Tuesday, January 26, 2010

"End", as in Telos: More on Battlestar Galactica and Vergil's Aeneid

"All this has happened before, and all this will happen again."

Spoiler Alert: The following post discusses the way in the which the Battlestar Galactica TV series ends. You have been warned. Oh, and it also discusses the way in which Vergil's Aeneid ends. And it also discusses the similarities between the two.

For those unfamiliar with the Aeneid, here is an incredibly helpful online study guide. That page was created by William A. Johnson, professor of Classics at University of Cincinnati. He also has similar pages for the Iliad, the Odyssey and the Epic of Gilgamesh!

And for anyone unfamiliar with Battlestar Galactica, I have provided extensive linkage to the Battlestar Wiki.

Early on in the first season of Battlestar Galactica it occurred to me that there is a very broad similarity between how that story starts out and the beginning of Vergil's Aeneid. In both cases a sudden and cataclysmic military attack leaves only a handful of survivors who then set out on a long journey in search of a new home. Knowing how the Aeneid ends, but not knowing where BSG would lead, I wondered if the parallels would hold up over time. In particular I wondered whether or not the humans and Cylons would somehow reconcile, in the way that the Latins and Trojans do at the end of the Aeneid.

For those who know their Aeneid, you might be thinking: "Hey! The Trojans did not reconcile with the people who destroyed Troy (the Greeks), they reconciled with the Latins." Well, OK, sure. But first of all I am not saying that everything is exactly the same in BSG as it was in the Aeneid. And also there is, of course, a very important reconciliation, of sorts, in the alliance struck personally between Aeneas and King Evander (a Greek of Arcadian persuasion).

For that matter, those who know their Aeneid might also be thinking "Hey! Just what exactly do you mean by 'at the end of the Aeneid'!?" Naturally, I am of course referring to the "XIIIth Book" of the Aeneid, as written by Maffeo Vegio in 1428 (fourteen and a half centuries after Vergil's untimely death). Vegio's ending so seamless completes Vergil's unfinished story, and his Latin is so, well, Vergilian, that for centuries afterward, Vegio's thirteenth book was included as a matter of course in editions of the Aeneid.

Vegio's ultimate reconciliation of Latins and Trojans has the advantage of being well supported by and completely consistent with what Vergil had already written. In particular, the heroic leader Aeneas (quite unlike William Adama!) has no desire to fight the Latins in the first place, and King Latinus (unlike John Cavil and Boomer) also does not want war with the newcomers, and is in fact very favorably disposed toward Aeneas, whom he sees as the ideal son-in-law whose arrival had already been foretold by prophecy.

Wait, now that I think of it, it could be (and probably should be) argued that Cavil and Boomer (and especially Boomer considering how she ends up) better fit the role of Turnus. And that would mean that D'anna Biers is more like King Latinus, which is especially fitting given the fact that it was D'anna who foresaw the identities of the Final Five (just as Latinus received the prophecy about the coming of Aeneas), and the way in which D'anna dejectedly bows out of the action, by remaining behind on "earth", just as Latinus must sit by and is powerless to prevent his people from waging a war he knows should not be fought.

Oh, and another parallel between Boomer and Turnus is that Boomer's "swing vote" was decisive in paving the way for both the Cylon Civil War, and the continuation of the war with the humans. Just as Turnus was the decisive "vote" in turning the Latins against the Trojans.

Another possible candidate for BSG's version of Turnus, if only because of the timing of her death, could be the truly evil Tory Foster. Depending on how one reads the original character Turnus, though, there is a serious problem with the Turnus=Tory equation, and this is especially true to the extent that we accept Maffeo Vegio's version of the ending. However, for those who see Turnus as a pure villain, then this is a pretty good match.

Vegio places great emphasis on the manner in which Turnus is honored after his death. Vergil himself had made a point of almost sparing Turnus. Aeneas kills Turnus only because of the death of the young Pallas (Evander's son) at the hands of the Rutulian, and, most especially, because of the fact that Juturna's brother proudly wore Pallas' belt as a gruesome trophy.

Boomer dies heroically. She must pay for her many terrible deeds, but in the end she is the one who brings the child Hera back safely. But Athena will never forgive Boomer for kidnapping Hera in the first place, and, in the process, beating the frak out of her (Athena) and then frakking her human lover, Helo (who thinks he is frakking Athena, and that is what really and truly enraged Athena because Boomer proved that Helo couldn't tell the frakking difference).

