Monday, March 23, 2009

Deus Ex Galactica

Since watching the series finale of "Battlestar Galactica" over the weekend, the suspicion that I've been had has been growing on me. I turned off the TV thinking, "that was a good ending," but the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that I was kidding myself.

Fair warning: story spoilers abound from here on out. Avert your eyes if you haven't seen the last episode yet, but plan to watch it.

There was a lot to like about the finale, titled "Daybreak," taken as a discrete piece of entertainment. The first hour or so was terrific; a slam-bang, well-executed resolution of the series' fundamental conflict between the human survivors and their would-be exterminators. It was smart, epic, believable if taken on its own terms. Best of all, it had what so much of the third and fourth seasons of BSG lacked so terribly: internal consistency. It was a high point in a series that has had too few over the past 40 or so episodes.

Even after the surviving characters broke away from the battle sequence and drifted towards their final scenes, there were lovely bits. The acting was wonderful throughout, even when the actors were given George Lucas-level ludicrous things to say. The final FX scenes of Galactica and the fleet flying off into history were lovingly done, and accompanying them with the strains of Stu Phillips's score from the original 1978 series (only the third or fourth time it's been heard in the entire new show) was an inspired choice. I also thought the denouement was great, and slyly funny. "You know He doesn't like that name" is one of the best lines in the entire run of BSG.

But, oh, what a mess in between the battle and the epilogue.

There are many deadly sins for writers--certainly more than seven of them. One of the worst is deus ex machina, literally "god from the machine." It's a very old reference to Greek drama, when at the end of a play a god would step in, lowered by a crane, and dictate the ending using his/her magical powers. In modern parlance, it's a term of derision applied to books and screenplays that are neatly wrapped up via the writer's say-so with little or no concern for logic or consistency.

Regarding the conclusion of "Daybreak," perhaps it's time to bring the Latin motto up to the modern era and rechristen it deus ex Galactica. Creator Ron Moore's decision to anchor his story in a deistic framework would have been much more compelling if he'd bothered to lay adequate groundwork for it in a consistent fictional world, but apparently he couldn't be bothered. At the end, so much of this series that started with such enormous promise was simply excused away with, "it's magic, because we say so."

Making Kara "Starbuck" Thrace into the Gandalf of "BSG" is easily the silliest and dumbest single deus in two long seasons worth of bad writing. Starbuck (along with Tigh, who of course was also ruined by being arbitrarily turned into a Cylon) was the most human and the most flawed character in the entire series. Revealing her to be essentially a angel with amnesia retroactively robs her both of her heroism and her fundamental value as an individual. It also makes her entire character arc ridiculous--what good is an angel who's as screwed up as Kara, and what kind of writer thinks it made any sense to turn her into a supernatural being literally at the last minute?

Starbuck's deification is even sillier if you recall that Moore had an out to explain her resurrection without descending to "oh, by the way, she's an angel." Simon the Cylon doctor surgically removed one of Kara's ovaries way back in season two, opening the door to reviving the character as a clone. That would have been sci-fi silly, but what the heck--it's a science fiction show. It would have been an acceptable plot device given the overall structure of BSG. But that loose end, like so many others, was left dangling in the breeze as Moore and company wrapped up their saga in a wash of feel-good nonsense.

As Laura Miller noted in Salon, the notion that the survivors would willingly give up thousands of years of hard-gained science, technology, medicine and culture in favor of "a fresh start," just based on Lee Adama's notions, doesn't stand up to scrutiny. No sane being would do any such thing; Miller is dead on when observing, "The first case of strep throat would have made short work of that vow." But Ron Moore needed to leave history with no trace of the newcomers' origins, so off into the woods our brave band of highly-specialized spacefarers went, even though "A fresh start" in this case meant little more than condemning themselves to early graves, and their descendants to (being generous) 145,000 years of barbarism.

The great failures of "Battlestar Galactica" are twofold. The first and most disappointing was also the most avoidable: the series was sold to us based on a lie, from the opening of the very first episode: "... And They Have A PLAN." No, they didn't. The Cylons never had a plan, because the writers didn't bother to flesh out what that plan was ahead of time, and as a result spent years just making stuff up to cover for their own failure to think their own story through.

The second great failure was a symptom of the media, episodic television. Harnessed to a network order of 20-odd episodes a season, in the final two years the show's writers were compelled to stretch what was at most twelve to fifteen episodes worth of actual story into forty episodes. It's hardly a wonder that they lost their way amidst the need to fill all that empty air time, but it's also hard to forgive one hour after another of Adama mewling on the floor of his cabin, or Starbuck bleating about not understanding who she was, or Laura getting sick and getting better and getting sick again, or the awful, endless scenes of Cylons delivering philosophical doubletalk on those lousy Baseship sets, or... geez, I can't go on.

