Monday, August 10, 2009

The Battlestar and the Shark

It is a sad thing to see a good show deteriorate, to see pusillanimous producers stretch a concept thin rather than face the daunting task of developing a new show to fill a vacant slot. I hope it can be shown, on some bright tomorrow, that not only is artistic integrity preserved when a story is allowed to run its course in its natural time frame, but the bottom line as well. Might a show not be more profitable if it stays compelling, even if that means fewer seasons, perhaps even fewer episodes per season? It is devoutly to be hoped.

One of the great jewels of television of recent times, which could not escape that purgatory of mediocrity to which so many erstwhile masterpieces are consigned, is Battlestar Galactica. Through two seasons it remained as gripping a story as any ever told. There were moments of such fantastic intensity that I, as a viewer, was afterwards left in that quivering state of post ecstatic bliss which so eludes and embarrasses the infallible Holy See. Alas, it was not to last, and yet the decline was not due to producers who refused to say goodbye, like family members who keep a loved one on life support long after the part they loved is gone. BSG lasted only four seasons, an expiration date that was set early on, i.e., it began not only with a good story, but under the most favorable of circumstances: with a finale already scheduled and not too remotely in the future.

The malady that afflicted BSG, that sapped its vitality, hobbled it, caused it to become frail, was not the Stretching Disease that felled The Simpsons. Instead, the writers committed a series of blunders that worked like successive body blows in boxing. Was BSG left standing when the bell sounded? Perhaps, but it was bruised, bent over in pain and sucking oxygen.

The finale of BSG was always going to disappoint. This is due to the simple fact that the creators did not know where they were going, only how they were going to take off. The longer they went without sketching a climax, the more their odds of getting a good one came to resemble those of the chimpanzee with a typewriter trying to make a sonnet appear on the paper. This handicap, however, was not the ultimate problem. It started to manifest itself only in season four when, for instance, the writers revealed the history of the cylons from a hospital bed rather than through some interesting episodes, a clear sign that they were throwing together a hastily conceived conclusion. When that insipid bit of storytelling occurred, the show was already in decline.

The characters of BSG were, one by one and almost without exception, removed from interesting circumstances in which they began and placed in positions with fewer possibilities. The totality of these moves was as damaging to the show as anything else that happened to it. Consider Lee Adama, once a fighter pilot and CAG with an extremely talented but insubordinate and emotionally damaged ace to keep in line. He wound up as a politician sitting around a table making speeches. A storyline wherein the CAG had to maneuver through politics for some reason, something quite foreign to him, would make for an interesting episode. Unfortunately, it was not just an episode but an entire change of character, and the show suffered for it.

Boomer was one of the most compelling characters as she slowly realized, with horror, that she was a cylon. That made Chief Tyrol, her lover, more interesting as well. This particular storyline was wrapped up early but done so brilliantly I wouldn’t change a thing. Nevertheless, it is another intriguing part of the series that came to an end and left a hollow that was never filled with something as satisfying as what they originally had.

President Roslin, thrust into the role of Head of State when dozens of higher ranking officials were killed in the cylon attack, struggled to learn her new job and guide humanity to salvation even as she herself was dying of cancer. Her role lost luster when the writers decided to cure her. As if realizing this, they brought the cancer back, but it felt like a cheap trick. They should have had the guts to let the cancer kill her in the waning hours. Better yet, she, knowing she was nearing the end, should have sacrificed her life at some key moment, a sacrifice that kept the dwindling human hopes alive.

Baltar was probably the most fascinating character in the entire show. A cowardly yet brilliant scientist, he discovered that a cylon tricked him into giving away key defense secrets, thus ensuring the sneak attack would be successful. Even as the remaining humans relied on his skills to survive, he had to constantly be alert to keep his secret safe. Moreover, the cylon seductress who tricked him seemed to leave some sort of program in his brain, and he saw visions of her at the most inconvenient times. This storyline is so integral, its resolution should have been saved for the very end, culminating in something fantastic and inextricably woven into the climax of the entire series itself. At some point he definitely should have committed murder to safeguard his secret. Instead, they wrap up that arc and then spend a while trying to find something interesting for him to do before finally settling on a silly religious prophet with nothing at stake that relates to what the show is actually about (or should have been about).

