BATTLESTAR GALACTICA: “The Worst Ending in the History of Televised Science Fiction”
PRIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON 8/20/09
Back in July (of 2009), Brad Templeton published a VERY lengthy essay on his site about how the finale of the ne Battlestar Galactica is beyond a doubt the *WORST* ending in the history of any televised SF series ever.
I pretty much agree with him entirely in that regard, though I bristle at a few of the specific comments he makes in support of his conclusion. To put that another way, both he and I agree that it sucked, and we both basically agree about *why* it sucked, but he goes on to expand this in to underlying theories and rules about drama that I don’t feel are as universal as he does. I would strongly recommend everyone here who liked the new Galactica should go to his site and read the exhaustive essay now. Go ahead. Read it, or print it up for reading later, then come back here. I’ll wait.
Welcome back, assuming you checked it out. Assuming you’re one of the more common types who just ignored the link and kept reading, feh. I deride thee. Anyway, do read it later, ok?
Anyway, the art of Criticism is a delicate and subjective one, and it frequently tells us more about the critic than it does the art in question. If Aristotle doesn’t like Hamlet, it’s not because Hamlet is bad, but because he’s so invested in his half-assed theories about drama that he can’t or won’t wrap his brain around the format he’s being presented with. Likewise, if someone likes the ending of the new Battlestar Galactica, it’s not because the ending is actually good in any way, but that the critic is obviously hepped up on goofballs, or has perhaps taken a bad blow to the head.
Now I do believe that Mr. Templeton’s criticisms of the episode are pretty much spot on and perfect insofar as that goes, and I’ve got no question about that. He cites that most TV shows end badly, and it’s the nature of the medium, and that’s just the breaks. I agree with that. He even goes so far as to state that the ending of Babylon 5 (Which he repeatedly mistakenly refers to as “Babylon V”) was pretty good, though not up to the standards of the series as a whole (I agree), and wonders if the originally-intended ending might have been better (Unlikely, as we detail elsewhere on the site). He says he can’t think of a single ending for an SF show that really was a bang-up success. This tells us more about his own standards. For me, personally - as it seems only fair to play along - I can name three that are pretty solid endings: Babylon 5 (Which is far from brilliant, but has a solid emotional core that makes sense and works for me), The Prisoner (In which all the hell that has resisted breaking loose in the previous episodes finally breaks loose) and the final episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (Despite the fact that I don’t like the show, and the final season entirely sucked, excepting the finale). This is neither here nor there, really, but if I’m going to comment on his criticisms, it seems only fair that you, the reader, have some idea where I’m coming from.
Mr. Templeton goes on to explain what Ronald D. Moore had hoped to accomplish with the new Galactica, and his own rules for the series, and then he explains how Moore ultimately broke all of them (Excepting the “No aliens” thing, kinda’ sorta’). He states that RDM gave us much that TV SF had never done before, including: “A mystery about the origins of society and its legends, and a mystery about a lost planet named Earth.” Well, I can cite several Twilight Zone episodes from the 60s that did the same thing, not to mention that this is exactly what the ORIGINAL Galactica was trying to do (1978/9). Claiming this is a first is either tendentious, or I’m misreading it. I’d also charge that it’s not the first show to have dark stories about interesting characters, or that it’s the first to give us “Artificial minds in humanoid bodies who were emotional, sexual, and religious.” Please. Mister Data, anyone? Or any of a long line of sexbots? I’ll give him the “Religious” angle of it - that is still a taboo on TV, and in SF in general, but two out of three are pretty much clichés.
I totally and completely agree with his assessment of the show’s failings, however.
Where I really start to differ with him is when he starts discussing “God” as a failure in the story. Specifically: “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. But even when not writing religious fiction, divine characters spoil the story.”
I’ll duly note how he doesn’t say this is universally so, and I’ll even agree that he’s generally right, but this is one of those things that tells us more about Mr. Templeton’s views than any objective commentary on art itself.
