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On Type O blood and being set in the past

A minor update on my main review of BSG:

After the show concluded, many viewers complained about how all the clues in the show had pointed -- some very directly -- to the show being set in the future, and little had suggested it would be set in the past.

Kevin Grazier, science adviser to the show, stated in his book The Science of Battlestar Galactica that Hera's blood type was such a clue.

Caprica, uploading and gods

Caprica’s first half-season is almost over, but I started watching late due to travel and the Olympics. Here’s my commentary on the show to this point. I already commented last week on the lack of protagonists we can identify with. Now onto bigger issues.

Who is the hero of Caprica?

As some readers may know, I maintained a sub-blog last year for analysis of Battlestar Galactica. BSG was very good for a while, but sadly had an extremely disappointing ending. Postings in the Battlestar Galactica Analysis Blog did not usually show up in the front page of the main blog, you had to read or subscribe to it independently.

There is a new prequel spin-off series on called Caprica, which has had 6 episodes, and just has 2 more before going on a mid-season hiatus. I will use the old battlestar blog for more limited commentary on that show, which for now I am watching. (However, not too many people are, so it's hard to say how long it will be on.)

My first commentary is not very science-fiction related, though I will be getting to that later -- since the reason I am watching Caprica is my strong interest in fiction about mind uploading and artificial intelligence, and that is a strong focus of the show.

Instead, I will ask a question that may explain the poor audiences the show is getting. Who is the hero of Caprica? The character the audience is supposed to identify with? The one we care about, the one we tune in so we can see what happens to them? This is an important question, since while a novel or movie can be great without a traditional protagonist or even an anti-hero, it's harder for a TV series to pull that off.

The lesson of Galactica and treating your creations well

A few weeks ago I reviewed the disappointing "The Plan" and in particular commented on how I wished the Cylons really had had a plan of some complexity.

The Cylons did not have "The Plan"

Last week saw the DVD release of what may be the final Battlestar Galactica movie/episode, a flashback movie called "The Plan." It was written by Jane Espenson and is the story of the attack and early chase from the point of view of the Cylons, most particularly Number One (Cavil.) (Review first, spoilers after the break.)

I've been highly down on BSG since the poor ending, but this lowered my expectations, giving me a better chance of enjoying The Plan. However, sadly it fell short even of lowered expectations. Critics have savaged it as a clip show, and while it does contain about 20% re-used footage (but not including some actors who refused to participate) it is not a clip show. Sadly, it is mostly a "deleted scenes" show.

You've all seen DVDs with "deleted scenes." I stopped watching these on DVDs because it often was quite apparent why they were deleted. The scene didn't really add anything the audience could not figure out on its own, or anything the story truly needed. Of course in The Plan we are seeing not deleted material but retroactive continuity. Once the story of Cavil as the mastermind of the attack was written in season 4, and that he did it to impress his creators (who themselves were not written as Cylons until season three) most of the things you will see become obvious. You learn very little more about them that you could not imagine.

There is some worthwhile material. The more detailed nuking of the colonies is chilling, particularly with the Cylon models smiling at the explosions -- the same models the audience came to forgive later. Many like the backstory given to a hidden "Simon" model on board the fleet never seen in the show. He turns out (in a retcon) to be one of the first to become more loving and human, since we see him at the opening having secretly married a human woman, but we also don't forget the other Simon models we saw, who were happy to run medical experiments on humans, smile at nukes, and lobotomize their fellow Cylons to meet Cavil's needs.

We learn the answers to a few mysteries that fans asked about -- who did Six meet after leaving Baltar on Caprica? The shown meeting is anticlimactic. How did Shelley Godfrey disappear after accusing Baltar? The answer is entirely mundane, and better left as a mystery. (Though it does put to rest speculation that she was actually a physical appearance of the Angel in Baltar's head, who mysteriously was not present during Godfrey's scenes.)

We get more evidence that Cavil is cold and heartless. Stockwell enjoys playing him that way. But I can't say it told me much new about his character.

More disappointing is what we don't get. We don't learn what was going on in the first episode, 33 and what was really on the Olympic Carrier, a source of much angst for Apollo and Starbuck during the series. We don't learn how the Cylons managed to be close enough to resurrect those tossed out airlocks, but not to catch the fleet. We don't learn how Cavil convinced the other Cylons to kill all the humans, or their thoughts on it. We don't learn how that decision got reversed. We learn more about what made Boomer do her sabotages and shooting of Adama, but we don't learn anything about why she was greeted above Kobol by 100 naked #8s who then let her nuke their valuable base star. Now that the big secret of the god of Galactica is revealed, we learn nothing more about that god, and the angels don't even appear.

In short, we learn almost nothing, which is odd for a flashback show aired after the big secrets have been revealed. Normally that is the chance to show things without having to hide the big secrets. Of course, they didn't know most of these big secrets in the first season.

Overall verdict: You won't miss a lot if you miss this, feel free to wait for it to air on TV.

Some minor spoiler items after the break.

Worldcon panel on BSG surprisingly negative

On Saturday I attended the Battlestar Galactica Postmortem panel at the World Science Fiction convention in Montreal. The "worldcon" is the top convention for serious fans of SF, with typically 4,000 to 6,000 attendees from around the world. There are larger (much larger) "media" conventions like ComicCon an DragonCon, but the Worlcon is considered "it" for written SF. It gives out the Hugo award. While the fans at a worldcon do put an emphasis on written SF, they also are voracious consumers of media SF, and so there are many panels on it, and two Hugo awards for it.

Can you be merely "influenced" by God?

