Earlier this week, in advance of the grandly anticipated conclusion of “Battlestar Galactica” on Friday, the United Nations convened a panel to discuss the show’s treatment of terrorism, human rights abuses and religious conflict.
Despite the obviousness of the public relations piggybacking, the United Nations occasion only further legitimized the political seriousness of a series that has explored the post-9/11 consciousness by examining the costs of wartime moral relativism. While a show like “Gossip Girl” might also be said to have ambitions — broadly, to address the injustices of class disparity, let’s say — it is unlikely that the name Blair Waldorf has ever come up at the coffee cart around which the Council of Economic Advisers gathers.
“Battlestar Galactica,” which during its four seasons has elevated the image of the otherwise campy and unambitious Sci Fi channel, has — like most science fiction — conducted an experiment in supposition. Ideas of faith, coexistence and democracy have been delivered with an air of intellectual rigor and a vagueness that has allowed the series to exist as a tabula rasa on which nearly any strain of speculative meaning might viably take shape.
The series began with the premise that the human race had been extinguished by a robot tribe, the Cylons, it had created to enslave. The Cylons, who devoutly follow a single god, have been understood, quite reasonably, as stand-ins for the robotic, prescriptive aspects of religious extremism; they are Islamic fundamentalists in one view, the politically aggressive factions of the Christian right in another. They are literally born and born again.
But toward the show’s finale, as the differences between the Cylons and the remaining humans began to dissolve, the opportunity for a more acutely contemporary symbolism emerged. It became easier to regard the series as an argument for the imperatives of shared interest in a post-racial world.
In another, if fringier, analysis, the show’s focus on the struggles of a contained brigade of human survivors in a post-apocalyptic galaxy is a loose parable for the events in the Book of Mormon: Gaius Baltar (James Callis), the venal scientist turned collaborator turned false prophet turned savior equated not with Jesus or a hundred televangelists but with Joseph Smith. (The original “Battlestar Galactica” of the late 1970s was created by a member of the Church of Latter-day Saints, lending the thesis a certain currency online.)
At the same time, it would hardly seem illogical to read the series, right now at least, as a housing-crisis metaphor: thousands of displaced people without a safety net in search of a home.
Since the revived “Battlestar Galactica” first made its appearance as a mini-series in 2003 it has been celebrated for its moral ambiguity, which seems empty praise, given how much bad television has been created in the name of a gray area and how little anything worthwhile is ever made without it.
But the series has been far more remarkable for the ways in which its characters’ principles and value systems have evolved. Most notable has been the change in Gaius, whose self-regarding penchant for expedience finally gives way to a moving and incalculably consequential display of rectitude in the final episode.
In the end, his self-serving rationalism comes to accommodate a genuine commitment to faith, one that seeks to resolve the show’s theological tensions, if not with the kind of pungence one might have hoped for. The humans have been worshiping multiple deities, but the longstanding battle between monotheism and polytheism is irrelevant, Gaius warns his adversary in philosophical summation.
“Whether we want to call that God or Gods or some sublime inspiration or a divine force that we can’t know or understand doesn’t matter,” he says. “God is a force of nature beyond good and evil.”
Atheism is the real enemy of mankind’s progress; salvation seems to lie in a vague belief in angels and higher powers, as if the series thought of itself as a promotional appendage of Alcoholics Anonymous.
I’m not sure that in the most fleeting sense, it hasn’t. The final three hours of the series devote considerable time flashing back to the lives of the survivors before the fall, who are all shown drinking to the point of physical and psychological compromise.
Though Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell) seems able to imbibe with a semblance of moderation, we encounter her, in prehistory, learning that her father and two sisters have been killed by a drunken driver on the way home from a baby shower she has given. The scene poignantly contextualizes the calm that Roslin has demonstrated with a mesmerizing consistency throughout her tenure as president of the remaining colony of humans: her own world already evaporated a long time ago.
Roslin’s relationship with the fleet’s military leader, Adama (Edward James Olmos), one built on respect and shared sorrows and a profound inclination to give care, has provided one of the sublime, bittersweet pleasures of the final season. There has been no better or quieter rendering of love in midlife on television. “Battlestar Galactica” has upheld certain liberal pieties without the utmost subtlety. (Why should we abstain from waging biological warfare on annihilators? Because then it makes us no better than our enemies.) But it has drawn the need for, and the sustenance of, emotional connection with a nuanced and deeply felt authenticity.
“Battlestar Galactica” has aspired during its reign more toward the science fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin than toward the science fiction of “Stargate Atlantis”: the show’s taste for gender neutrality seems plucked from her 1969 novel, “The Left Hand of Darkness.”
But the show could not break with the genre’s tradition of hokey, hopeful earnestness. Landing finally on a pastoral facsimile of Earth, the human-Cylon partnership vows to start anew with pledges not to let science outpace soulfulness. One hundred fifty thousand years later, a city of neon stands on the green terrain — as well as the assumption that we won’t make all of the same mistakes over again.