Friday, January 16, 2009

musings on BSG mysteries

I just sat through "Sometimes a Great Notion," the thirteenth episode of "Battlestar Galactica" and the first of so-called "Season 4.5" (the notation reflects the series' bifurcation as a result of the writers' strike). What a depressing episode that was! The tears, the arguments, the drinking-- it was practically a Korean soap opera.

BSG keeps you guessing; with that in mind, here's what we think we know by the end of the episode: the Starbuck now among the Galactica crew may not be the same as the Starbuck who seemed to perish near the end of Season 3. Starbuck 2.0, accompanied by a Leoben Cylon, follows her instincts and ends up finding the husk of a Viper with a pilot suit still inside-- shattered helmet and all. My immediate guess was that the suit would be empty, but no: Starbuck 2.0 lifts the helmet and we see the charred, skeletal remains of a pilot within. Trembling, Starbuck 2.0 digs around and finds... her own dogtags.

The viewer is led to conclude, at least tentatively, that Starbuck 2.0 is a true 2.0: we seem to be staring at the burned corpse of the 1.0 version, the one we'd been following from the 2003 miniseries through most of Season 3. "What am I?" Kara Thrace screams at Leoben. And we mentally respond: the fifth of the Final Five Cylons, of course! Leoben's expression is cryptic but spooked: we get the impression that this wasn't what he had expected.

But no: the honor of Fifth Cylon goes-- again, only apparently-- to Ellen Tigh. The four "Final Five" Cylons we know about-- Tory, Tigh, Anders, and Tyrol-- are having flashbacks to their existence on Earth, which appears to have been irradiated in a nuclear holocaust some two thousand years ago. Tigh's remembrance about Ellen comes at the very end of the episode: as the bombs are dropping, we see Tigh and Ellen two thousand years ago, with Ellen trapped under some sort of wreckage; as she dies, she tells Tigh, "It's OK: everything's in place. We'll be reborn. Together."

Admiral Adama and President Roslin, who both finally declared their love for each other at the end of the first half of Season 4, are having their own problems. The morale of the fleet-- and in particular, of Galactica-- has reached a new low now that Earth, radioactive and infertile, appears to be a literal dead end. President Roslin burns her copy of the Pythian scriptures, asking Adama to leave her alone. She and Adama share the same shame: they led the people to this pass, and so many have died along the way.

Adama, after a bitter confrontation with Tigh (whose Cylon nature is known to all), decides that the fleet needs to pack up and move on. We see, in these moments, the seeds of the great samsaric wheel in which all the dramatis personae are ensnared: All this has happened before; all this will happen again.

But despite these shocking new developments in the BSG story, the one that kicked me in the gut was Dee's suicide. Good God! I didn't see that one coming-- did you? Poor Dee had been with us from the beginning, a strong, quiet, angelic presence. Her marriage to Lee Adama went down in flames, through no fault of her own, but she always did her duty. Dee, often a minor character in the series, epitomized a female type not seen among the major female characters. She wasn't ruthless the way President Roslin could be; she wasn't as reckless and deadly as Starbuck. Dee was calm, centered, and morally upright, which is why her death hurts: if even Dee can be driven to suicide, then humanity is most definitely screwed.

I have to give BSG credit for zigging just when we think the show is going to zag. I also think Ronald D. Moore might actually have the guts to flog the series toward a truly dark conclusion. But I do have some questions.

1. Was Earth an entirely Cylon planet? This seems to be the implication of the action and dialogue at the beginning of the episode: after finding both the remains of droid-Cylons unlike the centurions currently in use, and the bones of beings who turn out also to be Cylons, Baltar concludes, "The thirteenth colony was Cylon." But Ellen Tigh's dying utterance to Saul makes me wonder whether she and Saul-- and, perhaps, other Cylons like them-- were somehow in cahoots, somehow different from the rest of the population, who might have either been human, or Cylons unable to reincarnate* through the "downloading" procedure with which we've become familiar. Ellen seems to be implying ("Everything's in place") that only a chosen few will be reborn after the global catastrophe, and that this isn't common knowledge.

Or could the Ellen and Saul of 2000 years ago have been humans, part of a cabal of people who craved immortality and who had worked hard to develop (or fund the development of) technology that would conduce to this form of immortality? If we follow that line of thought, then Baltar and all the people around him might actually be Cylons: they're looking at real human remains for the first time, and seeing them as not-us. Thinking of themselves as human, they declare the human remains Cylon.

Going even further afield: if only a limited number of humans on Earth (say, twelve or thirteen) died but downloaded themselves, thereby becoming primordial, but highly advanced, Cylon models, how does one explain the racial variety of the twelve colonies? Could it be that those early Cylons-- recently deceased-and-downloaded humans-- had figured out how to craft their genes so that they were susceptible to mutation?

