Friday, April 10, 2020

Legacy of the Twelve Colonies Volume IV: Battlestar Galactica... There's a Starbuck Waiting in the Sky

Forgiveness, like revenge, is a dish best served cold. At least, that's what mom always told me. Learning to move on from any kind of sustained animosity or after being wronged is no easy feat for either the forgiver or the forgivee (unless either one of those parties is a complete sociopath, which in that case, problem solved, I guess), and in my own experience, forgiveness is almost always driven by some utilitarian purpose. This isn't a knock against any variety of situational pragmatism: in fact quite the opposite. Most important decisions in life tend to be made only when our hand is forced. (Or maybe I'm just an indecisive bastard.) Real life has a way of throwing curve balls; it's these changes in our personal situations that tend to act as catalysts for our really big decisions. And rightfully so. In life, as in film, we're often far better served by what we need rather than by what we want. And the contingency that serves as an impetus for driving decisions should also necessarily bleed over into the content of those decisions:

Like trust, respect, love, and making on offer on a house, forgiveness should always be conditional.
This may seem counter-intuitive, but essentially what I'm arguing for is forgiveness in the sense of accountability rather than forgiveness in the mystic sense of the Christian (or Cylon) tradition, which is tainted by this concept of absolution. People absolutely should be given second chances, but it's important to make this distinction between accountability and absolution. Accountability is a process of accepting responsibility for one's actions, and involves an effort on the part of the individual who wronged someone to better themselves and atone for what they've done; it's also a process that involves that individual's society (either on a macro or micro level) to work with and support them, and reintegrate them back into the group. Absolution, on the other hand, is an abdication of all responsibility by all parties to have to change or strive to do better; it's a surrender, in the worst sense of the word, of any kind of moral obligation for everyone involved, sacrificing the need to process uncomfortable emotions like hate, anger, guilt, or resentment in favour of a self-indulgent and immediate gratification.

Like much of the series, Season 4 of Battlestar Galactica doesn't shy away from difficult ethical questions like this. Season 4 was, in many respects, centred around this core theme of the pragmatism of forgiveness, and that divide between accountability and absolution. Well, that, and, of course, hot robot sex.

This idea of moving past your own hate and anger plays out with the main story line of Season 4, which involves the lone survivors of humanity having to work with a faction of renegade Cylons as the race of sentient machines (ranging from military-grade murder-robot to full-on sexy android) faces a difference of opinion among their ranks that builds up to a civil war. In this case, not only must Admiral William Adama (Edward James Olmos), President  President Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell), and their ragtag group of survivors somehow find a way to forgive and trust some of the very people responsible for the genocide of nintey-nine percent of humanity (and then the eventual imprisonment and torture of those that did survive), but they must also work with them, side by side, if they hope to build any sort of future for the remnants of humanity.

This is a huge gap of trust to bridge, and likely not one most of us here in the real world will ever have to face, but I think the basic concept is relatable for most of us. The human migrant fleet is in no rush to come to terms with the actions of the Cylons, until they are forced to broker a partnership by the extreme circumstances in which they find themselves. Humanity is still searching for Earth, the fabled, lost Thirteenth Colony, in hopes that it will offer them a new beginning after the first 12 were destroyed, and the Cylons hold a piece of the puzzle to discovering its location. The renegade Cylons are outnumbered by their former brethren, and can't win the battle without some additional firepower from the human fleet, and the titular Battlestar. Also, the renegades are looking to settle on Earth as well. I guess everybody in the Battlestar Galactica universe, for some reason, assumes that Earth is like the tropical paradise of the galaxy, and like most travellers, did not do the proper research ahead of time.

This road to mutual trust is not an easy one, nor should it be. In the show, even after humanity forges an uneasy alliance with the renegade Cylon faction, there are still backdoor double-dealings and missteps on both sides. There's hostage taking, ambassador killing, and contingency plans to blow up the other side with nuclear weapons if the truce goes to shit (or purely out of revenge). So pretty much an average day in the universe of Battlestar Galactica. Or our own, for that matter, which, I guess, is kind of the point.

