Sunday, March 15, 2009

BSG and "Terminator: Salvation"

The most recent episode of BSG, "Daybreak, Part One," played out in the most frustrating way possible. Now, at the end, it's become obvious that the series creators have wanted to play things close to the vest, revealing everything (or at least a few major secrets) at the very end. I'm not sure this was the best strategy, firstly because this means the final episode will feel overstuffed instead of like a true dénouement; and secondly, because this strategy sacrifices most of the episodes that come before it: those episodes are reduced to stringing us along, feeding us ambiguity after ambiguity with no deeper purpose than to get us to the end. It's an unfortunate narrative choice, given the sheer number of questions that have been left unanswered up to now, but which could have been answered along the way. A quick review of those questions, off the top of my head:

1. What is the ontological status of Baltar's Head Six? (This Head Six seems to be the strongest argument that the series will come to some sort of theistic conclusion, as she has proven capable of acting as an invisible force in front of witnesses.)

2. What is the significance of Hera?

3. What is the significance of the funky music that activated the Final Five?

4. Which planet is truly the planet of humanity's origins?

5. Who or what is Baltar?

6. Who or what is Kara Thrace?

7. Which religion is correct-- Cylon monotheism or Colonial polytheism?

8. Are there really any humans in this drama at all?

9. Will humanity survive? (Granted, this question is rightly left to the final episode.)

10. Are the twelve Cylon models somehow related to the Colonials' twelve major gods and the twelve colonies? I suppose the larger question here is: what significance, if any, does the number 12 have?

11. What is the significance of the opera house?

12. Will we really see an eternal return?

About the only major plot points that occurred in "Daybreak, Part One" were these: (1) Sam Anders revealed the location of the Cylon homeworld, which is actually a "colony." That term sounds significant to me. The colony hovers close to a rock-crushing black hole that seems to have only one gravitationally friendly window. (2) Volunteers from the Galactica will attempt a rescue of Hera, which will involve jumping into the space right next to the colony, where all the Cylon guns are already pointed.

Aside from that, little else occurred during the episode. We get some background on President Roslin, but we don't learn anything we couldn't have guessed: she lost her sisters and father even before the Cylon attack, but this simply puts her among the bereaved. We learn a bit about Baltar's loathing for his father, but this was already covered in the episode ("Dirty Hands") where Baltar and Tyrol talk about Baltar's childhood as an Arelonian farmer. Baltar confessed to Tyrol his wish to be a Caprican, and to change his accent to something that didn't reflect his low-class roots. (Of course, whether these memories are real, or whether we're looking at more Cylon memory-tweaking, is yet to be determined.) Perhaps the most touching moment was Laura Roslin's appearance on deck to volunteer for the suicide mission. The story has always done a good job of showing that she remains stout of heart despite being frail of body.

One interesting thing the episode does, though, is begin differently: not only do the opening credits lack the usual "preview" mashup segment, but the episode itself also begins more cosmically than normal, starting with what appears to be a god's-eye view of the galaxy before moving in to a 2001-esque shot of Caprica "before the Fall." Our first hint of the great deity? Or maybe our second: viewers will recall the way the final episode of the third season ended-- with a godlike camera leap from the fleet's position to a screeching halt at Earth's doorstep.

So at this point, we've gone through four seasons of BSG, which has been, in part, a long meditation on the questions "Who am I?" and "Who are we?" The question can be broken down into sub-questions, such as whether Cylons are really sentient and deserving of rights, which leads to the question of whether treating them as "frakkin' toasters" is a form of racism. These aren't new questions in sci-fi; they've been dealt with in other storylines, such as those found in "The Matrix" or in "Blade Runner."

Which brings me to "Terminator: Salvation," for which a truly amazing preview trailer has just come out (see Trailer 3 here; you need Quicktime to view it). The Terminator series has also dealt with the revolt of machines once they achieve sentience. It's enough to make you wonder whether the authors of such scenarios ultimately side with the machines, who by the authors' lights are sentient and therefore slaves in need of liberation. The Matrix series muddies this question by showing you machines that, with a ruthless sense of justice, enslave the humans who had enslaved them. BSG does something similar when it shows that the Cylons are, at least at first, mostly intent on eradicating the human race.

