Many science-fiction and fantasy sagas are driven by the quest for One Big Solution: a singular objective that, realized, fixes everything. Someone throws a ring in a volcano and Sauron is obliterated. Someone kills the emperor and balance is restored to the Force.
On Battlestar Galactica, the Sci Fi Channel's darkly relevant reimagining of the 1970s campy space opera, the One Big Solution is us--that is, Earth. Somewhere in space, a few thousand humans have escaped near genocide by the Cylons, a race of robots of their own creation and indistinguishable from humans. The survivors are driven by the search for a planet--ours--on which a religious legend says the "13th tribe" of man long ago settled.
Be careful what you wish for. Last year, at the midpoint of BSG's fourth and final season, the fleet landed on Earth to find a dead, rubble-strewn nuclear wasteland. It's as if Moses had crossed the desert only to find that the Promised Land had fallen into the ocean. The focus of humankind's survival strategy and religious mythology instantly turned to radioactive ash. (See the top 10 TV series of 2008.)
Now, returning for its final run of 10 episodes (Fridays, 10 p.m. E.T.), BSG asks an unusual question: What happens after the big solution turns out to solve nothing?
BSG began with a straightforward sci-fi premise: a space-chase saga but an uncommonly spartan, raw, unflashy one. There are no cute droids à la Star Wars or sexy aliens à la Star Trek. Its universe is dirty, lived in and worn out. The ships are cramped. The humans carry guns that shoot bullets; they also eat--yum!--processed algae vacuumed up from uninhabited planets. And they're given to creative basic-cable profanity--frak being BSG's F word of choice.
That's not to say BSG is a bummer; it's thrilling, lyrical, even funny. ("The good news is," a politician says, wondering how to spin the news about Earth, "real estate prices are low.") But it's an adventure of exhaustion, not exhilaration.
What has kept the diaspora going on this grim cruise is the promise of President Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell), a bureaucrat who becomes leader after the government is vaporized and who believes she is a prophet destined to lead humankind home. What keeps the viewer going is the cat-and-mouse game with the Cylons, who can hide among and interbreed with humans. (The robots, at least, are sexy.)
Launched with a 2003 miniseries, BSG evolved into a sci-fi tale of the war on terrorism. Because Cylon "skin-jobs" pass for human--some believe they are human--the fleet fell into the kind of paranoia that, post-9/11, saw a sleeper-cell agent on every commuter flight. It also dramatized the danger of religious extremism: the Cylons are monotheists who see their human creators (who worship a version of the Greco-Roman pantheon) as heathens.
The parallels were uncomfortable. Admiral William Adama (Edward James Olmos, a far cry from the cuddly Lorne Greene of the '70s BSG) unflinchingly overrides civilian rule when he sees fit for security; Roslin is not above ballot-box-stuffing to ensure she leads the quest for Earth. In Season 3, when humanity lived under an Iraq-like occupation by Cylons (hoping to reform rather than exterminate the survivors), characters turned to bombings and suicide attacks against Cylons and their human collaborators.
Like 24 (Jack Bauer and his ticking-time-bomb scenarios return Jan. 11), BSG tests the morality and rationalizations of an age of fear. Roslin is idealistic but possibly blinded by belief; Adama is high-handed but often right to be that way. Even swashbuckling pilot Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff) is unstable as often as heroic. The Cylons, meanwhile, prove a fascinating society, racked with doubt and riven by debate over their religious mission.
In its return episode, unsettling revelations about Earth's past come fast as the humans (now allied with a breakaway group of Cylons) wonder what to do next. In the process, BSG shifts from the topical to the timeless, raising questions about the nature of humanity as the protagonists are forced to redefine their purpose. Can humankind save itself, not by finishing some quest but by understanding the threats of its own creation? As this brilliant space saga comes to an end, humans are forced to recognize that the big solution is not out in the stars. But it might be in themselves.