Wednesday, March 28, 2007

BSG conundra

"Battlestar Galactica" ended its rather low-rated third season with the return of Starbuck, whom we had thought dead, and with the revelation that at least four of the "Final Five" Cylons have been on board Galactica for some time now. The four: wannabe union leader Chief Tyrol, harried-but-sensual Tory Foster (aide to President Roslin), Pyramid player and guerrilla Samuel Anders, and perhaps most shocking of all, Admiral Adama's best friend and former executive officer-- Colonel Saul Tigh.

In the final few minutes of the episode, Starbuck appears in a Viper, flying alongside a shocked Apollo after she has buzzed him at the fringes of the Ionian Nebula. She turns serenely toward Apollo and tells him that everything's going to be all right: she has been to Earth, and she's going to guide everyone there. One wonders whether this vision of Starbuck isn't some spacefarer's version of the mad hallucinations known to our own terrestrial sailors.

I don't want to take up space recapping the episode, so I'll direct your attention to the Wikipedia summary, here (the summary is for Parts 1 and 2; you'll need to scroll down to read about Part 2). Instead, I'd like to plunge right into some of the questions I have about what events will mean for the rest of the series. The questions are:

1. What is Starbuck's ontological status? Is she the presumably human Starbuck we thought we knew? Is she a Cylon (cf. Leoben's "become what you are")? Is she merely a Cylon-style "projection" of Apollo's fevered brain? Series guru Ronald D. Moore has said that Katee Sackhoff did, in fact, sign on for a fourth season, so she'll probably have some role to play. But this leads to another problem, namely:

2. Moore has proven capable of lying on his podcast (and possibly in interviews) in order to mislead his viewers and keep them guessing. I don't blame him for doing what he could to minimize the leakage of spoilers; it was a major coup to be able to convince loyal fans (with help from the cast, of course) that Starbuck was definitely gone. If Moore can lie about something as major as Starbuck's fate, what reason do we have to trust anything he says from now on?

3. The article I linked to before says we're nearing the final act of the series. According to Moore, there are one or two more acts to go; the final act will involve the finding of Earth. Allow me once again to draw your attention to the question I had asked earlier with regard to what the finding of Earth will mean. What will the Earth be like? What era in Earth's history will the fleet encounter? Will this be an Earth of the far future, or of the present, or of the past? Will humans find it, or will this be a joint finding by humans and Cylons?

4. The four putative Cylons-- Foster, Anders, Tyrol, and Tigh (let's call them FATT)-- were all summoned by the same music, which turned out to be Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" (Jimi Hendrix's cover is more famous than the Dylan original). As the episode reached its climax, the members of FATT actually began singing parts of the lyrics. An immediate snarky question is whether Bob Dylan (and/or Jimi Hendrix) is a Cylon siren-- Pied Piper as frakking toaster. I see all sorts of corny possibilities with this, but I somehow doubt that either Mr. Dylan or Mr. Hendrix will actually figure in subsequent episodes. No: for me, the crucial question-- and it's one I've asked before-- is why the hell everyone in the fleet speaks modern North American or UK English. By having the characters recite Dylan lyrics (including a funky locution like "I can't get no relief"), we establish that these characters are not speaking a totally different language that has been rendered into English for purposes of dramatic narrative. No: the characters are speaking actual English. Does this mean that, when the characters reach Earth, they'll feel right at home?

5. What's up with visions and telepathy? The series started off in a way I enjoyed: the question of religious reality was left quite vague. Now, however, it seems that visions and prophecies can actually be trusted because they are in some sense real, not only for Cylons but also for humans. President Roslin ends up having some sort of vision that involves two known Cylons (Athena and Six), Baltar, the half-Cylon baby Hera, and the Final Five (who appear as luminous silhouettes). The two Cylons acknowledge having had the same vision along with Roslin. What's that all about? Mary McDonnell, who plays the president, has expressed her hope that her character will not be a Cylon, but I wonder whether this telepathic ability (you'll recall that Roslin and Athena wake up screaming at the same moment) implies something about her nature. Or maybe she gained certain Cylon abilities after having received some of Hera's half-Cylon blood...?

