Of Sleuths and Starships

One of the great achievements in the art of today will draw to its conclusion this Friday on the Sci-Fi Channel. If you're not familiar with Battlestar Galactica, but you admire superb filmmaking, literature, or Brother Cavil (Dean Stockwell) interrogates Colonel Tigh (Michael Hogan) in Season 3 of Battlestar Galactica the languages of symbol and myth; if the sci-fi genre gives you the geeky creepies, but you consider issues of government, history and technology to be critically important for our collective future – if you want to provide a superior education for your children of teenage years or above – I recommend marathoning the DVDs. The four-season show caps an extraordinary decade of accomplishment in a medium that we, for the moment at least, refer to as as “television”; however increasingly antiquated that word might sound.

A completely new type of televisual art has bloomed right under our noses, so quickly it's only just acquired a genre. (I hope the name's provisional. “Mega-movie” is pretty bad.) I prefer the term “video literature,” or “VidLit,” as the the college shorthand would have it: densely woven, symbolically rich, long-arc dramas with a large ensemble cast of rounded, three-dimensional characters who mature and evolve. In this category we'd place, among others, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, The Wire, Deadwood and Veronica Mars.

Veronica Mars, for its first two seasons (2004-06), really upped the ante in terms of what could be accomplished through video narrative. The show, which tv writers pegged as a “high-school detective drama,” wasn't just diagnosing America's socioeconomic illnesses; it began predicting them with freakish accuracy. In the Season Two premiere, Veronica and her high-school journalism class go on a field trip to meet with a local baseball star. The rich popular kids hop a limo back to class; the working-class kids take the schoolbus. The schoolbus drives off a cliff and plummets into the Pacific. It's the lever on which the entire season is lifted. And it was broadcast on September 28, 2005, less than a month after New Orleans drowned, exposing the fatal inequities in American society.

Two episodes later, Veronica finds herself in a Future Business Leaders of America club, betting on investments. A local real-estate investment trust, Casablancas Enterprises, appears to be doing spectacularly well – until Veronica discovers the properties are all scams. Two scenes later, the CEO, H. Richard Casablancas, hears “There's a gentleman from the SEC here to see you” – abandons his office, tells his employees to “shred everything,” and jumps aboard a company 'copter bound for Mexico.

That's the mortgage crisis in a nutshell, folks: narrated by the character of a 17-year-old girl, on a show about a “high-school detective,” almost exactly three years before the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

In Veronica Mars, the action-movie celebrity is a sex addict; the Major League slugger, a gambler in hock to the mob. The mayor tries to incorporate class division; and the gang-banger from the barrio delivers street justice when the politically-knotted sheriff's department sits on its hands. The fictional town of Neptune, CA becomes a psychopolitical portrait of America, and the Private Investigator, Veronica Mars, is protagonist, author and instrument: an X-ray revealing the interpersonal archaeology, the Kristen Bell as Veronica Marssocioeconomic strata, and the webs of personal politics that comprise 21st-century American life. For a societal cross-section of equal bandwidth, I think you'd have to turn to Dickens. You can watch the entire first season online.

It's been thrilling to witness so many artistic renderings of our postmodern condition: Buffy's use of horror and the occult to illuminate our adolescence; Firefly's portrayal of the rogue versus the establishment; The Wire's surveillance of our social ills; Deadwood's ballad of interdependence and moral compromise in the making of the American West. And then there is Battlestar Galactica.