2. Why does Earth of 2000 years ago look like modern colonial (i.e., modern North American) civilization? The clothing, the language, and the architecture all look like what we saw on Caprica. Could it be that-- as I have suspected for some time-- we've been watching one round of an eternally cyclical Cylon tragedy, a story that has been playing itself out over and over again? Maybe, in the end, everyone is a type of Cylon, and the machines have been trying to get themselves out of a loop that causes them to recreate the same human languages, fashions, cultures, etc. The cycle doesn't repeat itself exactly, but it does repeat-- the "humans" seek new worlds to colonize, they build their robots, the robots develop enough sentience to rebel, mass destruction occurs, and then some genius always says, thousands of years after the initial exodus, "Let's find Earth." No matter where the machines establish themselves, they always end up seeking Terra. All this has happened before.

3. If the Five are from Earth, and are an altogether different species of Cylon from the regular "Model 1-8" Cylons, how did the regular models come to know of the Five's existence?

4. Is it possible that there's a thirteenth Cylon-- perhaps Starbuck? The seven regular humaniform Cylon models are 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 8. To that, we add the Final Five, who are (we think): Samuel Anders, Tory Foster, Saul Tigh, Galen Tyrol, and Ellen Tigh. Where did Number 7 go? If Starbuck is a Cylon, is she the lost 7? The 13-Cylon concept makes the notion of thirteen colonies easier to grasp in the abstract (one model per colony), though I don't know how this would play out concretely. Could Starbuck be the Cylon god? Could that be why Leoben backs away from her, after all of his own god-talk? Was he freaking out about finding himself standing next to God?

This brings up a whole new set of questions about what the term "god" might mean in the BSG universe. Up to now, we've been content to view Cylon religion as monotheistic in something like the sense we Earthlings understand the term, and to view colonial religion as a form of Greek polytheism. But Starbuck, who has shown herself capable of visions, who has been told she has a "special destiny," and who now seems able to reappear Cylon-style after her supposed death, might just be some sort of goddess in a sense that machines might appreciate.

Prophecy is a major theme in BSG. In many ways, the series has walked a fine line between a dark naturalism (no gods, no aliens, no ghosts or spirits-- nothing but cold, vast space and a dying human race) and some sort of theism, as evidenced by the creepy way in which certain prophetic predictions come true.** The series has done an excellent job of dangling the possibility that everything we have seen fits into some sort of plan, but has also left open the possibility that the whole plot can be viewed through a purely naturalistic lens, even if what we finally discover is that the Cylons are all that's left, and they've been reenacting an epic story for millennia... or millennia of millennia.

5. What is head-Six, exactly? Baltar's hallucination might not be a hallucination at all: in the first half of Season 4, there's a moment where a prostrate Baltar is yanked to his feet by an invisible force-- presumbly head-Six. I've sometimes wondered whether she's somehow satanic: she's a temptress, almost always appears in red, and talks constantly about God. What's more, Sharon Agathon's half-Cylon daughter drew pictures of a blond Six, littering the pages with crayoned 6es. I picked up a strong satanic vibe during that scene.

6. Can the colonists really afford to turn away from Earth? Whatever regenerated Starbuck and her Viper (always assuming that the corpse in the Viper really is Starbuck's 1.0 version) must still be functioning, either on Earth or on the moon, or somewhere in the locality. You'd think that locating that tech would be a priority.

7. Speaking of the moon, what would a sideways glance at the moon reveal about the nature of Earth's civilization? Any above-ground or underground outposts?

8. Cylons are stronger and faster than humans (or so the narrative goes); what would make the Earthbound Cylons build civilizations that, at least according to the flashbacks, look no different from human civilization?

9. When the fleet prepares to jump away from Earth, why does De'anna Biers say that she prefers to sit on-planet and die among the bones of her "ancestors"? I understand her urge to jump off the samsaric Ferris wheel, but her use of the word "ancestors" puzzles me. It seems likely, based on the little evidence we have, that Cylons may come in all shapes and sizes through a sort of parallel evolution: humans move to different planets and always end up inventing some form of humanoid robotic servant, some form of Cylon, or it may even be that Cylons also start inventing Cylons.

Enough questions for now. The series will, alas, end in late March. I'm actually hoping that Moore will remain true to his dark reimagining of the original, campy TV series, right up to the end, and will either snuff humanity out or show us that it's been nothing but Cylons all along.

*The process is incorrectly referred to as "resurrection" in the series, but properly speaking, the download procedure has more in common with Hindu notions of reincarnation than with resurrection, which is a much murkier business. The process might also be thought of as similar to Buddhist rebirth.

