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.
Before examining these, it is worth examining some important elements from the history of great science fiction in order to understand the metrics of greatness that I am using.
A defence of hard (and soft) science fiction
The term “hard” science fiction has two meanings. The first is SF that sticks to the laws of physics and reality. In true hard SF, you never do what is currently understood to be impossible, you try to find a way to make everything plausible in terms of science. (This is not enough to be hard SF of course, since romance novels also stay true to physics!)
The second meaning is SF that revels in the science. It often loves to explain the intricate scientific details, and in stereotypical form, is overloaded with expository dialogue. “As you know, Bob, the characters will often explain things in silly ways because they are really talking to the reader.” The story is about the unusual science it explores more than anything.
This latter subset deserves some of the derision it gets. It’s hard to do well. Worse, the more it tries to explain the science, the greater chance it has of getting it wrong, or becoming quickly dated. In Star Trek, the term “technobabble” was created to describe the nonsense you would often hear when Geordi or Data would explain how something on the Enterprise worked.
In Moore’s “naturalistic SF” he wanted to keep the realism but eschew the over-explanation. In fact, not explaining things at all is often a great course. This is the right course for TV for many of the reasons listed above, and often even for written works. The 1984 novel Neuromancer, considered one of the all-time-greats of the SF genre, was a novel about computers, AI and cyberspace written on an ordinary typewriter by William Gibson, a man with minimal knowledge of these areas. Because of this, he avoided explaining the details of how things worked, and as a result his novel has stood the test of time better than most novels about such topics.
Even those who love hard SF often tolerate various violations of the laws of physics. The most common is faster-than-light travel, or FTL. So many stories, including BSG itself, need FTL to work. There are other common tropes. Generally even fans of hard SF will undergo what is called a “suspension of disbelief” on the impossible thing in order to enjoy the story. The more impossible things, however, the more disconnected the story is from reality.
A connection to reality allows a story an important opportunity for relevance to reality. It allows the statement, “all of this could happen.” It allows stories to explore real issues, bad and good things that are really possible as a result of our science and technology. I contend that SF that does this is SF at its finest.
This is not to say that you can’t explore real issues in non-real SF and even fantasy. Or even real SF issues. Some great SF has done this entirely through allegory. Some SF is written not to be about the future at all, but the present, and simply uses an unrealistic future to tell a message about the present. That future need not be possible to deliver that message. But there is no denying that it helps.
Sticking to reality also offers things that fantasy does not. We all know that when accused of something, it is easier to tell the truth consistently than it is to spin a consistent web of falsehood. A story that sticks to reality has a much better chance at being consistent in its setting. The writer may be tempted to rewrite the rules in a story — and they certainly can — but this brings two curses. First, your new rules must compete with the real world’s to make your setting as impressive, and secondly there will be too much temptation to solve story problems simply by making up new rules.
Sticking to reality may sound like a constraint on a writer, it may sound too limiting. But in fact, I feel it’s the reverse. Constraints can improve a story. A story where literally anything can happen has no suspense and little mystery. Writers of “mainstream” fiction, constrained as they are to real settings, are in no way constrained or limited in their ability to write great fiction.
This is why, even though readers will suspend disbelief on a story’s fantastic elements, they must be introduced at the start of a story. If a writer resolves a problem by bringing in a new and unexpected fantastic element at the end, the audience feels cheated. In the broad sense, this sort of ending is called a Deus ex machina, where something unexpected comes out of the blue. (This literally means “god from the machine,” and there is some irony that BSG literally featured a religion that came from the machines.)
If a story begins by showing us a wizard, we understand immediately that we will see wizards and magic. If a story with no magic introduces a wizard with no hint that magic was coming, the audience rightly feels cheated.
Even “soft” SF, not so constrained to the rules of physics, has its rules. All good fiction must be consistent within itself and the writer’s contract with the reader.
I repeat my contention that realistic (or “hard” if you prefer) SF offers the best means to explore the big issues of science and technology in fiction and what they might really mean. Today there is a large sub-genre of hard SF with a focus on artificial minds, uploaded minds and copyable people. Writers are exploring what this means, what it means to be a thinking being, what it means to be human and not human. SF writers have done that a lot, particularly through the use of aliens, but this is today’s nexus. Indeed, since Frankenstein itself, SF writers have been exploring the question of humanity creating artificial life.
This does not mean there can’t be great non-realistic SF or fantasy. In fact, sometimes these genres can produce some of the greatest works. To do so however, they usually lay out their magic at the start. We know at the very beginning that Gandalf is a wizard and the world of Lord of the Rings is full of elves and hobbits. From the beginning, there is a sort of “negotiation” of the suspension of disbelief between the reader and writer; a contract of sorts. We would be equally upset with battlestars appearing in Lord of the Rings as we would be with Nazgul aboard Cylon heavy raiders.
Still, while all levels of fantasy can produce greatness, there is a special relevance that can only be produced through realism. Non-realistic stories must gain their relevance through allegories. They present a world which is not ours, but has parallels that teach lessons about the real world.
They may also plainly entertain and indulge interesting fantasies. It is not bad to simply entertain. The best SF will have it all — realism, great characters, compelling stories, drama, elements which speak to our own understanding of our world and technology, mystery and all-around good writing in the perfect balance. Nobody ever combines all these perfectly, and probably nobody ever will, but there is still a goal to strive for and be measured against.
Values of great mystery
BSG was not just an SF show. It was a mystery. The story held many secrets, and fans were teased with clues about these secrets. A great mystery offers tantalizing clues, though usually enough to support several theories. The mystery should be compelling, though it should not completely overwhelm the story and its other elements.
At the end of a great mystery, when the secrets are revealed, the reader or audience should have an “aha” moment. In this moment, it should become clear not just what the answer to the mystery is, but also how the whole story was leading up to that answer. The answer should be, in hindsight, clear and inevitable. Things that did not make sense should suddenly be perfectly logical. At the same time, the ending should provide a satisfactory resolution to the major dramas and conflicts of the story, leaving few loose ends, particularly around the clues.
Now on to where BSG fell down.
