motd.co: Why I Disliked Battlestar Galactica

If you still haven’t seen Battlestar Galactica, this post probably isn’t for you. If you intend on watching the show, there are spoilers all over the place, and if you don’t, it probably won’t make much sense anyway. If you are going to read this, well… I’m sorry in advance.

I really wanted to like Battlestar Galactica. We’ve been starved for a good hour-long science fiction space drama for a long time— some shows post-Star Trek: The Next Generation have had periods where they were good, but nothing has really achieved that level of quality in terms of writing. When BSG came along, it became clear to me after a couple seasons that this was what people were considering the next great sci-fi series. Without cable, I wasn’t able to watch it as it aired, and I didn’t have time to watch anything but the mini-series (which I quite liked) until Season 4.0 was airing, at which time I picked up Season 1.

Sidenote: “some shows… have had periods where they were good”
Deep Space 9, Farscape, probably something else I’m forgetting— I’ll even concede to Firefly being a pretty good show, despite my usual disdain for Joss Whedon and my insistence that it’s best for Firefly that it ended so quickly because it would have folded in on itself after a few seasons. A short run for that show ensured that it would come out looking smart, just like many TV shows could end after 1 or 2 seasons and come out looking smarter and more tightly written. Including Battlestar Galactica.

Gretchen and I finished the season finale last night; it took us a year to finish the show only because by the time we got halfway into Season 3 we found ourselves wondering why we were watching the show and realized it was only because we were already so invested in it that we wanted to see it through, to see if the plot would ever right its course and retcon or ignore some of the major flaws we saw in its direction. It never did, and almost all of the last half-season was even lamer than what we had seen before.

If there is one thing that bothers me the most, it’s the show’s moral center. I’ve seen some people try to compare BSG to The Wire, perhaps because there are so many characters and a lot of them have differing opinions and lifestyles, but the thing that makes the comparison totally invalid is that The Wire was not about pre-judgement. There are totally separate groups of people in The Wire and the writing of the show does not dictate to you who is right, who is wrong; who is a “good guy” or a “bad guy”. That’s what sets David Simon’s story apart from almost every other show on television, and that’s why Battlestar Galactica can’t be compared. It’s not necessarily a bad thing; plenty of great shows have clearly defined protagonist/antagonist roles. I just think anyone who claims BSG is any more complex than that is deluding themselves.

In Battlestar Galactica, the military and the executive branch of the government are infallible. Everyone else is a bad guy except during the times that they are on board with this elite group of privileged white people. An unknown enemy with a deep-seated grudge against society attacks without warning. The people are left feeling insecure and the government steps in to assert control at an unprecedented level. Anyone who questions the military decisions, which are generally made by the military and rubber-stamped by an unwitting, unqualified leader whose decisions are led by a vaguely radical branch of the standard religion by which the majority of modern-day society tends to live. Short of a few details, the whole thing comes off as a Bush administration allegory. But the characters that are obviously the protagonists of the series are the people who are the parallels to the government during this unpopular time! I’m told to like the people that I just spent 8 years desperately hoping wouldn’t ruin things beyond any hope of recovery.

I think they realized what they had done at some point— that the people in charge were going to have to behave like an unpopular religious/military regime— and wondered what they could do to make them look better. The plot was stuck the way it was, so if they could just make some characters look totally CRAZY and have beliefs that were even more extreme, then by allowing these right-wing protagonists go about “beating” these straw men, you’ll leave your main characters looking downright moderate in their views. So the Pegasus shows up and delivers a set of characters that are 100% fascist, painting Adama and his crew as simple moderates who can’t handle the way this woman KILLS people who disagree with her (despite Adama shooting a soldier point-blank with no remorse during the mutiny in Season 4.5). They take Gaius Balthar, a criminally underused character in the final season, and turn him into a self-serving religious leader so that their religion will seem pure by comparison because hey, at least it’s not this fake one, right guys? And in smaller ways, any character who is at one point part of “the crowd” but then changes their mind has to do it in some way that is a) obviously wrong (like Felix Gaeta, probably my least favorite character on the show) or b) obviously crazy. The resolution is that they either see the error of their ways or they’re murdered in some way involving an airlock. It even takes them 3 seasons to realize that they can use the Cylons as an absolute evil, at which point they go with the weird New Caprica plot which I thought started off promising but devolved into watching people like Starbuck and Tigh get tortured.