Speaking very generally: Hindu reincarnation involves the idea of an atman, an indestructible kernel of self, that passes from body to body, always subject to the law of karma (action), which determines where one ends up during the next round of the wheel: one travels not only into a new body, but also a new situation. Cylon reincarnation doesn't quite follow the Hindu model: instead of an indestructible atman moving into different bodies (some of which might not even be human), the Cylon's memories are somehow transmitted to a new body that is, effectively, a clone of the now-dead Cylon body. This is a major disanalogy with Hindu reincarnation: an ensemble of memories is not the same thing as an indestructible atman. Nevertheless, the notion that some sort of distinct personhood is transmitted from body to body is common to both reincarnation and Cylon downloading. A loose analogy is possible.

Resurrection, especially in the biblical sense, may involve a body that is not quite like mortal flesh; it might instead be a soma pneumatikon, a spiritual body. Some schools of thought say the resurrected body is identical with, and a continuation of, the body that died. If so, this is completely different from Cylon downloading, which involves two distinct bodies: the now-dead Cylon's body, and the new body into which the dead Cylon's "mind" (or collection of memories) has been transferred. If we stick to the soma pneumatikon model of resurrection, we see no analogy among the Cylons. A "reborn" Cylon is not a transcendent being: it is merely Cylon consciousness re-enfleshed, with no hint of apotheosis.

Could Cylon downloading be analogous to the Buddhist concept of rebirth? Buddhists prefer this term to "reincarnation" because they deny the reality of the atman. Instead, what transfers from body to body is merely a collection of personal aggregates held together by the momentum of karma. This is, at first blush, strongly analogical to Cylon downloading (a collection of memories), but as with the Hindu reincarnation model, we encounter the problem of the physical bodies: a dead Cylon downloads into a new body that is exactly the same as the old one; this isn't the Buddhist vision. Also, in Buddism, the physical body itself is considered one of the five personal aggregates (rupa skandha, the form-aggregate). While a strong analogy can be established between Buddhist rebirth and Cylon downloading, this analogy contains major flaws.

So take your pick: Cylons are reborn or reincarnated, but they aren't resurrected.

**As someone who did time in religious studies, I do need to note that academics would bristle at the equation of "prophecy" with "prediction." The two concepts can and often do overlap, but it would be wrong to call them synonymous. I'm addressing this note to my more academic readers to signal my awareness of the relevant distinctions.



Anonymous said...

In a recent TV Guide article, one of the producers said that the final Cylon would be revealed at the end of episode one. Unless he was being misleading, I guess it's Ellen...


Anonymous said...

Interesting analysis, but sometimes a download is actually a download, especially when dealing with computers and technology.

I just hope it doesn't pull a "St.Elsewhere" type ending. It's been too good a run to go out with a whimper.

John from Daejeon

Kevin said...


You're probably right.


Indeed, a download is a download. But since it's the BSG characters themselves that use terms like "reborn" and "resurrected," I thought I'd address the topic.

(Actually, from the dying Cylon's point of view, isn't it actually a data upload? I've always wondered about that.)


Anonymous said...

Yeah, it’s a combination upload (deceased)/download (reborn). It is also extremely fast.

I don’t know if you follow it, but “Lost” begins its endgame on Wednesday night. There are even more questions that need answering there, but what happens after we get the answers, especially if they aren’t what we are hoping for? All I know is that when we humans come to the ends of our game, many will be disappointed (not every religion will get it right, if any do); however, I’m counting on nonexistence and a fade out to black. I think religion is just a way to control the masses through fear, intimidation (10 commandments as an avenue for eternal salvation), and fanciful and imagined rewards for being the poor who will never actually inherit the earth, but only the means that other more “godless” types use to build their own empires.


Rhesus said...

Only peripherally related, but...

I remember reading about some (Australian?) scientist who thought it would be possible at some point to "download" the information that comprises a person's mind into electronic memory, thus allowing said person to "live" (or maybe "be" is the correct expression?) indefinitely.

This is breathtakingly stupid for a variety of reasons, but the main one is that it seems to assume that with downloading, or the electronic transfer of binary information, there's some identity between the original and downloaded info. This isn't the case. Downloading/uploading is just making a local copy.

I mean, a person whose mind was transferred in this way would not experience continuity between his old and new bodies or whatever. The new self would be a copy, with no handing-over of consciousness.

That scientist is probably an atheist, but his idea is religious in that it presupposes some essence of mind. If mind is purely an artifact of the brain (the product of a gigantic mass of incredibly transient electro-chemical impulses), it seems unlikely that there's any such essence, and an individual's mind is not going anywhere outside of his or her brain.

Sorry about that - reading the BG up/downloading stuff reminded me of being irked.

Kevin said...


I agree. Personal continuity isn't guaranteed: it's merely a copy that's been made. Perhaps from the point of view of someone outside the process, like Karl "Helo" Agathon (who marries the Cylon Athena), this fact makes no difference.

In one episode of BSG, Helo shoots and kills Athena, knowing that this is a way for her to upload onto a nearby Cylon base ship. When the newly uploaded Athena finally reunites with Helo, he has no trouble accepting this new copy as basically the same person. Creepy.