Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Episode That Broke Me and Other "Crossroads II" Thoughts

In the podcast for Battlestar Galactica's first season finale, "Kobol's Last Gleaming II", Ron Moore talks about his original concept for the season-ending cliffhanger (end of act 2 and beginning of act 3):
[Baltar] comes into a room and he hears music and it's a recognizable Earth-tune ... It was Jimi Hendrix was playing, actually, and he goes, "God, I recognize that." And then somebody- or somebody s- a voice says, "You recognize that?" And he says, "Yes." And he turns and it's Dirk Benedict. (Laughs.) And Dirk Benedict said, "Hi. I'm God." And you just cut. We just cut out on that. ... that was gonna be the end of that whole storyline and at the episode. I liked it. I thought it was wacky. I didn't quite know what it meant. I thought- I was looking for a surprise.
I was still infatuated with Galactica when I watched this episode and listened to the podcast, and even so Moore's words gave me pause. I was troubled by the realization that he could so cavalierly discuss introducing such an absurd plot twist without knowing its meaning and resolution, and even more so by his willingness to jeopardize the integrity of his invented universe for the sake of a metafictional gag. At the time, I told myself that it was wrong to judge Moore by the crazy notions his hyperactive imagination spun out. He had, after all, dismissed the idea--his better impulses and the people around him had talked him out of it. The bullet had been dodged. Two seasons later, it seems to have swung around and hit us*.

The massive plot twist at the end of "Crossroads II" differs from both of the cliffhangers preceding it. It is not, like Boomer shooting Adama in "Kobol's Last Gleaming II", an organic extension of previous events. Neither is it, like the 'One Year Later' title card in "Lay Down Your Burdens II", a massive perspective shift, a moment in which, as Dan Hartland put it, the show eviscerates itself (although as it turns out Dan vastly overestimates the consequences of the leap forward in his essay. The third season wasted very little time in restoring the status quo, and the aftereffects of both the Cylon occupation and the year spent on New Caprica have been only fleetingly and half-heartedly explored). If these two previous cliffhangers had the audience going 'Oh no!' and 'Wow!', respectively, the end of "Crossroads II" is more likely to have elicited a 'Huh?'

The return of Starbuck is only surprising in that it happens so soon after her 'death'. The less said about the incongruous musical choice, the better**. Plenty of people are scratching their heads at the identity of the Cylons revealed--two of them decent, morally upright people; one of them a violent, self-destructive drunk; two of them serving at the respective right hands of the two most powerful people in the fleet; one of them older than the Cylon race; one of them a parent; three of them major characters; one of them a virtual non-entity; all of them key members of the New Caprica resistance movement--but I can't help but feel that we'd have a easier time accepting Tigh, Tyrol, Anders and Tory as Cylons if we had a better idea of what, exactly, a Cylon is.

I'm going to say this again because it's just so mind-boggling. At the end of Galactica's third season--if rumors are to be believed, three quarters of the way into the show's run--we have no idea what a Cylon is. What little information we've been given about them is spotty and contradictory. Cylons are biological, but they can interface directly with fiber-optic cable. Cylons can breed with humans, but their blood has a different molecular structure than ours. Cylons have a psychology similar to humans--they can be tortured and fall in love--but they have only a rudimentary grasp of individuality and can tailor their perception of reality to suit their moods and protect them from the harshness of the real world. Moreover, Tigh and the others aren't garden variety Cylons. They're Final Five Cylons, whatever the hell that means. Within this fog of uncertainty, the only thing we can safely say is that these four characters are not what we thought they were, but we might as well have discovered that they all have a rare blood type, or a supernumerary toe, for all that we can understand the ramifications of this discovery, much less of their choice not to let biology--or mechanics--determine their destiny.

At the risk of sounding like one of these people, I've been toying for a while with the notion that Galactica is not, in any meaningful way, science fiction. Most narrative genres take place in a universe that operates according to a set of rules. The difference between naturalistic and fantastic fiction is that, in the latter, the universe is not our universe, and the rules are not our rules. Nevertheless, they exist, and are comprehensive and coherent. When it comes to Battlestar Galactica's fantastic elements, I'm beginning to wonder whether there are any rules. For more than a year, I and a host of other Galactica fans have been screaming to high heavens about the show's shoddy worldbuilding. Halfway through the second chorus of "All Along the Watchtower", I started to think that maybe Ron Moore isn't incapable of creating a coherent alternate universe. Maybe he just doesn't want to. Maybe a story that I've been reading, with ever-increasing frustration, as fantastic is actually surreal.