What is God, after all? Whether or not God exists is somewhat immaterial for our purposes since the existence of God can not be proven, nor can it be disproved. What that means then is that in the absence of any objective proof for or against a physical existence, God is an idea. At least. Running with the notion that God is an Idea, I bristle at the thought that there are some ideas which are inappropriate to play with in stories. There are ideas that I may disagree with, or which may make my toes curl, but it seems wrong to me to say one can’t write a good story (of any Genre) with God involved in it. This seems short-sighted to me, and while the notion that it’s generally about conversion or preaching to the choir is certainly true of the majority, I can cite several examples of religious science fiction that are both very good and not intended to proselytize anyone, they are simply toying around with large philosophical ideas in a theoretical playground. The final “Hechee” book by Fred Phol is a good example, as is “The Divine Invasion” by Philip K. Dick. In fact, most of Mr. Dick’s late-sequence books could be considered “Religious Science Fiction,” and they’re quite good, but they’re completely free from the claims Mr. Templeton makes about the failings of stories involving God.
I don’t write religious fiction. I never have - well, aside from one flash story which is clearly intended to be a sarcastic commentary about the goings on inside a particular church, but I don’t think that counts - it’s not my thing. I’m not particularly motivated to write Religious Fiction, or incorporate God in to my stories in a direct and obvious fashion, but saying “It can’t be done well” strikes me as either a rule or a dare, and I bristle at that. It makes me want to go out and try it, like the damned annoying rebellious teenager I still am inside.
For me, personally, I think a bigger problem with incorporating God in stories has nothing to do with perceived dramatic limitations, but rather it’s about respect. If I put God in a story, then I’m putting *my* concept of God - which is a personal, important, and living thing in my own heart and mind - in to a completely fictional story. At best I’m then guilty of turning God in to a fictional character to suit my whims which seems…wrong. At worst, I’m guilty of trying to put God in a bottle and say I know His Mind. “God did this on page 206 of my novel because I know God so well that I know how He’d behave in a given situation.” That seems really really really wrong to me. There are many, many sins that will be laid against me when the end comes, no doubt, but I’m not willing to have trivializing God or claiming to know His Thoughts among them. So I don’t write religious fiction, not because I don’t think it can’t be done well (Though it generally isn’t), nor because I don’t enjoy reading it when it’s done well (Because I do), but rather because it seems that it would be a questionable thing for me to do at best. There’s lots of ways I could do it wrong, and I can’t see a way I could do it right, so I just tend to avoid the whole hornet’s nest. But that’s for me, personally, not a rule I apply universally to the genre.
He later goes on to say that he wouldn‘t have minded so much if the Judeo/Christian/Islamic God showed up as a character in the story but that , “It’s hard to figure out the reason for the introduction of an entirely invented god that nobody actually believes in.”
I’d argue that he’s missing the point here, and it would be just as silly to say “I wouldn’t mind if the Judeo/Christian/Islamic God showed up in the Chronicles of Narnia, but what’s all this business about a lion?“ The Cylon God is (at best) a slightly new-agey, non-dogmatic version of the God of the Bible and Koran, and at worst he’s a stalking horse for Him. I’d point out that our own Burt Cottage has frequently stated that he believes the Cylon God to be analogous to the God of the Bible, only called by a different name. It wasn’t that RDM invented a new fictional God, what he did was set up a framework wherein people could see the God they already believed in reflected back at them when they watched the show. I presume without knowing that Mr. Templeton is an atheist, which is why he didn’t grasp that concept.
Please note that I am not at all criticizing either Atheism in general, nor Mr. Templeton in specific. Though I’m not an atheist myself, I have lots of friends who are, and I’ll gladly concede that it’s the more rational course, even if it’s one I personally can’t follow because of this pesky belief thing. I merely bring it up because there are many tricks and nuances that would be obvious to the members of a club or culture that would be completely unfathomable to those outside it, and I suspect that’s what we’re seeing here. It’s not that “The Cylon God is completely made up,” it’s that the Cylon God is a mirror reflecting whatever you already believe, it’s a religious Rorschach test, and this is the kind of thing that anyone who’s even slightly religious immediately gets, but which is confounding to those who entertain no such beliefs.
