Falling out of love is a process of retrospective disillusion—if your beloved did that, how can they ever have been the person who you thought they were? It becomes hard to remember the good times you had together, hard to remember the fascination, easy to construct a version of the past in which you always had your doubts. And, in the case of a television show like Battlestar Galactica, this is more reasonable a process than it often is when dealing with actual people; the show's reality was always a set of artistic compromises, a piece of shoddy carpentry put together in a hurry and for commercial gain.
The eventual set of bad choices that produced Galactica's three-part finale "Daybreak" are both logical outcomes of things that were wrong with the show from the start and decisions that might not have been taken, had things gone otherwise. The show was affected by the writers' strike though not as disastrously as many others (Nip/Tuck, for example, where some sub- standard scripts and dodgy plot turns were let through because of haste); though the alternate ending considered by Ron Moore, in which Ellen Tigh's bad choices led to catastrophe for everybody, is hardly an improvement—and points to the ways in which Galactica was so often a show in which women were punished for sins which men could commit with impunity. But more of this later.
The original Glen Larsen show, of which Ron Moore's was a reimagining, was soaked in Christian, specifically Mormon, mythology; as Tony Keen has pointed out, the new show had religion in its DNA, and what's bred in the bone will out in the blood, as they say. Even in the first episode, Six lectured Baltar about the love of a monotheist's God for both the victims and perpetrators of universal genocide and it never occurred to me that we were supposed to take what she said at face value—but I cannot say that we were not warned from the beginning. It is just that what was set out in front of us was so abhorrent that it had to be, didn't it, a complex and fascinating set of ironies.
Like most viewers, I assumed that the show was going to deconstruct the religious faiths of its humans and humanoid Cylons, that we were going to learn some ultimate truths, and that they would be the sort of ultimate truths appropriate to the decorum of science fiction. Almost to the end, this was a sustainable view—after all, when Baltar announced that the Starbuck who had returned from the dead was an angel, that the visions of Six which had led him through power politics to antinomian religion were another such, we could assume that he was making a mistake, reasonable enough in a man of faith, but that we would learn that his HeadSix, and Six's HeadBaltar, were, say, leftovers from some earlier recension of the human/Cylon conflict that inhabited the virtuality that Cylons and half-Cylons and some of those touched by Cylons could access. But no, at the end of things, Six and Baltar meet their Baltar and their Six and we are told, yes, these are messengers of the Will of God.
Science fiction is a genre in which problems, once they have been rightly understood, have rational solutions, solutions which are at once a way of ending one story and the start of some slingshot sequel; this is one of the principle sources of science fiction's capacity for the sublime. We reason our way out of imminent death and come out of danger and look out at the stars. This is the promise—some, like Geoff Ryman and the other mundanes, would say the dangerous and the fallacious promise—that science fiction offers. To say at the end of the story, oh well, it's God, innit, is fundamentally to betray the protocol of the genre—God is the end of conversation and reason rather than their beginning.
God does not have to make sense—he is the ineffable. This means that, in a story, even a story as complex and fascinating as Battlestar Galactica had become right up to that moment, he is bad writing and worse plotting. Starbuck dies and is brought back to life to lead people to Earth—God did it; she was taught by her father to vamp a tune which is also the tune which awoke the Penultimate Four—this was a divine plan, and God loves Bob Dylan songs; Laura Roslin has fatal cancer briefly alleviated by the blood of a half-human, half-Cylon child—this is God's way of giving her visions of an opera house that will ensure that she protects that child. Starbuck's death, her loss of her father, Roslin's agonizing illness and death—these are all God's Rube Goldberg machine for getting the child Hera born and shipped to Earth. The fact that God could have saved everyone a lot of trouble, and us hours of ultimately disappointing viewing, by simply telling Helo and some random Eight, to make love and get in a spaceship, is irrelevant, because he moves in mysterious ways, which is very handy for Ron Moore and his writing staff if they have an off day.
