Monday, March 23, 2009

It is finished: Battlestar Galactica: "Daybreak" - Part 2

And I am saddened on many levels, some good, some not so good.

The re-imagined Battlestar Galactica is now over.
Spoilers for Galactica's "Daybreak Part 2," follow:

Some of what happened in the last episode was great stuff. Bear McCreary's score and the tear jerking emotional moments were all good. There were such touching moments here, Bill Adama and Laura Roslin on Earth just before and just after Roslin died were beautiful and sad, that I can't just rant against this ending. However, in spite of the good stuff a lot of what happened in this final show was extremely disappointing in exactly the way I feared and predicted it would be in my previous posts. The journey towards the end was fantastic, but the destination sucked and it started sucking mostly in the last half of season 4. That's not just my opinion, but a general consensus I've been picking up in other blogs and forums. For example, PZ Myers, who didn't even watch the show, put up a "Battlestar Galactica open thread" where a lot of people are complaining about the ending but still expressing love for the show.

What a waste, the show was almost building up to be this great combination of Shakespearean tragedy and intelligent science fiction but then ultimately failed on both fronts. Instead we got some good music and expertly handled emotional manipulation and character development which are only nice ingredients but don't make a whole stew.

The roots of my disappointment on the science fictional content go back to some things I said in some of my earlier posts, "Six of One" : The disappointing part, being one example.

It was then that I noticed that there was a failing on the part of the writers to understand some of the basics of certain transhumanist themes that Galactica stumbled into but that had already been handled much more intelligently, sometimes decades before, by science fiction writers like Greg Egan and Bruce Sterling. Greg Egan's "Permutation City" and "Diaspora" would be good reads.

Apparently the writers absorbed some half-assed transhumanist ideas from the science fiction culture around them but did no research on transhumanism itself. You could start this research here on the Transhumanist Reading page.

One example of a half-assed understanding of a transhumanist concept was the idea of "uploading." That idea comes from some early science fiction (for a few early examples try Roger Zelazny's 1968 novel "Lord of Light," Frederik Pohl's 1955 story "Tunnel Under the World" and Philip K. Dick's "Ubik") and then it was refined by the transhumanists and futurists into something far more interesting than what the Galactica writers imagined. What the Cylons did in Galactica, when one died their memories were uploaded into a new body, they even called it "uploading," has dramatic implications the writers failed to grasp.

In most science fiction the uploading is done into virtual realities, like Star Trek's holodeck except there in no human body on the deck. For example Frederik Pohl's "Gateway" series (Heechee Saga) had a man uploaded into a virtual computer world in the 1976 novel, before William Gibson coined the word cyberspace in his novel "Neuromancer." Galactica's technology is necessarily more advanced than anything in either of those novel's. There was, however, the 1982 novel "Software", by Rudy Rucker, that got closer, in that novel a human mind is uploaded into a very human-like android body and the process was sold as a way to become immortal. If you read any of those works you were probably surprised by how badly the Galactica writers screwed up the concept and its implications.

In Galactica uploading is magical and undetectable, but in more sophisticated and scientifically literate SF the odds are that even our modern technology, like x-rays, could detect, though not replicate, many proposed devices that could be used to transfer memories, even if genetically constructed. (In Greg Egan's "Jewelhead" stories the human mind was transferred from an organic brain to a small, immortal backup computer at the base of the skull which could be removed and placed in an android body after death. It would have been something a doctor with our current technology could have found on an x-ray.) More damning is the fact that some heavy duty signal would need to broadcast those memories to a distant Cylon Resurrection Hub. Such a signal might have been detected and jammed, but such things were never considerations by anyone on Galactica, including Baltar the scientist. This is no doubt because the writers didn't understand that aspect of uploading, that it relies on physical substrates you can guess at without knowing exactly how to build them.