6. Ron Moore says that the return of Roslin's cancer is appropriate as it signals a new phase in her life and brings us back to the original prophetic template, in which she was depicted as a "dying leader," a sort of Moses figure who might not make it to enjoy the Promised Land. I wonder what this might mean for the budding romance between her and gruff Admiral Adama. I admit I've been rooting for this romance; these are two strong figures who seem to be an almost divine male/female pairing-- shakta and shakti, Logos and Sophia-- each representing complementary qualities which, together, keep the fleet from self-destructing. When their chemistry is off, the fleet suffers. If Moore is to be trusted, it seems this romance is doomed. I wonder if a larger, tragic story arc is being sketched out, or if Roslin's eventual death(?) will sound a bittersweet note in an otherwise happy ending for our ragtag fugitive fleet.

I admit I'm bothered by the emphasis on modern English, not to mention the series-long insistence that the fleet is, primarily, a cross-section of contemporary American culture, right down to the military slang. It worries me because I wonder what that first contact with Earthlings will be like.

I'm even more disturbed by Moore's and his writers' perpetual leash-yanking. We, the viewers, are constantly left to guess whether what we've seen is (1) real, and/or (2) somehow significant. I understand that Moore wants to keep us hooked by leaving us forever in suspense, but I think the balancing act is beginning to fail. Why?

A major concern for me is that Colonel Tigh is, apparently, a Cylon. Up to now, it has been implied that Cylons are indistinguishable from humans at the cellular level, but that differences become apparent at the molecular level. It has never been implied that Cylons age; they come into the world as fully-formed adults. Tigh, you'll recall, used to have hair. Now, however, it would appear that, if Tigh is a Cylon, Cylons are capable of being drunk, weak around manipulative women, and suicidal. They can also go bald.

It has also been implied that Cylons have been unable to reproduce, except in one special case: Boomer/Athena with Karl Agathon (Helo). But Chief Tyrol, who we now know (or think we know) is a Cylon, had a baby with his wife Cally; the implication, post-revelation, is that their baby is a half-Cylon. Assuming Cally is human.

Because the series has been so relentless, especially lately, about making the ambiguity of identity a crucial theme in almost every episode, I find myself tiring. The list of unresolved questions grows.

"Am I a Cylon?"

"Is that a real person, or a projection?"

"Was that a true vision of the future, or a drug-induced hallucination?"

"Is this thing between my legs a penis or a vagina?"

The questions pile on; the answers seem no closer to us, and I'm beginning to wonder whether I'll even like the series by the time it ends. One scary thing: at this point, I don't even care what the origin of the Final Five Cylons is-- including the question of why Tigh, who has been serving in the fleet for decades, is a fully-formed humanoid Cylon whereas, forty years ago during the first Cylon War, the attacking Cylons were nothing more than the "toaster"-style Centurions. My lack of interest in this question doesn't bode well for my appreciation of the fourth season.

So that's about where I stand. While I was riveted by the finale, I was also frustrated by how the show has become one long tease with no real payoff. Here's hoping the fourth season of BSG is indeed the final season, and that most or all of the crucial answers will be delivered to us by the end.

Here's a parting thought: what if it turns out that everyone is a Cylon, and that Earth has been Cylon for millennia? That would be a fantastic punchline: There were never any humans in this series.



Hecknoman said...

Your questions about the nature of the cylons with regard to procreation, aging, etc. are based in part upon the assumption that the final cylon models and the previously known cylon models are identical in nature, when it would be consistent with series development for them to be different in some way. For example, maybe the final models are actually the first generation of cylon/human hybrid. That might explain why the cylons themselves do not appear to know who they are.

Anonymous said...

I've always assumed BSG was paralleling the original's (ultimately revealed) premise that Adama et al wer our Biblical ancestors. Adama=Adam.

But the Dylan song blows that...unless time warping is a factor.