Later on, he states that “One of the main elements of the original show” - that is the 1978/79 Galactica - was the idea that it took place in the past. This is patently nonsense. The show took place in the then-present. Every episode started out with narration that quite clearly stated “There are EVEN NOW brothers of man who fight to survive somewhere beyond the heavens.” and the final episode involved the Galactica receiving a transmission of the first moon landing in 1969. I suppose one could argue that the show took place in the very recent past - 40 years ago - but clearly not in the dim recesses of prehistory that Mr. Templeton assumes. Two years later, Galactica: 1980 made the notion that the show was set in prehistory even more ludicrous. This doesn’t invalidate Mr. Templeton’s overall point - that “Ancient Astronaut’ stories are anti-intellectual claptrap and “Secret Histories” are silly at best - but it does suggest that he was either not paying attention when the original show ran, or that his memory of the show is faulty, and he didn’t bother to look it up before he wrote his otherwise-fine-and-exhaustive essay.
Somewhat later on, he talks about how Galactica became basically yet another “Noah’s Ark” story. This is true, it did, though I’d argue that it *always* was this. (Indeed, the original concept for the original Galactica was called “Adam’s Ark”). He then says “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.”
Again, I bristle at this. Mr. Templetons’ comments imply that (A) we can only tell right-thinking properly secular-humanist stories that avoid any inkling of muddy-headed religious hoo-hah and that (B) there’s some kind of religious conspiracy amongst the western monotheistic faiths to keep re-launching this story. This bugs me for two reasons - firstly it’s remarkably strict in it’s concept of what is and isn’t appropriate to daydream about. Every bit as dedicated to the idea of an orthodox “Righthink” as some religious groups are. It’s every bit as closed-minded as the religious stuff he’s annoyed by. I don’t mean ‘closed minded’ in the sense of “unwilling to accept the Great Flood might have happened,” but rather in the sense of “We must only enjoy things that are real.”
The second element of this that bugs me is that it neglects to consider the fact that Ark Myths are *not* just a product of the Judeo/Christian/Islamic tradition. Wikipedia lists 27 here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Flood many of which have absolutely no relationship to the Biblical ones. What Mr. Templeton is overlooking is not whether or not a world-wide flood happened (I don’t believe it did myself), but rather that the story *keeps* popping up in unrelated civilizations throughout the world and history. Why? Because it’s a powerful story, and exciting story, a somewhat condescending story (“I’m not descended from the bad people, I’m descended from the ones clever enough to survive by hook or by crook.”) The story pops up because it’s simple, elemental, and it fills a deep psychological need in the people who think it up. It can be taken literally (“The gods saved us above all others”) or it can be taken metaphorically (“If I please the gods, they’ll save me from death.”) In fact, the Bible itself plays the story both ways in different places.
Ark stories are not a case of simple ignorance among religious people, Ark stories exist because people need them to, and saying “We shouldn’t think such silly things or tell stories about them” isn’t going to make them go away any more than telling a clinically depressed person “Just cheer up” will fix them. We’re humans. Ark stories are just one of the things humans do *because* we’re humans. The story inherently resonates with us.
Later on he confesses that he would have preferred the show to be set in the future rather than the past, “Not just because of my tastes, but it would have also 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 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 what might actually be, something we might have real concern over.”
Again, there’s a couple obvious considerations Mr. Templeton is missing here. Firstly: If most SF is set in the future, that alone is enough reason *not* to set a show in the future. It’s a cliché, too easy. It becomes a personal challenge to the artist to see if he can compellingly do something no one else is even bothering with.