In order to have an undetectable stealth technology that is able record Cylon memories stored in a brain that the best people on Galactica can't tell from a human brain and then broadcast them across vast distances in space you must necessarily imply god-like technological abilities the existence of which would necessarily challenge many religious assumptions. (But in the Galactica universe no such conflict is ever implied and both their religions and technologies are so vaguely described that you couldn't tell if such a conflict would arise.) So god-like and astonishing are the implications the Galactica writers failed to grasp about such technology that many SF writers make these transhumanist technologies part of future religions. (For example, in the "Requiem for Homo Sapiens" novels by David Zindell there is a church that calls it soul-preservation technology.)

“It may be that our role on this planet is not to worship God, but to create him.”
-- Arthur C. Clarke

Consider some other implications of such a technology, like the computer processing power that's implied. Today there is a Project Blue Brain that is struggling to create a biologically accurate, functional model of only part of a mouse's brain, a single neocortical column, using the most advanced supercomputers we now have. And Cylons can not only get all that kind of information from a brain and transfer it across space and into a body that a doctor (Cottle) and a scientist (Baltar) cannot tell from human.

When you imply technology that god-like you can't easily slip in actual gods because there would be no way to tell the gods from the Cylons except by whatever intentions and motives you can detect in their actions. And then you can only deduce those motivations, not whether the abilities are supernatural or technological. To quote science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke:

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” -- Arthur C. Clarke

That basic principle was missed by the writers of Galactica and in the end it was that basic ignorance that undermined the entire series as far as plot and theme go. One implication of understanding the brain at a level where one could transfer memories and make artificial Cylon brains in a goo tub is that such a level of understanding of what a brain is and how it works should make it child's play to create visions and mystical experiences.

When you go up against that kind of technology the last thing you should trust is vague visions and mystical experiences where the motives for the vision are unclear. Indeed, Baltar did not trust his head-6 early on and her motives were indeed suspicious. Keep in mind it was an "angel of God" who told Baltar not to tell Adama about Boomer being a Cylon and you'll begin to see the problem. But she also told him where to attack a Cylon base to destroy it. Baltar wound up merely not fighting her and not so much actually trusting her. She was giving him useful information which he used selfishly and he couldn't really fight her, just ignore her when he didn't like what she had to say. She could only manipulate him with that information it seemed, so it would always be information that seemingly served Baltar's own ends.

Neither Baltar nor I ever guessed her motives and we still can't. The Galactica God's "beyond good and evil" schemes remain as mysterious as ever even in the end. That brings up the next level of failure, the use of "God" as mere cheat to get around explaining the mysteries one has created. Again I saw it coming in my post, "The poo-barge mutiny begins." I'll quote myself:

... 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 end the use of God was a big cheat on the mysteries they set up. God's motives and abilities remained utterly mysterious and did nothing but advance the plot when convenient for the writers. The meaning of the Opera house vision was merely that it was a vision hinting vaguely and opaquely at the future. Baltar is thus inspired to give the worst speech ever given on Galactica. Here's Baltar's speech, copied from some other blog, it sounds right:

Baltar: I may be mad, but that doesn't mean that I'm not right. Because there's another force at work here; there always has been. It's undeniable. We've all experienced it. Ever one in this room has witnessed events that they can't fathom, let alone explain away by rational means. Puzzles deciphered in prophecy. Dreams given to a chosen few. Our loved ones, dead, risen. Whether we want to call that God or gods or some sublime inspiration or a divine force we can't know or understand, it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter. It's here. It exists. And our two destinies are entwined in its force.

Cavil: If that's true, and that's a big if, how do I know that this force has our best interests in mind? How do you know that God is on your side, doctor?

Baltar: I don't. God's not on any one side. God's a force of nature, beyond good and evil. Good and evil, we created those. Want to break the cycle? Break the cycle of birth, death, rebirth, destruction, escape, death. Well, that's in our hands, and our hands only. It requires a leap of faith. It requires that we live in hope, not fear.

