PRINT Summer 2010


Battlestar Galactica

Battlestar Galactica, 2003–2009, still from a TV show on Syfy. From left: President Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell), Admiral William Adama (Edward James Olmos), Dr. Gaius Baltar (James Callis), Lee “Apollo” Adama (Jamie Bamber), Kara “Starbuck” Thrace (Katee Sackhoff), Number Six (Tricia Helfer), and Number Eight (Grace Park).

THE SERIES FINALE of Syfy’s Battlestar Galactica (2003–2009) still generates controversy among the show’s activist, networked fans. For good or ill, the epic four-season melodrama, laced with visionary robots, planetary vistas, and spectacular battle scenes, wrapped itself up well enough to earn a disturbingly large slice of the unfolding currency of our hive mind. As television viewers, as fans, as immersion addicts leaning on the Epicurean side of the unconscious, we were vindicated by the ending. The way the plotline dovetailed with our own present and then revealed it in a new light when we emerged back into it was, we had to admit, entirely satisfying.

Had we lost the ability to think critically? We noted the show was proud of its science fiction identity. As science fiction it even performed critical self-reflection. That’s what was so particularly humiliating for us. Most of all, Battlestar Galactica saw itself as being science fiction by virtue of its being actually all about the present. No, we would have liked to say: This whole matter of sci-fi’s relation to the present is a tired cliché. Things are far more complicated than they appear. You can’t just be about the present. Sci-fi is meant to be a good index of the present’s ability to communicate identifiable things like a sense of wonder, play of reason, scientific worldview, and escape. The Bush-era Galactica, with its election fraud, prison camps, insurgencies, and suicide bombings, was so ham-handedly focused on the present as to be the opposite of escape—a motionless immersion in the present’s most narcissistic fantasies of powerlessness.

Battlestar Galactica was a politically ambiguous problem in the Bush years, but (answered the show’s critical voice), it was indeed an escape (having it, per usual, both ways) from the absence of that ambiguity elsewhere. It’s still the best escape, old nanny television. By 2008, with the benefit of hindsight, we could see how serious things had been in 2004—so serious that decently paid writers, musicians, and technicians were willing to put this much creativity and ambition into a Mormonic revision of the genre Stanisław Lem abandoned as soon as the iron curtain fell and he could write freely again.

We walked the streets disoriented under Galactica’s influence. Could this melodramatic mess be the best science fiction show ever? We daydreamed in the most shameful manner. We imagined ourselves Starbuck (foolhardy, damaged, brave), Gaius Baltar (hedonistic, damaged, fraudulent). We imagined ourselves fashionable Cylon imposters in a sea of monkeys going about their provisional so-called modern existence. We imagined ourselves sons of Father Adama, chief-in-chief, the grim but twinkling tribe totem who takes two rounds to the chest and pops right up to lead us back to where we started. We ourselves crossed lines willingly. We despised yet craved spoilers. We went along with the change of brand name Sci Fi to Syfy. We illegally downloaded. We uploaded. We wrote comics, explaining things further. We reedited video. We read over the comments and claims of passionate strangers whose vitriol, if we disagreed, easily boiled over into name-calling. We participated anonymously and from motives we’d rather not acknowledge. We admitted it, some of us did—and then a couple of months ago thousands went out and spent two hundred dollars on the poorly packaged unlimited-release box-set DVD.

Was consuming the same as purchasing? Was the consumer purchased by the product? Would we never again fix the text, focus on it critically outside of its local event horizon? Seen in broadcast, Galactica interfered in the patterns of advertising and local news. Seen online, we were its local news. The show’s past was still our unfolding present and our present turned out to be its future. Even as we typed out our current most pertinent opinion, we were, in short, complicit.

Still, we complained. For instance, we found, after watching the three-hour finale, that this narrative ended up not only deistic but confusingly so. In the end, our space travelers left space, turned neoprimitive according to the divine plan of a single god. OK, we knew that the show was Mormon-influenced. The original 1977 series we grew up on, with its tribe of humans on a galaxy-wide exodus to the promised land, was explicitly Mormonic. So we accepted God now. But what’s this final warning about how eventually, after 150,000 years, this God’s paradise leads to our own current dangerous reliance on robotics in 2009 New York? This really seems to suggest that there is no (non-gnostic) God.

