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They Had A Plan

March 22nd, 2009 No comments

Massive spoilers for the series finale of Battlestar Galactica immediately follow. 

I can’t say that they didn’t warn us. The answer had been in plain view the entire time. Despite all of the speculation and rationalization about the seemingly miraculous events dogging the fleeing Colonials–implanted chips, shared mental projections and unrevealed Cylon/human hybrids–the truth was that it was God all along. (Though we now know that it doesn’t like that name.)

And it’s funny that we expected something else. It’s not like Battlestar Galactica hasn’t worn its spirituality on its sleeve from the start. The ties between the original series and the Mormon faith have been well documented. One of its best-regarded episodes, “War of the Gods,” was not at all coy about injecting literal angels and devils into the space-based shenanigans. Heck, an unproduced script for the Galactica: 1980 follow-up went so far as to have Starbuck assumed into the heavenly domain of the “ship of lights.”

So, really, why were we surprised that “Head Six” wasn’t lying about being God’s messenger? Or that there really was some sort of divine force egging the pudding? 

For myself, it’s at least in part because I reject the idea of an activist God in my own life. I’m willing to concede the possibility of a creator, but I’ve seen nothing in my time on this world that allows me to believe that it takes any interest in our earthbound affairs.

And even though I don’t believe that science and religion are competing teams in a zero-sum game, I come down firmly on the side of science, which doesn’t simply throw up its hands when it encounters a mystery and declare that “God did it.”

Yet, while I was still holding out hope in the final hour for a solid, rational explanation of Starbuck’s seeming death and resurrection, I can’t say that I’m all that bothered by the lack of one. In our world, “God did it” is the ultimate cop-out. But in a fictional world in which inexplicable, miraculous events are a regular occurrence, I find it more palatable. I didn’t complain about the presence of the supernatural in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. so why here?

Besides, the modern Galactica, unlike the original series, remained a tiny bit coy about it. Saying that “it doesn’t like that name” offered a back door to other, semi-rational explanations involving super-evolved aliens and such. Producer Ronald D. Moore’s other major sci-fi series, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine posited that the only difference between Captain Sisko’s “wormhole aliens” and the “prophets” of Bajoran spiritualism was a matter of perspective.

So, leaving God-or-It aside for the moment, what about the rest of the finale? I certainly don’t want to overlook the tremendous kick-assitude of the first hour, from the toe-to-toe slugout between the Galactica and the Cylon Colony ship to the brutal brawl of old-school Centurions and their modern counterparts. The sight of the battlestar ramming through the colony’s bulkhead will stick with me, as will the scenes of Galactican marines and Centurions working side by side. Whatever cost-cutting the production might have had to do to save up for this special-effects blow-out, it was worth it.

And while the one big surprise reveal–that the previously-seen, nuclear-ravaged Earth of the Colonials’ quest was not in fact our world–took me a few moments to grasp, I have to say that it makes a lot of sense. The Earth we visited at midseason left too many questions; it appeared to be our own future, yet it was colonized by Cylons who were fully aware of their machine origins. The conceit of the refugees finding our planet and renaming it Earth was fitting. First, it acknowledges that it really didn’t matter whether they ever found the “real” Earth; the only reason that Roslin and Adama brought up the legend in the first place was to give hope to the fleet. Second, it pays off the link between the Galacticans and us that’s inherent in the premise. There’s no point in using the name Earth unless we’re meant to be involved in the story.

I’m not entirely sure that I bought the notion of the Colonials abandoning their technology (even medicine?) to go native. Furthermore, having them settle down in Earth’s prehistory drew an unfortunate parallel to the hapless Golgafrinchams of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and made me wonder whether the real villain was in fact a giant, mutant star-goat. Yet it too paid off a core concept from the original series’ opening narration:

There are those who believe that life here began out there, far across the universe, with tribes of humans who may have been the forefathers of the Egyptians, or the Toltecs, or the Mayans. That they may have been the architects of the great pyramids, or the lost civilizations of Lemuria or Atlantis. Some believe that there may yet be brothers of man who even now fight to survive somewhere beyond the heavens…

In the “reimagined” Galactica, Admiral Adama may not have built the pyramids or sunk beneath the waves with Atlantis, but it’s fun to think that the Colonials’ legends became part of our own collective consciousness. If you really want to get silly about it, perhaps they informed a certain cheesy ’70s TV show.*

All of this talk about the grand plot arc has made me overlook the most important part of the series: the characters. And while the finale may have gone on for fifteen minutes too long, it did allow us–as with the film version of Return of the King–to take our time winding down and to find out where the paths of the people with whom we spent the last five years took them. Whatever I may feel about certain aspects of the storyline, I felt that in the end the characters were believable: human in their foibles, yet capable of great strength. Here too there were a bunch of good moments, including Tyrol’s enraged attack on Tory, Adama and Roslin’s final Raptor flight and pretty much everything involving Baltar.

