Wednesday, 11 April 2012

The Problem with Battlestar Galactica

I was asked recently what my problem is with Battlestar Galactica.  The person in question reminded me that I used to love the show (which is true) and that I’ve been forgiving of other shows with plot issues.  So why did this particular show get my back up?

I believe you learn much more from things you don’t like and ideas you don’t agree with than those you do.  Disagreeing with something forces you to isolate what it is that you don’t like.  I suppose you can just keep sitting in a corner somewhere repeating “it sucks” over and over (and some corners of the Internet prove it).  But it’s a lot more useful if you can articulate matters.

Beginning with a little history, my husband was a fan of classic Battlestar when he was young.  The show didn’t age well but he had many fond memories.  When Ron Moore announced he was doing a four hour miniseries with an eye to reviving the series, Dave wasn’t sure if he wanted to taint those memories but was too curious to stay away.  I had no particular preconceptions, aside from having watched a few of the heavily 70’s-stained classic episodes and trying to keep a straight face.  So we tuned in.

It was fascinating.  The standard Frankenstein story of mankind’s creations turning against us.  The space battles were amazing to watch.  And I loved how Ron Moore had turned Galactica into a museum.  The crew is frantically trying to fight the invaders with outdated technology and ripping down little helpful signs directing tourists around the ship.  The best moment was when Captain Odama orders his fighters out of the port fighter bay only to be told that it was now a gift shop.

There were agonizing moments.  Battlestar finds a convoy of unarmed civilian ships trying to evacuate the planets against the Cylon invasion.  They know the Cylons are coming.  They know a single fighter ship cannot protect the convoy.  Only some of the ships have faster-than-light travel.  The decision is made to jump away where the Cylons can’t track them but it means sacrificing those civilians who cannot follow.  It’s a painful moment and you can feel how it affects the crew.

There were also outright sickening moments.  A Cylon infiltrator is checking on the plans in the last days before the invasion.  While moving through the crowd, she picks up a baby and then kills it by snapping its neck.  I almost stopped watching after that.  It was so sickening and frankly, unnecessary.  They’re about to kill everyone in a few days and they take the time to individually kill a baby?  I told myself it was part of showing that the Cylons are evil, establishing that they will show no mercy.

Those three facets pretty much cover the show.  The fascinating and agonizing kept me going through the few outright sickening parts.  But the sickening parts kept showing up more and more frequently as the series went on and they became less and less justified by the plot.  We cared about the characters and the writers kept kicking them in the teeth or making them do these horrible things.  Eventually by the third season, it was pretty much all agonizing and sickening.  There was nothing good to balance any of it.  And they were going out of their way to undermine and take away any of the earlier good.

That’s what made the show dark.  I can accept dark, even if I don’t care to watch it.  What made the show bad was the lack of planning.

Just before every episode, we got little flashes followed by words.  Man created the Cylons, etc, etc.  The last line was always “And they have a plan.”  It was a good device to build tension, suggesting some kind of master intelligence running the humans through a maze.  Unfortunately, the Cylons never shared their plan with the writers.

Halfway through season four, Moore admitted that he and the other writers made plot choices based on what would most surprise the viewers.  This made a lot of the choices incomprehensible to those watching.  They didn’t make any sense and they didn’t follow a coherent structure.  I can tolerate a fair bit if I think it’s going somewhere, but to know all of these things were just senseless bothered me.

The first two seasons of Battlestar are really good, particularly the first episode “33”.  Edward James Olmos is a fantastic combination of warrior and priest.  Mary McDonald is amazing as the President and the plot line of her finding out she has cancer right before the invasion is very touching.  Katee Sackoff’s Starbuck is a refreshingly brash female warrior.  The characters are detailed, the tragedy is explored fully and with sympathetic realism and the plots are realistic for a group of ships trying to survive in space.  There are tantalizing bits of evidence for a conspiracy which runs through the episodes and strange occurrences that had all the fans trying to guess what they meant.

If the writers had not gotten caught in a dark spiral of competing to see who could make the character’s lives suck worse; if there had been a coherent metaplot which kept things consistent, then the show would have been brilliant.  Perhaps I’m hard on it because there was a time when I believed and then the belief got yanked out from under my feet.  Maybe it’s sour, disappointed grapes.

But I take the lessons of Battlestar very seriously.  It’s easy to make things worse in a story.  It’s dramatic and adds tension.  But there always has to be a reason.  The pain has to lead somewhere.  Real life has lots of examples of pain that doesn’t go anywhere.  Fiction is supposed to be better than that.

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