The Critical Response to “Daybreak”
March 21st, 2009
[I always write my reviews without reading what other critics have written, not because I don't respect their opinions (precisely the opposite) but rather because I feel as if I have nothing to add once I finish reading them on occasion, and I want to feel motivated to write and produce blog material. And while I may have gone with the "volume" approach with the Series Finale, this doesn't mean that other critics haven't been able to far better focus on some of the issues I really wanted to emphasize myself. So, let's take a trip through the critical response to the finale as we start our Long Goodbye.]
Critics love Battlestar Galactica, and those that don’t do feel kind of bad about it. This is one of those “events” in the world of television criticism, where it becomes the dominating topic of discussion within critical fields, and while there is a mostly positive buzz surrounding the finale this doesn’t mean that there isn’t some disagreement. So let’s, below the fold so as to not spoil anyone, start sorting through the reviews for some things they made me reconsider, and some things that I want to question.
If they don’t find the charred Earth first, then Dualla doesn’t kill herself, which means Gaeta probably doesn’t launch the coup, which means Anders doesn’t get shot in the head and turned into a Hybrid, which means Galactica can’t find or reasonably fight Cavil’s forces, which means Kara’s not placed in a position where she has to jump the ship based on nothing but the notes to “All Along the Watchtower,” which means they don’t get to the good Earth.
I often wonder, if Alan were to read my reviews, if he would think I just visit his own blog and paraphrase from there: we agree far more often than not, and in this case we both loved the finale while acknowledging its reservations. However, to be honest, I never really thought of the finale in the linear narrative terms that he uses in the above section, explaining why it was necessary for Kara to lead them to the first Earth if she was really a beacon of destiny. I think it’s a problematic line of thought that raises too many hypothetical scenarios, opening up the bigger question: is this Divine Power really divine, or is it just Ronald D. Moore in a white robe, pulling the strings?
Used in this way, I find the “Divine Power” part of the finale to be frustrating: it can be used as an excuse for Season Four’s narrative problems, for example, if you say that Starbuck had to waste so much time aboard the Demetrius so that she could be there when the Cylons instituted their Civil War. Rather than suggesting that the charred Earth was a necessary proponent to those events happening, I’d be more likely to suggest it was a dramatically relevant one: it created some powerful television, both the initial elation and the subsequent despair, and helped Moore more carefully drive the series towards its finale. I have some issues with his driving, to be honest, but I felt the finale did a good job of using destiny lightly, not quite applying it to the linearity of his narrative.
I’ve made much of my desire to know what Starbuck had returned as in the last few weeks, but I found the show’s complete non-answer perversely perfect. It was clear that SHE had found the answer for herself (the look of peace on her face at the end was a new look for the character, and Sackhoff played it beatifically), and that ended up being enough for me. Again, the flashbacks helped, as we learned that her ever-present flirtation with death had been around long before the days chronicled in the series and that her greatest desire, to not be forgotten, would be realized, as she passed into mythology. Making the character a Christ figure and then having her just disappear (again, similarly to Christ) in the blink of an eye is going to enrage plenty of people who were hoping for a more concrete answer, but, as stated, I thought it worked, staying just enough on this side of concrete to keep it from being TOO ambiguous. She had fulfilled her purpose, and now, whomever sent her back was calling her home.
Todd picks up on here one of the things that I loved about the flashbacks, how they established that character traits we had attributed to the stress of three years of insanity were in fact present before The Fall, present before they were considered kosher. He also quite nicely defends Starbuck’s final conclusion, which I shall now go on to refer to as “perversely perfect.” I’m not sure what a concrete answer ever would have provided: “Someone to Watch Over Me” had settled her identity crisis through the vision of her father, and Sepinwall made a really good point in his review about how Moore is not interested in the science, but rather the emotional reaction it creates. Yes, I have issues with Starbuck’s overall involvement in Season Four, but the back half was pretty damn great for her character overall, the finale proving perhaps her finest moment.
My biggest objection to the finale — and it’s not an “oh they ruined it” one — is this: I really, really disliked the footage of the robots in that final scene. For a show that often came at things subtly, everything about that robot footage and other aspects of the scene felt much too obvious.
