Saturday, March 26, 2011

Angry Angels in Outer Space

Well, I finally finished Battlestar Galactica. Ugh, what a mess.

My main problem with the series is the same one I've had all along - the majority of the characters are simply plot devices. They would take an extreme position in one episode (or set of episodes), then take the exact opposite position, sometimes in literally the very next show, solely for the sake of creating dramatic/storyline tension. This is the single worst feature of the series, and it happened again and again. In my opinion, a good story evolves from the conflict between well-defined characters holding on to cherished beliefs. It drives me crazy when a character appears to change a deeply-held conviction for no other reason than that the writer needs to amp up the discord.

The absurd result is that one week, we see Adama inciting a mutiny and a coup d'etat by forcing Cylon technology on to the unwilling fleet, only to abjectly refuse it for his own ship in the next. Starbuck drives her own crew to mutiny over her single-minded quest, but then coldly rejects Adama's desire to rescue Roslin. And so on and so on. The characters most victimized by this phenomenon: Starbuck, Adama, Apollo, Ellen, Baltar. Even Tyrol, Caprica-Six, and Zarek fall prey to this trope. In short, almost all of the main characters of the series are tainted by this problem at one time or another. In fact, out of the entire ensemble, only Tigh and Agathon seem consistent throughout the course of the series.

The writers made religion a major theme of the show, but it became a muddled and ultimately meaningless cacophony. This is the next major problem. Take the One True God. On one hand, OTG seems to embody the most appealing elements of mystical monotheism: a loving, compassionate, and merciful being that calls all living things to embrace these values. But OTG also apparently plays everyone like pawns, using visions and fates to drive humans and Cylons alike to their destiny in spite of themselves. Moreover, Six-Angel and Baltar-Angel, OTG's most prominent evangelists, are shallow, vain, manipulative, seductive, and crave violence, sex, and destruction.

Meanwhile, the 'false' (???) colonial gods are... what, exactly? All I have here are questions, because there doesn't seem to be any clear definition. Are they truly false? Are they as capricious and wicked as Baltar claims? The teachings of the colonial religion seem to be generic new-age feel-good stuff. So Baltar can't be completely right. So are they a pale shadow of OTG?

I have more questions about religion in the show: why isn't the Cylon civil war cast into more explicitly religious terms (a "OTG for Cylons" faction vs a "OTG for All" faction)? And why doesn't the backlash against human monotheists develop into an all-out religious war for humanity? In the latter case, there are some hints at this, but it doesn't seem to go anywhere, mainly because, apart from the "Sons of Aries," the old faith actually seems to be pretty tolerant, and the new faith seems to be based more on the cult of Baltar instead of any true conversion.

Still more - why aren't human monotheists striving harder for human-Cylon unity? Where does the colonial religion's prophecy of Earth fit in with OTG's 'plan'? Why don't the clerics of the colonial religion continue to appropriate/interpret the mystical events of the show as evidence of their own gods' divine workings? There seem to be lots of proposed answers to all of these questions, but they are incomplete and contradictory, none of them actually adding up to anything. There is less here than meets the eye.

Another issue I had with the show is its overweening sense of melodrama - how many times did Bill Adama smash up his office, take off his admiral pins, contravene the democratic wishes of the Quorum? How many times did Lee Adama quit the service? How many fights did Starbuck instigate? How many times did sex begin with a violent confrontation between characters? Even the opening titles of the show - 'And they have a plan' - so ominous and creepy and entertaining at the beginning of the series, became such a farce that it had to be abandoned. There was never any plan. Just another melodramatic tease.

Random complaint - what happened to D'Anna? Seriously, where the fuck was she in the last 3-4 episodes? To let such a pivotal character fade into the background with no explanation is pretty unforgivable.

I know I've already complained about Starbuck as a plot device, but she deserves a little more attention. She is a superwoman: the best pilot in the fleet, the best marksman, best military strategist, best martial artist, best poker player, best musician, etc, etc. WTF?

Another issue I have with Starbuck is that no explanation is offered for her "resurrection" other than that she's an angel, even though very obvious ones occur to any casual viewer of science fiction: time travel, time paradox, and/or parallel universes. Why didn't they address these possible explanations? I thought Baltar was a scientist, and that this was a science fiction show.

The Final Five were so painfully shoe-horned into the story that they barely merit comment. Accepting them as Cylons was a major hurdle for my continued following of the show, and one of the reasons it took so long for me to finish. They are written as the parents of the Cylon race, and basically they all seem to want to return to their own kind (with the exception of Saul Tigh). But they all stay on Galactica. How come? Ellen Tigh is the worst of the bunch. Imagine the creative meeting that brought her character back as a Cylon - Q: "should she continue to be a drunken trollop, or evolve into the sage mother of all Cylons?" A: "I've got it, let's have her be both!"

