Monday, June 16, 2008

Chauncey DeVega's World of Ghetto Nerds: Matters of Text and Subtext in Battlestar Galactica's "Revelations"

I am still digesting Battlestar Galactica's "final" episode, "Revelations." While other sites have summarized the plot, and detailed the happenings of what was an amazing 60 minutes of television, in my thinking through of Revelations I am going to take an alternative route. As I have previously made clear through the voluminous praise which I have already lavished on the show, Ronald Moore in his reimagined BSG has on more than one occasion surprised, shocked and amazed me through the boldness of his storytelling and his repeated and brazen courtship with "jumping the shark" (a phrase which is television speak for that definitive point of no return from which a television show will never return to form--James's death on Good Times; The Fonz literally jumping the shark in Happy Days; Mr. Drummond getting married on Different Strokes).

To this point, Moore has never failed to maintain the show's momentum and to elevate the quality of its storytelling and vision. Consider for a moment the risks taken by BSG: Kill Starbuck--no problem we will bring her back as a herald; split the fleet in order to follow prophecy--a small feat easily remedied; a coup against the President, a rigged election, mutiny?--easily fixed; an occupation and temporary peace with the Cylons, a New Caprica which is actually a thinly veiled metaphor for America's occupation of Iraq--could be a disaster, but why not? And now, during the final season of this much too prematurely canceled television show, Moore gives the viewers what they have always wanted. He completes the quest, brings our characters some closure, and the ragtag fleet arrives at their supposed new home. But of course, it is never that simple.

Here is the real joy of Battlestar Galactica. Because it is serious, smart, genre television there are rules of format, plot, and narrative to be obeyed. Because it is so good at being what it is--sophisticated and challenging fare, Battlestar Galactica is conscious of both plot and subplot. Or alternatively stated, Battlestar Galactica consists of two parallel and overlapping narratives.The first consists of what is plainly visible (robots chasing humans; a version of the television show Wagon Train now set in outer space). The second consists of what is visible, but not often as clearly stated (Exodus retold; monotheism versus polytheism; existential questions of existence and being; the dire consequences of technology mated with sentience). In short, Battlestar Galactica rewards careful viewing, because it is through this close attention to detail that the tension between text and subtext are made readily apparent (random thought: BSG also reminds me of the movie Collateral and its explanation of how to properly listen to Jazz):

Battlestar Galactica's subtext has always been one where difference and race are central. The finale provided more evidence for this claim. For example, the pain of awareness, of finding out that a close friend, a family member, a colleague, or a partner is the Other. And moreover, that you have hated, killed, and despised this Other, and where this engagement and intimacy (because do not delude yourself for intimacy is indeed a prerequisite for hatred) only amplifies the pain of regret and remorse. He or she has lived this lie of sorts, forced for whatever reasons to conceal their true selves. When Tigh "outs" himself he embodies the gay or lesbian friend finally unburdened from the mask of pretending. By contrast, when Tory embraces her Cylon nature she falls prey to the temptations of moral superiority, a feeling often smug and off-putting to others, when one realizes they are indeed different, that they are the Other, and are now righteous in their new found identities.

Again, Battlestar Galactica is a show whose center of gravity rests upon questions of difference, inclusion, and on the broader struggle to reconcile who we are, with who we imagine ourselves (and by extension our community) to be. The final five have played a dangerous game of racial passing. Tigh, Tory, Tyrol, and Anders are now discovered, and in a moment of release, of almost cathartic freedom they can now simply "be." In "Revelations" these moments of peace were among the most compelling and well acted. For example, Tigh wanting, yearning to confess to Adama and to make peace with his identity through an act of suicidal self-sacrifice. The relief in the glance between Tyrol and Anders when they were arrested by the Colonial Marines was palatable in its moment of acceptance, of a liberation born of not having to pretend any longer, that it resonated for anyone straining, as many of us do, under a lie--a lie so great that it almost compels us to pray that it will be discovered, and we then will be unburdened.

Race and racial difference are the most powerful subtexts operating in Battlestar Galactica. The idea that race is "real" is the lie that has motivated the war between humans and Cylons. Both species are virtually identical, yet have a deep belief in the permanence of their biological and philosophical differences. As humans our differences are only skin deep, a function of melanin, geography, happenstance, and genetics. However, we have embraced race and racial ideologies and their accompanying (and for some comfortable) sense that race is real and fixed, rather than arbitrary and contingent. This idea is so compelling that the modern world is largely based on this one, true, lie (notice the emphasis).

Ronald Moore as a master manipulator of his audience is certainly privy to how science fiction as a genre has always spoken, in often veiled ways, to the illogic, hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy of colorism, in general, and white supremacy, in particular. As I watched Battlestar Galactica, I could not help but consider how this Star Trek veteran (Moore was a writer on Deep Space Nine and The Next Generation) has mined science fiction lore and signified on its narrative conventions. For example, the tensions between the Cylons and the humans evoked the classic Star Trek episode "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" where two beings, and their respective civilizations, destroyed each other over (what is to the viewers) an absurd difference in skin color:

The conclusion of "Revelations" where we arrive at Earth and see the Brooklyn Bridge destroyed, one of the few identifiable landmarks on a now irradiated planet, is an unsubtle wink to the Statue of Liberty reveal during the climax of The Planet of the Apes. Again, a reference in the subtext (or perhaps more explicitly the text) to a movie which itself was a thin allegory for the racial tensions tearing apart 1960's America:

Ronald Moore in his fake climax sent an additional signal which further solidified and demonstrated a mastery of his craft. The false reveal, the sense of rushed urgency where at the 45 minute mark of the show all seems resolved, the characters celebrate, and all things end well, is a montage common to the prematurely canceled television show. The studio pulls the plug, and the writers and producers have to rush to a neat conclusion which resolves (but usually not in a convincing fashion) the loose ends. Not here. Instead, Moore's conclusion was the proverbial middle finger to the Sci-Fi Network ("Sure, you can cancel the show, but I won't give you what you want"). I liked that--sharp and biting, but also calm and cool. Now, we only have to wait until 2009 to see how BattleStar Galactica really, and truly, ends.