I'm not saying this to let Ron Moore and his writers off the hook. There's a vast gap between Battlestar Galactica and Twin Peaks, and let's not lose sight of the show's failures on the character level, or when wearing its other genre hats--the action adventure and the political thriller. Surrealism eschews coherence and linearity for the sake of ambience, but when it's done badly--and sometimes, even when it's done well--that ambience can fail to materialize. The audience, in cases like this, is jettisoned out of the story, and left with no emotional hook other than a bewildered amusement. If I'm right, and Ron Moore is prioritizing the gestalt effect of his story over any of its individual elements, then he is tragically out of step with the vast majority of his audience, and likely to lose more and more of them as his show sinks further into weirdness. All that said, I've often wondered about the thought processes of the surreal artist. When the only purpose of the work's details is to come together into a certain kind of whole, how do you know which details to use when? How do you decide that the backwards-talking dwarf goes here instead of there? I imagine that the process must be largely intuitive--perhaps along the lines of a writer who thinks that Dirk Benedict as God is a good idea.

As far as I'm concerned, there was only one question that "Crossroads II" needed to answer--is there any reason for me to come back to this show in January? If the rumors turn out to be true and the fourth season is confirmed as Galactica's last, I suspect I will. I want to see what Ron Moore comes up with as an ending, because at this point there is no doubt in my mind that it will be absolutely deranged. I guess you could say that "Crossroads II" is the episode that broke me--at this point, I am no longer interested in analyzing this show or pointing out the faults in its worldbuilding. In fact, I find myself dangerously close to the 'but it's not supposed to make any sense' mindset that keeps people watching 24 and Lost. In my defense, I just want to see whether or not I'm right. I think Moore is going to slide into the realm of metaphysics and go completely insane and I want to be there when it happens, not because I think the end result will be moving or awe-inspiring or even any good, but because I think it's going to be really, really big. At least, I'd like to believe that it will be. There must be some kind of way out of here.



* Which, in a way, is fitting. Why shouldn't the ghosts of the first season's aborted plot twists cap off the third season, which in the general shape of its plot progression resembles nothing so much as the second season's deformed twin? Both seasons start with the main cast divided, several of them stranded on a planet and in need of being rescued from the Cylons. This situation persists for several episodes, at the end of which order is restored--the fleet is reunited, Roslin and Adama are reinstated in their old roles and relationship--just in time for the mid-season two-parter to challenge it by positing a thorny moral dilemma. Once that storyline is wrapped up, in a wholly unsatisfying manner, the season devolves into a sequence of tedious and ill-advised standalone episodes which, in their turn, give way to a finale revolving around a momentous public decision--which turns out differently than any of the characters could have reasonably expected--and is then capped off by a shocking event.

** According to the show's composer, Bear McCreary, this choice doesn't imply "that Bob Dylan necessarily exists in the characters' universe, but that an artist on one of the colonies may have recorded a song with the exact same melody and lyrics," and if this is true then I can only say that the episode misses its mark by a wide, wide margin.

22 comments:

Dan Hartland said...

Hm. I don't buy the surrealism angle, not least because I simply don't believe that the show at this point has any big idea of any kind. Plus, of course, the finale harked back in a variety of ways to its own backstory and mythology - it clearly thought itself part of a coherent story. It just isn't. Or, if it is, I don't care about it anymore.

The season two finale, as cracked as it was, at least left me with a reaction. The third season finale, on the other hand, simply left me cold. I'm just not sure what it is I'm meant to be caring about anymore.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I don't buy the surrealism angle

I'm not sure I do either - I'm very much grasping at straws here. The other option is that Moore genuinely doesn't see that interspersing hours of tedium with the occasional shocking minute (AKA the Lost approach) is not good writing. He's either insane or a very, very bad writer. The only thing that might motivate me to come back to the show now is the chance of finding out which one it is.

it clearly thought itself part of a coherent story

You think so? I suppose you might be right, but if that's the case then I have no idea what Ron Moore's idea of a coherent story is.

