Battlestar Galactica Gave Me the Flu
I spent the past week watching Season Three of Battlestar Galactica on DVD, and now I have a chest rattle, a sore throat, body pains, and a pervasive feeling of encompassing despair. Coincidence?
Well, yes. Of course it is. I don’t really think Battlestar Galactica made me ill. Obviously. Still, some paranoid little part of my brain can’t help suspecting the show of giving my immune system a beatdown. I wouldn’t put it past it.
Battlestar Galactica is a show I admire, but it’s not a show I love (look, Season Three ended a year ago, and I just got around to watching it this week). Don’t get me wrong: It’s a really great show. Really, really great. Everyone knows it’s a great show. On every website I’ve visited in the past few weeks leading up to SciFi Channel’s gala kickoff to Season Four, I’ve encountered big banner ads reminding me what a great show it is, so I’m not likely to forget. In terms of consistent quality, it’s about eighty times better than Heroes. And yet, for all its failings, I love Heroes about eighty times more.
Okay, so it’s a great show. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have problems. Here’s one problem: Season Three featured way too much crap mysticism. The human characters adhere to a polytheistic religious system loosely based around the Greek (and sometimes Roman) gods. The twelve colonies destroyed in the Cylon attacks were named for the constellations (Caprica, Sagittaron, etcetera). There are far too many references to ancient texts, and far too many prophecies, and far too much mystical gobbledygook. In Season Three, we discover that Baltar is the Chosen One™, that Starbuck has a Special Destiny™, that Boomer and Helo’s half-Cylon baby is destined to shape the course of the future. It’s possible we’ve heard this somewhere before. It’s a shame we’ve been deluged with all these tired clichés, because the show does a fantastic job of weaving in subtler, fresher religious concepts -- the monotheistic robot Cylons are, in a neat twist, convinced they are God’s special children, favored above their flawed human creators. The Cylon concept of God as inextricably linked with cybernetics is a cool one; too bad it’s diluted by all this Chosen One™ business.
Another problem: the nonstop sexualized violence against women. Cally gets shot in the stomach during an attempted rape. The Cylons capture Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff) and take her to a rape farm -- a facility established to mechanically impregnate human women -- where they steal one of her ovaries. Pregnant Boomer (Grace Park) is almost gang-raped by the crew of the battleship Pegasus. The version of the Number Six Cylon (Tricia Helfer) known as Gina is gang-raped by the crew of the Pegasus. On the Cylon-infested settlement of New Caprica, Ellen Tigh trades sexual favors to ensure her husband’s safety, while Starbuck is forced to play house with creepy lovestruck Leoben. Is this sensationalistic? It’s a fine line, and I could be convinced by arguments either way. The show does a mighty fine job with its portrayal of female characters, and the show’s creators would probably argue that such assaults would realistically occur under the dire circumstances shown on the show. They’d probably be right. Still, it’d be nice if they’d knock it off with the rapes.
There’s plenty of stuff I outright love about Battlestar Galactica. I love those crazy-mixed-up, oversexed Cylons. I love the Cylon baseships, the interiors of which look like cool Eighties dance clubs. The Cylons are snazzy dressers (I love every jacket that Boomer -- aka Sharon Valerii, aka Sharon Agathon, aka Athena -- has ever worn). They have creepy living ships. They can resurrect themselves endlessly. They’re deeply, deeply confused (the single biggest lie of the series comes in the opening scroll that precedes each episode which states, in reference to the Cylons, “And they have a plan.” If we’ve learned nothing else about the Cylons, it’s that they have no clue, much less a plan). Best of all, they count Lucy Lawless and Dean Stockwell among their limited numbers. What’s not to love?
The Cylons are a lot easier to take than our main characters, and here we’re coming to the crux of why I’ve been laid up with some dreaded mystery disease this week. In Season Three, Battlestar Galactica took the principal characters -- and the audience along with them -- to their darkest places and left them there. Constant application of tremendous pressure creates diamonds or explosions, and there’s nothing sparkly on the Galactica. Everyone behaves badly. Everyone behaves understandably, given the desperate circumstances, but still badly (it’s like all the aforementioned sexual violence: yes, I see exactly what brought us to this point, but that doesn’t mean I want to stay here). President Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell) steals babies and rigs elections. Admiral Adama (Edward James Olmos) turns a blind eye to the failings of those within his inner circle. His son Apollo (Hornblower's Jamie Bamber, a talented actor who has a real gift for playing characters that annoy the crap out of me) decides to put his inherent obnoxiousness to good use by becoming a sleazeball lawyer (to clarify, I’m not categorizing all lawyers as sleazeballs; I’m just categorizing Apollo as one). Resident villain Baltar (James Callis) becomes a broken, sniveling mess. Colonel Tigh (Michael Hogan) gets an eye gouged out by the Cylons, kills his wife for collaborating with the Cylons, and then, for an encore, discovers he himself is a Cylon. As for hotshot pilot Starbuck, it’s hard to know where to start.