Some thoughts:

1. Who is the final Cylon? I still vote for Gaeta, although, it could be the collective consciousness of the Basestars. Outrageous, impossible? Could the 5th Cylon be a collective Cylon identity? The Cylon so to speak?

2. Who or what destroyed Earth? And is Earth really the 13th colony? Could it be that the other Cylons reached Earth before (maybe following Starbuck) and nuked it?

***A quick addendum***

Perhaps, we need to also consider the role of time travel in Starbuck's visit to Earth? One could hypothesize that she returned to Earth in the past (which would explain its "healthy" state) where she then met the final five. Starbuck remained there, her ship was preserved (thus explaining why it was identical to the one she left with). Centuries or thousands of years could have passed and the "new" Starbuck was sent back to find the fleet by the final five at a time just before the apocalypse occurred, and the final five escaped Earth. Therefore, a great amount of time could have passed on Earth and a far shorter amount of time would have passed from the perspective of the humans in the fleet.

3. Starbuck is "the herald of death"...hmmmm, did she bring death to Earth by setting into motion a series of tragic events? or is she bringing death to the fleet? If so, who?

4. Again, I say the smart money is on the fact that the Cylons and humans are basically the same. The Cylons and humans inter-bred, began a new line of humans, and then sent them off to the stars. How ironic if Earth was in fact the source of life on Caprica?

5. What to make of the "head-Six," "head-Leoben," and "head-Baltar?" Are they angels guiding the fleet, leading them to their destinies? Could it be that this is another nod to the original plot, the Iblis character, and the ships of light? Again, perhaps Adama's sometime confidant Romo Lampkin is actually one of the final five? Or is Romo a new incarnation of the Iblis character and he has been manipulating events all of this time?

6. Is StarBuck dead or alive? Yes, she is "alive" but is this the "real" Starbuck?

7. September 11th is now fixed in our collective memory and visual lexicon isn't it? Starbuck looking at the pictures of those lost in the human-Cylon War, and those eerie images of a devastated New York, show that we indeed are never going to be same again, are we?

8. In my opinion, the peace and resolution between the rebel Cylons and the humans was too quick to take hold. We must not forget that old feelings and old hatreds die quite hard. And what of the mechanical Cylons? Where is their allegiance? What will be the consequences of Baltar's proselytizing to the Centurion on the basestar?

9. When Cavill and the other Cylons make their inevitable return, who will side with whom? Will there be a Cylon Civil War Part 2? Will some of the rebel Cylons return to their people? Or will some of the remaining Cylons join the rebel upstarts on Earth?

10. How would you choose to end the show? Should the human/cylon fleet realize that home is where you lay your head and simply put down roots on a new planet? Or, should they find a way to return to Caprica and reclaim their collective home? For the curious, Aint it Cool News has a great suggested timeline of events here.


Brian Dunbar said...

The conclusion of "Revelations" where we arrive at Earth and see the Brooklyn Bridge destroyed,

Is that really the Brooklyn Bridge? I've only been to NYC once, but looking at the map and matching that with the screenshot.. it doesn't seem to square up.

chaunceydevega said...

I have gone back and forth on this one. On first viewing, I didn't catch it. On repeated viewings and looking at other viewer's analysis of the episode I have become persuaded. But, it could be a big mislead--we will have to wait until the podcast to really know definitively. What do your instincts tell you?

And looking at your blog on the show, I think the idea of Galactica herself as the 5th Cylon would be a nice touch...kudos to you on that read.

Karen said...

BSG is brilliant! You're so right about how it eloquently balances plot and subplot. It's witty, well-written and completely engaging. I wrote a post about it here:

I'm glad you share similar sentiments. Great post!

Brian Dunbar said...

What do your instincts tell you?

That the guys running the show keep surprising us. Having the landing site be NYC is pretty obvious - thus they won't do it.

I have no idea what / where it really is - I'm going to just wait and be pleasantly surprised when the next episode finally rolls around.

Brian Dunbar said...

I think the idea of Galactica herself as the 5th Cylon would be a nice touch...kudos to you on that read.

Thank you!

Dallas Penn said...

You went in so thoroughly deep [ll] that I need to take a minute to process all of your thoughts.

Damn, this was an awesome drop. I have to re-read.

For the time being its co-sign everything you said.

chaunceydevega said...

thanks for the love dallas, it is always appreciated..

Anonymous said...

dunno about the brooklyn bridge, but this was still a completely awesome read! I didn't think about the end of POTA until I saw it in this post.

chaunceydevega said...

Thanks again---this post has been really gratifying in that it is wonderful to see how diverse bsg's fan base is, and how many of us are doing the work to really appreciate the show! we are just getting started, and with zora's hopeful return, as well as gordon's unrepentant genius, we are going to keep doing out best.

the next 1/2 of the season will either amaze despite all expectations or profoundly disappoint--but we all know this latter option will not come to pass.