Nuts ‘n Baltars (Warning – many spoilers!)

So, a third season of Battlestar Galactica has wound its way to a conclusion. A conclusion this time much more low key and quasi-mystical than ever before. Leaving us, as usual, with lots of questions, it was also occasionally a little unclear. Was Starbuck dead after all? So where did she appear from and how had she “been to Earth”? Is Earth Heaven, then? Since they’ve yet to reach it, how was it that the newly revealed Cylons were triggered to wake by Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower? Who were the mysterious ships flying over our heroes in the nebula? Didn’t see any Cylons, that’s for sure…

Many friends of mine, and indeed people I don’t know, find Galactica hard to take for various reasons, the most prominent being that they see it as right wing propaganda. To me, this is an indication of not really having paid attention, or taking certain themes, plots and characters out of context. It’s true that the series shows the future to be dominated by an analogue of the US military, but the mistake people seem to make is to assume that soldiers are mere cyphers, extensions of the political philosophy of their government. Galactica deals with the fact that soldiers are people, as flawed and fallible as anyone else. They hold a variety of political views and are as prone to being wrong as anyone else. And in high office, while President Laura Roslin seems like a bit of a liberal, we found out last year about her strongly held views on abortion, which led to a decision that, by both moral and strategic terms, was very wrong and has come back to haunt her.

As for the political philosophy of the show itself, it was a revelation to me to sit in a panel at this year’s Gallifrey One convention and hear left wingers decry the show as right wing propaganda, and right wingers decry it as left wing propaganda. The truth, like the show’s characters themselves, is rather more muddy. The Cylons began as mass murderers in a Dalek style – witness Number Six’s unfeeling murder of a baby in the marketplace in the original miniseries. Yet they’ve been shown to be divided among themselves as to how to treat humanity, some feeling that attempted genocide was the worst mistake they ever made. Conversely, our heroes make no attempt to understand their enemy, which would make sense from both a moral and a military point of view. Whenever they capture a Cylon, instead of trying to figure out what makes it tick, they just shove it out the nearest airlock. The military can be both right and wrong, a fact acknowledged by Ronald D Moore when he ran Star Trek‘s most sophisticated incarnation, Deep Space Nine. Curiously, that realisation served to defuse the very real right wing agenda of Starfleet, an organisation who, as Clive James once put it, would “beam down and impose the Federation’s will in the name of freedom.” Their endlessly disposable red shirted cannon fodder really do show the soldier as merely a weapon rather than a person.

Since it began, Galactica has tackled potentially very controversial subjects, politically analogous to the real world and in particular the Iraq war. On no occasion, it seems to me, has it come down on either side of the political fence, but it has presented arguments for both sides very powerfully. The topic of prisoner abuse was deliberately rubbed in the viewer’s face in season 2’s Pegasus, in which the captured Number Six had been horrifically treated by the crew of the titular Battlestar, ostensibly on the side of humanity. This being indefensible, both right and left wingers can feel vindicated.

Things became rather greyer this year, with the Cylon occupation of New Caprica. Intentionally portrayed as a parallel to the US occupation of Iraq, this plotline even lifted the awful jargon of the US army and news media. “Insurgents” were referred to, and the occupiers formed a police force of the natives that became an instant target for the “terrorists”. But if the show has a right wing agenda, how would it make sense to cast the Cylons in the role of the Americans? For that matter, when it’s our heroes who are the insurgency, and they start strapping on explosives to suicide bomb what they see as collaborators, isn’t that encouraging us even more to see things from the point of view of the people of Iraq? On the other hand, as left-wingers might see it, the plot seems to show the Cylons taking a much softer line, indeed trying, in a cack-handed sort of way, to be a benevolent force for co-operation. Their violence seems to spring from frustration at the humans’ unwillingness to accept this. That, though, seems perilously close to defending the policies of people like Hans Frank, Nazi governor of Poland.

So in my view, the show presents plots about which one can make up one’s own mind. Both Cylons and humans have evolved immensely since the series began, and even then it seemed to be humanity’s treatment of their sentient creations as slaves that led to the enmity. Perhaps there is no right or wrong side; no right or left wing in this galaxy.

Other unfavourable comparisons, though, have been drawn with the original series. The original Battlestar Galactica was an expensive but shallow rip off of Star Wars, which nonetheless had an interesting premise. Its villain was a man named Count Baltar, with whom the newer Gaius Baltar has little but a name in common. Some see the new Baltar as a stereotypical English bad guy, but once again this seems to be a question of not looking hard enough. Gaius Baltar is vain, arrogant, weak-willed and hedonistic, but he’s not a villain. It is his fault that the Cylons were able to penetrate the Colonial defences and wipe out most of mankind, but he had no idea that was going to happen. All he wanted was a shag, with that tall, mysterious blonde woman! The series since has built on his sense of guilt and cowardice, and his fear of getting caught. In many ways, he’s the most realistic character in it; the slimy, “it’s not my fault” worm that perhaps a lot of us would become in such circumstances.

In contrast, the original Baltar was a camp, cackling pantomime villain who made Anthony Ainley’s Master look like a model of depth and complexity. John Colicos plays him with a great over the top relish, but really he’s a paper-thin 2D character who makes no sense. What does he hope to gain by betraying humanity to the Cylons? They want to kill all the humans. He’s a human. Does he expect them to make a distinction? It’s like that bit in Terror of the Autons where the Master suddenly realises that the Nestenes won’t distinguish between him and the people of Earth, and you think “if you’re a genius, how did you miss that rather large flaw in your plan?”. Colicos’ Baltar can’t be after money or power either; what use would they be to the last man in the universe? No, the new Baltar holds up far better in comparison, but for heaven’s sake try to see beyond James Callis’ English accent. At the very least it’s caused the use of words like “butterfingers”!

