Thursday, March 19, 2009

All of this has happened before . . .

. . . . but after tomorrow night, it won't happen again.

That's a reoccurring theme in Ron Moore's reimagined series, Battlestar Galactica--a series quite unlike the `70s original (for which I have no childhood nostalgia). Both detail the near-annihilation of the human race by the "Cylons", a machine race, and the subsequent fleeing of the remaining survivors across the galaxy for safety. Working on a much wider narrative canvas than its predecessor, the remake has developed a deeper, more complicated story, and resonating themes about commitment, faith, loyalty, compassion, prejudices and self-preservation.

The saying is meant in part to explain the cycles of destruction and rebirth that the show has been working through and towards, and which will no doubt explain in large measure whatever happens tomorrow night. But it is also a nifty description for the show's dedication to serial storytelling, with multiple, overlapping storylines across several episodes and even seasons and weekly cliffhangers.

Its difficult to "explain" Battlestar Galactica's story to a newbie, or its appeal--not because its too smart or complicated per se, but because its narrative scope is so immense. Its something--a narrative affect, a deep sense more so than an idea--that has accumulated over the span of four seasons, which defines its appeal to me. If you haven't watched from the very beginning, it is absolutely impossible to appreciate the series finale tomorrow night.

That is what seriality is to me--an affect, that which is generated through the differences in repetition. We are invested in the stories and the characters, of course, but when we sit down to watch a new installment, or rewatch an old one, it is always as much about the ritual of viewing as it is about specific knowledge, and our commitment is provoked by a deep affective bond we've formed through that ritual with the sum total experience of the show.

Does it really matter how the show ends? I'm more inclined to suggest that what really matters tomorrow is that it is ending.

This is my last night of anticipation.

But of course I'm also curious about what will actually happen. (GEEK ALERT) I remain convinced that Gaius Baltar's journey is the core of the show, that he is the embodiment of humanity's strengths, weaknesses and contradictions on BSG, and so he will somehow play a very central, pivotal role in the very ending, despite his (typical) act of cowardice last week. I do not think Kara's mystery will be fully explained. I think the "opera house" dreams refer not to Kobol but to the "Colony," the ship where Hera is being held captive, the place built by the final five, and which they are coming to find her. I think the vision of Baltar and the 6 coming to take her away might be a reference to the Head Baltar and Head 6, not the actual characters. They are quite likely the faces of God. I think that BSG is describing our own pre-history. And I think it is quite likely that everyone will die. . . but not in an apocalyptic sort of way which marked the show's beginning. Everything is pointing towards a rebirth, led by Kara (end GEEK ALERT).

So, I care about the story itself. Its just that it, whatever it ends up being, tomorrow night won't change my commitment to the show. And I look forward to tomorrow night not to finally "know the truth," but because I will never be able to look forward to any new BSG episodes again, and so this is it.

It might be ironic to know that this time last year I had never seen a single episode of the show, even though I can remember as far back as the fall of 2003--living in Oklahoma--and seeing the mini-series hyped on TV. It was only around early April of 2008 that I finally decided to rent the mini-series from a local video store because I was burned out on old Star Trek episodes, and so many different people had been raving about this show for a long time (its hard to believe now, but I was once actually offended when a friend suggested to me that I might like the show. With the exception of Trek, I do not see myself as a "Sci-Fi" fan at all, and BSG looked to me like another Babylon 5 or Stargate Atlantis.

I was hooked by the end of those three hours. And thanks to my department's media library, I was able to check out the box sets and plow through the first three seasons of the show is a little over a month. Then with the help of new episodes of season four on "Sci-Fi Rewind," I was completely caught with the show before the first half of season 4 had even concluded . . . less than two months after watching my first episode.

There is something profound about how DVD and the internet is fundamentally changing not simply the transmission of television, but also its very aesthetic--a new age of seriality, and of narrative ambition. Freed from a sole dependence on the fragmentation of syndication, thereby necessitating that each episode be a self-contained whole, television series can now tell larger, more complicated stories, one hour at a time, because DVD and the internet make it so much easier to follow along, or to get caught up to speed. Or to experience the entire journey, for the first time, all at once.

Until a month ago, I had never watched a "live" episode of BSG, and yet I knew the whole story by heart.

That's something the cinema cannot provide. Secretly I have been far more enamored by television in the last five years than film. The experience of an epic television journey (on DVD), be it BSG, Mad Men, Deadwood, The Office, or what have you, has each been a more rewarding experience than any two hours I've spent in the multiplex during that time.