The End of Galactica

by Jimmy Akin

in Film and TV

Daybreak1

The first part of the Battlestar Galactica finale (Daybreak, Part I) has now aired, and next Friday will have the two-hour conclusion of the story.

I've had some requests for comment on the direction that the story has taken, and it seemed like this would be an opportune time to offer some.

To avoid spoilers for those who haven't seen the relevant eps, yet, I'll continue below the fold.


First, I like the fact that they've resolved a lot of the questions that have been floating around for some time, specifically:

  • Who is the final cylon?
  • What about the #7 cylon, since Ron Moore had previously said that the Final Five don't have numbers, but there was a gap between #6 (blond lady) and #8 (Sharon/Athena/Boomer)?
  • What's the connection between the Final Five and Earth?
  • How were the Final Five created? 
  • What's the relationship between them and the Significant Seven? 
  • Why don't the Final Five originally know their identities?
  • Why don't the Significant Seven discuss the Final Five?
  • Why do the cylons destroy human civilization?

I would have gone a different direction in answering some of these questions–particularly the identity of the final cylon–I would have had it be Adama for reasons previously spelled out, but I'm satisfied with them having made it Ellen, given the way they've developed the story. (I'm also glad that I correctly guessed that Ellen is a cylon, though I thought she was a #6 instead of her own model.)

There are still some outstanding questions that hopefully will be answered next week:

  • Exactly what is Starbuck?
  • What are the angelic/virtual/head beings (Head Six, Head Baltar, etc.)?
  • What's the deal with Hera and the Opera House?
  • What's the deal with Hera and the future of the two races? 
  • What's manipulating the destiny of the two races? 
  • What happens to all these people in the end?   

I can see different ways they could tie all these up, but at this point I'll just wait and see.

I will offer a few thoughts on the series as a whole and the last few episodes in particular, though.

First, while much of Galactica has been an interesting show (excepting the odious and morally problematic parts), my suspicion is that it won't age overly well. Future audiences may find it enjoyable to watch, but I suspect that they won't find it as enjoyable as the original, current audience.

There can be shows that, while they are groundbreaking and a dynamite experience when they are first on the air, just don't hold up that well on subsequent viewings.

A few years ago I discovered that, for me, this was the case for Babylon 5. When it first aired, Babylon 5 was really unique in two respects:

(1) It was much more realistic than Star Trek; it had characters that could have actual flaws and were willing to break rules in order to achieve goals. A scene that was iconic of this was the one in which Sheridan and Garibaldi put a black bag over the head of a Centauri telepath who has a piece of vital information and then Lyta is whisked into the room to yank the information out of his mind in a form of telepathic rape. This could never happen in any Star Trek series as of that date. Heroes in Star Trek are all too goody-two-shoes and would always find a different, legal, and ethical way of achieving their goals.

(2) Babylon 5 told a single, connected story that was substantively plotted in advance. (Though, Joe Straczynski's denials notwithstanding, it did change very significantly before the end. If you read volume 15 of his script books there is an original treatment of the series, with Sinclair in place the whole time, and it diverges dramatically from the filmed series, though it ends in kinda the same place.) This advance plotting allowed the series to have a much more layered, rich, and complex storyline than any of the Star Trek series (DS9 coming the closest).

After a few years of not seeing the series, I went back and watched B5 again and found that it wasn't as good the second time through. While it was true that it was more realistic than Star Trek, other series–like Battlestar Galactica–had pushed the realism envelope much further, and by comparison the B5 characters were still much closer to the cartoon hero end of the spectrum.

This, ironically, is one of the reasons I don't think BSG will hold up that well: In the effort to make the characters realistic and flawed, it's gone too far. 

I think in future viewings, a couple of years from now when the immediacy of the first run has worn off, the characters will too often come across as cartoons of the gritty, profoundly flawed hero type (like Wolverine became in the comics). It won't be possible to take them seriously because they are so over-the-top flawed and are constantly being put in situations designed to milk the maximum amount of emotion out of a situation, no matter how implausible the results.