Nor is all this theodicizing the only problem with the Galactica finale. There were the various flashbacks which rewrote the pasts of the characters so as to make their eventual fates more logically palatable—which would have been tolerable had we known all this from an early stage but is less so when it gets made up at the last minute. In an earlier episode, Roslin saw, in a drug dream, her family waiting for her on the other side of a river across which she is being ferried—here we learn that she lost her sisters, father and her sister's unborn child, in a single car crash, so that her death is a reunion with those she lost, a reunion she once sought by wandering into the middle of a municipal pond. This is noxious sentimentality that cheapens our love of the tough-minded President who kept humanity alive at awful cost.
Similarly, we learn that Lee and Starbuck almost had drunken sex while her fiance, his brother, lay in a drunken stupor—it is all right that they be denied a happy ending because they are flawed people who behaved in an inappropriate way. Earlier, and at a moment when it affected Chief Tyrol's passionate hatred of him, we learned that Baltar was a working-class scholarship boy; here we learn that he disrespected his farmer father and Six, before wiping out the human race including his father, taught him valuable lessons about how to behave. (Baltar, such an intellectual snob that even a genocidal robot has better manners.)
All of this would be bad enough in all conscience as a way of reinventing characters we have got to know over four years and who are not easily reduced to these simple formulae. In fact, though, these revisions have a palpable design on us, and that design is to make us swallow one of the daftest plot conclusions in the history of genre. The human fleet gets at last to Earth, to our Earth in its distant past, and Lee suddenly suggests that everyone throw their ships into the sun, set the Cylon Centurions free to seek their destiny, and abandon technology to live simple lives among the pre-linguistic hominids they find there. When Rollo Lampkin announces, as he does, that "people are suprisingly amenable to Lee's suggestion," you know that they and the show is doing something staggeringly stupid—let's abandon medicine and live short unhappy lives in the cold. All this effort to get Hera to Earth to become the mitochondrial Eve, and she will die in her late teens.
And Baltar, that wonderful complex intellect, and Six, that deadly courtesan, what of them? Well, it is the will of God that they be humbled, that they become the farmers that Baltar should always have been; all that fancy education and carefully acquired social grace is less important in the end than the farming that was in his blood from the beginning. He wins Caprica Six back simply by acting in a manly fashion and taking a gun into his hands, and then they farm—this is of a piece with the engrained American populism that distrusts fancy people with no relish for violence. It is no coincidence that James Callis played Baltar in his own, very English, accent.
Of course, not everything in "Daybreak" was dross. The end of the first part, where Bill Adama asks people to join the Galactica on its last doomed mission is an effective piece of rabble-rousing, and the space battles early in the two-parter are wonderfully pyrotechnic even if they do not make especial military sense. Both sides pull rabbits out of hats—the ability of the brain-damaged Sam Anders to act as the equivalent of a Hybrid—but the show manages moments of that attractive ingenuity which we describe as cool—the Galactica's Centurions being distinguished with a red sash, say.
All the fighting hand to hand though ends up being peculiarly pointless, though—because the Galactica crew end up fighting just far enough into the Cylon base to be given the child by Sharon who has stolen her, again, and then discover that, meanwhile, Cavil's Cylons have fought their way onto the bridge of the Galactica and are waiting for them. And then, and only then, Ellen makes Cavil an offer of what he has wanted in the first place—access to the cloning and downloading technologies which created the Cylons in the first place. It is not only God who goes about things in a bizarre way—Ellen could have made such an offer by radio the moment they got to the black hole before fighting a colossal battle—but where's the fun in that?
The plot then starts depending on weird givens. Resurrection technology turns out to have been distributed between the minds of the Five for safe-keeping, for a very odd value of safe-keeping—and they have to link their minds in order to access it. Only, this leads to Tyrol's finding out that Tory killed Callie, and he kills Tory in revenge, instantly, so that the secret is lost forever. And everyone stands by while he strangles her, with no idea of why he is doing it. And Tory is worthy of death—whereas Tyrol, who killed a random Eight to enable Sharon's escape with Hera, is later congratulated on being her executioner. Given that Tory's killing of Callie is her protecting the secret identity of the Four, saving the life of Callie's son whom his mother is clearly planning to take with her, and facilitating a suicide on which Callie seemed already set, it is hard to answer those critics who suggest that Tory's killing is just another rehearsal of the tired trope of the Tragic Mulatta.
