by Jason Mittell — Middlebury College
March 22, 2009 – 10:26
Like many, I’ve spent the last couple of days watching and thinking about the Battlestar Galactica finale – my spoiling thoughts are below the fold, both on the finale and some ties between the series and my research on television narrative.
On Facebook, a few of my media scholar/blogger friends and I thought it might be nice to do a bit of cross-blog dialog and series round-up. So let’s facilitate this via delicious: if you’re a media scholar & blogger, tag relevant posts on delicious with bsgmediastudies and send the link to me as well (or post in the comments below) and I’ll collate links here:
As I’ve discussed before, concluding long-form television series is incredibly difficult – fans have invested years of their lives into the protracted middle of a story, and the ending is bound to disappoint if for no other reason than the inevitable let-down of knowing that you won’t be returning to this storyworld again. The genre conventions of sci-fi make conclusions even harder, as the genre demands thematic and allegorical richness that Says Something beyond just the character’s lives and situation. Add to that the complex plotting that embeds mysteries and strings along enigmas for years, and you can see how Battlestar’s finale was doomed to disappoint.
For me, there were disappointments, but the finale was generally more enjoyable and rewarding than not. The show let me down most with its attempt to send a message: BSG’s greatest thematic strength was that it took the genre conceit of man vs. machine, and frakked it up by mixing the dichotomy through the “skin jobs,” sleeper robots, and cross-species breeding. Up to the finale, the difference between cylon and human had been so blurred that I expected the show’s final message to be that we are all the same – the only real difference between cylon and human is how each species reproduces (resurrection vs. breeding). I’d hoped that the show would conclude with this realization, and an ultimate commitment to merge the two species via the lineage of Hera.
The finale did point to this merged lineage, but thematically offered the opposite: to continue, humanity must abandon its technological drive and go native, forging a clear separation with cylon technology (if not the cylons themselves). The episode’s present-day epilogue drove this home in an uncomfortable display of robotophobia that felt incredibly out of place, both in terms of tone and theme (and see Bob’s analysis for more thoughtful commentary). This was not the BSG that I’d grown to love over the years, so I’ll take a page out of active audience theory and choose to disregard this coda – in my mind, the series ended with Adama sitting on the hilltop imagining his cabin with Roslin and planting a hemp garden to toke away his final days in her memory.
For me, the pleasures of BSG (and most television) are not interpretive in its themes and allegories, but poetic in its storytelling, characters, and tone. And on those terms, the finale was a huge success. The military sequence to rescue Hera was as good of a sci-fi space battle as I’ve ever seen on television, setting a new bar for the integration of special effects and action staging (hurray for the Centurion version of Rock-Em Sock-Em Robots!). The suspense and intensity was deepened by the character dimension of these often reluctant heroes – Baltar’s unexpected turn as gun-toting warrior, Roslin’s inability to mark an X on a human life, Athena’s take-down of Boomer in a moment of almost literal self-sacrifice, etc. And the payoff of the opera house dream as played out in the hallways of Galactica fully fulfilled this long-lingering imagery.
My favorite moment of the episode was Tyrol’s realization of Tory’s treachery. This was a bit of clever storytelling that is particularly unique to serialized television. We saw Tory kill Cally in episode 405 back in April 2008, an action that had few repercussions at the time. In a series with dozens of loose ends to be wrapped up in the final episodes, this event was far from the conscious radar of most fans – we knew that it happened, but did not have it in “working memory” after almost a year of further narrative complications. When Tory prefaces the final five mind-meld with disclaimers about seeing things that might be difficult to understand, I for one did not think of her murder of Cally. So when those memories flooded to the surface, it mirrored my own remembering and created the unusual pleasure of being surprised by something you already know!
This was the topic of a presentation I gave last summer and am working on writing up into a book chapter on the poetics of memory in serialized television. Ron Moore addresses this strategy in a post-finale interview with Maureen Ryan – she mentions that she’d assumed that Cally’s murder would never be addressed, and he replies:
See, I deliberately buried that too. I said, let’s not even talk about Tory and Cally again. Let’s bury that card deep in the deck and then at this moment, when you’re not even remotely thinking about it, let’s play that card. And then likewise, when you’re not even thinking about Earth, let’s play that card.
Dealing these buried cards allows for narrative twists that are both unanticipated and fully justified within the narrative universe – they don’t feel like out-of-the-blue revelations, but still create the emotional surprise that disarms viewers. Thus Tyrol’s realization and revenge, and the subsequent chain of events that led to the colony’s destruction and Galactica’s discovery of the new Earth, were immensely satisfying as a payoff to a long-seeded plotline.
The episode’s final section on Earth was certainly less pleasurable than the action sequences, but I still enjoyed the ways that character arcs came to fruition. I quite liked the Caprica flashbacks, as they both reminded us what the characters have given up, and how they all have ended up in emotionally better places – the shallowness of their lives on Caprica have been replaced by a deeper peace and self-realization on the new Earth. The shot of Helo, Athena, and Hera mimicked the “surprise remembering” of Cally’s murder at the episodic level – I assumed that Helo was dead when he was left to bleed out in the hallways, but the unannounced shot of his nuclear family created the realization that we were never really told what happened. And emotionally, seeing all the characters choose how they want to live their lives on the wide-open spaces of Africa highlighted how claustrophobic and limited life in the fleet was.
Many fans are griping that the Starbuck explanation was unsatisfying, looking for a clearer indication of how she got resurrected more than just “God’s plan.” I’m fine with it, as the show has always straddled the line between science and religion, and rationally explaining away mysteries are rarely satisfying. The lingering question that bothers me more is about cylon mortality: if we are to assume that the cylons and humans jointly settle Earth, do the remaining skinjobs age? It’s never been specified, but I would buy the idea that cylon bodies do age in the absence of resurrection – but we’re also to believe that the final five are thousands of years old. So I would have liked at least a nod to how Tyrol, Athena, the Tighs, or the various Sixes will live out their days on Earth as either immortal or mortal beings.
As for the series as a whole, how will it be remembered? Ryan links to a discussion comparing BSG to The Wire as candidates for Best TV Series Ever. This is particularly pertinent for me right now, as I’m teaching my course on The Wire and rewatching the entire series. The Wire is certainly the more unconventional show in terms of narrative structure – it’s probably the least episodic series outside of the soap opera genre, and structures its stories in a way distinct from all other television. Thus it’s impossible to point to a “bad episode” of The Wire, as it’s not broken down that way (and BSG certainly had its share of bad episodes), and as such I’d say that The Wire has more consistency in quality and achievement.
What BSG did to set it apart from other series and its genre was to embrace an experimental and risky approach to storytelling while grounding the sci-fi in engaging real-world parallels. The peak moments for me that I’ll always remember are the game-changing shifts that the show pulled off in its season finales: the fast-foward on New Caprica, the “All Along the Watchtower” reveal, the nuked Earth. These “narrative spectacles” are much more risky than The Wire’s consistent approach to storytelling, and much more rich and serious than Lost’s similarly risky twists, adding up to a delicate balance between narrative complexity and social engagement, presented with a tremendous cast and one of the greatest uses of musical score in the history of television. While certainly not a perfect masterpiece (but what is?), Battlestar Galactica stands as a perfect example of the rich possibilities of television storytelling that have come to fruition over the last ten years.
So say we all.