Chris Gerrib said...

I don't think Ron is a bad writer, but I absolutely don't agree with his decisions. Therefore, the only answer is that he thinks the "shock and awe" school of writing (AKA, "Lost") is what the public wants.

Anonymous said...

I think it's very simple: Ron Moore doesn't know how to build a consistent world. I believe he's on record as saying that he's more interested in characters than plot--and I think it shows. I first learned his name in connection with one of the most arrogantly, aggressively, abysmally stupid Stargate: SG-1 episodes ever ("Red Sky"). It was painfully awful; the "science" was like Trek on its worst day and the technobabble problem and technobabble solution were horrible. And yet...the characterizations and dialogue (when I could focus on them) were terrific.

Then he wrote "Between Two Fires" for SG-1 and that episode was terrific. But then, whether by accident because the SG-1 Powers That Be had learned their lesson, there was no technobabble, and no "science" involved in that episode. It posited a problem (a Goa'uld has figured out how to overcome the Tollans' defensive weapons, leaving them utterly exposed and vulnerable) and asked, "Now what?" and answered it wonderfully.

So I came away with the belief that Moore can write people pretty well--as long as he's reigned in by others. Putting him in charge of his own show? Not a recipe for long-term success.

Anonymous said...

The problem with a seat-of-the-pants style of flying is that sometimes you screw up and miss the target.

We benefited from RDM's hitting the target in the past - but this season he has missed it. It's not all his fault though.

The problem was ratings. Instead of a coherent mythos building series after we left New Caprica, we got a nod to one offs with an intention to resume the mythos stuff in the second half.

And they had to rethink that plan when the network demanded more one-offs after the schedule change.

So we got a lot of crap served between episodes 13 and until 15 minutes before the end of Crossroads Pt 2.

The Iraq War elements on New Caprica, in the meanwhile, managed to alienate some American viewers who really are not comfortable with the idea of self-criticism. That's hardly something new in America; introspection during wartime is not one of its hallmarks.

How does RDM deal with it? He has publicly questioned the validity of Nielson's ratings system. There's a sure sign the guy at the helm is out of touch with the milieu he is in.

So the network won't let RDM tell the story he wants to tell in the second half of the season and RDM desperately tries to grab viewers to increase his episode order for season four. And we get served crappy stunts like Starbuck's death and "Lee Adama" as lawyer.

They are so lost on how to do a courtroom drama, they then put Lee on the stand to deliver a closing argument. Rationale: he wouldn't do it as counsel - so we'll make him a lawyer.

What they should have done is just let Lambkin take the role of lead counsel and have faith in their actor. But they don't. So it's break the rules whenever they choose cause they want to.

No matter how false it rings.

Likewise, RDM shows that his devotion is to be daring and shocking for daring and shocking's sake. Sometimes that plays well.

And sometimes it certainly does not. Most ever episode after Collaborators in Season 3 is a testament to that.

Dan Hartland said...

The only thing that might motivate me to come back to the show now is the chance of finding out which one it is.

But weren't we asking that very question at the end last season, more or less? I know I came back to season three hoping the show would find its feet again. I think instead it accumulated enough evidence for us to answer that question without recourse to another 22 episodes.

You think so?

I do. The digging up of all the old prophecies, the return of the opera house, the way in which Lee's sermon attempting to make sense of this season and the show as a whole ... all suggest that the episode was thought of as a cornerstone in some sort of epic.

Moore's been going on in several interviews about how he sees this as the culmination of the show's second 'act'. So he at least pretends to think of the show in those terms.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Anonymous 1:

Are you sure Ron Moore wrote those SG-1 episodes? IMDB lists the writer as Ron Wilkerson - he's also written for TNG and Voyager.

As for your point about Moore prioritizing character - there's been so little good character work over the season that I'd be very sad to think that was the case.

Anonymous 2:

We don't have a truly reliable way of knowing what goes on in Galactica's production offices, and how much effect network pressure has on the final product (I'm not inclined to trust much of what Moore says at this point). Whatever the reason for the move to standalones, it doesn't excuse the end result. Plenty of other shows manage a mix of standalone and arc episodes, and God knows there was enough good television out there before arc-intensive storytelling became the cool new thing.

