Monday, March 23, 2009

Doomed to Repeat It: Battlestar Galactica, Thoughts at the End

I truly do believe that if Moore and his writers don't find a way to tell a story that mirrors present-day events without being overwhelmed by symbolism, Galactica will flounder. In all forms of writing, story must come first: the characters need to be real, the plot needs to make sense, you can't demand too much suspension of disbelief from your viewers. Place story second to ideology, and you'll soon find yourself with neither.


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.


Oh, God, it's totally going to end in mass suicide, isn't it?

Private e-mail, January 19th, 2009
Battlestar Galactica has been a recurring theme on this blog for three and a half years, nearly its entire existence. Going through my post-episode, mid-season and end of season posts from earliest to latest is like watching my fannish enthusiasm for the series curdle and die in stop motion: from a generally positive if somewhat cautious note, to mounting dismay as the second season unravels in its latter half, to exasperation and disdain during the third season, and finally to a dull rage and grim bemusement as the series draws to a close. I expected as much when I made such a review yesterday evening before starting work on this post, but what startled me was the realization of just how early on in my writing about the show I had expressed my main criticism against it--in my very first essay-length post about Battlestar Galactica, quoted above. Everything I've written about the series since then has been an expansion on, a distillation of, or additional examples supporting, this one single criticism.

So, for me, the important question as I come to make a final (though how many times have I told myself that this one post was going to be the final one?) statement about Battlestar Galactica is not whether it was a good series--it wasn't, not since the middle of its second season at the very latest--and not why it failed--I've gone over that ground too many times, most recently and, I think, most comprehensively just a few weeks ago--but why I kept coming back. Why did I keep watching a show that did nothing but disappoint and infuriate me? Why did I keep writing about it when all I was doing was saying the same thing over and over again in slightly different ways?

Popularity is a big part of the answer. It's doubtful that I would have been as invested in debunking the perception of Galactica as the best science fiction series of the decade, and a smart, well-written show in any genre, if these were not such commonly held and frequently voiced opinions both in and out of genre circles. Rage is another component. You can drop a show that bores and fails to engage you, but it's a lot harder to walk away from a series whose writing infuriates you, and whose every plotting and characterization choice seems calculated to belittle your intelligence. Galactica's mistakes were all driven by the same core flaw, but every time it made one I just got angrier, and when I get angry, the only way I can regain my equilibrium is to write about it. But most of all I kept coming back to Galactica because of fear. Fear that the plaudits and awards and (utterly inexplicable) invitations to speak at the UN had tapped into something true, or rather that they were creating truth simply by being repeated so often: that Galactica is the shape of science fiction television to come.

The general reception of "Daybreak II," and particularly its post-space battle segments, has been negative. People more knowledgeable about these subjects than myself have spoken about the dodginess of its evolutionary history and the plan it charts for Colonial humanity's survival as subsistence farmers, and many have expressed dismay at the show's sudden shift to an anti-science position. As problematic and disappointing as these elements are, they pale, to my mind, beside the fact that in its final episode Galactica once again, to borrow Dan Hartland's phrase, eviscerates itself. From its earliest episodes the show prided itself on being about the messiness of the human condition, about our tendencies toward war, violence, racial and religious strife. After four seasons of this the conclusion the show comes to is not that we should strive to be better, not that we should learn from our mistakes, not even that such betterment is impossible and that these blights are the unfortunate cost of being human, but that we should just walk away from the whole mess. History is rife with examples of man's inhumanity to man? Then end it.

There have been many complaints about the lack of an overarching plan to Galactica's plotting, but "Daybreak II" reveals that its political storytelling was just as haphazard. After so much time spent on tortured real-world analogies, so much of what made the show worthwhile sacrificed so that its writers could pat themselves on the back for asking the 'tough questions,' it turns out that the only answer they could come up with is one that even the most pretentious undergraduate would find painfully dumb. Don't learn from your mistakes, and don't repeat them either. Don't face up to the crimes and guilt in your past, and don't deny them. Don't forgive your enemies, and don't continue to make war on them. Don't come up with new ways to govern, and new ways to subvert those governments. Just forget. Forget about cities. Forget about communities. Forget about recording history for future generations. Forget the quest for knowledge. Forget about learning to understand your surroundings. Forget everything that makes us more than mere animals. We all made a big mistake coming down from the trees in the first place.

In a way, this is mass suicide. Not only of individuals, few of whom will survive long in small, isolated groups without the medical, agricultural, and industrial tools that the show so blithely dismisses as 'creature comforts' (one wonders whether the writers realize what they're implying when they say that the unearthed body of Hera is that of a young girl--that Hera not only died young but had children young, the latter possibly causing the former) but of Colonial civilization itself. Its history, culture, art and science lost forever, willfully and deliberately destroyed by its last few survivors. There's something almost laughable about the scene in which Adama decides to name the Colonials' new home Earth--as if it matters what these people call their planet when every hint that they ever walked upon it is going to be lost forever. By taking the fleet to Earth, Kara Thrace is the harbinger of Colonial humanity's doom, but it is her fellow Colonials, led by Lee Adama, who with Stepfordian gladness finish the job the Cylons started.

I might almost have respected the show if its writers had faced head on the implications of the ending they'd written, but with typical Galactican cowardliness they try to sugarcoat it. They pretend that a genetic legacy is the same thing or even better than a cultural one--because we all feel a deep personal bond to our great-to-the-nth-power-grandparents, but absolutely no connection to the people who shaped our national, ethnic, and religious identities--and decide that by some magical process Colonial society manages to shape modern American society in its image despite having been wiped away entirely--in the process all but saying that American civilization is the truest, most ancient civilization on the planet. Of course, these are the same people who have concluded their story by telling us, of every major question, coincidence, and plot twist, that God did it, but are so terrified of the religiosity of the resulting story that they desperately shoehorn in an escape clause at the last minute by suggesting that it's not God pulling the characters' strings, but a god-like alien.

Far worse to my mind than Galactica's ending being anti-science is the fact that it is anti-science fiction. Science fiction is the literature of change. It's about imagining the future--which things get better, which get worse, which stay the same; what new systems we come up with to live our lives, and how they fail under the weight of the same basic human flaws. Far from imagining it, with its final episode Battlestar Galactica has shown itself to be a series about ending the future. Everything that's happened in its four seasons, everything its characters have experienced, seen, or done, has been calculated to bring them to a point where they take their future apart, leaving nothing behind but their genetic code. And all this is so that we can arrive, not at an analogy or at an allegory of it, but at the actual, real-world present day and say 'we don't know what happens next.' Well, of course we don't, but that's just what science fiction is for--to say 'what if?' and then imagine the answer. And that is just what Battlestar Galactica has been desperately opposed to doing almost from day one.

What bothers me about this is less that Galactica itself isn't science fiction--I came to that conclusion at the end of the third season--but that there are still plenty of people who can't tell the difference between its stasis-oriented brand of pseudo-SF and the real thing. More importantly, it worries me that there are people, in and out of genre, who think that Battlestar Galactica represents a model of what science fiction television should be like--allegorical, present-oriented, cowardly and unimaginative. For better and mostly for worst, Galactica has been the dominant genre show of the last half-decade, and it has inspired and will continue to inspire other creators. Kings is very obviously taking its cues from Galactica when it neglects its worldbuilding and comes up with an imaginary world that doesn't suit its premise. Judging from its teaser trailer, the upcoming Stargate: Universe is desperately trying to ape the show's dark visuals and emotional tone (not to worry: the Stargate: Atlantis pilot was similarly a departure from its parent show, and that series bounced back to the SG-1 template before the first season was half over). When even Joss Whedon, a man who's forgotten more about good worldbuilding than the entire Galactica writing room ever knew, is reported to have said that "he aspires to make television like [Galactica]" you know there's trouble ahead.