I must give Starbuck proper credit: she’s one of the most layered characters on television. If she were an appetizer, she’d be an artichoke, or perhaps a fried onion blossom. Never the most stable character to begin with, she undergoes a great deal of psychological abuse on New Caprica at the start of Season Three, and it’s fair to say she doesn’t handle it well. Sackhoff’s a phenomenal actress, and Starbuck’s outbursts are understandable -- the show has taken great pains to establish her traumas and emotional baggage -- but her behavior makes her hard to tolerate and impossible to like.
Because I was so put off by our main players in Season Three, I glommed onto the second tier of characters, who’d thus far been largely unspoiled by events of prior seasons: genial Anders, competent Tory, sweet, pretty Dualla, and sweet, pretty Gaeta. They fare no better: Dualla, who has the grave misfortune of being married to Apollo, and Anders, who has the grave misfortune of being married to Starbuck, are left to fume while their respective spouses get it on with each other, Gaeta gets crushed by the lingering aftereffects of the disaster of New Caprica, and Tory and Anders find out they’re both Cylons. Which is a mood-crusher, to be sure.
I latched onto Gaeta because he’s quietly awesome (and because Alessandro Juliani is hot and I am shallow). Galactica's indispensable and uber-competent Tactical Officer, Gaeta was characterized mainly in the first two seasons by his odd yet sweet hero-worship of/undying faith in shady, conniving Baltar. (Everyone is loved by someone, and Baltar does have a certain scuzzy charm, but… winning the hearts of Gaeta AND Number Six AND Lucy Lawless’s Number Three? There’s not enough luck in the universe, Baltar). After uncovering the election fraud that Laura Roslin tried to perpetrate, Gaeta becomes Chief of Staff to newly-elected President Baltar on New Caprica and thus is in exactly the wrong place when the Cylons arrive. Under the thumb of the Cylons, Gaeta secretly passes along vital tactical information to the resistance, which leads to their rescue off the crappy little planet by the Galactica. Back aboard the Galactica, he’s shunned by his friends, tried as a Cylon collaborator by a vengeance-bent kangaroo court (Starbuck, serving as one of his judges, kicks him when he’s tied on his knees and tries to force him to beg for his life. I did mention that Starbuck was impossible to like this season, right?), and comes within a whisker of getting tossed out the airlock. Gaeta gets through it with astonishing dignity and moral strength, but it’s not enough to save him: he spends the rest of the season desperately trying to murder Baltar for ruining his life. The death of idealism is not a pretty thing. It took you three years, Battlestar Galactica, but you finally broke Gaeta. Er… congratulations?
There were fragments of hope in the early seasons when, after the devastation of humanity by the Cylons, the struggling survivors first embarked on an insane quest to find the legendary Thirteenth Colony, Earth. They’re too far gone now; if they find Earth, it won’t be enough to fix them. This is what they are, and they are ruined. They had a trial run of Earth on New Caprica, where things were rotten and miserable even before the Cylons arrived and started gouging out eyeballs. Peace and stability eluded them -- everyone tried to settle down, but it didn’t work. Cally and Chief Tyrol (Aaron Douglas) got married and had a child, but their marriage is fraught with squabbles, which will probably not be helped by Tyrol’s recent discovery that, yep, he’s a Cylon (Season Three will forever be known as the “We’re all Cylons!” season). Starbuck and Apollo sabotaged their own respective marriages because they couldn’t sort out their feelings for each other. The humans couldn’t hack it on New Caprica; Earth won’t be much more of a relief.
Season Four kicks off tonight (thank you, relentless banner ads on websites and billboards around Los Angeles, because there was a chance I might have forgotten it). It’s the final season, and we’re promised answers to all the lingering questions: Who’s the final Cylon? Did Starbuck really find Earth? Are the Cylons finally going to admit they have no idea why they’ve been trailing the humans around the galaxy? It’ll probably be a good ride, but I might not be around for it. Watching Battlestar Galactica is a profoundly mood-altering experience, which is the hallmark of powerful television. The problem is, it’s not empowering or intoxicating or cathartic, or anything other than sort of devastating.
Battlestar Galactica is a grimly beautiful depiction of the limitations of the human spirit. We’re taught from childhood that we are indomitable; Battlestar Galactica shows the lie in that. Everyone dies, after all, and our lives may or may not have value and meaning before that. Battlestar Galactica takes it a step further: Everyone dies, but before you do you’ll compromise everything you hold dear, you’ll commit unpardonable acts, and everything that makes you special and unique will become perverted beyond recognition. And there’s a better than even chance you’ll get gang-raped by robots. Seriously, Battlestar Galactica, it wouldn’t kill you to add a dash of genuine hope and salvation into your bleak, murky mix, because after a while, we start asking ourselves, what’s the point?