This problem is epitomized in Lee Adama's speech from the trial of Baltar. You know the one. His "We have become a gang" speech, in which he rattles off all of the major career-destroying actions that had been (repeatedly) committed by the main characters of the show (to that point) which nevertheless were forgiven and put out of sight in order to keep the main cast of the show together.

I understand that if your civilization has fallen and you're on the run from evil robots, everyone may get a pass on one or two things that ordinarily would be career-destroying, but at some point the implausibility is just too much, particularly if you are trying to portray the core cast as fundamentally good rather than fundamentally evil.

It would be one thing if Admiral Adama was a drug lord who ran the fleet as an actual gang–not caring how many crimes were committed by his underlings as long as they served him. But that's not the way the show portrays him or any of the other core characters (with the possible exception of Gaius Baltar). They are all, despite their grave flaws, fundamentally on the side of good.

So I think that when the series is all out on video and you can watch it from front to back without having to wait between each episode, the implausibility of all this will leap out at the viewer, and they'll see that this aspect of the show just doesn't hang together. The characters are too flawed and they behave in an over-the-top manner with too few consequences and lots of implausible decisions getting made designed to keep them from being written out of the show.

I heard a podcast by Ron Moore a while ago in which he was wondering what the parody of BSG could be. It's easy to parody the different Star Trek shows or medical shows or police procedure shows, but how do you parody BSG?

Lots of hyperdramatic situations with massively flawed characters doing career-ending things that manage to not end their careers.

That's the parody.

There is also another reason I think BSG won't age that well, and this one is based on its similarity to Star Trek rather than its differences.

Ron Moore was a veteran of Star Trek and, in particular, one of the producers and writers of DS9.

At Star Trek they have a writing technique known as "breaking the story." What they do is take an initial story idea from one writer and then sit around a table with a bunch of writers and make suggestions and brainstorm what the story ought to be. The final version of the story may bear little resemblance to what it was originally pictured as. (This is also one reason why so many Star Trek episodes have multiple writers listed.)

Joe Straczynski has been very critical of this writing technique, arguing that it dilutes the original vision for the story as all of the writers try to get their fingerprints on the result. It also results in horse-designed-by-committee type stories.

Moore, however, has carried over the technique from ST to BSG, along with another Star Trek writing convention: making it up as you go.

While Moore and company had general ideas about where they were going on certain things a year or two or even three in advance, the overall shape of the BSG story is something that they invented as they went–unlike B5's pre-plotted (though changeable) story arc.

It's clear from listening to his podcasts that Moore took a lot of ideas, or proposed a lot of ideas, in the "breaking the story" sessions that he just thought were neat at the time, even though he didn't know where they were going with them.

Examples of these things include the visions in the Opera House, Caprica Six's pregnancy, the role of "All Along the Watchtower" in the show, and bunches of other key things.

They were just things that came up during the course of the show. Moore thought they were neat and included them, intending to figure out what they meant later on.

The result?

The patchwork nature of the plotting shows. I suspect it will be even more obvious on repeat viewings, but it is particularly evident in the last ten episodes of the program, where the writers are pushing to tie up all the major loose ends.

For example: Hera is obviously key to the future survival of both races, and she is a uniquely valuable MacGuffin as the only human-cylon child. She's what's driving the show toward its finale, with the attempt to rescue her from #1 and his cohorts.

But we had a problem–or rather a couple of them–until just a few episodes ago: There were two other cylon children–Chief Tyrol's apparently human-cylon son and Tigh's unborn son that he and Caprica Six conceived. With
them in the picture the uniqueness of Hera, and thus the dramatic fulcrum of the series' finale, wasn't there.

The solution?

Wipe out both rival cylon kids at the last minute. So it turns out that Tyrol's son wasn't his son after all and Caprica Six's baby "spontaneously" aborts just as Ellen shows up and starts confusing Tigh's affections.

Those are reasonable plot fixes to get Hera's uniqueness back (although I very much did not like the heavy handed and sudden way Caprica Six's baby miscarried; there were better ways to set that up), but why did they need to do this in the first place?

Because they were making it up as they went along.

