Battlestar Galactica Mystique
"Earth, a dream we've been chasing for a long time."--Admiral Adama
So concludes one of the greatest epic runs of sci-fi on TV: Battlestar Galactica (reimagined). Ripe with sci-fi's prime directive to comment not on the future, but the present reality, like its cult-like progenitor Star Trek, BSG was rich in allegory, philosophy, and literary references. A sure sign of this is the how BSG generated a cottage industry of fan Websites, books, podcasts, Webisodes, fan films, chats and wikis that manifested all the positives of the current convergence media environment. By leveraging the collective intelligence and participatory components of the contemporary pop commons, BSG illuminated a vast zeitgeist embedded in the historical tension between humans and their technological tools. The show was a kind of conjuring of the collective unconsciousness, with the producers acting as media alchemists distilling cultural properties like mad mediacologists hermeneutically absorbed by the world's pop culture dream code.
Can media tap into a kind of liminal space like shamanism? Consider the following (true) story. A year-and-a-half ago I was in the midst of a crash course in BSG, blitzing my way through the first two seasons on DVD when I encountered a viral marketing plot to promote Bob Dylan's latest "best of " compilation. Some marketing droid came up with the smart idea of giving users a chance to remix D.A. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back clip of Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues." Familiar to most pop cultists, the film famously depicts Dylan in the Village holding and tossing cue cards for his folksy rap, while Allen Ginsberg hovers in the background. Via some clever programming, the viral media campaign allowed users to enter their own text into the cue cards, which was then compiled into a flash movie postcard that you could email to friends. I played around with it for a while, not too inspired until BSG's opening title card sequence popped into my head: "The Cylons were created by man. They rebelled. They evolved. There are many copies. And they have a plan." I added: "We're frakked." I typed it in, and then titled the piece, "Subterranean Homesick Alien," unaware (amazingly!) that it was also the title of a Radiohead song. I blogged it, and 12 hours later it appeared on BoingBoing with the header, "Bob Dylan warns of Cylon invasion." Unfortunately, I could neither download the final product (goddamn record label control freaks!), nor can it be accessed anymore. It has fallen into the net's memory hole. Little did I know at the time that Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" would later be the key to BSG's prophetic vision at the conclusions of its third season. Coincidence? Synchronicity? High weirdness, to be sure. Maybe viewing all those episodes during sleepless nights threw me into a collective unconsciousness dreamspace (it was months after my daughter was born so I was sleeping very little). LOL that I would be tossed into some PK Dickian plotline. (For what it's worth, riddle me this: Cylon/Dylan, HAL/IBM. Hmmm.)
Anyhow, the show must go on. Executive producer Ronald D. Moore, who cut his teeth in the Star Trek franchise, pushed characters to the very edge of their morals and wits. Part WWII aircraft carrier dogfight space opera, part film noire, part dystopia, BSG had it all: drama, action, sex, and enough betrayal to make Shakespeare blush. Perhaps the only thing lacking was incest and royalty, yet in modern times, no other show honestly dealt with pressing themes such as religious fundamentalism, torture, occupation, suicide bombing, secrecy, and the struggle between military and civilian worlds in a time of war.
But most impressive were the metathemes regarding technology, media and ecology. Like us techno-Westerners, rootless and without a home the Earth-bound humans of Battlestar Galactica and her fleet were cast adrift in CGI hyperspace. Chased by a race of their own cybernetic creations -- the Cylons -- humans click around directionless space with no compass other than intuition and crazy visions of a dysfunctional fighter pilot and a semi-hallucinatory cancer patient -- former school teacher Laura Roslin -- who de facto became president of the exiled colonies at the moment their human home worlds were nuked by their bastard robot children. With its leadership encased in an analog shell of a decommissioned spaceship, they seek a sense of place, using the old tools and consciousness that led to their civilization's destruction. Armed with a cryptic star map and an ancient prophesy describing a mythical world called Earth, they set out to find home.