In the aftermath of the Star Wars prequels, a number of "fan edit" versions, in which various bits of Lucas nonsense were truncated or edited out entirely, popped up online. The last two seasons of "Battlestar Galactica" could sorely use such a pruning. Pity for us, the long-suffering viewers, that the creators didn't have the sense to limit the series to three years and save those potential fan editors the trouble.


  1. I had a similar experience - thought it was ok at the time, but it's grown less satisfying over time.

    Oh, and I thought the line was "You know It doesn't like that name", which is even better, IMO.

    Anyways, I think that it was a bad decision to make our world the end-point. It was so much more poetic to suggest that all of us, you, mean, Obama, etc were "Cylons". Which means that the "humans" (Adama, Thrace, etc) were a different species. Wow!

    And we blew up the Earth and ruined it. And only 5 of us survived, and we were living with aliens in their Battlestar because our own descendants were eager to kill us.

    Again, wow!

    And at the end of the show, Hera's information takes us to a beautiful planet controlled by "God" - whatever It might be - perhaps a superintelligent AI from Kobol. We (the "humans" and the "cylons" had passed the tests - we had worked together, we had protected the innocent, we had put away our prejudices, we had sacrificed our lives for each other in ways that no Cylon and Human had ever done before.

    Having passed those tests, the Superintelligent AI could feel confident that we would not war against each other - that we would work together, and if we had differences, it would be because of our ideas, not because of our bloodlines.

    Heck, they could have called the planet Eden, to fully cement the mythology. That would have been a satisfying ending.

    I'm sure that being stuck in a reeking, rotting spaceship for 3+ years was horrible. And I'm pretty sure that I would have loved to have hung out on a beautiful, unspoiled planet for a long time. But the idea of getting rid of all my technology seems really, really stupid. I can't suspend disbelief for that. I tried, but it just doesn't take.

  2. I too thought the package ended up being wrapped a little too neatly considering the number of other elements left at loose ends down through the seasons. In my writing I don't ever mind leaving loose ends untied -- although in my case they just lead to writing another story, which wasn't an option with BSG.

    I thought Cavil's suicide was too anti-climactic, that Tyrol's reaction to discovering what happened to Calley was too convenient a way to get out of that deal with the devil they were in the process of concluding. But again, it would have screamed for more stories, about how Cavil would again eventually find an excuse to condemn humanity and start it all over again. Personally though, I think having the end of the cycle turn out to be not the end of the cycle would have been better storytelling. That deal is precisely how we humans have thought we were ending war in the past, only to have the deal blow up in our faces somehow later.

    The one thing I did like was seeing the older model Centurions in the battle. As CGI characters with the mobility the actors in clanky costumes couldn't have in 1978, they actually managed to look formidable and scary.

  3. Yeah, well... I think Phil Harris had it right in the '40s when he recorded, "I'm my own grandpa."


  4. I was okay with it. The battlescenes were impressive and somewhat plausible.

    As far as giving up technology, that might have been inevitable. Battlestar Galactica was shot. It wasn't going any farther. The only protection was a Cylon base ship. I doubt the colonials had any major ship repair capability so the other ships would fall apart eventually as well. While they had spare parts, I doubt they had the capability to create many replacement parts from scrap. They would have had to rely on Cylon technology soon. They could have built a city but they would have needed to build manufacturing capability as well. Unless they were lucky and had the right mix of people, in the end the results would be the same.

    My only regret was that Lee and Kara did not end up together. After all they went through, I don't think either of them really could be truly happy without each other. But that would have been expected and I don't think the creators wouldn't have wanted that.

  5. Good criticisms, Will.

    I'll go a bit further by pointing out that the entire series was nothing more than a Paul Auster-like post-modern portrayal of mankind. Every character is a emotional and psychological freak. Even the admiral gets drunk and slops paint all over in a primal outburst. No one is a hero, no one even has a respectable trait.

    Auster's novels portray normal people who run into a bad situation and handle it catastrophically and end the book naked and howling at the moon in central park, or some other similar ending. Man is incapable of rising above an animal state, our civilization is just some sort of temporary and undeserved fluke.

    Galactica is a look into this post-modern view of mankind. The destruction of planets and killing of billions is not an act of evil, we're supposed to reconcile and ally with those who did it.

    It's just too impossibly ridiculous to be a good story. In real life, there are heros and most people are fine upstanding individuals who don't descend into depravity at the slightest discomfort.