They'd already given Chief Tyrol a wife and a baby before they decided he was a cylon, so they had to get the baby out of the picture as a human-cylon hybrid in time for the finale.

Same thing with Caprica Six: Moore just liked the idea of her getting pregnant by Tigh and didn't know where to go with it. When he realized he wanted Hera to be the fulcrum of the finale, he had to get rid of Caprica's child, too.

None of this would have happened–or at least it would have happened in a better manner than it did–if Moore pre-plotted more and took a less "fly by the seat of your pants" attitude toward writing the show.

I felt particularly bad for writer Jane Espenson a few weeks ago when her final episode of the series–Deadlock–aired. This was the episode in which Ellen came back to Galactica and Caprica Six's baby died. On fan surveys and among reviewers, this episode did markedly worse than the preceding episodes, and I don't think it was because of Espenson's writing talents. I think it was because she was handed a dog of a story document that required her to do way too much and in too awkward a manner.

And the whole get-rid-of-the-other-two-cylon-kids problem is just one of the writing issues hitting the fan now. There are multiple other ones, caused in large part by the writers frantically trying to tie up too many loose ends in a short space of time.

Could Galactica and the Fleet come to incorporate allied cylons and their basestar? Sure. But not as quickly as they showed it all to us. The two-episode mutiny story arc was a gesture in the direction of realism, but in reality it would have taken a lot longer to forge the kind of integrated human-cylon alliance that we now see functioning.

Could Baltar and his groupies become a major political force in the fleet even after the debacle of his previous presidency and trial? Sure. But not as quickly as they showed it. It came basically out of nowhere.

Some episodes are so rushed that they are leaving scenes on the cutting room floor that provide crucial background, with the result that the aired ep can seem unintelligible at points. (E.g., Adama's giving guns to Baltar and his group. What on earth would motivate that? At least a little bit of light would be shed on the situation if they'd included the deleted scene where Adama and Roslyn discuss the fact that the security situation on Galactica has become so dire that their only alternative may be using cylon centurions as the ship's security force.)

So, like the Galactica itself, I think the storytelling is becoming rattled and the seams are showing as it hurtles toward its end.

This is not to say that there isn't still a lot of interesting stuff happening or that I won't conclude that I enjoyed the finale.

It is to say that, while Galactica has been a groundbreaking show in the history of televised science fiction, it does have flaws–some of which may approach those possessed by its characters.

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{ 11 comments }

Matheus March 14, 2009 at 3:20 pm

I saw the first season – pilot “miniseries” included – about 20 days ago. I liked it, but I thought that the first season of Lost and the first two of 24have made a better impression on me when I watched them. I thought that by the end of the first season, Battlestar Galactica already became confused. Now it seems that everyone who overhyped it is showing varied degrees of disappointment.
I still intend to see the other seasons, though; even knowing pretty much all the spoilers.