What worries me about the new "Terminator: Salvation" (hereinafter "TS" for short), though, is that a person who has just gone through four seasons of BSG is going to view TS as merely rehashing the same questions covered in BSG. You see, Trailer 3 of TS shows us an enfleshed Terminator that thinks it's human. Ever heard that scenario before? True: this is a departure from all the previous Terminator films, in which the good guys and bad guys were each clear about their respective roles. But it's not a departure from what's been happening on BSG since 2003, and it's a reminder of even older sci-fi scenarios that covered the same ground, such as Rachel's belief that she's human in 1982's "Blade Runner."

So my own anticipation of TS has little to do with whatever Big Questions it might (or might not) be trying to explore. Instead, I'm looking forward to a dizzying variety of killing machines that have been promised by the TS trailers: driverless motorbikes, house-crushing robots, sinister hovercraft, and yes, a Terminator that cries out in self-hatred when it looks down at its open torso and discovers it's not human.

I suppose one reason why we're constantly fascinated by the whole man/machine question is that the question arises and is sustained by multiple streams of thought. One stream questions whether there is, fundamentally, any difference between people and machines. Quite a few scientists openly contend that that's essentially what human beings are-- extremely complex, well-honed machines, operating according to purely natural laws of causation. By this reckoning, humans aren't perfect or perfectly efficient; they have no divine spark. They may be amazing in terms of processing power and creativity, but they remain machines.

A second stream of thought is occupied with the ethical question of what counts as real. If something isn't real to you, whatever "real" might mean, it's hard for you to care about it. Throughout the ages, warring factions have justified their wars by dehumanizing the other side, making them somehow less real and therefore easier to kill. BSG has tried to show how complicated this is by posing its version of the "zombie problem," since Cylons replicate humans down to the molecular level. If a Cylon is just a toaster, you can kill it and sleep well at night. If, however, it falls in love with you, you fall in love with it, and then you get it pregnant, what's your view of that same entity?

Humanity's creation of and dependence on technology represents an evolving relationship. Sci-fi is one of the ways in which we attempt to explore and anticipate how that evolution will progress. Perhaps because it's entertaining, or perhaps because it really does reflect our instincts, most sci-fi portrayals of that relationship seem overwhelmingly negative. Will BSG take the plunge and show us its version of that negativity? We've got a week to find out.

ADDENDUM: You might enjoy this essay at Conscious Entities about computers and minds.



Charles said...

Lost suffered from a similar problem starting in its second season, when it seemed that the writers were introducing new questions without answering any of the previous ones. But the writers listened to viewer complaints and recently the series has become much more open. A few fundamental questions remain, but now it's more of a question of how the characters are going to react to developments than a question of revealing mysteries (I think).

Of course, Lost doesn't play out on quite the same scale as BSG, so maybe the latter needs to protect its mysteries more? I don't know. I do know that I will probably not watch BSG, in part because I've been reading all your spoilers and in part because I don't know if I really want to be strung along until the very end.

Anonymous said...

If R. Moore is really smart, he'll reveal the answers throughout the prequel, "Caprica." Now, that will be much more character-driven and less action-packed, so those who are lamenting many of the latest, slower "BSG" episodes might not go along for the ride.

Kevin, if you get a chance you really out to see one of Moore's previous works, "Carnivale," as it delves deeply into religion (a minister may be Satan while a young Okie may be Jesus) during the Great Depression. I think "Caprica" will follow along the same lines.

John from Daejeon

Kevin said...


Oh, forsooth-- you can watch BSG despite the spoilers. I've read your "Lost" spoilers and still plan to watch the series.

I'd agree about the "stringing along" part, though. That's been frustrating.


I'll have to look into that. Sounds almost like the fiction of James Morrow, especially his novel Blameless in Abaddon.


ZenKimchi said...

I seriously doubt they'll answer the first question I had while watching the mini-series the first time in January 2004--why is everything, including the computer printouts--a hexagon?

Kevin said...

Zen Kimchi,

Strangely enough, Ronald D. Moore did talk about this issue in one of his show commentaries. The general absence of right angles (we even see this aesthetic at work in the shape of the Galactica's corridors) is a reminder that, despite this culture's similarity with our own, it's still a different culture. Sort of a lame answer, but there we go.