Battlestar Galactica and the Trouble with Twenty
March 25th, 2009
[After reading Media Studies scholar Jason Mittell's thoughts on the finale over at Just TV, I got thinking about the narrative structure of the finale, and how different it was from the season that came beforehand. As a result, we have our third part of The Long Goodbye: the most formalized attempt I've made at describing Season Four's struggles.]
It is impossible, and probably not even desireable, to go into a series finale without some sense of the agency of the show’s writers, creators and producers who are behind the strings pulling things together. By the very nature of the media hype surrounding the event, especially for shows which have garnered critical or commercial success, there is going to be a focus on the person “responsible” for what people are about to see. In many ways, it’s about blame: if things go awry, if decisions are made which anger long-time viewers, there will be someone who can be held up to the clambering crowd of naysayers as the individual who sent their beloved series down such a dangerous path.
Battlestar Galactica is no exception to this rule, and its finale had numerous moments wherein you could feel Ronald D. Moore exhibiting creative license, making decisions to leap forward in time, to explain away potential plot holes, to prescribe meaning to things in a way which didn’t feel as organic as we may have liked. But that’s his prerogative, this show having been his “creation,” and it’s also not a fundamentally bad thing: while it may end up being divisive, as a show that was designed to get people talking many of his decisions in the finale were well-crafted and connected with the series’ existing identity.
And yet I do have a problem with this idea, just not in the context of the finale itself. My problem is with the fact that the same type of sense of the producers controlling the flow of traffic, withholding information or making deliberate decisions, has been present from the very beginning of the season in a way that wasn’t as productive. There was very little organic about the way the season was organized, as if proximity to the series’ final destination sent them careening around in circles for eighteen episodes before deciding in the finale to get on with it already. The result was, in a bit of a fascinating twist, the realization that for the most part this Finale could be viewed directly after Season Three and still be an effective emotional climax to the series.
With that realization, the omniscient writers and producers who were in charge of this journey are suddenly held accountable not just for the end, but for everything that came before it – considering this question closer makes the ultimate case for the value of shortened cable seasons as opposed to the lengthened order the series was provided.
I don’t know if it made it into the final show, but during the first episode of The McNuttCast, all about Battlestar Galactica, my brother argued that its basic narrative structure could be Season Four’s greatest problem. By choosing the moment of reaching an Earth ravaged by nuclear holocaust as the mid-point of the season, all of their hope culminating in the terrible discovery of the 13th Tribe’s former home, they were severely handicapping themselves. The show loves those moments, from a narrative standpoint: they love having big reveals, they love creating events that destroy characters and lead to something like Dee’s suicide. The problem, though, is that it meant that the buildup and the aftermath would have the same amount of time, an equation which doesn’t make sense.
There’s always a lot of talk about plot vs. character with this show, but it’s a ridiculous binary: in order to build good characters or provide good character development, you need the plot to be able to reflect that. The problem with the first half of season Four is that it is aimless, the narrative equivalent of Starbuck’s erratic search methods aboard the Demetrius. It knew the goal was to find Earth, but yet they knew they had all ten episodes to get there. As a result, everything slowed down to a halt, which has its benefits and its disadvantages. On the plus side, the slow pace helped the four Cylons revealed at the beginning of the season to have the time to come to terms with their identities, Tyrol’s slide being particularly interesting when pitted against the snail’s pace of the action around him. Similarly, moments like “Faith” where Laura Roslin’s slow death is pitted against the slow pace of the fleet give the narrative structure some definite value.
But on the negative side, it meant that Gaius Baltar’s religious cult became more laborious than it should have – Baltar is a character who reacts, whether it’s to events transpiring or to pressures being placed on him, and he became too complacent when nothing was actually happening, his crusades feeling entirely fabricated so as to give his character purpose. For Starbuck, questions of her resurrection were entirely sidelined in favour of an overlong “Girl Who Cried Earth” scenario, the only lasting legacy of which was Gaeta’s missing leg. And Lee Adama’s ascent to the Presidency, which should have worked better with more time, failed because it was so obvious from the beginning that dragging it out only made it more annoying.
The problem was that, for the humans, their narrative interest was after they reach Earth, not before: the show had already spent three seasons taking them to the location, and if you look back at where they went between “He That Believeth in Me” and “Revelations” it isn’t a great distance at all. Instead, the real movement was with the Cylons, as the show focused on their Civil War, their moral conflicts, their mutinies, and eventually their intersection with humanity. The best episodes in the first half of the season are those which show the two sides interacting directly, and in “Revelations” we reach the point where their two fates become intertwined…we thought.
But because they had wasted a lot of time moving around in the first half of the season, and because of the six month break in between them, none of it felt organic or natural. The Mutiny didn’t feel like it built from events in the series, but in the basic Human/Cylon binary that by that point, for viewers at least, had been eradicated by “Downloaded” and even the Cylon Civil War in the first part of the season. Despite the identity of the final Cylon being given this huge place in the show’s mythology, Ellen’s reveal was largely uneventful when it was followed by hours of human-driven conflict with the mutiny, and when the Cylon narrative only returned in the rushed and “tell, don’t show” dominated “No Exit.” A lot more technically happened in the second half of the season, but rather than feeling like the result or the conclusions of the rest of the season, it felt like necessary horizontal and vertical movements forced by the writers to tie things up into a shiny bow at the end of the day.
A twenty episode season would have been fine if it had left us with the sense that the greater scale was put to good use, but I don’t think that argument could be made. Tyrol, given so much focus in the first part of the season, was an afterthought by the end, switching allegiance left and right with little to no explanation. The fleet was an entirely non-entity throughout 4.0, but then magically emerges as a centerpiece of the Mutiny, their outrage over the Cylon/Human integration itself without much to go on within the first half of the season. If we had twenty well-paced episodes this might be a different story, but when the first half was so slow and the second half moved too fast (why were Baltar’s people armed when it didn’t end up mattering? At all?).
For me, it raised the question of whether or not a 13 episode season, as had been originally planned before Sci-Fi decided the show deserved more time, might have been better. There wouldn’t have been that need to drag things out before reaching Earth, and it might have forced them to more carefully integrate Cylon/Human narratives to the point where the show’s own narrative structure would actually appear similar to the social structure apparently existing within the fleet. Why couldn’t they have integrated, for instance, Boomer’s return with Ellen into the structure of the mutiny is something I don’t understand.
As it was, the narrative priority of the series as designated by the series finale, whether it was Baltar or Caprica’s shared destiny, or the Final Five’s greater purpose, or Starbuck’s identity, or the mortality of the remaining Cylons, or Cavil’s evil identity, didn’t feel like it was the focus of the season itself. Instead, it was the Red Herring of Earth, or the ultimately perfunctory final Cylon, signposts that they build around as opposed to building them into the thread of the series itself. If they had only thirteen episodes, perhaps they would have focused things, capturing the things that made the season so strong (Roslin and Adama’s journey, for example) while tightening up the storylines that felt like they went on too long, were dropped or picked up too quickly.
There’s a lot of reasons why the season might not have worked, or why it didn’t feel connected with the finale: we can talk about the break between the sets of episodes, or the writers’ strike in the middle, but the idea of having an endpoint is supposed to free series from their narrative hangups, heightening their pace and giving them greater momentum. While the Series Finale achieved this, aided by the two episodes that came before it, the season as a whole missed that mark, and it raises important questions about whether narrative consistency or sheer volume is the better approach to the long goodbye.