Thursday, January 15, 2009

On Exodus, the Land, and the Gods, or: Why Battlestar Galactica is the Best Show on Television

It's all Dwight Schrute's fault.

If it weren't for Dwight Schrute, everyone would be in on the secret. Everyone would talk about it, everyone would tune in, everyone would discuss it like crazy. It would win Emmy Awards, Golden Globes, and everything else. There would be absolute consensus.

Instead, its very mention elicits laughter, or at least incredulity. The notion of its being anything other than goofy genre fair is shrugged off. The words themselves conjure up 80s camp and bad hair. And it's all due to Mr. Dwight K. Schrute.

I am referring, of course, to Battlestar Galactica.

You see, anyone who watches (or has heard of) The Office knows the image, voice, and overall geeky machinations of the one and only Dwight Schrute, because he embodies the ultimate antisocial, uncomprehending loser-nerd. And what is the recurring theme of Dwight's favorite TV show? You guessed it: Battlestar Galactica. Just saying it is funny; hearing Jim mock Dwight with it is even funnier. So kudos to The Office for landing a great joke.

But try to forget about all of that.

Instead, imagine an incredible work of visual art. Imagine a story of twelve tribes devastated, nearly annihilated, by an enemy of their own creation. Imagine these twelve tribes, decimated and ragged, embarking on a great exodus -- yet fleeing with their enemies on their tail. Imagine the inner political workings of these tribes as a new president and new military commander, each bitterly hostile toward the other, take the reins of the tattered fleet. Imagine the depth of their spiritual life, worshiping their gods yet questioning the age-old myths -- all while the genocidal enemies claim faith and obedience to the one true God of the universe. Imagine wave after wave of attack from these enemies, yet still holding strong. Imagine the president being driven by a great conversion, and a calling to lead the tribes to their original, true home, prepared by the gods, a final sabbath rest for her people. Imagine the whispers and doubts and turmoil as these pilgrim people realize that their enemies, always thought to be lesser, inhuman, physically and mentally and spiritually distinguishable ... look and sound and feel exactly like them. Imagine them realizing that some of their best friends are in fact the enemy, the other. Imagine some realizing that they themselves belong on the side of the enemy. Imagine the implications: for war, for torture, for victory, for family. Imagine inevitable defeat, indefatigable fatigue; imagine stealing an election; imagine new leadership and a new home -- then occupation by a foreign power. Imagine insurrection, insurgency, powerlessness, treason, and suicide bombings. Imagine rescue! And new exodus! And resurrection from the dead! Imagine the definitive, divine promise of a new and good and final land, with rest on all sides from enemies. Then imagine that hope squandered ... and yet.

If you are able to imagine that, then you have a tiny glimpse into the fantastic story of what is without a doubt the best show on television: Battlestar Galactica.

Tomorrow night is the beginning of the end, the final ten episodes. Created and begun by mastermind Ronald D. Moore in 2003 as a miniseries on the SciFi Channel -- reimagined from the original show in the late 1970s/early 1980s -- it was expanded into a full-blown series upon critical and popular acclaim. It is now in its fourth and final season, having had a midseason finale back in June.

Fortunately, while Dwight Schrute may be the scapegoat for its lack of fullblown popularity, the show has received high enough ratings and critical support that SciFi has continued to properly fund and support it these last five and a half years. Rarely meddling, Battlestar has been a phenomenal example of what it means for a network to take a hands-off approach, to allow the writers, creators, actors, musicians, technicians, and artists the space in which to do their thing.

And what a thing it is they do.

The show is, of course, science fiction. It follows a human fleet of 45,000 or so in ships fleeing their colonies upon their destruction by the Cylons, cybernetic robots created by humans long before, who have now come back -- evolved and sophisticated beyond imagination -- to rend final vengeance against their creators. The fleet, led by Commander Adama (Edward James Olmos) and President Roslin (Mary McDonnell), sets out in quest for the mythical planet earth, the "thirteenth colony," humanity's (supposed) original home. The Cylons follow in pursuit, themselves (supposedly) having their own plans beyond mere genocide.

No need to go beyond that (fleshed out in the first hours of the show), especially with the broader description above. However, I simply cannot emphasize enough how much more the show is beyond any attempt at definition. Apart from The Wire (whose run ended last year), no other work of art -- much less television show -- post-9/11 has more to say to us in our context today than Battlestar Galactica. It leaves no stone unturned, and rightfully so; Moore and his crew know full well that they are dealing with the whole society, the whole politics, of human life and crisis. Everything is present and everything is connected: religion, art, sexuality, violence, morality, politics, government, military, sacrifice, truth, death, redemption, law, genocide, eschatology, creation, class, race, family, love. Nothing is excluded; nothing is out of bounds; nothing is independent of another.

That is the narrative power of Battlestar Galactica. It is merely another telling of the human story, simple in its complexity. These are real people making real decisions with real consequences. Their struggles are our struggles; their failures are our failures; their suffering is our suffering; their hope is our hope.

(I won't even bother you with endless heaps of praise on all the technical aspects of the show: the tribal, percussive music; the phenomenal graphics; the dark, gritty lighting; the grainy, documentary-esque cinematography; the heart-wrenching acting; the tight directing; the virtuoso writing; the twists and turns; and not to mention the season finale to the third season which somehow incorporates the turning point of the entire series on the slow emergence of a Bob Dylan song! It truly never ends; the word is perfection.)

In what appeared to be a unanimous response, upon reading the script for the three-hour series finale, every cast member said that they were rendered speechless, utterly devastated by its vision, power, and honesty. Because that was the only option: Ronald Moore could do nothing less than conclude the truthful, tragic (but not hopeless!) tale of human community, violence, exodus, and homecoming in faithfulness to the livedness and truth of our world even today.

We would have it no other way. So say we all.


  1. Brad

    Through Josh, you are responsible for the Battlestar mania in our house. We're addicted. Thanks for your interpretative eye.


  2. Brad - the end begins tonight! How can it be? I wish we were watching with you and your lovely wife and Josh. But in 1 1/2 hours I'll be watching as you will. It's great television, it's a great story. Amen!

  3. We just need Josh in here and it'll be a right Love family comments room! I'm so happy that the product of us rooming together could be passing along the BSG gospel.

    And my goodness, what a beginning of the end last night was. Wow.