I’d stopped thinking about BATTLESTAR GALACTICA completely after that horrendous finale aired, but now there’s a certain amount of hype being built up for the release of the latest (and hopefully last) TV movie spin-off THE PLAN, I found myself mulling over the show and the problems with long-term plotting in TV series in general.
The main problem being that there is no long-term plotting in US TV shows.
WARNING: SPOILERS. THIS COLUMN IS GOING TO BE ALMOST NOTHING BUT SPOILERS. IN THE UNLIKELY EVENT THAT YOU’VE NEVER SEEN BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, YOU WILL HAVE IT ALL RUINED HERE. THAT IS, IF WATCHING THE FINALE DOESN’T RUIN THE WHOLE SERIES FOR YOU ANYWAY. SO MAYBE YOU MIGHT BE SPARED FROM WATCHING IT.
BATTLESTAR GALACTICA is a brilliant example of the lack of a pre-planned ending. For four grainy, tear-stained years, the show ran on the basis of a promise: the Cylons had a Plan and everything would be explained by the end of the series. Then the big pay-off turned out to be the biggest cop-out of them all: Deus ex Machina. God was behind it all. God did it. God moves in mysterious ways.
Actually, it was more like God was a harried screenwriter under deadline pressure and coping with a truckload of dangling plotlines and several of them involving explaining the mystical shit that had been all over the show. In the end, God just decided “Fuck it!” and decided on “It was GOD – I mean, it was ME all along!” How the fuck do you explain the bit where – “IT WAS GOD! SHUT UP!” How did Starbuck come back from the dead with a shiny new ship when we saw her blow up in her old one? How the fuck does he do that without test tubes, DNA samples or a metal foundry? Who cares? It was GOD! God can do anything! Don’t you listen to the Christians? So seeing tens of billions of people massacred is really God’s secret plan to teach humanity to learn that killing each other is bad? That’s what we invested four years watching this show to learn?! That it’s God’s Plan that humans should give up their ships and technology to live short, difficult, disease-ridden lives on ancient Earth because he thinks it’s better for them?! That it’s better for the “special child” to die in her teenage years after childbirth so her remains would end up being discovered tens of thousands of years later and be proven to be Mitochondral Eve, the ancestor of human as we know it?
Having God come along and sort everything out at the end of a story is bad storytelling because it means whatever the human characters did, all their efforts, all their tears, are ultimately pointless because no matter what they do, it’s God’s call at the end anyway. It means free will is worthless. Deus ex Machina – “God of the machine” – was considered a lazy and crappy idea in dramatic writing all the way back to Aristotle’s time, and it’s very depressing to find that over 2,000 years later, Hollywood writers still haven’t learned that lesson. The biggest philosophical problem with writing a story with Deus ex Machina is that on a wider level, the writer is God. It’s the writer who ultimately created the character and the situations that they end up in after all, so if God in the story is a secretive, manipulative, genocidal asshole, what does that make the writer?
Now, I’m not just ragging on the writers of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA for the sake of it. The rise and fall of the writing on the show is symptomatic of a lot of networks shows. Working on a network TV series carries all kinds of pressures and involves trying to solve story and production problems by the seat of one’s pants, since there’s never enough time to get everything done. However, it seems to me that the way a writing staff plots out the long-term storyline of a show leaves a lot to be desired. More often than not, the writers spend all their energies writing and rewriting to make sure that first the pilot episode is made to the best of everyone’s ability and hope that the show is commissioned for a whole series. It’s only when a show is picked up that the writing staff is assembled and they sit down to work out the long-term story and that’s usually just the story for the first season. This means they often end up making shit up as they go along and hope something comes along that makes sense. Very few shows have a fully worked-out five-year arc planned out at their inception, and it shows. That’s why the BABYLON 5s and BUFFYs stand out so much. I got an insight in how TV writers think when I attended a Writer’s Guild of Great Britain social a few years ago and was chatting with a pair of sitcom writers who were literally just starting out. They found the practice of plotting a whole story fascinating and rather foreign because they only wrote jokes. They could only write one joke at a time and they didn’t even think about what the characters were going to do next except for what might be funny once they got from point A to B and then have to work out what point C is before they can even think about point D. Having an ending already in mind when starting out with your story was a concept that was completely new to them. The ending is what makes your story whole, it delivers the final point of the message you want to communicate. Even the best writers who claim to have no ending in mind when they started writing a story often have their own themes and preoccupations working away to provide them with an ending as they move towards it. The ending of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA seems to indicate that the writers couldn’t work out how best to resolve their story and just threw up their hands, settling for a muddled one that would actually make hardcore Christians proud. Except the rest of us didn’t sign on to see a “God is behind everything” show. That’s not Science Fiction, that’s Faith Fiction. And Faith is already a fiction.
The tagline for the show had been that the Cylons had a big Plan, and now the final TV movie THE PLAN purports to reveal what that Plan was all along. Unfortunately, what THE PLAN proves is that the writers never really had one other than to claim at the start of the series that they Cylons had one because it was cool and created a sense of mystery that they were then obligated to pay off on. Unfortunately, they end up digging themselves into an even deeper artistic hole here than ever before, even without God being in it for a change. I’ve watched a press screener and sorry to fans of the show, but the Plan really turns out to be nothing more than “Kill all humans.” Yes. That’s all it really was. When the Cylons find that they didn’t manage to kill all the humans, you’d think they would just carry on until they succeeded, but instead, they decide to modify the Plan to “Er, okay, let’s keep some of them alive because, oh yeah, we want to find out how to make babies”. Which makes no sense considering the Cylons already considered themselves perfect as machines. Logically, why should they give a fuck about organically conceiving and reproducing offspring? And The Plan turns out really to have been thought of and overseen by one guy all along, and he come up with it because he was pissed off at Mommy and Daddy, his creators. The TV movie is really a two-hour retcon of scenes we didn’t seen during the first few seasons of the show to explain things that were already heavily alluded to, an extended degree of fan service. That’s not to excuse the commitment and hard work of the actors or the crew, but they really deserved a much better story.
On the plus side, there’s lots of sex in it, but your mileage may vary.
It’s rather sad because BATTLESTAR GALACTICA has been an important game-changer in Science Fiction Television. It helped convince TV network executives that Science Fiction is not just cheesy techy stuff for nerds and virgins but can be a prism for exploring social and political issues. Of course, those of us who actually read Science Fiction knew that all along, but many Hollywood executives are a solipsistic lot who regard the genre with contempt, and they always needed someone to show them for the first time, and BATTLESTAR was it. The show became a perfect representation of post-911 Bush-era America, with its violence, its questioning of moral and ethical issues, its exploration of a society at war in all its confusions and ugliness, its desperate search for meaning and faith, only for it all to become increasingly muddled and confused as it drew to its close. Its revisionist effect is already being felt in the more gritty, downbeat STARGATE: UNIVERSE and the remake of the V miniseries from the 80s. We’re seeing the winding down of the current Science Fiction cycle: the economy means the networks are cutting back on budgets and shying away from the genre. The ratings of HEROES, LOST, DOLLHOUSE are dropping. The unutterably dull FLASHFORWARD is just hanging in there but offers nothing new. Half-hour sitcoms are on the rise again. Less Science Fiction means TV is rather duller, but then we don’t really benefit from crappy Science Fiction anyway.
Playing God over at email@example.com
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