October 04, 2009
I very much enjoyed the writing of the "re-imagined" Battlestar Galactica series that ended it's run earlier this year on the Sci Fi channel. The series was dark, sure, but it was a classic epic journey that displayed more nuance and moral ambiguity than most similar narratives. The writers set up a great many fascinating character and story arcs, and pinned the promise of fascinating revelations on the series finale.
Then, they blew it.
This essay contains spoilers regarding the most recent incarnation of Battlestar Galactica on television. If you think you might one day want to watch the series, do so with the knowledge that I think you'll be similarly disappointed when you reach the ending, but don't read the specifics of why, because I'm about to spoil the ending for you.
The problem with the ending is that it does not satisfactorily resolve a substantial number of the major plot points. At first, it seems to. There's a big battle at "The Colony", Galactica jumps (with Starbuck at the helm) to a solar system that can support human life, and the rest of the fleet meets up with Galactica at its final stop. The fact that it's *our* solar system provides the symmetry we've been expecting all along (the pilot episode tells us they are on a mission to find Earth, so they delivered on *that* promise, at least).
Then, the writers undo any of the good that they had managed to perform up to that point by unraveling the entire story by trotting out the machinery of the Gods. Deus Ex Machina. God did it.
Given the political and religious themes that the series had explored all along, I was primed for the possibility that the answers to some of the plot points would indicate the machinations of a higher power. That's fine. But this went over the top. Everything was all about God's Plan. This breaks all the rules of good storytelling, because once you bring in the Deus Ex Machina, you take out any real drama on behalf of the characters.
Everything is arbitrary.
Starbuck's ship blows up, Starbuck returns, and spends a year screaming, "What am I? What does that make me?" And for a year, we went along. It's a mystery! How will the writers satisfy *this* interesting twist? And at the very end, we learn: Starbuck is merely a plot contrivance. She was a contrived part of God's Plot, nothing more. When it was inconvenient to have her die, she came back. Once her character satisfied the needs of the plot (at least, the plot regarding Earth), she was unnecessary, and >poof!< she disappears.
This was the biggest crime of the writers of the show: they gave great, great set up, and then cheated us of the payoff. For example: the show set up right from the beginning that Apollo and Starbuck were going to get together. All of the traditional clues and foreshadows were there. Then they hooked up with (and married) other characters. And as the series wound down, those characters were killed off (or maimed off, in Anders' case) just in time for the ending we were promised.
And then, was the ending delivered? Did they get together? No. Because the Deus Ex Machina was done with that Plot by the time we reached the resolution.
There was the mystery of who/what Starbuck was. Great set-up. No payoff.
The rise and fall of Gaeta promised, for a very long time, a "redemption" as it were. No.
Right from the beginning, we were given the clues and foreshadowing that promised a profound retribution for Baltar's (and "Caprica Six's") role in the destruction of civilization. Instead, they were among the few characters that made it out alive at the other end, not only relatively unscathed, but even portrayed as some kind of heroes of the resistance.
THEY WERE RESPONSIBLE FOR THE DEATHS OF BILLIONS OF PEOPLE ON TWELVE PLANETS, AND THEY LIVE OUT THE REST OF THEIR DAYS IN PEACE, WITH GOD'S AND MAN'S APPARENT BLESSING.
With all of the pill-popping that Adama was doing during the fourth season, there was a suggestion that we might see a twist on the old "a dying leader shall bring them to the promised land, but shall not enter" prophecy. Instead... nothing is mentioned of it again.
And with all of the fascinating, interwoven relationships among the many different groups and sub-groups, we are told at the end that everyone simply agreed to walk away from it all and head off in onesies and twosies to mingle with the natives. Not only is this completely unbelievable and unfathomable, it betrays the investment the writers (and viewers) made in these complex and interesting relationships. "That's all, folks. Nothing more to see here. From now on, everyone wanders off and doesn't know each other any more."
What happened to the promise of Baltar's followers? Where did they go? Great set-up, no payoff.
Okay, so that's my biggest problem. By pulling out the Deus Ex Machina, all of the wonderful set-up and promises are dropped with no payoff. The only two threads that get any real resolution are: the fleet finds Earth, and Hera's importance is fulfilled.
Here's the other major, major problem I had with the finale. After all this excellent science fiction-y set-up, the main voice of reason at the end (Apollo) sums up the moral of the story as being that SCIENCE IS THE PROBLEM. Science and technology caused this mess, and humanity would be better off if we just ditched it all and went back to living off the land like, well, cavemen:
"If there's one thing that we should've learned, it's that, you know, our brains have always out raced our hearts. Our science charges ahead. Our souls lag behind." -- Lee "Apollo" AdamaSo, instead of of us trying to be better people, to improve our proverbial souls, we put the blame on science. That bad, bad science.
Here is where the writers betrayed me. Betrayed us all. It's bad enough that they failed to fulfill the many promises they made, but then they took it a step further and said that when people do bad things, it's not because human nature has flaws, it's because SCIENCE IS BAD.
People don't kill people. Guns kill people.
It's a message that is inherently wrong, and I must deny this idea to the last. Science is a method of better understanding the world in which we live, through testing, experimentation, and reasoning. Science is a tool that can produce other tools (technology). What we do with those tools is where we make choices. But whatever tools we have at our disposal, we will always be faced with those same choices, and the only way to improve how we make those choices is to improve how we deal with our own nature, both for good and for ill.
To use a Biblical story, Cain did not have (or need) a gun (or sword or bazooka or bomb or num-chucks or martial arts training or taser or Cylon Centurion) to kill Abel. Going all the way back to that story (and further back to the legends of Gilgamesh, if you'd like), science and technology are not the problem. Good problem solving skills, or the lack thereof, are the heart of the matter.
If you want to have an element of God in your story, that's fine. I've read a lot of very satisfying fiction where spiritual elements of one sort or another play a part. The problem here is that the payoff didn't match the set-up. We were given a mystery that was never solved, a love story that was never resolved, a redemption that was never fulfilled, a retribution that was never extracted, and the very genre we were led to believe we were watching (science fiction) was abandoned for another genre (pig-headed, woo-woo, New Age foolishness).
I was talking this over with a friend of mine, who asked if the ending was bad enough to ruin the rest of the series for me. I'm not quite sure, yet. It's happened before... Anne Rice's The Tale of the Body Thief was so bad, for example, that it completely ruined everything about the three previous books in her "Vampire Chronicles", which I can never read again.
But I remain curious about the new series from the same people, Caprica, and I know I want to see the upcoming Battlestar Galactica movie, The Plan. I think that it is, in fact, possible for me to forget the finale happened and watch The Plan. But it's going to have to fulfill any promises it makes. I don't know if Caprica will have that luxury, since the writers have already shown that they are not above giving a great series-wide set-up and then just... ignoring it.
The lesson I take away from BSG is this: no matter how great your writing is, no matter how great the set-up, you have to deliver the goods in the ending, or you will have pissed off your audience and may have a very hard time getting them back for your next work.Posted by on October 04, 2009 12:21 AM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music , Writing