Thursday, 30 April 2009

Battlestar Galactica Finale: Um, it sucked

“You will know the truth” - bad writing can ruin even the best shows again and again and again.

Guest contribution by RLB
In 2003 the new re-imagined version of Battlestar Galactica blasted onto the small screen with a 3 hour miniseries watched by over 4.5M people in the US, making it the third-most watched program in history on the Sci-Fi Channel

Often compared to shows like “Lost” and “X-Files”, where the viewers must maintain religious viewing to ensure they are “up to speed” on the current state of play in the universe, Battlestar pushed the boundaries by adding award-winning acting and dialogue into episodes that made the characters’ interactions amazingly realistic to the fantastic, confronting and complicated plot points. So realistic were the character developments, non-SciFi regular viewers found the ‘gritty’ “reality” of the show interesting to watch and the “set in space” background seemed (properly) secondary. This leverage helped build Battlestars’ reputation as a well written, well acted and well placed (post 9/11) television show, which ultimately took the story to a much wider audience that would usually tune into a SciFi show.

Six years later, after a delay because of the writer's strike, Battlestar Galactica came to an end on 22/03/2009 with a 2 hour finale, promising that the devoted viewers will finally “know the truth”.

This famous tagline (reminiscent of “The X-Files”) was in reference to the many open-ended plot points, twists, red herrings and amazing cliff hangers that punctuated the show during its 4 year run.

As the number of remaining episodes dwindled to single digits and massive plot points remained not only un-resolved but glaringly overlooked, the sense of impending elation for “the truth” punctuated every corner of the internet. Helped along by the SciFi channel's official website, which ran a series of webisodes and a “You will know the truth” webpage with clues, spoilers, hints and new information encouraging viewers to “share their theories” on the forum, the curiosity turned to wonder, the wonder to obsession, the obsession to rapid fandom. A brilliant commercial strategy that allowed the SciFi channel to double its usual audience for the three hour finale to 3M.

How was the finale?
The promise to reveal all, and the build up of excitement came to a head with... almost the worst possible ending to a television show in history.

Epic Fail.

In what I call a “slap in the face” to fans everywhere, any unexplained event from the past 4 years was given a Deus Ex Machina. God did it. It didn’t seem to matter if the character's interactions and motivations had been erroneous to that point on issues there was nothing to it: they were angels. God's motivation is mysterious, which is another way for Executive Producer Ronald D Moore to say “Don’t question me Eddie”.

It seemed that in the fourth season the writers/producers decided that there was no point in even attempting to wrap up any plot points and instead opted for one of the classically-lazy story approaches. (Others like “It was all a dream”, or “This is all in the head of a mental patient” are some others that thankfully they did not use but funnily enough would have made more sense.)

SciFi fans are notorious for wanting everything ‘explained’ in a finale however it is not simply an occasion where ‘some’ plot points were left to the viewers' imagination, but most of them. Some unresolved plots were so critical to the story throughout the whole show (not just the final season) that leaving these out of the wrap seems condescending and unfortunately too much like “We had no idea”.

Making the “head” six that Baltar has been seeing from season 1 an Angel made absolutely no sense whatsoever. The so called “Angel’s” responses to stimulus throughout the show were not that of an all-knowing being, in fact the complete opposite. This does not make sense.

Starbucks “I’m an Angel, or a Ghost and puff! I’m off to who knows where" was the worst. When explaining to your friends the day after you disappear from a party, club or event you can now say “I pulled a Starbuck last night”. Hey if Ronald D Moore can get away with it they why not you?

The “flashbacks” to life on Caprica before the fall seemed contrived, out of character and didn’t serve any perceivable purpose whatsoever. We knew that Tigh and Ellen were drunks, we knew Adama was a career man (we certainly didn’t need to see him spewing on himself to get it!).