Season 4 is a truly unique trainwreck. The first half was just awful— especially when they reached the mutiny plotline, which was what ruined Felix Gaeta once and for all— but then, just before they took a hiatus before starting “Season 4.5”, they took a weird turn. They actually led the fleet to Earth. I got really excited, because that opened up all kinds of bizarre ideas for what could happen next, and then they landed, and it was barren. Not what I was expecting, but I was still interested to see where they were going with this, and I think Gretchen and I both agreed that 4.5 had potential as we headed into a marathon “let’s finish Battlestar Galactica once and for all” session. We started up Season 4.5 and… it got worse. Way, way worse.

Sidenote: On poop jokes
I’m going to take a quick swerve and say that there are TWO poop jokes (one by Adama(!) and one by Starbuck) in Season 4.5 and they are the funniest lines in the entire series. I didn’t have anywhere to mention this, because I don’t have anything else good to say about the final Season, but there you have it.

As for the bad parts of Season 4.5: they did some half-assed flashback things to the Final Five’s time on Earth, a storytelling mechanic they would reuse in the final episodes for the main characters’ time on the colonies before the Cylon attack. It reminded me of Lost’s flashbacks, only lazy and featuring a lot of unnecessary strip club establishing shots (in the case of the series finale’s flashbacks). They teased the planet they landed on being “Earth”, only for us to later discover that oh well the “Earth” we live on now is just called that for symbolic reasons this is a different planet you guys. In a similar way, Starbuck’s true identity is teased over and over again as if it’s important or interesting. They leave things vague so as to seem mysterious and complicated but really it’s just underdeveloped and boring. They somehow manage not to ruin Laura Roslin, and the settlement of Earth (2) is kind of a nice idea, but then…

At the very end they flash forward to the present day and feature a scene that apparently EVERYONE can recognize as being awful. It features the “angel” versions of Balthar and Six saying a bunch of pseudo-intellectual things that are taken mostly from mystic phrases we’ve had tossed at us throughout the series, but the way they’re pieced together in this scene and the other lines that are used just sound awful, totally awful, way worse than the writing anywhere else in the rest of the series. You would think that of all scenes the final minute and a half of the series would have its script vetted over and over and over again, but there it is, the worst dialogue in the entire series, just hanging there like a curtain over an awful show.

On a more general basis (but mostly with Seasons 3 and 4), the writers don’t seem to know how to handle female characters in traditional female roles. As long as a woman is doing something to further the plot in a military or political role, they’re allowed to be important and well-spoken— Laura Roslin and Starbuck are actually some of the better-written characters in the show, although both have their weaker moments. The moment a woman is painted primarily as a mother or wife, though, she transforms into a tired-looking, paranoid, shrill bitch who acts purely on her own motives (Ellen) or assumes her husband is cheating on her when he is just dealing with really important things about his life that she’ll never be able to understand okay woman (Callie). The only character who seems to get a pass in this regard is Sharon, but it’s arguable that once she’s happily with Helo and taking care of Hera, she becomes a background character. It’s for this reason that when Dualla offs herself I was relieved, because they were bringing her back into the spotlight as a romantic counterpart to a main character and that could only mean that she would have done something dumb before long.

So Battlestar Galactica sucked. I’m angry that it never got better, I’m angry that it got even worse in the finale (even though everyone told me it was going to happen), and I’m angry that we spent a year watching this show when we could have been watching Mad Men (which is next, and I am very excited for) or doing something else with our time instead. I just kept holding on to the hope that the show would, at the very least, return to its kind of fascist but ultimately somewhat enjoyable origins. Instead its ideas just spiraled more and more wildly out of control.