Sunday, March 22, 2009

Chauncey DeVega's World of Ghetto Nerds: Reflections on Battlestar Galactica's Finale--the Politics of Race, Place, and Memory

The finale is now past and Battlestar Galactica has gone out in fine form. The consensus among critics has been almost unanimous: Galactica's 3 part finale "Daybreak" has answered our remaining questions, and exited while still being provocative and timely. While some will complain about the ambiguities of Starbuck's exit, or how neatly the story now seems to have tied up its many loose ends, I for one, am content. The first 90 minutes of the episode gave us action (how can any ghetto nerd not get a shiver up their spine at the sight of the Old School Centurions going mano a mano with the "new School" Cylons?), while the last hour gave us resolution and closure (President Roslin's passing, and Adama's loving eulogy was heartfelt and sincere, he really is the proverbial old man on the mountain).

In watching the finale several more times, and trying to reflect on the series as a whole, I have come back to 3 recurring themes. Yes, as I have noted here and elsewhere, Battlestar Galactica has always been about the "now"--be it the war in Iraq, the disaster of Katrina, our worries about technology robbing us of our humanity, or holy war and terrorism. But, Battlestar Galactica has also been about the historical, or more rightly the transhistorical--those themes that cross decades and centuries of human experience. In total, Battlestar Galactica, as highlighted most tellingly in its finale, has been centered on the themes of race, place, and memory.

Race(ing) Battlestar Galactica

Race and a sense of profound racial difference between the Cylons and the humans, this idea of "us and them," has been the fuel for their decade long conflict. In science fiction, the cyborg (the human looking robot or synthetic life form) has been a powerful mirror for our own society's duel madness of both race making, as well as the maintenance of racial orders. As I am so fond of saying: race is a fiction, a social construct, but it is a dualism of sorts because this fiction is also true and real. This theme that is repeated throughout Battlestar Galactica.

Baltar's "Cylon detector" in season 1 is a thin reference to the pseudoscience of race and racialist thinking in the late 19th and early parts of the 20th century. The almost fetishistic quality assigned to the half-human/half Cylon child Hera, the racialized body, or in the case of the latter, the mixed race body, is an object of fascination and obsession. The power of love, or more bluntly how Battlestar Galactica depicts inter-racial sex as somehow recuperative, radically humanistic, and a pathway to godliness and wisdom (Caprica Six and Baltar, the two most passionate lovers on the show are also the emissaries, either symbolically or literally of fate and God) is one of the bedrocks of the series.

As the Battlestar Galactica's epic unfolds, we discover that humans and Cylons are more alike than they are similar in fact, that there are no physical characteristics that truly distinguish them from us. In the same way that there are no human "races" or sub-species, we cling to the social realities of race and how it has, and continues to, structure our societies. Likewise, the humans and Cylons hold onto the imagined differences of biology (and parallel an imagined difference in biology with a firm dividing line of theology) in order to remain grounded on some fixed reference point in what is a tumultuous and unsettled world.

In both Battestar Galactica and our world, these differences of race are comfortable geographies of belief, philosophy, reason, and perception that help us to navigate and make sense of our lives. Blood is not necessarily destiny. But blood, be it the struggle between Cylons and humans, or the fight for (and against) a fully realized and inclusive democracy in this country, hints at how blood--differences both real and imagined--can be fate, or in the case of Battlestar Galactica, fated. In reflecting on race and racial difference, the lesson that Battlestar Galactica offers comes in the form of a question: do we go forward together or do we remain here, standing apart?

Looking for Place in Battlestar Galactica

Place is the second theme that drives Battlestar Galactica. And place is directly related to the idea of home. As Roslin told Adama in the concluding episodes of this season: sometimes home is where you make it; home is where you feel most comfortable and where you lay your head; home is an idea as much as a real location. This theme resonates throughout the show.