I've been contemplating what I'd write about Battlestar Galactica's final episodes for weeks, wondering how best to sum up my feelings about it and its ending. For a while, I was toying with the idea of leading with a joke about our long national nightmare being over, but now I'm wondering, what if it isn't? I'm OK with Galactica itself ending badly, and not even a grand, bombastic bad but a dumb bad that hardly anyone can find it in their hearts to defend, because that's the kind of show it was--lots of buildup, very little payoff; lots of self-aggrandizement, very little justification; lots of talk, very little substance.  But that's because up until now I'd been assuming that the show would end and that would be that. We'd get The Plan (the title and concept of which never fail to make me laugh) and however many episodes Caprica managed to last (all the soapy allegory of Galactica, none of the space battles--I'm guessing not many), and that would be it for this universe on our screens. But what if the series and its failings have an afterlife? What if the next big thing, the next genre series to dominate the television landscape, isn't another Buffy, or Farscape, or Deep Space Nine, but another Battlestar Galactica, because that's what people--creators, producers, critics, even some of the fans--want?

Galactica's writers can so cavalierly imagine the end of Colonial history, and paint that ending as a happy one, because that history was never real to them in the first place. In that sense, they're like the mainstream writers who write post-apocalyptic SF novels because it's so much easier to end the world than imagine it different. For all its SFnal pedigree, Galactica is the television equivalent of these novels--a science fiction series desperately striving to get away from everything that makes science fiction special and fun (and unlike at least some of these novels, it doesn't compensate for its shoddy worldbuilding in any way--beautiful writing, compelling character arcs, coherent plots). I'm terrified that there are writers out there who have learned all the wrong lessons from the protracted catastrophe that was Battlestar Galactica's rise and fall, and that in a few years' time all of this will have happened again: the cautious optimism, the dismay, the exasperation, the dull rage. Which, I suppose, is my reason for coming back to this show even though all I can do is say the same thing over and over again. Because I'm baffled, and angry, and worried, and the only thing I can do to exercise what miniscule amount of power I have to affect what gets produced for our screens and what the reaction to it is is to keep hammering in the same point: this is not science fiction. This is not good television. We deserve better.

51 comments:

refname1 said...

I'm an RSS subscriber here because I was looking for some talk about Galactica many years ago (I think at the point in season two where it became obvious something was wrong) and now enjoy your blog for more complete reasons.

I've had a parallel experience of the show to yours, and at this point I'm "critically horrified" that I once liked the show, that I helped let this thing into the house.

John said...

Thanks for another superb piece on Galactica. I briefly expressed my disappointment about the finale on my blog, though not nearly as well as you have done.

I am not worried, though, that the future of genre TV will look like Galactica. I don't think the show would have survived if it had started out as badly as it ended. I liked the show so much at the beginning that I kept coming back in some vain hope it would get better (and, to be honest, I loved the space battles).

If any show starts out in imitation of the last few seasons of BSG it will be short for this world. Galactica survived because of it's historic place in the genre(the original series), it's great first season, and it special effects.

John (www.abovethestore.blogspot.com)

Andrew Stevens said...

I stopped watching at the beginning of the third season when I realized they had no idea what they were doing. But then the show didn't make me angry; it just bored me. "33" was such a good episode that it kept me watching for two seasons, but it never gave me another reason to come back and I eventually decided it was never going to. I am astonished at the Whedon quote; that is truly frightening.

Scotoma said...

I don't really have a discriminating taste when it comes to TV shows, but after the second season I stopped watching, never looking back. But I must admit the rage off all those who forced themselves to watch on was kinda amusing. But I don't think that the fear that a show can set a stupid template is completely unfounded, just look at Anime and the influence Neon Genesis Evangelion hat, despite being equally shit science fiction.

Athena Andreadis said...

I'm with you. The more BSG went on, the worse it got -- on every level: literary, aesthetic, scientific, cultural. Its contempt for the intelligence of its viewers was simply unbelievable. They actually broadcast the fact that they were making it up as they went.

You covered most of the issues eloquently and passionately. I will probably add some observations to yours as soon as I get past several looming deadlines.

Matt said...

BSG has come a long way. The theme of the miniseries was "You can't hide from the things you've done" and the ending apparently resulted in exactly that. I should have known it would end in tears when the first season changed the theme to "All of this has happened before and all of this will happen again". That's a quote from Peter Pan, used there about growing up. By turning this theme toward human society as a whole, BSG recalls not Peter Pan but Ecclesiastes. In that book, the refrain that there is nothing new under the sun is one of near despair, so I've never understood why BSG characters (and writers?) seem to find it comforting.

Jakob Schmidt said...

Now I'm depressed ...
I haven't watched any of the last batch of episodes yet, but it seems that my worst fears about the show have come true. I was still hoping that somehow, they would turn it around.

Foxessa said...

Considering how precious our time is, reading you on BS-G is about all the time this person at least, is willing to expend on a show that proved itself without redemption so early on.

It is worse than disappointing that it got United Nations time. It's frightening that this is what people who help decide futures feel is worth wasting time on.

The end of history indeed.

Love, c.

Therem said...

For a change, I completely agree with your criticisms of the finale, Abigail. I found almost everything after the arrival at the new Earth to be either stupid, anticlimactic, or offensive.

Is that a harbinger of things to come? Well... Your take on the show has often struck me as essentialist, meaning that you think there is a central theme or core of the show that can be figured out, and once it is, the mystery of what is "really going on" will be revealed.

You obviously think you have it figured out, and you hate it. Fair enough. But what you consider to be the essence of BSG is not necessarily what other people see. In this case, a more subjective approach, like Reader-Response Criticism, might actually be reassuring to you. Briefly, this theoretical model says that there is no objective meaning in a text (or TV show), there is only the relationship between the text and the reader, and meaning is created every time that connection is made. To be useful as a theory, it seems to me that there have to be limits to what can be viewed as a reasonable interpretation of any one text, but that leaves a lot of room for different takes on the material.

As a reader/viewer, what I see as being most distinctive about BSG is its "you are there" filmic realism, its generally fine acting, and its willingness to engage controversial political and moral questions without resorting to the distancing tactics that most genre TV uses. In my view, SF TV could use a lot more of all those things.

What I really don't like, and what was stuck like a fake, candy-colored maraschino cherry on top of the whole show by its ending, is the intentionally vague mystical crap about a God or Gods running things behind the scenes. I really wish Moore et al. had not done that, but the fact that it all ended stupidly doesn't invalidate everything I liked previously. It just means the ending (and earlier instances of mystical mumbo jumbo) sucked. Given that a lot of other viewers and critics didn't like it either, I don't think it's very likely to be emulated. So, no worries. Maybe that makes me a Pollyanna. I guess time will tell.

Andrew Stevens said...

Briefly, this theoretical model says that there is no objective meaning in a text (or TV show), there is only the relationship between the text and the reader, and meaning is created every time that connection is made. To be useful as a theory, it seems to me that there have to be limits to what can be viewed as a reasonable interpretation of any one text, but that leaves a lot of room for different takes on the material.

The second sentence is sensible and clearly right. Unfortunately, it contradicts the previous sentence which is certainly unsound in theory as well as false in fact.

The reasoning behind the whole "there is no objective meaning" argument is just yet another variation on the Worst Argument in the World, which goes like this:

We can know things only

-as they are related to us

-under our forms of perception and understanding

-insofar as they fall under our conceptual schemes

-etc.

Therefore, we cannot know things as they are in themselves.

This argument is called the Worst Argument in the World, not merely because it is a bad argument, but because it is so commonly accepted by ordinary people and top thinkers alike. It underpins a great many theories, from classical idealism to various relativisms in the philosophy of language, the philosophy of science, ethics, literary criticism, and many more. It was particularly powerful in academia in the late '60s, throughout the '70s, and into the '80s although it has now fallen out of fashion in most corners of the academy (literary criticism, perhaps, aside), but it's even more popular outside of the academy now.

The argument for this particular Worst Argument basically goes, "We cannot read a text without interpreting it. Therefore we cannot read the text-in-itself." So the text has no objective meaning since it can't be read without interpretation.

I have, so far, assumed that the invalidity of the argument is obvious. That's because it is obvious. The conclusion simply doesn't follow from the premises. It argues from a tautology - that nothing can be interpreted without being interpreted and then goes on to conclude that therefore there must be nothing to interpret or, at least, no possible right or wrong interpretations.