Failure #1 — God did it
Divinity in fiction
When gods become active characters in fiction, the rules change again. The earliest dramas, written by the ancient Greeks, regularly had the gods meddling in the affairs of mortals. In many of these plays, the mortals were just pawns, doomed to meet a divinely willed destiny. Plots would be resolved and characters’ fates settled through the sudden intervention of gods.
We know these endings as “Deus Ex Machina” today. This literally means the appearance of god in the machine, but from a literary standpoint, it refers to the relatively sudden introduction of powerful (often divine) external forces to resolve a plot. This has long been felt to be bad writing, even a cheat. This school of dramatic criticism is so old it goes back to Aristotle, who wrote:
It is obvious that the solutions of plots too should come about as a result of the plot itself, and not from a contrivance, as in the Medea and in the passage about sailing home in the Iliad. A contrivance must be used for matters outside the drama—either previous events which are beyond human knowledge, or later ones that need to be foretold or announced. For we grant that the gods can see everything. There should be nothing improbable in the incidents; otherwise, it should be outside the tragedy, e.g. that in Sophocles’ Oedipus.
The presence of divine characters in fiction is troubling, unless your goal is to write religious fiction, which is usually aimed at believers of the religion or at best at potential converts. When not writing religious fiction, divine characters spoil the story. While some may disagree, divine intervention is a rare or non-existent thing in our universe, and certainly not something that is overt and obvious in modern times.
Worst of all, divine intervention robs all the other characters of meaning. The story is no longer about how they struggled and overcame adversity. They did not battle their mortal and natural adversaries and triumph or fail. Rather, things came out as they did through divine will.
This is particularly true when divine intervention or prophecy leads to an unlikely event. If, for example, it has been divinely willed or predicted that various characters will gather on the bridge of Galactica, with 5 glowing on the balcony and others playing various roles, then almost every single thing that led up to that result must also be due to divine intervention, and not the wills and actions of the characters. You can look back at the story and for every event, you will likely find that had the past gone differently, the divinely required event would not have happened, and so all the past becomes the reflection of divine will.
In Battlestar Galactica, it gets more extreme. There, we are told that 2,000 years ago Anders wrote a song, and that 30 years ago, that song was put into the head of Starbuck. More recently it was put into Hera. The notes of this song, turned into a series of numbers, punched in at a very specific location in space at a very specific time, would send a ship many light years to appear over the moon of a planet that, a starting a billion years ago, had been the subject of very carefully guided evolution aimed at producing an identical genome to life evolving on another planet.
You change almost anything about the BSG story and this event doesn’t happen. As a result, all the events of BSG have only one meaning — fulfillment of the divine plan. I prepared a list of the amazingly many events that now must be attributed to the God of Galactica to illustrate this more completely.
Of course, all fictional worlds are deterministic, and they all have a authorial “god” who writes their story. Sometimes the author even inserts foreshadowing and prophecies of what is to come. But this is quite different from a writer entering the story as a character who is making things happen. The latter only happens in more satirical “break the 4th wall” sorts of stories, and it’s fairly hard to do well. (Moore compared the 4th wall to the wall between man and created machine, but if it was his goal to realize this, it did not work.)
When gods appear as real characters in fiction, their job should not be to resolve the plot, but rather to create it. It’s OK when the gods create the problems our heroes will resolve. We want to read the story of how they resolve them and what journey they take.
Gods can be fascinating characters, but they can never be truly comprehensible. They exist better, as Baltar says, as a force of nature. Man vs. nature is a great plot. Man vs. god is an incomprehensible one.
It should be noted that one way that semi-divine beings have been making their way profitably into science fiction is through the notion of natural beings that are so advanced that they are as gods to us. Like supernatural gods, who exist outside of time and physics, these natural gods — sometimes former humans or advanced AI computers — are still beyond our comprehension. They are still constrained by reality, however, and that can make them interesting as elements in a story. As Vernor Vinge wrote, it is still a mistake to have a super-mind as a point-of-view character, and their actions should remain mostly off-screen to set up challenges for our more human protagonists, but they can still spice up a story. Because Baltar says at the very end of BSG, “You know it doesn’t like that name (God),” some have wondered if the God of Galactica is in fact a non-supernatural, highly advanced being. This seems unlikely when you consider the scope of its powers, but in any event no further evidence for this position was ever given.
In the long run, using deus ex machina is a cheat. It’s the easy way out of plot problems, and it must been seen as a failure. When you can say “god did it” you can write just about anything. The author takes on too much power, including too much power to do things that make no sense.
The Ghostbusters law
Many argue that the appearance of the divine is hardly a surprise in BSG. Right from season one, Head-Six tells Baltar she is an angel sent by god to protect him. Characters regularly reflect on remarkable, improbable events. Indeed, nobody watching the show was unaware that somebody very powerful was pulling strings and manipulating events behind the scenes. Indeed, the original series also featured god-like beings altering the destinies of the characters.
But many were shocked to have it be revealed as a supernatural god. I believe this is a result of what I would call Ghostbusters law.
If somebody asks you if you are a God, you say yes!
The corollary, particularly in any sort of realistic science fiction is this:
If somebody says they are a god in an SF story, they usually aren’t.
SF is chock-full of non-divine beings that pretend to be gods or are mistaken for gods. It’s a cliché of sorts. So nobody can be blamed for being surprised when that string-puller turned out to be a supernatural God and its angels, or being surprised at just how much of the story came down to the interventions of this god.
It would have been more unexpected if the god had been one we are familiar with. Real religious fiction which might be about the Judeo-Christian-Muslim God would not raise an eyebrow when the divine appears. We are not surprised or bothered when God acts in The Ten Commandments or Touched by an Angel. But it’s hard to figure out the reason for the introduction of an entirely invented god that nobody actually believes in. The message that “Some god nobody has ever heard of has a plan for humanity” is simply not a meaningful one for any audience.