For the uninitiated, BSG was originally an ersatz sci-fi 1978 movie and 1979 tv series about the extermination of the human species by a race of robots called Cylons. The survivors of the holocaust leave aboard a ragtag fleet of space-freighters and pleasure cruisers led by the sole surviving military vessel, the Battlestar Galactica. Their goal: an uncharted planet, known only to myth – a new home, a planet called Earth. It was reimagined in 2003 by Ronald D. Moore, who cut his sci-fi teeth writing for Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Star Trek: Voyager. And what he did looks something like this:

Here's a witty, zippy recap of Seasons 1-3. It's designed not to “spoil” the show but to whet your appetite for a detailed viewing. It's also pretty darn entertaining:

It has been said, with a degree of accuracy, that Battlestar Galactica's plotlines have tracked, and have provided a running commentary on, American government during 9/11 and the Iraq War: a subtle and sophisticated counterpoint to the ideological certitude of 24. There's a Memorial Wall for victims of the Cylons' terrorism; Cylon “sleeper cells”; a president of dubious legitimacy directed by religious prophecy; questions about responsibility and “blowback”; and a brutal, complicated conversation on the ethics of torture, both physical and psychological. There are also important conversations about the constitution of democratic government, the balance of power between civil and military leadership, the role of a free press, radicalism and political imprisonment, and the role of labor unions. To which we can say, “Not half bad, Mr. Moore.” But BSG's ambitions are far greater than portraiture; it attempts, and I would say succeeds, in creating a vital, dynamic myth for contemporary Western civilization.

BSG's primary underlying theme, as of most science fiction, is the relationship between our technology and our humanity. In its narrative, we can see a thematic genetic code stretching back through a number of landmarks in science-fiction: the consequences of the scientifically monstrous creation in Frankenstein; the replicants of Blade Runner; the robot wars of The Terminator. And from William Gibson's Neuromancer and The Matrix we're introduced to the fusion of cybernetic and organic mind, the mind able to interpret multiple sets of streaming code.

What BSG brings to this lineage is a spectacularly creative rendering of religious history. The Cylons are monotheists – radically defamiliarizing our own civilizational heritage of monotheism. Perhaps Moore was The Hybrid. A nice touch: when she inspired by the ominous Cyclopean eye of a Cylon, moving back and forth in its black slit. Interestingly, in checking this idea I encountered the original Cylon – an Athenian who, directed by the Oracle at Delphi, attempted a coup in 632 BC, the first reliably dated event in ancient Greek history. This fact may well have inspired Moore to make the humans in this story polytheists, with an Olympian pantheon; they comprise the 12 colonies of Kobol, each named for a Zodiac sign. (A mythical 13th colony is said, in the ancient writings of Kobol, to have discovered the route to Earth.) It may have also inspired Moore's single greatest creative innovation, the Hybrid: a failed Cylon clone who, plugged into the heart of each Cylon base ship, effectively becomes the ship – sensing the entire universe in its data stream, which it voices in a mad Oracular stream-of-consciousness like Ulysses with a tech degree.

A recent article in The Ampersand considered BSG's relationship to The Aeneid; I think that limits the scope of our imagination. Galactica is commanded by an Admiral Adam-a. Two important characters are named Saul (the first King of Israel and also, Saul of Tarsus, later St. Paul) and Helen (the face that launched a thousand ships). BSG, I think, has remixed the chaotic uncertainty and strange syncretism of religious belief that characterized the late Roman Empire, during the first few centuries of Christianity.

In the midst of our anxieties over the future of our Republic, now a cultural Empire in all but name, we have been granted with a work of the highest art: a saga that recontextualizes our deep cultural history by defamiliarizing it, vaulting it into the distant future, reminding us of the chaotically cyclical nature of history, and then returning us to our immediate present. In the penultimate episode, broadcast last Friday, we are returned, Lost-style, to the lives of the characters on Caprica before the nuclear apocalypse.

They look very much like our own.

“All this has happened before, and all this will happen again,” say the Prophecies of the Lords of Kobol. Without giving much away, in this season's astonishing episode “No Exit,” a Cylon sleeper on board Galactica is shot in the head; the bullet hyperactivates his neural net, and he begins narrating, breathlessly, the entire history of the Cylon-human conflict, thousands of years old, forgotten beneath the hardened facts of the survivalist present tension – like a prophetic poet. Like an Oracle becoming Herodotus:

Among bright stars I'm lost. And all the forgotten faces all the forgotten showed and we seek the Great Forgotten we seek the Forgotten Language… He whose guile, stirred with revenge… and all the forgotten faces…

Something wonderful is happening. Get the others. I remember everything. I see everything.