Dan:

I came back to season three hoping the show would find its feet again. I think instead it accumulated enough evidence for us to answer that question without recourse to another 22 episodes.

Oh, I certainly agree that it's no longer possible to expect a return to form. As I said, I'll only consider coming back to Galactica if the fourth season is absolutely, positively its last, and only so that I can see how Moore wraps up his story.

But that's what I'm saying now. It's quite possible that, by January, I'll have other interests and will no longer care enough to give the show my time.

As for "Crossroads" tying together old plot threads: do you remember my response to your post-season 2 essay? I noted that while I talked a lot about the events of the season and said almost nothing about the leap in time, you concentrated almost solely on the latter because of your argument that it invalidates almost everything that came before it. I think we're in an opposite situation now. You're obviously right that a lot of what happens in the episode is meant to tie into previous events, but I'm concentrating on the cliffhanger - the Cylon revelations and Starbuck's return - and everything preceding it seems to have faded into the background.

Chris Gerrib said...

Anonymous #1 - Ron is also on record as saying he wanted to avoid technobabble episodes. As I recall, he even wrote a manifesto about "keeping SF real," defined in part as "no aliens."

Anonymous said...

Well, frak! I've been unfairly blaming Ron Moore for Ron Wilkerson's failings as a writer. Mea culpa!

Well, since I was wrong about that I don't have any big theory about what's going on with BSG except that, as with other hit shows which lost their way, there simply was no master plan.

Chris Carter's X-Files lost me when I realized early on that he had no master chart of The Conspiracy (tm) over his desk; after that, I only ever watched the throw-away Monster of the Week episodes, which still tended to be entertaining. I gave up on LOST before the first season finale for the same reason.

BSG has been fun for the most part, but I don't know if I'll bother to come back NEXT JANUARY to see what they do. But if I am back, it'll probably be for the same reason Abigail comes back--to watch the car crash.

Anonymous 1 again (one of these days I'll remember my Blogger ID...)

Liz said...

I have not watched any BSG since the midpoint of Season 2, but I have been told some of the major plot points by friends (in a disbelieving "He's married to whom? and Baltar is from Yorkshire?" kind of way).

My question is this: has BSG now passed into the realm of the special crack where, like 24, I can watch them all in a row and be entertained by the mind-boggling craziness of it all, or should I save my time?

Anonymous said...

personally, i see it as less surrealism, which at least technically is grounded in realism--"what would a melting watch look like?"

but that's just picky, boring art history stuff that i only bring up because what i wonder about is whether BSG is taken on the elements of other, more visionary forms. not visionary in the metaphorical sense, but ecstatic, mystical, hagiography. you know, the lives of the saints and their visions. mixing history and beings of light.

all of that has been explored in the show, and maybe an interest in those things has bled through into an interest in those writing forms.

it's a neat writing challenge, but mixing it with the naturalism of the show's various genres, well, that's hellishly difficult.

anyway, just a thought.

imp

Iain said...

I personally really rate Ron Moore as a writer. His TNG episodes were largely great, and he was heavily involved in the best Trek show, DS9. He was involved in GvsE which I thought was a great deal of fun, heavily involved in the first few years of Roswell, which had its moments, and steered and co-wrote the first season of Carnivale, which was excellent. The episodes of Battlestar Galactica which he has personally written have generally been amongst the tightest and most effective drama (until now.)

However with his Producer hat on I do hold him largely to blame for the sheer lack of direction and focus in this show. Valuing creativity and character over plotting and drama can be a virtue (I would hold Joss Whedon up as an example of this) but only to a point. You can't mix *everything* up on a regular basis because the audience is left floundering, searching for through-lines and connections that make the show feel organic from one episode to the next. Too often this show has abandoned those through-lines for the sake of some neat idea that arrived late in the process, or to make the episodes more self-contained.

I think that a startling plot twist can occasionally come in out of left field to good effect, if justified in retrospect, but do that too often and the ground is left shifting under the audience's feet - there's no status quo, no clear sense of the show's identity against which the twist is reacting. Everything becomes strange for its own sake. This, as much as anything, is why the show may be beginning to feel a tad surreal.

Anonymous said...

