Battlestar Galactica attracted a lot of fans and a lot of kudos during its run, and engendered this sub blog about it. Here, in my final post on the ending, I present the case that its final hour was the worst ending in the history of science fiction on the screen. This is a condemnation of course, but also praise, because my message is not simply that the ending was poor, but that the show rose so high that it was able to fall so very far. I mean it was the most disappointing ending ever.
(There are, of course, major spoilers in this essay.)
Other SF shows have ended very badly, to be sure. This is particularly true of TV SF. Indeed, it is in the nature of TV SF to end badly. First of all, it’s written in episodic form. Most great endings are planned from the start. TV endings rarely are. To make things worse, TV shows are usually ended when the show is in the middle of a decline. They are often the result of a cancellation, or sometimes a producer who realizes a cancellation is imminent. Quite frequently, the decline that led to cancellation can be the result of a creative failure on the show — either the original visionaries have gone, or they are burned out. In such situations, a poor ending is to be expected.
Sadly, I’m hard pressed to think of a TV SF series that had a truly great ending. That’s the sort of ending you might find in a great book or movie, the ending that caps the work perfectly, which solidifies things in a cohesive whole. Great endings will sometimes finally make sense out of everything, or reveal a surprise that, in retrospect, should have been obvious all along. I’m convinced that many of the world’s best endings came about when the writer actually worked out the ending first, then then wrote a story leading to that ending.
There have been endings that were better than the show. Star Trek: Voyager sunk to dreadful depths in the middle of its run, and its mediocre ending was thus a step up. Among good SF/Fantasy shows, Quantum Leap, Buffy and the Prisoner stand out as having had decent endings. Babylon 5’s endings (plural) were good but, just as I praise Battlestar Galactica (BSG) by saying its ending sucked, Babylon 5’s endings were not up to the high quality of the show. (What is commonly believed to be B5’s original planned ending, written before the show began, might well have made the grade.)
Ron Moore’s goals
To understand the fall of BSG, one must examine it both in terms of more general goals for good SF, and the stated goals of the head writer and executive producer, Ronald D. Moore. The ending failed by both my standards (which you may or may not care about) but also his.
Moore began the journey by laying out a manifesto of how he wanted to change TV SF. He wrote an essay about Naturalistic science fiction where he outlined some great goals and promises, which I will summarize here, in a slightly different order
- Avoiding SF clichés like time travel, mind control, god-like powers, and technobabble.
- Keeping the science real.
- Strong, real characters, avoiding the stereotypes of older TV SF. The show should be about them, not the hardware.
- A new visual and editing style unlike what has come before, with a focus on realism.
Over time he expanded, modified and sometimes intentionally broke these rules. He allowed the ships to make sound in space after vowing they would not. He eschewed aliens in general. He increased his focus on characters, saying that his mantra in concluding the show was “it’s the characters, stupid.”
The link to reality
In addition, his other goal for the end was to make a connection to our real world. To let the audience see how the story of the characters related to our story. Indeed, the writers toyed with not destroying Galactica, and leaving it buried on Earth, and ending the show with the discovery of the ship in Central America. They rejected this ending because they felt it would violate our contemporary reality too quickly, and make it clear this was an alternate history. Moore felt an alternative universe was not sufficient.
The successes, and then failures
During its run, BSG offered much that was great, in several cases groundbreaking elements never seen before in TV SF:
- Artificial minds in humanoid bodies who were emotional, sexual and religious.
- Getting a general audience to undertand the “humanity” of these machines.
- Stirring space battles with much better concepts of space than typically found on TV. Bullets and missiles, not force-rays.
- No bumpy-head aliens, no planet of the week, no cute time travel or alternate-reality-where-everybody-is-evil episodes.
- Dark stories of interesting characters.
- Multiple copies of the same being, beings programmed to think they were human, beings able to transfer their mind to a new body at the moment of death.
- A mystery about the origins of the society and its legends, and a mystery about a lost planet named Earth.
- A mystery about the origin of the Cylons and their reasons for their genocide.
- Daring use of concepts like suicide bombing and terrorism by the protagonists.
- Kick-ass leadership characters in Adama and Roslin who were complex, but neither over the top nor understated.
- Starbuck as a woman. Before she became a toy of god, at least.
- Baltar: One of the best TV villains ever, a self-centered slightly mad scientist who does evil without wishing to, manipulated by a strange vision in his head.
- Other superb characters, notably Tigh, Tyrol, Gaeta and Zarek.
But it all came to a far lesser end due to the following failures I will outline in too much detail:
- The confirmation/revelation of an intervening god as the driving force behind events
- The use of that god to resolve large numbers of major plot points
- A number of significant scientific mistakes on major plot points, including:
- Twisting the whole story to fit a completely wrong idea of what Mitochondrial Eve is
- To support that concept, an impossible-to-credit political shift among the characters
- The use of concepts from Intelligent Design to resolve plot issues.
- The introduction of the nonsense idea of “collective unconscious” to explain cultural similarities.
- The use of “big secrets” to dominate what was supposed to be a character-driven story
- Removing all connection to our reality by trying to build a poorly constructed one
- Mistakes, one of them major and never corrected, which misled the audience
And then I’ll explain the reason why the fall was so great — how, until the last moments, a few minor differences could have fixed most of the problems. read more »
From the Battlestar Galactica Analysis Blog