Battlestar Galactica kicks off with an interesting premise: the robots that humanity created have come back to destroy us, with a vengeance. They’ve nuked multiple planets, killed untold millions of people, and all but wiped out the military fleet humanity had at its disposal. They had a plan, and a good one, insofar as their goal was genocide. After years of laying low and evolving, they’ve returned to put humanity on the brink of extinction.
Only one ship seems to survive the onslaught—the Galactica—and this would appear to be because of the quirk of the ship not being networked, unlike the others in the fleet. Thus we are left with some 50,000 human beings running frantically from a force that seeks to destroy them.
Through this premise the show explores many questions in interesting ways. For example, in the second episode, “33,” it becomes clear that a civilian ship is allowing the Cylons to track the fleet every 33 minutes, forcing the question of whether to destroy it for the good of humanity itself. This utilitarian decision is made, but no one feels good about it. Perhaps this is the flaw of Utilitarianism as a moral philosophy: not that it’s wrong when it comes to practical decision-making, but that in a difficult scenario like this it fails to adequately recognize the all too understandable guilt in the aftermath.
I recall thinking, as I began the series, that I really hoped it wouldn’t end with them landing on Earth and being our ancestors. They were talking about Earth already at that point, after all. And so, when they found Earth about halfway through the final season, as a desolate planet, I was relieved that they weren’t going to do that dumb thing.
I was naïve. Of course it was always going to end that way, but this didn’t stop the show from posing deep questions about morality, politics, and personhood over the course of its run.
When it is the matter of a presidential election on the line, the value placed on democracy seems to trump utilitarian logic. For example, Admiral Adama and President Roslin agree that a Baltar presidency will be disastrous, and yet they decide that they couldn’t live with themselves if they allowed the election to be stolen in Roslin’s favor. Apparently they could live with themselves when it was a question of destroying a civilian ship to save the fleet—there the weighing of consequences won the day—but take an election that reflects the will of the people to be a matter of principle, disastrous consequences be damned.
Which raises an interesting question, particularly in our times: is democracy itself an ideal? Is it an end in itself?
It’s not clear that it was to Enlightenment thinkers, among which we might count the founders of the United States. Bucking against the historical system of aristocracy, there are indications that someone like Thomas Jefferson may have viewed it as more of a means to an end, with that goal being defined more in terms of human progress than holding up democracy itself. Just look at all of the ways in which the U.S. is not a pure democracy; everywhere there are checks and balances to constrain the majority will. The goal does not seem to have been to ensure that the will of the people be done, so much as to enshrine certain rights at the bedrock of a society, with the aim that it would embody a certain notion of freedom.
It is hard to say, perhaps, in the case of Jefferson and others, but this is clear in Immanuel Kant’s essay, “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” wherein he argues that a republic will not be able to achieve the goals of spreading Reason and Truth (the Enlightenment ideal), but that what we need is something more along the lines of a philosopher king, who is not afraid of shadows and is open to the rational arguments being put forward by the public at large. (Though he also says that the test of a law is whether a people could impose it on themselves, so there are tensions here.)
Should we go with the “will of the people” even when that is clearly not in the best interest of the people? One might not like to think that this is a possibility, but we see it play out in the context of this fictional show: settling on “New Caprica” was pretty clearly not the right plan. But the question cuts deep in terms of real world questions, as Republicans in places like Wisconsin set out to lessen the power of the governor after a Democrat won there in 2018, for example. Or, from the other side, there is the question of whether one would have opposed the institution of Trump as president, even if this were by undemocratic means.
We don’t tend to ask ourselves such questions, but Battlestar Galactica deserves credit for making us think about them. Do you think that Laura Roslin should have stolen that election? Is democracy an end, or merely a means?
And then we get the occupation, and the incredibly sad story of Lieutenant Gaeta, which raises further questions about complicity. He serves as something of a double-agent, but is he blameworthy for his cooperation with the Cylons? I’m not sure he is. What should one do, after all, in a situation like that? Refusing to work with the occupying force may well lead to death. Isn’t, perhaps, working with them while leaking information to the resistance the best plan? Or does the first part of that make one irredeemably complicit? How should we take the argument that someone would do it, regardless, and that it’s thus better to stay on the inside and work against it however subtly, given that one’s replacement would likely be worse? Once again, is it about consequences within a Utilitarian calculus, or is it a matter of principle?
The Cylons themselves present interesting questions about personal identity in a couple of different ways. For one, we have the fact that there are different copies of the same model, which differ from one another, but nonetheless seem to bear something like a general disposition in common. This gets to the old nature/nurture question, I suppose, but also suggests a certain style of answer: as much as they are the same “genetically,” they differ with regard to their experiences and so on and so forth.
What raises a potentially deeper question is their technology of “resurrection”—when they die, they are reborn into another identical body, with a transfer of consciousness. Is that enough to secure a continuity of personal identity, or is this a matter of one being dying and another being born? What is it that determines the continuity of identity, anyway?
