Monday, March 23, 2009

Battlestar Galactica Finale

BSG SPOILER ALERT if you haven't watched the series finale.


Well, it's all over. The story of mankind's ragtag survivors and the ship that bore them to their destiny has reached it's conclusion. Farewell, Old Girl.

Happily, we didn't get Soprano'd. Everything that needed to be addressed was addressed in a way that felt final (though some may not be satisfied with the answers, or snarl at their ambiguity). My predictions turned out to be in the right ballpark, but a bit off on Daniel and the Colony. I maintain that though Adama and Tyrol are technically still alive at the end, both have chosen to eject themselves from society and humanity. As I predicted, Adama doesn't really exist without his Old Girls, and Tyrol was taken out of the game as a result of finding out what Tory did to Callie.

The deaths, in particular, were handled very well. Boomer's, Tory's, and Cavill's were absolutely perfect. Sam and Laura were also given good treatments, though their send-offs were soiled by a few mis-steps on the part of the writers. Kara's exit was satisfying as well.

Surprisingly, the high points of the drama mostly belonged to Baltar. His speech in the CIC was the climax of the show, and his final scene ("I know about farming") is the most emotionally resonant note in the episode.

I would call the finale a mixed success. Overall, I enjoyed it, though a few major problems threaten to ruin the whole episode. The finale brought out both the best and worst of the show, but its real failure was suddenly breaking from the qualities that had made the show such a gem up to this point.


Drama: human character drama has always been the real strength of the show. The backstory, setting, special effects, and prose are all servicable, but what takes the show from good to great is that they manage to make you feel for these people. You laugh at their jokes and cry at their tragedies and triuimphs alike. I challenge anyone to watch the series from beginning to end and not admit that they were genuinely moved when the fleet found earth (before they realized it was a cinder), or when Laura thanked Cottle, or when Starbuck admitted to Adama that she was responsible for the death of his son. The finale had this in spades. Besides Laura/Cottle, there was Starbuck's final scene and Apollo's associated flashbacks, Tyrol/Tory, Athena and her family, and everything Baltar did in the finale. Just for a start.

Action: O. M. G. The entire first hour of the finale was just mind-shatteringly sweet. The assault plan was surprising and exciting. The budget was completely broken on a new level of special effects, with fearsomely-animated Centurions battling it out with humans and old-school toasters alike. I'll always remember the moment when I realized the Raptors had just jumped out of the Battlestar (shattering one of the bays) instead of deploying almost as well as I'll remember Starbuck's "I can do this all day" scene during the recent mutiny arc and the series's action high point: the time Adama dropped Galactica into New Caprica's atmosphere and then jumped away just before hitting the ground.

Meaning: when I say meaning, I'm referring to the show's tendency to imbue its stories with meaning outside of soap-opera drama. This is the stuff the mainstream media tends to applaud the show for: facing hotbutton issues and what it means to be human headlong and unapologetically, tending to avoid ideology and easy answers. Would you risk everything on such a desperate rescue mission? What do we do about things we can't understand? What are our human limitations and roots? Are we doomed to always make the same mistakes?

Artistic Ambiguity: This is my term for not answering the meaningful questions. The show throughout has asked you to think about torture and terrorism and race and humanity from many perspectives without (usually) getting preachy and telling you which answer is right. Many of the show's "villains" are doing the right thing for the wrong reason, or the wrong thing for noble reasons. There are always shades of grey in life. I liked that the finale stayed true to this notion (though it did get a bit preachy). Though it "answered" the questions about the head characters and Starbuck and the song and the opera house, it left the interpretation up to the viewer. Just as it never gave us the "right" answer to most of it's moral questions. Unfortunately, breaking from this tendency is the greatest source of the finale's failure in it's second half as it was its greatest source of triumph in the first half.


