March 21, 2009

The Last Battlestar

The greatest high-wire act on television came back to Earth last night—in more ways than one. It's not entirely fair to say Battlestar Galactica's legacy will be determined by "Daybreak", the series finale, but the last episode is the capstone on the series, and it will be remembered as either expanding the show's breathtaking streak of brilliance, or revealing, at last, that the show's creators are in fact...human.

From the beginning, Battlestar was always a show with a plan. This was reinforced every time Battlestar's opening credits ran: we were told, of course, that the Cyclons had a plan, but in reality the Plan belonged to the show's creators, David Eick and Ronald D. Moore, and as the show began to unfold, we got the sense that the entire plot had actually been envisioned in advance—even as elements of the story became more and more impossible to explain.

Hence the high-wire act: would the plan ultimately be revealed as the kernel of genius underlying and explaining the series' vast, sprawling plot. Or would the plan vaporize when it was finally exposed to the light of day?

I must confess I approached the series finale with no small degree of anxiety. I was sad, of course, that Battlestar was coming to an end. The show has been simply magnificent over its lifetime. Let me just say it: Battlestar transcended its own potential, becoming something more than any of us could have ever foreseen. It did this episode after episode, season after season. Just when you though the show couldn't surprise, dazzle, or shock you any further...it did.

But I've seen enough television to know that ending on a high note is not easily done. And while a weak finale would never erase all that Battlestar had accomplished, it would remain our last (mostly!) impression of the series, a sour note at the end of a wondrous journey.

The first hour of "Daybreak", in my opinion, was thrilling. The second hour—and the revelation of the Plan—less so.

We always knew Battlestar would end with a return to Earth—our Earth. I wasn't fooled by the radioactive home world of the Cylons. No, Battlestar was always going to find its way home. The question was, when would Battlestar arrive: past, present, or future? And would that moment at last explain the great mysteries that swirled about the show and its unforgettable characters?

Let's take the timeline first. The original Battlestar Galactica series fed into a widely-reviled and short-lived series know as Galactica 1980, in which the human fleet finds Earth in the (then) present-day 1980's. I always thought this legacy ruled out the possibility that today's Battlestar would conclude the same way. That left either past or future. The future, for me, was always the most audacious possible ending—and problematic. Still, I can think of several scenarios in which Galactica could have found a future Earth, technologically superior, and offered us a worthy climax (see my alternate ending at the bottom of this post).

The safest choice was having Galactica find Earth in a pre-civilization state.

Unfortunately, many viewers had probably long-since sniffed out that ending, as well as the 'revelation' that Hera was in fact Lucy. Ie, humanity as we know it are descended from the combined DNA of humans and Cylons. But this is still a solid ending, right? Well, the decision of the fleet to send their ships into the sun was a little hard for me to swallow. As anyone who's ever seen Survivorman knows, it ain't easy to live off the land. This return to Ludditism is not without thematic resonance (after all, those damned machines are what got everyone into trouble in the first place), but it remains unconvincing.

Yes, technology lies at the heart of the catastrophe that nearly destroyed humanity. But the show itself argues the point that the solution is in fact not a rejection of technology but a reconciliation with it. Most importantly, this gesture of abandoning technology does nothing to abort the presumably endless cycle of evolution toward smart machines that got us all here in the first place.

Thus we are left with the revelation of the Plan. I have always labored under the assumption that Galactica's escape, and the escape of the human fleet, from the initial Cylon ambush of the 12 Colonies was part of the plan. That is, that it was not random. It was interesting to speculate whether this was part of the Cylon's plan...or someone else's.

As for the Cylon plan, we got little to no information, other than a teaser for a new fall series: BattleStar Galactica the Cylon Plan. Great. I'll mark my calendar.

As for the Someone Else, we got...little to no information. For me, Battlestar Galactica really took off when the show began to hint that some higher power was orchestrating events on the show. This theme gradually built momentum, from Starback returning to Earth to find the Arrow of Athena, to the mysterious visions, to the Cylon living in Baltar's head, to the growing sense that Galactica and the fleet were being guided toward a larger destiny.