x March 14, 2009 at 4:39 pm

x

Shane March 14, 2009 at 11:52 pm

It was much more realistic than Star Trek; it had characters that could have actual flaws and were willing to break rules in order to achieve goals. A scene that was iconic of this was the one in which Sheridan and Garibaldi put a black bag over the head of a Centauri telepath who has a piece of vital information and then Lyta is whisked into the room to yank the information out of his mind in a form of telepathic rape. This could never happen in any Star Trek series as of that date. Heroes in Star Trek are all too goody-two-shoes and would always find a different, legal, and ethical way of achieving their goals.
Erm… have you watched the program, Jimmy? :)
Star Trek has many examples of this, including what is nearly a duplicate of the very situation you give as an example – and featuring one of Trek’s most “perfect” and by-the-book characters, at that! Mr. Spock performs what is essentially a telepathic rape on Lt. Valeris at the end of Star Trek VI to obtain some gravely important, time-critical information; the way that the director depicted the event is actually tremendously disturbing.
Similarly, in one of the final episodes of DS9, O’Brien and Bashir kidnap a Section 31 operative and invade his mind against his will to obtain the cure for the virus that is killing the Founders.
Of course there is also what is considered one of the best DS9 episodes, “In the Pale Moonlight,” in which Captain Sisko breaks all sorts of rules as he covertly falsifies data and schemes to bring the Romulans over to the Federation’s side in the Dominion war – an act which ultimately leads to the murder of the Romulan Ambassador and which Sisko says at the end that, though he feels guilty, and that what he did was immoral an unethical, he’d easily do it again if given the choice.
Tom Paris violates orders and is ultimately put into the brig for a month and demoted to Ensign for his actions in order to help stabilize the technology that holds enormous balls of water together in space to house a civilization. This of course calls to mind one of the most common criticisms that fans have made of Captain Janeway: she struts about most of the time adhering so tightly to the rules that a computer would be hard pressed to obey its instructions better, and yet she goes off and violates them grossly whenever she feels like it, claiming principle over ethics and regulations.
Captain Archer became almost Batman-esque in the third and fourth season of Enterprise in the degree to which he would abandon all sense of ethics, regulations, or decorum to get his way by physically smacking around or threatening death to nearly any adversary that was in his way.
Even members of most altruistic of the crews – that of the Next Generation – each had more than one or two moments of flaunting ethics or rules to get what was needed.
And of course, let’s not forget Captain “never-followed-the-Prime-Directive-in-his-life” Kirk and company. From the flaunting of that most eminent of regulations to the theft and destruction of the Enterprise to the mind-rape of Valeris and beyond, they may collectively be the worst of the bunch, or at least second to the crew of station Deep Space Nine.
In any event, don’t mistake any of this for nastiness, which is the furthest thing from my intention. It’s obviously an ultimately meaningless discussion of science fiction franchises, but nevertheless I thought it was important, darn it!
God bless,
Shane

Bill March 15, 2009 at 6:03 am

I’m a little more sympathetic to the “breaking the story” technique because I imagine it has the potential to help a writer see what they may be missing. But I agree wholeheartedly that the “make it up as you go” technique is a terrible way to write serialized episodic fiction. And the combination of the two has been really harmful to what should have been a much better series.

Jimmy Akin March 15, 2009 at 10:42 am

I wrote:

This could never happen in any Star Trek series as of that date.

Shane wrote:

Erm… have you watched the program, Jimmy? :)

He then cites a bunch of examples of characters on ST doing things of questionable ethics or legality.
Actually, the Lt. Valeris telepathic rape was something I thought about when writing the post. It’s one of the most arresting scenes in the history of Star Trek.
I’d give you this as an exception that did occur prior to the advent of Babylon 5, since Star Trek VI came out in 1991.
The rest of the examples cited, though, are all post-B5. The two DS9 examples are from the final seasons of DS9, after B5 was off the air, and Voyager and Enterprise are way post-B5.
I think B5 pushed Trek in the direction of more realistic characters, as well as longer, more complex plotting.
The Original Series was more of a mixed bag, with characters behaving inconsistently, depending on who was writing the script that week. Back then the writers were just cranking out a show, not protecting a franchise, and they didn’t take it near as seriously.
By Next Gen, though, things had changed, and the new series themselves often comments on the difference between life in the 24th century and Kirk’s era.
While one can quibble with the bluntness with which I framed my remark, the fact remains that Trek’s characters–particularly in Next Gen but also in series produced since then–have not had the kind of foibles and flaws that characters on B5 or Firefly or BSG have had.

Bill March 15, 2009 at 11:34 am

I’d heard that Roddenberry kinda laid down the law with STTNG, saying that the core characters were the cream of the crop of starfleet and as such didn’t have all the flaws and baggage of ordinary folk and that the writers really balked at that because they had to look elsewhere for their dramatic conflict. Once he was gone it seemed like they were quick to embrace situations that allowed them to circumnavigate that. Like DS9 and Voyager especially, where literally half the cast was not a member of starfleet.

Matthew L. Martin March 15, 2009 at 5:18 pm

Jimmy–I’m only a casual fan of B5, and haven’t shelled out for the script books, so I won’t ask you to go into detail about how the Sinclair version differs, but one speculation that’s been bugging me for years:
Would the original series have ended with the end of “World Without End” (the Sinclair/Valen reveal)?