And Cavil, Cavil whom the show had gradually made responsible for almost everything, the rebellious creation who had destroyed humanity out of Oedipal resentment, and killed and mind-wiped the Five, and made his amnesiac creator his whore, what happens to this Dark Lord when he realizes his plans are all undone? Why, he suddenly shoots himself in the head, saving everyone else the trouble. This was, we are told, a piece of improvisation by Dean Stockwell—if so, it was a piece of improvisation from which he should have been restrained, because it makes a sudden oppurtunistic nonsense of his character.
I could elaborate dodgy plot points for pages—but the issue is ultimately this. The finale of Battlestar Galactica contains a lot of material which is staggeringly ill-judged, and concludes with revelations that are a cheat and an epilogue that is trite and nonsensical. If the whole point of everything that has happened is to ensure that we be descended from Cylons as well as humans, then God has pretty much failed if the end result is that toy robots are a sign that we are about to undergo our own apocalypse. There was so much to love in Battlestar Galactica—the sarcastic bad-assery of Starbuck, the quiet sweet-natured fury of Felix Gaeta, the sardonic grumpiness of Doctor Cottle, a myriad interesting doomed characters like Billy and Kat—and in the end everything is reduced to the staggering cliche that the point of all these travels and deaths is to become our ancestors, a plot twist which was only not foreseeable from the beginning because it is a cliche so total and shopworn that no one seriously thought writers as talented as Moore, Eick and Jane Espenson could come out with it.
The reimagined Battlestar Galactica series has always encompassed the worst of human frailty and imperfection. Yet there is heroism to be found in its characters, in their continual choice to keep dreaming of and trying for a better way of life. "Daybreak," the series finale, encapsulates both the futility and the greatness of that attempt.
One of the things the show has gotten most consistently right is to show how very wrong everyone can be. Every character has done the wrong thing fairly often. The government dips repeatedly into fascism and martial law. Individual relationships go through every form of mistake and betrayal; human and Cylon have each wreaked terrible destruction against the enemy. They fail over and over, and finally, stuck together and facing their extinction, there is no running away from what they've done.
If there is an argument being made here, it's that we can only move forward and break from destructive patterns through confronting ourselves honestly. The deeply flawed Gaius Baltar is a prime example: in his very last scene, it's not his insufferable pretensions and intellectual grandiosity that matter, but his humble roots, the core of himself he's tried to deny: he knows about farming. Perhaps the most striking character arc across the series has been the conversion of Saul Tigh. As a military officer whose life is constantly spinning out of control, Tigh honors allegiance like a drowning man clutching at a lifebelt; it is vital to his sense of self. Starting from a rigid anti-Cylon stance, his loyalties remain unwavering (and hilarious—even discovering he himself is a Cylon barely dents his furious railing against "skinjobs" and "toasters"). Yet as he gains awareness of his whole life and history, and his role in creating the Cylons, he is slowly, gradually, able to reconcile his humanity with a love for people he had seen as the enemy. He can move beyond easy prejudice, the need to define and assert his identity through rejection of the Other, when he recognizes the contradictions in himself and comes to terms with them.
What comes to fruition in "Daybreak" is that it is not only possible to live with one's failings, but that strength can be found in the acceptance. That's what gives such poignancy to the reunion of Baltar and Caprica Six, who have witnessed each other's worst and weakest moments. Their relationship has matured not despite its terrible history but because of it: because they know themselves and each other so well. When we flash back to a tender early moment between them, it's not some feel-good cuddly memory to whitewash or romanticize their whole mess—it is in fact the very moment when these two people doom the Twelve Colonies to destruction. What we're seeing is both the genesis of love and a prelude to genocide. These characters will always be stained with an awareness of their guilt, and as such they are reflections of the damage their cultures have perpetuated against one another. There's no forgetting what they've done, and there's no fix, and there's no atoning. There's only living with it and each other, and maybe learning to do a little better the next time around. Similarly, the Galactica crew begins to come to terms with the monsters they've created only after years of being forced to acknowledge their own propensity for monstrous behavior. It's a hopeful notion, that such personal and cultural change may be possible.