Hey. Wake up, we had to say. Our fictional friends have survived their ordeal. From the beginning this narrative has repeatedly turned upside down without regard for the ordinary rules of storytelling. We accepted all-American Lee Adama discovering a backstory about his lawyer grandfather, then quitting the service, studying law, and immediately becoming the second-greatest lawyer in all of humanity in less than an hour. Ignoring legal discipline, Lee simply stands up in court and tells the show’s plotline. In such a topsy-turvy narrative, he argues, where even the jury members (Admiral Adama, President Roslin, etc.) have been taking the law into their own hands and violating the trust of the public at every turn, how can you judge Gaius Baltar’s actions as worse than your own? Case dismissed. Leaving the courtroom, Lee quits the law and—since a new Cylon fleet is conveniently attacking—immediately rejoins the service. About ready for some space combat, we didn’t much care. Let’s face it: We took it all. And what did we expect? In the end, Adama and Baltar, like all our major characters, experienced deeply meaningful endings as they found a world without the need for science fiction plotlines at all.

Battlestar Galactica, 2003–2009, still from a TV show on Syfy. From left: Kara “Starbuck” Thrace (Katee Sackhoff), Admiral William Adama (Edward James Olmos), and Colonel Saul Tigh (Michael Hogan).

Well, what about science? We had to ask. Many science fiction fans, already generously going along with the hokey new age names and various troubling religious themes, expected a scientifically plausible explanation for some of the key technologies and events here, not to mention a little enlightenment as to why the Cylons are bent on destroying the relict human population to begin with, chasing them all over the universe, only, when they find them, to let them survive. As to why no one thinks of building an O’Neill cylinder and forging a space colony off a tylium-source planet . . . ?

Were we kidding? Judas goat Gaius Baltar was this universe’s token scientist. This character would rather have postcoital dialogue with an imaginary robot than preoccupy himself with practical science. Thank gods for that, since his first-season test to identify skin jobs (Cylons in human form), though absurdly slow, could have done away with enormous plotlines at any moment. Baltar was the precise opposite of Spock, the science officer of our collective imagination. He always was. And we loved that character sometimes. We really did. His watching that angel in his head was just like us watching him.

The fact is that we went along with the gravity, the sound in vacuum, and the problems of calling the Cylons a “race,” for the sake of spectacles like the two great battlestars Galactica and Pegasus teleporting midbattle into the skies over New Caprica’s tent city. The space battles were well done, sometimes. There were science-fictional sense-of-wonder moments scattered liberally throughout the series. The Cylon hybrid machine-women came as they jumped whole fleets in pursuit of Galactica, for frak’s sake. In fact, in its long arc the series eventually made good on a lot of its science-fictional debts via flashback and sudden development. Even the absurdly poor design of Cylon Centurions was eventually incorporated into the plot. The canvas was large enough to cover up any gap.

Science fiction had a lot to gain in all this. By 2003, the callous manipulation of fandom by media concerns was analogous to the concurrent wiping out of North Atlantic cod by corporate aquaculture. Galactica energized an Internet base in new and surprisingly traditional ways. As sci-fi, it was preternaturally current. Despite an absence of homosexuality, the rich spectrum of active female characters liberated old generic repressions and gave surprising new flavor to old clichés of liberal white America. Writers collaborating with one another and with viewers opened up wide depths of backstory, conceptual breakthrough, and narrative regeneration. Transforming the logo from Sci Fi to Syfy midway signaled an attempt to rebrand the fans themselves into a new age.

We were led to understand that for the Internet community of science fiction fans, BSG offered transformation, liberation, and prosperity. The collaborative and individual passion with which the almost absurdly committed cast and crew put together each melodramatic episode of Galactica was simply moving to witness, and reminiscent of Twin Peaks. Adama’s and Roslin’s love of books, Starbuck’s boxing practices, Colonel Tigh’s Ahabian eye, Dr. Cottle’s smoking habit were theatrical details more powerful than any bargain-bin religious philosophy. Did we imagine it or at one moment did Cottle say “fuck” and not “frak” at all? It was via an unfortunate Bob Dylan cover (“All Along the Watchtower”), predictably enough, that science fiction synced most perfectly into the white tube of our own unfolding, inaccessible present. The intrusive score, the flagrant cinematography, and the most cynical tricks of televisual manipulation gleamed then disappeared, Tetris-like, in the dovetail.

Please pass the tissues. . . . No, we haven’t forgotten. There was a plan, after all. Yes, we still remember. There were many, many copies. We figured if we followed one or two of these out far enough in space so that the stage was all that was left of our homes, science fiction, unlike God, would propose to us a coherent future. We’re still out here, statistically expanding inside the white tube. The real Starbuck hasn’t yet arrived.

Mark Von Schlegell is an art writer and cultural critic and the author of the science fiction novels Venusia (2005) and Mercury Station (2009), both published by Semiotext(e).