Sunday, 22 March 2009

Galacticawatch 10: Season 4, Episode 20

After five and a half years it's a bit odd to be saying goodbye to Battlestar Galactica. I remember there being much scepticism over the news that the series was being 'reimagined', although the creators and actors had excellent form, but somehow it worked out better than anyone could have expected. Two seasons of almost non-stop excellence followed, and if the two subsequent seasons have been patchy, at least the show still occasionally pulled out the stops and produced some of the finest SF episodes on television in recent memory.

This episode doesn't air in some territories until later this week so beware MAJOR SPOILERS.

The final episode picks up where we left off the previous week. Adama has decided that the dying Galactica should launch a full-scale assault on the Colony to recover Hera and coincidentally destroy Cavil and his faction of Cylons forever and prevent them from pursuing the remnants of humanity across the Galaxy any more, but this (somewhat more convincing) fact is curiously still left unmentioned. With the giganormous Colony (which by my estimates is wider than the Death Star) massively outgunning the battlestar, the crew plug in the Hybridised Anders into the ship's systems, with the notion that Anders can jam the Colony's systems and prevent them from firing on the ship (similar to how he forced the Cylons to retreat from the Battle of the Ionian Nebula in the Season 4 premiere). Meanwhile, boarding teams will storm the Colony from two different directions in an attempt to rescue Hera.

The first 60-odd minutes of the finale is reasonably exciting. The CGI isn't quite up to the show's best (probably still the assault on the resurrection ship back in Season 2) and its chaotic insanity lacks the dramatic clarity of say the Battle of New Caprica, but it's still pretty jaw-dropping stuff that goes on for quite some time. Galactica ramming the Colony, Lee's boarding party (consisting of dozens of rebel Centurions as well!) storming the fortress and some intense corridor firefights result in some pretty satisfying fireworks, but at the same time there are some nice character moments. Roslin thanking Cottle for treating her for the past five years was a nice touch, and Cottle's gruff demeanour fracturing only slightly strengthened his character. Those reviewers demanding a Cottle, MD spinoff have my support, that's for sure. Six and Baltar reconcile in the heat of battle and Baltar convincingly manages to win the respect of the crew that he has been denied for so long. Meanwhile, there's a curious irony to Roslin spending some of her dying hours tending the wounded in Galactica's sickbay.

One of Battlestar's under-appreciated aspects is taking minor, secondary characters and turning them into more interesting figures, and even in the chaos of the finale it still manages to do that with Ishay (Cottle's nurse, played by Jamie Bamber's real-life wife), Cottle, Lt. Hoshi, Hot Dog and the Raptor team of Racetrack 'n' Skulls all getting some nice moments. However, the absence of other secondary characters of previous importance like Captain Kelly, Figurski, Connor and most notably Seelix is a shame. Ronald D. Moore also seems to acknowledge that the Cylon Simon was very under-developed over the course of the series and gives him more dialogue in this episode than almost all of his other appearances put together (which seem to mostly consist of Star Wars references, but nice effort anyway, I guess). It's unfortunate that Leoben and Doral, who had major roles in the premiere mini-series, don't get much of a send-off here, and the absence of a resolution to the Leoben/Starbuck relationship is a major missed opportunity, especially as a brief Leoben flashback provides a key revelation at an important moment.

The battle ramps up with the fanboy-pleasing sight of some hefty Centurion-on-Centurion violence and the return of the old First Cylon War-era Cylons to the mix as well. Boomer's story gets some decent closure and the rescue is a success. Back on Galactica we also get an explanation - sort of - for the Opera House visions that some characters have been having since the end of Season 1, whilst the significance of the Final Five is finally made clear when an opportunity for a lasting peace breaks out. RDM realises he's in danger of turning this into the Deep Space Nine finale and cleverly pulls out the story point of Tory murdering Cally seventeen episodes back to frak up the negotiations at a key moment. At this point some problems start to creep in.

Cavil chooses to commit suicide, which seems logical: he doesn't want to be killed by humans, he doesn't want to be captured by them and interrogated, and he loathes his own existence as a humanoid being. With the recovery of resurrection technology now completely impossible, he gives up and blows his own head off. The problem is that we are not really given any sense of this, just a simple "FRAK!" - BOOM! That unexpected abruptness is on the one hand right for the show and the character, but given Cavil's revelation as the series' 'main villain' just five episodes ago, it does feel a bit of a letdown he didn't have a bigger exit.

A few seconds later Racetrack's heavily-damaged Raptor manages to randomly launch its nukes and knock the Colony out of orbit. This is a bit of a cheesy plot device, but much could have been done to reduce its corniness: the earlier shot of Skulls arming the nukes could also have shown a timer being programmed for the missile launch. Also, they could have shown the Raptor locking on with its missiles and not having to be directly facing the Colony when it fired (the missiles would have turned round and homed in on the target regardless). They also seem to forget that last week a fully-powered and undamaged Raptor was sucked towards the black hole within minutes of its arrival, whilst this critically-damaged Raptor somehow maintained a relative distance for a much longer period of time. Like most minor, petty annoyances in television, it's one of those things that could have been fixed if any more than about three minutes' thought had been assigned to it.