Sci Fi crap: Though I love the setting and the sci-fi trappings, Battlestar's greatest weakness has always been that it takes place in a fantastical spaceship and involves alien robots. It makes it difficult to take it seriously, and turns off people who aren't fans of the genre (who are missing out on a show they would probably enjoy). Thanks to the efforts by the creators to counteract this with real emotions, documentary-style camerawork and a "real", earthy feel that mimics an aircraft carrier more than an Enterprise, very rarely is this a problem. But it crops up big time in the finale. The finale hits a few sci-fi tropes a bit too hard (ZOMG machines could turn on us! I totally didn't learn that in the Matrix or the Terminator!) and twists the meaningful drama and believability in service of some of the sci-fi coolness. No where is this more apparent than in the colonization of Earth 2. The writers were trying so hard to shoehorn everything that came before into this idea that "OMG it's OUR Earth!" that it twisted all of the endings for the characters in ways that didn't fit or feel right. It was all in service of cramming them onto our Earth, and the writers had already written themselves into a corner and couldn't really pull it off.


Telling rather than showing:
This is the first rule of writing. Trust your audience to "get it". Adherence to this rule has been one of the wonderful hallmarks of the series. Instead of having two characters sit at a table debating whether terrorism is a good or bad thing, you show characters in situations where terrorism comes into play, show how they act, and then let the viewer decide for themselves. If you want the story's moral to be "don't talk to strangers", you don't flat-out say "don't talk to strangers". You show the character getting screwed over by a natural consequence of talking to a stranger. Much like a joke, you ruin the entire thing when you have to explain it.

The first half of the finale did this beautifully. Yes, even Baltar's monolgue to Cavill about the angels. It was enough about "what that character would actually say to that other character" to feel "right" without quite crossing the border to talking to the audience.

Then the show absolutely obliterated that line in the second hour. Apollo bears the brunt of this, with lines like "We need a clean slate" and "we need to give up all this baggage, all the gear and technology" and just live off the land and all that crap. The angels also get into the act pretty badly, especially at the end with the "bwahah I'm Head Giaus and I needed to explain in words the obvious point that Hera is the mitochondrial Eve" and "Let's have a debate over fate because the audience is too stupid to think about this stuff themselves". These scenes bleed off into the next major problematic break from BSG tradition:

Sanctimonious moralizing:
Also known as "preachiness", and the scourge of liberals everywhere. Avoiding this was precisely the strength of the show. You were never told by the writers whether the Cylons are right or wrong, whether the human terrorists or torturers or presidents or juries or soldiers are right or wrong. Then you get to the end, and you suddenly have characters talking unnaturally (because they are talking to the audience, not each other) and preachily about how we need to drop all this technology and science and become hippies, and how we need to stop making robots because they are wrong, and how we need to believe in god or some higher power now. That was the most disappointing thing of all: though it will likely be lauded for leaving the identity of the show's supernatural influencor up in the air, I think the script doesn't leave enough room for interpretation of its identity. Why does it have to be supernatural? Why can't it be scientific, but beyond our (and the character's) understanding (just as Cylon ressurection and FTL technology are to us)? It's Disappointing that it can only be some form of "god". The entire question would have been much better if left only to Gaius's speech to Cavill in the CIC.

Tone-deafness: I know that we were supposed to find it moving when Adama put his wedding ring (from his previous marriage!) on Laura's finger (after she died!!). I imagine the writers thought they were very clever.

They were wrong. It was gross. I felt violated for Laura. Don't be putting shit on her after she died that she wasn't willing to wear while alive, you sick frak.

To get by, I pretend that it never happened.

I also need to pretend that the arrival on Earth 2 doesn't evoke incredibly racist and offensive references to the enslavement of the "savage" races of Africa by the "enlightened" Anglo-European whites in our own history. How could the writers not have realized just how messed up this idea is? "Hey look, here's a fledgling hunter-gatherer society! Let's go impose our values and ideas on them!"

Oh, and also: "Sam is mentally disabled, and that's inconvenient for us right now (all this pesky technology he has to be hooked up to, you know), so let's force him to commit suicide." Ick.

