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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Brad Ideas posts the most coherent critique I've read of why BATTLESTAR GALACTICA'S finale felt like such a betrayal of both science and its own mythology to so many of its fans.

And proposes an alternate last 3 minutes that he feels could have saved it. (It would have resolved almost all my issues.)

Fun fact: Brad Templeton, the essayist, is chairman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Always fun when your fellow fanboys are up to some serious stuff IRL.

(Thanks for the link, David!)



For me, much of BSG's power was in its ability to reflect the devastating effects of the Bush administration back to us. (And it's known that its origin was informed by 9/11.) The show started when I was spending a year on active duty in the "War on Terror;" I returned to my home in New Orleans to have Katrina hit three months later. That is to say I felt the devastation of the Bush administration acutely (though not as severely as many I know). BSG became one of the chief ways that I coped with the loss. Its scifi subject matter offered me an escape from my reality, while the characters' drama of confronting their profound loss showed me a way to process my own.

I realize that as I write this I'm writing from the perspective of an audience member. (I have other observations about craft.) BSG was a meditation on relentless, unbearable loss (like the last eight years). In the end, RDM owed the audience an honest treatment of that loss. If wanted to end on a high note, I don't know how could offer more than a moment of understanding or peace or grace on the part of one of the characters honestly coming to terms with all that was lost, what PT Anderson called the "saddest happy ending." Instead, we got an exercise in sentimentality. I simply don't accept the ending of the show.

By Blogger David, at 9:28 AM  

Brad's post linked to a critique on I thought that was the best critique offered, though Brad's is good and broader in scope.

Here's mine on the syfy forum (which was well received):

By Blogger David, at 10:22 AM  

Brad's analysis and offerings are interesting, but I'm not sure it's taking the whole tone of the show into account. I don't think BSG was ever about any particular explanation, but was always about the exploration of human culture. Like it or not, the ambiguity of whether or not there is a God or gods has been an important part of human development and history forever. It is there. God is a part of us, and to *not* include him in an exploration of the human condition is downright ignorant -- for the sake of objectivity about our history and culture, whether or not one believes God exists.

By Blogger S. Harlan Cone, at 1:48 PM  

As I hoped to make clear, the issue is not religion in the show. In fact, I list the concept of sexual, religious machines as one of the things that made the show start off so great. Religion is, as you say, a core part of society and deserves a place in most fictional worldbuilding.

This is very different from the religion actually being true, and learning the course of events was steered by divine intervention.

As I think I'll add to the essay, imagine if the ending had been instead that the colonial (Greek) gods were the ones that were real, had created mankind etc. Would that satisfy?

By Blogger Brad Templeton, at 5:47 PM  

Brad's analysis of RDM's misuse of science brings to mind the following observation. I think some writers, particularly sci-fi writers, confuse a story elements' being of scientific significance with the story itself being dramatically powerful. Hence, as Brad points out, BSG's conclusion getting shoe-horned to make Hera mitochondrial Eve. RDM has done this before. In the finale of "Star Trek: TNG," Q enlists Picard to ensure that the evolution of life itself isn't interrupted on Earth. In both cases, it seems RDM's strategy is that the audience is supposed to care more because the story's central conflict is of scientific signficance and, fictionally, directly related to their lives. (I think, too, that this attraction to scientific significance is an attempt to be philosophically significant.)

Of course, such a strategy abandons what is at the core of all good writing--"It's about the characters, stupid." (Brad makes that point, too.) What's the scientific significance of Rosebud's being Kane's sled? What's the evolutionary significance of: "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."? What the philisophical significance of John C. Reilly's returning to the drugged-out Claudia at the end of "Magnolia?" The answers are: none, none, and none. What's significant and powerful about those endings is that the audience witnesses something significant and powerful to the characters, characters they're invested in. We couldn't care less about their stories' factual/fictional connection to our lives.

I agree with Brad that this finale is extremely disappointing, due particularly to the extremely high quality of writing that precedes it. I consider this the biggest choke job since Leon Lett ruined Dallas' Thanksgiving. But the truth is, prior to BSG, I think much of RDM's writing was pretty lousy (ie, All that Star Trek--I haven't seen "Carnivale."). Maybe BSG was a quantum leap forward for him, and with its finale, RDM reverted to old, bad habits.