It is natural to think: "All right, the argument as it stands is wrong, but surely there is something in it. If we interpret things only from our perspective, through the filter of our cultural experience, and so on, is there not some problem about how to get out (and see what the objective meaning of the text really is)?" That may be so. But what makes the `Worst argument’ worst is not that it raises a question about how to get out, but that it claims immediately that there is no way to get out. And this conclusion is indefensible. If it were true and there really was no way out, it would be all but impossible to communicate at all. It would be an incredible coincidence if you just happened to interpret my words (which have no objective meaning) in exactly the way that I intended them to mean and do this often enough that we can actually carry on a conversation. And yet we see these miracles far more often than we see misunderstandings.

Properly speaking, by the way, I don't think most proponents of Reader-response criticism would necessarily agree with the statement that a text has no objective meaning. Wolfgang Iser might genuinely have had an interesting case to make. He didn't argue that a text has no objective meaning, precisely. He seemed to argue that what was interesting about a text was a sort of dialog with its reader. It's a pity that so many literary critics came to believe that Iser had been eviscerated by Stanley Fish's "Why No One's Afraid of Wolfgang Iser" and followed the lunatic Fish instead (who did argue that a text has no objective meaning).

In any event, you don't need literary criticism to disagree with Ms. Nussbaum. Galactica does possess "you are there" filmic realism, its acting generally was pretty good, and, while I don't think it ever did a very good job of engaging with controversial political and moral issues (in the couple of seasons I saw), you're certainly correct that it engaged them. If that's enough for you to like it, then that's enough for you to like it.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Therem:

you think there is a central theme or core of the show that can be figured out, and once it is, the mystery of what is "really going on" will be revealed

I'd say that's a backwards way of looking at it. Your assumption seems to be that I first identified the post-9/11 allegory aspect of the show, then went about pointing out ways in which that aspect was causing it to fail. In reality, the process was the other way around - I started noticing ways in which the show was failing, on the level of plotting, characterization, worldbuilding, and eventually political storytelling, and came up with a theory that these failings were all because of the post-9/11 allegory aspect of the show. If I stop assuming that this was the writers' intention (or decide that such an intention is meaningless and I can read the show however I like, which I don't feel inclined to do) that still won't make Galactica a good or successful piece of storytelling.

Anonymous said...

What's the most sad is that BSG wouldn't have needed a massive amount of tweaking to be brilliant. In fact it was, I still feel the first 1.5 seasons were some of the best TV ever made. It had excellent acting, engaging (at least initially) characters and a great setup and premise that showed a lot of promise. The plot even started off well - run away from the cylons really fast and keep the fleet from destroying itself at the same time.

But that wouldn't be enough forever, and they decided to bring in weird shit that made no sense, heavy-handed and preachy allegory, and contempt for the basic characterisations and themes that made it good in the first place. They had no idea where they were going with it, and changed their minds a bunch of times and hoped everyone wouldn't notice. So, the result is a mess.

I only managed to watch it all the way to the end and enjoy it by viewing episodes in isolation, and ignoring the wider themes and plots they were messing up. I'll never rewatch most of the series for this reason, aside from skipping to the space battles.

It really didn't have to be this way.

-Nic

Therem said...

Abigail: If I stop assuming that [the post-9/11 allegory aspect of the show] was the writers' intention (or decide that such an intention is meaningless and I can read the show however I like, which I don't feel inclined to do) that still won't make Galactica a good or successful piece of storytelling.

Obviously no one is ever going to convince you at this point that BSG is good or successful; nevertheless, it doesn't seem inconceivable that you might admit that different people can react in very different ways to a work of art. Your horror at the prospect of a string of BSG clones seems predicated on the assumption that people will mimic the things you didn't like about the show. But what if those things are not what they liked about it? Or they thought BSG was ambitious but fell short, and now they want to make something better? It's not as if all of it necessarily goes together as a package. As Nic said, it didn't have to be this way, and any writers or producers worth their salt know that.

Andrew: This argument is called the Worst Argument in the World ...

Oh stop, your brilliance is blinding me!

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Obviously if I'm concerned about something and it doesn't happen then I'll be relieved, but it doesn't follow that my concern in unwarranted. Already Kings is following in Galactica's path of non-worldbuilding, and enough of the reactions to the series over the last six years have boiled down to 'real science fiction doesn't need a coherent internal universe' or 'real science fiction is about thinly-disguised present-day issues' that I don't think it's entirely crazy to suspect that other series will choose to emulate it in these, and not its other, less objectionable, respects.

Jakob Schmidt said...

@Therem:
I can understand that you seem slightly miffed by Andrews assertion that your argument is "the worst in the world". But I would just like to point out that your first post in this thread sounded rather patronizing, presenting a watered down version of reader-response-theory as if you'd expect that no one here except you has ever heard of this brilliant new approach. That might explain Andrews harsh response.
I was in fact in the process of typing a harsh response myself, but deletet it when I saw Andrew's.
Now, i don't want to discuss reader response criticism here, I'd just like so say that I think that it shouldn't be used to dismiss any critical verdict on a given text. That's just arbitrary. The fact that there are things to like about BSG disproves in no way the validity of Abigail's criticism.

Therem said...

Abigail: Already Kings is following in Galactica's path of non-worldbuilding, and enough of the reactions to the series over the last six years have boiled down to 'real science fiction doesn't need a coherent internal universe' or 'real science fiction is about thinly-disguised present-day issues' that I don't think it's entirely crazy to suspect that other series will choose to emulate it in these, and not its other, less objectionable, respects.

I really don't think you are "entirely crazy" for being worried, and I hope my comments haven't implied that. What I do think is that you are misreading the critical and artistic response to BSG, which I feel I know something about because I read a lot of entertainment news and reviews and internet discussion sites about genre TV. I have never seen an argument for the show's quality that "boiled down to 'real science fiction doesn't need a coherent internal universe' or 'real science fiction is about thinly-disguised present-day issues'." I'm curious whose reactions you are talking about here.

Even if people were saying those things, I wouldn't find it so worrisome when SF TV in general is terrible to begin with! I think a big reason people reacted so favorably to BSG is that unlike many other SF shows, it wasn't kitschy or stiff or poorly produced or badly acted. When you've been eating pablum for years and you're served macaroni and cheese, it might seem like food of the gods... for a while.

Another factor in BSG's critical acceptance is that it didn't seem like traditional science fiction to the more mainstream viewers who didn't understand the potential of the genre. This strikes me as being like the mainstreaming problem with written SF like The Road or Never Let Me Go. People on Oprah's Book Club might like them, but a lot of real genre fans don't think they're very good SF. So is it a good thing that they're being written and consumed en masse by people who don't know better? A tough question.

I have a concern of my own about BSG's influence on the genre. The show made a big deal out of "moral grayness", making seemingly every character, no matter how upstanding or heroic in general, do something reprehensible to make them seem more complicated. I remember fans on Television Without Pity hating on Helo because he was the one character who seemed undeniably Good... like it was a crime against storytelling or something. I don't think it was BSG that started this trend, but it certainly helped push it into the SF world. Ugh.

Jakob: I would just like to point out that your first post in this thread sounded rather patronizing

Sorry about that. I didn't think everyone here was ignorant of Reader-Response Criticism, but I thought a brief explanation was warranted for those who had never heard of it and weren't interested in clicking on a link.

And I am not trying to dismiss Abigail's verdict or anyone else's. I am trying to say that people who don't agree with that verdict have valid opinions as well, and that they can enrich the discussion of the show.

Andrew Stevens said...

For what it's worth (and we can debate how important authorial intent is), it was not my intent to be particularly scathing. Bishop Berkeley, from whom the entire argument springs, really was brilliant. Berkeley's idealism proceeds from the tautology that nothing can be thought of without being thought of to conclude that nothing can exist without being thought of, so nothing but minds exist. This argument was thought to be sufficiently forceful that almost the whole of nineteenth century philosophy, including a great many brilliant philosophers, was obsessed with idealism. Even those people who disagreed with it carried on the argument on the idealists' terms. It is not the intent of the labeling to denigrate the people who buy or bought the argument. It is labeled the "Worst Argument in the World" in large part because it has been endorsed by so many philosophers, including many great ones. There are far worse arguments, of course, like "Dogs have four legs. My cat has four legs. Therefore, my cat is a dog." But very few philosophers endorse them.

