Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


Making peace with evil so that we can feel better

Some of us are old-fashioned. We believe in something called evil. It goes by various terms, and sometimes it’s dressed up as mental illness, but in general it equates with people getting hurt in very bad ways and sometimes on a large scale and for generally no good reason or for reasons that could have been avoided.

Some of these are easily identified. Hitler = evil. That’s an easy one. Often it requires more thought, no matter what the scale. Dr. Jack Kevorkian — savior to the suffering, or someone who seeks to legitimize his personal thrill in ending a life? But in general, I think we could agree that an atrocity on the scale of killing billions of people in an effort to extinguish an entire race should rightly be seen as:  evil.

Except on “Battlestar Galactica,” where it appears to be God’s will. Or an unavoidable part of a natural cycle. Or something.

I watched the show’s finale last night and as much as one can be troubled by popular entertainment, I found it troubling. Troubling not just because the ending calls into question the entirety of the series’ supposed noble purpose, but also because it has been met with just unthinking universal acclaim, both in the mainstream media and on message boards.

On the macro level, Cylons and Humans reconcile, intermingle, and repopulate — and we are their offspring. But the way I understand the series, Cylons wiped out about a dozen planets full of humans, reducing the entire population to 39,000 that they ardently sought to wipe out.  Welcoming them with open arms to end a cycle of violence is akin to setting aside the morals of the enlightened to embrace the Nazis.

On the micro level, we have Gaius Baltar, an unrelentingly self-interested and self-serving race traitor who allows Caprica Six entree into the inner workings of human defense so that he can get laid. In the finale, we learn that Baltar was a poor lower-class farm boy who in adulthood strove to leave behind his past and who makes one — one — gallant effort, in joining a small firefight in the climactic battle scene. So, I guess, now that we understand the shame of his boyhood all is forgiven for those  billions who were murdered. (It’s interesting that the vice-president and a ship’s officer are court-martialed and executed by firing squad for leading an insurrection that kills a few dozen, while Baltar, the greatest mass murderer in history, is free to return to his roots.)

Dressed up as it is in the show’s liberal politics, where all can be forgiven if only we share our feelings, we are reassured at show’s end that all is according to God’s plan. Because of our bipolar nature — good/evil, Cylon/Human — we are forced to repeat this cycle until we decide to break it. Which would be fine — except we now learn that much of the action of the series has been guided by — wait for it — angels. The Caprica Six who has appeared to Baltar from episode one:  an angel. The Kara Thrace who returned from death? An angel. What I would ask is this — and I understand that these are age-old questions — what hope can humans have to break a cycle that is ordained by the almighty? If God wanted us to break a cycle of violence, well, why doesn’t He do it? Or, at the least, why doesn’t He simply stop sending angels and demons who keep us stuck in the groove  of this neverending cycle? Even more disturbing, if this is God’s plan, then how can we ascribe blame to Hitler, Stalin, Ted Bundy, Pol Pot, Genghis Khan, Vlad the Impaler, the architects of the Spanish Inquisition, Cheney, Bush? How can we judge against them, if they are part of a divine plan?

Questions of divinity and morality are only the most obvious disturbing element. The show has also been relentlessly anti-technology. For the record, technology is not evil in itself (although it can be used for evil purposes) and throughout human history has greatly improved the lives of billions. It seems foolish to have to say this, but in an age when people esteem mysticism (angels) and naturalism (chaos) over rational improvement, I suppose we should all of us take more time to stick up for civilization. In the series premiere, it was made clear that the Galactica survived only because as a museum piece it was not hooked up to Baltar’s integrated defense system. This is a favored trope of many a nostalgic Westerner:  that while your newfangled car’s computerized engine can be counted on to fail, that old rustbucket in the yard will always start right up. This is the kind of thinking that would have kept life nasty, brutish, and short. I make my living almost entirely through two devices, one called the phone, the other the computer; for much of human history I and everyone else would have been relegated to, paraphrasing Steinbeck, working in the dirt with a stick all day. Anyone who complains about office work hasn’t given it enough thought. The prehistoric alternative is hunting/gathering, and dying young from wild animal attack, other injuries and infectious diseases. If you are troubled by technology, then by all means, try the alternative.

(As a side note, this is why I so thoroughly enjoyed T.C. Boyle’s  “A Friend of the Earth.” The chapter where the Earth Firsters decide to live naked in the woods for 30 days is instructive. Any thoughts of sex or enjoyment or the wonders of nature fall away quickly when the imperative turns to finding another two-ounce lizard to eat raw. Boyle is no deluded fool, succored by indoor lighting while railing against the electric company.)

The organic alternative is where the Galactica’s various species — Human, Cylon, and hybrid — wind up. They redub Sol III as “Earth” and settle here, engendering the rest of  human history. In so doing, they reject cities and ships and weaving and printing and everything else manufactured from their past and go rustic. I watched this scene and asked the basic questions that the writers would rather you didn’t:  “What happens when those clothes fall apart?” “If they don’t build structures, how will they survive the cold and rain?” “What happens when the medicine runs out?” and on and on. Laura Roslin was already dying of cancer, but it seemed hard to believe that the first time someone had an infected cut they wouldn’t be sorry they’d destroyed all the penicillin. How many millions of lives has penicillin saved, and how many died in the past for want of it? These are the questions that are left utterly unasked, and they are the right ones.

In place of all these hard questions, precisely the sort of hard questions that inform global actions every day, questions of morality, and of choice, of individual responsibility, what we’re left with is the freefloating sentiment that mankind should just decide to get along together. Yes. I agree. Just as I wish that every board, panel, committee, and commission I have ever sat upon, or indeed every play-production group to which I have ever belonged, would just agree. But we don’t. We seem to have differing ideas. Individual ideas. And here’s the revelation:  Sometimes there’s a bad person involved. Someone who’s damaged or deranged, someone who is willfully malcontent, someone who enjoys actively undermining the efforts of others. Breaking bread with that person feeds him and leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth. Certainly at this point, we’ve learned that, haven’t we? Seventy years later, haven’t we learned the essential difference between Churchill and  Chamberlain, and why we’re all of us in Churchill’s debt? Surely this is something about which we can all say, “So say we all.”

2 Responses to “Making peace with evil so that we can feel better”

  1. Paul Crist Says:

    I won’t go on as long as Lee did about the end of the series but I do have a few comments.

    I don’t buy the lets start over, go live as primitives. If the survivors really wanted change they would have built a city and remembered the lessons of the past. Scattering the way they did their history was lost and they condemned their children to repeat the failures of the past.

    As far as Baltar he does one selfless thing in his life and this is supposed to redeem him? One good act does not make up for a life of serving his own interests, this goes for a television show and in reality.

    I didn’t like the whole angels thing at the end of the show. I thought it was a bit off course from the start of the series. When they brought Kara back after her Viper was destroyed and did not explain how she had pictures of a green planet that turned out to be destroyed was weak. I would have asked that question.

    Overall I enjoyed the show and will miss it on Friday nights. I just wish the ending would have been a bit better.

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