‘Battlestar Galactica’ Really Is the Best Thing You’re Not Watching

I dithered.

I didn’t want to.

I never cared.


What a pack of hooey.

Battlestar Galactica isn’t perfect. Television almost never is, even the television I love best. (OK, Deadwood comes fucking close, and if you’ve ever seen it, you understand why it was vital I swear in the middle of that sentence.) But it’s astonishingly good, and powerful, and sometimes beautiful, and incredibly acted.

I came to BSG late. Really late. Late as in I spent the last few months watching the first three and a half seasons, racing, faster and faster, when I realized that the last episodes would begin on Jan. 16. I ranted to friends, I ranted on the internet. At least once, I cried. No joke. I loved it and then, for a time, I hated it; in season 2.5, characters seemed to get rewritten and lame one-off episodes shoehorned in (should you feel compelled to start from the beginning, I recommend just pretending “Black Market” doesn’t exist). But it turned back around again, and improved, and kept improving (with one or two stumbles), and kept working, sometimes uncomfortably, making real-world parallels and asking endless questions about what it means to be human, and what we’d do in impossible situations, and how two incredibly different yet incredibly similar peoples might or might not ever find a way to live together after ages of conflict.

Read more. Lots more. Warning: I ramble.

It would take too long — far too long — for me to go through all the things in BSG‘s previous seasons that I was awed or horrified by, and really, I’m not writing this for non-watchers. It’s too late for that. It’s too late to catch up on the nuances of the frak-or-fight relationship between Kara “Starbuck” Thrace (Portlander Katee Sackhoff) and now-former pilot Lee “Apollo” Adama (Jamie Bamber, whose natural English accent never, ever slips through). It’s too complicated to explain the show’s history with regard to the Cylons, the “toasters” who were created by humanity but then turned on their makers, obliterating the humans’ 12 colonies. There’s too much to explain about the way the show beautifully writes its characters while sometimes stumbling over storytelling and keeping characters, well, in character. And while I’m sure I’ll get into it over the course of this season, at the moment I haven’t time to address the ways in which it sometimes seems the show’s writers are flying by the seat of their pants, occasionally rewriting the story’s history in ways that just don’t quite fit with what we’ve been told before (two words: Resurrection hub. What?).

But here we are at the beginning of the end. “Earth,” said President Roslin (Mary McDonnell) at the end of season 4.0’s finale. Earth wasn’t what it was supposed to be. Earth was supposed to be the goal, the missing 13th colony founded by the human race when they left their home planet of Kobol. Earth, instead, was a wasteland.

Episode 4.11, “Sometimes a Great Notion,” picked up right where 4.10 left off: on the decimated Earth, which managed to still have plenty of things to reveal on and under its soil. The Earth scenes were all but colorless, stripped of hope and beauty — or nearly so.

“Sometimes” built up to a surprising reveal: the identity of the last of the so-called final five Cylons, four of which were brought together by “All Along the Watchtower” at the end of season three. I clung to the possibility that it was a ploy, that it was more complicated that they were letting on, that it was misdirection; no way was Ellen Tigh (Kate Vernon) the fifth Cylon, never mind how thoroughly she seemed like a Cylon when she first appeared. But various online interviews with executive producer Ron Moore shot down all those theories: Ellen is the fifth. She’s not an aged Six (Tricia Helfer), despite the suggestions made last season. She just is. It makes sense on one level: When Ellen died, we never really saw the body. No one familiar with science fiction/fantasy conventions believed that death for a second.

But I didn’t believe she was the fifth, either, and not just because I wanted it to be Zach Adama, the dead son of Admira Adama (the fantastic Edward James Olmos), or, somehow, Lieutenant Dualla (Kandyse McClure). Still, you gotta suck it up and move on, like these last survivors of the human race gotta suck it up and move on, leaving Earth in their wake (though when last we saw one singular Cylon, D’Anna Biers [Lucy Lawless], she was planning to stay on Earth. Whether that sticks remains to be seen).