The cult/harem of Baltar never made sense. Enough said.

Ok, I'd better wrap it up. The series finale is a whiplash-inducing snoozefest. We learn pointless details about the backstory of a few of the major characters, and in the present, the fleet, ready to riot over Galactica's resources, suddenly agrees to give up all technology and start over as farmers. Huh? (And actually, given the time frame of their contact with our Earth, shouldn't they be hunter-gatherers? Aw, fuck it.)

Anyway, this plot point ties back to the first problem I mentioned - characters just do things for the sake of the story, not because they are actually credible actions. If the plot requires a complete reversal on an issue, you can be sure that the character will make that reversal. The only difference in the finale is that instead of it being a single character, it is the entire human race changing its collective mind all at the same time, for the sake of a tidy little ending.

So there you have it. I could go on, but you get the idea. Very disappointing. It's sad because I think the core of the show had some great ideas and plot lines, and some really compelling drama, which in the end only served to make its failure all the more maddening and profound.


J G-W said...

I was going to say, you ought to post this on your blog!!

J G-W said...

Ultimately, I agree with your verdict that there was lot of wasted potential in the reboot of this series. For a variety of reasons, though, the series kept me intrigued right up to the bitter end, and I guess my level of dissatisfaction never quite rose to the level yours obviously has.

"And they have a plan" was just a lie... Nobody had a plan. The Cylons didn't and neither did the show's writers. They never really delivered on that punchline... But I have to say I sort of enjoyed the irony of the fact that the more you learned about the inner-workings of the Cylons, the more evident it became that the Cylons, far from having a machine-like plan that they pursued with machine-like dedication, were actually very human, very conflicted, very divided amongst themselves. The Cylons improvise and revise, and sometimes even question all the premises of whatever they had of their original plan...

I thought you had some interesting things to say about the religious themes, and you're probably right that some of the "conversion" narratives didn't really follow the rules. Still, there was some theological substance. I think the series makes a lot more sense interpreted within a Gnostic Christian context than within a Catholic Christian context. In Gnosticism, gods and goddesses can be imperfect and irrational, and fate plays out in convoluted ways... Good and evil isn't immediately obvious judged from a purely human standpoint in this framework. So I enjoyed the possibility of Baltar being both deeply flawed and a genuine prophet at the same time. I also like the conclusion of the series, implying that human beings are actually descendants of Cylons (another Gnostic trope)...

The series could have been better. Occasionally it fell very flat, I agree. You really wanted the series to be good. It had some great moments that made you want it to be good. I guess it was a "reboot" of the original series in more ways than one -- capitalizing on a few good ideas and having some genuinely cool moments, but ultimately being uneven and failing to deliver on its full potential. Still I enjoyed it, for what it was worth. I may watch it again one of these days.

Susan said...

Wow, you nailed it. Well said! You really should quit your day job and become a writer.

Knight of Nothing said...

Thanks Susan! I do enjoy writing, though I don't know whether I'm good enough for that! In any case I'm not so sure it would pay the bills quite as well as my current gig (unless I wrote that next great American novel! ;-).

Hey John - thanks for posting. I think we agree on a lot of things about BSG. There were a lot of great moments in the show; that's what kept me coming back, and that's probably what makes me keep talking about it!

I'd love to hear more about what you mean by a 'Gnostic Christian' interpretation of the show (or for that matter, what you mean by a 'Catholic Christian' interpretation). For my part, I was simply trying to judge the show's religious themes by its own standards.

Regarding Baltar, I actually thought it was interesting character development when Baltar, a deeply flawed, incredibly self-serving narcissist, began to transform into a 'prophet.' For the first half of Season 4, Baltar seemed to have genuinely developed some sense of a world beyond himself. But in what I consider to be another example of the writers reversing a character arc for the sake of controversy, they threw that development under the proverbial bus.

Also, I was drawing a distinction between 'Baltar' and 'Baltar-Angel', who were really two different characters. If we are to believe the show, 'Baltar-Angel' (and 'Six-Angel', the more prominent character) are actual servants of OTG. And they are loathesome creatures, much worse than the actual Baltar (or the actual Six). Are you trying to suggest that they may be demi-urges who somehow reveal OTG in spite of themselves? Intriguing theory, but I just don't think the show is that deep, and I don't think there is a lot of on-screen evidence to support that theory.