To the extent that I reacted poorly to Therem's comment, it was because she seemed to be arguing that there is no right or wrong way to judge the merit of a text, while simultaneously appearing to claim that Ms. Nussbaum's way was wrong (because, in Therem's opinion, Ms. Nussbaum wasn't aware that there is no right or wrong way to judge the merit of a text). And this particular inconsistency does rub me the wrong way. Now that I reread Therem's comment in light of her later comments on the critical reaction at large, I'm not convinced that I was judging fairly. I think all Therem intended to say was that the show is popular in spite of the things Ms. Nussbaum disliked about it, not because of them.

It was, however, never my intent to hurt anybody's feelings and I do apologize if I inadvertently did so. I often forget how many people take attacks on their arguments as attacks on themselves. When I do that, I'm not judging anybody's intelligence or rigor and I'm certainly not judging anybody's character or moral worth.

Kit said...

I have a concern of my own about BSG's influence on the genre. The show made a big deal out of "moral grayness", making seemingly every character, no matter how upstanding or heroic in general, do something reprehensible to make them seem more complicated.

I'm starting to wonder if a bleak, morally grey universe is something American SciFi TV is simply incapable of doing well.

Japanese anime is famously good at this, and when the British try it, they're usually successful- for instance, Blake's 7 worked quite well (or to be completely fair, failed on the level of budget and acting rather than on the level of worldbuilding and characterization).

But when American shows try it they tend to make the entire cast completely unlikable. Clair shows like DS9 and Farscape can pull off moral ambiguity without losing themselves, but shows that are trying to be dark seem to flounder around in it for a while and then drown.

Kyle said...

My wife asked me, “So? How was it?” to which I didn’t even think, just reacted. “Had I known when the series started, what the last five minutes were, I wouldn’t have wasted my time.”

And that’s exactly how I feel. What a waste. Things were going so well, until “Kara Thrace has a destiny,” which is what kicked all of the shit off. It was bad enough that Cylons believed in a god, but we’re now lead to believe that god isn’t even that, just some sort of possible alien thing that is omniscient. Or something. “It.” Ahhhh!

When it all started, I loved it. I watched each and every episode two or three times, especially when the commentary ended up online. But as the show progressed, I saw that the writers were lost in their own sense of self importance. If Battlestar Galactica was “the best show on television” as it had been advertised many times, then it had to speak to “big” and “great” themes. Themes that amount to nothing in real life, and even less in the show itself. Instead of focusing on the important elements, survival in the face of a faceless enemy, against impossible odds, against man’s own inhumanity to his own brother, political and personal infighting, human agendas that don’t mesh with the “greater good” of all…basically all the great human stuff that the world is going through today…all that tossed aside for some moronic notion of god, or gods, and destinyies that didn’t even live up to their fictional build up.

Kara Thrace will lead all humanity to its doom. Did they mean to Earth 1? Probably. Not really very clever. Then she’s an angel, and leads humanity to Earth 2, which is our Earth. That they gave up every bit of technology to rough it with the natives pretty much doomed them no matter what Ron Moore and his silly Hera is the Mitochondrial mother of us all, etc. More proof that people in television and film should hire real experts to do their research for them. Don’t get me started on the whole DNA/Synthetic DNA incompatibility. That was stupid from the beginning too.

Adama dies alone on a hill. Lee, who knows, who cares. Tyrol can’t stand people so he goes off alone too. I guarantee they were dead within a few years anyway, 10 tops.

So in the end it was the end for them all, and for us (at least me) the most unsatisfying of conclusions. At the end I shook my head and said, “That’s it? That’s all?” Maybe it will be better if I watch the entire series from beginning to end, without all 9 month gaps, but I doubt it. Because in the end, there was still the last five minutes, which capped off the hour long shitfest that preceded it.

Pity Zarak didn’t win his coup. It would have been a better show.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Therem:

I have never seen an argument for the show's quality that "boiled down to 'real science fiction doesn't need a coherent internal universe' or 'real science fiction is about thinly-disguised present-day issues'." I'm curious whose reactions you are talking about here.

I haven't really got the time to track down articles and blog posts (though the latter point is, I think, quite well documented), but I'll remind you that when Galactica premiered a lot of people, genre fans included, were praising it for getting rid of technobabble, and every time you'd complain about human-form Cylons who can interact directly with fiberoptic cable and also have babies with humans, someone would come along to say 'well, you just want technobabble!' Similarly, you got people praising the show for having no latex-on-their-faces aliens, but what that ended up meaning was that the show's universe was just America in space. The same attributes for which Galactica was being praised so heavily at its beginning, and sometimes all the way to its end, are the attributes that made it bad SF.

I also disagree with your assertion that all SF TV is crap, or at least I think that you're invoking Sturgeon's Law. I don't think there was any shortage of kitsch or stiff acting on the show towards the end.

Most importantly, I'm wondering what you think TV producers will choose to emulate about Galactica if they don't emulate the ways in which it was bad SF. What else did it do that no one else had done before? It seems to me that either Galactica will have no effect on the SF TV landscape, or it'll have a bad one.

ad said...

Abigail, if you don't think the show ever did anything worth emulating, why did you like it in the first place?

It seems that everyone who damns the show liked it to start with...

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I think I've said in the past that in order to be worthwhile, a narrative work has to be either original or well done. In its early seasons, Galactica was both. It succeeded on the basic level of good storytelling and strong characterization, and seemed to offer a new tool for the SF toolbox in the form of its naturalistic dialogue and settings and its visual sensibility (though this was heavily influenced by Firefly and Space: Above and Beyond). At the beginning, I was as excited as everyone else at what looked like a new way to tell a science fiction story.

Then two things happened: the writing went to pot, and the naturalistic style turned out to be an extension of the writers' complete disinterest in telling an SFnal story.

I'd love it if a new series came along that featured the same strong writing as Galactica did in its early seasons, but I'm not sure how fair it would be to say that such a series was emulating Galactica, since Moore hardly has the patent on good writing. And if a series emulates Galactica's original aspects, chances are it'll do so in order to fail in just the ways Galactica did. Maybe I'm wrong, and maybe a writer will come along who will use naturalistic tools to tell a proper SFnal story, but if what I'm seeing so far is any indication that's still a ways off.

stu willis said...

Personally, I think Battlestar Galactica managed to be more than the sum of its parts. It was engaging, and I admired its bravery - even though it fell short, so often. Thats why I continued watching it.

The question I'm interested in is: if its such a terrible show, why did it become and remain popular?

I'm not being trite. I don't believe that popularity is equivocal to quality. However, its always an interesting approach to work out why a show tapped into a degree of public consciousness.

Andrew Stevens said...

The best rating Galactica ever got was a 2.6 for its first couple of episodes. By the end of its run, it was routinely getting less than half that. You know what gets better ratings than Galactica's best showing on cable every single week? WWE Raw. You know what else does? Spongebob Squarepants.

Just to put Galactica's popularity in some perspective.

stu willis said...

Ratings are problematic though, especially given the audience for Battlestar are going to be very happy to Torrent. A lot.

Andrew Stevens said...

True, but it's still mostly popular among SF fans and doesn't seem to have much of a following outside. Even if you add up all the people recording and torrenting, you're only going to get it up to the level of a network show which would have been cancelled years ago. It got acceptable ratings for the Sci Fi Channel, certainly, but it's not Star Trek or The X-Files or even Lost or Heroes. As far as I can tell, it has hardly any mainstream appeal.

Within the SF community, it's popular, but I don't think it was anywhere near as popular as Buffy (which also never got good ratings, but got similar critical acclaim) or even Babylon 5. It may have started out more promising than either of them, but it lost steam while those two gained it.

I'd say that it's the most popular current SF show and this is why it's apparently so popular, but even that isn't true since Doctor Who dwarfs it in popularity (worldwide).

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I think you're underestimating the magnitude of mainstream critical enthusiasm for the series, Andrew, which was quite vast for any television show, and utterly unprecedented for a genre series. Yes, by the time it was over, Buffy had gained mainstream acclaim, and Lost, 24, and Heroes have done the same, but all of them were or are treated like fluff and entertainment. Galactica has been treated like a serious work and an important political statement. The mainstream reaction to it has been, if not quite on par with that enjoyed by The Sopranos and its ilk, then certainly not very far from it. It got written up in the New Yorker and received a Peabody award. It's true that the ratings were never great, but critical acclaim more than makes up for that.