There are some who don’t agree with the Ghostbusters law rule, and feel the “god’s plan” nature of the plot was well foreshadowed and should not be considered a surprise. I do see their case, though I don’t agree that is the interpretation an typical SF fan would take. A more common interpretation was “well, that could be a real god, but it won’t be, because that would really suck as an ending, and Moore is better than that.” Under that interpretation, it was a surprise, and we were, in effect, asked to suspend disbelief on the fantastic elements far too late in the story. Even if you love the role of the divine in BSG, it makes little sense to keep the reality of the god a secret until the end. If you know it’s god behind it all, and suspend disbelief from the start, you can focus on the story and view god as a proxy for the author. Leaving the proof to the end is unlikely to create a strong positive reaction, and very like to engender disappointment.
Consider as well a rather minor tweak. What if the other set of gods (the Lords of Kobol, with the same names as the Greek gods) had been real, and the “one true god” had been false, or simply a conceited Olympian. If Zeus has created mankind on Kobol and duplicated it on our Earth, and was annoyed that humans have stopped worshiping him here and getting ready for our destruction as the cycle repeats. Would that satisfy?
While I won’t pretend to be a big fan of religious fiction — though I have enjoyed many books with supernatural and divine backgrounds to them — my criticism is not simply an expression of that taste. Good religious fiction still has the characters responsible for their own destinies at some basic level, even if it is just their choice to believe. (We don’t see that here among the major characters. Baltar becomes a believer, but only after scores of miracles pushed in his face.) I feel that even if you love spiritual or religious fiction, this was not good religious fiction. If you read some spiritual message from the god and its actions, let us know in the comments.
As many people still feel the god was just an influencer, and not a puppet-master, I have written a sidebar on whether one can truly be just “influenced” by an intervening god.
(And yes, I’m aware of the irony that in the fantasy story of Ghostbusters, Gozer actually is a demigod, though the kind humans can defeat. This is not at all surprising in a story like Ghostbusters, though. Great supernatural fiction, but as a comedy, subject to entirely different rules.)
Failure #2 — Science errors on plot-turning elements
No work of SF is likely to be perfect in its science, no matter how hard the author tries, since no author is perfect. Even the best trained scientists are never perfect.
There are also different levels of error. There may be mistakes that even the high-school educated may see. There will be mistakes apparent only to those with a general scientific education. Some mistakes may spoil it only for somebody who did their PhD thesis on the topic at hand.
There are also deliberate mistakes, where the creator of the story knows what they are doing is incorrect, but decides they must break the rules to make their dramatic point. (A typical example would be ships making sound in space while they fight when viewed from outside.)
We can, and must tolerate mistakes that are very obscure, or which are not central to the plot. And we tolerate the deliberate mistakes for various reasons. We should be less tolerant, however, of mistakes upon which the whole plot hinges, especially if they are easily fixable and would be revealed with just a brief check with a science advisor.
Not that Hollywood doesn’t screw up like this all the time. In fact the TV show Mythbusters does a show every month or so outlining how ridiculous some key scene in a Hollywood action movie is when compared to reality. We can still enjoy these scenes of course, and even come to expect them, but they change our story from a real one to a caricature, and lessen its chances for greatness and relevance. Only a minority of science-aware viewers may find the story spoiled by the unrealism of the mistake, but the long-term legacy is spoiled for everybody.
The key error I am going to speak about may seem rather obscure to you. But it deserves extra scrutiny because the whole story was warped, in my view, to fit the mistake, and that was a great failure.
Moore decided that he wanted to set the show in the past, and that he wanted Hera, the human-Cylon hybrid child, to be the ancestor of all humans living today. There are a lot of problems with making this work, even if you get the core facts right.
Moore had heard of the concept of Mitochondrial Eve (MTE). Unfortunately, he somehow got the idea that this woman is supposed to be the most recent common ancestor of humanity, and thus he should make Hera be MTE. Moore’s cameo character is holding a copy of National Geographic, and the Angel-6 reads from it, “Mitochondrial Eve is the name scientists have given to the most recent common ancestor for all human beings now living on Earth.”
This is, however, not true. (In fact, had Moore bothered to check the Wikipedia page for Mitochondrial Eve he would have noticed that it clearly names confusing MTE for the most recent common ancestor (MRCA) as the #1 mistake people make about her.) Moore and others may have been attracted to that error because the name “Eve” conjures up a Biblical Eve, and in fact the scientists who came up with the name have come to regret the associations that come with it. In reality, MTE lived perhaps 140,000 years earlier than the MRCA. While MTE is an example of a common ancestor for all living humans, most people are not clear that almost all the non-childless people living at the same time as MTE were also common ancestors for all living humans, as were almost all the people living before her and almost all the people living after her for almost 140,000 years. She is nothing particularly special in that sense. In fact, almost all the non-childless people from a few generators before the MRCA was born (probably 140,000 years after MTE) are also common ancestors of all living people. Grazier, in his book “The Science of Battlestar Galactica” admits that MTE and the MRCA were incorrectly confused, but goes on to make the completely incorrect statement that MTE is the only woman of her period to have descendants today. In fact, almost all the people of that time are ancestors of the entire human race today. That’s a rather huge difference.
Moore wished Hera to special, but as I described, MTE is not. What makes her notable is that a quirk of inheritance means we can estimate when this particular common ancestor lived, because your line (and everybody else’s) to her is only through women and never even once through men. (We can do the same for a common ancestor along strictly male lines — he lived tens of thousands of years after MTE, but again, long before the MRCA.)
Why do these details of genetics matter so much? Because Moore warped the whole story to fit them. He had read (correctly) that it is estimated that MTE lived roughly around 150,000 years ago. And so he decided to set the whole show in that era.
Now, as I’ll explain in more detail later, setting the show in the past was a terrible idea — one of the main elements of the original show most in need of “re-imagining.” However, if you are going to set the show in the past, 150,000 years ago is a poor choice. It’s way too early. It is over 100,000 years before the real flowering of our culture sometimes referred to by anthropologists as “The Great Leap Forward” (GLF.) While the GLF is not a fully accepted theory, what is known is that there are scant records of humans having much that is advanced in any way at those times — good weapons, agriculture, complex language, writing, domestic animals, civilization and many other things are not just absent but far in the future for those people. They either arose gradually, or in the GLF theory, in a relatively short burst around 50,000 years ago. They definitely didn’t come in a big burst around the time of MTE, as might be the result of a sudden colonization by advanced alien cousins.
