Monday, March 23, 2009

The BSG Series Ender

I didn't like it much. I have a few thoughts, about the final episode, the fourth season, and the series in general, but first a couple caveats: (1) If you did like the finale, don't take any of this as me trying to argue you into unhappiness. (2) The final episode's failures fall to Ron Moore, but my initial inclination is that they don’t significantly diminish his overall achievement and the greatness of the show. That said, there were some things to like, most notably:

* I particularly enjoyed Cavil’s suicide. The spontaneous ceasefire which preceded it was ridiculous. (Cavil gets on the phone and calls off all Cylon forces? What kind of phone is that?) But when the situation goes south and Cavil sees no way out, I like that he chooses suicide. The essence of Cavil is his sadism. Read de Sade and you see that the heart of sadism—more than cruelty, even—is the idea of blasphemy. We’ve been told that they Cylon religion forbids suicide, so for Cavil to off himself is his last fuck you to the God that he insists doesn’t exist, but spends a lot of time and energy rebelling against anyway. Nicely done.

* The CiC as the Opera House felt quite satisfying.

* I liked the idea of Racetrack’s nukes being triggered by accident after her death because it harkens to one of my favorite tropes, the idea of a grenade falling from a dead man’s hand. I’ve been a sucker for that ever since the final confrontation between Kwinn the Eskimo and Dr. Venom.

That aside, there were a great many things that I found troubling about the episode because they either didn’t make sense or ignored what the series had been doing before. I won’t go into all of them, but here are a few, in ascending order of importance:

* That final montage proves that when the Third Cylon War breaks out, we’ll have the Japanese to blame.

* BSG has been, to a large degree, a show about choices. When Helo is wounded, Athena is given a choice: save him or chase after Hera. She chooses Hera, which is the right thing to do. But then Helo survives anyway. As a dramatic device, that’s cheap and out of character for the show.

* The writing of Bill Adama had faltered in recent weeks. The Galley Wife noticed this first. Here’s her spot-on diagnosis:

So much of Adama’s character has always been done with subtext. Side-long glances, a mumbled grunt, a slow stare. For a lot of season four, Adama became more sentimental, less in control, and more wordy. The ur-example was in “Daybreak, Part 1” when Starbuck says to Adama, “I don’t know what I am” and he answers her, “I know what you are. You’re my daughter.”

In the first few seasons, Adama would have simply said, “I know what you are.” And we would have seen the daughter stuff, making it much more elegant and powerful. All that nuance was gone by the series finale.

I completely agree.

* So Starbuck, post Eye of Jupiter, is an angel. Okay. There was a time when I would have bought that. Except for this: BSG has been showing us angels since the very first episode. In that time, they’ve established an (admittedly informal) set of rules for how angels work: They’re seen by people one at a time; they appear and disappear; they can’t physically interact with the world. To then fundamentally change those rules with 10 minutes left in the series is a sign of writerly failure. It’s quite a lot like Buffy throwing away its core concept about slayers (“one girl in all the world”) 10 minutes before the end of its series finale.

* Way back in season 1, the Cylons went to a great deal of trouble to put Helo and a model 8 together, hoping that they would fall in love and manage to reproduce. They did, giving us Hera. But by the end, we had no idea why she was so important to the Cylons. Or the humans. The thing about Maguffins is that while they don’t have to be important to us, they do have to be plausibly important to the protagonists.

* Trusting Cylon Centurions with a basestar while retaining no weaponry of your own is just a “risk you’ll have to live with”? Somehow I don’t think the colonials would be willing to live with that decision seeing as how they fought a civil war to stop from integrating with the skin-jobs.

* This leads to a deeper complaint: The finale turns its back on one of the animating ideas of the series, which was that politics is inherently messy because even in the most dire times, people never agree, totally, on anything.

But here we are on earth, finally, and in 48 hours the colonials decide to abandon all of their technology, destroy their spaceships, and scatter into small agrarian communities? This kind of civilization-changing, irrevocable decision seems like it would spark an enormous political conflict.

