The Failure of Battlestar Galactica

Warning: spoilers and extremely critical thoughts ahead.

Do you remember the feeling you got in the pit of your stomach when you saw your best friend kissing the girl you’d never gotten the nerve to ask out but pined for night after night and who you just knew would fall in love with you if only she could see just how much you were in love with her?

Do you remember that night when you were five, maybe six, years old and you caught your Dad getting into a Santa Claus costume and your parents assured you that he was just helping out the real Santa but you knew, knew in your fast beating little heart that they were lying to you and that there was no Santa Claus. If your parents could lie about something so important and fundamental as Santa, then how could you ever trust anyone or anything ever again?

Do you remember the first time you lied to someone you loved? Not a small lie, but an important lie. Do you remember how hollow you felt afterwards?

That’s kind of how I feel about the Battlestar Galactica finale.

What I look for in a series finale is some emotional closure. Sure we saw what happened to the characters, but it felt like nothing was left to ponder about their personal journeys. And I’m with Pablo. If there’s anything I want from a series finale, it’s a reprise of the show’s tone. And a mostly happy ending with everything neatly explained away was not what I thought of when I thought of BSG. And I guess that’s what disappointed me the most. – Theresa DeLucci.

Of all the criticisms that have been leveled against Ron Moore’s ending for what was a remarkable television series, Ms. DeLucci’s statement gets to the heart of the matter. We can argue about whether the epilogue was clumsy or cute (it certainly wasn’t clever), or if Starbuck’s “angel” status implies a necessary rejection of rational humanism in the face of some nebulous religiosity and narratively lazy use of “Fate.” We can discuss the relative merits of so many good guys surviving the final showdown or the incredibly bizarre and out-of-character scene with Adama openly mocking Boomer as a young Raptor pilot in training (a scene in which Adama appears to be drunk while on duty). We can pick over the various character arcs that seemed to be forgotten or dismissed, but at the center of the failure that was BsG’s finale lies the this fact: when Galactica reached this new and untrammeled “Earth,” the show became a stranger to itself and its fans; it stopped honoring the core narrative principles that made the series so compelling and it delivered a kidney punch to its reputation as a serious work of science fiction.

Earth means never having to say you’re sorry

Happy endings – No examination of how actions have consequences (Tyrol killing Tori at exactly the wrong time for peace to occur) – Gender stereotypes (Helo in a fit of machismo deciding that he has to be the one to teach Hera to hunt; Hera’s achievement is, at least on the metaphorical and mitochondrial level, to have babies) – Supernatural disappearances – Zero dissension or dialogue about throwing away what little technology and culture that has survived a near genocide – Romantic illusions of living off the land and fucking the natives – “Angels” moralizing about whether we will survive the decadence of a technological society

Really? That is what Battlestar Galactica is about? This melange of crappy dialogue, patently illogical choices, utter nihilism in the face of a second chance, and meaningless robot montages? So in the end BsG is an utterly boring warning about the dangers of technology and a potential robot uprising? I really really didn’t think so. At least I didin’t think so until Ron Moore and Company decided to exit a series that has examined violence, honor, love, betrayal, loss, strength and the will to survive with a brief overview of the current status of robot development in our world.

The moral of the story seems to be: technology bad, small hunter/gatherer societies good.

Let’s back up there for a moment.

The moral of the story? Really, a moral? BsG was remarkable in its attempts to avoid moralizing throughout the series. One of the show’s core strengths was that it didn’t make moral judgements, and instead forced its audience to consider multiple and sometimes contradictory moral viewpoints. So rarely did the show come right out and say “this is right and this is wrong,” that the going native as the solution to all our problems and the epilogue’s warning about our oncoming fate feel completely out of place. The ending makes an explicit link between the destruction of technology as a good thing and the potential dangers of our current technology that is reactionary if not downright Luddite.

So yeah, I’m pissed off at the end of BsG primarily because I wasn’t watching the conclusion the series I’d invested time and thought and emotion in. Instead, I was watching some weird cuckoo ending that stole the show’s heart and devoured it while I watched and could do nothing.

All that stuff we dealt with for 4 seasons? Nevermind.

All those questions of how society under duress can operate and the place of individuals in such a society. Thrown out. Who cares if we’re all just going native? We’ll just sleep under the stars and it’ll be peachy-keen and we’ll all just forget the last few years have happened and that the Cylons committed unspeakable crimes and that the humans turned on each other on New Caprica and that we no longer have a functioning, or even remotely democratic, government.

All those questions about personal responsibility and how each of us acts in a time of crisis or violence? Tyrol simply smiles a rueful smile and goes of to an island to hang out by himself after killing the woman he once loved (I would assume that since they all shared memories and Ellen had memories of their time 2000 years ago that he would have remembered being in love with Tory), and destroying a genuine attempt at detente between the humans and Cavil’s forces. He doesn’t face up to Helo or Sharon about his role in Boomer’s escape and kidnapping of Hera. People were killed in the mutiny, but hey, lets go make some nice antelope skin clothes. The Sons of Ares have become a kind of militia force that is attempting to gain power through violence and intimidation, but I’m sure they’ll be lovely chaps once they get down to farming a few acres of land.