This requires that the colonists left no trace of what they were. This in turn demanded that the colonists destroy all their technology and quickly become a simple society. This is the element that many fans found least believable about the ending. There were, at best, just a few hints of this sort of political desire among the colonists. If this was to be the ending, there should have been more foreshadowing of it, with presentation of a powerful Luddism movement among the colonists. But even with such a movement, as Lampkin says, there should have been far more objection. All those of any advanced age or with any history of illness would have something to say about sending all the hospital facilities into the sun, if nobody else would.
However, to fit the timeline, this had to be done. Any space-faring society would have left remnants of itself on the Moon and in space. The complete destruction of the fleet made sense in terms of the way the story was warped, but did not make sense in terms of being a believable action of all the characters.
In fact, it generally requires that everything of colonial civilization got erased. In spite of what Apollo says about teaching the natives their language, none of that came through to today. Their culture disappeared completely. If they started farming, it vanished. If they used better hunting weapons like composite longbows or crossbows, they vanished. All their stories, all the lessons learned about the dangers of creating robot slaves — completely gone. While both versions of the story suggested a connection between the Lords of Kobol and the Greek gods, there can be none. We’ve traced the history of the Greek gods back to prototype versions in Indian cultures that are different from the colonial ones. The Greeks didn’t get their names and ideas from ancient Colonial legends that survived 140,000 years.
Had they set the arrival closer to the time of a later common ancestor, say 40,000 to 60,000 years ago, they could have avoided all that. Colonial culture and language could have made a contribution to ours. We could have had legends and technology they invented. The fleet could have been the secret reason for the Great Leap Forward. This is not a plot I am thrilled with but much better than what we got. . In fact, the only reason the MRCA is dated that long ago is because native Australians and Americans (who were isolated from the rest of the world around 10,000 years ago) are still the cousins of Afro/Eurasians, otherwise MRCA would have lived even more recently.
This complete cultural erasure, all to fit the date of MTE, kills the value of setting the show in the past. If the message, as seen at the end, is that we must examine the consequences of building and enslaving artificial life if we are to avoid an endless cycle of war, then the story finished with the destruction and falsification of that message. All that the colonists learned was lost. All they gave us was some DNA.
You can read this blog post for more details on Mitochondrial Eve.
Hera’s Mitochondria, interbreeding, and Arks
Or did they do even that? Adama is correctly shocked to hear that the colonials can breed with the natives of our planet. In spite of the fact this has shown up in TV SF before, particularly in Star Trek, it is absurd. You are much, much more closely related to a mushroom than you are to anything alien. Baltar is quite correct when he states that this could only be a result of a miracle.
And it’s an immense miracle. “Astronomical” barely describes it. Our DNA is the result of billions of genetic accidents that favoured one ancestor over a non-ancestor due to better adaption to the many different environments in which those ancestors lived. For two species to evolve compatible DNA on two different planets requires a huge amount of divine intervention, over the course of a billion years, with interventions every step of the way. This is no hands-off sort of miracle, the sort sometimes called “theistic evolution.” It’s a very detailed “intelligent design” of our form and genome. Not just our environments but all the accidents (for evolution is full of random accidents as well as happy ones) had to be the same on both planets.
Understand this is not the same as the concept of parallel evolution, where two different evolutionary lines deliver a creature with wings because wings are useful. Bats, birds, bugs and Pterodons may all have wings but they are genetically very different wings, and they can’t interbreed at all. And they are much more closely related than aliens would ever be.
This is a particular failure because the creationist concept of intelligent design is one of the most pernicious types of anti-science out there. SF stories like to play around with things like paranormal abilities and other pseudoscience all the time, and it’s fine when it’s all in fun. Nobody thinks they should teach telepathy in school as an alternate theory because they show it in TV shows. But people do want to teach that we are the result of careful divine manipulation in school, and they need to be stopped, so seeing it present in what could have been a great SF TV show is somewhat disquieting. I am not keen on dictating education policy to TV shows, but this is one area that is important, if you believe in the value of good science education as I do.
Indeed, in general the idea that humans are the result of an Ark that landed in (relatively) recent history is both one of the most discredited ideas in the history of history, but also one of the most likely to resurface again and again because of the religious motives of those who push it. If a good SF show has any duty to get its science right, it wants to avoid the Ark theory in all its forms.
As I noted above, all of this was put in the show only to fit with the incorrect idea of who MTE was. But if you want to go deeper, it becomes clear that Hera didn’t really contribute any special DNA. Because the Mitochondrial DNA (MTDNA) pass effectively unchanged from mother to children, all humans have essentially the same MTDNA. The only differences are a few mutations, about 20 of them (different in each line) since MTE.
But we don’t just share our MTDNA with other humans and with MTE. We also share it with all the other life on Earth, just with more mutated differences. As such, while two human’s MTDNA is almost perfectly identical, it is also nearly identical between a human and a chimpanzee. You may see the problem with the new BSG mythology — in that story, while humans got their MTDNA from Hera who was a synthetic being from another world, our cousin apes got theirs only through their ancestors on this planet. Yet both MTDNAs are the same. So Hera’s DNA, whatever it was, had to have been effectively identical — at least in the mitochondria — with the DNA on this planet, making her contribution insignificant.
There is a strong irony here. Had he declared Hera to be any other common ancestor except MTE, his story would be slightly more credible. Because ape MTDNA and human MTDNA are near identical, we can be sure that MTE’s mother was native to this world. It’s on the other DNA where you could try to play games, though they would still be ridiculously unlikely games. Turns out the line of women to and beyond MTE is the one set of people we can prove aren’t alien, and that’s who he picked.
Under a stricter scientific analysis, the whole reason behind the big plot twist — Hera’s contribution to our DNA as mother of us all — becomes insignificant. If it doesn’t, you have a world where it’s been discovered that humans and apes do not share all their ancestors. This is a world where creationism is taught in schools because there, it’s actually true. A world where the church is probably a lot more powerful. Some might like that better, but it’s not our world.