How many times have I told you to clear your browser
history before you give a big presentation?
One challenge with accountability is that it takes trust, specifically that both sides are acting in good faith. And the challenge with trust is that it is reciprocal, and requires one party to take the first step and and take the risk that it will not be returned by the other party, leaving oneself vulnerable. In this case, it's the Cylons who surprisingly make the first move, which involves an offer to the humans almost too good to be true. Some of the Cylons, have had the chance to live outside of the range of their resurrection ships that download their consciousness into a new synthetic body any time their current one is destroyed. They discovered, much to their initial surprise, that their newfound mortality gave their lives new meaning and purpose, as Natalie (Tricia Helfer), one of the Number Six Cylon models, describes in an impassioned plea to the human survivors:

"We could feel a sense of time, as if each moment held its own significance. We began to realize that for our existence to hold any value, it must end. To live meaningful lives, we must die and not return. The one human flaw that you spend your lifetimes distressing over... Mortality is the one thing... Well, it's the one thing that makes you whole."

Beyond just evening the tactical odds by ensuring that if it comes to battle you face an enemy that it's actually possible to defeat, this is exactly the kind of basic, clich├ęd human philosophy that any of us would be sympathetic to. The human fleet forges an uneasy alliance with their synthetic progeny, in essence, taking a step towards forgiveness, providing the Cylons with the chance for some form of accountability, and a pathway to move forward in peace as opposed to further bloodshed. It's not a perfect situation, but if Battlestar Galactica has anything to teach, it's that the universe in which we find ourselves is a messy, chaotic place. (That, and probably wait on getting matching tattoos for a couple of years at least.)

The renegade Cylons are in a desperate spot; with their ship in dire need of repairs, they are at the mercy of the human fleet. The humans could have taken the opportunity to blow up an enemy ship and exact some measure of revenge the moment it showed up, but instead they took the time to make look at the data, and make an informed decision. This is a clear example of how morality doesn't need to rely on any sort of altruism, and we can arrive at an ethical decision purely through pragmatic necessity. The humans realized that, although they didn't like it, they also had to take a chance with the renegade Cylons if they had any hope of finding their new home away from home on Earth.

The whole alliance is on shaky ground from the very start, however, and it doesn't get any better when Lieutenant Sharon "Athena" Agathon (Grace Park) promptly murders Natalie along with the entire notion of diplomatic immunity. As a Cylon who defected from her people, Lieutenant Valerii is worried that the Cylons are after her half human / half Cylon daughter, as she represents the fulfillment of some sacred Cylon prophecy. Lieutenant Valerii is also haunted by visions of this exact Cylon model stealing her child. Considering, however, that about ninety percent of the main characters are experiencing vivid, hallucinatory visions, sometimes even shared dreams, perhaps the fleet may want to look at the CO2 filters on their vessels and/or prioritize training some new mental health professionals.

In response, the semi-sentient renegade Cylon baseship "jumps" away using its FTL (faster-than-light) drive, and the Cylons essentially take all of the humans on board hostage. Eventually, the ship takes them to the Resurrection Hub, the ship that, were Battlestar Galactica a video game, the player would have to destroy in a big boss battle. (Or, if that game were one of the Mass Effect games, maybe choose between destroying or saving it...) At the end of the day, the Cylon renegades and humans, despite their mutual best efforts to frak up their newly minted alliance, are forced, by circumstance and against their own worst impulses, to work together regardless, and in the end are victorious. The renegade Cylons and humanity actually manage to find Earth, though it turns out to be a nuclear wasteland with no signs of life. Essentially Earth in Battlestar Galactica turns out to be a version of Planet of the Apes minus the apes. Again, not the circumstance that any of the survivors, human or Cylon, anticipated being caught up in, but it also reinforces an even more fundamental theme in the show: doing the best you can with what the universe throws at you.

On a character level, the theme of forgiveness is perhaps best exemplified by Doctor and former President Gaius Baltar (James Callis), perhaps the most morally dubious character on the show. Originally responsible, although unwittingly, for the failure of the human defence grid that allowed the original attack to decimate humanity, Baltar eventually became President of the Twelve Colonies. And then swiftly collaborated with the Cylons when they found the human settlement New Caprica and imprisoned nearly all that remained of the human survivors. The thread of Baltar's continuing journey is a nice continuation from Season 3, where he was put on trial for war crimes, and eventually acquitted precisely because the tribunal recognized that he, like all of them, were forced to make less than perfect decisions in less than ideal circumstances.