The other criticism of the show is that it’s unremittingly grim and visually drab. Well, be fair; being the last survivors of a holocaust on the run from a lethal enemy with superior firepower in a hostile environment is hardly the stuff of Terry and June, is it? And yet even given this, the show’s often displayed a fair sense of humour. Baltar’s ghostly sex fantasies of Number Six have led to a number of “whoops, Vicar” moments as other characters discover him pleasuring himself in his lab, and there’s even an outright comedy episode in season one. Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down, directed by stony-faced Edward James Olmos himself, is a Run For Your Wife-style farce of the highest order; or perhaps Abigail’s Party would be a more sophisticated comparison. As for being visually drab, well, the show is set on a bunch of clapped out military spaceships with some very low technology. The military aren’t known for painting things lilac, are they? Well, maybe some of them, but they work on a “don’t ask, don’t tell” philosophy. It seems to be an acquired taste, but I think the kinetic, “handheld camera” style of the space battles provides plenty to stimulate the viewer visually. It’s a logical development of the style used in Babylon 5, DS9, and most notably Firefly, whose main ship Serenity can be glimpsed in the Galactica miniseries as a kind of tribute.

One criticism that I initially shared before I saw the show was the concept of the Cylons looking like humans. It seemed like a cost-cutting measure, and it’s true that the early CG centurions in the miniseries looked less than convincing. Besides the “they look like us and they’re already here” plot is one of the oldest in sci fi, stretching from 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers through TV shows The Invaders, The X-Files, and last year’s ill-fated Invasion. But it’s a plot device that works brilliantly, especially with the self-imposed limitation of only twelve Cylon models. And now the Cylon ships are actual Cylons too, from their raiders to their base ships. Fitting for a robot race evolving towards true life form status. Besides, they’ve really improved the CG on the robotic Centurion models; they’re leaner and more vicious looking than the originals, with built in weaponry and a capability to be lethal even when partially dismembered. And they move like lightning! By contrast, the originals, while looking and sounding pretty cool, always looked like they’d fall over when they started moving. With hilarious results, as shown in an episode of Robot Chicken.

Perhaps Galactica appeals to a very different kind of sci fi fan than the lighter, frothier reborn Doctor Who; perhaps also one’s enjoyment of it may depend on one’s enjoyment of old war movies, whose conventions it frequently appropriates. But it’s a sophisticated, very human show, with many interesting science fiction concepts and limitations, and one deserving already of the term “classic”.

With all that in mind, now that season three has come to an end, what did I think of it?

It’s been a rather unbalanced season, with the strong opening episodes featuring the occupation of New Caprica and Galactica’s wham-bang rescue mission, but after that it seemed somewhat to go into idle. There were an unusual number of, admittedly very well done, filler episodes, such as the one about Chief Tyrol unionizing the refinery ship, or the one where he and his wife got stuck in an airlock. There were also a few tantalising plot threads left hanging from earlier. In particular, what happened to the mysterious Cylon plague that had decimated one of their ships and appeared to have no effect on humans? A perfect weapon for some of the nasty neo-cons on Galactica, I’d have thought.

Baltar’s enforced absence on a Cylon base ship gave us an ever greater insight into the truly alien world of these hyper-evolved machines, operating out of gigantic, living ships controlled by Minority Report-alike weirdoes wired into the system from tanks of goo. The problem with this was that Baltar’s presence in the Colonial fleet was one of the best dynamics of the show’s drama, and with the unwitting collaborator gone, the conflicts between characters seemed somehow less important.

They pulled it all together with the climactic two-parter, though. Taking the tried-and-tested dramatic format of a trial, it also weaved its increasingly mystical themes through a genuinely gripping exploration of the importance of the law, and how Baltar may not be as guilty as people think. The trial featured some powerful speeches on the rights of the individual, and grizzled old Adama surprised us all by voting Baltar not guilty. Meanwhile Lee Adama discovered that the legal process is no place for an honest man, as he sold his soul by betraying all around him to win the case. Small wonder then that he piled into a Viper at the first opportunity and flew off to almost certain doom.

And now we know the identity of four of the final five Cylon replicants. This might have been more of a surprise if Sky hadn’t said this in their listings, particularly since it became obvious after about ten minutes that only four of the characters could hear the mysterious snatches of music that turned out to be Bob Dylan. Still, the revelation begged yet more questions. Now aware that he’s a Cylon, Colonel Tigh seems intent on carrying on as the man he thought he was. But his ambiguous response to Adama at the close of the show was open to all manner of interpretation, and also made me wonder if there are multiple versions of these models in the fleet. Perhaps the Tigh we saw in the last scene wasn’t the one we’d seen before… Also, none of these four seemed to merit the hushed, humbled apology spoken by D’Anna when she glimpsed one of their faces in her temple-bound vision earlier in the season. Unless, of course, it was Tigh, and she was mortally embarrassed at having gouged his eye out!

Not as spectacular a conclusion as season one’s coup d’etat by Adama or season two’s Cylon invasion of New Caprica, this year’s finale seemed designed to stimulate the brain more than the adrenal glands. But that won’t stop me rushing back next year…