The revival of Battlestar Galactica was one of the best TV shows of the 2000s. And you can only really have complicated opinions about its series finale.
“Daybreak” ran to three episodes of runtime, stuffed full of operatic digitality and ambient flashbackery. The polar opposite, in pure stylistic terms, of the preceding four seasons. BSG at its best exuded the sharp instincts of bootstrap science-fiction, building untold light years of pure universe out of great up-close performances in crud-soaked windowless rooms. Witness the fall and rise of human civilization, with regular breaks for shaky-newsreel spacefights and drunken poor-decision sexuality. It was the science-fiction saga hiding behind the other science-fiction TV sagas: Star Trek on a brokedown ship full of crewmates who can barely stand each other, Star Wars if the top space pilot in the galaxy was a self-destructive hedonist.
Whereas the latter two parts of “Daybreak” — which aired as one climactic chunk 10 years ago today — went for full-fledged space operatics. In the episode, Galactica stages an all-out assault on the Cylon base — precisely the kind of crosscut Final Battle that every Star franchise climaxes towards. And then came the finale’s big twist, which I will now spoil relentlessly. After a divine nudge, the Galactica finds itself orbiting a mysterious blue planet full of inexplicable human beings, which turns out to be our very own Earth circa 148k BCE, which leads to the second-weirdest Lil Wayne cameo of this century (after his Weezer collaboration).
This twist is certainly insane. It draws a bit on original Battlestar Galactica creator Glen Larson’s notionally Mormon-mythic inspiration. It allows neo-BSG showrunner Ronald D. Moore to fulfill his half-mad mission to fit Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” into his cosmic show about ancient aliens who swear funny.
But that’s not what I want to talk about today. I want to talk about the Chief. I want to talk about what happens to him in the finale — what he does, what’s done to him — and why his final scenes have haunted me for a decade.
Galen Tyrol (played by Aaron Douglas) was the most relatable and most sorrowful character in BSG‘s legendary run. Not to say “best” character (that’d be Katee Sackhoff‘s Kara “Starbuck” Thrace) or “most important” character (probably a tie between Mary McDonnell‘s Laura Roslin and Edward James Olmos‘ Bill Adama, unless the more obvious answer is “Literally God”).
But Chief Tyrol reflected the most fascinating aspects of the show around him, his personal story tracking the larger macro-history around him. He was the initial everyman, a knuckle-dragging non-com down in the Galactica‘s engineering bowels. His relationship with secret Cylon Sharon “Boomer” Valerii (Grace Park) was a slow-motion tragedy, the best expression of season 1’s all-encompassing paranoia. And Douglas’ performance was immediately appealing. He was a low-key fixture, a regular dedicated person with a jobby job keeping the FTL drive chugging.
His role expanded, tracking the grander narrative’s twists. He spiraled into depression, began to question his sanity. In a fit of nightmare madness, he beat up his lovesick associate Cally (Nicki Clyne.) Out of these brutal depths came a new hope, the possibility of redemption. On New Caprica, he became a prominent labor unionist, quoting Mario Savio at Berkeley. Cally married him. They had a son: A new life for their new civilization, a next generation! Tyrol had a key role in the insurgency during the Cylon occupation. Back in the fleet, he launched a strike that looked like a full-fledged proletarian revolution in “Dirty Hands,” an intriguing episode that deserves a second look now that every twentysomething is at least publicly socialist.
BSG embraced its loopiest mythological instincts in its final season, and so the Chief turned out to be another secret Cylon. The Final Five twist is the obvious exit ramp for BSG‘s overall quality, but Douglas sold his character’s internal struggle. It helped, I think, that discovering his true self ruined him. His wife Cally got suspicious. There’s a lighter version of the story where she found out her husband’s true self and accepted him. On BSG, Cally knocked her man unconscious, grabbed their son, and ran straight for an airlock, grief-stricken toward infanticide and suicide. “Thankfully,” I write with heavy airquotes, as fellow secret Cylon Tory (Rekha Sharma) showed up to talk Cally off the ledge. Then she grabbed the baby, and vented the despondent deckhand toward a frozen death in the airless void.
The downward spiral continued for our poor Chief. His son was not actually his son: Cally had a premarital dalliance with a pilot, a revelation made further embarrassing because the actual baby daddy was the doofus callsigned “Hot Dog” (Bodie Olmos). Suddenly a childless widower, he proved an easy mark for his imprisoned ex-girlfriend Boomer. She used the revived spark of romance to fool Tyrol into helping her escape with a vaguely messianic Cylon-human hybrid child. The last shot of that episode, “Someone to Watch Over Me,” is Battlestar Galactica at its most bleakly twisted: The Chief fallen to his knees, all alone in an imaginary house that isn’t even full of dreams anymore.
The Chief’s traitorously tragic actions lead to the final conflict of “Daybreak.” But BSG was always trickily ambiguous in its depiction of the human-Cylon war. So, in the midst of the final battle, an unsteady alliance forms. The Cylon contingent led by Cavil (Dean Stockwell) promises to leave humanity alone, if Tyrol and his fellow “Final Five” originator Cylons grant him the secret of immortal resurrection.