* And that leaves aside the more practical consideration: How long do you think small groups of humans with no practical skills could survive trying to live off the land on a foreign planet? They won’t have access to sources of power. They won’t be able to work metals. Or manufacture medicine. Helo and Athena say they’re going to teach Hera how to hunt. With what?

Look, I get that it’s just a TV show and I’m really not trying to pick nits: It just seems pretty clear that if the colonials set down on a new planet and tried to rebuild their civilization starting with all available tech and a single city, they’d have had some small (1-in-20?) chance of survival. By splitting up and trying to work the land in small groups, they’ve signed their species’ death warrant.

* Finally, there’s Moore’s big idea in the finally: his rejection of technology in favor of humanism (and possibly even deism). In fact I’d argue that Moore is actually going even further: By having the colonials settled into small, remote, agrarian groups, he’s rejecting not just technology, but civilization itself. That’s certainly a Big Idea. But without passing judgment on it, qua idea, I just don’t believe that the people we’ve spent four years watching as they tried, at every turn, to cling to the fragile memory of their civilized selves, would suddenly decide that the answer to their problems is to jettison the little civilization they had preserved at such great cost.


Anonymous said...

I DVR'd the finale and watched it Saturday night before going to bed, then lay awake thinking about it for a while. My thoughts ended up tracking yours very closely (I blogged about them at if you care to compare). Simply put, I found that the decisions the fleet survivors made once they reached Earth were rather unbelievable.

Also, I wouldn't call the triggering of Racetrack's nukes an "accident." It was all part of God's plan...

Anonymous said...

was there ever a reason given for why the Final Four were flipped on at that particular moment by "All Along The Watchtower," or was that also just "God's Plan"?

jjv said...

I don't think breaking into "small agrarian" communities is saying good bye to civilization. Ask Jefferson, or any writer about the American urge to "light out for the territories" or J.R.R. Tolkien on the Shire. From "Ill take my stand" to all the hippies in Vermont the end of Battlestar is pretty familiar.

What it is not is either Hamiltonian or, God forgive me, Marxist with its hatred of the rural life.

Also, I'm not sure these small rural communities won't keep in contact for trade and the like.

As for me, you will take my electric lamp from my cold dead hands.

Shannon Last said...

Kwinn the Eskimo?

Charles Johnson said...

I don't know about you, but I think that I'm going to just reject that that final hour happened.

My major complaint with the ending is as follows: Are you really telling me that a group of people that had worked so hard to survive together would suddenly just abandon one another once they had oceans?

Lee Adama says that he wants to "explore" but explore what and to what end? If it's for himself, that's the height of narcissism, something we shouldn't expect from a guy who supposedly believes in civilization and law. That he's the one to come up with the civilization forsaking struck me as odd. In reality, he'd be its greatest defender.

justsomeschlub said...

Better ending than the rest of the season had led me to expect. I was sure everyone would turn out a gay socialist Cylon with Galactica, itself, the mother of all Cylons. So the ending was pleasant. Kara disappearing like that is the best scene in the whole episode.

But Baltar gets away scot free? That's just not right. Plausible, but not right.

Anonymous said...

Nice ending, until it was ruined, not just by how they tried to quickly wrap it up - 'hey let's go farm over there;' 'I'm going exploring' - It was like when they landed on the real earth. Nothing made sense - the whole planet was a city block? They were all neighbors and ruins and bones remained? what?
But, even worse, they jump ahead in time for the last 3 minutes and explain/interpret the whole fable for us.
Not done well.

But what you want - a more believable political deliberation over settlement and the process of surviving, though interesting, is an entire season or series in itself.
They had to do something weak like everyone playing 'Into the Wild' all at once to give any sort of the closure fans seemed to expect.

And 'all along the watchtower' is a timeless cosmic melody encoded in the genes of life itself, brother. It even soothes lab rats and turkeys.