Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Battlestar Galactica Guide to Great Literature

As they contemplated Season Four, Battlestar Galactica's writers confronted the narrative mess of the previous three years and exclaimed "There must be some way out of here!"

Would-be screenwriters, novelists and playwrights can learn an important lesson from this past week’s Battlestar Galactica finale. For those not tuned into the BSG universe, the series finale revealed that Starbuck, the plucky fighter pilot who died and came back to life a few seasons back, was not quite human. You may think that BSG’s writers mixed up coffee brands in their minds, Starbuck’s Incorporated with Chock Full 0’ Nuts (that heavenly coffee), when they reincarnated Starbuck not as an android or a clone or some other high SciFi concept, but rather as a true angel. In fact, Angel Starbuck allowed the writers to conveniently tie up of a number of loose ends, contradictory story arcs and mythological red herrings that kept viewers coming back for more Human/Cylon action week after week and season after interrupted season.

In true Deus ex Machina fashion, Angel Starbuck leads the wandering BSG survivors to Earth, not the cinder Earth they previously visited, but our own true Earth of 150,000 years ago where the primitive native inhabitants sat around their campfires humming Bob Dylan tunes. The various BSG humans, Cylons and hybrids disembark, toss their advanced technology into the nearest convenient fusion recycler, scatter themselves to the Earth’s four corners and presumably become fruitful and multiply. Having completed her angelic mission, Angel Starbuck simply vanishes, leaving Lee Adama ("Apollo") to wonder on God's inscrutability.

Flash forward to our present-day world on the verge of creating its own Cylons thanks to Japanese robotics advances, and we witness two angels in America. They appear in the guise of Cylon Caprica 6 and Human Gaius Baltar strolling arm-in-arm through the streets of Manhattan, and go about wryly commenting on our civilization’s chance to get the cybernetics thing right this time.

So Battlestar Galactica turns out to have been about angels, not robots, divine intervention, not binary interpolation. A better title for the series might have been "Cylons In The Hands of An Angry God." This is where the other arts can learn a lesson from television in general and Battlestar Galactica in particular. No matter how dire the circumstances, how severe the situation, how irreconcilable the protagonists, there is no conceivable story line that can’t be resolved by supernatural agency.

A survey of the great literature of the world reveals that, with the exception of The Bible, The Koran, John Milton's Paradise Lost and possibly James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, no writer of note has hit upon this simple device to resolve the dramatic crises of their writings. In tale after tale, protagonists suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune without the benefit of divine intervention.

Imagine a Shakespeare's Hamlet, Act V, where an Angel prince Hamlet exchanges the poison drinks and weapons for less lethal alternatives and convinces usurper Claudius to voluntarily abdicate his throne to a newly heroic Prince of Denmark.

Or an Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman where a reincarnated Angel Ben Loman appears bearing a new, lucrative sales route to bestow on his father.

How about an update of Margaret Mitchell's Gone With The Wind where Angel Melanie reappears and leads the South to victory, saves baby Bonnie from her equestrian mishap and convinces Rhett and Scarlett that they were truly meant for each other.

And of course, there would be a Herman Melville's Moby Dick where another angelic Starbuck finally nails the great white whale for Captain Ahab with a propitious cast of his harpoon.

You can see the possibilities.

Post-modern critics may argue that dramatic art isn’t like that. In our poetry, our plays, our books and our movies, bad things happen to good people all the time and recently deceased revenants with heavenly bodies don’t always appear to make things right.

Aristotle taught us that art imitates nature. Isn't it about time that art imitate the supernatural?


Cookiemouse said...

In Amsterdam we have many artists imitating artists!

AGHOST said...

Sir, I enjoyed your witty critique.

It was a disappointoing ending.

However, the death and return of a hero is a popular theme in mythology from all around the world.

One example from the Norse 'Edda' and the 'Lay of Kara' should suffice:
"Sigrun was early dead of sorrow and grief. It was believed in olden times that people were born again, but that is now called old wives' folly. Of Helgi and Sigrun it is said that they were born again; he became Helgi Haddingjaskati, and she Kara the daughter of Halfdan, as is told in the Lay of Kara, and she was a Valkyrie"

Starbuck aka Kara Thrace

Galactica clearly had mythological pretensions which at times sat uncomfortably with the attempted gritty realism of military & political life.

The loose ends posed some interesting imaginative exercises and it was more fun imagining what the end might be than actually viewing it...

In the end, I think Galactica is what we make it, the tale can be told and retold in different versions and in this sense resembles a myth more that a modern literary work.