Failure #2a — Broken connection to our reality
Making mistakes like this is one of the big dangers of the “secret history” sub-genre of SF, which I will outline below. It is so difficult that Moore failed, and created instead an alternate history. His goal, he said, was to create a connection between the BSG characters and ourselves, and he tried to reach that goal by making Hera be our ancestor. Yet this is impossible. She can’t be, even with the aid of an intervening god. So in the end there is no connection between them and us; they might as well have been in a galaxy far, far away.
I have a blog post on what the most meaningful connection to our reality is.
Is this too nitpicky?
Many viewers were not aware (just as Moore wasn’t) of who MTE was. In fact, many viewers, even with Baltar’s statement of the astronomical odds against it right in the show, were not aware of how odd it is to have the same race of people on two planets, able to interbreed. As such, they were not bothered by these issues upon viewing and were better able to enjoy the ending.
This happens to most of us frequently. You watch a show with a dramatic and action-filled ending, and get a good entertainment experience from it. Shortly after, however, you think it through again and see it is full of holes, not just technical mistakes but complete logical inconsistencies.
We still enjoy the ending while watching, but the long term legacy of the work suffers when these plot holes are present. Indeed it is the role of critics to define that long term legacy with more close analysis. While in some sense everything can be answered with a “god did it,” it is precisely because this is true that using a god is a failure.
You are allowed mistakes of all sorts in the episodes. But you must get get things right in the premise of the show, and in the ending that gives it meaning, if you want to rise to the top.
Failure #3 — Collective Unconscious
The show was full of elements from our culture. They dressed like us, their technology looked like ours. They used our idioms, and even quoted lines of Shakespeare from time to time. Their gods were the same as the Greeks had, their military rules were similar. On the surface, this might be treated as a translation for the audience. After all, often we see shows where the characters would obviously not be speaking English, but of course the actors do — what we see is translated to be familiar with us.
However, many fans also thought that perhaps this was because there was a real connection between them and us. After all, they were hunting for a planet called Earth, and you can’t do that in a story without connecting it to our planet. For many, the obvious connection was that this was in our future, as is the case in most SF. Moore even released tidbits to say that indeed, these parallels were not coincidences.
Much of this came to a head when Bob Dylan’s “All along the Watchtower” entered the show. One might treat this as simply a 20th century song appearing in a TV show — after all, all the music in a TV show is really written by modern real-world composers, this just happened to be one you had already heard licenced from a famous composer. But no: Moore told us that there was a real connection to the song we knew.
But in the end, that connection, and all the others were explained away by Moore as follows:
“Everything from our system of justice to our clothes to the phones on our walls to quite literally the music some of them hear can be seen all around us, so clearly their lives and their existence were not for naught. The show is making a direct connection between them and us and positing the idea that many of the things in our lives are somehow descended through the mists of time — through the collective unconscious if you like — down to us today. In addition, we are all blood relatives to both Colonial and Cylon-kind and therefore their existence is more than simply an ancient curiosity, it’s family history.” - RDM
Anders wrote “All along the Watchtower” originally on the 13th Colony Earth — though guided by the divine so that the code for a jump to our Earth would be encoded in the notes. Then Bob Dylan wrote it again, plucking it out of the “collective unconscious.”
This is, to put it bluntly, bullshit. This is not the Jungian broad concept of repeated ideas. This is a song, duplicated note for note, word for word. You can make up what you want in a story, of course, but to explain so many things with such a handwaving answer is an insult to the audience. This answer is deeply unsatisfying, and diminishes not only the legacy of the colonials but adds an unwanted determinism to our own culture.
The circular suggestion that we have a race memory thanks the the Cylon abilities we inherited is cute, but in the real world, there’s no evidence of projection or digital memory. The fans of psychic powers have pushed this idea for a long time, with no actual experimental success.
Failure #4 — The Future vs. a secret history
In the 1970s, Chariots of the Gods, which talked about ancient cultures having contact with ancient alien astronauts was a popular fad. The original 1978 BSG combined this thought with some others to tell a story of how humanity originated out in space, and came to Earth — and how there were yet “brothers of man, who even now fight to survive” still out there.
This was a silly idea even then, but TV audiences were willing to buy it.
In reality we know that humanity evolved here on Earth, and that we are closely related with all the other life on Earth. No SF show trying to be realistic should show otherwise. To set a space opera in the past, it is necessary to either assume a secret “Atlantis” style culture that rose and fell without a trace, or to imagine advanced aliens who came to Earth and either abducted humans from it and/or gave them advanced technology which was also lost without a trace, at least on Earth.
This is a sub-genre of SF known as “secret history.” The story is supposedly set in our reality, but there are big secrets from the past that we don’t know which form the basis of the story. BSG attempted this. You will also find it in stories like “The X-Files,” “Men in Black” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.” In its most extreme form, such as the “Company” series by Kage Baker, the secret history is carried out by time travelers who work to make sure they never do anything that will change the history they know from books.
Secret history is fun, and has a long tradition. In fact, the “Adam and Eve as alien astronauts” story was very popular in the early days of SF. So popular that most SF editors would discard such stories as cliche on sight today.
Secret history is also difficult to pull off. One false move and you create a world which just can’t be the antecedent of the real world. With such a wrong step, you move unintentionally into the genre of “alternate history.” Alternate history is also very popular, and often tied closely to SF, even though in many ways it can be entirely different. It gets categorized with SF because it involves a similar sort of imaginary world-building that appeals to the same sort of fan. In addition, once the past is changed, it usually has to play by the rules.
All fiction is, in a sense, alternate history, if only for a few invented people, but real SF-style alternate history usually makes a big change in the nature of the world, and this is an important part of the story. Alternate history is popular enough that in 2008 an alternate history novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon, won the Hugo award for best (SF/Fantasy) novel. It also won because it was far and away the best written, with wonderfully constructed characters and very impressive prose. (This may go against any stereotype you have that hardcore SF fans will always choose rockets and blasters and technology over good characters and prose.)