Helo was once a fugitive, stranded on Caprica, running out of anti-radiation shots to keep himself alive on the now radioactive planet. He encountered another Boomer, but we knew she was a spy for the cylons. This new Boomer, soon to be called Athena, struggled with which side she should fight for, much like the original. When they reconnected with humanity, they still provided some mildly compelling storylines but they were always more interesting on Caprica. They should have spent the majority of the series there. They could have made contact with the human resistance movement and, when they finally did escape, discovered some key secret to the cylon plans to bring back to the humans. The revealing of this secret would have been a great beginning for the series’ last act. Keeping Boomer alive and in prison until Athena and Helo returned would have made for some possibilities too.

Just as deleterious as the increasingly lackluster characters was what happened to the cylons. We got to know them far too well. At times their motivations were bizarre, such as when they decided to occupy New Caprica in a blatant attempt to have something to say about the Iraq War no matter the damage done to the integrity of the show. They became a petty band of squabblers essentially indistinguishable from human beings. Other shows, such as Star Trek: The Next Generation, have dealt with artificial intelligence and at what point such a creation should be considered a conscious being with rights like a human. Star Trek ultimately made Data very human, and it worked in that context. The writers of BSG went that route as well, but the consequences were disastrous.

At the show’s outset, the cylons were menacing, conscienceless killers who were out there somewhere, and might appear at any moment to wipe out the rest of humanity. They were like sharks in the ocean. One of the most terrifying parts was that they had built some models that looked human. The opening sequence set the tone: a beautiful robot meets a human at an established meeting point which the cylons have neglected for decades. She commits a most human act by kissing him… and then the station is destroyed. She displays no fear, for her program will be downloaded into a new unit. She does not suffer from mortality. Any indication of a conscience is absent. Another of the same model crushes a baby’s neck with no more remorse than we would have from swatting a fly. She does it merely as an act of curiosity. When that same model has sex with Baltar, her spine glows red, a characteristic which was a fine way to cast them as inhuman but which the writers forgot about, or abandoned, afterwards.

It is quite clear that these cylons were not humans. They should have remained machines, terrifying, hidden and never completely knowable. In proportion as the cylons regretted their actions, bickered among themselves and became too well known to us, they lost their mystique and ability to frighten. The show could not but suffer for it.

There were other problems too, but they were comparatively small and easily overlooked. It was the mishandling of characters and the cylon “race” that spoiled the project long before the lack of a total vision became apparent. It is a shame, and we do ourselves no favor by inventing excuses. BSG limped to the finish line, perhaps crawled over it, and the reasons are clear. Let the lesson be learned, so that the next promising start may have a better end. Do not launch until you know where you want to land. If you manage to create some interesting characters, realize what makes them interesting and keep them that way until the right time to finish their character arcs. And never, ever, ever ruin your villain until you are ready to drop the curtain.


Anonymous said...

Jumping the shark is a term used when a show has an event that is totally outside the reality previously established. The origin of the term comes from the sitcom Happy Days. In a latter season of Happy Days Fonzie jumps over a shark while surfing. "The shark jumping" was an event that was highly improbably within the established universe of the show. How is finding a home on New Caprica and being enslaved by robot aliens outside the reality of Battlestar? How are celestial beings outside the reality of Battlestar when unexplained miracles and constant discussions of spiritually have been in the show since season 1?

Spirit of '73 said...


The term jumping the shark, as I have always seen it used, refers to the point at which a show declines, or passes its prime.

But even on the terms you describe, landing on New Caprica was a complete change from what the show was, which was a hide-and-seek chase story in space. New Caprica changed that.

The miracles and celestial beings was, regrettably, always a part of BSG, but I'm not sure what you are relating it to from my post.

I appreciate your visit and your comment.

Anonymous said...

Honestly a lot of this reads out as what you wanted to happen because you thought it would make a better story.

While that's fine. It is not jumping the shark.

Spirit of '73 said...


Some of it did contain suggestions, but there was more to it than that.

When your characters become uninteresting and your villain gets enervated, I'd say the series has taken a dive.

Thanks for stopping by!

Anonymous said...

1. Wrong use of "jumping the shark".
2. BSG didn't have a set end date. They only decided to end it at 4 after season 3 was done and the ratings were declining. There was never a clear end in sight and the writers/producers made shit up as they went along. These are widely known facts - Moore has gone on record in regards to the situation plenty of times.

Anonymous said...

"And they have a plan."

Too bad the writters didn't. Weak writting killed a wonderful show full of promise.

I have no interest in "The Plan" or "Caprica" after that finale. They killed my love for Battlestar with that piece of frakkin' poo.

Spirit of '73 said...

Anonymous 1,

1) So some have said, though I would argue that its meaning has morphed. At any rate, not a crucial point.

2) I have heard a different story. It doesn't change the analysis.

Anonymous 2,

I am in total agreement.

Thank you both for stopping by!