Suffice it to say the many worlds they came to during their pursuit were ecological catastrophes. The most devastating one came at the finale of the writer strike-shortened fourth season. The desaturated world that was to be their utopia, Earth, is little more than an acidified cinder. With its Planet of the Apes-like gotcha conclusion, it appeared that BSG had culminated in an existential nightmare in which their collective dream became a toxic, incinerated pile of rubble. Thankfully, with the writers back online, season four's final stretch run offered an alternate conclusion, one we can live with despite the acrid disappointment of a vision of Earth's destruction. BSG points towards a parallel reality that should be soberly pondered.
As in the previous (third) season, pilot Kara "Starbuck" Thrace leads the humans and a core group of Cylon allies to the Promised Land, guided by the mystical melody of Bob Dylan's, "All Along the Watchtower," a song noted for its quirky chronology in which the end signifies the beginning. At the show's finish we learn that Starbuck is a supernatural being, one that transcends time and space, as are several other characters who inhabit a parallel hyperreality that only a few seers can access. (One skeptical blogger quipped that BSG's plot formula was to declare any anomaly the work of wizards.) While the advanced humanoid Cylons have the capacity to superimpose an idyllic virtual reality over any scene of their choosing, there is also a collectively shared, prophetic dreamspace that some humans and Cylons can access, a dreamspace that guides the evolution of the two races.
An alliance of Cylons and humans finally reaches "Earth" -- or some version of it, landing on a still unspoiled "African" savannah. There they enounter hunter-gatherers untouched by war, android sex, or the technology that ensued during the preceding seasons. Aside from the ridiculous coincidence that the scenery looks like Window's XP's desktop pastoral landscape, there is a feeling of relief that our heroes finally reach "home." But rather than stick together, the remaining survivors do what most Westerners do, which is to go it alone. In a gesture like Cortez burning his ships, their fleet is sent to the sun to be destroyed forever, thereby making their return to future star wars impossible. The last remnants of their civilization decide to split up and dismantle their technologically driven society, which surely means their internal exile in nature will suffer the same fate as many hippie communes did in the sixties. They make this conscious, Luddite decision by essentially choosing ecologically assisted suicide rather than "progress," a noble decision that lacks the wisdom of Into the Wild's Christopher McCandless, who naively rejects cooperation and collective support necessary for surviving in the "wild." My hunch is the Battlestar crew and the rest don't make it in paradise, though in the epilog we learn that the remains of Hara, the single hybrid child of both humans and Cylon, are discovered 150,000 years later. This may be an unintentional reference to Chariots of the Gods?, Erich von Däniken's speculative theory that human civilization descended from aliens. Yet, there is an important cue there, which is that the danger for our current trajectory is that we are evolving into aliens, not the reverse.
The show concludes with a trope familiar to the 2012 crowd: the circular nature of time and a sense that civilization is an experiment that keeps repeating itself over and over again until we "get it right." Like the epochal worlds previously destroyed in Mesoamerican stories, our current world is yet one more attempt for humans to succeed or fail according to the creator's plans (a similar plotline in The Matrix series, remember?). BSG's final polemic takes place in present day Earth, represented by New York City's Times Square, ground zero of the infotainment world. In the final scene, "Virtual" Six, the advanced humanoid Cylon cum hyperspace angelic presence cum sex goddess, suggests that mathematical complexity offers the potential that civilization will one day pass the exam, offering "Virtual" Baltar the optimistic assessment that we'll make it, this time. She claims this is another articulation for evolution -- nature's architecture -- in which chaos eventually stabilizes into a new threshold for higher levels of self-organization ("dissipative structure" in eco-speak) -- the kind of thing we New Edgers love to rhapsodize about.
The show ends with Hendrix's version of "Watchtower" over a montage of present-day robot toys, which invokes that spine-tingling creepy premonition that our love affair with automation can potentially nuke our reality down the road. That we end with Hendrix and not Dylan is an interesting touch. Hendrix died young in the midst of his experimentation of uniting consciousness with technology --in his case psychedelics infused with electric guitar music, and ultimately the ionic grid of the American Empire matrix. Perhaps Hendrix was a naïve experiment gone wrong, hence the march of our robotic toys offered as potential harbinger of the future we dare not dream. If BSG can teach us anything, it's time to stop chasing the dream of Earth and start living it instead.Tweet