Let's see...I'll be annoymous #4 (damned old browser won't allow me to create a username identity...~sigh~)

Ms. Nussbaum...I agree wholeheatedly with you that season four has to be their last rodeo. I get the impression that they've hit the bottom of their barrel of arc stories and have been tap dancing their way to the end of season three with soap opera Law & Order homages.

I won't belabor my disappointment in the selection of the final five mystery contestants, but I feel compelled to comment that the arrangement of All Along The Watchtower they used at the end of the cliffhanger is the worst cover of that song I've ever heard. They could have had some songwriter actually write something more appropo to the story they were trying to tell, instead of square-pegging into a round hole a song that any old musician (ahem...me) will tell you Dylan wrote as a comment on the craziness of becomeing a media idol. Incongruous, I guess, is the word I'm looking for.

I really adore your blog, and I'm glad I stumbled across it, even if it was by accident.

Dutch46

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Chris:

Ron is also on record as saying he wanted to avoid technobabble episodes

I imagine that as a Star Trek alumnus, Moore comes by his aversion to technobabble honestly, but at this point his definition of technobabble seems to include any sort of explanation of the show's SFnal aspects.

If I say that human form Cylons are clones of existing humans, and that their blood is saturated with nano-machines which allow them to interact with computers, project their own perceptions on reality, and transmit their consciousness into another body upon death, I'm extrapolating from existing technology into the realm of the fictional. That's the very essence of science fiction, and Moore seems entirely uninterested in it. Which is why, at this point, I'm willing to entertain the possibility that BSG isn't SF.

Liz:

has BSG now passed into the realm of the special crack where, like 24, I can watch them all in a row and be entertained by the mind-boggling craziness of it all, or should I save my time?

In the wake of episodes like this, I'm inclined to say yes, but the truth is that most of the third season has been stultifyingly boring. BSG these days is closer to Lost than 24 in terms of its ratio of tedium to shocks.

imp:

It's entirely possible that I'm using the term surrealism improperly. I do agree that the show's writers are interested in mysticism and metaphysics, but it's a thread that they drop for months at a time (there was almost no reference to the Cylon religion during most of season 2, for example). Which, in all fairness, is how they treat most of their character and plot arcs.

Dutch46:

Don't hate me, but I actually liked Bear McCreary's version of "All Along the Watchtower". I suppose it's possible that like myself, Ron Moore didn't even know that it was originally a Dylan song until this episode brought all the more musically knowledgeable people out of the woodwork.

All the anonymi:

If you like, you can select the Other option instead of Anonymous - it'll give you the opportunity to enter a name and a link to your website if you have one.

Mark Jones said...

"Anonymous # 1" here...

I agree that Ron Moore's aversion to "technobabble" seems to consist of simply not explaining anything. Yes, it avoids implausible "science" that anyone can poke holes in. But it's not enough to just not explain your bad science.

I don't mind it when they throw around phrases like "spool up the FTL drive" and establish that it takes twenty minutes to do that. That's fine. We don't know--and don't need to know--the how/why of this. That's just how the physics works. That's enough information to understand that they need 20 minutes to escape--and the Cylon fleet is breathing down their necks.

But when they establish that Cylons are physically indistinguishable from humans by any known test (except _maybe_ Baltar's test) AND that Cylons are superhumanly strong, can interface seamlessly with computers, upload their memories/identities wirelessly to the resurrection ship upon death, and so on--that's preposterous. And it always has been. Not explaining it doesn't make it any less silly, though I suppose it does avoid providing additional silliness by trying to justify it.

Of course, that's assuming a rational SF-style story. If he's telling some other kind of story with SF frosting, well, it would have been nice if he'd clued us in a little earlier.

Maddyanne said...

My significant other said he would have enjoyed it more if they'd used Roxy Music's "In Every Dream Home A Heartache."

Foxessa said...

This discussion is interesting and illuminating, since I came to the conclusion that RM doesn't have any coherent idea about what BSG is about way back at the end of Season 2. I will not be coming back to the show, not even when Season 3 s available on dvd.

The problems are many, from writing to producing to directing to editing. And acting too. A lot of trouble comes down to lack of rhythm, which is essential in arc television, and RM doesn't have it.