But secret history that fails into alternate history is of only limited interest. This is not a path to greatness.
As I described above, Moore warped the story to set it in the past, but many fans, including myself, were convinced that the story was set in the future. In fact, we were pretty sure the show had telegraphed that to us in no uncertain terms, but ended up being quite wrong.
A story set in the future would have been better not just because of my tastes, but it also would have met Moore’s goals better. Moore wanted to generate a real connection between BSG and our real world. He felt, for reasons I don’t quite understand, that a future setting didn’t provide that. Since most SF, including most meaningful SF, is set in the future, I find this surprising. Future SF, if done with realism, says, “This could be our future.” This is a story of what might actually be, something we might have real concern over, something we might learn from. When BSG, at its ending, has the angels lament about the path into the future our society is taking once again, that’s the only moment of non-allegorical relevance to our lives. Set in the past, BSG tried to be a story of “this might have been” and became “this is fun, but never was.”
Why were fans like myself so convinced it was in the future? It is not simply the tremendous and literally miraculous warping that was needed to set it in the past. The show told us so. The climax of the first season actually took place early in the 2nd season. This was the conclusion of their chase to and on Kobol, where they finally activated the Tomb of Athena. They were shown a 3-D projection of a planetarium of sorts, meant to be the sky of the mythical Earth they sought. On it was the real Zodiac of our Earth (though not exactly right as some will point out, and not right for 150,000 years ago either) and the ancient names of the 12 tribes of Kobol. Those names were our names for the Zodiac, and we were told the original flags of the 12 tribes were the star patterns of the 12 constellations of the sky over Earth.
This was no casual revelation which an overzealous fan might read too much into. This was the biggest “revelation” scene of the entire show to that point. If you were to try to piece out the mystery of Earth, this was clearly the scene to do it from.
And here, the 12 tribes of Kobol had, as their flags, the stars of a lost colony of which they knew very little. And they were our stars with our names. There was, and still is, only one interpretation for this — the culture of Kobol and the colonies originated not on Kobol, but under the sky of our Earth. (At that time there was no intimation of an different, earlier Earth.) It would be like visiting all the nations of the British commonwealth and noting the Union Jack in the corner of all their flags, and not concluding that Britain was where their culture originated. Adama even refers to a nebula as “M8,” which is not a translated name but rather an 18th century astronomical catalog number.
There could be only one clear interpretation. They came from our Earth, and they were in the future. But this was of course not how it turned out. How could this be? After the show ended, science advisor Kevin Grazier gave an interview in which he said, “oops.” This was one of their biggest mistakes. He knew it, and tried to get it fixed, he says, but to no avail.
All shows will make mistakes. Some will even make mistakes in their big moments. But if a show that has a mystery at its core makes such a mistake and knows it, it is only proper in the internet age to fess up. Moore did this a few times. When he misjudged how fans would read the revelation of an 8th Cylon named Daniel, he immediately made public comment to shut down the speculation. He corrected other mistakes along the way. But he let this one, the biggest of all, stand.
To this day the scene in the tomb makes no sense. The 13th colony not-our-Earth we eventually saw was lost to Kobol, and they themselves didn’t even know the way back, and could only travel below the speed of light. The flags and names of the tribes couldn’t possibly have come from the sky of another planet, like the first Earth or our Earth. Other than through truly bizarre divine intervention again.
Remember, this was no minor comment made by an actor that got magnified by fans. This was the big climactic revelation scene, the one that practically had a blinking sign on it saying, “here are the big clues about Earth.” And it put the show in the future. When you added all the modern cultural references which appeared in the show, including All along the Watchtower, and the fact that science all but demanded the show be in the future, I will contend that fans who felt it would be set there were right, and still are right, in spite of how it ended up being written. All those things were explained away as information in the “collective unconscious.”
A show set in the future would have had the chance to tell the story of how the cycle of war began with us. How our own society created intelligent machines and fell, with a ragtag fleet fleeing the ruined planet to Kobol or Earth-2 or some other world along the way. It would have made their story be our story.
Remarkably, the show could have ended up that way — set in the future — until the very last 3 minutes. This is why the ending was such a huge fall. The show provided very few clues that it might be set in the past. In fact, I would venture there was only one thin clue — Hera’s type-O blood, not found anywhere else on the colonies. (This in turn is a less important scientific error, though Grazier claims it was the clue we should have noticed.)
Failure #5 — It’s the characters, stupid
Moore often defends the ending by saying that, while writing it, he put a mantra up on the wall: “It’s the characters, stupid.” He decided not to focus on the big story elements and concentrate on telling the characters’ story.
This is a perfectly good, in fact superior way to tell a story. He gave himself good advice. The problem was, he had this change of heart after creating a mystery-driven story rather than a character driven story.
He didn’t abandon the characters that viewers tuned into see, but for the last two seasons the show introduced a variety of big mysteries and amplified others. What was Earth? Who was pulling the strings behind the scenes? Who were the final five? What was the special destiny of Hera? Who were the beings in the heads of Baltar and others? There were many more mysteries.
These are the hallmark of a “big mystery” story. There have been many popular “big mystery” TV series. Shows like Lost, the X-Files, Babylon-5, Heroes and even non-genre shows like the “Who shot JR?” year of Dallas. You can, and should, have good characters in a big-mystery show, but there should be no illusions that the mystery does not take over a healthy part of what drives the show.
Character-driven shows usually take the simpler approach. They don’t have big central mysteries. Oh, they have some suspense, and some secrets to reveal (usually secrets about characters) but in general they don’t keep big secrets from the audience and make the audience focus on them. They don’t start every episode with “One will be revealed” or “And they have a plan.”
In fact, some of the best character dramas reveal the ending right at the start. You are not in suspense about how it will end, but instead about how we will get there. I’ve seen a number of great shows begin with a character’s death. There was never any doubt during MASH that the Korean war would someday end. That didn’t hurt the show, in fact it made it better.
So if you really want character driven drama, then reveal many of the secrets, and get on with telling us how the characters chart their course to the ending we already partly know.