There's a lot I object to in that short speech, more than I'll go into right now. But let's take that claim that they have all "witnessed events that they can’t fathom, let alone explain away by rational means." That, my dear readers, is nothing but what Professor Neil DeGrasse Tyson would call "a philosophy of ignorance":

Well, yea, the viewers did experience things they supposedly could not explain away by rational means (not necessarily characters like Cavil) because the writers, the real gods of the Galactica universe, set it up that way. I feared exactly this in my last Galactica post, Battlestar Galactica: "Daybreak" - Part 1, and I'll quote myself again:

... but worse, maybe we won't get an answer for how it is Starbuck got resurrected in a new body and viper because some writer thinks that sometimes incredible things happen for no good reason. (That omission I won't forgive them for. How Starbuck came back demands an explanation.)

That is essentially what Baltar's "let alone explain away by rational means" says to us, that sometimes incredible things happen for no good reason. So shove the reasons off on some inscrutable God and claim that you have an explanation when all you really have is merely a philosophy of ignorance. This is only partly about being an atheist. I am not always turned off by the supernatural or spirituality in fiction, but this ending was a cheat, a way to explain away things they really had no explanation for. The whole point of setting up mysteries is to have rational explanations of some sort for them in the end, otherwise no one is ever going to trust your mystery set-ups again.

The problem is, I can still imagine rational explanations in the context of transhuman technologies. Baltar's God could still be a Cylon mainframe that didn't like Cavil's plan. So Baltar's claim is false, the mysteries are not beyond potential rational explanations. Granted that is only speculative, but that's how critical thinking about such mysteries begins. And what else is there beyond reason and critical thinking when it comes to dealing with such mysterious events? Without reason and critical thinking to lead you then one has nothing but visions or if not that people who claim to have visions to lead one. Just keep in mind what kind of people in our world actually do claim to be guided by visions, mysticism and the voice of God and you'll see the problem. They include people like Pat Robertson, Sherri Shepherd, Marshall Applewhite, David Koresh, Jim Jones and other leaders of a thousand other doomsday cults.

And when Cavil asked how could he know this force had our best interests in mind? How do you know that God is on your side? Well, Cavil, of course, like me, doesn't know that. He wasn't given any visions that led him. So, where does Cavil fit into God's plan? Well, Cavil, you're the evil villain who gets blamed for wiping out the human race in spite of other Cylons, like Caprica-6, playing a part and the real God of the Galactica universe is Ronald D. Moore, so you're just going to kill yourself for no good reason. You're like Pharaoh in the Moses story (you know that other work of really bad science fiction, the Bible) and you don't even have the free-will it takes to use common sense. In the Moses story Pharaoh had his heart hardened by God.

But don't feel too slighted Cavil, God's plan also involved nuking several billion innocent humans out of existence (and you were okay with that). Was that god's plan? If so, that God seems like a monster and the real villain in the show.

So, maybe the writers are setting up another story that will correct these errors? Not likely. Ron Moore talked about his writing process on his last pod-cast, about how he trusted his instincts and was really proud of how he handled Baltar and religion. Yet it is exactly those elements of the show that I thought were just awful and that reflected the full failure of what was wrong with how this show ended. Ron was proud of how the Opera house visions worked out and then, what they led too, Baltar's speech about "God." Proud of the fact that he didn't do any real critical thinking or research.

With that attitude on Moore's part, don't expect things to improve on "The Plan" or on "Caprica" in those terms.

I've hardly scratched the surface of what was wrong with the ending, but this would go on too long if I talked about how bad an idea it was to ditch the ships and go all Luddite, or how like most Trek villains, the Cylons may have been set up to look impossible to defeat, but they were really paper tigers with glass jaws. None of that will matter to Ron Moore now that his series has spawned two new spin-offs. I may give them a shot, but I won't expect much.


raftrap said...