You're probably right that Galactica's importance was artificially inflated by it being, for the last few years, the only game in town as far as space-set science fiction shows are concerned (unless you want to count the various Stargates, which seriously, who would). But that doesn't change the fact that it looms large in the hearts and minds of science fiction fans and writes, so I think it's likely that it'll strongly affect future science fiction series.

Andrew Stevens said...

Oh, sure, I'm not disagreeing that it got a lot of critical acclaim and I'm not even disagreeing with the thesis that Galactica may have quite an influence on things to come. I'm just disputing whether it's actually popular with anyone except critics and a fairly small (in television terms) cult following. However, mine is an American perspective. I understand that Galactica does pretty well worldwide. If it does significantly better overseas than it does here, then my entire thesis could be wrong. (E.g. Baywatch, which was never popular in the U.S. but ended up being the most widely watched show of all time worldwide.)

stu willis said...

(spoiler alert)

Rather amusingly, one could chose to read the ending of BSG as a comment on the nature of TV production (or even religion) - and how it endlessly recycles ideas, trying to get it right.

It almost says 'hey, somebody else, come along and remake battlestar and see if YOU can break the cycle of audience violence'.

danhartland said...

I lift my glass to you one more time for sticking it, Abigail - particularly as there was never any other way the show could end. By the start of season three it was so patently obvious that the writers had no answers to their own questions that some awful reset ending was their only option: resolution is only possible with understanding.

I confess to being tempted to watch the finale, just to see the trainwreck. But I've always hated rubberneckers...

Therem said...

Abigail: I also disagree with your assertion that all SF TV is crap, or at least I think that you're invoking Sturgeon's Law.Yes, I was. It may not be 99% of SF TV (there just haven't been that many SF shows), but I would say a good 80% is crap.

I don't think there was any shortage of kitsch or stiff acting on the show towards the end.You and I must have very different ideas of what constitutes kitsch. IMO, ten minutes of any Stargate episode contains more kitsch than an entire season of Battlestar.

Most importantly, I'm wondering what you think TV producers will choose to emulate about Galactica if they don't emulate the ways in which it was bad SF. What else did it do that no one else had done before?I've been thinking about this for a good three weeks, which is why I am only replying now. It's a complicated question, but I think BSG's greatest influence going forward will be its lived-in, naturalistic style. Many things had to fit together to make this style work. The "shaky-cam" cinematic technique, the depiction of the mundane (BSG may have had more scenes shot in bathrooms than all other sf shows combined), the fine yet unpretentious acting, the lack of technobabble or heroic characters or obvious make-up on most of the stars. When all of it came together well, the show achieved real artistic heights unmatched by any other genre series. When it didn't... it could be really crappy. IMO, the season 3 cylon baseship story was quite poor, and that was largely because it abandoned the naturalistic style for a more abstract one that the producers didn't know how to pull off.

The show broke ground in other ways as well. These are what I see as most important.

Music: The score in movies and television is usually just filler and/or mood manipulation, but in BSG it became a thematic and plot device. Sometimes it went over the top in this way (the "bagpipes in space" and infamous "All Along the Watchtower" remake are two that come immediately to mind), but I usually found it to be very effective and interesting in its own right. Bear McCreary, the show's composer, has published extensive notes about the scores he produced for the show on his blog. I had no idea how much effort he put into differentiating musical cues for individual characters and relationships. When I rewatch the show, I look forward to listening for them.

Process Updates: Various shows have produced "webisodes" and other online content while airing, but none has provided as much detailed information about the production process as BSG. David Eick's video blog on the Battlestar web site was often amusing, but the real meat was in Ronald Moore's podcasts, which often appeared simultaneously with the episodes they commented on, and provided a treasure trove of behind-the-scenes info about casting, script-writing, filming, etc. The info could occasionally be alarming, (some of the major developments in the show were quite random), but I appreciated Moore's candor and his willingness to admit when mistakes had been made. Future SF producers and writers could learn a lot from this material.

Recurring characters: Most other sf shows have an easily disposable series of bit players (i.e. Star Trek's "redshirts") who appear for one episode only to be killed. BSG took a different approach, keeping a large stable of recurring characters, some of whom lasted for a good while and could be very effectively used in small roles. The result was a sense of continuity, a sort of "thickening of the soup", that I found very appealing. I would be surprised if other sf shows did not follow suit, as there is really no downside to this approach financially or in terms of story.

Acting talent: Major league actors have been flocking to TV for a while now, but BSG was the first genre show to benefit from the trend. The producers really seemed to get the value of good acting in a way few other creative groups in the genre have. They showed that SF TV does not have to be hack work, that serious mainstream actors can tackle challenging material in the genre and be recognized for it. I look forward to more of this going forward. (I have a hard time believing Robert Carlyle would have signed on to Stargate Universe without the precedent of BSG.)

Commentary on current events: One of the more controversial elements of the show. Some thought it brilliant (at least occasionally), others thought it pretentious, wishy-washy, and/or insulting. There's no question it got people talking and involved, though, so I think we'll be seeing more of it.

What will be done well rather than badly going forward? I don't know. Artistic influence is a tricky thing. A lot of people (including me) found it hard to believe that a show based on the original Battlestar Galactica would be worth watching in any way. To say I was surprised is an understatement. At the very least, Moore's BSG proved to me that I can't make accurate predictions about quality from a list of ingredients. The proof is always in the pudding.

Therem said...

One more thing: you seem to be saying that there is a "slippery slope" between naturalistic style and shoddy world building. Unless you can explain why one would necessarily lead to the other, this seems like a logical fallacy.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

You're right about BSG's visual sensibility, though as I've said above the show didn't pioneer the 'found footage' style - that was mainly Firefly, and in fact if I'm not mistaken the two shows shared an effects house - so much as it perfected it.

Musically, the show had its ups and downs - I liked "All Along the Watchtower," but McCreary's style, even sans bagpipes, was often overbearing (though I like his work on Sarah Connor). I'm not sure, however, that I'd call this an innovation of BSG's. Obviously, in mainstream television, dominant music and recognizable character themes are relatively common devices, but even within genre there are plenty of shows that utilized them before BSG came along - all of the Whedon shows, Doctor Who, and most especially The X-Files. Once again, I think this is more a case of the show taking a trope and turning it up to eleven rather than coming up with it, and as you yourself say this was not always a good thing.

I'd guess that the producers' transparency had more to do with the Sci Fi Channel's policies and their desire to create additional revenue streams than the show itself, though obviously the BSG production staff's showed a great willingness to interact with fans. I'm not that fussed, at any rate - the Resistance webisodes were utterly forgettable, and I didn't bother with latest webisode series (at least partly in protest over the half-heartedness of dumping the acknowledgment of Gaeta's homosexuality there). More importantly, what little enjoyment I was able to wring out of BSG towards the end was usually stomped to the ground by any exposure to Moore's thoughts on the show.

I could not disagree more about recurring characters. For one thing, BSG wasn't very good on this score. Its extended cast never went beyond the low double digits, with very little representation of certain portions of the fleet, such as the civilian population, and many under-explored characters. Meanwhile, Buffy and Deep Space Nine each had recurring casts in the low thirties, and both spent a great deal more time and effort developing secondary and tertiary characters and through them, the shows' universes.

It's true, there are few shows in any genre that can boast two Oscar nominees in their casts, though Patrick Stewart was in the Royal Shakespeare Company before playing Captain Picard. Still, I think Olmos and McDonnel's presence on the show is part of a long and honored tradition of once-successful movie actors slumming on TV, of which Carlyle is but the latest example - after playing a cartoonish villain in The World is Not Enough and Eragon, I think Stargate: Universe is pretty much his level.

You know, I think, exactly how I feel about BSG's commentary on current events, and indeed it's in this respect in particular, and the ham-handed way in which it was handled, that I fear future science fiction series will emulate it.

you seem to be saying that there is a "slippery slope" between naturalistic style and shoddy world buildingNo, my point is that a naturalistic style can be an indicator of shoddy worldbuilding and of the writers' inattention to their story's SFnal components, as it was in BSG's case if any of us had cared to notice.