But Tory does not die heroically. Nor is there really ever even a hint of anything that might make her character other than irredeemably evil and every bit as amoral as Cavil, but without his endearingly cynical witticisms. And yet really, when you think about, what else could Tory have done? Cally was going to kill Nicholas, whom everyone at the time thought was half-Cylon. Tory had to prevent that. Srsly. And there was no way for Tory to just save Nicholas and leave it at that. Cally would "out" Tyrol, Tory, Tigh and Anders as skinjobs and would probably never rest until she had finally murdered her son one way or the other, now that she knew he was half-Cylon. Did I mention that Cally really, really hates Cylons?

But Tory makes it clear that murdering Cally doesn't bother her even a little. The only times that she shows any concern are when she is worried that Galen might suspect, which he never does -- until, well, you know when Final Five all do the Cylon version of the Vulcan mind-meld thing.

Which brings us, finally, to Kara Thrace. You see, when Galen "sees" what Tory did to Cally, he predictably frakking loses it completely, and kills Tory then and there with his bare frakking hands. This obviously disrupts the "mind meld" process, rather irreversibly, thus seriously undermining the fragile human/Cylon truce which is based on the promise that the Final Five will provide the Cylons with resurrection technology in exchange for a permanent end to hostilities. The Cylons, well, the bad ones anyway, understandably believe that they have been duped and a rather one-sided gun-fight breaks out in the CIC, in which all the bad Cylons are killed (including Cavil -- who shoots himself).

Only, really, that isn't the real problem. The real problem is that a stray rock hits the Raptor that had been piloted by Racetrack and Skulls at just the right angle to cause Racetrack's dead hand to flop down on the launch button for the nukes that Racetrack and Skulls had decided to arm just before being killed by an earlier stray asteroid. These nukes blast apart the massive Cylon Colony, thus disrupting, rather irreversibly, the delicate gravitational balance that was allowing everyone to orbit around the Black Hole rather than being sucked down into it.

Adama orders Kara to jump the ship before it is gravitationally singularity-ized. Where to? It doesn't matter, Starbuck, just jump us out of here now!! Oh, OK. So, well, why don't I just punch in my favorite song from childhood in numerical form and see where that lands us? OK, just get us the frak out of here before we all find out what the view is like on the other frakking side of the event horizon!

And so Kara Thrace, the Herald of Death, She who is dead already, who knows she is dead, who has accepted her death and who has even said goodbye to herself, leads them all to their end. But it turns out that this is "end" as in telos. That is, "end" as in goal, purpose, destiny. Kara Thrace is Aeneas, the hero who has conquered death itself, who travels to the Underworld and returns to lead her people to a new home and a new beginning.

"Last surviving cast member of Bonanza dies."

One of the cool things about human languages is their infinite creative capacity. Every native speaker of any human language has the ability to create (and "emit") completely "new utterances" - meaningful strings of words that have never previously been spoken, but that are nevertheless immediately understandable by others.

Just the other day I saw posted to an internet discussion group the sentence "I am a Kemetic from New Jersey." (For those not up on their Paganese, a "Kemetic" is a person who follows the ancient polytheistic religious traditions of Kemet, the ancient name for what modern English speakers refer to as "Egypt".) When I read those words I had no difficulty in understanding them, but I also immediately thought that this was very likely to be a "new utterance", a string of words that had never been uttered in English before.

And then just this morning as I was glancing through the Huffington Post I saw the headline "Last surviving cast member of Bonanza dies." I'm pretty sure that is a "new utterance", too! Another likely candidate is the headline of a small item in todays India Express online edition: "Why this Republic needs more time zones." By their very nature, headlines probably have a higher than average probability of being completely new utterances.

Not to make light of the death of Pernell Roberts, who gained fame playing Adam Cartwright. It turns out Roberts was a pretty damned interesting guy. He liked to brag that "I distinguished myself by flunking out of college three times," after which he worked at such professions as tombstone maker and railroad riveter, before finally settling down and becoming a successful actor.

Many lesser actors would have been perfectly happy to have a central role in a hugely successful TV series like Bonanza. But Pernell Roberts thought his character, and the show in general, was poorly conceived and the writing especially left much to be desired. He finally left Bonanza at the height of the show's popularity and took a series a smaller roles until finally landing the lead in Trapper John, MD (a full 14 years after leaving Bonanza).

The ability of human languages to create ever new "utterances" was one of the key ingredients in Noam Chomsky's withering critique of B.F. Skinner and Behaviorism back in the late 50's and early 60's.