Friday, May 2, 2008

The poo-barge mutiny begins

Find more Battlestar Galactica essays here: So Say We All: The Battlestar Galactica Blog Carnival, vol. 5

I have mixed feelings about this last Battlestar Galactica episode, "The Road Less Traveled." There were basically two stories told this time. The first story is the build up to the poo-barge mutiny, and the second story is about Baltar being a fisher of men and reeling in Galen Tyrol. I thought the first story, while dramatic and intense enough to be good viewing was also a bit sloppy, confusing and not that well written. The second story was more subdued, well written and emotionally real.

In the first story Starbuck is running purely on her crazy and improbable instincts and they lead her to finding a badly shot-up Cylon Heavy-Raider drifting through space and inhabited by Leoben Conoy (what are the odds of that?). Starbuck takes Leoben into the Demetrius and then starts falling for his line of mystical "bullshit." I'm putting quotes around the word "bullshit" because in the Galactica universe, with its weird prophetic hybrids and other magical mysteries, Leoben's lines might be true. But if someone were telling me about how when they look at me they "see an angel blazing with the light of God" I would start thinking this dangerous charlatan is out to make a sucker of me. And that would be so even if I didn't know Leoben's past history of lies and mindfraks when dealing with Starbuck.

Leoben and Starbuck are in such a strange mental place in this episode that I cannot relate to them and find their interactions confusing and emotionally unreal. I'm not sure how the Galactica writers are setting up the rules for their universe, but in this world the kind of lines uttered by Leoben are usually delivered by dangerous charlatans and mad men. Starbuck has no rational reason to trust Leoben.

Also, on the negative side, Leoben was occasionally just plain incoherent in his ramblings and I couldn't figure out what he was getting at. At least the rest of the crew on the poo-barge seems just as confused and suspicious as I do. And by the end of the episode, on the poop deck of the poo-barge after things have gotten pretty shitty for Starbuck, Helo was ready to mutiny because Starbuck wanted to jump the poo-barge over to a Cylon basestar. He won't let her risk their lives.

Starbuck and everyone else on the poo-barge was, in my opinion, being stupid in another way. Starbuck could have avoided the mutiny simply by approaching it more cautiously. Instead of jumping everyone in the poo-barge over to the basestar, she could have used a viper to scout out the situation first, thus get some more evidence of this Cylon civil war and the state of the basestar.

The catch to Leoben's story however is that, unlike the characters on the poo-barge, we know there is some truth to his claims. We don't need to see a shot up basestar because we know there really is a Cylon civil war going on and there is a possibility for a truce with Cylon rebels. We know they'd find a battered base star. Starbuck, however, has no good reason to put her trust in her old enemy, that known liar, Leoben Conoy. It's just her crazy instincts that she has for no good reason which, because of the set up, I know she's right to go with.

In this way the hand of the gods made itself known in this episode and it was a bad thing because we all know who the real gods of the Galactica universe are, they are Ron Moore and his writers. That's the way fictional universes are, they all have gods and those gods are the writers who risk spoiling the illusion they want to create when they inject such plot driving miracles into their stories. And Starbuck's seemingly all too correct faith in Leoben's claims are just such an intrusive miracle.

There's a reason that even writers who preach their religious beliefs at writers conferences have shied away from the use of supernatural events and prefer psychological pain to demonic affliction, and dark nights of the soul to the voice of God echoing out of the whirlwind. They write about what they know. And they know they themselves and most other people don't really experience the voice of God like it happened in the Bible. They know that for every tear drop of wisdom to be found in religion there is a vast ocean of stupidity and insanity behind it. In our world people don't seem to come back from the dead like Starbuck and our miracle workers can often be caught using simple magician's tricks. Even Mother Teresa, a potential Catholic saint, was running on only a few weird experiences she had early in her life where she literally heard God’s voice directing her to go to in India and help the poor. However, as soon as she did start her mission, God's silence began and she spent the rest of her life feeling abandoned by God. Was it all just a couple potent brain farts that changed her life?

God in Evelyn Waugh or Graham Greene is more often a significant absence than a presence. Actual encounters with the divine or the demonic in literature, such is in Philip K. Dick's last books, are usually the product of a writer who has actually become subject to what they think are paranormal visitations. And Dick had been abusing amphetamine for years before that.

There's just something incredibly arrogant (not necessarily a bad thing) about making God a character in your story because the real gods in these fictional universes are the writers (or in television, perhaps its the producers). You can pull it off if God himself is actually a character and you have something to say about the nature of godhood, but not if that God remains utterly mysterious and just advances the plot when convenient for the writers. Starbuck's trust in Leoben may yet be explained by whatever force brought her back, but right now it doesn't feel like it.