"gods and goddesses can be imperfect and irrational, and fate plays out in convoluted ways..." I don't disagree, but I'm still not satisfied. I think the show wanted to make it pretty clear that the human gods were not real. We as viewers certainly were not given any supporting evidence that the power of the twelve gods was ever at work.

On the other hand, we very often saw the agency of the OTG (the continual congress that Baltar had with Six-Angel, and that Six had with Baltar-Angel, the miracles, Starbuck's "resurrection", the dreams and visions, the expository dialog).

From the perspective of the characters within the narrative, these things could have been explained as evidence of the twelve at work. But that never happens. Not even in the case of Starbuck, one of the most devoted worshippers of the twelve! The only conclusion I can make is that the writers meant for us to think that no one within the story thought that the twelve were at work, and that therefore we as viewers should not believe in the twelve. At least that's my take.

J G-W said...

Sam, I was thinking more of the fact that the humans created the Cylons and therefore were essentially gods in relation to the Cylons.

The Cylons reject their demiurgic creators in favor of the One True God who stands above the human creation of the Cylons, and judges humans and Cylons alike, all of whom carry within them the divine spark or soul that can only emanate from the One True God...

The fact that the polytheistic gods worshiped by the humans never seem to manifest themselves fits within the schema of the blind demiurges (humans)... There is only One True God, but they (generally) fail to recognize him.

Not sure if the show's creators intended that reading, but it made the show more interesting to watch in those terms...

J G-W said...

Actually, there is kind of a big, fat clue that, in fact, the show's writers intentionally built the show around Gnostic theology, along the lines I've suggested... I can't believe I didn't notice this until this discussion made me think of it.

In the prequel series Caprica, we learn the origins of Cylon "intelligence." Basically, Cylon AI evolves from the "soul" of Zoe Graystone -- the daughter of the scientist Daniel Graystone -- when she becomes trapped in the Caprican version of the Internet. Despite all his best efforts to create an AI for the machine bodies he's created, Daniel Graystone utterly fails to make the Cylons work until his daughter's soul -- trapped in the Internet -- comes to inhabit the body of one of his Cylons.

This is basically a retelling of the Gnostic myth of Sophia. The name of Daniel Graystone's daughter is "Zoe," which is a Greek word meaning "life," but which was a synonym for "aeon" in Gnostic theology. In Gnostic theology, the "aeons" were emanations of the divine... They become the source of all life on earth.

In Gnostic mythology, the demiurges try to create human beings in their own image, but they fail until they take a spark of the divine within them (essentially split off a portion of their own soul) and put it into the physical bodies they've created. The parallel with the basic storyline in Caprica is so similar that, combined with the use of the name "Zoe," it's hard for me to accept it as mere coincidence.

J G-W said...

Actually, I guess I'm not the only one to see clear Gnostic themes in the BSG reboot.

Check out this Wikipedia article.

Knight of Nothing said...

Sounds like Caprica may have answered a few questions, but I feel like a show that ran for four seasons should be able to stand on its own. Judging by the link you posted, religion in BSG is quite a muddle drawn from a number of traditions, rather than its own coherent mythology.

Given the clues you see in Caprica, the reading you suggest seems plausible. But for me, reading BSG from a Gnostic perspective still falls well short of truly explaining anything about the show or answering the questions I listed. The glaring contradictions of OTG's behavior, the Angel characters, and OTG's overt meddling in human and Cylon affairs - all suggest that OTG is a capricious being, maybe even evil; certainly neither remote nor supreme as the Gnostics believe.

J G-W said...

Well, actually I think BSG did pretty much stand on its own. I discerned the Gnostic structure of the BSG universe pretty well long before we tuned in to Caprica. Caprica merely confirmed what I pretty strongly suspected already.

I agree with a lot of your critiques. For instance, the Cylon detector narrative is just stupid, if they're spines glow when they orgasm. I mean, really... Just look for light emitting organs in their spine or something... Sheesh!

Without getting into a (deeper than this series deserves) conversation about the nature of God... I'll just suffice it to say that I wasn't as frustrated with the overall plot structure, because reading it as a kind of retelling of Gnostic mythology worked for me... I found it interesting enough to keep me coming back, and to actually enjoy how the series ended.

Knight of Nothing said...

I disagree - I don't think BSG's grand religious scheme stands on its own as a coherent whole. For me, it is just too inconsistent and piecemeal.

However you interpret the show, I think the writers really needed to have a clearer picture of what the Cylons were, and what the OTG was, and what the twelve Lords of Kobol were, and how humankind related to all.

As the show unfolded, it became clear to me that the writers were not true to the characters or the milieu that they created, which is the essence of my critique of the show.