Later in the episode, another Cylon model tells of witnessing a supernova:

I saw a star explode and send out the building blocks of the Universe. Other stars, other planets, and eventually – life. A supernova: creation itself. I wanted to be there, I wanted to see it. And be part of the moment. And do you know how I perceived one of the most glorious events in the Universe? With these ridiculous gelatinous orbs in my skull. With eyes designed to perceive only a tiny fraction of the EM spectrum. With ears designed only to hear vibrations in the air

“I don't want to be human,” spits Dean Stockwell's character with agonized contempt:

I want to see gamma-rays. I want to hear X-rays! I want to– I want to…smell dark matter. Do you see the absurdity of what I am? I can't even express these things properly because I have to– I have to conceptualize complex ideas in this stupid, limiting spoken language! But I know I want to reach out with something other than these prehensile paws, and feel the solar wind of a supernova flowing over me. I am a machine: and I could know much more. I could experience so much more but I'm trapped in this absurd body. And why? Because my…creators thought that God wanted it that way.

It's as if Hamlet's monologue had continued after “quintessence of dust.” As if Milton's Satan had circuitry. And it's as if both Hamlet and Paradise Lost are being quoted, by a character I'll refrain from naming, in the words spoken next:

We didn't limit you. We gave you something wonderful: free will. The ability to think creatively, to reach out to others with compassion, to love…

From there, it's a debate about history and responsibility – who is ultimately responsible for the Fall? I can't go into detail here, but suddenly it appears that Homer, Moses, Shakespeare, Milton and Blake have all been collected for that Dinner Party in Heaven we've all fantasized about attending, and they're debating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict using the chicken and the egg:

“Go back far enough, it's always them,” one says.
“Go back far enough, a germ gets blamed for splitting in two,” says another.

Back in the operating room, the bullet-brained Cylon is struggling through aphasia. Because this is about history. Words. The Word. He manages to explain, “…Cavil rejected mercy, he had a twisted sense of morality, he blocked access to our books – no – – ahh – our memories –” and brings up a name. Daniel. “Judged by God,” the name means, a famous interpreter of dreams, a prophet, able to read the writing on the wall.

In last week's episode, “Daybreak Pt. 1,” this character falls into a coma, and assumes the role of a Hybrid. He remembers his life as a “human.” Again, hopefully without giving too much away, he speaks some extraordinary words:

Look, you want to know the truth? …What matters to me is a perfect throw, a perfect catch, the perfect step-and-block. It's perfection. That's what it's about. It's about those moments when you, when you can feel the perfection of creation – the, the beauty of physics, the wonder of mathematics, you know, the elation of action and reaction, and that is the kind of perfection I want to be connected to.

Ladies and gentlemen, we've heard from the “quintessence of dust”; we've heard the voice of Milton's God; now we're hearing Hamlet talk about the genius of this “paragon of animals” after hearing about Newton's God, a geometer.


To be as gods. We Fall. We become human. We evolve. We invent. We strive for a more perfect union. Once upon a time, the world was young and life was nasty, brutish and short. In the struggle for survival, heroes were made, and people who understood humanity were endowed with far sight and wrote histories and myths.

We believe, we investigate the world, we invent technologies to serve our ends, only to have them buckle civilization itself: the printing press, slavery, variable-rate mortgages – yes, all are technological systems we've invented. But once upon a time, science and religion and mythical syncretism were apprehended in artistic vision, and it pulled us out of our medievalism – into the Renaissance. There's a reason why academic symposia have been held on Battlestar Galactica and why, tomorrow evening, there will be a panel discussion on Battlestar Galactica at the United Nations.

Just maybe, we can make it.