The human colonies, the literal home of humanity, were destroyed by the Cylons. The Cylons have been searching for a home as well, be it by destroying the homes of the humans (and occupying the colonies) or by creating a paradise where Cylon beliefs and "humanity" are acknowledged as full, normal, right, and natural. In narrative terms, the idea of home has pushed forward the plot. The ragtag fleet has been forced out of the colonies and sent wandering across the galaxy in search of their ancestral home. In keeping with its religious subtext, Battlestar Galactica's human protagonists are cast out into the wilderness, where like the ancient Israelites, humanity will wander until they find their destiny--or until their destiny finds them.

Home is also a fantasy. Recall, that this whole journey was set into motion by a struggle over home and place, and if it would be either the Cylons or the humans that had a right to exist, as well as to ownership over the 12 colonies. This was a battle fought over a generations long war, the origins of which have been debated, reimagined, forgotten, and (re)remembered (e.g. was it the Cylons who actually started the war? or did the humans provoke the confrontation? Were the Cylons slaves who were the victims of human exploitation? Or was the Cylon response disproportionate to the "crimes" committed against them?). In the first episodes of the series, Admiral Adama in a leap of fate intended to fight the despair that would surely destroy humanity as quickly as any Cylon Basestar, told the human fleet a "true" lie: Earth is real and that he will lead them there. In fact, Earth was the stuff of mythology and fantasy. It was only through blind luck, the intervention of the fates, and human daring and courage that the fleet survived and triumphed.

Here again is where place and home are so central to Battlestar Galactica's mythos. We finally found Earth, and then discovered it was destroyed. We found a second Earth, "our" Earth long in the past, and decided that it was "the" Earth that humanity was always fated and destined to find as salvation. It is on this second, new, now real, and forever "original" Earth, that humans and Cylons can find the peace of home. The question remains: will we, as the descendants of humans and Cylons, create artificial intelligence, thus repeating the cycle of creation and destruction, and once more force our future descendants to venture forth to the stars to find a new home? As Adama said, "Earth is a dream, we have been chasing it for a long time, we deserve it." Do we?

Battlestar Galactica Memories

Memory is the third leg of the triad that anchors Battlestar Galactica's epic story. In thinking through the series's aesthetics, the how of its storytelling style, I am struck by how often it used flashbacks. Characters were always remembering their pasts. The origins of the war, and the theologies of the Cylons and the humans were communicated through appeals to memory and the past. The Final Five, shared their memories in an effort to bring an end to the war, but also to reconstruct their own lives. For me, one of the pure joys of Battlestar Galactica, is how it inexorably moved forward, while continually moving its frame of reference to the past. The combination of these two elements made for a challenging and rewarding drama that rewarded close attention, while fueling reflection and speculation by its fans.

Surely, the main characters were exercises in memory. Adama and Tigh remembering their decades long friendship, and how their fates are tied to each other. Ellen's memories of her eternal love for Tigh. Starbuck struggling with how she will remember herself given the discovery that she is both dead and alive. Baltar and his profound narcissism and egomania--a desire to work through the memory of how he betrayed humanity by aiding the Cylon attack, while also trying to craft a new memory (or would it more rightly be memorialization?) and role as a spiritual mentor and prophet.

Battlestar Galactica is also about memory on a grand scale. Here, I suggest that the show is also about how humanity remembers itself. Specifically, the idea that throughout the struggle to find Earth and to survive the Cylon genocide, humanity and its leaders (Adama and Roslin in particular) chose hope over despair. Adama chose to fight the Cylons when it would have been easier to retreat or to surrender. Adama chose to launch a suicide attack to save Hera when it would have made tactical sense to surrender her to the enemy. The human resistance on New Caprica chose to fight against impossible odds, rather than sacrifice their dignity to the Cylons. Regardless of what one thinks of Admiral Cane's leadership style, she too chose to fight rather than to surrender. Each of these examples speaks to how humanity would want to be remembered--as a race that chose to fight rather than to surrender, and moreover, that struggle has dignity, worth, value, and meaning for how our own epic is remembered and retold by our ancestors. Ultimately, the heroes of Battlestar Galactica, those survivors who chose to face battle, to be daring and brave when others would have cowered and retreated, struggled so that even in defeat, our dignity as human beings would be preserved.

