Sunday, August 21, 2011

Why Gaius Baltar is the real hero of Battlestar Galactica (and why that's not always a good thing)

James Callis as Gaius Baltar in "Dirty Hands." Photo courtesy of tvguide.com.

Two years after the final episode of Battlestar Galactica, I finally got around to watching the critically acclaimed SciFi (now Syfy) series, and I have to admit that it was great. The writing and acting were uniformly excellent, the issues were explored with a bracing realism and ambiguity, and the men were good looking. I plan on writing more about BSG in the future (and yes, I'll be offer my opinion on the... uninspiring finale), but for now I want to talk about my favorite character, Gaius Baltar, and why he's the real hero of the show (as well as, as the title says, why his heroic character arc isn't necessarily a good thing).

I know that some of you are probably cursing me for my blasphemy in arguing that Baltar is the hero, rather than Admiral Adama or Starbuck or Athena, and I'm prepared for your angry comments. All I ask is that you hear me out first. I understand that Baltar is not what one would generally call "heroic" - "cowardly" and "self-involved" are all adjectives that apply better - and I'm not trying to devalue the other characters. However, based on his all-too-human personality traits, his ultimate character arc, and a masterful performance by James Callis, I feel pretty comfortable saying that Baltar is, when you really get down to it, the hero of the entire series.

One of the major questions raised during BSG's run was the issue of what it really means to be human, and no one illustrates humanity at its best and worst quite like Gaius Baltar. His character, with an instinct that valued self-preservation above all and an ability to manipulate in order to get what he wanted, could be the absolute worst kind of humanity. But he also had moments of incredible insight and clear-sightedness, of unbounded love and devotion, of pain caused by others' lack of faith in him, that crystallized the best of what it means to be human. Baltar was always, undeniably human, more so than the steadfast Bill Adama, the morally unshakeable Lee, or even the heroic-but-tormented Starbuck. They were all exceptional people, with exceptional strength, while it was Baltar's conviction that he was exceptional that lay at the heart of his cowardice.

One of my favorite episodes of BSG is "Dirty Hands," an episode that came towards the end of season three, during the run-up to Baltar's trial. The episode really belongs to Chief Tyrol, and details the struggle between his labor-union idealism and the pragmatic realities of the Fleet; however, Aaron Douglas allows the episode to be stolen out from under him by Baltar, specifically by the mesmerizing speech that Gaius delivers to Tyrol from his jail cell. In the scene, Baltar lays out the class inequality that plagues the fleet, likening relationship between the high-ranking military and the crew (as well as the elite civilian officials to the working class) to a feudalistic society in which jobs are inherited rather then earned by merit. Baltar, himself the son of a farmer from Aerilon, describes the way in which he renounced his heritage and changed his accent in order to be accepted in a higher, Caprican society, likening the calcified hierarchy of the twelve colonies to the current rigid class system aboard the fleet.

Callis' work in this scene is absolutely magnificent; he grabs the audiences' attention and refuses to let it go, making a series of tricky emotional, intellectual and linguistic variations seem natural and unforced, while also ensuring that the audience knows that Gaius is putting on a show. This is a moment in which Baltar is completely in control and, more importantly, completely right. It is one of the moments in which Baltar's total clarity on the issue at hand reminds the viewer why he was considered the smartest man in the twelve colonies and managed to get himself elected president, and makes us forget about all the times we completely despised his weakness.

That weakness, however, comes back in full force during his trial, during which the craven self-preservation that characterized Baltar comes back in full force. The real accomplishment of the trial is that it makes sure that the viewer is rooting for a not-guilty verdict even as Gaius demonstrates the many reasons that people hate him so much. I have never loved Lee Adama as much as I did when he argued for Baltar's defense, because he took the words right out of my mouth. Baltar had been chosen as a scapegoat because he was arrogant, because he was weak, because people just didn't like him very much. The people needed someone to blame, and they chose the most cowardly among him because nobody cared about Gaius Baltar's well-being. The thing is, his cowardice and arrogance didn't make him guilty; they made him human. As Laura Roslin learned from the priest Elosha during her delirium on the Cylon basestar, she needed to save Baltar's life because he was the worst of humanity, and if the worst of humanity can't be saved, then humanity itself doesn't deserve to survive.

Since Baltar basically represents humanity on the series, it isn't all that surprising that his character arc is ultimately the most heroic (and most problematic, but I'll get to that later) of any of the characters. After four seasons spent in cowardice and denial, Baltar finally makes a selfless decision: choosing to stay on the Galactica in order to help rescue Hera. There had been hints of this kind of courage in his character before, most notably when he intially refused to sign the notorious "death list" presented to him by the Cylons on New Caprica, but it wasn't until "Daybreak: Part II" that Baltar really became a hero. And he was rewarded for it. Caprica Six finally loved him because of the pride his decision inspired in her, Hera was safe, and he was ultimately allowed to settle on Earth, rest, and start a farm with the bleach-blond love of his life. (Although really, how long can that haircolor last without the conveniences of modern technology? But that's a problem for another post.)

