November 30, Scituate, MA: I dawdled on restarting Battlestar Galactica. It was only the press of time and the daunting volume of television left to consume that finally pushed me into it. Why did I wait? I wanted so badly for Jill to watch along with me for the first time. I kept telling her it was West Wing in space. That out there in the deep black, Admiral Adama and President Roslin spent episodes testing the very foundations of representational government at its furthest extremes. That’s what I remembered most strongly from my first viewing back when this was on the air: a space epic shot through with politics. And how! Battlestar truly was a perfect time capsule of the issues of the mid-aughts: terror, revolution, suicide bombers, constitutional tensions, an invisible enemy among us. Good people faced tough choices in impossible circumstances and all of that caused us the audience to question our assumptions about the dominant cultural narratives of our day. It was almost a series designed by the very critical theory professors who told me in college that mass media was a reflection of societal subconscious; that Independence Day was really about immigration. But at it’s core it was so fun to watch.
Battlestar Galactica was more than cultural mirror, it was representative of a fundamental shift happening on television: the rise of the megastory, the double-digit-hour-long sprawling televised epic. Battlestar began the same year as Lost, two years after The Wire kicked off. It was one of the first brave new shows that began with an end in mind. Clues are laid in early episodes that build to the final conclusions… a trait that contemporaries like Lost struggled with, but something we’re all too familiar with now. It was one of the first shows upon which I binged (though, then, it was to catch up with live viewing), cranking through DVDs late into weekday nights.
Battlestar is not quite the megastories to come. It lacks the production value, for one. Where today we’re used to the sumptuous budgets of Game of Thrones or even Mad Men, BSG still feels very much like other SciFi Network originals. (If SciFi could have bottled this lightning they could have been AMC five years earlier.) The ship itelf conveniently looks like 1970s technology because Admiral Adama is cantankerously anti-tech, which saves them from the Cylons in the initial attack. The show also struggles with the chess-game-like storytelling of the true television epic: moving pieces across the board in each episode building to big finales, behavior that’s acceptable to binge-watcher but vexing to the weekly viewer who doesn’t recall each and every detail. We see here, especially in wayward Season Three, many self-contained episodes or 2-3 episode mini-arcs that feel more akin to 1990s television than what comes later: bottle episodes and other plot diversions.
That said, Battlestar is a truly revelatory piece of storytelling. It is so rich with detail, so intricately-woven. Where costs may have been cut on set design, there has been no expense spared in plot. From the taut early tensions of the Cylons in the fleet to the revealing of the final five; from Baltar’s guilt to his assumption of the role of Jesus; from Kara’s death to her rebirth as an angel— a hard twist to pull, but fully and completely earned by the writers— this series just fires on every possible authorial cylinder. The repeating of time works incredibly well throughout as a framing device and also a mechanic to keep the audience guessing— what next will be repeated and what might break the cycle. The details of the tactical assaults— these crazy missions that come out of Adama or Starbuck or Lee that are so brilliantly-designed and executed. I thought about the assault on New Caprica for days: the drone decoys and then jumping into the atmosphere to release the Vipers and then sacrificing the Pegasus at the end. So good! All of that and cherry-topped by the Adama-Roslin storyline which is so wonderful. The tension and the love. You, the viewer, care for them both so much.
With all of this, the writers earned the maximum amount of respect and flexibility from the audience. They could do nearly anything, ask us to suspend nearly any disbelief. Except for the final episode. That absolute pinnacle of televisual disappointment: the final episode of Battlestar Galactica.
I was expecting this let-down. I knew it was coming. I thought maybe this time I’d see it differently. I didn’t.
It starts to get rough after the mid-season finale where they discover the original Earth. Particularly rough because that could have been a fine end to the show. A few loose ends yet to tie up, but perfectly satisfying. The show continues, however, and the writers have earned that. We give them the benefit of the doubt: through Dee’s suicide and the two-episode-arc revolution/mutiny which accomplishes little from a plotting perspective. We warm to Ellen’s return and simmer through the soap opera subplots of Tigh’s love triangle. We see there is a plan here; we trust that the writers, like Adama and Roslin, will lead us to the promised land. The first two episodes of the three episode finale ring true: one last desperate tactical assault, tying up all the loose ends left around the universe, and finally, at the end, discovering Earth— OUR Earth.
But the final episode is just silly. Starbuck disappears. Just disappears. The Caprica flashbacks we’ve been tolerating build to nothing we didn’t already know. And in the stretchiest of disbelief, to the point at which it breaks, the colonial remnants scatter across the Earth. They elect not to build a city, not to build a new civilization, but to trek off on their own paths. Keep in mind, these people are lawyers and soldiers and spaceship captains and space miners and god-knows-what-else and suddenly they’re all talking about staking off plots of land on a relatively wild planet and starting from the absolute beginning? They barely have food! They leave carrying backpacks! What do these people know about cabins, farming, herding, distilling, child-rearing, mid-wifing, and on and on and on? All for the tiny ending payoff that Hera is “mitochondrial Eve”, our first ancestor. Meaning everyone else probably just died off in the first or second year of being idiots and not sticking together as a civilization. Dummies. (Not to mention the final bit of the robot sequence, asking if we’re just around the corner from beginning the cycle again. For a series so incredibly in touch with the social issues of the day… to suddenly declare that ROBOTS are the great lurking evil? My God.)
So, in respect for the 74 episodes that come before the last and for the fully and wonderfully satisfying story they tell, I offer you an alternate ending:
Andrew’s ending for Battlestar Galactica:
The Colonials, with their democratic structures and advanced technology, settle not in Africa but in Greece and not 150,000 years ago but in the time immediately prior to Homer. The loners get islands, but they’re all still pretty close. The Raptors run out of fuel, but they build triremes. They bring their ideas a) of Greek Gods and b) of democracy to this new land and they seed the future for Western civilization. Baltar, accepting exile at long last, goes to the Middle East to spread the word of the one true God. And Starbuck doesn’t disappear, because she doesn’t have to disappear, she moves in with Lee and they’re happy. I mean, c’mon. They’ve earned it. And then in the far future (today) archeologists discover not Mitochondrial Eve, but some little token from space like an octogonal book or a piece of tillium that could lead our society to space travel. And the two angels (invisible Baltar and Caprica) walk away from reading the article over the series creator’s shoulder while talking about God’s Plan and how it brings us to the heavens or some crap. Boom. Done. The End. Hashtag Satisfying.
There you go. So, please go back and re-watch Battlestar. It’s really quite good, flaws and all. But instead of watching the finale, just watch 74 episodes and then imagine that my ending happened.
I’m not going to lie, it’s going to cost you a pretty penny to re-watch Battlestar because it’s not on Netflix Streaming. You can either sign back up for Netflix DVDs or you can buy episodes from the Amazons or you find a… DVD rental shop?