I’m glad that everything turned out more or less okay for the surviving Colonials. They finally had one good day, even if they never made it to the Puppy Planet.

Though it’s gonna suck when they realize they’re out of toilet paper.

*For a time, I began to think that the cycle of civilizations being slaughtered by their own creations (“all this has happened before; all this will happen again”) might imply that the original series itself was part of the same continuity. I also thought that Dirk Benedict would turn out to be Starbuck’s dad. So I guess I’m not so clever.

That Show You Like Is Going To Come Back In Style

April 4th, 2008 No comments

One good thing to come out of this week’s phlegm-o-rama was the opportunity to plow through the remaining half of my Twin Peaks “Definitive Gold Box Edition” DVD set: fifteen episodes spread over three days.

Coming back to Twin Peaks seventeen years after this late and very much lamented series blipped into cathode ray oblivion it strikes me as nothing less than the Rosetta Stone of modern scripted television. I’d argue that shows ranging from The X-Files and Battlestar Galactica to Gilmore Girls and Desperate Housewives all border on the same woods surrounding that famous Washington logging town.

When Peaks debuted in April, 1990 it looked like nothing else on television. Co-creator David Lynch was a celebrated film director making a leap to the small screen at a time when that was seen as a step down, and he brought his cinematic sensibilities to the composition of shots and the pacing of scenes. Meanwhile, his surreal storytelling and strange visions turned the weirdness knob to eleven and demonstrated to other film directors that working in an episodic TV format didn’t mean they had to check their creativity at the studio door.

Lynch poked a pointy stick at small-town life, exposing both seediness and silliness, and in the decades that followed, the odd qualities of Twin Peaks and its inhabitants have informed other quirky fictional communities. Cicily, Stuckeyville, Trinity, Stars’ Hollow, Sunnydale and many more can trace a route back to the Double R Diner.

But what really fueled the pop-culture juggernaut that was Peaks before it became a spectacular, flaming wreck was a deceptively simple question: “Who killed Laura Palmer?” The discovery of the popular-but-troubled high school student’s plastic-wrapped body captured the public imagination.

Unlike Dallas‘ famous query, “Who shot J.R.?” there was no easy answer. The clues were numerous and not easily interpreted, coming often in dreams and visions. The enormous cast of characters offered dozens of potential suspects, and magazines published two-page spreads detailing the web of connections between them.

The funny thing was that, as we eventually learned, the producers originally had no intention of solving the mystery. Laura’s death was meant to be the catalyst that brought Kyle MacLachlan’s FBI Agent Dale Cooper to the town and led to the exposure of its many seamy secrets. However, they hadn’t reckoned on the audience’s demand for closure, nor the endless drum-beating of the network’s own publicity department. Honestly, I don’t see how it would’ve worked as a multi-year premise even if ABC hadn’t been pushing the “Who killed Laura Palmer?” gurney as fast as its little wheels could spin.

Originally airing as an eight-episode miniseries in the spring of 1990, Peaks returned with a full season that fall, but the pressure was on and the producers capitulated by November and revealed Laura’s own father as her spirit-possessed murderer. And when he in turn died a few weeks later, the show deflated like a pie without cherry filling.

That’s not to say that some interesting things didn’t come out of the final thirteen episodes. I really got into the supernatural elements which came to the forefront: demonic owls, Project Blue Book, and the search for the hellish Black Lodge that ended in David Lynch’s nightmarish and infuriatingly incomplete cliffhanger.

Back in the day, Twin Peaks‘ use of long-term storytelling was an anomaly. Most TV dramas were episodic, with plots both introduced and concluded in a single installment. (Or, if they were feeling frisky, they might toss in a two-parter.) This format made them more attractive once they hit the after market of syndication; local TV stations could run episodes in any order without disrupting continuity.

Peaks didn’t introduce the story arc format. The soap operas which it both emulated and spoofed relied on it for decades, and even more conventional dramas had begun to adopt the idea, notably the late ’80s crime drama Wiseguy. Still, I think it’s worth noting that in a day when shows boasting multi-year story arcs are both commonplace and diverse (ranging from Lost to How I Met Your Mother), Peaks is inevitably trotted out as the cautionary tale of “what not to do.”

As for myself, I see Peaks not as a failure but a trailblazer. It arrived just a few years too early to take full advantage of the Internet’s ability to connect fans into manic, clue-solving engines. (It did inspire a “save our show” letter-writing campaign; letters, remember those? If it was on the air today, some poor ABC mailroom drone would be drowning in logs or pieces of cherry pie.) Furthermore, story arcs have become enough of a norm that both viewers and networks are a bit more patient in allowing them to unspool. They won’t wait indefinitely (see Lost), but the frustration takes longer to set in.

I continue to hope that someday we’ll get one final journey back to Twin Peaks, just to find out if Agent Cooper ever shook the malevolent evil of BOB, and, more importantly, whether he ever managed to brush his teeth.