Loss of logic (in general and in actions of the characters): I've already gone into this a little bit, and it's the worst offense of inconsistency in the finale. This series was set apart from other sci-fi fare because the plot and lore were in service to the characters, and not the other way around. The characters were, for the most part, fully realized and tended to act in believable ways to the circumstances. This was brave and incredibly rare for TV. In the second half of the finale, things flew completely off the rails because the writers felt the need to force the characters to conform to the desired ending in a way that fit. Everyone became completely subservient to the plot and the lore. Characters' decisions flew out of the realm of the believable and into Fairy Land.

They would not give up their technology, and most importantly, no way in hell would they give up their knowledge. They may not have the equipment or supplies, but they frakking KNOW how to cure and treat illnesses, build spaceships with artificial gravity and life support, FTL travel - hell, they know how to make booze! - and no way are they going to give all that knowledge up just for a "clean slate". Do the writers understand what the infant mortality rate would be without medical knowledge? How many women die in childbirth without modern medical treatment? Did they even give women a vote in this whole "starting over with the clothes on our backs" thing (were there any female writers on the show?)? Do they have any concept of how many new diseases you can catch from just traveling to a new country, let alone a new planet? There is no way they survived without medicine. And isn't it spitting in the face of centuries of hard work and research discovering these ideas only to have them thrown away? They wouldn't give this stuff up, and they certainly wouldn't fly their frakking fleet into the frakking sun!!

The ONLY reason they abandoned technology and scientific knowledge was because we didn't have those things 150,000 years ago, and thus the BSG crew can't be our real ancestors unless they gave up technology. Archaologists haven't found the remains of any giant spaceship labeled "Colonial One", and NASA hasn't noticed Galactica's rickety skeleton floating in our orbit, so they had to get rid of those ships off-planet somehow. Frak that.

They also wouldn't spread out across the planet. That's like asking to be eaten by the first pack of wolves that finds you.

The ONLY reason they spread out is to make them "fit" as our real ancestors. Which actually makes no sense because Hera is the ONLY ONE who has surviving descendents in our present day. Frak that.

And they would not give the Centurions the only remaining spaceship, armed to the teeth with awesome weaponry, and throw away all their own weapons. That's like asking them to come back and nuke you to smithereens.

The ONLY reason they gave the Centurions the Basestar is because the writers couldn't figure out what to do with them, and we've never found cylon remains on our planet, so they had to be gotten rid of off-planet just like the fleet. The Basestar also presents an inconvenient narrative problem because it's a viable long-term alternative living arrangement to Earth 2. So it had to be gotten rid of to serve the desired result. Frak that.

The entire "abandoning technology and giving away the ships voluntarily" thing was poorly thought-out and entirely broke the illusion of believeability to shoehorn in a plot point shoddily.

Contrived. Contrived. Contrived.

How to fix the finale:

  1. Keep the first part, up until they jump to our Earth, exactly as it was. The only minor change I'd make the that part is un-cut the visuals that showed that all of Cavill's cylons and the Colony were sucked into the singularity and obliterated.
  2. Explain how Kara's corpse ended up on Earth 1 when Apollo saw her ship explode. To do so, have a brief scene on Earth 2 in which Kara's father comes to her when she's alone, she asks him about it, and he says (with accompanying pictures shown to us) that her ship's explosion, much like the Raider she chased into the wormhole, was an illusion. The wormhole teleported her to Earth 1 where she crashlanded, freeing her consciousness to be used to lead the fleet back to earth. The rest of her ending and disappearance were right on the money, so keep them like that. I'd just like an explanation for why her corpse had to be on Earth 1.
  3. Fix the offensiveness of Earth 2. Either have there not be any natives, or have the natives be advanced enough for integration as equals to become possible.
  4. Provide a plausible explanation for what happened to the ships, technology, and Centurions. Perhaps the centurions and smaller ships land on earth, but somehow don't survive intact enough to be discovered in modern times (end up in the ocean? Pieces scattered to much when they wore down? Buried in volcano or avalanche?). The ships that are too big could just be stripped a bit and autopiloted into the sun? The fleet arrives too severely damaged, and they have no choice but to abandon them? Perhaps the other ships are destroyed in a counter-attack by Cavill, but his last basestar is also destroyed in the process? So we lose some of the fleet, the basestar is destroyed (poor Hoshi!), and the few remaining fleet ships are all that join the Galactica at Earth 2, making abandonment much more beliveable? See how easy it was to make it not seem quite so obviously forced and contrived?
  5. Cut almost all of Lee's lines between finding earth and his father's leaving scene.
  6. Have Anders volunteer to die, so it doesn't seem like he's being thrown away because he's inconveniently disabled.
  7. KEEP THE FRAKKING RING ADAMA. Make some other, less gross sentimental gesture!
  8. Cut almost all of the dialog out of the final scene (the "regression to the mean" stuff was the only value to that scene), and make the modern-day robot montage less ham-handed or cut it.