I invested 2 seasons worth of my time in this show, having been told by many people whose judgment I trust and often share, that BSG is the latest entry into the Great Television that we've been gifted with since around the 1990's in sf and fantasy, starting with Xena

I felt like I was had, so to speak. It began around the entry of the Pegasus, and the unmistakable revelation that no matter what anyone said, the world of BSG, as conceived by writers and directors, was not gender equal.

And then it wasn't even coherent.

I still keep going back to "What If?" What if, when Boomer-Sharon was being assaulted by the Pegasus men, that it was the Galactica women who ran to her rescue?

Constance

Anonymous said...

I attended a theatrical preview of an episode in Los Angeles, with the writing team in attendance.

Looking back, I now interpret the looks on their faces as slightly embarrassed to be before an intense group of fans who actually took their product seriously.

Unless they can get a grip and prove otherwise, it now seems that BG is an accident, and possibly a fraud.

Fred Kiesche said...

I used to be a believer. I pushed the show on non-SF friends, SF friends, bought the pilot, bought the first season, bought both parts of the second season, loaned them out, pushed the show on my former blog.

But the show lost direction after the end of season two. Was it about Iraq? Were the colonials insurgents? Were the Cylons Americans? What was their religion?

No consistent plan, maybe. "Hey, here's a neat idea!", being tossed into the mix, without thought to consequences.

Can the show be saved? I hope so. But, at this point, I have no interest in either buying the third season on DVD or watching the in-between season movie (movies?) or watching the next season on TV.

More time for reading!

cethirien said...

Some good analysis here, and I agree wholeheartedly with the commentary. Sadly, the web is inundated with fanboy dreck that either wants shoot 'em video game -like shows, or have no real interest in the science fiction genre.

I totally agree with this comment: "As for your point about Moore prioritizing character - there's been so little good character work over the season that I'd be very sad to think that was the case."

The characters have not been just vapid and uninteresting, they have been downright obnoxious and pathetic. The love triangles have been nauseating, just as there seems to be no decent human being in the bunch, except for Helo who married a Cylon. The setting is also very sterile and oppressive, without much planet hopping which tends to end in disaster (where are the luxury shore leave planets? instead we get boxing matches to blow off steam.)

This contrasts with Lost which has also drifted quite a bit this season, but remains interesting as there are so many well-developed and instantly likeable characters. The mythos is also holding up despite what people think, although it doesn't have to go so far as to justify BSG's 21st century anglo-american centrism which makes no sense (unless, the cylons are actually enhanced avatars living in some MMORG who are fleeing like their human counterparts from the destruction of their virtual world).

I just hope when the reach Earth at the end of season four, we are all long gone...

Anonymous said...

Really good blog - much thanks. I've just watched the last three episodes of series 3 in quick succession. It's 3.30am and I'm so disappointed, saddened and bewildered I had to come online to find out 'is it me?'. Like when I watched Matrix 2 twice in the cinema - the second time because I wondered whether it was me... I soon realised I'd been betrayed badly by the brothers. It's so disappointing when such an amazing series is so badly let down by its own creators. Babylon 5 had two series of plot shoe-horned into series 4 (well, less than the full series indeed), leaving nowhere to go when the network picked up a fifth series. The 5th series was the equivalent of BSG1980 - a betrayal almost. Same with Matrix 2 and 3. And now with BSG3.

BSG1 was extremely good. 33 was one of the best episodes I've seen - a submarine hunt in space. Fantastic. And the slow plot arc worked okay, not totally boring us with the West-Wing-in-space stuff. And watching Baltar go slowly mad was fun.

Then the end of that series - me a amate watched that and series 2 on computer, and stayed up all night - we couldn't stop. It was fabulous. I just HAD to see the next episode. Including the wonderful Pegasus ones.

Then the 'One year later' thing - huh? what? eh? I felt alienated. And that was all tied up in a couple of episodes. then the cylons vanished. Then nothing ... I can't even remember this series now!!

And then the pain, the pain of Bob Dylan in BSG! oh the gods! And of the final five revelation coming out of nowhere. So, 'huh?' was exactly how it ended.

I so hope they pull it together, because that was an utterly lame series.

K. Bailey said...

So late to make a stupid joke, but... alt title: "LOST in Space".

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