Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A take on Battlestar Galactica as a whole

Some time ago, a reader asked me what me take on the complete series was, since I always cover small narrative pieces. Well, you asked, I serve. Battlestar Galactica had a run over four seasons before it ended in a conclusive ending that continues to split the fandom in two. Some love it, more hate it, but it did one thing - conclude the whole affair, without leaving any room for ill taken sequels, which is a feat in and of itself. Too many series more or less trail off or simply make a big clusterfuck of their ending (looking at you, Lost). 
The title referres to the screenplay.
Spoilers for all seasons of Battlestar Galactica ahead. 

To really talk about BSG, you have to look at the structure of the whole thing. At first glance, the season length comes into mind. There is the pilot, a three-hour movie. Then season 1, with its thirteen episodes. All subsequent seasons had 22 episodes each. While the story certainly progressed over the seasons, they didn't tie the episodes together like Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad and the like do it. Rather, the seasons had one arc that was concluded, but that was divided into little subplots spanning over two to four episodes and some stand-alone episodes designed to give insight about individual characters (for example Apollo in "Black Market").
Lee Adama, family man.
The last thing one needs to know to understand BSG is that the series was not conceived as a whole. Rather, the writing team, headed by David Eick and Ronald D. Moore, basically made shit up as they went along. When a season started filming, they had no idea how it would end. Normally, this is a recipe for disaster. By way of a miracle, if fucked the story up only a handful of times, and never really beyond the point of repair. At one point during the creation of season 1, they wanted to get Dirk Benedict, who played Starbuck in the original series, to play a cameo as god. He would have told the characters "Hi, I'm god" as the big season cliffhanger. Why? Because the could. Luckily, Benedict's irrational hatred of the series rescued us from that shit. 
Totally like I imagined god.
With that knowledge out of the way, let's dive into the series. I pretty much like it, or else I wouldn't spend so much time writing about it, but seriously, some episodes are so bad that you can skip them without remorse. That's helped along by the fact that they don't serve any purpose for the broader storyline. The first three seasons have one of these each. Season 1 had "Tigh me up, tigh me down", which, despite the pretty cool title, is a clusterfuck of unlogical bullshit, forced comedy that really doesn't fit and awkward acting. The characters don't make any sense in that episode. The worst episode ever can be found in season 2, "Black Market". It involves Lee "Apollo" Adama in a holodeck simulation of a black market fantasy in some 20s crimeflick doing stupid shit and getting away with it because the writers suddenly decided that you can't have enough cliches in one episode. Really, that thing is so weird and out of place, it hurts. 
Wow, that still sucks.
Season three decided that one fucked up episode isn't enough, which is why it decided to go with two. The first is "The Hand of God", in which Helo is highlighted as a saint who can do no wrong, facing a Galactica crew that suddenly and out of nowhere became a bunch of racist hillbillies just because. The second is "Hero", in which some random guy pops out of nowhere, presumably being the best fighter pilot ever and, of course, a buddy of Adama (a relation that is so unbelievable from the start you can see Edward James Olmos acting like "fuck it"). The story involves an "armistice line" in space that is never heard about, and the most heavy handed Pearl Harbor metaphor since Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor.
With a smaller budget, admittedly.
Luckily, neither of these episodes has any impact on the overgoing storyline in form of arcs. These are were BSG really shines. The first season is set under the conflict between the military and the civil government, ending in the penultimate crisis of Tigh's declaration of martial law (although technically in season 2, it belongs to the arc of season 1). After that is cleared, season 2 pits human against human, first in form of the Pegasus and later on New Caprica (again, technically in season 3). Season 3 then takes a turn for the mystic and gives the Galactica a new and clear destination. The conflict with the Cylons comes front and center as a race for clues starts since the Cylons have conveniently decided to go after Earth as well. Season 4, then, is the culmination. It has no leftovers from season 3 and pits the newfound mystic elements against the gritty realism that dominated the first two seasons in brutal consequence, resulting in the Cylon Civil War and the mutiny aboard Galactica with the death of many characters we grew attached to over several seasons. And never forget the brutal midseason cliffhanger of a devestated earth, which for some time threatened to be the actual end of the series!
Bam! Downer in your face.
Altough I think that this end would have proven the biggest balls in showbusiness, pretty much ensuring Moore and Eick never to get a job in that capacity again for pissing millions of viewers off, the final ending remains really controversial. After finally finding an new Earth (ours) right before the Stone Age and destroying the Cylon threat once and for all, the humans decide to banish all technology and start anew, making way for the Galactica crew to be our own ancestors. The clear merit of this ending is that it allows a clear end in which they really find Earth that doesn't require moralistic bullshit (can you see Apollo kneeling before the destroyed statue of Liberty crying "What have you done?") and can't possibly be disproven. The clear disadvantage is that it's not really believable as a real decision for these people. I mean, they decide to mate with apes and  start digging in the ground with no one really knowing how to do that (except Baltar, ironically). The history of Jamestown shows what tends to happen to such settlements, and there's no mother land to reinforce these guys. 
Blending right in.
So, the criticisms at the ending are valid. It's by no means perfect. I like it nonetheless because I think it's the lesser of all possible evils. Every conceivable ending for such a story - searching Earth - has to be unsatisfying on some level. Remember how the original series ended? I take ape loving Baltar over that anytime. 

So, that's my take on BSG as a whole. The series is strongest when it tells a cohesive story over a handful of episodes while simultaneously trying to tell us something. The Pegasus plot and the occupation of New Caprica remain the strongest pieces of serial SciFi that were ever written for television. Compared to that, the Baltar trial is too heavy-handed and condescending in its approach, feeling like "The Newsroom" especially in Apollo's final speech. The martial-law-crisis, on the other hand, came at a point where the characters weren't as developed as they were later in the series. 
A blessing in some cases.
What also continues to divide the community is the question about all the mystic stuff. There are times when it threatens to take over the story and become a bit silly, delving deep into "Lost" territory, especially in seasons three and four. I don't like it as much as the political stuff, but I guess it was vital in building a broad enough constituency to carry the series over the four seasons. 

So, BSG is still worth watching. It's one of the best SciFi stuff around, and its commentary remains important even ten years after the journey began.


  1. Hi Stefan,

    Thank you for writing this article. I agree with you. It was definitely a great show and the best Sci-fi I have ever seen on television. One of my all time favorites. I enjoyed the ending. It drives me crazy when people talk about a show after it ends like it was horrible if they weren't satisfied with the ending. I feel that even if you don't like the end of a series that should not take away from how good the rest of it was. Also, it is crazy to me that the writers produced such a quality series while pretty much making it up on the fly with no long term plan.

    1. It shows at times, especially when they write stupid filler episoders. I'm most impressed by the fact that they managed to fit in the Final Five so well when they only started writing them midway into the filming of season 3 (if you recall, they were revealed at the end of season 3!). That's outstanding, especially if you compare it with Lost, which suffers much more from bullshit and unsolved stuff that it just heaped onto each other.