Therem said...

Abigail: You're right about BSG's visual sensibility, though as I've said above the show didn't pioneer the 'found footage' style - that was mainly Firefly, and in fact if I'm not mistaken the two shows shared an effects house - so much as it perfected it.

You're right that the special effects house (Zoic) was the same for both shows, and the SFX were similar for that reason. However, I was referring to the live action cinematography, not the CGI. Firefly and BSG were very different in this respect.

I'd guess that the producers' transparency had more to do with the Sci Fi Channel's policies and their desire to create additional revenue streams than the show itself

Except that the podcasts and video blogs were made available for free. I understand that you don't think there was much value in this material; I and many other people do, so I think it is fair to say that it has been influential in this way.

I could not disagree more about recurring characters. For one thing, BSG wasn't very good on this score. Its extended cast never went beyond the low double digits

Huh? Then who are these people?

Here are some examples of what I mean when I say the shows used these characters well. 1) The death of Socinus early in season 2 would not have been as affecting if we hadn't seen him making moonshine and joking around with Cally and Jammer throughout season 1. 2) In the following episode, Crashdown completely loses it as commander and is eventually shot by Baltar. If we hadn't been familiar with him from previous episodes, this storyline would have been a lot less involving and brutal. 3) The same is true of Jammer's death in the season 3 episode "Collaborators".

I could go on. No other show I can think of has made similar use of minor characters across multiple seasons. It's true that most of them didn't get developed as whole people, but that is because they were minor characters. They were developed enough for me to care about them and notice when they returned, which is more than I can say for a lot of shows.

I think Olmos and McDonnel's presence on the show is part of a long and honored tradition of once-successful movie actors slumming on TV

You're missing my point here. Both were still successful as mainstream actors when they signed on to the show, and neither of them considered it to be "slumming". They were both recognized for the quality of their work on BSG, and are not likely to see any negative impact on their careers as a result of being involved with it. This is not the case with most other SF shows, which are indeed places actors go when they are having trouble finding work elsewhere. (I will refrain from picking on Stargate yet again, though it's tempting.)

a naturalistic style can be an indicator of shoddy worldbuilding and of the writers' inattention to their story's SFnal components

That's where you lose me. How is it an indicator? Just because you thought they were related in the case of BSG doesn't mean this will carry forward to any other TV show (except maybe Caprica, since it is made by the same people). They do not go together as package deal.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Can't say that BSG's live cinematography made much of an impression on me, and at any rate, it was clearly heavily influenced by 24 and a gazillion action films.

I think it's telling that of the three examples of well-developed secondary characters you bring, two are from the first, non-sucky, season and a half. Against them, I could name just as many underdeveloped secondary characters, such as Laird, Ishay, and Hoshi, and more importantly, a whole raft of characters who were sidelined for episodes, sometimes seasons at a time, then catapulted to the main arena in order to move the plot with no meaningful understanding of their personality or motivations - Gina, Seelix, Kat. It seems absurd to argue that before BSG came along, no science fiction writer had the thought to build up a secondary character in order to make the audience feel bad when they die, or to make a well-liked minor character evil, and as I've said Buffy and Deep Space Nine carried off all these arcs and others much, much better than BSG.

I'm honestly not clear what your point is regarding Olmos and McDonnell. We've already established that well-regarded actors were taking science fiction jobs before they did. The fact that they lucked into jobs on a show that became a critical darling doesn't make their choice to work on BSG any different than Patrick Stewart's decision to work on Star Trek. If you're arguing that because of their example, more top tier actors will be likely to work on science fiction shows, I can see where you're coming from, but I can't say I think this will have a meaningful effect on the kind of science fiction that gets made in the future.

Therem said...

Abigail: Can't say that BSG's live cinematography made much of an impression on me, and at any rate, it was clearly heavily influenced by 24 and a gazillion action films.

As I said earlier, this was not the first use of "shaky-cam" on television. It was just the first use of it on a genre TV show. Can't speak to the influence of 24, as I only watched one episode before deciding it wasn't for me.

I think it's telling that of the three examples of well-developed secondary characters you bring, two are from the first, non-sucky, season and a half.

What's telling about it? As I said, I could go on. Personally, I liked what they did with Laird and Ishay. I was curious about both of them, and was sad when Laird was killed. (I was with friends while watching that scene and felt I had to explain to them how he had been screwed over since his introduction two seasons earlier.) Hoshi was less well served, as most of his screen time was in the "Face of the Enemy" webisodes which were produced after the series had wrapped, and thus were not integrated into the rest of season 4.

It seems absurd to argue that before BSG came along, no science fiction writer had the thought to build up a secondary character in order to make the audience feel bad when they die

That isn't what I am arguing. My point was that there were a LOT of these minor characters, and they were often used in situations where most shows would bring in a bit player for a single appearance (e.g. redshirts).

I haven't watched DS9 in ages, but I'd be curious what characters from Buffy you are thinking of.

If you're arguing that because of their example, more top tier actors will be likely to work on science fiction shows, I can see where you're coming from

Yes, that is what I am saying.

but I can't say I think this will have a meaningful effect on the kind of science fiction that gets made in the future.

Why not? It seems pretty obvious to me that anything that improves the genre's reputation as far as acting, writing, etc. will increase the likelihood that talented people will want to become involved.

stu willis said...

Therem and Abigail,

I think you'll find that Attack of the Clones was the first example of 'crash zooms' with CGI. Firefly wasn't that far behind, though.

Abigail,

I think the writers of BSG were inattentive "to their story's SFnal components" because they didn't see the show as science fiction. They simply took aspects of SF that they felt helped their story. A motley crew of humans looking for a the lost 13th tribe called Earth? Thats pretty fantastic right there.

Its like criticizing Tolkein for not being attentive to medieval history simply because having characters ride around on horseback wielding swords is a component of historical fiction.

Most of your criticism is (imnsho) very accurate about BSG but your arguments are weakened by your obsessive compulsion to point out all the ways that BSG isn't science fiction when BSG (the show per se) established early on it wasn't interested in being science fiction.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Therem:

I haven't watched DS9 in ages, but I'd be curious what characters from Buffy you are thinking of.Buffy used this trope in its pilot, when Xander's friend Jesse was turned. See also Larry, Harmony, Tara, Joyce.

More importantly, see Enrique Muñiz, O'Brien's assistant in a couple of DS9 episodes. In the fifth season episode "The Ship," he and several members of the main cast are trapped under enemy fire and he's mortally wounded, leading to a tense argument between O'Brien and Worf over whether to put him out of his misery until he dies on his own.

I was discussing the series finale this morning with some friends who have just watched it, and it occurs to me that there's no better example of BSG's shoddy work with secondary characters than the fact that Romo Lampkin and Lieutenant Hoshi are made president and admiral, respectively, when the main cast goes on its suicide mission (or, to put it another way, the fact that these choices are so absurd and out of the blue). As one of my friends put it, Lee giving Romo the presidency was "very transparently a 'Shit, we ran out of characters' moment."

Stu:

So fantasy doesn't require coherent worldbuilding? Surely your example of Tolkien is the perfect counterargument.

At any rate, if I might direct you to the actual post:

What bothers me about this is less that Galactica itself isn't science fiction--I came to that conclusion at the end of the third season--but that there are still plenty of people who can't tell the difference between its stasis-oriented brand of pseudo-SF and the real thing.

stu willis said...

Abigail:

"Far worse to my mind than Galactica's ending being anti-science is the fact that it is anti-science fiction. "

It isn't science fiction by design, it is (however badly) trying to be a biblical story, a creation myth.

You obsessively point out the ways it isn't science fiction because you are worried people might mistake it for being science fiction.

I'm not quite sure how we're disagreeing here.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Not science fiction isn't the same thing as anti-science fiction.

I'm not quite sure how we're disagreeing hereIndeed. As I said above, I made the point which according to you weakens my argument in the body of that argument.

RM said...

Hi Abigail, I recently watched the second half of Season 4 of BSG and felt like going online to catch some of the debate around it, which is always fun. I particularly wanted to read more on how other people responded to the mutiny, and felt, as I did, that the transformation of Gaeta's character seemed rushed - and I found your blog post on the mutiny.