Hopeful signs abound. Going into the finale, I wouldn't have thought we needed an umpteenth shakycam close-up of Bill Adama getting sloppy drunk and clenching his teeth, but his flashback gives us an unexpectedly gorgeous moment. Adama in his pre-war past is as pathetic as we've ever seen him, facing retirement and mortality, alone on the street, falling down and puking on himself. And yet that expression on his face when, lost and miserable, this spaceship commander catches sight of the night sky and suddenly there's a transcendent shining hope and love in his eyes . . . there it is. The utopian dream arising even from the depths of a dystopian reality: We are all of us in the gutter, but some of us are looking up at the stars.
"Daybreak" didn't resolve all threads to my satisfaction, of course. Was Hera really so important? Symbolically valuable, sure. But the actual future of either species, riding on her? Regardless of how significant her genetic role may prove, I'm unconvinced that she's the only human/Cylon child possible; I fully expect Baltar and Caprica to boink up another kid within hours after walking off to talk about agriculture. So positing Hera as the lynchpin of their entire future is pretty much contrived nonsense—but I still approve of the crew of the decrepit, doomed Galactica deciding to take the ship out in a blaze of heroism to save her, because it is a ridiculous, wholly admirable assertion of humanity in the face of atrocity. Other threads are less successful: no matter how you spin it, the existence of "All Along the Watchtower" across time and space is kind of crazy. Is this song a skeleton key hidden in our genetic code, does it reverberate in the music of the spheres, is it whispered into songwriters' ears by a heavenly choir? What to do when presented with such a completely redonk plotline? The viewer will most likely have one of two responses: to feel cheated and outraged by this departure from comprehensibility, or to take delight in the sheer weirdness. While I can respect and understand the former response, I will cheerfully admit I'm in the latter camp. Regardless of authorial intent, I have never looked to Galactica for that particular form of realism; this is not The Wire in space. While the show clearly—and often effectively—aspires to allegorical commentary on current events, for me it succeeds best as epic space fantasy, the sort of story that doesn't need to explain all its structures logically in order to show us something true.
That said, I was disappointed that after spending a season building up hollow drama around the what-is-Starbuck question, the show provided a vague, hand-waving answer that doesn't seem to hold up even within the existing mythos. It was a disservice to a character who had stood out as such a complex and real person.
It was also hard in the final season to watch Laura Roslin's storyline being so reduced, her rich life narrowed down to a tight orbit around Bill Adama. At the same time, it's rare and moving to see a dying character portrayed as actually dying, and shifting her focus accordingly. This happens: she becomes less vitally involved in world events, she takes comfort in love. We've known all along that Roslin entered reluctantly into the Presidency, that she'd forced herself into a public life unsuited to her private temperament. I can't fault the show for allowing her to drop that role and face her death in ways that are true to the character's essence, turning inward, releasing obligations, focusing on what really matters to her. Even as she dwindles in her final months, there is strength and grace to her choices. Mary McDonnell plays the character with such a self-contained quietness, as though she's holding this great universe-sized joy within so it doesn't leak out, just glows from inside. That quality of her character carries through to the very end.
I find the treatment of deity in the final episode both intriguing and problematic. Mysticism in Galactica is nothing new; theological questions have always been central to the story. Ancient prophecies prove relevant, inexplicable visions reveal the future and connect humans and Cylons to one another. The mysterious Head Six has been indicated from as early on as the pilot miniseries (when she points out a Cylon device to Baltar) to be a real, independent entity, though her true nature is unclear. Something is taking an interest in the fate of the human and Cylon species, and apparently nudging them toward survival. It is to be expected that Baltar and Caprica Six, the most religiously inclined characters, see the hand of God at work, but their describing it in these terms does not necessarily make it so. They find the faith they've been seeking; for the rest of the crew, and for us, the mystery remains open to individual interpretation.
