The Times They Are A-Changin'

tv-starbuck1.jpg[This is a much longer and fundamentally different version of a column running today in the Willamette Week. Also, you should know that this version was written, obviously, shortly after the first episode of the season of "Battlestar Galactica," and by now the wildly disappointing third episode has already aired and we've already moved well past that to seeing Tyrol shave his head and Gaeta get his leg blown apart. But them's the breaks with publishing columns in a weekly paper.] • "Battlestar Galactica" has always existed in a state of permanent change. A glance at what's transpired over the first three seasons is almost jaw-dropping for the amount of pure plot that the series has packed into about 50 episodes. The series is ostensibly about the remnants of the human race on the run from the cyborgs that annihilated their home worlds and everyone on them, but it's really about the price of humanity and what it means to live with your mistakes, which is why instead of spending an entire season on potentially lengthy arcs — the settlement on New Caprica, or the whole damn civil war when President Roslin and Apollo go galloping off to Kobol and drive a wedge between the military and the government that threatened to derail everything — the series often finds a way to wrap these stories in a handful of episodes while (a) preserving their emotional ramifications and (b) getting everything close enough to normal so that the cycle of change and reconciliation can start all over again. • The fourth-season premiere, "He That Believeth In Me," in true series fashion, managed to live up to those expectations of growth/challenge even as it managed to broaden the larger story's impact, which is no small thing to do this far into a show, especially since this season will be the last. The episode continued to explore the religious and moral and societal problems facing a people whose numbers are just small enough — 39,000 and change — that they could conceivably implode under the weight of trying to remain upright. Everything on the series has always been about shades of gray, and about doing the best you can in compromising situations, and searching for hope and victory amid despair and chaos. • For instance, the fact that four of the "final five" Cylon are members of the Galactica crew (except for Tory, who was already pretty expendable and whose confirmation as a Cylon is impactful in that she's the aide to President Roslin but otherwise unimportant because she's a pretty fringe and unlikable character) is amazing on so many levels that it can only be called perfect. Col. Tigh, who's always been the most adamant anti-Cylon voice and who killed his own wife because she was aiding and abetting the robotic alien force of whose ranks he is now a horrified member; Sam Anders, who was stranded on Caprica and led a guerilla squad against the Cylons until Starbuck returned to rescue him; and of course Chief Tyrol, who's gone through this whole thing before when he and Boomer were together only to find out she was a Cylon. The entire concept of betrayal and denial doubles back on itself over and over. • Which is part of the point: The Cylons were created by man and then rebelled. They have always been mankind's greatest mistake, the decision that led to catastrophe, and in essence the series has been about the survivors running from the physical versions of their own screwed-up lives, of the wrong choices they can never stop making. But the identity of some of the final Cylon models brings that home even more, and it raises a series of killer questions: What does it mean to be human? How much control do I/we have over my/our actions? What is it about someone that makes us love them, and how much of whatever that is is beyond our ability to regulate as far as our feelings are concerned? At what point does the person we love stop being that person we love? Yes, the Cylons wiped out most of humanity; that's gonna make for some bad blood. But what does it mean when we become them, and not in the abstract way where we both resort to similar methods of warfare, but actually physically are our enemies? • And man, there's no other show on television regularly grappling with tough theology. Baltar's Jesusian appearance and ascendance to cult-like leader were one thing, but the plot involving the sick boy and his anguished mother were deeply religious. When the mother asked Baltar why the one true God didn't want her son to live, she wasn't doing it in that facetious manner of unearned weariness that's commonplace on TV drama; she actually wanted to know why this was happening. She believed; she needed help in her unbelief. And of course Baltar's prayer over the sick boy one night, angrily asking God why a boy who hadn't been alive long enough to sin against his creator was being made to suffer while Baltar himself walked as always free. Baltar's encounter later with Six was another moment of reckoning, as Baltar was held at knife-point and pierced not for the boy's transgressions but for his own lack of moral fortitude. And yet Six — if you act on or at least play along with the assumption that the Cylons can somehow influence Baltar's life and surroundings — granted him a reprieve from death and called his bluff. Now Baltar will have to confront his own feelings about his willingness to be sacrificed, and whether they're real, and what it would mean to act on them. • Tying religion into the whole human-Cylon issue: Starbuck's apparent resurrection is the first time the characters have to deal with something truly fantastical. Everything else that's happened to them has a vague sense of rationality underpinning it; hell, even the magical jaunt to Earth in the caves of Kobol seems normal compared with this. The Cylons are robots; Vipers run on fuel; water is wet; etc. Everything in the "Battlestar Galactica" universe is usually pretty understandable, but this time, the characters can't avoid the fact that the only thing guiding them for now is their faith. Apollo believes Starbuck is who she says she is, and that she's been to Earth and back; others aren't so sure. And Starbuck is broken by her inability to convince her friends of her humanity, something she's always taken for granted and never thought she'd have to verify. All she can do is tell them who she is; it's up to them to believe her. That's why the script did its best to quietly underscore her human nature: Aside from Adama's (warning) shout of "Starbuck" upon her return, she was almost exclusively referred to as Kara throughout the episode. • Which is the whole issue. The Cylons are now among the crew of the Galactica, fully aware of what they are and unable to know what will happen to them next. The characters used to ask themselves, Will we survive? But for those coming to grips with their true nature, they face an even tougher question: Do we want to?