By Blogger David, at 9:29 AM  

I actually would not go quite that far. I believe that if you are going to do SF, rather than fantasy or non-genre work, it should speak to something about science and technology and our relationship to it.

This does not mean you sacrifice the quality of the characterization or other elements needed for a good story.

The best SF delivers a great story but also something meaningful to our lives about the world and the world of science. To be meaningful about science, it is necessary to get the science right -- at least where it relates to your meaning. You can get it wrong in ways that don't relate -- you can use FTL drives to get to a planet where you tell a story about technological slavery that you don't want to set on Earth -- but when it comes to the element of your setting you care about, you should get it right or people will talk more about how you got it wrong than what you meant.

Not all stories have to mean something. Some can just be moving or "just" entertainment. But some do want to mean something and they have certain duties if they want to do that.

By Blogger Brad Templeton, at 2:53 PM  

I think Moore's ambiguity over what God is keeps us from arriving at a place of declaring "God", capital G, as we tend to define it, as being real. Something is real. Something more powerful than us, but even Head Baltar admonishes Head Six about using the G-Word. "It", whatever "it" is, doesn't like it.

I think it's open to interpretation. We aren't given any real answer of philosophical or religious substance. The answer is still a question. I prefer it that way, as it lets the viewer include themselves in the universe of the show in an experiential way by trying to figure it out for themselves.

I could be wrong, Brad, and I mean no offense, but it seems to me that you are arguing against the show giving an answer that you don't agree with. I don't think "Daybreak" gives a wrong ending, merely one open enough that it can rub one the wrong way with its possibility. As someone who is spiritual, I don't mind contemplating it. I might like contemplating it less if it went to either extreme. It connects me with the characters, who are unsure themselves.

By Blogger S. Harlan Cone, at 4:41 PM  

I agree with Brad. It's one thing to examine the moral implications of people's feelings about God. It's another thing to solve a bunch of story problems by saying "It was God all along."

Saying the latter is the narrative equivalent of creationism. It doesn't contribute any actual theory; it doesn't do anything with the information you've been given. It's just a refusal to do the hard work of stitching together the narrative threads and making sense of them. Just because it's an SF show is no excuse. Imagine if, at the end of THE FUGITIVE, it had been revealed that there was no one-armed man -- God just made Dr. Richard Kimble SEE a one-armed man. For his own mysterious purposes. You would have felt cheated, wouldn't you?

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 5:19 PM  

I do hope it's more than simply not agreeing with the answer. I've certainly enjoyed lots of stories with religion in them, and gods. They tend to be more in the fantasy realm, of course. I have no issue with visions in Dune or higher beings in Lord of the Rings, or prophecies in a wide range of stories, or even Yaweh in the Ten Commandments. If good reviews motivated me to read "Left Behind" I would not fault it for the presence of God.

My criticisms hopefully go beyond personal taste. I am identifying rules of good screenwriting. Establish your contract with the audience -- they will readily do suspension of disbelief on fantastic premises, including gods, that you lay down at the start. But finally disclosing that the god of the machines is real on the last page, well that's literally a deus ex machina. (And how often do you get to use "literally" correctly these days?)

But I do have a bone to pick with intervening gods wrapping it all up, even if you do introduce them to the audience early on, which is it cheapens or removes the struggle of the characters, and that struggle is what your story should be about.

While some religions bag to differ, you can never be anything but a puppet to an omniscient god. Such a being can't test you or influence you. Such a being knows exactly what it can make you do, and exactly what to say to make you do it.

When the god intervenes, it becomes a character in your story. A character who can never be understood by the audience, but now is the reason for so much of the story.

As I write -- though perhaps you disagree -- if you present a being claiming to be god, or represent god, in what is a full-bore SF story, the audience's correct assumption is that it is lying until it's proven otherwise. I mean while the line about "what does god need with a starship" was cute, did anybody think they were really meeting god in Star Trek V?

