The Real Higher Power of Battlestar Galactica
March 26th, 2009
There has been a lot of discussion following “Daybreak” regarding the role of religion in the series, a lot of it claiming that the finale’s use of religious terminology and the concept of a “higher power” was too reductive and problematic to serve as an endpoint, too clean and concise to possibly capture the moral ambiguities and political differences that have plagued the series. I will admit, up front, that I can’t particularly relate to this argument, for two reasons.
First, I feel it is primarily an argument of semantics: while discussing the finale during the special edition of the /Filmcast [Now available for download here!], Devindra Hardawar noted that he viewed the higher power as a “natural order,” something which derives its power as much from nature than it does from anything religious. What he was describing was spirituality, not religion: yes, the terminology of Angels was utilized within the series to describe certain aspects of the finale, but are we really going to take word use as a justifiable argument in a world with fundamentally different values of religion and language that would make such a definitive reading problematic?
Second off, I don’t particularly feel it matters due to the reaction the finale achieved for me personally: while there are various nitpicks that Devindra, Meredith Woerner and I discussed during that two-hour breakdown of the episode, for the most part the finale was designed to provide powerful and dramatic moments for the characters we wanted to see, and for this journey for Earth. Those moments don’t become fundamentally less powerful when they are given a place within a broader agenda as long as that agenda does not supercede the characters involved: since the “higher power” remained vague and unexplained, it allowed the impact to sit where it should sit.
But getting talking about the idea of an omniscient force, or higher power, got me thinking about the individual who is most responsible for defining every single one of those road signs to Earth, of bringing all of those characters to life. Bear McCreary, who has been scoring the series since the show’s first season, has been perhaps the most single-handedly responsible for the series’ emotional success, having had a hand in every episode and having been “in control” of character destinies with pivotal decisions that, up until this season, have been primarily behind the scenes.
But with the advent of his blog, Bear McCreary’s genius has been put on full display, and while he no doubt still plays coy about the role he has played in the show’s overall aesthetic, the fact of the matter is that he is an indispensable part of the series’ identity, and of the various Galactica-related talents moving over to prequel series Caprica he is by far the one who may have the most immediate impact. It is no surprise reading McCreary’s epic explanation of the work he did for “Daybreak” that there was something special about the music in this episode, because my recollection of its finest moments often come through not as images, but rather as music.
So while some are off cursing the series of omniscient powers that apparently solve the show’s problems too easily, I’ll be over here worshipping the real higher power, and problem solver, of Battlestar Galactica.
I ultimately don’t have time to go through every single amazing moment in Bear McCreary’s lengthy catalogue of work on the series (which will be coming in an epic collection based on demand), but I want to highlight a few key ideas and a couple of pieces which have always stuck with me for one reason or another.
The defining characteristic of Bear McCreary’s work is the idea of themes, which is fitting since it is one of the show’s defining characteristics as well. Every character, many ships, many planets, are given themes which fit into the category of recognizable, as signifying something or someone in such a way as to create viewer recall. It’s an incredibly powerful skill, especially on a show where continuity is often so important, so in many cases it becomes McCreary’s responsibility to create that callback beyond the visual, beyond the dialogue within the scene. And in many instances he has choices to work with: if scoring a scene with Bill Adama, he has to decide whether it’s a military scene (which gets the military theme), or a scene with Roslin (which gets “Roslin and Adama”), or perhaps something else entirely that requires a new motif, a new identity.
McCreary didn’t put the exact same amount of work into each episode, as the show only demanded he slave away at new themes or unique pieces of music every so often. And yet, as his blogs during the fourth season have shown, there is a logic to almost everything that he does within the span of an episode. He doesn’t just decide which theme he wants to bring out when, but rather what instruments it is going to be played on: what started as interesting but sparse music in the Miniseries has become an eclectic sound which encapsulates various elements of world music with McCreary’s beatiful melodies, primarily due to McCreary’s attention to detail. When he wrote a blog post about the various unique percussion instruments he searched out for “Blood on the Scales,” and the talented professionals he found to play them despite their rarity, you start to realize that this isn’t just an in and out recording session.
Instead, it really is this level of involvement raised above the series itself, mapping things out and connecting things which might not otherwise seem connected. McCreary’s role in the finale was the same as Ronald D. Moore’s or Michael Rymer’s, albeit on a different scale: while Moore was responsible for taking these characters to particular places, and Michael Rymer was responsible for bringing those to life visually, McCreary was responsible for tying them most definitively to our memories of past moments. When Anders is commanding the entire fleet towards its end, and the old Colonial Theme comes up in the score, it is impossible to separate image and score. It’s one thing for a piece of music to bring out certain emotions: many of his action cues are simple musically, but highly effective in that more simple task. But for a musical cue to feel so perfect that you can’t imagine anything else, and can’t imagine how the music even had another purpose, is something that McCreary’s theme-based approach best encapsulates.
His commitment to the series can perhaps be placed into context through the follow anecdote he offers as part of his post on “Daybreak”:
In late January, the producers and I began to track down more money to pay for the orchestra. And it was proving difficult. The episode and the series as a whole were incredibly over-budget and I was unfortunately asking too late…The studio was honest about the situation and was able to provide what they could. However, it only covered the orchestral cues in the last forty minutes…In an unprecedented move, the producers and I each pitched in personally to make this happen. We all pooled our resources together because we knew how important the full orchestra would be to Daybreak.
This is someone who has so much pride in his work that he is willing to dip into his own pocket to ensure the finale was given its proper treatment, and whose work is so valuable in the eyes of the producers that they were willing to dip into their own pockets as well. Reading through his review of the finale, so start to see this commitment emerge as musical ingenuity (creating a bagpipe chord of every single pitch a bagpipe is capable of playing? Oh gods) and as strong a connection to these characters as any of the writers, any of us as viewers, and certainly more than any other Television composer I know of.
I guess the ultimate compliment of a compose on such a fan-driven series is this: with Bear McCreary’s themes in existence, there’s really no excuse for people to be creating fanvids (*shivers*) using popular music. When the love of Adama and Roslin has been so perfectly encapsulated, so absolutely captured by the beauty of “Roslin and Adama,” the need to apply musical principles from our own universe is almost unacceptable. And when almost every character has something similar that manages to capture their multi-faceted personalities, you start to wonder if perhaps Bear McCreary hadn’t been steering these ships all along, controlling them in such a way to create opportunities for his television musical revolution.
- Alan Sepinwall has an interlocking conversation between McCreary and Lost’s Michael Giacchino (who is great, but not quite on the same level) from last year, as well as a full transcript, at The Star-Ledger.
- McCreary’s epic blog posts (Part 1 - Part 2 – Part 3) about “Someone to Watch Over Me,” with the piano music, demonstrates the absolute dedicating he brings to this series: the episode represents a whole new step in his music being inside of the show, and the blog posts reflect this as they take us from the genesis of the project, his struggles composing it, and then the really unique ways in which they recorded, edited and eventually presented the episode based on the work he had done (for the finished effect, in a way, you can watch this).
- As noted above, McCreary isn’t entirely done with Galactica, considering he scored “The Plan” (to be released in November) and will be handling scoring duties for Caprica as well. He also went so far as to work on creating a ballet based on his music, “Prelude to War,” that premiered in Germany.
The following are selected based on availability, and for a bit of a diversity in the various elements of the score – some themes, some action, and some of the amazing mood pieces that are now so distinctive of particular scenes or locations that it’s impossible to ignore them.
“Roslin and Adama” – Season Two
“Allegro” – Season Two
“Prelude to War” – Season Two
“The Dance” – Season Three
“Battlestar Sonatica” – Season Three