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I've always taken it to be Kobol

With these seven words, Jane Esperson, executive producer of BSG and writer of “No Exit” dashes many of my hopes for a great (and hard SF) backstory for Galactica.

They come in this interview by Maureen Ryan where the dialog goes like this:

Mo: Was Kobol the original origin point for humanity, or was it Earth?

Jane: I’ve always taken it to be Kobol.

Looking deeper into these words, she isn’t saying that it is Kobol. She’s saying that this is not something that gets resolved in the show or in the writer’s room. She has a personal take on it, which means it is not something that was written into the show writers’ bible. This indicates we do not see a hidden “real Earth” in the show, because a real Earth would concretely answer this question the other way — the real Earth is the origin point for humanity, after all. So in her mind, it’s Kobol. Other writers may have different thoughts.

This leaves us with a show much more disconnected from our reality than many of us hoped. This is like Star Wars, in a galaxy, far, far away. It takes place neither in our future nor our past but in another reality. The regular references to Earth cultural elements are literary, not literal. The “Earth” we saw is a Cylon-founded colony of Kobol. It has no connection to our planet, it simply has that name because that was the name of the 13th colony in the original 1978 series from which this show is derived. In that 1978 series, the “Earth” was the real Earth, but in a bogus and non-scientific “ignore evolution” way. The bogus story is removed, and what’s left is a planet that is EINO — Earth in Name Only. I have written before on why having a real Earth is the only story that makes sense and why the Ark story is so bogus.

The disappointment comes in several forms.

Make it real

First, I wanted this show to have the relevance to our world that can come from hard SF. As a story about a possible future for humanity, it could speak better to real questions about our future. What happens when we do build AIs? Will there be battle? What will our relationship be like? I don’t want to be too critical here, because an allegorical story set in a Galaxy far, far away can still do that. But it missed the chance to do it really well.

And I won’t even say it can’t be done really well without involving our reality. For example, I vote Anathem (note: major spoilers in 2nd half of my review) to be the best SF book of 2008, and it is set on a planet that is not Earth but like it in many ways. On the other hand, it’s the exception. The vast majority of the great SF novels have taken place in a theoretical present or future of the real Earth.

What the hell was up with all those clues?

Most TV SF gets this stuff terribly wrong. You don’t count on TV for good hard SF. I would not have come to expect it except there were all these clues:

  • The flags of the 12 tribes come from our sky, our Zodiac. Makes sense if their culture comes from here. Makes zero sense if it’s the Zodiac of a remote colony with which there was almost no contact and just sublight travel.
  • Starbuck says, “They looked up in the sky and saw their 12 brothers.” That line never made any sense, now it makes less.
  • Adama identifies the Lagoon Nebula as M8, its 18th century catalog number
  • All those references to Earth culture and style, from the cars and suits to “All along the Watchtower.” — just literary devices, now.
  • “Life here, began out there” is the first line of their sacred scrolls. Their sacred scrolls were written on Kobol. Now it seems their first line was written somewhere else. The first line? That’s like making the Book of Genesis a recent addition to the bible.
  • Those star patterns of the real Earth sky, obviously deliberate, showing up at the Cylon battle site but not at the show’s Earth.
  • The formerly-thought-ancient monotheist religion battling the polytheist one.
  • The view of the real Earth at the end of season three, coupled with no view of the continents of the 13th colony “Earth.”
  • The ancient legends of a Temple of Five which predate the 13th colony and even Kobol — now turned into a Temple of Five much later.
  • The statement by Ron Moore in his blog that he would not ignore the known fact that humanity evolved on Earth while trying to write a Galactica “life here, began out there” story. And the biggest clue, reality itself.

The missed chance at true brilliance

These clues were hinting at an ending that I thought would be one of the best ever done in TV SF. The ending would have been to shock (most) of the fans, by showing them the real Earth as the secret homeworld, showing them that this story was relevant to their own.

What would have been brilliant would be to shock people with something that they already knew was the truth. Of course humanity comes from Earth. Yet by putting people into the mindset of the old Galactica, fans have forgotten that core fact. To have something you already know be a shocking surprise would have been great TV and a great ending. The greatest endings in stories that have a mystery element, is to surprise you and have you go, “Oh yes, I see it, it was obvious, how did I miss that?”

