Monday, March 23, 2009

Farewell, Battlestar

Last Friday, March 20, saw the series finale of "Battlestar Galactica" on the Sci-Fi channel. This was an event of seismic proportions for anyone who considers themselves a fan of science fiction on any medium - television, movies, print. Anticipated with a fervor usually reserved for six-year-olds a couple days before Christmas, it was a watershed event for me which still reverberates several days later.

What was it about this series that grabbed the imaginations of myself and several million other normally level-headed (give me a break, okay?) people with a vise-grip for four fragmented seasons? First and foremost, "Galactica" was a great story, expertly told. It was, in all instances, a character-driven drama, and had all the elements of great stories told in other settings: morality, mortality, the meaning and purpose of life, love and loyalty, ambition, delusion, guilt and redemption. The setting, in intra-galactic space, was at the same time, fundamental and irrelevant to the story itself. The story could well have been set in an urban, post-apocalyptic wasteland or the American West of the 1800s. The whole story pivoted around a desperate group of survivors of an overwhelming catastrophe being relentlessly pursued by a race of powerful, seemingly indestructible enemies with nothing short of genocide in mind.

As many writers have pointed out much more skillfully than I can, "Galactica" was the perfect drama for a terrifying, inverted post-9/11 world. How can you battle an enemy that looks exactly like you? Who can you really trust when you view everyone you meet with suspicion and uncertainty, because they could very well be a robot and you would never know it, until it's too late? How can you fight against an enemy when death is meaningless to them? In the "Galactica" universe these enemies simply download their consciousness into another, identical body and they are ready to go again. They are, in effect, the ultimate suicide bombers, who carry out their deadly missions with the complete assurance that they will come back again as good as new, with all their memories intact and ready to pick up again right where they left off.

One of the elements of genius of "Galactica" was that it was constantly keeping us off-balance and putting unexpected twists and turns on their increasingly complex world-view. In the "New Caprica" story arc, which spanned seasons 2 and 3, the parallel with the U.S. occupation of Iraq was uncomfortably obvious: the humans settled on a planet only to be discovered by the Cylons and invaded. The humans then became the insurgents, battling against a superior occupation force and using any means at their disposal, including suicide bombings, to fight back. The occupiers also had no problem using torture and imprisonment to force their rule on the humans. Abu-Ghraib, anyone? The story arc ended with the insurgents fighting a costly war against their oppressors and escaping back into space where their enemies resumed their pursuit. In the end religious beliefs fracture the Cylon nation into two parts, and the humans form a very uneasy, suspicious alliance with some of their former enemies.

Again the question comes up, why do I care so much about a television program? When I was much younger I was obsessed with "Lost in Space", but I was like 14 years old at the time. What is my excuse now, 40-some years later? Maybe it's the appeal of an excellent story, first-rate production values, and incredible actors working at the top of their games all coming together in a finished product that is much more than just the sum of its parts. "Galactica" grew on you, there was something about it that make you think about what you saw days after watching a program. I was not an immediate fan of the miniseries when it debuted in 2003. I watched it and thought, well that was strange, that wasn't anything close to what I expected. I would tune in occasionally through the first season of the show, but did not watch regularly by any means. Slowly but surely, I was pulled into the "Galactica" universe and by the middle of season 2 I was hooked.

The characters were so fully-formed and brilliantly acted, and the writing gave them plenty of opportunities to turn them into people you genuinely cared about. The series was ultra-realistic, with no sleek, designer "bridge" where all the action took place. On "Galactica" there were no phaser-pistols, talking computers, or matter transporters beaming people all over the place. The guns shot regular bullets and people communicated on huge, clunky old phones. While there were a few nods to the science-fiction lexicon we have all come to understand and accept - artificial gravity on all vessels no matter their size, faster-than-light travel, to name a few - the hallmark of "Galactica" was its granular, fundamental realism that made you think, yes this could actually happen, this could be real. And that might be its greatest triumph.

Now that "Galactica" is over, I feel like something meaningful and good has gone. The finale was by no means perfect - some long-sought answers to important questions were provided, but other matters (particularly the true nature of the resurrected Kara Thrace) were glossed over. Series finales must be the most difficult programs to create because you're almost assured to anger and annoy some segment of your loyal viewers. The "Seinfeld" finale was almost universally reviled, and the ending of "The Sopranos" is still being debated as either brilliantly creative or cowardly cop-out. The finale to "Six Feet Under" was in my opinion as close to a perfect end to a series as I have ever seen. But maybe we are to provide some our own answers when a story ends, in ways that are most meaningful to us. "Battlestar Galactica" was a great ride for over 5 years, and it holds up very well on repeated viewings. We will be thinking about some of those questions for years to come. For those of us willing to take the journey, it was a singular, richly rewarding experience that will most likely not be repeated anytime soon.

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