Actually, the entire scene was quite different from what came before. It was quite a tonal switch. It was jarring to go from such lyrical moments to such exposition-y stuff. (And if you know what he looks like — and perhaps the majority of “Battlestar” fans don’t — seeing Moore in the scene was odd too. It took me out of the moment).
There’s a lot of different opinions about the ending in terms of its very foundation, that they form our ancestry and ended up on our Earth, but Mo’s comments regarding the robots montage are pretty universal. I think almost every review I’ve read that liked the overall idea itself were still kind of iffy on the “Robots will End Us All!” conclusion (Jason Mittell, a media scholar, quite wittily uses Active Audience theory to disregard it). I didn’t find it quit as objectionable as Mo or Jason, but I definitely understand where they’re coming from: I think I mostly elided it in my own review, but part of that is because for me it was a statement about how simultaneously fitting and problematic it was to place the events of BSG into a real world context. I’ve always been a bit wary to call certain parts of the show a commentary on real world events, primarily because of its science fiction setting, so I think I read that final montage less in terms of the fatalist view of technology and more the continuing threat of cyclical behaviour as found in the show’s main messaging. This was my own sort of elision, I realize, but it just shows you how much this show invested in these kinds of questions when something like that can create such a diverse set of reactions.
But underpinning the dramatic fight, and the cat-and-mouse mission to recover Hera from the Colony’s beehive-like tunnels, was a characteristically BSG sense of finality and grit. Just take the logistics of the battle, for one thing: the battlestar crunching headfirst into the Colony was a close-quarters clinch unlike nothing I recall seeing in a previous space battle. It wasn’t some breathtaking, balletic dogfight—it was like a barroom brawl between two spaceships, locked in a deathgrip, determined to scratch and choke and swing broken bottles until one of them could not get up. It would be a gun battle, Adama said, in one of his last, best speeches before a mission: “Then I want [you] to start throwing rocks.”
I’ve seen a few people draw comparisons to The Return of the King with this finale, considering both this action sequence (which sounds a lot like the Battle of Pellenor Fields when placed into this context) and the struggle with having neverending, well, endings, but I think James taps into what makes “Daybreak” far more effective from an action standpoint (I think it’s the favourite description of the first, action-driven hour I’ve found). It was something that wasn’t just BIGGER than what we’d seen before, but something fundamentally more raw, more visceral, more final. Sure, dead Racetrack activating the nukes was the equivalent of a giant ghost army (I can’t get in trouble for spoiling The Lord of the Rings, can I?), but the entire battle felt like a culmination because every aspect of it was personalized: even Centurions battling Centurions was just plain cool, based on our history with said toasters.
Only by losing a fifth of their number and suffering the privations of space travel, occupation on New Caprica, constant war, and the threat of the end of humanity could the fleet realize the gift they had been given in Earth. To end the cycle – at least to try to end it – the ways of the past needed to be abandoned. Given the verdant Earth, teeming with life, I would argue it was easy for Lee to convince the fleet to throw away all ties to their former civilization.
Who wouldn’t want to pull a Thoreau when presented with our beautiful planet after years of grime and muck and recycled air and recycled water? Hell, I get on a plane for two hours and I’m almost ready to become an organic farmer and goatherd. I can’t imagine doing that for years on end with sentient killing machines trying to kill me at every turn.
As always, Mr. Porter’s wit slays me, but I think that he quite adeptly uses said wit to point out that the romanticism of everyone following Lee’s plan is an example of our own sentiment saying goodbye to the series paling in comparison to the sentiment of the people who went through all of that suffering finally finding a place to call home. I do wonder to what degree the fleet, not having the inside information that we do about the cycle of life, would internalize these questions, but when you consider New Caprica, the epic space battles and everything else that would have affected them indirectly, I almost wonder if they’d be even MORE likely to be willing to rid themselves of technology just so they wouldn’t fear of being woken up by “Condition One throughout the Fleet” for the rest of their lifetimes.