TV EYE: Battlestar Galactica, S4 E20: ‘Daybreak – Part 2’

Time for some thoughts on the Galactica finale. And, as you’d expect, fear the spoilers…

I can’t think of a set of episodes that’s managed to (almost simultaneously) thrill, annoy and bore me in the way that the last ten episodes of Battlestar Galactica have. I’ve been riding a somewhat inconsistant journey with the show ever since S3 – I could forgive some of the less outstanding storyetlling in S2’s second half (from the terrible misfire that was Black Market, to the way the whole Gina plotline seemed to conveniently vanish for a while), but as soon as we hit the Torn’/’A Measure of Salvation two-parter and I realised we were essentially watching a hard-boiled version of a Star Trek: Next Generation episode, I knew we were in trouble. Weirdly enough, I wasn’t opposed to the more bonkers plot-twists at the end of S3 – they at least seemed to promise some exciting directions, and while Starbuck’s ‘death’ in Maelstrom was incredibly vague and unsatisfying, once they brought her back it was obvious they were going to have to do something pretty significant with that plotline. Even the slightly lackadaisical opening ten episodes had enough relatively strong moments to forgive the odd pacing and the slightly awkward moments (such as Romo Lampkin’s decidedly unconvincing breakdown), as well as the series’ increasing journey towards pretentiously overwritten dialogue that wouldn’t have shamed The X-Files (especially in episode 9, The Hub, with Laura’s overdone spectral conversations with Eloshia). I was still with them, right up until the point where they arrived at Earth and found that it was a burning radioactive cinder… and that was the point where, aside from a couple of genuinely impressive points, the show lost it for me.

One of the things I always liked about Galactica in its early seasons was that it seemed to know, deep down, that it was a pulp sci-fi show. That yes, there was room to throw in lots of drama and debate and the kind of shocking plot-twists you normally wouldn’t get in a story like this, but it was aware that as well as being an allegory of humanity’s survival in the face of holocaust, it was also a tale of humans on the run from big-ass robots and evil killer android vixens. It knew it – and frankly, you can’t get a better example of that than the first three episodes of S2 – Scattered, Valley of Darkness and Fragged, a trilogy of episodes that are so damned exciting and thrilling that I can remember watching them and barely believing the show was going this far. Unfortunately, since then Galactica has been marching slowly away from its pulp roots – it’s notable that out of the last ten episodes, there’s only three which don’t add up to lots of people sitting around having conversations. Hell, the fleet wasn’t even properly attacked by the Cylons since the opening of S4 – and there’s the sense that by stepping mostly away from the binding features of the original show – (a) constant pursuit by the Cylons (which kind of ended after New Caprica) and (b) the quest for Earth, they ended up knocking all kinds of dramatic tension out of the series. By saying ‘Hey, it’s all about the characters’, you end up with a really, really strange hodge-podge of character drama with action and cod-mysticism welded on in increasingly ungainly patterns. And the most damning thing I can say about the recent episodes of Galactica is that they actually managed to make me stop caring. This was the problem with the finale – particularly in the second half (more of which in a moment) – that they were pulling storytelling that depends on everybody watching caring deeply about what’s happening and not wanting to examine the whys and the wherefores too closely, and in my case that simply wasn’t good enough.

It’s certainly a finale of two halves, which was part of the problem. After seemingly endless episodes of non-events and character-based filler (and the occasional event that annoyed the hell out of me – see my last post for further details) we finally got to Galactica doing what it does best, and the action-based sections of this episode were (on the whole) utterly fantastic. It was a very obvious case of everyone pulling out all the stops, and we did get some truly awesome, thrilling action to the extent that the episode did manage to completely suck me in at that stage. The level of intensity was pretty breathtaking, and done on a scale that was hugely impressive – it didn’t quite cover some of the weak moments (I can cope with Galactica ramming the Colony, but the front of the ship looking pretty much undamaged inside? Unless the Colony was constructed from plaster-of-paris, I can’t see that happening… plus, was it me, or was the idea of appointing Romo Lampkin as President utterly insane? Why don’t they just do it by raffle, and have done with?) but it did genuinely thrill, and pack in a whole series of memorable moments as well as a pretty strong level of violence. I didn’t actually have a major problem with Boomer’s death, after all – it made sense in context with the choices she made since the beginning of S3, I guess my main problem with the whole idea is that her choices didn’t seem to line up or connect with the person she was in the first two seasons. In fact, what did surprise me was the relatively light body count when it came to the main characters, and the fact that we seemed to get to the major finale of the episode only about halfway through. Baltar’s speech in CIC was effective yet overwritten, and while it was a typically Galactica touch to have a truce sorted out and then have it completely messed up by an act of completely human vengeance, having the coincidental “Oh dear- dead Racetrack seems to have just set off her nukes” device was the kind of thing that’s shocking at first, but then seems sillier and sillier the more you think about it.

