January 30, 2008 1 Comment
I finally got around to watching through the most recent season of Battlestar Galactica, and am very disappointed by where it has ended up. I’m trying to understand why it bothers me so much. Spoilers coming.
The big finale last year revealed that, in some sense, four of the Galactica characters were in fact secretly “Cylons” and didn’t know it. This instantly made the Galactica universe… smaller. For much of the season we knew that there was going to be a big reveal of who the “final five” Cylon-humans were. The “five” appeared in visions and dreams and were shrouded in mystery. Even the other Cylon-humans didn’t seem to know much about them. Apparently their identity was supposed to be some sort of big deal to us.
But it turns out that four of the “final five” Cylons are just a hodgepodge of characters we already knew: Tigh the second in command, the President’s PR advisor, a former pro athlete who married Starbuck, and the chief engineer on the flight deck. Whaddya know, turns out this random mixture of characters are Cylons. “And always have been”, as Chief Tyrol so unnecessarily puts it in the big reveal scene. There are strong hints that the “fifth” will be Starbuck. So instead of five additional mysterious characters to meet and learn about, we have zero new characters. Just the same old set of characters with a new set of problems.
This sort of thing is pretty common on TV shows, but it seems to me that it’s especially egregious to do it in science fiction. Science fiction is all about learning about a new, expansive, and speculative universe. That’s the whole point. Resorting to soap-opera plotlines such as A turning out to be B, C turning out to be D’s father, etc., etc., just seems to defeat the purpose. The notion that we are learning about a complete, self-contained, and fully-populated universe is completely undermined when you make too many spurious and implausible connections. This is also part of what went wrong with the Star Wars prequels: turns out Anakin made C-3PO! turns out R2-D2 belonged to Luke & Leia’s mom! turns out Chewbacca had met Yoda and sent him off to Dagobah before pairing up with Han Solo! Enough of these and pretty soon your previously-fascinating, speculative universe starts to feel pretty cramped.
Not surprisingly, making these connections – since it’s usually done as a cheap dramatic stunt rather than because of internal story logic – also risks stretching the credulity of the audience beyond the breaking point. Contradictions are inevitable and the implausibility factor intrudes on the (rather high amount of) suspension of disbelief necessary for sci-fi. In the case of Galactica, it’s a bit hard to explain how these ‘four’ all happened to survive the holocaust. I mean, out of however-many trillions of people, some 50k survived, and at least four of them were the ‘final five’ Cylons? What are the odds? (We see no evidence that there are multiple models of these people, as with Boomer/Athena, etc.)
It’s even harder to explain why these relatively unimportant characters should turn out to be so important. I mean, being one of the ‘final five’ Cylons is pretty darn important. Such people should be important both in Cylon schemes and in human society. But who are these four?
- Tigh is a drunkard whose career was basically over before Adama tapped him for the job on Galactica – which, of course, was not a plum job at all; Galactica was a relic. He’s lucky to even have a job instead of spending his days in a bar. But he’s one of the final five Cylons.
- Tory (President’s PR flunky) – well actually we have no idea what she was doing for the first two seasons. Evidently she survived the attack & escaped on a civilian ship, but she had no important position until the previous PR flunky Billy was killed & Tory got promoted. If Billy hadn’t been killed, Tory would still be an obscure civilian somewhere in the fleet. But she’s one of the final five Cylons.
- Tyrol, the chief engineer, is just…well, the chief engineer on a not-very-advanced battlestar. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s not exactly the most prominent thing in the world. But he’s one of the final five Cylons.
- Anders – Starbuck’s widower and ex-pro athlete – is on Galactica only as a result of a miraculous and coincidental chain of events. It’s a miracle he even survived the attack, it’s a miracle he didn’t die while fighting Cylons on Caprica, then Starbuck just happened to go back and meet him and fall in love with him, which meant she would return for him. Had just one of those coincidental things not happened he would probably be dead; surely he wouldn’t be on Galactica. But he’s one of the final five Cylons.
Why did the Cylons plant these people, in particular, in human society? Or (if this is a better way to ask it), why were these important Cylon plants in such obscure and unimpressive roles? If the ‘final five’ are so important how could their very survival and presence amongst the human fleet have been allowed to hang on so many threads?
Maybe some of these will be explained next season. More likely, the explanations will only raise new questions. Apologists can of course explain away all of my concerns by saying it was “fate” that these four would survive, end up on Galactica, etc.
But sometimes “fate” is just another term for lazy writing and cheap stunts.