All the struggles and sacrifices that people have made to remain a coherent civilization in the face of extreme peril? Fuck ’em. They don’t matter in the face of Lee’s selfish idea to go rock-climbing instead of continuing to try to hold these people together. The worth of attempting to maintain a democratic government? None really, since we are just going to fracture into a few small tribes. The worth of forming a union and giving Tyrol the opportunity to fight for the workers? Absolutely nothing because now everyone gets to live a hard and short life with limited possibilities and limited resources to learn and study the universe around them. And guess what, without certain kinds of technology and learning, the Sons of Ares are going to run the place because they have the muscle and the meanness. The worth of Adama falling in love and realizing there was something more important than duty? Zilch because he obviously hasn’t learned to love his son or other people. The worth of Adama and Tigh’s relationship? Not much considering they go their separate ways with nary a care about the other. Starbuck’s journey? Well, since she just disappears and doesn’t have to put any of the things she’s learned about herself into practice . . . I’d say that her journey means pretty much nothing. Baltar’s journey? Oh he’s back to being a farmer so let’s just forget all about the fact that he loves intellectual puzzles and trying to understand the world around him and that even coming face to face with his own nature doesn’t mean he has to stop being a scientist. Oh wait, I forgot: science and technology = bad and scary things.

Going native, or, let’s make our kids’ future brutish, nasty and short.

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained . . . infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. – George Santayana, The Life of Reason, Volume 1, 1905

Let’s put the whole angel, fate, and higher power bullshit—not to mention that fact that 30,000 people would all decide to do the same thing (a miracle several orders of magnitude larger than angels and fate combined)—behind us for one moment and just reflect on the decision to have over 30,000 people give up all their technology, their entire cultural history, the ability to make medicine, or teach surgical techniques. I’m not the only one to view this ending as completely and utterly implausible, irresponsible and just plain dumb and I’m sure I’m not the only one who will find this action the biggest betrayal of the entire series and will make me view Ron Moore’s future projects with a skeptical eye. Not only does this bone-headed decision make no sense from a psychological point of view, the consequences of such a decision don’t appear to have been thought out with any amount of consideration on the part of the characters or the writers. For a series that attempted, time and time again, to present problems without easy solutions and to engage characters in a dialogue about what is right versus what is necessary and where the line between survival and human rights can be drawn, this ending signals a complete shift in tone that offers no substantive discussion about the merits of such a drastic action. Don’t underestimate the desire for a clean slate? Oh come on, don’t underestimate the power of metal and electricity and medicine and engineering to offer people a higher quality of life. Don’t underestimate the power of a species to learn from it’s mistakes instead of throwing their whole culture into the sun. Sure, some of the humans and some of the cylons learned to work together and trust each other, but if the claim is that we are descended from them, we know what happened over the last 150,000 years and learning from their mistakes certainly hasn’t occurred. Which means that any progress made by the last of survivors of the 12 Colonies has been lost. Worse than lost, thrown away by those very survivors. Which is more tragic, near genocide or the survivors of that near genocide lobotomizing themselves and condemning their children and their children’s children, to a world of short life spans, high infant mortality rates, death from any number of preventable illnesses and diseases, and robbing their descendants of a rich history of music and art and culture?1

Not only that, but can you imagine how betrayed you would feel if your parents had the power to fly between the stars but they decided to throw that away so that you could forage for roots and wear the skins of dead animals and struggle to keep a fire going and spend your entire life in the pursuit of survival and very little else. What kind of resentment and anger would that fuel, to know that your parents had the power to keep your sister from dying in childbirth, or your brother from kidney stones, or heal that nasty wound you got while hunting instead of letting you die from infection, gangrene and rot? Instead, they just threw all those abilities away in a spasm of selfish insanity.

Under the guise of a “happy ending” BsG concludes with what I think is the most selfish, cynical and obscene act ever undertaken in the the series. That in itself isn’t necessarily bad if the series had led up to such an act and showed us a group of people capable of destroying their own future. But we have spent four seasons watching people clawing their way through disaster after disaster, and all the while desperately trying to cling to their culture and keep themselves—politically and socially—from losing everything their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, etc., had created over thousands of years. Nevermind that the conclusion fails because it ignores everything we know about human psychology (30,000 people are not dumb enough to dispose of their resources for making a better life for their family): the ending of Battlestar Galactica fails most because it makes all of the struggles and all of the journeys and all of the personal revelations worthless.

What is unconscionable from a series that has been dedicated to exploring tough questions about human lives and human society under extreme duress is this easy dismissal of human lives and human history. Starbuck tells Lee that what she fears more than death is being forgotten and then the writers promptly end the series with over 30,000 people participating in an act of collective and self-induced amnesia.

And it all could have been avoided.

I’m not usually one for second-guessing other writers and coming up with alternative storylines and plots. Perhaps because, as a writer, that kind of criticism is rarely helpful, but there are a couple of glaring possibilities that could have been exploited to make the ending much better even if the fleet still ended up on our Earth 150,000 years ago.