Discussion of yesterday's mega-review of the ending of Battlestar Galactica included much focus on my negative view of the rule of a god as an intervening character in fiction. Many readers feel that the God of Galactica (Gog) did not so much control events as influence them. This suggests the following sidebar on religion:

Many religions struggle with the concept of a god that is so omniscient, it knows the future. This sometimes is described as being eternal, existing outside of time. The problem is the conflict between this, and free will. I find the two to be contradictory, especially when it comes to the concept found in many Christian sects that free will is most important with respect to your choice about whether to believe in god or not, or whether to be good or evil. The religions say you were created by god, who knew what choices you would make before creating you, but you are also punished for those choices. Even though, if asked, "can I choose another future than the one god knows I will choose, making him wrong?" they will say no.

However, the religious often do not see the same contradiction. We will not resolve this conflict here. I want to address the more direct question of a god who talks to people, and intervenes directly in the mortal world, as Gog does.

Gog appears in the minds of Baltar and many other characters. Gog also directly affects physical events, doing things like returning Starbuck in a new Viper.

Battlestar's "Daybreak:" The worst ending in the history of on-screen science fiction

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.

Caprica Review (spoilers after the break)

The prequel series, Caprica, is now available on DVD and for download. Caprica is set 56 years before the first Cylon war, and deals with the origin of the metal Cylons. This meta review provides links to some of the recent low-spoiler reviews. As you will read in all of them, Caprica is very different in tone from BSG. It's a drama set on a planet, not a space opera.

My disappointment with how BSG was ended lowered my expectations for Caprica, which is of course a good thing. You always enjoy a work more when you go into it with lower expectations. In an ideal world, one would wish for a way to get great recommendations on worthwhile things that don't raise high expectations -- you would enjoy life more. It was the high expectations I put on BSG that in part led to the ending being such a letdown.

However, the overall review is positive. If you did not know it was Battlestar, you could treat Caprica as near-future SF set on Earth. If you didn't have the references to polytheistic religion, in fact, a viewer would be hard pressed to spot differences from a typical tv-SF depiction of a decade or two in the future. Of course, the religion is important in this show, as it became important in BSG. While the God of Galactica (Gog) does not show it's face directly, we must wonder if it will do so later. However, the religion is fundamental to the plot in that many of the characters do very dramatic things motivated by their religious beliefs. Which is perfectly fine, of course -- some people mistook my criticism of the presence of an interventionist god in BSG as criticism of religion playing a role in a story.

You will get some items from Caprica that help explain important elements of BSG. They are more subtle than normal, but there. So the verdict is to watch it, though you will also do fine waiting the 8 months for it to appear on the air. The DVD version contains a bunch of mostly lesbian makeout scenes which won't show on TV; presumably they are there to keep the boys titillated. They occur -- no spoiler here, as you see this in the first 2 minutes of the show -- in a virtual reality club which is the setting for a number of scenes in the show. It may be a bit surprising at first to see the Capricans using technology far beyond what is seen on BSG when it comes to computers and robotics. Obviously the colonies had a minor Butlerian jihad after the Cylon war. This was hinted at several times during the BSG series.

But now on to the spoilers...

Understanding Mitochondrial Eve

(Advance note: Is there a reader who has video editing skills who might want to put together a short and amusing BSG-based parody video that I have conceived of? Contact me if so. Or if you have a complete collection of BSG videos or DVDs and are willing to find some scenes you could also help.)

The story of the BSG god. (Gog)

As is obvious to any reader here, I was quite disappointed with the god-did-it ending of BSG. However, we'll need to examine this god a bit more because in some way, it's the only other character, besides Young Bill Adama, who we will see in the upcoming Caprica series.

The god appears to some extent, as an underground monotheist cult exists and 2 of the 3 initial Cylons are patterned after its members. It has to be assumed it is from here the Cylons got their own monotheist religion.

What is most meaningful?

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.

Don't keep secrets when "It's the Characters, Stupid"

Moore famously declared, when composing the end of the BSG story, that "It's the Characters, Stupid." He wanted to focus on what happened to the characters and their story, and the plot and mysteries took second place.

I can understand that philosophy in writing. However, I do believe that if this was truly the case, the right thing to do is not create giant mysteries for the audience.

Why you don't want gods in your fiction

I won't deny that some of my distaste for the religious ending comes from my own preference for a realistic SF story, where everything that happens has a natural, rather than supernatural explanation, and that this comes in part from my non-religious worldview.

Nonetheless, I believe there are many valid reasons why you don't want to have interventionist gods in your fiction. God should not be a character in your story, unless you are trying to write religious fiction like Left Behind or Touched by an Angel.

Creationism and the Abduction theory

The posts will come fast and furious in the next two days.

First I want to cover a little more about why this ending is of so much concern to many viewers. While many will accept that it is unscientific, and just say that they never cared that much about such things, the particular errors and issues of the final plot are rather special. What we saw was not merely spacecraft making sound in space or FTL drives or some other random scientific error.

The good, the bad, the horrible

Readers of this blog won't have to guess my disappointment with the 2nd half of the finale. And yes, I will tear apart how silly, and pointless the way Moore wanted to end it was.

The Truth of the Opera House

Posts on episode-day usually get quickly overtaken by the new episode, so I am holding off some general articles I have for post-show. But with 3 hours to go, I thought I would open up speculation on two topics I haven't gotten a large read on. These are the Opera House and All along the Watchtower. I've read much speculation about both.

Could they really live together?

We've been told since season one that "god's plan" is to unite the Cylons and humans, in particular through a hybrid race in Hera. The Final Five can breed with the 7, and I suspect with the humans, but I suspect the Final Five will all die, their race entirely wiped out.

Naked Singularities and Antarctica

In the first part of Daybreak, we are told that the Colony is in the accretion disk (a reasonably close orbit) of a naked singularity. Naked singularities are an unsettled question in physics. Some don't think they can exist, others say they can. Here is an explanation from Scientific American written from the pro side.

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