In the second story, Tyrol has shaved his head and is looking a bit crazy. He has continued to sink into despair after the death of his wife. While he is in the launch tube where Cally was ejected into space, Tory comes to talk to him and it appears that Tory is starting to buy into Gaius Baltar's theology. Yet later Tory acts more dismissive of Baltar's religion when, after frakking Baltar, she informs him that she has told the president about his pirate radio broadcasts and that no one is really worried about him because "no one of consequence" had joined his religion, just people on the fringes.

Later, when Tyrol happens to catch Baltar's pirate radio broadcast and he gets disgusted with it and switches it off, but then his child starts to cry until he turns it back on. So, Tyrol becomes curious about Baltar's sermons and the people following him.

Tyrol goes to see one of Baltar's sermons and quickly gets disgusted and starts walking out. Then Baltar calls to him, asking Tyrol to take his hand and saying "it's what Cally would have wanted." Tyrol gets enraged by Baltar's presumption and tells Baltar that Baltar didn't know his wife and he's not one of Baltar's ignorant sheep. Then Tyrol physically attacks Baltar. Baltar's little "take my hand" request came off as "slick" and manipulative theatrics and he failed to pull it off.

Later Baltar shows up at Tyrol's apartment to repair the damage he'd done by telling Tyrol about how the "Cally would have wanted it" line was unfair. Baltar admitted that it was a pretension toward a knowledge he didn't have. But Tyrol, by getting enraged, gave Baltar even more dangerous information about Tyrol's emotional state. And Baltar must have noted that Tyrol had a gun lying on his chest and wondered if he had contemplated suicide. Baltar could see Tyrol's pain and weakness and use it. He started to reel Tyrol into his religious view, talking about how he seeks redemption (something Tyrol is also seeking in a way).

Cally is dead. Tyrol is alone, confused and lost. He was almost ready to kill himself after his encounter with Baltar, he put a gun to his head briefly before screaming in frustration. Where are Tyrol's friends? Where are the people to support him in his time of need? He pushed Adama away and got demoted. Who is the only person to come and check on him now? Baltar.

Tyrol never says a word and as Baltat finishes his speech Tyrol offers Baltar his hand. During Baltar's sermon it was mere theatrics, in Tyrol's apartment, with no audience, it was personal. It's not a gesture that says Tyrol now believes in Baltar's religion, but it is gesture that shows us that Tyrol now accepts Baltar as sincere. And that might be a beginning. Tyrol too is "on the fringe" of Colonial society now, he's been demoted, but he has had a more consequential and influential role in the past and may rise again. That combination of currently being in a socially and emotionally vulnerable position yet having respect and legitimacy from people in many walks of life would make Tyrol the sort of person Baltar needs to give his religion credibility. And why is Baltar spending so much effort on the two Cylons? Does he know they are Cylons? Or, are the new Cylons attracted to Baltar because they know he is not a Cylon hater, like so many others, and because Baltar has lived with Cylons and had hoped to find some humanity in them?

I don't think Baltar's second attempt to talk to Tyrol was entirely calculated and selfishly motivated, but it may be a factor. Ever since Tory, Tyrol and Tigh had found out that they're Cylons they've been going through changes and trying to figure out what it means. If they’re Cylons, when did that begin and what are their true back stories? What are they meant to do? Are they dangerous to each other, are they dangerous to the ship, can they trust any of the people around them, should they keep this secret only among themselves?

So far, they all seem headed for the dark side. If any of them were ready to sacrifice their safety for the good of humanity they would call for another meeting after having hidden a camera in the meeting place. Then they could give the recording to Adama and tell him what had been going on. In the end, each of the Cylons is too selfish to do that. None of them are worried enough about being programmed to do something like kill Adama, as Boomer tried, to act on that possibility.

Can you guess what kind of Cylon I am to have such opinions?

Which Battlestar Galactica Cylon Are You?


magnusbarfod said...

great stuff on religion there...and i say that as a totally lapsed catholic.

but i think you're possibly being a bit too hasty to judge the writers here.

im sure Moore et al are fully aware that a cop out on the god stuff would potentially invalidate what has come before.

I don't think Kara is mad to trust Leoben, just aware that theres something between them, something resonant, that can't be ignored.

and thats got nothing to do with the fact that i took the 'which cylon are you' test and came back as Leoben...

nice to see someone citing Greene and Waugh, too...

M said...

I'm really enjoying your posts on the religious aspects of BSG. But I have to differ on your point of god being a character here.

I think the new Doctor Who series provides great stories exploring the nature of godhood, but so far, I haven't been reading BSG as having an overt god character. I think what we've seen so far are characters relating to a mysterious god. They believe in a message/messenger/prophesy/fated destiny/etc., but what we've seen of their actions is that their actions arise from those beliefs. Until Head Six is confirmed as an angel, I'm holding off on the god-designed path resolution that may very well be coming.

As for Tyrol's peace with Baltar, I do think that his struggles to understand his "new" self helped him accept and reconcile Baltar's past and present.