The creatures Baltar refers to as "angels" have been a part of the Galactica universe since the original series, when they were shown to be a race of sentient beings known as Seraphs. The original show was designed as a Biblical parable, with a heavy influence of Mormon theology. The reimagined series has taken those elements and built a more open-ended cosmology around them. If there is a god manipulating events here, it's a rather science-fictional one, along the lines of Philip K. Dick's approach to mystical experience as a challenge to our rational assumptions about reality. SF also has a long tradition of postulating alien intelligence which behaves more or less like a God, and visitors who are effectively but inexactly angels, the idea being that they are so far beyond our understanding that we create our mythologies to explain them. Just as in Arthur C. Clarke's statement that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, sufficiently advanced sentience may be indistinguishable from miracle. "As you now are, we once were; as we now are you may yet become," the seraphs say in the original series. Indeed, when the Seraphs speak to each other in "Daybreak," their language expresses an analytical approach to fate. As Head Six puts it: "Mathematics, law of averages . . . let a complex system repeat itself long enough, eventually something surprising might occur. That too is in God's plan."  Though they've encouraged the mortals toward faith, these angels don't seem terribly pious; their perspective is that of highly intelligent, rationally-minded, immortal observers. Head Baltar's comment that "he [God] doesn't like to be called that" comes across as coy—but also significant. Even while implying an anthropomorphic God figure, the remark simultaneously undermines that interpretation, hinting that the notion of "God" is a construction we impose, not the actuality of what exists. The show seems less interested in positing a definite statement about deity than in exploring the yearning toward belief. In fact, running through the finale is a strong awareness of religion as an artificially imposed structure, a story we tell ourselves about the universe, as can be inferred from the suggestion that some of the Galactica crew, or at least their names, may form the basis for oral folklore that future generations will build upon and evolve into Greek and other myths.
Still, whether we view the seraphs as biological or theological creations, the upshot is that forces beyond our understanding are at work in the universe. Once a Godlike power is postulated as a player, the questions that arise are numerous and fascinating. For example, does our world proceed from a theistic reality, or did the power, or its seraphs, evolve from a human-like race? These possibilities are not necessarily contradictory. The evolution of sentience may lead to an enlightened state of something akin to grace, a notion many science-fictional stories explore through post-human singularities. But the most important question is probably: is our destiny in our own hands? The answer in Galactica is a complicated yes and no. On the micro level, it seems clear that individuals have free will. The Cylons are the model here: as individuals, we are all subject to our programming, and yet as, for example, Sharon Agathon has shown, we have the free will to override it. At the macro level, however, the argument seems to be that our species develops in predictable patterns, a cyclical progression which repeats itself so consistently that it is practically fate. The show posits a sort of long-term biological cycle: we periodically reach a point when our civilization outstrips its function and becomes destructive to us. If any god takes part in this destruction, it's a form of god that is tantamount to nature. In an impassioned speech to Cavil toward the end of "Daybreak," Baltar presents what may be the show's most definitive statement on this relationship: "God's not on any one side. God's a force of nature. Beyond good and evil. Good and evil: we created those. You want to break the cycle? . . . Well that's in our hands, and our hands only. Requires a leap of faith. Requires that we live in hope, not fear."
But something beyond human agency is more directly at work when angelic Starbuck programs her "Watchtower"-inspired coordinates into the jump drive, bringing the fleet to New Earth. From a fantasy storytelling perspective, this is silly but fairly neat: finally, that damn song gets put to some practical use; a long-running plot thread culminates in a meaningful climax. On the other hand, it suggests that humanity cannot find our own way out of our messes, that we must be rescued via the intervention of a higher power. This massively literal deus ex machina is philosophically troubling, in a show that's offered such thoughtful observations on the ongoing human struggle to deal with our own lives, our actions and the consequences. Are we, ultimately, unable to save ourselves without miracles?