And the level of sheer, adrenalised excitement and fun in the first half of the episode actually ends up a problem – not only did it make me wish that they hadn’t basically spent the last four episodes doing nothing but building up to this (would a little genuine action have been wrong?), but it also overbalances the finale. By the time Starbuck is entering her All Along the Watchtower co-ordinates and they’ve arrived at Earth, I was exhausted – and then, we get nearly an entire episodes worth of everybody standing around on the green plains of Africa and saying “Hey, let’s be cavemen!” Underwhelming is not the word – over-indulgent is the word, and after hugely exciting me, they then proceeded to lose me. I’m not going to say that Adama’s final farewell to Roslin wasn’t hugely touching or brilliantly played because it was, and there were other aspects that worked well – but the whole thing felt depressingly easy. The happy ending, Garden of Eden finale is an understandable direction to go in – and I suspected they were going to do it back at the beginning of this run of episodes (especially given that they never actually showed much of ‘Earth’ except for the fact that it was blue. It also didn’t help that a long time ago I listened to a BBC Radio drama called Earthsearch, which essentially pulled exactly the same bait-and-switch, and in a way that was at least slightly more believable…) but Galactica used to be great at taking sci-fi situations and treating them practically, and the whole ‘let’s get back to nature’ idea was done in such a goofy, naive way that the one phrase I had in my mind was ‘Californian’ – it’s a very hippie, very “hey, wouldn’t it be great to explore, man!” outlook. I mean, yes, plenty of people in the fleet are going to be delighted simply to be out of their metal boxes, and given how the whole New Caprica idea didn’t exactly go smoothly, I can understand them wanting to try something different – but Lee says “Let’s be cavemen” and everyone just agrees? The same way that everyone just agreed after the mutiny that “Oh well, I guess co-operation with the Cylons is the most sensible thing after all”? It’s incredibly difficult to believe that all 30,000 people just quietly file off into the distance – I mean, yes their technology won’t last forever, yes they need to adapt and survive without creature comforts, but there wasn’t a single person who said “Excuse me – you’re actually planning to take all this technology which could help us build a firm foothold on this planet, and at least help our children as well, and you’re going to FIRE IT INTO THE SUN?!?” If that isn’t uprising material, I don’t know what is (hell, I can’t help feeling that might have actually made more exciting television than some of what we’ve seen in the last few episodes) – the show just seemed to be ignoring the fact that these people are basically going to be having extremely tough lives, that cultivation and arable farming ain’t going to be a holiday.

There’s another problem – one which does throw another spanner into the show’s attempt to weave its backstory into Earth’s history. You can hurl all the technology into the sun (although there seemed to be an awful lot of Raptors left), but you can’t do that with people’s knowledge. You’ve got over 30,000 people on a primative planet – and while there’s a lot they don’t know, there’s also a lot they do. There’ll be engineers, geologists, architects – a good broad stretch of people with whom you’d stand a relatively good chance of kick-starting some kind of civilisation, and Lee’s plan basically hinges on them not using that knowledge. Not only do they have to throw away all their books, but they also have to deliberately not use the things that they know. And the reason they have to do this is that otherwise, there’s no way they would take 150,000 years to essentially re-evolve back to a kind of pre-Caprica level of technology. Dump 30,000 people from an equivalent of modern American society on a primative planet and if they didn’t end up killing each other or dying off, they’d end up with an extremely different civilisation to what we have now (Best example of this- Stephen Baxter’s The Time Ships, where a small colony is accidentally established in Earth’s past, and creates a completely different alternate present where humanity has evolved in blobby pyramids of nanotechnology) – and that’s one part of the finale that I simply don’t buy in the slightest. They exchanged grit for sentimentality, and it simply didn’t work.