The answer could be nothing. I take myself to be the same person from one day to the next, to be sure, and so do others, but perhaps this rests on nothing more than my habit of going along in more or less the same way. I have memories, of course, but that does little to address the deep problem. The resurrected Cylon would have memories of their previous life, but does that make them the same person? If we transferred my consciousness into a robot, would that still be me, or would it be but a simulacrum of me?
Unfortunately, these questions get increasingly sidelined as Battlestar moves forward. The plot becomes more and more mystical. While it is true that there was God stuff from the beginning, with an ambiguity about its status, as the show moved into its final season it took a hard turn into the unexplained/inexplicable.
Maybe the first instance was the conception of a human/Cylon baby. This bears little to no plausibility, if we are to continue to think of the Cylons as machines. Are we to believe that they copied humanity so perfectly as to create a biological match?
This strains credulity, but I went along.
Then we have the whole thing with the “original” Cylons being activated by “All Along the Watchtower,” as though this Bob Dylan song were some eternal thing. And the whole idea of characters we’ve known throughout being secret Cylons, unbeknownst even to themselves, always rubbed me the wrong way, in particular since they seem to be a different sort than the rest, more singular in nature. It becomes less and less clear what it even means to be a Cylon after the show enters this final arc of its narrative, and while that is clearly the point, it never comes together cogently.
The Cylons debate about altering their Raiders—is it a lobotomy or a mechanical tweak?—and the Centurions are freed from their digitally created slavery. But are we to take these more robotic Cylons as persons, or just the ones that look like us? And what exactly happens to them at the end anyway?
Even as these issues arose, however, the show had earned itself so much credit in my mind that these things didn’t bother me all that much. And it remains great in many ways, from its explorations of political dynamics to the questions it raises about what it means to be a person to those it raises about destiny. But it is unfortunately on that last point that it failed to stick the landing.
The fact that they ended up on our planet is not the biggest thing that bothers me about the finale. That was predictable. What bothers me, in a number of ways, is how they did it.
There is a point in the three-part finale where it appears that both the humans and the Cylons are on the brink of annihilation (and if only it had ended that way!), but then Starbuck enters coordinates to jump them out of there, which were based on the notes of that Dylan song.
Starbuck’s status as some kind of harbinger/ghost/angel is maybe the most mystical thing the show did, and what was truly unfortunate is that it turned my favorite character into an annoying lunatic, raving about how she’d been to Earth. Her character never recovered. In fact, the way her arc ended—with her magically entering coordinates to take the ship to our planet, only to then disappear in a field—remains one of the things about the show that bothers me the most.
But that is only one element of the greater whole that is, unfortunately, one of the worst finales of a TV show I have ever seen. The whole third part of it (the actual last episode) is unbearably schmaltzy. There are flashbacks and saccharine expressions of sentiment. Our heroes decide to give up their fleet, and technology, without any meaningful debate about the subject, or articulation of a line of reasoning as to why, other than a thin appeal to a fresh start.
Which raises the question: what exactly is the message of this show? It would make sense for it to be anti-technological, given the way that the AI the human beings created nearly wiped humanity out, but then did we really create them, and are they really machines? The thirteenth tribe was composed of Cylons who could procreate but were also wiped out by Centurions, which means what exactly? Everything gets messy and borders on incoherent as we reach the end of story.
This gets worse with the tag, as we cut to the present day where “Baltar” and “Six” (and what’s up with them, anyway?) engage in some of the cheesiest dialogue that has ever been written. A newscaster informs us that “mitochondrial Eve” has been discovered, and “Baltar” smarmily says she was a human/Cylon hybrid, sealing the deal on the Battlestar crew being the ancestors of humanity. But that does not make any sense, either. What of the other hominids that were already on the planet? What about the other humans from the ship? Certainly some of them would have had babies. Perhaps we’re supposed to interpret the newscaster’s claim in a different way, and this is one of those instances where I am being daft, but even the form of the scene makes me groan.
We are shown modern developments moving in the direction of AI. Is the message that all of this has happened before, and will happen again? Given everything that has taken the story to this point, that would seem downright fatalistic, and not in a good way. Humanity being caught in a perpetual cycle of creating technology that will threaten to destroy it is one thing, but doubling down on that to where it seems like there is no hope of escape is another. And it just doesn’t feel like that is what the show is trying to say. In fact, “Six” even says she thinks the complex system might break the cycle this time around, although there is truly no evidence offered beyond her faith.
At the end of the day, I don’t think there is a coherent message, or point, being conveyed in the finale of Battlestar Galactica. I am sure that someone will say I am thinking about it too much, and while I could take the point that there are still many things to enjoy about the show overall, I hate it when people say that.
The best stories, regardless of medium, are those that get better the more you think about them. They provide food for thought, or are at least enjoyable to think back on. I’m not above a little hand-waving—it’s OK if Doctor Who doesn’t have a rigorous time travel logic, e.g.—but it is disappointing to see a show as great as Battlestar Galactica falter in its conclusion.