Battlestar Galactica and Narrative

Saturday, March 21st, 2009

Mark Bernstein provides this link to a Tribune Entertainment weblog, a discussion between Maureen Ryan and Ronald Moore on Battlestar Galactica, which sheds some light on the thinking behind the program. Twitter has lots of commentary on BSG and its conclusive episodes.

The final episode, indeed the last few years, of BSG have been fun, but also frustrating. The first year of the show was incredible, I thought, filled with dark drama and import, and my wife and I were hungry to continue our Friday SciFi habit. The first mini-series was one of he best dramatizations of mass-scale loss I’ve seen. Scary.

Battlestar’s visual metaphors are stunning, and its story premise is straightforward. The work is also filled with interesting relationships. Technology, order and chaos, love, faith, spirituality, betrayal–these ideas weave through the story and build complicated structures. Characters are neatly packaged: Adama begins skeptical of technological advancement, which saves his fleet, and ends in a situation of technological disemburdenment, pushed by his son. Adama’s is a character driven by loyalty in a world where ethic infrastructures are supported by wet toilet paper.

Battlestar is a classic exile tale. The Cylons attack and the denizens of Caprica are forced on a march toward ambiguous ends. On the way they must secure a means of government, environmental control, and on the way they must deal with loss and history, thus woven through exile is the story of discovery and revealed secrets. Battlestar comes deep with analogy. It’s a Bush era, 9-11 story of corruption, waste, insecurity, zealotry, distrust of unknown quantities, and arrogance.

Well, that’s just the intro. But to the beef. The final episodes reveal a problem with over-baked foreshadowing and expectation. A big bang is on the horizon and after lots of tremors, a great gold revealing will break from the earth and enumerate all the lose ends. Some great answer awaits, set up by grand foreshadowing and profound but gnostic imagery: who are the hidden Cylons; what secrets await in the Temple; how does this child, Hera, hold the secret to survival (apparently none), and so forth. The X-Files set this up and, of course, there was no great bang, as there was no secret to reveal. I don’t want long-standing secrets, though, I want some sensical and reasonable disentanglement.

Battlestar’s second season set up an unexpected and weak arc. Adama must save the citizens of New Caprica from their Cylon overlords as his son grows fat with guilt. It felt like ground already covered, it felt like character experimentation. In a subsequent season, Kara Thrace learns that she’d already been to Earth, or some Earth, and has returned to the fleet to assist the weakening survivors home. She just doesn’t know which home. I still don’t know what Earth they went to or why at the end. The question of Cylon identity in the story turned into a red herring, as did the foreshadows in the Temple, the numerology trivial (when isn’t it?). Jesse Abbot will attest that we already knew the notes were coordinates (when are they not?). Which gets me to the overall point.

The edits at the end were skillful, the camera moving from present to past. These images provided nothing new or significant to the people of the story, and they turned quickly into obvious manipulation: this is what that image meant. What’s the danger of authorial or intrusive narrators? They kill stories. After the music stopped, I regained my senses. “Hey dummy,” the camera said. “You’re not fit to put the story together yourself.”

I can’t say where the citizens went, and the notion of (de)evolution at the end makes no logical sense. 150,000 years later–huh? If I toss my iPod today, will my son’s son’s son’s son puzzle over a bow and arrow? I don’t get it. The business with cyclical occurrence needs explaining too. Generationally, repetition is debatable in the context of Time’s Arrow. We can make mistakes, as people did in the past, but as Kundera and others have argued, each generation is its own physical quantity, unless we’re working within a framework that admits it, which I guess we are in Battlestar, where the cycle “cannot be broken.” But the angelic toss at the end about “will me repeat?” and to affirm it in the positive seems like cheating and risks flushing the story into pretentious waters. We leave, also, with the old saw: that old darn technology is just stripping us of our souls issue. But I’ll leave that one alone.


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