If readers have wondered why I’ve been so silent, it’s because just after the final episode I took a great trip to the middle east, and there is not much time for blogging on such a trip. To re-open discussion let me examine some issues raised in comments and also add more with the perspective of time.
Many fans liked the story, of course, and say that critics such as myself are putting too much focus on the science and on science fiction. BSG, we’re told, was always meant to be a character drama, and the SF was just incidental, a vehicle for that drama. This may be right, though if so, I still find it disappointing. I seek good SF and encourage its production. If people want to just use SF as a vehicle, then they may do so, but I find this less interesting than a real attempt at good SF. But BSG was not simply that. It contained a lot of good SF. Its creator, while he dropped the ball on wrapping it up, is a talented creator who should be encouraged, through valid criticism, to do even better. We are disappointed with the final revealed story because it had more potential for greatness than the vast majority of TV SF produced. TV SF has a poor history, and anything that appears capable of greatness is of particular interest. It’s why I got so invested. The failure to deliver hurts what came before, but does not destroy it.
I continue to feel that if a story is going to be religious fiction (ie. the major plot points will be resolved through divine intervention) then this is not something to keep secret from the audience. I am much less interested in such fiction, but even in cases where I would watch it, I think it’s better for the audience to not give them false expectations. You can tell me to expect a religious (or scientific) ending without spoiling the ending in any way. But if you let fans expect a scientific ending and give them a religious one, there is a great risk — which was realized here — of disappointment simply over incorrect expectations. I think it is incorrect to say that this was not an SF show, and not simply because it was set in space and on the Sci-Fi or SyFy channel. It started off doing what SF tries to do — explore the consequences of science and technology, in particular the conflict between man and machine.
What’s a more meaningful connection?
Moore seems to feel that by setting the show in the past, he has provided it with a connection to us. That by making Hera be our ancestor, it makes the message of the show stronger. I could not disagree more. Most SF is set in the future, of course, and I think there is a good reason for this. SF set in the future, if done well, is saying, “Here is something that could really be our fate.” SF set in the past is saying “here is something which might have been our origin.” The problem is that when the SF set in the past does something wrong or stupid, that connection is now dwindled. It becomes not just imaginary, but impossible. Because we know that another race of humans able to breed with us would not evolve on another planet, we know that aliens were not our ancestors. So this “connection” is meaningless. It is surely false. A future connection however, is much more real. That’s because it is not yet known if it is true or false. As such it could be true, it could be real. A story of man-machine war in the future can be a lesson for us today, as long as it paints a plausible future. Painting a plausible secret past is so much harder to do, and if you fail, you lose the relevance you were hoping for.
Of course, since many fans are willing to let the impossibility slide, or accept the divine explanation, they don’t see it this way, and for them Moore attained his goal.
Many fans are considering the “alien abduction” plot which I laid out in an earlier post, or variants of it, as a way to have the ending make logical sense. And I agree, it is the best way to do that. However, sadly, this is not entirely a fanwank. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy a good fanwank, an effort to invent a backstory which is better than what we saw on screen. I’ve done it with many bad SF movies and TV. Before the show ended, this was fun to do because we could imagine that it might really work out that way. Like SF set in the future, it was a plausible future. But now that all is said and done, it is just wanking to imagine the author had a more plausible story secretly in mind.
It’s not that anything in the show contradicts the idea that long ago aliens or the Lords of Kobol took humans from our Earth and transplanted them to Kobol to create Kobolian society. Indeed, it is the only thing that makes sense. The problem is there is no hint of this in the show, and it would have been so simple to include such a hint — even in the podcasts and other off-air material. Much as we might like it, this is not the story that was delivered.
Collective Unconsciousness & Expectations
I also am quite bothered by the use of the concept of “collective unconsciousness” to explain why the colonials would sing All along the Watchtower, or use quotes from Shakespeare. This is a fantastic concept. While I have seen various explanations put forward, to me this is a writer’s explanation with no basis in reality. It’s one of those psuedoscience concepts that has no basis in good SF. It’s beyond technobabble as a means to explain things. In reality, the only way to explain the existence of elements of our culture in theirs is to set it in the future. Any rational examination would demand it, and it’s upsetting to have a non-rational explanation used instead.
