how young are you? how old am I? let’s count the rings around my eyes

I don’t want to talk about it.*

What I will talk about, instead, is Battlestar Galactica’s season 4.5 debut this past Friday. I will talk as circumspectly as possible, to avoid spoilers, but the ultra-sensitive may want to wait until Tuesday.

BSG has always shined in characterization. This is an outstanding feat, given that BSG comes to us via the Sci-Fi Channel (the station that brought you … um … hang on …). The characters and their interests seem so real that I find it jarring whenever the writers adopt a Capricism (“frak”, octagonal paper, pyramid ball). The characters may do things for stupid reasons, but they rarely do them for jarring reasons. They’re no stupider than the rest of us.

Of course, you can throw all that out the window whenever prophecy rears its ugly head. But that’s understandable. After all, prophecy is the dumbest literary device ever to enter fiction.

In fantastic literature, prophecy comes in one of two flavors: retroactive or precognitive:

  • Retroactive prophecy looks backward and justifies the present. Hey, the sky’s missing some constellations? Funny, there’s an old prophecy that says that sort of thing might happen during a big war. Oh, you saw some snakes this morning? The Scrolls of Pythia mention that you might have seen snakes. I guess things are happening according to prophecy now, aren’t they?

    Retroactive prophecy’s dumb because it doesn’t add anything. It takes zero effort on a writer’s part to invent a prophecy, paint it over recent events Texas sharpshooter style, and then produce the resulting turd with a flourish. Ooh, ominous, right?

  • Precognitive prophecy looks forward and outlines the future. The creepy teenage girl muttered some nonsense rhyme – and now there are guys with blue hands coming after us! The Scrolls tell us that we have to park at this planet, then turn left – and look, a glowing on-ramp in space!

    Precognitive prophecy’s dumb because it strips the protagonists of their role in the story. Either the future has been laid out, in which case the central questions of “what do the protagonists want?” and “what obstacles lie in their way?” no longer matter. Or the future is still undetermined, in which case why are you wasting our time with these paltry attempts at mysticism? Most stories never commit one way or the other, unfortunately, generally straddling a middle path until the events prophesied have come and gone. At that point, the precognitive prophecy becomes retroactive (see above).

It doesn’t help matters much that none of the prophecies unearthed on BSG so far have been particularly ominous. Half the time, they foretell the most mundane shit imaginable. I remember some episodes in Season 2 where Roslyn and Boomer are literally consulting the Pythian Scrolls on whether to turn left or right at the top of a hill. The rest of the time, when they do get the plot moving, the results could just as easily have been achieved by accident. I remember one “prophecy” that came true when someone spotted a reddish star in the sky, and another that came true when the Final Four Cylons just happened to be standing in the same place at the same time. The Arrow of Apollo had a neat payoff, I thought; can’t think of anything else.

I bring all this up because I think the Season 4.5 premiere does right by discarding prophecy as quickly as possible. Several characters who have relied on prophecy in the past – both human and Cylon – see their visions turn to literal ash. A few very vivid scenes depict this – some overwrought, some subtle – and the Fleet stumbles for a while. Not only do I like the divorce from mysticism, personally, but I think it makes for a stronger story. The protagonists are once again active. They have agendas and obstacles. They’re people, not pawns.

As for some of the episode’s plot twists and revelations: a couple of them were clearly done for shock value alone. That doesn’t make them any less effective, but they don’t indicate a strong writing craft. Still, no one behaved in a way that struck me as innately wrong. The revelation of the fifth Cylon at the end of the episode works for me, especially given the Fleet’s habit of leaving important things several planets behind (see: Arrow of Apollo, above).

Overall: I liked it well enough to give the rest of Season 4.5 my attention. Nice work so far, writers – now don’t screw it up.

* Okay, I’ll say this much – Joe Flacco had a phenomenal rookie season, especially on a team that’s never been known for its offense. Especially in the ultra-competitive AFC. He got to the conference playoffs, and then made the mistakes I would expect a rookie to make against the #1 defense in the league. I have nothing but pride for my Ravens and expect the Flacco/Harbaugh era to produce plenty of trophies in the future.

That being said, it would have been fun to watch Terrell Suggs jack Kurt Warner, right?


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