So some mysteries are revealed, yet remain mysterious. The glimpses we get are, I think, less an attempt to explain plot through magical systems than an acknowledgment that there are systems at work that we don't understand. Consider that the fleet has crossed galaxies for years without once encountering alien lifeforms: the entirety of the universe's strangeness is represented within the story's mysticism. Meanwhile, humans and Cylons, once so foreign to each other, begin to cross-breed, and when they discover life on the new Earth, it turns out to be just like them. Even angels in this universe may be evolved from shared genetic roots. What emerges from the writers' choices to portray the species and setting this way is a show that isn't really about exploring the infinite diversity of outer space, any more than it's a show about finding God. Ultimately, it is about exploring and discovering our own humanity and our search for meaning. We are plenty alien enough to ourselves, in all our variety, and our greatest epic struggle is to learn how to live with one another.
In the end, the fleet decides to disperse across the planet and go low-tech. I see this not as a prescriptive choice or some virtuous, Luddite message, but as a specific and natural response to the terrible, doomed life these particular characters are desperate to shed. Their decision to settle on Earth is so perfectly boneheaded and idealistic in exactly the ways that these people think. There may be nothing innately noble about a short and primitive life, but there is something admirable in the attempt to break away from old destructive patterns. After years of being crammed together into decaying metal boxes, stifled under semi-military rule, living on algae and black-market medicine, is it any wonder they leap at the chance to go off on their own, to stretch out under open skies with a planet's worth of rich land around them? Adama speaks of distributing the remains of their supplies to everyone, so they are keeping what they can, except for their ships. The crucial decision is the one to spread their population across the globe in small groups, rather than attempt to build a central city. Having seen their worlds devastated by a war for cultural dominance, they are choosing not to recreate their old civilization at the point of its implosion, but to take a more modest place in the new world—to mix into, rather than colonialize, its cultures. Though their well-intentioned plan to share their language with the natives suggests that the colonial impulse is not as easy to shake as they idealistically believe.
In the end, the human race does not conquer the Others; it merges with them. If this is a victory, it's a gentle one, not an assertion of empire but a deliberate dissolving of it. It's not a departure from but a continuation of their passionate search for a better way of life—an expression of the very hope that's kept them going throughout their wanderings, and an extension of the ongoing series narrative that has shown humans and Cylons starting to come together. For some, the new Earth appears to be a kind of Grey Havens, where they may set aside the will to power and lay down the burdens of their old war-torn lives. For others, it promises adventure. Either way, they are making a choice that feels right to them, given the place they're coming from.
So I see it as a happy ending but also a cynical one: the characters have finally found a chance to begin anew, but their choice cannot be taken as prescriptive: we viewers are aware that their new beginning will ultimately end right back where they started. The decision to start fresh is not an answer to humanity's problems; it is a utopian urge both beautiful and foolhardy, naive and doomed. It is not antithetical to a forward-looking urge for knowledge and exploration; it is driven by the same capacity to dream that has always pushed people to explore new frontiers, to try and find better ways to live. Neither technology nor the refutation of it is a real solution to our problems, but what keeps us going, the show suggests, is the dream itself. The belief that we can choose to break from our patterns, that there must be some kind of way out of here, even though we are all jokers and thieves, flawed creatures carrying the seeds of our destruction within us. We also carry within us the hope of salvation.
[See also our previous reviews of Battlestar Galactica: Dan Hartland on early, mid and late season two, and on mid-season three; Jeremy Adam Smith on defending Battlestar Galactica at the end of the third season; Abigail Nussbaum on Razor; and Roz Kaveney on the first half of season four.]
Roz Kaveney is a writer and reviewer living in London. Her most recent book is the BSFA Award-nominated Superheroes!; other titles include Reading the Vampire Slayer, From Alien to The Matrix, and Teen Dreams.
Karen Meisner lives in the small city of Madison, Wisconsin. She edits fiction for Strange Horizons.