I’ve seen SF use this concept but it makes more sense as something you put in at the beginning, not something you pull out of a hat at the end. SF that is not hard SF often breaks the rules of reality, but the general rule is you lay out your rulebreaking at the start, so that the audience can suspend disbelief at the beginning. You don’t want the audience to have to suspend disbelief at the end — that’s far too late a time to ask this of them.
In many ways good fiction and good SF is about managing expectations. If you start a show by saying “they have FTL drives” you can get away with it because the audience has no expectations yet. If you write a show in a hard SF universe, and then on the last page have the characters escape in their FTL drive you’ve done it wrong.
Another way they mismanaged expectations was with all the hype about the ending. All the press about the ending had show insiders talk about how everybody cried over the sadness of it, but were wowed about how awesome it was. In fact it wasn’t awesome (though of course some will argue with that.) And while it contained several sad elements, it was certainly no more tear-jerking than many other endings we’ve seen in our time.
The religious ending was also a case of badly managed expectations, as I explained above. It’s not that the show wasn’t full of references to religion, and not that it wasn’t clear that somebody was pulling strings behind the scenes. The mistake was making this a mystery until the end, opening up, in some fans, an expectation that it was not just going to be solved by divine will.
Many have been discussing an essay by Jared Diamond that outlines an argument that the shift from hunter/gatherer lifestyle to agriculture was humanity’s greatest mistake. Even accepting all of Diamond’s arguments that agriculture hurt the lot of the average human, I don’t agree with the conclusion. From my modern perspective, the hunter/gatherer lifestyle, devoid of the great intellectual stimulation available to us today, is not appealing. I think that today we don’t just know more. By training our brains from a young age, we are actually smarter than our ancestors. A lot smarter. I knew this when I found that in class as a child I could readily, on my own, come up with discoveries that had been the work of history’s greatest minds. I could do this because of the training and stimulation I got as a child, not simply because I was led down the garden path. And I don’t see giving up being smarter for the supposedly more carefree and simple existence.
Diamond’s analysis really talks only to the species average. One might be a happy hunter/gatherer, but that bliss quickly ends if you encounter, as I have, the need for modern medicine. When my appendix got infected in my late teens, I was quickly treated. In any other society, I would not be happy, I would be dead. (Yes, I understand there are arguments that perhaps modern diets lead to a higher incidence of appendicitis, but the main point stands.)
So I still don’t buy for a moment the complete (and nearly unanimous) decision to throw away all the technology, even after reading all the justifications presented online for it.
Graphics team apologizes
Fellow blogger on Galactica Science issues Michael Hall must have been bitterly disappointed to see a blog post by post-production CGI team member Darth Mojo on the stars in the backgrounds. They were, as I eventually concluded, just the result of pressed-for-time work by a post team that didn’t imagine anybody would pay that much attention to the stars.
I understand this attitude but I think it’s one that now belongs in the past. People discuss shows on the internet too much now, and so something found by one person will quickly be told to many others. You can’t expect to get away with something that only a few will notice.
He says they were not being deliberate about it. To me that was surprising. With Orion, which is probably the 2nd most recongizable constellation in the sky, placed so prominently in many shots, it was correct of Hall and others to assume that this meant something. It is highly unlikely that it would happen by accident. Particularly because they switched from random to real, and used random at the 13th colony. But unlikely is not impossible, and Mojo says that happen by accident it did.
This was one of a few of the show’s mistakes which led science-oriented fans astray. The Tomb of Athena constellations, also an acknowledged mistake, were an even bigger false clue, because they were shown in one of the show’s big “reveal” moments. It turned out to be incorrect to rely on this scene to understand the show. Relying on the stars was more risky because they were not presented as important.
Correct your mistakes
I will go further here. I think if a show makes a mistake that is likely to cause the honest viewer to have very wrong expectations, the show should try to correct it, either on-screen or in the online media. So the graphics team should have released a note that “the stars don’t mean anything” and Moore should have released a note that the Tomb of Athena arrangement was not properly thought out.
He did this with Daniel. When fans started thinking the mention of Daniel was central to the show, he released a note to say they should not expect more about Daniel.
Now I do realize that a correction on the Tomb of Athena would have led many of us to then realize the show was not going to be set in the future, as it was the more clear clue regarding that. So that may be why they never corrected it. But if you make mistakes, fixing them may have consequences but it’s better to fix them.
I’ll have photos of Israel up in the main blog in the future.
From the Battlestar Galactica Analysis Blog