I also felt that I was on the side of the mutineers in as much as I objected to the way in which Adama and Roslin ran the fleet and government respectively. Like yourself, I felt they unnecessarily stacked things against the mutiny by preceding the episodes with that scene where it was revealed Zarek was extremely corrupt.

I identified with Gaeta, especially when he talked about his childhood and life in that final scene with Baltar, and the fact they killed him off so quickly felt unfair, even more so given they robbed him of a chance to participate in the end of the show and the arrival on the new Earth. Like with Dualla, he deserved as much a chance as anyone to end the show as a hero rather than a "traitor" or someone weak (both deaths robbed the show of two of its few non-Caucasian main characters, a theme repeated with the pointless killing of Tory by Tyrol in the last episode).

All in all it was a huge plot failing. I really enjoyed your analysis of it, read your "final thoughts" on the series then read backwards your other posts on BSG, as far back as what you'd written for the "cut-off point" halfway through Season 2.

You write very well, and made me realise how many flaws the show's storytelling had. In many ways, I think the way the plot piled forward in Seasons 3 and 4, as well as the whole prophecy thing, kept me watching - I'd invested many hours in Seasons 1 and 2. That, and the fact I actually enjoyed watching it and genuinely wanted to know how the mysteries unfolded.

The whole "big epic shocking event" of discovering the Final Five was also compelling in a very TV-kind of way; I think Ron D Moore himself said he threw it in there to make the end of Season 3 more of a cliffhanger than for any plot reasons.

In fact, the introduction of the Final Five shifted the focus of the show from the humans to the Cylons without properly dealing with the humans first. So many of the "issues" they had "dealt" with before, such as that of the Union and the plight of workers, were never revisited (I remember a similar feeling with Babylon 5, which had an almost identical "union/workers issue" episode).

What really rankled was how the whole backstory of the show was revealed in a series of straightforward infodumps by Anders, right at the end of the series rather than sequentially throughout four years. So the 13th tribe were Cylons, they had their own nuclear holocaust, 5 of them downloaded to a ship which took 2,000 years to get to the Colonies, created the 8 new models for OUR Cylons, gave them resurrection... it really was a lot to take in and even now it doesn't make sense and kinda pisses upon the whole series.

Along with the whole Final Five device, it feels like they made it up as they went along, which is fine with a soap opera, but not so good if you want the whole series to "mean something". I still don't get any sense of what any of the characters learnt by the end of it - or what the story had been about all along, if it had been about anything all along, which in hindsight it probably wasn't.

Which is a shame, because as you point out, the camera work is great, the effects are great, and the space battles were really enjoying. Actually, after Season 2, they really scaled back the space battles, which seemed more like decoration on the whole stupid mystical-Starbuck's-destiny-way-to-earth-prophecy-God-gods-Hera-opera-house rubbish. The battle at the end of Season 3, particularly, wasn't given very much screen time at all.

Anyway, I've really enjoyed exploring the series in the last few days with your blog and tomorrow I shall start studying for my finals, which begin in 3 days time!

RM said...

I gotta say, I was totally blown away by the way Olmos started shouting "So Say We All!" at the UN, of all places! Perhaps not being American, and being British, and also watching the first few seasons a few years after they had been made, I never really attempted to map the story onto the analogy of 9/11; as you point out very well, there is no comparison between that real life event and the near-annihilation of humanity in the BSG miniseries. Whilst the occupation of New Caprica was a little more obvious, I genuinely watched the show to follow its in-universe story and didn't pick up on too many real-life allegories.

This was made all the more easier with the whole Final Five thing, which as poor as it was, really did stop the story "meaning" anything and in the end it became about wanting to know how the characters ended up.

Oh and Ron D Moore looks strikingly like George Lucas, in the layout and shape of his face, and the way he has tries that unconvincing half-beard thing to cover up the fact that his face melds seamlessly into his neck. I think the whole Final Four Then One More thing was like the Midichlorian bullshit in Star Wars Episode One, or the way Episode Three made the whole Anakin-turns-into-Vader thing about how he was possessive over his wife rather than anything grander or bigger.

Jed said...

Happened across this old entry of yours while wandering through your blog tonight.

As usual, I'm impressed by your smart and cogent discussion of this stuff, even though I continue to have liked (most of) the show.

I'll certainly agree that the ending was bad and unfortunate in a variety of ways. But I loved the show up until "All Along the Watchtower" showed up, and I continued to like it a great deal from then until almost the end -- basically because I found the characters and storytelling so compelling, at a gut level.

Anyway, the reason I'm posting is to comment specifically on one bit of what you were saying: the anti-science-fiction part.

I would say that popular media "science fiction" has been, in that sense, largely anti-science-fiction for a very long time.

One part of that has more to do with the anti-science thing than with the anti-science-fiction thing per se, but I'll mention it anyway: it seems to me that there often comes a point, in SF movies or TV, when I realize that what the writers have in mind is that God is behind it all, or some other similarly ineffable and/or mystical handwavey quasi-explanation that can explain anything at all happening. I generally lose interest in the work at that point. But it seems to me to have been a quite common thread since long before BSG.

(I'm having a hard time coming up with specific examples of older stuff, but here's a very recent one: I laughed the other day while watching part 2 (I think?) of Torchwood: Children of Earth, when there was a little speech about how devastated people were when they learned about aliens and how vast and cold the universe and science are (I'm wildly paraphrasing, of course), because imo Torchwood has never cared a bit about science; it's been essentially fantasy almost from the start. Dr. Who has had a strong mystical thread in the new series as well, but I don't remember whether that was as true in the old series. Somehow it doesn't bother me in Dr. Who, but it does in Torchwood; probably just 'cause I like the former series and dislike the latter.)

Similarly, I think the focus on the past and on present-day allegory (and not on the future) has been a significant part of media science fiction for a long time, one way or another. '50s monster movies, Twilight Zone, ST:TOS....

Even Star Wars said it was set "a long time ago." :) (Oh, and speaking of mysticism....) In fact, I might go a step further and say that a lot of pulp sf was, by your definition here, anti-science-fiction. Some of it was future-looking, but a lot of it (it seems to me) was basically adventure novels that reinforced the status quo. Though that last statement is off the top of my head and I might back down from it after further thought.

So ... I guess I'm saying two things here:

1. I'm reluctant to agree with your definition of science fiction, because I think science fiction includes a whole lot of different things, both the stuff you mentioned and a wide range of other stuff.

2. Even granting your definition, I don't think that BSG was unusual in its oppositional stance; I think it was drawing on a long tradition of such stuff, and I suspect that even if BSG had been completely unpopular, we would still have seen plenty more mystical "science fiction" that doesn't care about science or the future.

XxIII said...

Realizing this comment comes months later; I just watched the series from beginning to end on blu-ray, having lost access to sci-fi channel and not able to watch the 4th season when it aired.

I agree with most of the criticism, and yet I was able to mostly suspend disbelief and enjoy the show anyway. A few comments that I didn't see (or remember) being touched on yet, with the exception of the first one:

I really, really could have done without the love quadrangle. (they took the opera out of space opera, but they put the soap in).

Abortion episode. This was not about abortion, it was about someone being forced to make a choice that goes against their core beliefs (as I saw it).

Baltar forgot (late in the series) that his own Cylon detector did in fact work at least once, even though no one else knew it (it detected Sharon, but failed on Ellen, which I attribute to the faults of making it up as you go along, but then, those models were different and didn't apparently have glowing spines or super strength or fiber optic interfaces).

Tom Zarek/mutiny. Would have much preferred if it was left ambiguous as to whether he was a terrorist, or a political prisoner, something often defined by the "winners" later, which would have fed much better into the moral ambiguities theme of the series).

Strike episode. Appreciate the point, but too abrupt coming and going, and had Adama and Rosyln acting out of character.

Earth, not being "our earth", liked that they did this, but suspected as much as their arrival at Earth conveniently had all identifying features obscured by clouds (as opposed to 3rd season finale).

Ending, actually liked it, except for assigning all unexplained to "it". Especially the blowing away (literally) the "lived (together) happily ever after" ending that The Colony was appearing to turn into. Also, equations are actually repeatable unless a random or sensor element is introduced (which they mostly sent into the sun). She was actually describing a definition of insanity (doing the same thing, hoping for a different result).