Secondly, Mr. Templeton is obviously an SF fan, and as such he’s probably somewhat unaware of the problems Non-SF fans have with the genre. To most people, SF is either big noisy Terminator/Transformers-styled shoot ‘em ups, or frankly embarrassing shows about goony utopias centuries in the future where people wear too-tight uniforms in bright primary colors and quote Shakespeare a lot on starships that have no bathrooms. A big problem for SF is trying to give some sense of connection between the audience and what they’re watching. Most people don’t like history, most people don’t see how the lives and troubles of people a hundred or a thousand years ago have anything to do with their own lives. By extension, most of those same people couldn’t give less of a crap about the lives of people a hundred or a thousand years from now. The lives of the crew of Babylon 5 (Not Babylon V) or any particular Enterprise you want to pick have *nothing* to do with the guy who’s a greeter at Walmart, or the table-dancing Canadian hooker who works the lounge across the street.
It is very difficult for people to get past this, to connect with strangely-dressed people from another era. This is why the original Stargate was so successful: it took place right here and now. The SG teams explore the galaxy, then come home and watch Adam Sandler movies in Colorado at night, right here, right now. It sidestepped the lack of audience identification. Setting a show in the future, however, makes it very difficult for a casual viewer to identify, or to even give a damn. Added to which, setting a show in the future is invariably going to give an entirely hokey, badly realized view of what the future will be like. On the other hand, Mr. Moore’s approach was obviously meant not to tell us what we can become, but rather *What We Are Now.*
Templeton then asks “Why were we so convinced it was in the future?” I’d say this was twofold - firstly, his own cultural baggage with regard to SF - he clearly *likes* stories set in the future; secondly I’d say it was deliberate misdirection by RDM himself. The man was playing in to the preconceptions of most SF fans, and then trying to give them the old switcharoo in the end. Of course he blew it so badly that he utterly devaluated and destroyed his own series, but obviously that’s what he was going for.
Somewhat later on he says “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 deity.” Once again, I’ll give him that this is usually the case, but it’s not a universal rule. What if we’re dealing with a war of the gods, where both sides manipulate people to their own ends? In that case, the actions of humans - even if manipulated - still affect the outcome. What if the gods have a plan, but that plan is repeatedly thwarted by people who choose to go shopping or randomly drive to Cleveland because of their free will, rather than do what was intended for them at a particular moment? What if we’re looking at a gnostic situation where the demiurge actually dies? There are lots of creepy/sexy/cool story ideas anyone can come up with to get around this limitation, though many of them are terribly offensive. Templeton is right, however, that most of the time people don’t explore this avenue.
The remainder of the article is mostly Monday Morning Quarterbacking about how he would have ended it all, given his druthers. I like to engage in that sort of thing more than most, but in this context I don’t think it really works. It takes a well-reasoned critique and gives it a tinge of “I don’t like it because it surprised me.” That’s clearly not the intent, but it seems a bit out of place to me.
Re-reading my comments here, I can’t help feel that I’ve harped on the negative, but that’s only because his positive comments - which far outnumber the bad ones - really require no comment. He calls the Cosmic Unconcious Bullsh!t, and I wholly agree with that, particularly in the half-assed manner delineated by Mr. Moore. He comments on the bad science, particularly on Kobol and with Mitochondrial Eve. He cites all the major problems of the last year of the series. All these criticisms are bang-on perfect, and he cites - correctly - the reliance on a Deus Ex Machina ending was a complete and utter betrayal of not only the audience, but the concept as a whole. He even contributes an exhaustive list of *all* the random happenstance that can *only* be attributed to God in the show, and it is sprawling and undeniably sloppy writing on the part of the authors. http://ideas.4brad.com/battlestar/story-bsg-god-gog Even the most fanatical of Christian authors would feel they were asking too much of their audience with such a lon
It is a great essay, with minor caveats that I’ve addressed here, and I agree with 95% of it. If you didn’t read it when I told you to before, go do it now. Here’s that link again http://ideas.4brad.com/battlestar/battlestars-daybreak-worst-ending-hist...
Seriously, it’s worth reading. Go check it out!