Now, I love Gaius Baltar. I've said it before, and I'll say it again. He's my favorite character on the entire series (well, second favorite: Head Baltar is my favorite), and I was really pleased that he got his moment of redemption and his happy ending with Caprica Six, who is also completely fantastic. However, I don't  think that his ultimate hero status is a good thing, and that's because of the arc that gets him there. The arc of Gaius Baltar takes him from an atheistic man of science to a deeply religious (and yes, I do think his religious conversion is genuine in the end, even if it doesn't start out that way) man who is willing to forgo technology and take up a simple life of farming on Earth.

The problem with this character arc is that it betrays the pervasive anti-intellectualism that runs through Battlestar Galactica. This anti-intellectualism is personified in Gaius Baltar, the brilliant scientist whose arrogance and absolute certainty that the world works according to his rules literally leads to the genocide that opens the series. The fact that Baltar, along with the rest of the fleet, is only redeemed when he gives up on science and goes back to being a simple farmer is a clear example of the distrust of intelligence and technology that is reiterated in the most obvious terms in that frakking ridiculous present-day coda. (Also, the fact that I just used the word "frakking" in a blog post makes me die inside.)

As Jacob over at Television Without Pity says in his recap of the finale, "courage, not intelligence, is what earns you love, and the right to exist." The message of the show is that, to paraphrase the talented Jacob again, forward progress ultimately leads to the kind of decadence (drunken debauchery, etc.) that characterized Caprican society. The fact that Gaius Baltar, the man whose mind cured Laura Roslin's cancer, saw the class structure on the fleet for what it was, built a machine to detect Cylons for fuck's sake (ah yes... that's more like it, much better than "frak") can only be redeemed when he lets go of his intellect and returns to his farming roots is a dangerous message. The war between humans and Cylons didn't happen just because the Cylons were invented; it happened because they were treated as something less than human, just as Gaius Baltar, the worst of humanity, so often was. The problem isn't the technology, it's the people who use it.

Anti-intellectualism is certainly not an issue unique to BSG; Lost also displayed a persistent anti-intellectual streak over the course of its final season, and indeed throughout much of its run. The problem seems bigger on BSG though, largely because, unlike Lost, it's not a series that generally paints things in such absolute terms. By simplifying all the beautiful complexity of this issue into a simply dichotomy in which technology is bad and simplicity is good is anti-intellectual rhetoric at its worst, the show eschews the realistic shades of grey that characterize so many of its debates in favor of a stark, black and white explanation. I expected better than that from this show, and that's why, despite my love of Gaius Baltar, I wish that he wasn't the ultimate hero. I wish that he had gone down swinging, fighting for the science to which he had devoted his life. That's the heroic stand I wanted to see.

6 comments:

  1. Hmm. This is interesting. I've never actually thought of BSG as anti-intellectual, but I guess that makes a lot of sense given the end. The weird, weird, stupid, end.

    I don't think, though, that Baltar is THE ultimate hero of the story. The greatness of BSG was the large ensemble cast and how they all had their own versions of the hero arc, that end in different ways.

    That said, I think your analysis of the problematic ramifications of his personal arc is on the nose.

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  2. In the ending one of the writers wanted Galactica to appear in modern day earth. They would meet with the white house and the UN would end up nuking the entire fleet.

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    1. Honestly, the only thing about this that surprises me is that they didn't just go with it. I don't know if it would have been better or worse than what they ended up with, but it would have been different. Also incredibly bleak, which is sort of what the show was known for.

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    2. That would've made the UN panel discussion awkward...

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  3. I also love Gaius Baltar but I can't read you blog because I am only on series 4.

    However I would like to share my reasons thus far because I just worship this character.

    1. their is a narrative device for one. We the audience know something that the other characters do not. He sees visions and seems to get clues to the future. So we are on a private story with him and it is the longest running story arch in the entire series other than being attacked by cylons.

    2.He does not take things personally. He does not have any personal battles with anyone, he is like an innert chemical mixed in the liquid of humanity. He is Magnaminous in defeat and can beg and sqwerm only for purpose without loosing any sense of dignity beacuse he never generated any hype about himself unlike all the other charaters that have a faith in themselves Gauis is not a hypocrit he is what he is. And in his way he is a survivor.

    3. His obsession with denouncing god - often it seems when he could benifit hugely from spiritul opportunities is very honourable and is one of the few solid character elements in BG...other characters change and grow but does he? I suggest not. He adapts to circumstances but does not change philisophically.

    3.also He is highly amusing, sarcastic and often a pro poker player, .

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  4. I am way late to this discussion but I think I have something to share. Like you, I have been convinced that Baltar is the true hero of the series for many of the reason that you point out. I would only point out that you may being missing a very obscure cultural perspective. I do not find BSG anti-intellectual at all. There is a dichotomy but it is not science vs. religion. Instead it is egoism vs. altruism. It is not Baltar's courage or "faith" that earns him the love of Caprica 6, it is his selflessness. This is the completion of the arch from purely egotistic to truly altruistic. For this reason that I am convinced the BSG and to lesser extent Lost are saturated with Cabalistic themes. These themes run throughout the show from its numerology to qualities the various other characters represent. These are in place to describe the corrective process that spirituality has on human egoism and it is Baltar that represents the truth of our humanity and the correction available to us all.

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