Seeing Kara and Apollo almost go for it on their first meeting (in front of Zach), only served to cheapen the relationship that had BUILT up, yes that’s right Ron, built up over the four seasons. Now all it looks like is that Starbuck is a whore and Apollo is a jerk! (or perhaps the other way around?...Mnem)

One of the most interesting character developments over the show' four-year run was the internal struggle felt by the character Baltar. His self-denial, underlying self-loathing, superiority complex, and his journey to salvation served as a measure for the scale of the post-apocalyptic world. The back story in the finale, which outlined his ‘love’ for the Cylon model as the reason for his betrayal, undermined the development of his salvation by basically saying “he was a good guy all along and just in the wrong place at the wrong time”. Come on!

Worst of the worst was how they tied up the 12 cyclons, er sorry 13 but one doesn’t count. After a full year of WHO is the final Cylon, it turns out to be Ellen Tigh who, after “Her escape was just the beginning”, comes back to do…. Absolutely frakking nothing! She knows nothing, does nothing, explains nothing (Anders takes care of that for her), she proceeds to get drunk and freak out that her husband has had sex with a model “6” , “their children in her eyes”, yet never blinks that she frakked a number 1 heaps of times on New Caprica! What the…!?

Apparently also after having your minds wiped you can spontaneously add your hand to a goo bath and spawn off the secret to resurrection technology. Lame!

Tyrol’s rage and subsequent execution (neck snapping) of Tory seemed massively out of place, particularly after the show had set up that a) she was his wife in another life, b) the woman she killed was a filthy cheater who Tyrol even ranted to Adama about how much he hated her, and c) Tyrol was now free to get with his one time love Boomer. Definitely sounds like the crazy bitch should die, or get a medal! Completely ridiculous.

The biggest, massive, most amazing error is one that is not a plot inconsistency (amazingly enough as almost all of the final 3 hours was), but a missed opportunity. If in fact the writers were sitting around with no idea on how to finish the show (which RDM admits to in one of the finale interviews), why would they not have used Daniel?

In one of the final episodes of season 4, Ellen makes reference to a long lost 7th Cylon, Daniel, who being a sensitive artist had been killed by number ‘1’. Then it is revealed that Starbuck was taught the secret Cylon song (All along the watch tower) when she was a kid by her father that mysteriously disappeared. It never occurred to the writers to make the 7th Cylon Starbuck's dad?

When Starbuck went back to Caprica she even played Helo a piece of music her father had played (Philip Glass’ song, “Metamorphosis”), and the producers used this song again for the background music on board the Cylon base ship in season 3. Hello platter…! Why not make him the force behind the scenes, working them all to help his daughter, the first hybrid, into a peace with the cylons and finding earth (which is where he fled to).

From season 1 you knew that Starbuck's father was an artist who up and left without warning.

Why was it bad?Rubbish writing + The potential of greatness lost.

During the first season, much of the story lines focused around the human struggle to comprehend the devastation of their lost worlds but was punctuated with a mythic story of hope. This was a smart move on behalf of the writers as it allowed the characters to expose themselves to the realisation that they had lost everything and what that meant, but it allowed them to still have a ray of “hope” in terms of the future. This hope is critical especially from the audiences’ perspective as they also need a reason to continue to watch week after week. The storyline consisted of 2 concurrent plots (one set on Caprica – the world destroyed) from the perspective of a soldier left behind, whilst the other was set on the Battlestar Galactica and showed the daily struggle of being on the run, hunted by the Cylons.

Concurrent storylines are not a new idea but what made this one particularly effective was the mythic background “bubbling along” story arc of Kobol and the Tomb of Athena. This 3rd plot point allowed the 2 concurrent main stories to travel to the same point overall, with the viewer waiting and watching each week to see them come together. Not only “hope” for the characters, but ratings for the SciFi channel.

The second season carried the now joined storylines together and moved them forward as a one using the knowledge and plot points (which the audience already knew from seeing both sides in season 1) towards the conclusion of the Kobol and Tomb of Athena story arcs. It then began setting up for a new set of plot points for season three. What is most interesting here is that the outcome from the first plot points was directly related (in terms of being critical information required) to the next set of plot points making the viewer feel as though what they had invested in the show so far was critical to the journey.

