, but even when the plot takes a wrong turn the show proceeds thoughtfully. For example, I didn’t necessarily agree with the decision to make 5 core characters the Final Five, but season 4 did a brilliant job exploring the emotional consequences of that revelation for character.

    Lee being the one to suggest a clean slate confuses me as well, but I think there’s some sense to it. Lee had always the one to praise human rights and the rules of civilization. But he was also the one to most clearly see that the inherited Colonial civilization was breaking apart at the seams. He’s been in the thick of the problems during the Baltar trial, the coup, etc. He’s the one to realize that selecting delegates to the Council based on homeworld had become obsolete. In a sense, the formal institutions and rules of civilization either failed to uphold humanity’s best values. So Lee might be just the person to say that a clean slate would help the survivors to live in peace and humanely.

    • Religion was always a part of BSG, albeit one that a lot of contemporaneous discussions glossed over. It would inevitably be part of the final season. I think a lot of people were just surprised by how big a part.

  2. Darren, please, would you consider an episode by episode review of BSG? Your reviews are great ones, in depth look into.

    • Hi Rafael! I would love to do that. It’s one of those projects that I’d embrace if I had enough time and didn’t have other commitments. Sadly, it’s taken me long enough to finish my reviews of Star Trek: Voyager that I don’t imagine I’ll take on a comparable project for quite some time afterwards.

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