As I said before in Bear's blog, is really sad that I discovered this blog so late in the game, but well here I am reading, and let's just get right into it, I agree with almost everything you said about the overall fail the "god plan" arc turned out to be (and you really went to the heart of it), introducing new pivotal characters at the end of a show is always a bad idea, and there is no doubt that god stopped being a philosophical disscusion in the last episode and became the main character, and not only that but he also became the explanation to almost every question in the show (so maybe the answer to the glowing spines was god's will, and algae in the algae planet was god's special recipe and Daniel was god), I liked many things in the finale (you mentioned the Adama and Roslin's moments, I'll mention the fake peace agreement Ronald D. Moore almost made us belive would be the happy ending), but usually when you don't start raving in someone else's blog about a show, is because you have a problem with it and what better way than to just let it out with people who get it.

In the show's defense I do have to say that even though they dind't exactly explain how exactly the uploading process worked (although the answer is probably a three letter word) way back in the miniseries and in my favourite episode "Flesh and Bone" they did mention subtly that there was a possibility that the signal could probably not reach the resurrection ship (and I guess previously the Hub). Now in my opinion those lack of explanations (or overexplanations) I can forgive (not because you should, or anyone else, it's just something I can easily forgive, another example would be the infinite god supply of energy the centurions seem to have in their bodies, but they still sound as if they have a steam mechanism somewhere in their bodies), but I forgive all those things (and would have even done the same for the finale explanations) if the story turns out to be epic, gripping, surprising, etc... a small example of this is the amazing cylon transmitter in "The Oath" the one which Roslin uses to send her message through the jamming Galactica was doing, no explanation needed as long as it serves the purpose to allow Roslin to get to make her speech to the fleet. Now my problem with "the god" (And you can see that I'm not an atheist by the way I refuse to use the big G), is the fact the simple fact that it stopped being a discusion, it was a fact, the cylons were right, there is only one (many gods for the sinful colonists, one god to rule them all, in the mounts of Olympus were the shadows lie), no need to keep on going about that, the same thing I can say about the lack of debate in the abandonment of technology which is odd in a show that has always relished in seeing its characters argue and since there are no more episode to explore this then it just feels forced, also in my forced list are the goodbyes, while I get that Tyrol does not want to see anyone again in his life, I can't say the same about Adama never seeing his son and best friend again, again forced, and what makes this infuriating is probably the fact that the last time we see some characters seeing each other for the last time in the show they are exchanching unnecesary goodbyes.

There are many things, again like you say, I could mention (I couldn't agree more on how the Baltar speech didn't work, and is probably because it didn't work nearly as well as the Lee speech for the season 3 finale, but the difference is that Lee was in a place were a speech was needed, Baltar's speech was just a wink to the audience to get why things were happening the way they were happening), but that would take too long and would be unnecesary bashing, for a finale I know in the long run I'll learn to accept that while it wasn't as fitting with the dark, ambitious and quasi-realistic show it preceeded, it was Ronald Moore's story, and that's how he wanted to end it, he is the god in this story, so if we don't like god's plan, it doesn't matter that was the plan all along.

As for the "The Plan" movie, I don't have a bad feeling about it, those were better times, when we didn't know the scope of god's plan, what we are going to see is Cavil's plan, plus multiple copies, self-rigthous (but ultimately right) cylons with resurrecting abilities and their grand moment of victory in contrast to humanity trying to survive this unexpected attack (it's what I tuned in in the miniseries and what I hope they can catch again for one last time in this last movies)and it's written by Jane Espenson, and if life is a melody in this universe and it's only good if its played in harmony with god's plan what better person to write that than the great Jane Espenson. Good luck Norman, hope you write about Caprica next month and about "The Plan" soon too.

Brock said...

Nice writeup; I agree with your analysis quite a lot. I knew the Clarke quotes, and those fit, but bringing in the other sci-fi authors on transhumanism really makes a strong case for how poorly Ron Moore & co. resolved the Cylon-human dynamic.

I've seen the Blade Runner movie, but now I'm more compelled to read Philip K. Dick's book and check out work by those other authors and fill the void left by BSG. Thanks :)