I’ve gotten to be a solid supporter of “new media distribution,” cutting out cable and satellite providers and all that, but there’s one aspect of all this that really needs to be fixed: how to do big-event programming when so much time-shifting is going on. While I was waiting for the “Battlestar Galactica” series finale to become available on iTunes, I had to pretty much avoid the internet entirely, since there are so many social networking sites filled with people who can’t wait to talk about what happens.
I wanted to go into this one knowing absolutely nothing — even down to what people thought of it in general — so I’m going to extend the same courtesy and put everything behind a spoiler warning.
My reaction is a resounding “meh.”
I’m glad I had a season to wean myself off of “Battlestar Galactica,” because if I hadn’t “learned” how the series works by now, I might’ve been more disappointed. As it is, I got pretty much what I expected: a solid two hours (well, hour and 40 minutes or so, see below) of television that didn’t really resolve anything. It was a satisfying conclusion, but not a satisfying resolution. Before I started watching BSG, I’d believed that those were the same thing.
It was all paced well, and the action scenes were suitably actiony, the effects sequences were impressive, and almost all of the dramatic moments worked. I even found myself tearing up a few times, and they couldn’t all have been because I had a mother of a headache while I was watching it.
Even the flashbacks, which seemed incongruous and time-wasting in part one of the three-part finale, paid off: they were there to sum up each character’s arc, and to show how each character defined his or her purpose. In one way or another, they were all moments where the characters decided what they wanted out of life and decided to take control of life and celebrate it, instead of just passing through it. And to one degree or another, the finale wrapped all of them up: Ellen & Tigh got to be together “no matter what;” Anders got to see that perfection; Chief got rid of Boomer; Boomer got to make a true decision for herself; Apollo got to set his own course instead of picking up his father and brother’s leftovers; Adama commanded his ship to its final destination; Roslin got to celebrate life instead of being surrounded by and afraid of death. And Starbuck got the shaft.
Maybe not entirely: her key line, of course, was saying that she wasn’t afraid of death, but of not being remembered. Her role was indeed to lead the people to Earth, and she finally accomplished that in the last episode. She’s been asking “what am I?” and she discovers the answer isn’t “human” or “Cylon” or “other,” but “the one who leads humanity to their home.” Internally, just in terms of story structure, it works fine. The problem, as with everything else in “Battlestar Galactica,” is when you try to put it together with everything that’s come before it. When you do that, it stops being a bit of intrigue that’s left open for audience interpretation. It becomes annoyingly and needlessly ambiguous.
When I first started watching the series, I kept getting the sense that there were more episodes that I hadn’t seen, and I needed to get caught up. That’s because it’s always been a series of episodes, instead of being a true serialized story. They had forty-five minutes each week to tell you the story they wanted to tell, no matter what you were expecting or hoping to see. Episodes didn’t necessarily pick up where the last one left off; they could jump forward weeks or months or years at a time. So you weren’t seeing everything that happened, but the bits and pieces that they thought were important to the message they were trying to get across this week. Most of the episodes held up on their own; in fact, many of them were excellent at telling a moving and dramatic story from beginning to end in 45 minutes. It’s only when you tried to put them all together that you realized how many holes were left.
And the series insisted, with every episode, that it all fit together. We were reminded that the Cylons had a Plan, we were updated on the current human population, we had lots of omens and portents, and we had flashbacks reminding us that this was happening because of that thing that happened earlier. Even though it was less and less likely that we’d get a real resolution on everything, even though we got 2000 years worth of backstory delivered via a few paragraphs of dialogue in one episode, that idea that everything tied together was so compelling that people were hoping for a real resolution to all the dangling plot lines. But at some point along the way, the show decided it was a bunch of character studies disguised as an ongoing storyline. (And even the character studies weren’t consistent).
Just to pick one example from the finale: the shared opera house dream. Ever since this was first introduced, it was one of my favorite images of the entire series. It was an intriguing and beautiful image that was so weird — why were humans and cylons having the same dream? — and which implied so much — what does it all mean? The resolution of the whole thing was unsatisfying at best: it was all just trying to get Hera back to the CIC? Really? Then why an opera house? Why were the final five shown with such significance when they didn’t really play into the “prophecy?” What was the significance of Roslin’s and Athena’s being locked out as Six & Baltar took the baby away, when that event didn’t have any real repercussions? For that matter, what was so portentous about the dream in the first place, when all it accomplished was getting Hera back into the hands of somebody who wanted to kill her?
The answer, of course, is that there isn’t any reason. They put it in at the time because it looked cool, and left it open for themselves to resolve later. When it came time to resolve it, they tried a little too hard to make the whole thing look like it had meaning, instead of genuinely working the significance into the plot. They were laying seeds for themselves to pick up later — it wasn’t a direct line from cause to effect, but simply giving themselves enough plot events in earlier episodes so that they could suddenly pick and choose which ones to assign significance to in the later ones.
“The X-Files” got a lot of complaints about its “monster of the week” episodes, but I never had any real problem with it. If a series is set up as individual episodes with a bare minimum of continuity, that’s fine by me. You still get all the advantages of serialized storytelling, as characters get more developed over time, and the world gets more fleshed out so that everything has this additional weight to it. Being a slave to continuity can cause more problems than it’s worth, as a peek into any discussion about comic books will teach you. But, I think “Battlestar Galactica” was plagued with an identity crisis: it kept presenting itself as one huge, epic story; when it really just wanted to tell smaller, self-contained stories.
The finale, like most of the series, did that pretty well. What the finale accomplished apart from that: it managed to give all the characters some type of closure, which is no small feat. And it also managed to pay a final tribute to the original series, both with the brief re-use of the musical theme and its open acknowledgement of the Chariots of the Gods? theme.
And I’ve got a genuine question for everybody who saw the finale: is there anybody out there on the internet who didn’t think the final “150,000 years later” bit was completely ridiculous? It was so awful and pandering that it feels like something tacked on by some network executive somewhere — I can’t imagine even the makers of the show thought it was a good idea. Not only was it unforgivably cheesy (the Boston Herald reviewer nailed it by pointing out there should’ve been a “THE END?” endcard), but it was just insultingly superfluous. All it did was explicitly re-state the things that the entire series has been saying implicitly from the first episode. Maybe the end card shouldn’t have read “THE END?” but instead a big: “DO YOU GET IT?”