The show's creators end the series with what can only be described as a huge punt: call these things what you will, they tell us. If you want to believe that Galactica was being guided by angels, by God, so be it. As for the monumental question, was Starbuck a human? Cylon? Angel?—it's up to us to decide.

A cynic might argue that the revelation of the Plan is that there is no plan. Do the words Deus Ex Machina sound familiar? This untimely lack of imagination occurs at the worst possible moment, cutting at the heart of what made the entire series so special in the first place.

And so, ultimately, Eick and Moore are human after all. They are revealed to have feet perhaps not of clay, but certainly not of Mithril. I make this last comparison because "Daybreak", at its best, bore an unmistakable resemblance to Tolkien's Return of the King. Eick and Moore graciously give their characters time to breathe in the final episode—giving us time to say goodbye to them. And this is much appreciated.

So, in the end, sign me off as a grateful, if profoundly disappointed fan. Battlestar Galactica will remain a high water mark in television regardless of this finale, and it will no doubt live on not only in the hearts and minds of fans across the world, but also in the new spinoffs to come.

Andy puts on his thinking cap...

Okay, what's the advantage of being a former writer and current reader of bad Hollywood screenplays if you can't engage in your own bit of rewriting? Let's see if we can come up with a little more answers here.

premise:

Let's take on God right from the start. Let's assume that life emerges spontaneously across the Universe, evolving from stardust into primordial proteins into single-cell organisms into sentient beings. Let's assume that this evolution continues inexorably toward the same result, over and over ("all of this has happened before, and it will happen again"). The pattern: intelligent life creates a copy of itself, synthetic intelligence. Conflict inevitably results. The synthetic life (Machines) always wins, exterminating the organic parent species. And then, over time, the Machines themselves always die out, unable to cope with existential challenges or just running out of steam, as it were.

Let us suppose that in one such cycle, a very, very old Machine near the end of its life decides this cycle must be broken. Let us suppose this Machine is so technologically advanced it is indistinguishable from God. Let us suppose that this Machine intervenes in the fates of the humans of the 12 colonies, and their cylon creations, with one goal in mind: to create a new, hybrid species, combining the two, in hopes that this new life can at last escape the dead-end cycle of organic-synthetic violence. There's a Plan for you.

an alternate ending:

The war is over. Humans and Cylons have reconciled, more or less, following a conflict that has driven both nearly to the point of extinction. Or perhaps it has: there may not be enough humans and Cylons left to repopulate (it takes thousands for a big enough DNA sample, according to some scientists). The two realize that survival depends on interbreeding, which they begin, and they continue their search for Earth.

When they do at last find Earth, time has passed, and there is now at least a generation of human-cylon beings aboard the fleet. What once were two warring species are now one. As for Earth...let us open on a shot of the Statue of Liberty, looking inspiring as usual, and widen to reveal New York City beyond. But this is no NYC that we recognize. We are far in the future now, and Earth's humans are locked in a zero-sum war with artificial intelligences of their own creation. Call it SkyNet if you like. The two sides on Earth are just about to extinguish each other when the Galactica Fleet arrives. Our rag-tag band of hybrid humans obviously cannot join the battle with their beaten-up ships and primitive weapons. But they can provide a glimpse of an alternate reality, one that gives the warring humans and machines reason to pause, perhaps, and declare a tense cease-fire...THE END.

Okay, maybe it's not so easy to find an ending after all. But there you go. Life will be a little easier now. I won't have to worry that the DVR missed an episode. I won't have to clear the house so I can watch my show in peace. But Battlestar, you will be missed. So say we all! :)

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Andy Lewicky

ANDY LEWICKY is a Los Angeles-based writer and photographer who enjoys good books, jasmine tea, long walks in the rain, and climbing and skiing the big peaks of the California Sierra. email | follow



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