Option 1: Galactica Alone

Instead of our nice, neat, and happy reunion of those who volunteered for Galactica’s last mission and the rest of the fleet, Adama could have ordered Hoshi to return the fleet to Kobol on the understanding that no matter what, the Galactica would destroy Cavil’s forces. Then, when Galactica makes its last jump, they are unable to contact the fleet, but secure in knowing that the main threat to the surviving human’s has been destroyed. In this scenario, there really would be no point to trying to reconstitute their old civilization because there would be too few people. Our heroes can then go about hunting or climbing mountains or farming or whatever they want to do because they are so diminished in numbers that they literally could not hold onto their history and technology for much more than a couple of generations. You could even come up with some reason to shoot Galactica into the sun (unable to maintain a stable orbit, would eventually fall to earth and create catastrophe on a global scale, etc.).

Option 2: Atlantis

Ok, you want everyone to make it to this new world together? Have them build their city, have them become the basis for our legends of Atlantis or other lost civilizations. Have them try their hardest to remember and to continue and to build and to create a new life and in the end, their failure is one of human nature and time: 150,000 years is a long, long time and there are many ways that their culture and technology could have been lost over that period. Have their tragedy be our potential tragedy: given enough time, even technological civilizations can fall and forget and become condemned to repeat their mistakes. You wouldn’t even have show all of that, simply have them name the city Atlantis and we could work out from there what happens in their future.

I don’t claim that either of these ideas are brilliant or particularly original (they are neither). However, either scenario would offer more dramatic energy to the ending of show than what Moore gave us. Either one could be made to more closely fit the tone, atmosphere, and themes of the series as a whole than what we were offered.

If the conclusion had been weak, or not lived up to my expectations, that would be one thing. That the ending invalidated so much of what the series and the characters had explored and struggled with is much, much worse. I honestly expected that after the series finale, I would immediately want to start watching the show from the beginning again. Instead, I felt numb and unsettled. Completely disinterested in seeing either the upcoming Caprica series or the BsG movie The Plan. I am also unsure if I will watch the series again knowing that the ending of the story repudiates so much of what I most love about the show. With all due respect to Ron Moore, Edward Olmos, Mary McDonnell, and everyone else involved in the show, this ending was a lousy cheat.

Yes, Battlestar Galactica still stands as a remarkable show in many regards. I further contend that Mary McDonnell gave one of the most intricate, nuanced, and fulfilling performances in the history of television. Her truth and emotional honesty throughout the series was breathtaking. In all honesty, if anything brings me back to watching the show from the mini-series onward, it will be her performance. From a feminist perspective, the show remains an example of how to represent women as complex, strong, and, more importantly, socially equal to men. BsG also demonstrated, to a general population who are used to crappy science fiction movies and television, that science fiction can be an important and deeply emotional storytelling genre.2 All of these positives remain and television is better off for having this series.

But do you remember when your lover sat you down and said, “we have to talk” and wouldn’t meet your eyes and told you that the foundation of your relationship had been build around a fundamental lie and everything you thought you knew about your love was nothing but ashes?

That kind of ending makes being friends with your ex all sorts of difficult.

On this day..

  1. How ironic then that these people had been led for years by an ex-teacher and now they have destroyed all need for teachers and replaced their cultural knowledge and past with a blank slate. Not, by the way, ironic in any interesting or compelling way. []
  2. However, enough with the whole BsG “transcends the genre” bullshit. It doesn’t and never did. What it transcends is poorly executed examples of the genre which, unfortunately, make up the bulk of any and all genres of storytelling. []

2 thoughts on “The Failure of Battlestar Galactica

  1. Cheat. Indeed. I just finished watching the series and I’m horrified at the finale. The previous 3 seasons are totally disconnected from the end. Even brushing aside the absurdity of “going native”, it just does not fit the main characters to just walk away from everyone they cared about.

    And what was this humanity thing they were so hellbent on preserving? Just some DNA, that in the end turns out to be sort of second class given the importance of Hera? Hey guys remember that thing about a new home, a new start and all that? Well guess what. It doesn’t matter because now that we are here we are all going to dump what we know. Our existence will be meaningless.

    Meaningless? Meaningless. Who cares if they taught the natives how to speak. They would have learned sooner or later by themselves, just like they may have done in previous cycles. And if they taught them to speak what would have they told them? Surely not taught them anything because hey, we left technology behind. Not stories because hey we have a clean slate. Not how to live in the planet because the natives already knew the environment better than they did.

    No wait, lets teach them agriculture because everyone seems hellbent on getting started on their farms. I guess agriculture, irrigation, the plow aren’t technology. So its good to have farms but bad to have a hospital. Yay.

    It must have been a joy for everyone involved when diseases that neither group had inmunity to start spreading. Remember that episode with the virus slaughtering the cylons? They are reaaaally going to have a field trip down there.

  2. Couldn’t agree more, Anonymous. While time has blunted my disappointment somewhat, I still am not sure how to relate to the series as a whole anymore because of how it ended. I’m also still completely up in the air as to whether or not I will watch The Plan when it comes out.

    Given Moore’s track record, I am still hoping he comes back to television soon with something in the science fiction genre, but I’ll be a bit wary of it at the same time.

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