Battlestar Galactica concluded with a moving, pyrotechnic two-hour finale last night, wrapping up its central storyline in a way that offered closure - but only via a turn to spiritualism and anti-scientific sentiment. Spoilers ahead.
First of all, let me get one thing straight. I think Battlestar Galactica was an incredible achievement - not only did I personally consider it a fine example of television done right, but I believe that it has fundamentally changed the way speculative fiction works on the small screen. As a critic, I've always felt that the best part of this show is that it has always been rich and complicated enough to bear the weight of strong critical analysis. And so as I walk you through such an analysis here, it's important that you understand that this is not me saying BSG sucks, but rather that this is a show whose themes make it worthy of intelligent debate.
Last night's episode, the conclusion of "Daybreak," brought the troubled Fleet to a home planet (our own Earth, 150,000 years ago) where it could settle permanently. But along the way we learn that the humans' discovery of this planet, and their rescue of little human-cylon hybrid Hera from the evil cylons, has literally been part of God's plan. Turns out the Head People that only Baltar and Caprica can see are truly angels, and that kickass resurrected pilot Starbuck is one such angel made flesh. Moreover, the show ends with a strong suggestion that humans' devotion to science and technology will only lead to their downfall - again and again and again.
So what are we to make of such blatant spiritualism and antiscience feeling in a show that has often been about the way humans are no more than machines? Frankly I'm not sure there's a way to reconcile BSG's two sides. On one hand we're asked to believe that God and angels have been shaping the future of humans; and on the other we see that humans have forged their own destiny through science, creating entire species of sentient creatures to be their companions (and enemies). Let's consider how "Daybreak" unfolded and see how such a reconciliation might work.
The first half of the episode was devoted to a battle sequence that captured some of the very best parts of this series in a tense, laser-slashed showdown between the Fleet and Cavil's army in the cylon colony. Adama has decided that the Galactica should make one last effort to save Hera, whom he realizes is probably the last hope for humanity (though it's never fully explained why, since there are plenty of other humans and cylons who can reproduce with each other). So the Galactica and its crew will go on a mission that's likely to mean suicide, attacking the colony and stealing Hera back. Meanwhile, Romo is made president and Hoshi takes over Adama's role as admiral.
All our most beloved characters are tremendously heroic during this sequence, where the Galactica jumps into the center of the colony and rams itself through one of the colony walls. The viper pilots engage the raiders, Anders uses his hybrid powers to disable the colony's defense systems, Starbuck leads a party to Cavil's evil experimentation chamber to retrieve Hera, and there are great cylon-on-cylon fight sequences. Even Baltar manages to muster up the selflessness to stay on the Galactica and fight when the Centurions board the ship. And Roslin goes to work as a triage nurse, still wearing her "presidential" suit.
We see the team pulling together to rescue Hera, who ultimate symbolizes a future where humans and cylons build a new society together as partners and lovers. It's moving and well-written, and there are several good bits of battlefield banter ("Can we please not tell her the plan?" Starbuck grouses to Athena, who seems about to spill her guts to Boomer before shooting the perfidious cylon). Boomer comes to recognize the importance of Hera as a symbol, and she finally rescues the little girl from Simon's medical probing.
Caprica, fighting beside the suddenly-brave Baltar, finally falls in love with him. And this is the first hint that the episode will a turn toward the spiritual. For both of them see their Head People at the same time, and realize the Head People are angels who have been guiding them together - and guiding the whole Fleet to Earth. "The plan is coming together," the Heads tell Baltar and Caprica. Turns out the plan is to get the Fleet a fresh start, and the Galactica's sacrifice is part of that plan.
At roughly the same time, we also discover what those visions of the Opera House on Kobol really meant. As the Galactica tries to defend itself from the cylons who've boarded, Roslin, Caprica, Baltar, Athena, and Hera reenact the Opera House vision on board the ship. They escape cylon fire, chase down Hera, and at last the little girl winds up in Baltar and Caprica's hands - as they enter the CIC. So the CIC is the Opera House, and it's the place where the Fleet has its final confrontation with Cavil and his minions.
After a tense scene between Adama, the Final Five, and Cavil, the groups declare a cease-fire. On the condition that the Final Five hand over schematics for resurrection technology to Cavil. (There are some unintentionally funny moments in this scene, especially when Cavil calls off his troops by picking up a phone and barking, "Hello? Hello, this is Cavil!" Who exactly is he talking to? All the fans I was watching the show with couldn't help cracking up at that moment, and repeating the line over and over in Cavil's Gilbert Gottfried voice.)
Unfortunately, the Final Five have do some brain-bonding in Anders' goo to deliver the resurrection formula, at which point Tyrol reads Tory's mind and finds out she killed his wife Cally. He breaks the brain bond to murder her, and Cavil's crew thinks they've been double-crossed. A horrendous gunfight follows, which is concluded only by a direct intervention from the divine.
