When asked what reaction he wanted to the conclusion of his television opus, J. Michael Straczynski said he desired the very same thought one has when putting a good book back up on the shelf: Good story. I’ll read it again sometime down the road.
I’ve always thought that the campfire scenario was a more apt analogy for the ephemeral medium of television. And now that the fire’s burnt down low, the stars and moon are high in the sky above, and Ronald D. Moore is retiring to his cabin in the far-off woods, we, the audience, are left savoring the glow of the embers and the sweet smells of pine and campfire and looking to one another with that most eternal of questions, one that has accompanied every story and storyteller since the first caves in Africa and the earliest amphitheaters in Greece: So, what did you think?
While such potent timeliness delivers a highly resonant viewing experience the first time ‘round, it will engender both a classic timelessness and a strong sense of datedness as the story passes from campfire to campfire, generation to generation, just as James T. Kirk simultaneously transcends all epochs while still embodying the cultural milieu of the ‘60s. Whether William Adama will end up having the same vitality – and Battlestar the same vigor as Trek, not only sustaining a level of popularity or relevance but also managing to accrue new spin-off material – is very much up in the air. Even just three months into the Obama era, things are already starting to attain a different hue.
Which doesn’t, of course, touch upon the other half of the equation that constitutes an artwork’s durability: its composition. Here BSG doesn’t fare nearly as well; though spinning some genuinely and superbly gripping, emotional, and, at (many) times, disturbing narrative strands, it spent just as much time pursuing false leads or allowing the threads that constitute its thematic tapestry to fray and, even, split apart. As such, for nearly every “Flesh and Bone” (108), we get a “Hero” (308). The resultant effect across the years is something similar to whiplash.
The show’s struggles with narrative cohesion or coherence can be traced to one fundamental decision, made by Moore himself and affecting every member of the writing staff and every facet of the writing process: the lack of forethought or, even, foresight. The vast majority of the show was flown by the seat of the writers’ pants, without structure or premeditation, without knowledge of where character arcs would extend or what the plot would entail. Indeed, roughly half of the series was written without even an ending in mind – and for the half that was, what constituted the endpoint was such a vague jumble of ideas (finding Colonial Earth, revealing Hera as Mitochondrial Eve, jumping forward to our time period), it could have played any one of several different ways, depending upon the context established by the preceding installments and the shape of the finale itself.
There is, of course, many a writer who defends such an approach to the process. George R.R. Martin has floated a now-classic thesis on the subject: some authors are architects, who plan and design and lay out the entire blueprint before starting to get into the messy business of the writing itself; others are planters, who plant a seed on the first page and let it grow spontaneously as they continue to write every page thereafter. Even Mark Verheiden, one of the staffers on Battlestar, has gotten in on the action – he dedicated a brief and germane, but not entirely accurate, blog post on the subject, proclaiming, essentially, that preplanned shows are boring (to write, if not to watch).
Ultimately, though, as Ron Moore himself points out in his final podcast, as long as the result, by story’s end, is a well-told and -crafted narrative, who gives a frak? He is, obviously and certainly, correct. But this is precisely where his series takes the most damage, where it shows the most cracks and holes and other assorted types of defects; there is a reason why the show’s first and fourth seasons, the only two to have had any type of game plan before the fact, meander the least narratively or thematically, and why years two and three are a clutter, to reemploy an old analogy, of dropped juggling pins.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Entire characters or plotlines across stronger and lesser seasons alike were atrophied by the lack of direction or, even worse, purpose that preplanning brings. Lee Adama, who ends up, by series’ end, being one of the most prominent characters of the entire panoply, is the best example of wasted potential: he starts at the rank of captain, quickly is promoted to major, then is even more quickly promoted to commander. His tenure as CO is short-lived, however, and once the Pegasus is KIA, he instantly goes back to major and his old job of CAG aboard the Galactica without even so much as a word of explanation as to how or why. Outranking the good ol’ Colonel, why wouldn’t he take Tigh’s place as XO? Why wouldn’t Adama discuss this very possibility with his son – or why, more to the point, it wouldn’t be a possibility? And, much more importantly, why doesn’t Lee seem to give a frak one way or the other? This could have been a major beat for his character, dramatically impacting his arc – something which the third season in specific could’ve used a dose of. Instead we get silence and a half-hearted apology from
The situation is thrown into even starker relief when compared to another freeform series, David Chase’s masterpiece, The Sopranos. Each season was viewed, at least initially, as its own separate unit; its plot, character beats, and thematic developments were conceived without much or any thought to future episodes. Still, there is an amazing consistency and unity amongst each and every installment, episode and season alike, that rivals the narrative complexity of an arced show, such as Straczynski’s
Still, the good ship Galactica wasn’t derelict in her most important of duties: whether it was watching characters implode, situations (continually) deteriorate, or witnessing those magical and fleeting moments, such as in the end, when happiness and luck and perseverance manage to outmaneuver the darkness, the show proved to be, much more than just a rejoinder of her times, a vessel through which we, individual people as well as a collective audience, could invest and explore ourselves, within and without. Like the steadfast Enterprise exploring new worlds and civilizations, the Galactica tirelessly prowled the dark and haunted areas between the cracks in our psyches, helping us venture to places that we normally are loathe to go – and to help us emerge on the other side as more complete people, happy for the experience but also, more importantly and poignantly, better for the journey.
So say we all.
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Following is a compilation of all my writings and musings, totaling some 28,000 words, on what just may prove to be a seminal moment in television history, Battlestar Galactica:
“Six Degrees of Explanation”
(Miniseries through Razor)
“The Face of Things to Come”
(The Face of the Enemy)
“So Say We All”