Season 4 of Battlestar Galactica sees Baltar make the final, inevitable transition in the cycle from disgraced politician, to political dissident and leader of an underground revolutionary movement, to full-on self-proclaimed prophet and leader of his own religion. At first, Baltar seems as hapless as ever in his newly discovered role, and revels in the attention and women he's getting, and the chance to get a little bit of an insurance policy for his own safety. Nothing gives you a little extra leverage like an army of religious zealots, after all. To the credit of showrunner Ronald D. Moore and his team, Baltar, like all of the characters, is nothing if not three-dimensional. Despite all of his faults - of which there are many - he is portrayed honestly, as a man who makes mistakes, and is also capable of growth.

When Cally Tyrol (Nicki Clyne) is secretly murdered by Tory Foster (Rekha Sharma) staging it to look like a suicide, her husband, Chief Galen Tyrol (Aaron Douglas) is left in a pretty dark place, emotionally speaking, and the audience is left semi-shocked at the death of a sort-of main character. When confronting Baltar at one of his religious services, Chief Tyrol is enraged when he tries to express his sympathies on the loss of his wife, and physically attacks him, having to be dragged away physically, screaming about how Baltar didn't have any right to talk about Cally having not really known her. Later, Baltar visits Chief Tyrol privately in his cabin in an act of true contrition, and uncharacteristic bravery, as Tyrol was emotionally compromised enough to seriously contemplate both suicide and murder.

What do you mean you don't floss regularly? Do you have
any idea it is to find a dentist in the middle of an apocalypse?
Equally as uncharacteristic is that Chief Tyrol eventually offers Baltar his hand, symbolically accepting his apology. It's a pretty emotionally charged moment of forgiveness on the part of both Baltar and Chief Tyrol. Gaius Baltar, despite all of his bluster, recognizes the suffering of another human being, and actually practices what he preaches by reaching out to offer support for another without thinking of himself. Tyrol, for his part, though he's probably far from being a convert to Baltar's new religious movement, and despite Baltar's past, recognizes this small act of atonement with a manly handshake. Until Baltar was confronted with the actual effect that his words and actions had on the people around him, there was no impetus for him to make any genuine effort to better himself. Tyrol, for his part, also showed another aspect to the equation of forgiveness and accountability; it's a test not only for the one being forgiven and held accountable, but to the one forgiving and overseeing that accountability.

This is explored again later in the season, when Gaius Baltar is seriously injured and bleeding out from a wound in the middle of a heated battle. President Roslin  finds herself willing to work to save the life of this man who she hates more dearly than perhaps anybody else. (Her first impulse is to let him bleed out, but the important thing is that she does the right thing in the end.) Roslin is forced to confront not just what Baltar has done, but what she, herself, is willing to do. The situation she finds herself in forces her to make a choice. With her back against the wall, she had to decide what was really important. It was only when her hand was forced that she had to clarify her moral stance and make a decision that was as much for her own sake as for Baltar's. Though not a complete act of forgiveness in terms of accountability - and certainly not an act of absolution - Roslin saving Baltar's life signifies an important moral distinction between general and specific cases. In this case, the general case of saving the life of another human being superseded the specific moral case of anything that specific individual may have done.

Whether in an apocalypse or not, these are the kinds of questions that we are forced to wrestle with in our own lives. Though it may not be pleasant at the time, or even as time goes on, sometimes it's the most difficult of circumstances that show us who we truly are. Sometimes - a lot of times - we need circumstances us to give us a swift kick in the ass in order to make up our minds one way or the other.

In a lot of ways, I felt like Season 4 of Battlestar Galactica was one of those circumstances for its audience. I'm obviously a little behind in watching the show, so I'm not sure what reactions were at the time of its initial release, but Season 4 Part 1 feels like it takes a long time to get going. I can't imagine as a fan at the time being overly thrilled with Season 4. Maybe this is partly due the fact that the show was always on that precipice of cancellation, and they had to cover their bases in case the next season never happened. Whatever the reason, felt a little off this season. It felt a little strange going back in time with the full-length feature film Razor to explore the origins and exploits of Admiral Helena Cain (Michelle Forbes) and the crew of the Battlestar Pegasus who were introduced in Season 3, almost like the show was stuck in a kind of stasis, without a clear path forward.

