Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/03/23/battlestar_galactica_finale/

Battlestar Galactica eyes 'technology run amok'

Remind you of anything?

By Dan Goodin

Posted in Bootnotes, 23rd March 2009 21:57 GMT

Spoiler Alert Near the end of last Friday's finale of Battlestar Galactica, two of the characters most responsible for touching off the genocidal campaign that nearly wiped out civilization - or their "angels," if you believe in that kind of thing - reflect on the events taking hold on Earth, the planet called home since taking refuge there 150,000 years earlier.

"Commercialism, decadence, technology run amok," the reincarnation of a particularly diabolical version of the Number Six Cylon model observes to her Gaius Baltar counterpart as the pair strolls through a city populated by poverty, portable music players, and, yes, robots. "Remind you of anything?"

Of course, the vices look just like all the other times the human race has allowed its hunger for convenience and comfort to blind its better judgment. After all, this is a show with the refrain "All this has happened before, and all this will happen again." As the credits begin to roll, the last images are those of a Sony Dream Robot dancing to the beat of Jimi Hendrix performing "All Along the Watchtower."

In so doing, the sci-fi thriller that for more than six years has riveted millions of viewers around the world concluded the saga much as it began. Back then, as portrayed in a miniseries that first aired in 2003, the Cylon war was believed to be over. A badly aging Galactica was about to be decommissioned. If the ship was worth saving at all, it was for the entertainment value it delivered to a people who had yet to learn history's most pertinent lessons.

"You'll see things here that look odd or even antiquated to modern eyes," a tour guide says as he points out the battlestar's brick-sized phones, "computers that barely deserve the name," and crude doors with valve latches.

"It was all designed to operate against an enemy who could infiltrate and disrupt even the most basic computer systems," the guide, whom we later learn is an undercover Cylon, continues. "Galactica is a reminder of a time when we were so frightened by our enemies that we literally looked backward for protection."

One of the things that made the story so captivating was its sense of timelessness and a never-ending series of contradictions. The race of robots, which humans created to "make life easier on the colonies," are so advanced they can only be kept at bay by regressing into a retro reality. Aboard Galactica, computers are expressly forbidden from being networked. Radio communications are hopelessly garbled. The message seems to be that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

No doubt, Battlestar Galactica was so much more than a cautionary tale about unfettered confidence in our technological prowess. Like Herman Melville's Moby Dick, the narrative operated on a variety of levels. Adventure story. Social commentary. Religious parable. Existential treatise on the role of destiny versus free will.

Along the way, it explored the roles of atheism, monotheism, and polytheism in sustaining morale and hoodwinking the masses and asked whether the rule of law was strong enough to prevail over the chaos of the mob, especially one that's threatened with extinction.

Even as Galactica's commander, William Adama, committed his life to saving mankind, he asked "Why are we as a people worth saving?" It's a question that's crucial to answer, since as we learned earlier this season, humans throughout the ages and in galaxies separated by millions of light years have repeatedly manufactured cybernetic organisms, and each time the robots have visited genocidal war on their creators.

The answer comes in people's ability to take a leap of faith and decide to chart a new course that breaks the cycle.

"We can give them the best part of ourselves, but not the baggage, not the ships, the equipment, the technology, the weapons," Commander Adama's son, Lee, says of the new human race they plan spawn. "If there's one thing we should have learned, it's that you know our brains have always outraced our hearts. Our science charges ahead. Our souls lag behind. Let's start anew."

Freewill Triumphant

We see the role of freewill shaping the story's outcome repeatedly. Boomer, a particularly torn version of the Number Eight Cylon model, forsakes her ringleader Cavil by returning Hera to Galactica. The blow is too much for even Cavil, by far the most calculating of the Cylon models, who soon decides to exercise his own free will by putting a gun in his mouth and pulling the trigger. Even Baltar, whose collaboration with the Cylons touched off the genocide in the first place, plays a role, when he decides to stay on Galactica for the final confrontation with the rebel Cylons.

And yet at the same time, the series always acknowledged that events are irrevocably shaped by random occurrences too. Sometimes, they came in the form of chance happenings, such as an asteroid that whacks a nuclear-armed Colonial Raptor, which leads to the accidental destruction on the Cylon colony.

Other times, the series was purposely ambivalent about whether outcomes were the result of statistical anomalies, destiny and free will or some combination of them. Such was the case with Kara Thrace's mysterious childhood song, which leads her to punch coordinates into Galactica's faster-than-light transporter that just happens to lead her nomadic civilization on the brink of collapse to its new home.

And that's what has made Battlestar Galactica such a satisfying journey. There were no clear answers, just a series of worthwhile questions that involved the intersection of human kind, technology, God, and society.

Sometimes the dystopian story was almost too dark to take. But even then, the series knew when to pull back and offer the possibility that things on this new Earth - even with its decadence and dancing robots - could turn out differently this time. For the first time, it suggested, mankind could decide to do things differently. Hence, mankind set the surviving Centurion Cylons free so the robots could plot their own course. And it flew Galactica and the rest of the fleet into the sun so it could truly start again.

Then again, maybe all the dark series of events will happen again, as they already have occurred so many times before. Or if they don't, maybe it's only "mathematics" and the "law of averages" that will make things different this time around. As the Number Six points out to Baltar at the end of the series: "Let a complex system repeat itself long enough [and] eventually something surprising might occur."

But even that is too much certainty. So the Number Six adds: "That, too, is in God's plan." ®