Saturday, February 14, 2009

Battlestar Galactica: 'No Exit' (4x15)

On this busy TV night, I jumped right from the premiere of Dollhouse, a show in its infancy to Battlestar Galactica, a show on the slow path towards death, though death may be the wrong word. No show ever dies, that would imply the total extinction of the universe and the people within it. As we saw on The Sopranos, a show simply chooses a moment to cut to black, the world and its people go on. Even after Six Feet Under’s parade of death finale, we’ve seen a new generation that will live on and carry the legacy of our main characters forward.

This is particularly apt in an episode that’s largely concerned with past lives and an unending cycle of war and violence that will continue as long as humanity pushes out of that primordial swamp and reaches for the stars. It’s an episode that reveals much of the central mysteries that were set up with the introduction of the Final Five, mysteries that trace all the way back to the miniseries. It’s a very intellectual hour, one that juxtaposes the rambling narrative of Anders with flashbacks to Ellen Tigh and “John”’s discussions about the creation and future of the cylon race.

After a few clunkers, this episode brought the series right back to the place that I love, pondering questions of identity and humanity in really fascinating ways. It was interesting to watch this right after the Dollhouse pilot, since both series deal with core sci-fi questions about how much of our identity is our own and what elements go in to the construction of a human. Is someone like Echo still human? Is Cavil more human than machine? At what point does a construct personality become something real? How can creators maintain control over their creations?

The issues all have a very Blade Runner feel, and the Cavil/Ellen confrontation feels like an echo of Roy’s interrogation of Tyrell. Both are asking why they had to be the way that they were. Most people like to think that they’re the architects of their own identity, even as they blame specific inadequacies on the way they’re raised or genetics. But, what would it mean to know that you were created for a specific purpose, with all your flaws and personality traits decided by a group of five people. The reason the cylons have such reverence for the five is that the five made them. What does it feel like to meet your maker? There’s an element of awe in it, but there’s also a blame as you recognize that they built you flawed.

To some extent, we all have met our makers, our own parents. The Cylons’ desire to meet the five feels a bit like an adopted child’s desire to meet their birth parents, there’s this belief that meeting your creator will explain what you are. But, aren’t we more than the sum of our parts? I don’t see myself as a random combination of traits from my parents, I think there is something new and different that emerges out of that combination, in the same way that blue and yellow make green, a color that has a resemblance to what it came from, but at the same time is something completely new and different. In philosophy/religion, that’s what you’d call a soul, that essential thing that makes you you. We are built out of the parts of our parents, but we can become something more and transcend those origins.

But, let me briefly interrupt this philosophical line of thinking to discuss the most bizarre element of an episode that featured a lot of bizarre things, and that’s the inexplicable cameo of Daily Show correspondent/PC John Hogman as “the brain guy.” It felt like he had won some kind of contest that gave him this part on the show since he felt totally out of place in the world of the series. This wasn’t even a case where it’s a guy legitimately trying to act, but laboring in the shadow of a past famous role. He wasn’t acting, he was just there reading the lines, and doing everything short of winking to the audience to remind us that yes, this was John Hodgman. I don’t understand what happened with that casting. It felt almost like a comedy sketch, that’s how off he was in this universe.

Anyway, back to the substance of the episode. The basic idea of the Final Five, as I see it, is that they started out as essentially human on Earth, perhaps a future version of the society we currently live in. Sensing the imminent destruction of the planet in a nuclear holocaust, they brought back the technology to transfer consciousness to other bodies, rather than reproduce organically, and used this to preserve themselves after the planet was destroyed. Then, they jetted across the galaxy and created the human looking cylons in an attempt to stop the cycle of human/cylon violence that has waged for an eternity.

They attempted to do this by creating what is essentially a human/cylon hybrid in the existing seven, or perhaps eight, models that we know. But, Cavil is not happy with this form, and sees only the limitations of human perception. He wants to feel more, but is unable to do so inside the “cage” that his creators built for him. As he says, he has more in common with the centurion side of the family than the human one. He wants that mechanical certainty, but is stuck with the burden of being a human.

It’s interesting that Ellen designed John/Cavil after her father, particularly considering the fact that she had sex with him to save Tigh on New Caprica. The choice of who will be the Final Five was essentially random, and I don’t think that the Ellen we saw previously has much in common with the character here. I suppose that’s part of the point, that Cavil and the Cylons chose to punish these characters by forcing them to experience the humanity that the five forced on their creations. Wouldn’t Cavil’s ultimate revenge be to turn Ellen, the creator/god of their race into a lush, a woman who falls prey to all the vices and flaws that humans can deal with?

This background information also explains why the cylons were so interested in creating a cylon/human hybrid. The goal of the Final Five is to bridge the gap between humans and cylons, so Hera would serve as a literal representation of that alliance. The reason that Tigh and Six can have a child is presumably because Tigh isn’t like the cylons he knew, he came from a place where people could reproduce regularly, not just through the resurrection ships.

The other notable fusion in this episode is Adama’s decision to let the Galactica be fixed with Cylon technology. This is a literal representation of the gap bridging process that the Five exist to do. They are designed to end the endless cycle of human/cylon war, and integrating the two cultures via the Galactica is a perfect way to do that.

I love the episode and all the philosophical points it raises, but I’m curious about how this new information will be integrated into the story, and how the mission of the Final Five relates to the overall direction of the series. This episode implies that the whole point of the series is to overcome the differences between the two races and come to an alliance, the point that we reached when they reached Earth. But, what does that mean for our characters, and where will they all end up when the series reaches its close?

To some extent, I wish this cyclical war stuff had come in a bit earlier. We’ve always had the cryptic “this has happened before and will happen again,” but it was so vague that it didn’t have emotional traction. It was an interesting question to ponder, but not until now do we really understand the full scope of what it’s referencing. Perhaps they’ll be able to knit it all together in the other Final Five, the last five episodes of the series, we’ll see. Even if it doesn’t all quite hang together, if the episodes are as dense and challenging as this one, I’ll be satisfied.

The episode ends with the question of what’s happened to Anders. I’m guessing that he suffered a brief “death” during his surgery, and has been resurrected with Cavil’s people. That would lead into a final war with Cavil, and an attempt to break the cycle of violence. At the beginning of the series, the Cylons functioned largely as a metaphor for terrorism, and the cycles of violence that rage between the Western world and the Muslim world. In that respect, this story is a perfect allegory for the conflict that’s happened before and will happen again here in our world. What will it take for us to end the cycles of violence that have raged in the Middle East for years? It’s probably precisely the kind of cultural hybridization we see here, a breaking down of borders until the differences between us are so minimal as to not matter at all. But, that process will not be easy, and there will always be the hardliners. We saw the human hardliners dealt with last week, now they will have to deal with the cylon hardliners.

I’ll just add that even though the episode was largely dialogue based, there were still some awesome visuals. I still love the look of the Cylon baseships, the water droplet lights and eerie neon strips of red. There were also some awesome starburst explosion effects during the flashbacks. While the show is largely about gritty, “realistic” visuals, they still manage to get some of the most beautiful images ever seen on TV in there from time to time.

So, the show is back running strong. I’m eager to see where it goes next, and after all the darkness, there’s a new feeling of hope that this all might turn out okay in the end.

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