Daniel March 15, 2009 at 8:37 pm

>> “So I think that when the series is all out on video and you can watch it from front to back without having to wait between each episode, the implausibility of all this will leap out at the viewer, and they’ll see that this aspect of the show just doesn’t hang together. The characters are too flawed and they behave in an over-the-top manner with too few consequences and lots of implausible decisions getting made designed to keep them from being written out of the show.”
>> “I think in future viewings, a couple of years from now when the immediacy of the first run has worn off, the characters will too often come across as cartoons of the gritty, profoundly flawed hero type (like Wolverine became in the comics). It won’t be possible to take them seriously because they are so over-the-top flawed and are constantly being put in situations designed to milk the maximum amount of emotion out of a situation, no matter how implausible the results.”
I think I disagree with these points. I recently started watching the entire series, from the beginning, with one of my friends (I’m actually re-watching it, while he’s actually watching it for the first time) — and we’re already moving well into Season 2 — but I for one am not seeing any of these aspects you mention leaping out at me upon a second viewing. Just my personal experience.
>> “Could Galactica and the Fleet come to incorporate allied cylons and their basestar? Sure. But not as quickly as they showed it all to us. …in reality it would have taken a lot longer to forge the kind of integrated human-cylon alliance that we now see functioning.”
>> “Could Baltar and his groupies become a major political force in the fleet even after the debacle of his previous presidency and trial? Sure. But not as quickly as they showed it. It came basically out of nowhere.”
I don’t really see why it should take that long. But at the same time, I was also under the impression that there is quite a bit of time elapsing in-between episodes, such that I didn’t think that all of this was happening was quite as suddenly as you indicate. (?)
>> “(E.g., Adama’s giving guns to Baltar and his group. What on earth would motivate that? At least a little bit of light would be shed on the situation if they’d included the deleted scene where Adama and Roslyn discuss the fact that the security situation on Galactica has become so dire that their only alternative may be using cylon centurions as the ship’s security force.)”
To be fair, I thought Baltar did say something along the lines of “how long will it be before you bring over centurions to Galactica?” during his little rant at Adama (granted, it wasn’t much, but at least it was still there). — Just a few of my thoughts on the matter.

Sifu Jones March 16, 2009 at 9:23 am

A lot of what’s happening to BSG is due to the decision to end the series at season 4, which wasn’t the original plan. Moore and company seem to have had the major plot points figured out, then chucked in a bunch of false McGuffins.
And then the ratings dipped a bit, and they all decided to end the series “early”, forcing the writers to remove the purposely misleading plot points before the story could take it. This is why we see a lot of jumps forward in time near the end, and even in the midst of episodes.
I would say though that, given the time constraints, most of those issues were “realistically” resolved, not counting the death of 6’s baby. And let’s not forget how much can and probably will be cleared up by movies that take place between episodes, and in the new “Caprica” series.
My wife and I did also notice the over-emoting, but let’s face it — if there were ever a reason to do that, it’s now. Those of us on this board with a solid religious background shouldn’t view this show as a being about a bunch stable people with relatively well-formed consciences. The Cylons, really, are closer to what religious Americans can relate to (without all the nudity and forced proselytizing, of course). The humans on the show are closer to “regular” Americans, people who don’t think very often about their relationship with God and the end of their lives, but are instead concerned with their status in the world.
And when the world is gone, for all intents and purposes, then such people have a fast and painful growth period ahead of them. And I think the show captures that admirably.

Sifu Jones March 16, 2009 at 9:25 am

And by “if ever there was a reason to do this, it’s now”, I was referring to the situation on board the Galactica, not to any real world situations.

CJ March 18, 2009 at 11:38 am

No character has suffered more from the “make it up as you go along” than Lee Adama. Moore acknowledged this in a recent interview.
I think it’s a huge weakness of the show that one of the major characters has been so directionless for most of its run. He’s basically been a jumped-up foil for Starbuck, which is fine for Anders. For the re-imagined Apollo? Not so much.

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