Here's how it goes down. Racetrack's Viper, all powered up with nukes, has been taken out by a rock to the windshield. But Racetrack's dead hand slips, hits the "crash into the colony" button, and the whole cylon colony starts to go mushroom. So the Galactica needs to jump out of the burn fast, and Starbuck has to guess at which coordinates the failing ship should jump to. Luckily, she has a vision from God, connected to the Bob Dylan music, and she's guided into choosing the coordinates for the planet that you and I know as Earth.
As the Earth rises over the moon, and the Fleet beholds the blue planet for the first time, we know things are going to be alright. The Cavil cylons have been nuked out of existence, and the Earth is completely pristine - inhabited by a bunch of pretty birds, elk, and a bunch of nonthreatening homo erectus types with spears but no language. Baltar helpfully points out that the homo erectuses have DNA that's compatible with the humans' (and presumably the cylons'), so let the breeding programs begin.
This is when things start to go seriously antiscience. President Romo is guiding the Fleet towards creating a city on the savanna where they've landed, but Lee says the best thing they can do to survive is to spread out across the planet in tiny groups of subsistence farmers. For some reason the Fleet votes to ratify this plan. They'll shoot their ships into the sun, and give up all their advanced technology too. In practice, this seems to mean that people are actually going to live in groups of one or two, which would seem to be a recipe for fast extinction on an alien world. But I think the idea is that they'll slowly assimilate into the homo erectus tribes, bringing language to the natives and hopefully leaving behind their robot-slave-building ways.
Things get even weirder when Lee is talking to Kara about what they'll do next, and she says "I've completed my journey," and then just disappears. So she was definitely an angel, albeit one who could carry a gun and kill people. There is no rational explanation for her at all.
In a coda, the story jumps forward 150,000 years. We're on Earth today, and catch a glimpse of Ron Moore doing a little cameo as a guy on the street in a giant city, reading an article about the discovery of "Mitochondrial Eve," the oldest common ancestor of all humans. Our angels Head Six and Head Baltar are strolling the streets, checking everything out, and commenting on how Mitochondrial Eve had a "cylon mother." The two also stare in dismay at what they call the "decadence and commercialism" of contemporary Earth life, and wonder if we're on the way to a repeat of the human-cylon conflict. They chat briefly about "God," and Head Six jokes that "you know it hates to be called that."
As they debate this question, slowly disappearing into the crowd, the camera pans to a TV in a shop window playing a vid of Sony's latest line of humanoid robots. As the bots dance, merging into a montage of present-day robots, "All Along the Watchtower" starts playing and we fade to black.
So where does this leave us? First of all, it would seem that our Mitochondrial Eve is Hera or a hybrid like her. Humans are all hybrids of biology and machine. And we owe our existence to a creature known only as "God" (though apparently it doesn't like that name), as well as a bunch of (seemingly) immortal angels. In addition, it's strongly hinted that humanity has gone wrong again due to our high-tech commercialism. After all, it was to escape that wrong turn that the Fleet chose to go back to nature in such an extreme way 150,000 years ago. They believed that they could get a clean slate only by trashing their ships and joining up with hominids so primitive that they have not yet developed language.
Looked at from that perspective, the show seems to be taking the position that our destiny as a people is in the hands of a spiritual force which constantly tries to rescue us from our baser natures. This isn't a Christian vision specifically - notably, there is no "devil" here, except perhaps for our technofetishism; and there isn't much promise of heaven either. Nevertheless, there's a strong suggestion that scientific rationalism is a problem. And that we should pay attention to the words of angels.
But I want to suggest that there is a counter-story here, too, which relies on the idea that any technology sufficiently advanced looks like magic. Though our "angels" and "God" come dressed in the trappings of spiritualism, they could just as plausibly be benevolent but meddlesome aliens who take a kindly interest in primitives like ourselves.
While these aliens help guide us, they do not control our destiny. In fact, BSG makes a pretty passionate case for human self-determination. The humans of the 12 colonies have all used science to create life, in the form of cylons. And although those cylons are humans' downfall in the short term, they turn out to be humanity's salvation in the long term. They're the creatures humans must merge with in order to take civilization in a new direction. Looked at from that perspective, humans on Earth today are the genetically-engineered (or simply engineered) creation of an earlier species. They prove that our species is not the result of some kind of divine intervention, but is quite emphatically the result of scientific intervention mixed with a little random evolution.
Can these two accounts of humanity be hybridized, or are they simply contradictory? That we can ask that kind of question after watching Battlestar Galactica's final episode is ultimately is lure of this series. It offers no pat answers. We must decide.