Anyway, the Colony starts getting sucked down the black hole and Kara inputs coordinates into the jump computer, using the numbers she'd previously assigned to the notes of the song her dad taught her when younger. Galactica jumps just before the Colony is destroyed (although the actual destruction happens off-screen, confusing some viewers who'd assumed that the Colony, presumably still with lots of hostile Centurions and humanoid Cylons on board, survived). Coming out the other side, Galactica finally suffers her systematic hull failure. The ship's load-bearing members snap and it becomes a barely-inhabitable, barely-powered hulk in space. Luckily, Kara's coordinates have borne the ship into orbit around a strangely familiar blue-green planet. The rest of the Fleet is gathered and the decision is taken to settle on the planet, where primitive tribal humans are already found to exist. The Centurions are given the rebel basestar and they set out to explore the universe by themselves.

The rest of the episode is what has not to much split the fanbase as shattered it. The Colonials agree to settle on the new planet. Adama suggests they name it 'Earth', since for four years they pursued the dream of Earth only to find it a shattered, nuked-out wasteland. This planet is the real home they have been hoping for all along. Roslin dies peacefully in a Raptor whilst looking over hordes of flamingoes (a sentence I never expected to be typing) and Adama decides to build that cabin they talked about long ago, over a joint on New Caprica. That stuff is all fine and is a good endpoint for the characters. Similarly, Athena, Helo and Hera settling down as a family is great as well, providing closure for Athena and Helo's long exile on irradiated Caprica at the start of the series. Six and Baltar are reconciled and Baltar goes back to his farming roots, which is a nice callback to the humble origins he scornfully rejected later on. Tyrol becoming tired of life and people and going off settle in Scotland is a little bit weirder, but given that he has been repeatedly shafted over the course of the series, it is almost understandable. Ellen and Saul end up together again as well, which is as it should be.

Elsewhere, issues start to creep in. The initial plan is to settle on the planet and build a city, as they planned but didn't quite pull off on New Caprica. Possibly due to that (someone could have mentioned that failure as a reason they didn't do the same this time around), but Lee's idea is for the people to scatter into smaller groups and settle all around the planet instead. He also spouts some rather dubious stuff about the need to spiritually cleanse themselves by getting rid of their ships and technology (although Adama gets to keep a Raptor, obviously). Erm, what? The ships are stripped of supplies, so they obviously aren't going totally back to basics (I'm assuming they took as much medicine, food and books as they could carry) but it's still a very bizarre decision to take. Then Anders pilots the Galactica, along with some of the other ships in the Fleet (but not all of them; there are about 60-70 surviving ships in the Fleet and only about a dozen are destroyed at the end), into the Sun. Galactica was dying anyway, so fair enough, but throughout the episode we saw definite signs of improvement in Anders' condition, at different points responding directly to things being said by Tyrol and Starbuck, so the sudden requirement for him to die comes out of nowhere. Again, a single line from Cottle about his condition being irreversible would have solved this problem.

Anyway, that brings us to the fate of Starbuck, and the revelation of the 'head-people', two things we were specifically promised would be explained. Ronald D. Moore shot himself in the foot here, first by promising those things would be explained when they are not. If he'd said, "No," to both questions that would be fair enough (annoying, but at least no promises would have been made and then broken). He also made a huge mistake by ruling out Daniel - the seventh Cylon of the original models - as being Starbuck's father. The finale doesn't address that or mention Daniel at all. If RDM hadn't ruled out that possibility, a lot of the people now moaning over the finale would have concluded that was the explanation, which was extremely heavily alluded to (apparently mistakenly) by Someone to Watch Over Me and No Exit, and been a lot more satisfied. That then makes Starbuck just vanishing into thin air somewhat more palatable. Basically, Starbuck turns out to be Gandalf the White, sent back to finish her work after a premature death, and then called back home when her task is completed. That's a great mythic idea and could have been really well-handled, if the writers had thought it through a lot better. The prophecy of the First Hybrid in Razor doesn't entirely track with the resolution of Starbuck's story, and no explanation is given for Starbuck having three Vipers (one which exploded in the atmosphere of a gas giant, after which it would have been crushed by pressure; a second one that was semi-intact but crash-landed on the 13th Tribe's Earth; and the new one she flew back to Galactica). I'm still unclear if Starbuck flew to Real Earth or the 13th Tribe's Earth at the end of Season 3 either: the pictures she took showed Real Earth, but her transponder was found on 13th Tribe Earth. It's very confusing, especially when you start throwing in the constellations from the Tomb of Athena on Kobol and comparing them to the constellations at Real Earth but then Gaeta said the constellations matched at 13th Tribe Earth as well.

It is these elements that ultimately leave a hollow taste in the mouth. The creative team didn't have a plan, and deliberately introduced complex, mythological ideas and concepts that needed some forethought to be developed satisfyingly without any idea of how to resolve them. Instead, the writers and producers didn't bother and the clues they seeded along the way turned out to be random, or mistakes that needed retconning, or fake-outs.