The third season focused on this new set of plot points that were extremely well developed in the first 10 episodes again using the successful concurrent storyline formula from season 1 and 2: the first from the perspective of a human on board a Cylon baseship; the other again from the perspective of the humans and their struggles whilst on the run. Where the writers went wrong with this season, and indeed where the show went off the tracks completely, was they did not allow the story lines to reconverge, take stock and move forward together. Once the storylines were merged, the “next steps” were not a rational extension of the new knowledge gathered meaning that the audience was not sure exactly why or what “we” were now doing. One of the main drivers for the fan “backlash” over the third season was due to the heightened expectations fans had after the brilliant work that had come before it.

Is it art?
Art must be conceived in advance if it has any hope of delivering a message or impact as derived by its creator. The now truncated, transitory nature of television development and production is such that the use of the word “Art" can no longer apply.

Writing a story as you go along with no real concept (and let's face it even if you did have a concept, the commercial propensity for re-direction often negates this), is not art. Notable Exception Babylon 5 – JMS you’re an artist. (Don't forget the Joss; the first three seasons of Buffy were definitely Art... Mnem)

Certain ‘protections’ we provide to works of art, such as defined clarity, scope, presentation and purpose do not apply. As such Ronald D Moore is a great producer, not an artist.

Ethereal phrases like “You can think what you want”, “Starbuck is whatever you want her to be” or “That was a rabbit hole”, are self-serving, self-promoting, self-delusional and a complete cop out. Come on RDM are you that much of a megalomaniac?

When bad writers or executive producers pull a “God did it” or other suitably lame offering, they often run for the cover of “It was Art”. This type of attitude is true for “Art”, however backed with so much commercial interest and funding (and admitted directionless writing and development) Battlestar Galactica (like any mainstream television show) can not realistically throw this trump card into the pile at the last minute and still expect it to carry any real weight with people who are not the ignorant, uneducated, ‘kool-aid’ drinkers of the SciFi community. (Oh when will we find a world when long haired, fat, socially inept self-important ignoramuses are accepted as one of us? – hopefully never) (well, I'm not self-important, at least...Mnem)

Online polls estimate that 50% of fans loved it and the other 50% hated it. The abysmal failure of the finale not only served to disappoint fans, but impacts the shows’ long term commercial survival. Many of the watchable reasons that could have made this show ageless have been stripped away. Knowing that it goes nowhere, it is not possible to re-watch the show with any of the same senses or experiences from the first time round. In the end this may be the biggest mistake (commercially) that the Executive producers could ever have made.

Ronald D Moore should be avoided like the plague and if you are currently in the middle of watching Battlestar Galactica for the first time, “pull your team out Gorman!“


Anonymous said...

What a great review! I whole-heartedly agree. Epic Fail.

Anonymous said...

This "review" is soooo lame. While there might be some inconsistencies and missed opportunities, BSG remaims one of the best SF shows ever, with great characters, acting, plot, storytelling. OK you did not like it but nashing it like that like you do know more about scripting and storytelling than the authors is sooo lame.

Anonymous said...

Actually, this review is pretty good. People nash bad writing all the time, because there is a lot of it out there. We don't give authors a free pass simply because we're not them.

The review is correct that Battlestar's ending feels worse because of how good it was early on. If it had always been mediocre, I doubt people would have felt so disappointed.

Great storytelling in the beginning. It grew progressively weaker until it was really the production folks and the actors/actresses who were holding it together. But no one could hold that final mess together.

Too bad. As I said, this is a good, thoughtful review. It's the kind of review the first two seasons of Battlestar earned.

madmonq said...

You were right. Thanks for this

Anonymous said...

I saw the series after it aired and stumbled across this review. I think it is fair and substantially correct. It lauds the show for what it once did well but refuses to make excuses for what it turned into.

Excellent beginning, good middle, weak last season and an abortion of an ending that simply reeks of hackwork.