This requires the Chief and his compatriots to stick their hands into a hot tub full of networked bio-organic goo where one Cylon has been brain-damaged into technopathy. So this was the point in Battlestar Galactica‘s run where you stopped praising the show for any notion of realism. The goo, we’re told, will connect the Final Five Cylons at a core memory level. “Let’s just all agree,” Tory says shakily, “that no matter what we learn about each other, we’re all Cylons, and we’re all capable of making mistakes.”
Her words point back toward Cally: Tory never told the Chief the truth about his wife’s death. But it’s also a sensible load bearing statement, evoking the possibility of a great compromise between warring factions. As Tory speaks, the show’s eternal enemies have set down their weapons, seeking a final peaceful reckoning after multiple apocalypses on both sides. Is there anyone in the cast lineup who hasn’t killed the wrong person? Heck, a deep canon freak could situate Tory’s actions as a morally ambiguous net positive: She stopped a woman committing suicide from killing her child along with her. Can’t all sins be forgiven?
Michael Rhymer helmed many of BSG‘s finest hours dating back to the 2003 miniseries. He directed “Daybreak” from a script by Moore. Their final moment of perfect collaboration is the sudden-onset chaos that erupts when the Chief learns the truth about Cally. The fate of two entire species is in his hands. And he uses those hands to grab Tory’s neck, strangling her ’til he hears a snap.
It is a cold killing, the Chief’s eyes wide yet somehow emotionless, Tory’s mouth wide open in a silent scream worthy of Edvard Munch. And Rhymer crosscuts violently around the assembled characters, tracking a descent back into violent madness. The Cylons think they’ve been fooled, and start firing weapons in every direction. Some characters dive for characters, others start to fire back. Any possibility of redemptive diplomacy goes out the window. This scene contains the single most stunning exit for any long-running TV character: The moment when Cavil, sensing that nonexistence has become his best option, yells “FRAK!” and blasts his brains out.
There’s another version of the BSG finale — not better, just weirder — where it all ends here, gunshots flying while a spaceship explodes. See the random death of Cally, a single unmythological human, butterfly-effecting into an act of vengeance that creates no justice and no peace. Outside the Galactica, a bit of space debris nudges the floating Raptor belonging to the pilot Racetrack (Margaret Edmondson). Racetrack’s already dead, but the force nudges her corpse toward the FIRE button, launching an obliterative nuclear fusillade toward the Cylon base — and toward Galactica. That’s a moment right out of The Bridge on the River Kwai, and what an ending that would be, a whole epic of science-fiction-spiritual-fantasy exploded toward extinction by two dead women.
Instead, Starbuck follows an angelic tune in her head and jumps all our favorite characters Earthwards. The whole third hour of “Daybreak” has only just begun. The rest will be sensitive farewells, admissions of love, promises of hope.
And none of it has the singular dramatic effect of the final horrorshow embrace of Tory and the Chief. It’s a testament to the excellence of Rekha Sharma, who made Tory a brilliantly savvy addition to the show’s political universe. (Years later, Sharma was also great as a tough security chief on Star Trek: Discovery, a consistently inconsequential attempt to BSG-ify the Trekverse, so brazen in its homage that it actually killed Sharma again.) Credit Moore for always being willing to throw a dark twist into the show’s narrative tapestry. And Rhymer films this scene from freaky angles, way too close-up, with a blinking white spotlight strobing the murder into a terrifying dance.
And Douglas’ freaky blankness captures something deeper than rock bottom. He’s a man with nothing left but rage — and then he doesn’t even have the rage anymore, and he’s not even a man. I guess there’s an angle where Tory’s killing is “justified.” It doesn’t feel that way. Tyrol looks, in fact, like a monster.
On Earth, every surviving character gets some sort of final farewell. These individual endings are uniformly relationship-y and spiritual, tapped into the larger tale of higher beings and higher love. Chief Galen Tyrol is the grand exception. Everyone else is planning a new life on a new planet. He’s over it all: “Just tired of people,” he explains, “Humans, Cylons, whatever.” The Chief just wants to be left alone. “This island that I found off one of the northern continents…It’s cold, it’s up in the highlands…there’s no people.” And then he walks away, exit screen left, last seen alone forever.
Offscreen lore holds that Tyrol went to Scotland, becoming a near-mythic figure for prehistoric humanity. Equally plausible, I think, that Galen Tyrol found himself cast far away from any humanoid, building himself a hermit hut in a hemisphere multiple ice ages away from civilization. This strikes me as debilitatingly sad, a total exodus from hope. Douglas’ eerily zen attitude makes it all worse. He looks emptied beyond melancholy. Here’s a great performance, a great character, the horrific implication that finding peace means losing everything. I don’t love the Battlestar Galactica finale, but I’ll never forget the Chief.
- Tricia Helfer to host new Battlestar Galactica 15th anniversary podcast
- Battlestar Galactica showrunner making new space drama for Apple TV