BSG started like this in a way. Both versions of the show began with a quest for a planet “Earth” that they knew nothing about. We, the audience, knew much more about it than the characters ever could. We didn’t know what year it would be until the end, but even with this knowledge we would have enjoyed watching the journey to a fate we knew more about than them.
In addition, as addressed earlier, the ending revealed that almost every tiny action the characters took (especially Starbuck) was to fulfill “God’s plan” and was often the result of careful and clever intervention by the god. This deprives the characters of their free will and humanity. In a character-driven story it is the strengths and failures of the characters which generate and resolve the story, not the tweakings of an interventionist diety.
Failure #6 - not a great ending
Many others have written about other failures of the ending, failures that don’t involve most of the concepts I’ve laid out above.
Common themes include not believing that they would really abandon all their technology and leave the Cylons with a ship. The loss of meaning that came with the complete destruction of their culture.
More than their culture is destroyed though. It’s clear that their society must have fallen quite quickly. Hera, it is said, died a young woman. She is probably not the only one. Without technology, their lives might well have been nasty, brutish and short. While Hera went on to have descendants, it may be that all the other sub-colonies, stupidly scattered to other continents (all of which were vacant at that time, and which contain no traces of H. Sapiens 150,000 years ago) died out fairly quickly. The ending seems happy, but is actually a tragedy. Apollo says “we can give [the natives] the best part of ourselves” but this never happens. Indeed, even in their main colony in Tanzania, there is no evidence of any modernity. No art on the walls of caves. None of the flowering that comes from language and its ability to permit teaching and transfer of knowledge. No sign of farming, fishing or even slight advances in arrowheads and spears.
We can also speculate one reason they would die out. I don’t think they would really get along, the Cylons and the humans. Leaving aside resentment over genocide, the Cylons are a race of supermen. They are super-strong, super-smart, can communicate digitally by touching and presumably don’t age. Can you really build a society of equals with two populations like that, with the resentment of genocide behind it? We have had a pretty hard time on the real Earth where we just try to imagine that some of us are genetically superior to others.
This came after a tremendous amount of hype for the ending. Network executives issued a press release every few weeks about how mind-blowingly dark but good it was, how everybody wept who was involved in it. Sometimes high expectations like that are the worst thing to set, because one can’t help but being disappointed. The ending was not dark, and none of the characters we cared about died except the ones we were expecting for a long time — Sam and Laura.
Most fans were disappointed with both the fate of Starbuck and what we didn’t learn about what she was and what she meant. It would have been nice to see her with Six and Baltar in New York (if we were to have that ending at all, of course) to show that she got a new, immortal angel existence.
Up until they landed on Earth and saw the early humans, the ending was quite exciting, though it left a great deal of loose ends. But all long stories leave loose ends so I’m not going to nitpick those. Though I must express disappointment at how meaningless the great and mysterious “truth of the opera house” was and at how the negotiated peace settlement (now that’s an unorthodox TV ending) turned into just more battle and Cavil’s permanent suicide after Tory’s strangulation. Laura and Bill’s fate was moving and Starbuck’s ending is hard to objectively like or condemn — it is an artistic choice.
Some fans liked the ending. But a fair number of fans not as concerned with realism, and not as bothered by the religious deus ex machina still found the ending a let-down. But I will leave it to other critics to outline those problems.
Here are some other critical reviews of the ending:
- Robert Bland at Tor.com expresses the problems with divine intervention better than I do, I recommend this one highly.
- Not in Our Stars from Galactica Sitrep
- Television without Pity is of course always critical.
- A SuicideGirls critic was not very kind
- The Vancouver Sun agrees about how the ending was a big fall to a great show.
- Annalee at I09 is troubled, but still feels the characters made their own destinies.
- This forum comment about the futility of the ending (See Post #18) is unusual in that Moore answers it.
This is not to say that there were not many positive reviews, in fact I believe overall fan feeling in polls was more positive than negative, at least at the time of airing. However, a panel at the World SF Convention in August was surprisingly vitriolic.
How it could have been great
I’ve noted that one of the great disappointments of the ending was how close it came to greatness. How might we change it to make it great? Remarkably the editing needed would be quite minor. This is a testament to Moore’s ability to do a pretty good job of “making it up as he goes along.” More has admitted he frequently did stuff he felt was cool with no idea what it would mean, and made up the meaning later — sometimes well and sometimes badly. But he does clearly have a talent for doing this, even if he could not pull off the finish.
Note, I describe thoughts here not to suggest this is the only ending that would have been satisfactory, but rather to show how simple changes that work are possible. One can be a critic without claiming to be a better writer than the professionals, and I make no such claim here. I would have enjoyed seeing superb writers run with concepts such as these.
In the future
The show could have been set in the future with just a few minor tweaks. In fact, until the caption “150,000 years later” appeared over New York’s Central Park, you could not be sure it wasn’t. The primitive humans that the colonials found actually make a lot more sense as remnants of humanity on a ruined and returned-to-nature Earth many thousands of years in the future. It makes sense why colonials could breed with such cousins, and already have dogs and cats in such a situation.
A cute ending might well have borrowed from one of the better endings in all of SF moviedom, Pierre Boulle and Rod Serling’s ending to “The Planet of the Apes.” That ending was particularly clever because it greatly surprised audiences, even though with a little thought, they would quickly realize it should not surprise them. All great twist endings have you saying, “of course!” when they are done.
In Planet of the Apes, Taylor (Heston) arrives on a planet that has apes and humans on it, and the apes speak English. When you think rationally about this, it is immediately clear this can only be in the future, as they don’t have our life on other planets, and certainly don’t speak English. Yet we are so used to aliens speaking English and looking just like humans in the movies and on TV that we just accept that without thinking. When it is revealed that this is a ruined Earth, we are shocked, but soon realize it could never have been anything else — a masterful twist ending.