Originally, I had on this list "give us an actual reason why Hera is important. Is there something about the combined human/cylon bloodline that makes it necessary for life on Earth 2 to evolve to our present point?" But the more I think about it, the more it seems that her function was just to give both races a way to continue and pass themselves on to the new Earth 2 people after the reset button had been hit by "god". I mean, the humans that were already on Earth could have become us without the BSG crew, right? But by blending the human and cylon DNA with these Earth 2 humans, all of the races get to go on together rather than any of them being destroyed. She allows them all the have a legacy, and "live forever" in the only way humans really can: through their progeny.

Otherwise, I was quite happy with the finale.


In the end, I've invested more time into this story than I have to probably any other complete story in my lifetime. I've never read a book for 80 hours, even the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Movies are just 2 hours. And I've never watched a television show with such a complete, single arc. Most shows, at the very most, tell a single story over the course of one season, then trot the old characters and settings out to tell a new story the next season. Not so with Battlestar. It really was, all the way through, one complete story. And I don't regret a single moment of it. Not even that terrible "Apollo goes to the black market" episode or the hamfisted aspects of the finale (though they come clost to regret).

And that's the greatest measure of the finale's success, and that of the show: I really did treasure and enjoy the journey, and a few (major) misteps at the very end don't ruin the whole for me. And though far from perfect, it was, and will likely remain, (in the words of Jacob of TwoP) "the finest television show I've ever personally seen."


Ixobelle said...

i dunno... the whole "laura/cottel" thing felt hokey through and through, and i figured admiral adama was going to fly he and laura into the side of a mountain, because his role was finished, and he didn't want to go on living without her.

honestly, I realllly wish she had bowed out long ago in the series, but I said as much in the previous BSG post. everything she did onscreen just annoyed me to no end.

Kara "vanishing" was hokey, too, but not half as bad.

I agree with the whole "they wouldn't go back to rubbing sticks together" thing, and am also still confused on why hera was worth crashing the galactica into a space station etc etc etc over. yeah, she's a little girl, and little girls should be rescued, but what happened to the whole "at what cost" thing? whenever anyone in a show is like "we gotta go back!" they always get the stern "yeah, but I won't risk thousands of lives for one" talk.

a lot of it just felt awkward. I think my favorite arc in the entire storyline was the discovering of boomer / her relationship with gaylen. even helo kind of rubbed me the wrong way. all the things she went through, and the unspoken "how do we treat each other, is she somehow *less* undeserving of our feelings because she's different" was handled BEAUTIFULLY. her betrayal, all of that... *that* was the package for me.

after that, i stuck it out, but feel like the show peaked much earlier on, and then kinda just scraped along.

awesome show, don't get me wrong, but season 1 and 2 were the highlights now that it's all said and done.

Hatch said...

I think the show did slow down quite a bit after the end of the New Caprica arc. It was still good, but aside from the occasional gem of an episode or storyline (such as the mutiny) it wasn't quite as intense as it had been in the first two seasons. And the pacing of season 4.5 was just a disaster.

whyres said...

So stupid they fly all the ships into the Sun. They should have hid them somewhere just in case they need them again. Dumb Dumb Dumb