For an interesting take on "biggest reset button ever" being pushed, see Steven Baxter's "Manifold: Space" and "Manifold: Time".

"undectable from humans" (Baltar's working detector not withstanding) was the single most difficult element for my suspension of disbelief. Adama and Rosyln's absolutes in the strike episode was probably second place.

Also, as a computer networking professional, I have trouble with most fictional depictions of computers/networks/firewalls (like Lawyers who can't watch The Practice, or Doctors who can't watch E.R.). So the episode where they lose the fleet (and the miniseries' "no networks" were difficult for me as well).

Preferred when chip Six/Baltar were imaginary figments instead of "angels" (apparently) (and who should have made some snide comment when Baltar forgot his own detector actually worked).

Lionel Braithwaite said...

Pity Zarak didn’t win his coup. It would have been a better show.

The only problem with that is, Zarek espouses socialism, which is what most of Colonial society doesn't, and if he had succeeded, when they arrived at Earth 2, they'd all be living in a socialist society. Since these people are Americans in space, and since most Americans don't like socialism, well...

Daddio said...

Thank goodness I stopped watching after the first few episodes. The undetectable humanish Cylons, with glowing backs no less, were ridiculous from the get-go. I waste a lot of time watching TV, but at least I didn't get burned here.

Kalleda05 said...

Abigail,

Let me preface my comment with an appreciation for your review. It brought up issues with the ending that lurked in the back of my mind while I consciously grasped at something to like.

While I don't relate to your perspective - my point of view as a viewer of BSG is entirely different, as I will discuss out later - you expressed it beautifully.

I started watching BSG this year and I watched it in succession without any gaps. I don't have the prejudices that come with being an aficionado of Science Fiction - this is the only show of this genre, or according to you, not of this genre - so lets say, that involves Sci-Fi Themes, that I have ever watched. Further, I live in India and watched this show thinking that it was some sort of niche hit that no one really knows about. I had no idea that it was making such strides. And most of all, despite vague allegorical pretensions, from my perspective, this show was not entirely about handling present day issues. Of course, that's because I live in a different part of the world and a lot of those issues are not so omnipresent in our news. I never watched commentary, looked at a blog about, or even watched interviews of the cast while watching this show.

So in a way, I'd say that I gave this show, it's story and it's universe much more of a chance than you did by immediately rushing to know more about and critique it. I'm sure if I did, I would have come to a lot of the same conclusions that you did.

You have to understand that not everyone is a critic and for some people, television is just television i.e. entertainment and this show aspired to be more without being horribly pretentious and alienating.

As far as your contention that this show is Anti-Sci-Fi....well, I'm a girl that would never have, on (now I see it as arbitrary) principle, ever have considered watching anything on the Sci-Fi Channel.

After BSG, I would consider watching other shows of it's 'genre.' Yes, maybe BSG is not what SCi-Fi is all about, frankly, I have no idea what Sci-Fi is all about, but BSG got me interested in even considering the need to dig deeper.

That's something even Star War's couldn't do.

Maybe for you, BSG didn't work. You've obviously been exposed to a lot more shows in this and other genres and are used to watched television and reading critically.

But for people like me, for whom this is a novel experience, BSG is brilliance.

So tell me, what else is out there?

Kalleda05 said...

Also, I suppose your contention was never that BSG has had an impact, but that you were afraid of and angered by the impact it might have had on naive uninitiated folks like myself.

What exactly is so terrible about people who don't have the time or passion for TV enjoying this show?

I don't understand your vehemence. Perhaps you could enlighten me further as to what it is you fear so much.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Hi Kalleda,

As you say, this post was written by a science fiction fan, for science fiction fans, and so it may not represent your perspective. I'm glad that BSG has encouraged you to give SF a chance, and if you're looking for recommendations then my favorites are shows like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Farscape, The Middleman, and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. However, I'm not sure that you would enjoy these series, because they do a lot of the things that to my mind are at the heart of good science fiction, and which BSG didn't do - build a coherent universe, examine the implications of technology and its effect on humanity, and evoke a sense of wonder. It sounds as if you enjoyed BSG precisely because it didn't do any of these things, which is fine if that's what you're after, but for those of us who care about science fiction, the show's success may indicate that the people who make science fiction series will continue to neglect the very heart of the genre. That's the concern I'm expressing in this post, and in the two years since it was posted I think that it's been validated.

Lionel Braithwaite said...

@RM: Anakin didn't become Vader because of his secret wife only, he became Vader due to a whole lot of things that piled up one after the other-not being able to see his mother and/or save her eventually, his recklessness in doing things as a Jedi, not being able to commit to the idea of a democracy or of serving it, feeling that Obi-Wan was holding him back and finally, his visions of not being able to save Amidala and his inablilty to be without her. All of those combined to allow Palpatine to twist him and turn him towards the Dark Side-it seems that like most people, you weren't paying any attention and were concentrating on bashing the prequel trilogy to bits.

@Abagail-People like Kalleda don't give a shit because like most mundanes, they disdain sci-fi as 'that geeky stuff' (similar to the older put-downs of the medium as 'that Buck Rogers stuff' or 'that Star Trek stuff' or 'that Star Wars stuff'.) This is why the new BSG was a success for them-they didn't have to wonder about the universe, or watch any strange alien life forms, or deal with the implications of new technologies and how we will use or misuse them, or the effects of change (technological, social, environmental, ecological, economical, etc.) on the human race. All that they wanted to watch was a sci-fi show that looked, felt, and existed like all of the other non-sci-fi shows on TV, and that's what BSG gave them, in spades-just like The X-Files did. The success of these two shows demonstrates to me that we (as sci-fi fans worldwide) need to start agitating for the teaching of sci-fi literature in schools, at an early age, for everybody of all races and both sexes, as well as insisting upon the teaching of science in a full and complete manner, with no deviations permitted from the curriculum for the latter, and with an emphasis on factual based science.

Daniel Tenner said...

Wow, quite a criticism, and I've heard similar from a number of my friends.

I'll add my stone to this pile, but a different-coloured stone, and a small one - I'm sure no one wants to read a long post right now. I am a science-fiction fan (and by SF I mean the real speculative stuff, from Asimov to Banks to Heinlein and Dick, not the soft wishy-washy stuff like Star Trek and Star Wars)... and yet I very much enjoyed BSG, all the way to and including the end.

Yes, the end was disappointing - in the same way that the end of One Hundred Years of Solitude (a masterpiece of magic realism, another kind of speculative fiction) was. One feels empty, hollowed out, pointless. And such is life, when you consider it in scales that are far beyond those we can comprehend - namely, far beyond the scale of a human life, which is the measure we use for all things (cf. Protagoras).

BSG's ending was disheartening and disappointing, but it was right, and unlike many in this thread I congratulate the authors for having the courage to go for the supremely depressing and yet *right* ending, which you incorrectly summarised as "mass suicide".

It's not mass suicide. It's deciding to no longer care about these higher ideals that have proven to bring only suffering. The civilisation is dying (it was dead already from the beginning - what civilisation can survive losing 99.9999% (50k / 50b) of its members? But those 50k kept clinging on to the thought that it might survive somehow). The people, having finally realised that the civilisation is dead and gone, can get on with their lives (flashbacked throughout the last two episodes), rudely interrupted by the Cylon war.

Why don't they try to keep their society alive for its benefits? Because they've realised that their society, with its never-ending internal strife, and their desperate need to cling to it, has been the main cause of their suffering. Many didn't make it to Earth, and died trying to support that illusion. Finally, they see that its only by disbanding this dream that they can live their own lives, resume whatever their own personal dreams were. All those people have been sacrificing their dreams for the illusion of civilisation. Now they accept the end of civilisation, they can get on with their own lives.

A perfect ending, in my opinion. Certainly not one that can leave you cold. Either you see how it is perfect, or you feel outraged at how it doesn't live up to *your* need to perpetuate civilisation.

But the fact that you and I, sitting comfortably surrounded by a functioning civilisation, cannot give it up easily, does not mean that these people, after years of wasting their lives propping up a failed dream, cannot finally move on.

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