My favorite memory from Battlestar Galactica, and one of those moments that encapsulates the best of the series and its beating heart and soul, was the great reveal where the Final Five discovered themselves and one another. Saul Tigh, in a moment of naked honesty tempered with profound denial declared that, "My name is Saul Tigh. I'm an officer in the Colonial Fleet. Whatever else I am, whatever else it means, that's the man I want to be. And if I die today, that's the man I'll be."

For me, this is the essence of Galactica. We choose our memories. We fight for our identities. We choose to survive. And in these trying times, as the economy, our sense of collective well-being and security, and relationships with one another are tried by increasingly powerful forces that are outside of our control, Galactica's message that hope can triumph over despair, in fact that hope must triumph over despair, is Battlestar Galactica's most powerful truth--a truth that speaks to why it will be remembered as one of the greatest series in television history.

Random Questions:

1. Did the show end the way you would have expected? Was the finale totally out of left field so to speak, or was it quite predictable?

2. Is Galactica a profoundly conservative show at heart? Or is it very liberal and transgressive?

3. Will we repeat the errors of our ancestors? Will artificial intelligence destroy us? Is this fate?

4. Baltar and Six and the beings of light from the original series. Comment?

5. Cool moments, during the finale, Simon quoting Grand Moff Tarkin from Star Wars: A New Hope.

6. Cool moment #2: Galactica borrowing the Daedalus maneuver from the SDF-1 on Robotech.

7. John/Cavil shooting himself, rather than suffering the humiliation of capture. Question: isn't Cavil one of television's best villains? The idea that he set free Final Five so that he could torment them is masterful. Second question: so, did John prevent the Cylons from destroying the fleet so that he could torment his creators?

8. So the humans spread out and settle the Earth. They are the source of our mythology. Could it be that some were not content to live as Luddites, thus explaining the existence of civilizations such as Atlantis, and humanity's long held beliefs in magic and sorcery? Could the diversity in human religions (polytheism; animism; monotheism) be rooted in the diversity of religious beliefs held by the human tribes and the Cylons?

9. Starbuck, Adama, and Apollo--the father, the son, and the holy spirit? Is Starbuck the third part of Christian divinity?

10. Hera as the mother of humanity. Got to love the humans returning to the cradle of humanity and civilization that was mother Africa.

11. During the last few minutes of the conclusion, was anyone else thinking of the controversial Time Magazine cover that in an effort to speak to the "browning" of America morphed together together all the different human "races" to generate a new Eve?

12. I have to go here: what of the folks of color on the show? With the exception of Adama (who is not "coded" for as Latino), do we really have any redeeming non-white characters on the show? Consider: Torrie kills Cally; Bulldog is a brainwashed "traitor"; Bill Duke's character runs the black market; Simon is for all intents and purposes a rapist; Gaeta betrays the fleet; Boomer is foul while Athena is the loyal, "Asian" with her Hapa child and white husband; and Dualla cannot cut it and kills herself. What is a brother or sister to do?

13. How can you not love that the opera house hallucinations, were in fact the Galactica herself! Battlestar Galactica was a grand opera, so how better than to speak to that fact than to hide one of the show's great mysteries in plain sight.

1 comment:

Mendacious D said...

What bothered me the most was the whiteness of the show. The final episode when they are talking about "teaching" the locals their language, etc, was a bit too we-must-tame-the-savages for me.

You'd think after seeing what their own creations were capable of, humanity would lay off trying to colonize anyone. I actually winced when they were talking about it.

As you point out, the minorities tend to get it the worst of it, as do many of the women in the show. Dee kills herself. Callie is murdered trying to protect her child. Roslin is dying from day one. For all their attempts at inclusion, basic plot manages to destroy a lot of it.

What I liked about the show was its timeliness, especially relating to the occupation on New Caprica and the resistance. This alone may disqualify it from being labeled as "conservative" by the usual suspects on purely political grounds.

The fact that many of the solutions seemed to require massive amounts of firepower may mitigate that particular assertion. I'm open to correction.