BSG had the opportunity to do this because many fans, thanks to the plot of the 1978 version, were expecting it to be in the past — even though there actually were almost no clues pointing to that. I think it would have been a fun ending (and a nice homage) to have panned over a buried Statue of Liberty. Then, if desired, the view could have gone back thousands of years to meet “Six” (or rather her DNA source) in modern New York, playing her as a programmer about to embark on building AI, in fact building the super-AI that would become the god of the show. (OK, so Lady Liberty might be a bit corny to those who didn’t get the homage concept. Giza would do just as well.)
This one small difference to the last few minutes would have made the show realistic and given it a connection to our time. It would not truly have been necessary to show what happened to us, we would know that somehow we colonized space and ruined our own planet, almost surely in a war with machines. We would have seen and discussed the lessons of the show for years. Instead, most of the more serious fans demoted the show from great to average.
That’s important. The great SF books and dramas of our time colour a lot of the public debate about science and issues. Nobody has to explain virtual reality any more after The Matrix. The risks of technology-invaded privacy are clear to everybody after reading 1984. HAL in 2001 and Data in Star Trek, among others, made the public much more cognizant of A.I. issues. And BSG added a lot to the debate about the nature of what it means to be conscious and human by presenting AIs as sexy, emotional beings with more feelings than the humans.
This is damaged, sadly, when a story breaks with reality and falls down. Now BSG will be remembered as being as much a story about characters and robots playing out the confusing plan of an invented god than a story about what “mind” really means.
I would not have had a god at all, but if I were to have one, I would have made it a non-supernatural god. Many SF stories of the last few decades have played around with the idea of creating artificial beings so smart they are as gods to us. So smart that they can look at our brains the way we look at a the brains of a calculator — able to design it, change it, predict what it will do. These stories are interesting, and constitute some of the most important SF being written today. BSG would have had another shot at greatness had it followed this path well, since now TV show has yet to address these topics at anywhere near the depth found in the written literature.
In the past
It is still just barely possible to have set a great ending in the past. The best way to do this would have been to introduce the god of Galactica as an alien. These aliens would have abducted humans from our Earth 5,000 to 10,000 years prior to the story, and seeded them on Kobol. There, they would have lived with the gods (aliens) and grown their society. They would have created a race of artificial beings who colonized the 13th colony and called it Earth, and through their own struggle, and possibly the limited intervention of the alien godlike being, would have found their way back to their home.
All you need for this situation is a remarkably tiny change. When Adama asks how it is possible that they can breed with the natives, Baltar can simply answer, “It isn’t. Our ancestors on Kobol must have originally been taken somehow from this planet thousands of years ago.” He could even add, “Perhaps a divine hand had a role in it” if you want to retain his religious mood.
Could this be what Moore intended?
There is the slightest hint that Moore was considering this. He has the demon-Baltar declare at the end, “You know it doesn’t like that name” when Angel-Six refers to “God’s plan” as she has so often in the course of the show. This leaves a trace hint that the god isn’t supernatural. Moore says in his podcast that he liked leaving that ambiguity in. However, he never answers it. And had he wanted to do it this way, had he wanted to lay it out as a story of alien or divine abduction, he could have easily done so, at great benefit and no harm to his story. It’s hard to imagine him liking the interpretation that realism-oriented fans have of the “god did it” ending that was delivered.
If this was the intended backstory, it should have been given to us, either in the show, or in post-show commentary. It was not, so I can only assume it is just something we could have wished for.
Note that this ending, while superior in not requiring the intelligent design and massive divine intervention, still suffers from a lot of the lack of connection that any story in the past does. However, it allows the colonists to breed with the natives who stayed behind, and it allows Hera to be one of our many universal ancestors without throwing science out the window.
The writers’ strike ending
As some viewers know, the episode “Revelations” which ended the first half of season four with the crew discovering a ruined Earth was an emergency backup finale for the show. At the time, the writers’ guild was on strike and there was no end in sight. Had it gone on longer, they would have had to shut down the show, close leases on the studio lots and tear down the sets. They might not have been able to finish the show. So they tweaked Revelations as a possible final ending.
Now it’s not a great final ending because, as you might expect, it is both a little rushed, and it leaves a huge number of plot threads unresolved. Viewers would probably have excused this due to the circumstances. In many other ways though, it’s a better ending.
There would have been no confusing question of having two Earths. This would obviously have been our Earth, in the future, after ruinous wars. The show would end with the lesson that the cycle had been going on for some time, and had begin on our planet. It would be bleak for the characters, for they would have nowhere to turn, and face little but fleeing from Cavil again. Indeed, when the show returned, a few episodes covered exactly those matters.
The worst ending ever?
As I wrote at the start, I deem this the worst (most disappointing) ending based on how far the show fell in the last hour. There have certainly been endings with worse science, worse deus ex machina, worse characterization, worse mumbo jumbo and many other things.
I savage BSG’s ending because it began so well. Moore’s talent in making things up as he went along, hoping to find cool ways to resolve them, is actually a great one. He’s better at it than just about anybody else out there writing SF TV.
But this does not excuse the ending. It suffers, not just under my standards but under Ron Moore’s. He promised a show that was was true to real science, character driven and not overwhelmed by SF clichés like time travel, technobabble, aliens and godlike powers. He promised a show connected to our world. Instead he delivered a show whose ending pivoted on bad (and even dangerous) science, with all events due to something that’s either a god or godlike alien, all precisely following prophecies made ages ago, reducing the characters to puppets. And in the end, it had no connection to our world.
This would be no more than “yet another SF TV show that made mistakes” if the show hadn’t started so well, and gotten many, including myself to declare it was on track to be the best SF show on the air, possibly of all time. Aside from disappointing fans, the show abandoned its chance to be more than a TV show. It could have been, like a few special great works of SF from the past, something that affected the world’s perceptions and dialog about key technological issues like A.I., robotics and the technology of war. When discussing the question of conflict between man and machine, all we can say now about BSG
Is it fair to demand all this accuracy, realism, meaning and relevance from a TV show? So what if Moore didn’t deliver what he hoped to deliver. Can’t it just be drama? Can’t it just be entertainment?
It can be. But if it is just that, it won’t be the greatest SF show ever, and that’s a pity.
From the Battlestar Galactica Analysis Blog