But one of them couldn’t move on — or at least the show decided she couldn’t. I’m still wrestling with the death of Dee, who fell apart at finding a set of jacks at the ocean’s edge while on Earth’s surface, then calmly, cooly shot herself after one last lovely evening with ex-husband Lee. “I just want to hang on to this feeling as long as I can,” Dee told Felix Gaeta (Alessandro Jiuliani), a wounded friend and fellow officer, minutes before putting a gun to her head. She couldn’t hold on for long, though — and therein lies the problem. We’ve had no reason to believe Dee would crack so badly. She’s long been a calm, consistent, capable presence on Galactica‘s bridge; she’s never freaked out or fallen apart, not even when Lee sent her to rescue Starbuck, knowing he was sending his wife to save the life of his would-be lover. And on a different level, it’s frustrating that for the second season in a row, BSG killed off a female character whose main purpose was to be the girlfriend. To some viewers, Dee’s death wasn’t something to mourn so much as something to be pissed off about — with reason. As Lisa Fary writes, “Her death served no purpose other than to make things for Apollo and the Admiral suck more, so they could have big emotional moments. Anyone could have come unhinged and committed suicide to drive home the hopelessness (again). But, this is BSG, so it had to be a woman because women on BSG are devices.”

I can’t agree that all the women on BSG are devices, but there is a certain “it had to be a woman” feel to Dee’s death, especially coming on the heels of the death of Cally (Nikki Clyne), whose character was also mostly defined by her relationship (which is a whole ‘nother can of worms). I’ve read that BSG is supposed to take place in a post-gender world, but I’m having a hard time swallowing that theory between the deaths, the relative dearth of female pilots and soldiers and the lack of gay characters who aren’t dead. If gender doesn’t matter, why would sexual orientation?

I wrestle, though, with what BSG does (or has done) relatively well with regard to gender, race and sexuality — and what it stumbles over. On the one hand, it’s not an entirely lily-white show; it has had a small handful of gay or bisexual characters; it had the smarts to make the fleet’s hotshot pilot female; the two main leadership roles are not played by old white guys. That’s more than a lot of shows and even movies manage. But when the show takes these steps toward being smarter, it almost makes the missteps even worse.

I don’t have any answers; it’s just something I think about when I’m watching, and also something I find difficult to explain and write about with stammering and stumbling over myself. Maybe that’s why the show stumbles, too. Maybe you have ideas. And speaking of both ideas and things I don’t have any answers about, it’s time — before I run out of time in the day — to talk about Starbuck.

But where to begin? With her disappearance and reappearance? With her crazy time on Caprica, when the Cylons may or may not have stolen one of her ovaries? With the weird way she’s so trusting of Leoben (Callum Keith Rennie) now, after he locked her up on New Caprica, trying to get her to love him and finding himself killed over and over again instead? Or with the simple, basic question everyone now has about her: What is she?

Someone somewhere theorized that when Starbuck’s Viper exploded over a mandala-shaped storm, she both died and didn’t die, and I like that idea; in a way, it fits one of the show’s oft-repeated underlying themes: This has all happened before, and it will all happen again. In some other life, Starbuck lived and crashed on Earth. In some other life, she came back to the fleet. In some other life, something entirely different happened. But here, the lines are crossed; what if the Starbuck whose body was on Earth was from some other time? What if when she nose-dived into the storm, chasing a Raider that may or may not have been there, her timeline split? It’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility for this show.

Neither is one of the other theories: that she’s some sort of deity. Or that she’s really the first Cylon-human hybrid (which reminds me, when are they going to talk about the second Cylon-human baby in the fleet? Ever?). Or that when the old hybrid said she was the destruction of the human race, it meant … well, that she had been, in a way; maybe last time, she nuked Earth, and eventually, that meant the Cylons nuked the colonies; therefore, in a roundabout way, she was their destruction. Nothing has to mean what it seems like it means.

At least, that’s how the show seems to be playing it. But I’m a little wary of reading too much into BSG right now, as sometimes the writers take things far more literally than I expect. The close watchers in the audience see hints and conspiracies, suggestions and layers in the episodes’ complex narratives. But it feels, right now, like all that thought we’re putting into the show may not result in a satisfying payoff. Sure, last week’s episode was great. But will the greatness continue?

Sometimes, though, it’s worth watching just for what’s on the screen right then, without worrying about how the story got there or where it’s going next. And last Friday gave us that experience in every scene with Starbuck (and, to be fair, with Dee). When she found that downed Viper — her downed Viper — and creepy, future-seeing, Starbuck-obsessed Leoben backed away from her, scared and confused, the show hit a high note: bleak, spooky, wounded, uncertain. And then it topped itself with the unforgettable image of Starbuck, a black silhouette against a deep blue sky, building a funeral pyre for herself. And then it topped even that with one lingering shot: Starbuck, sitting alone, elbows on knees, watching some other version of herself burn, the pyre a strange, haunting beacon in Earth’s empty darkness.

For moments like that, all the other things I’ve said here aside, Battlestar Galactica is more than worth it.

(Even more reading: This post is wicked awesome.)