And then, there’s the ‘God’ question. I was certainly surprised to find that Baltar’s random blathering about Angels a couple of episodes back essentially turned out to be correct – that apparently, God does move in extremely mysterious and some might say eccentric ways. In certain ways you can suggest that Galactica was always heading in something resembling this direction – but I thought it was going to be a question of belief, I thought there was going to be ambiguity. I mean, with plot devices like Baltar in S1 episode ‘The Hand of God’ randomly choosing the exact correct point on the Cylon base to hit, you can play that either way – you can play it as luck, or you can play it as belief in an overseeing entity, a guiding force. But when it comes to Kara being randomly fed ‘All Along the Watchtower’ as a child so that she’ll eventually be resurrected and be in the right place to convert it into numbers and feed it in as jump co-ordinates… that’s going a bit far. And I can’t help feeling that the resolution to Kara’s plotline is so bloody underwhelming that it defies description – all the way since the beginning of the show (and particularly since Maelstrom) we’ve been told ‘Kara Thrace is special’ (and also ‘Kara Thrace is the Harbinger of Death – do not follow her’ which, er, I guess the writers would rather we forgot about now…), and for it to basically boil down to “Oh, she was an angel/ghost/something vague that we can’t put a name on” us a huge, huge disappointment. It’s clever-clever writing that wants to be thoughtful and ambiguous, but is essentially telling you in big three-storey letters exactly what to think. (Kara’s end scene was fairly touching – even if I’ve seen that “But she’s GONE!” moment done hundreds of times before – but I could have done without the clumsy visual metaphor that was very obviously hi-jacked from Blade Runner, and will be forever known to me as “The Significant Pigeon Moment”) And are we seriously supposed to believe that after all her machinations, all her manipulation (and all the times she’s ‘thought-shagged’ Baltar) that Head Six was actually a messanger of God? To be honest, God’s plan does seem insanely over-complicated (I’m reminded of comedian Lewis Black talking about the Old Testament – “God in the Old Testament isn’t the New Testament God, who was a loving God – he was a God who seemed to be a raging alchoholic…”) and it seems like a depressingly easy way of writing off most of the dangling plot threads. “Oh, it’s okay- it was God.”

As for the flash-forward to modern day New York? Mistake. Big, big screaming mistake. Not only was it yet another ending in an episode that didn’t want to end (Good lord, and people thought Return of the King was excessive), but it was also Ron Moore coming out and telling us exactly What His Show Is Saying About The Modern World. As if we hadn’t worked it out already. And it also seemed to hint that we are going to be wiped out by evil Japanese robots. Which is certainly news to me.

(And Moore’s cameo? Dear, oh dear, I wish he hadn’t done that – and in an interview I read, he slightly wishes it as well, as apparently he didn’t realise he’d be onscreen quite that hugely. Hell, at least Hitchcock was sensible enough to mostly bury his appearences in the background…)

So there we go. The journey ends. And while there have undoubtedly been some amazing moments in Galactica’s run, they simply couldn’t sustain the run of largely brilliant episodes they had early on. I can’t help feeling like it was a show that was designed to be a collection of miniseries, rather than an ongoing – or that, at the least, it would have been improved if they’d kept the episode runs to 13 rather than 20. And while there were some classic moments, the whole thing doesn’t add up. It’s not the second coming. It’s not the greatest sci-fi show ever made. It’s just a TV show, and one which, at least for me, eventually kind of wore out its welcome. I’m sure there will be plenty of people hopping around on the internet saying that it’s still a masterpiece… but I think what I saw in the last ten episodes was a show jumping the shark. It managed some geninely outstanding moments… but it still jumped the shark.

Farewell Galactica. And with only one episode of New Who between here and Christmas, what the hell am I going to rant online about now?

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