Man vs. god is not a good story. Man vs. nature, or man vs. himself, or man vs. man -- these are the good stories.

By Blogger Brad Templeton, at 5:32 PM  

I have no desire to get into a religious debate here. On the internet they invariably eat up a lot of time and its too easy for words to be misconstrued as disrespect and I don't want that.

I will say that the argument that you can only be a puppet to an omniscient god doesn't take into account that a god that can't hardwire human autonomy into his design is neither omniscient or a god. Or, at the least, choose to let people make the choices that comprise his vast knowledge. But, this is a conversation that would ultimately fall into an argument over what deserves to be called "God" and, likely, semantics before the end.

With that, which is not a solution or any kind of last word, I return to BSG:

I see the argument from a screenwriting point and can agree. I long ago realized the error of making God too active in my own writing. I resolved to make it about the people side of the equation, dealing with the fallout of his intervention or the realization of things about him, but I avoid making him active.

So it would be deeply inconsistent of me to not concede that Moore may have gone just a step too far, which my own bias can comfortably overlook because I like thinking about it, but the difficulty of achieving it led to a less than satisfying conclusion for the masses.

Apologies if you thought I meant you were using a bratty argument out of disappointment -- I enjoyed reading it and it is incredibly well reasoned.

By Blogger S. Harlan Cone, at 6:36 PM  

@ Brad: Maybe we're talking past each other a bit here.

My last comment was meant to explore what you pointed out about the hazards of the "secret history" angle of the finale. In this case, that secret history would be established by tying a plot point (Hera) to scientific minutia (MTE).

I consider sci-fi's distinguishing characteristic to be an exploration of humanity's confronting science and technology, and I think you'd agree with that. And I agree with you that some stories are (perhaps only) meant to entertain, while others are meant to mean something. However, my point is that powerful drama is going to be found almost always in the characters and not in the science, and that powerful drama is typically what gives stories meaning. A good example would be "The Matrix," which is all about humanity meets technology. Yet the power of the story lies in Neo's personal transcendence; it had nothing to do with the arcane aspects of computer science. The examples I brought up were meant to point out that stories mean a great deal without having anything to do with science.

And if the science is going to be meaningful, it's not going to be tacked on in a gratuitous way like the whole MTE element was (or the amoeba evolution in "Star Trek: TNG"). The meaningful aspect of the science is going to be a consistent element throughout the story, like in "Silent Running" or "2001."

By Blogger David, at 6:42 PM  

It's true, David that if the story isn't there, you might as well be writing an essay. However, the greatest SF (in terms of impact) often affects and informs public debate on the issues of science and technology. If it wants to do that it does need to work on doing it right.

The Matrix is a movie about Neo and Morpheus (and their A.I. opponents too.) But it also means you don't have to explain virtual reality, or the idea of being in a VR without knowing it, to people -- you can refer to the Matrix. At the same time you can't use the Matrix to talk about why machines might keep humanity in a virtual reality, because of that very silly "battery" mistake which was never fixed. (Easy fix: Morpheus was lying or misguided.) It would have been better for the script to have just never answered why the A.I.s were doing it.

The setting is a character in SF, it is often said, and like all characters it should be consistent, believably real and interesting.

When the most popular SF (which is screen SF) gets it wrong, the reverse happens in public debate. You have to explain how blowing up the asteroid moments before it hits Earth is not going to help, for example.

By Blogger Brad Templeton, at 12:37 AM  

Brad, I'm curious as to what the "battery mistake" is. I haven't heard that before. Or thought about it much. I just kind of bought it in the movie.

By Blogger S. Harlan Cone, at 1:14 PM  

That is the idiotic idea that the machines need human beings plugged in to harvest their electrical energy because there's no sunlight coming in. Since you have to feed human beings huge amount of calories to generate a minor amount of current, this system has a net loss of energy, not a net gain.

The machines would presumably use nuclear, geothermal, tidal energy, or wind.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 1:23 PM  

Gotcha. I had never investigated how much current we would produce. Hm... that's a pretty big one, yeah.

By Blogger S. Harlan Cone, at 4:23 PM  

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