Perhaps the best known ending of this sort was the original Planet of the Apes, as I detailed the first time I did this rant. We get so used to aliens speaking English, and perfect humanoids on other worlds in our SF movies, but in reality it requires the planet be Earth or derived from Earth. Yet the audiences were shocked.

This ending could have been done a number of ways. We might have the characters meet their doom elsewhere, and then pull back to show real Earth, also in ruins. We might have the characters sit next to Earth, unable to see it, while on Earth observers note “isn’t it odd, the Kobolians keep coming back, even though we programmed them not to return?” Or it could have been a more developed treatment of true Earth. It might have shown that the bodies of all 8 Cylons came from the DNA of the true Earthlings who fled to Kobol, showing the original DNA source for Six walking in New York City.

This is what BSG really looked like to me and others. Sic transit gloria galacticus.

The new logical problems

If it all comes from Kobol, many of those clues above now turn into logical flaws in the story. How do the 12 tribes get their flags and names from the sky of an obscure and forgotten colony? We know the 12 tribes were formed before the 13th tribe left, because Ellen said that they returned to warn the 12 tribes about the dangers of doing AI badly. The only remaining explanation is that there have been many cycles of time, and while humanity arose on Kobol by Jane’s statement, somehow Kobolian culture arose on Earth. Odd.

And that Temple of Five. Built by the 13th colony on their sublight journey and not named the Temple of Five. So how does there get to be a legend of a Temple of Five? It was modified to that by some external force, but how did word of that enter colonial legend?

What’s left unsaid

In just a few episodes, we can’t possibly explore the history of Kobol to a satisfactory degree. Hopefully we’ll get something, perhaps some hint about who the Lords of Kobol were, and why they cast out the 12 colonies, perhaps even why the 13th colony left.

But now the history of Kobol is the whole history. With Earth as homeworld, you don’t need to tell the story of the rise of humanity to a technological civilization ready to build AIs. We already know that story. A simple “and they we built AIs and they rebelled, and they/people fled the Earth for a colony called Kobol” would have been enough to lay it out.

This in turn makes me fear we may get some mysteries left as religious mysteries. That might satisfy some viewers, but it will leave me flat.

Plus, as I wrote earlier, the plotting of the Final Five as victims with implanted memories of invented lives diminishes them greatly as characters. I care much less about the former personalities and lives of Saul, Galen and Ellen, because they are just Cavil’s invention. (The audience never cared too much about the past of Tory and Sam.)

So is there any hope?

I don’t see much hope. Unless Esperson is simply lying. Admittedly if Earth is the homeworld and that is intended as a big surprise, she has little choice but to lie to a question like that. In her position she can’t easily claim ignorance. I would have hoped she could have said, “Why don’t we watch the new episodes and learn more?” and the fact that she didn’t suggests we don’t learn more about this question in the new episodes.

Other minor notes

We learn in this interview that monotheism was invented by the metal Cylons of Caprica. That’s quite a surprise to me. Ellen and the Final Five, we are told, convert to that religion. Yet Ellen also says that when the 13th tribe stopped and built the Temple of Hopes, they prayed for guidance to their home, and “god” showed them the way. But they were no monotheists so this has to just be her interpretation.

We also get a rather strange story of the fall of Earth. The people of Earth, though Cylons themselves (mostly fallen Cylons who had perhaps forgotten their nature) made metal robots to serve them, and they enslaved those robots and they rebelled.

In other words, the very story that is suggested when the skeletons are found, and supposedly shot down when it is learned the bones are Cylon. It is a bit odd, creating metal slaves if you are machines yourselves, but not impossible.

We also learn:

  • “The Colony” is not literally a colony, but perhaps a hideout somewhere.
  • Yes, it is Cavil who programmed the other Cylons not to think of the five.
  • It’s still unclear just what it meant for the metal Cylons to “evolve” into the biologicals, who otherwise seem to be wholly products of the five.
  • The idea that Cavil arranged for most of the Five to be with Galactica and for it to survived is described as a good idea, but not one the writers actually laid out.

I’ll go mope for a while. :-)

And before I get too negative, I should still say this show is doing a much better job that other TV SF shows at trying to keep its science right and blend it well with story and character. My sadness is that it seems it will miss out on the chance to be even more.