The final scene of the series takes place 150,000 years after the Colonials settle on the real Earth, and show Head-Baltar and Head-Six in New York City. The remains of the oldest 'common ancestor' for modern humanity have been found in Tanzania, and dialogue between the two reveals that this was Hera. This at least was a reasonable resolution, since Hera's importance to the show and to the survival of humanity and Cylons alike has been a key plot point since her conception in Season 1. Without her, it is possible that all three strains of life (Cylon, human and the primitive Earthlings) would have died out altogether. The two 'head' characters discuss how God's plan has worked out ("You know it doesn't like being called that!") and then walk off along Times Square whilst the Jimi Hendrix version of 'All Along the Watchtower' kicks in over TV footage of new developments in robotics technology.

On one level this is kind of appropriate, although we didn't need a full minute of shots of various crazy Japanese robots, which is a bit like using a piledriver to crack a nut. We get it. Creating robots and AI and treating it badly is not a good idea. However, the failure to get any kind of closure or conclusion for the head characters is frustrating as well. They were, it turns out, literally 'angels' sent by 'God' to save the day, as was (in a different form) Starbuck. Well. Okay. Right. Was God one of the Lords of Kobol? A hyper-advanced quantum AI built into the fabric of the Universe? An ultra-futuristic posthuman with cognitative powers not bound by mere temporal physics? A Pah-Wraith? Dirk Benedict (don't laugh, this was seriously considered at one point)? I suppose the idea is that it's left up to the audience and any explanation the writers could come up with would be derided no matter what it was, but to my mind just saying, "God did it," is just as much of a cop-out as "God is a computer,". On one level I like the idea of the answer being what you want it to be. On the other, that seems lame: isn't this stuff what the writers get paid to think of? I'm going back and forth between the two poles at the moment.

Judging the flaws in the BSG finale, it is easy to come to the conclusion it was a totally poor end to the story. It wasn't. The Fleet found a final home, Hera's importance in the grand scheme of things was confirmed, the hostile Cylons were defeated and destroyed once and for all, Roslin met her long ago-promised destiny and a tangible link between our world and the show's was established. The actors were on top form, the thematic bookends to Boomer, Starbuck and Roslin's stories provided by the flashbacks was strong and the action story was pretty impressive. The forward-moving story of the series ended in a somewhat decent place, and emotionally the finale hit most of the right buttons. But the lack of answers given for elements we were explicitly promised answers for, and the sense of the writers simply not being able to come up with pay-offs equal to the mysteries they had created and simply walking away from those elements of the story with nothing resolved feels a bit cheap.

BSG was (mostly) a very good series that won 'proper' SF a level of respect and mainstream acclaim the genre hasn't seen before, and hopefully future SF series will build on that foundation. There is also a warning here about trying to create a serialised story with no pre-planning and biting off more than you can chew, which I hope future SF TV shows will also heed.

Daybreak, Part 2 (****, yes, despite the problems) was a flawed ending to a flawed show that nevertheless was frequently entertaining and thought-provoking, and showed a new and different approach to science fiction storytelling on television. It wasn't the best SF finale ever (Deep Space Nine's, Babylon 5's and even the nihilistic Blake's 7's were all much better conceived and executed), but it wasn't the total car-crashing-into-a-flaming-gas-station disaster I've seen it described as elsewhere.

And the question for next year is, can Lost deliver a finale that is both emotionally satisfying and also closes all the mysteries and answers all the questions? Guess we'll find out in about fourteen months.

Forthcoming: A new BSG TV movie, The Plan, will air later this year, possibly in November. This will answer a number of lingering questions from the series, although probably none of the big mysteries from the finale. Those still wondering who Shelly Godfrey was (the Six that infiltrated the Fleet and caused big problems for Baltar in a Season 1 episode), how Ellen got off Picon during the Cylon attack or how Caprica Six and Boomer convinced the other Cylons to 'give peace a chance' at the end of Season 2 will get their questions answered, however.

Caprica, the BSG prequel series, begins airing in early 2010, but the pilot movie will be available on DVD in the USA next month. No UK release date has been set so far.


Anonymous said...

Very good summary Adam, I'm of a very similar mind as you regarding many of the main issues. Galactica was frequently awesome on many levels, but it's main sin was aiming far too high, and then, occasionally, spectacularly missing.

Regarding Shelley Godfrey, I'm surprised that I haven't seen anybody mention Starbuck's disappearance with reference to Godfrey's; I took that instantly as a strong hint regarding Godfrey's origins (part of 'God''s plan rather than the cylons'...). I guess if that's definitely being dealt with in The Plan though, I'm probably wrong.

Ed S. said...

Great summary!
Now that God's finished sewing up the ending on BSG he should probably head over to Lost and help them out with their ending .....

Adam Whitehead said...

I am pretty much convinced that LOST will not end with a, "God did it!" explanation for everything.

Maybe, "The smoke monster did it!" but not God ;-)

katnerg said...

Great review though I disagree w/some points. And over at the Battlestar Wiki there's this about Godfrey:

"Tricia Helfer states in this interview that Shelley Godfrey will appear in The Plan and her disappearance will be explained:"