The second half of the first half of Season 4 eventually did pick up, but I couldn't help but sense a little loss in narrative momentum overall. It's hard not to feel a little battle-weary after a protracted military engagement, and despite my love for the show, this seems like the most apt metaphor to describe my relationship with the fourth season of Battlestar Galactica. Or, I guess, the first half of the fourth season, as season four was originally released in two parts, 4.0 and 4.5, though in my Blu-ray box set, 4.5 is labelled as The Final Season. This is kind of representative of Season 4 as a whole; it seemed a lot more muddled and lacked the clear vision of the previous three seasons.

One of the focal points of the series used to be Kara "Starbuck" Thrace (Katee Sackhoff), but Battlestar Galactica is a show with an ensemble cast, so it made sense that it branched out to flesh out some other characters a bit more. What I couldn't really get on board with was the strange new character with Kara Thrace's name. Gone is any link to that rebellious fighter pilot, and in her place we're left with a fanatic not only obsessed with finding Earth, but bound and determined to convince everyone around her that she is utterly unfit for duty of any kind, whether in the military or as a civilian. I don't see the continuity between those two characters, but maybe that was intentional? Season 3 left off with Starbuck apparently having died and then been resurrected, leading both her comrades and the audience to wonder whether she was, in fact, a Cylon. For me, this felt like a completely unnecessary thread, and just added to the confusion of her whole character arc. We've already had Sharon Agathon as a character grappling with her identity as a Cylon integrating in a human world.

It was a nice effort to save his life, but this IV is full of vodka.
Not to mention the fact that at the end of Season 3, several other crew members are revealed as potential Cylons, members of the so-called "Final Five," the secretive five Cylon models that really hate the paparazzi and have kept their identities hidden, not just from their own kind, but from themselves. This includes a huge chunk of the main cast, including Colonel Saul Tigh (Michael Hogan), Chief Galen Tyrol, Samuel Anders (Michael Trucco), and Tory Foster. It's getting to the point where it might be easier to keep track of main characters who aren't Cylons. I was kind of hoping that this was some kind of deception, some kind of psychological warfare to mindfrak some of the humans in an effort on the part of the Cylons to gain some kind of tactical advantage. But it turns out that by the end of the first half of Season 4, they are, in fact, Cylons, despite this development not seeming to make a whole lot of sense in several cases.

Likewise, the storyline for Lee "Apollo" Adama (Jamie Bamber) seemed to have run its course in Season 3, culminating in his impassioned courtroom speech that saved Gaius Baltar from being thrown out of an airlock for his part collaborating in the Cylon occupation of New Caprica. Season 4 has him becoming elected interim president in the disappearance of President Roslin, but he had no real conflict. His "struggle" in this season was learning that he was best qualified for the presidency because not only did he have no political ambitions but because he was also just awesome in general.

Once again, I think I found myself relating more and more to Captain Karl "Helo" Agathon (Tahmoh Penikett), as he seems to have emerged as one of the clear moral centres of the show. Or maybe it's just that the character seems to morally align with my own worldview. Either way, I kept screaming in my head in most situations where characters had to make a moral choice to just go ask Helo what he would do.

As I came to the end of Battlestar Galactica Season 4.0, I began to contemplate my relationship with the show and a journey, if not of forgiveness, then at least of acceptance. I couldn't help but be reminded of Abed's speech in the final episode of Community (Six seasons and a movie!) about our relationship with the media we consume, which was essentially a chance for the show's creator and on-again, off-again showrunner Dan Harmon to address the audience directly through that most elusive of the four walls:

"There is skill to it. More importantly, it has to be joyful, effortless, fun. TV defeats its own purpose when it’s pushing an agenda, or trying to defeat other TV or being proud or ashamed of itself for existing. It’s TV; it’s comfort. It’s a friend you’ve known so well, and for so long, you just let it be with you, and it needs to be okay for it to have a bad day or phone in a day, and it needs to be okay for it to get on a boat with Levar Burton and never come back. Because eventually, it all will."

All that is to say that while I felt like Season 4.0 was a bit of a misfire overall, I still love the show, and I'm looking forward the finishing this journey I started with the Battlestar Galactica crew. This is one case where forgiveness is not warranted; as Abed / Dan Harmon correctly pointed out, a TV show has nothing to be forgiven for (with rare exceptions that prove the rule, like Family Matters). So I'll conserve that particular energy for when I really need it.

So say we all.

Previously, on Battlestar Galactica:

Battlestar Galactica Season 1

Battlestar Galactica Season 2

Battlestar Galactica Season 3


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