Less than the Sum of its Parts: Battlestar Galactica


Battlestar Galactica is an interesting case. On paper, Battlestar Galactica should be a brilliant show, one of those rare gems that can be watched over and over again. It has great acting, great action sequences, great characters, and great writing…most of the time. Unfortunately, where the writing falls apart is in the plot. Now character-driven stories are always better than plot driven stories, but that doesn’t mean you can just completely half-ass the plot. Unfortunately that’s exactly what the writers of Battlestar Galactica did.

The mini-series that jump-started the series was absolutely terrific, featuring an amazing cast and a perfect feeling of doom. Even though we never get to see the twelve colonies in any real detail, when the Cylons begin incinerating them with massive nuclear attacks we can feel the dread of the characters. We feel their helplessness as they sit in their ships, only able to read reports of the devastation of their home worlds. One of the best scenes in this is when Laura Roslin, newly installed as president despite being 42nd in the line of succession, suggests surrendering to the Cylons. That’s when we find out that the Colonies offered their unconditional surrender when the nuclear bombardments began.

The cylons didn’t even respond.

That’s when we knew that this shit was real. This wasn’t just a war, this was genocide. The Cylons would settle for nothing less than the total annihilation of the human race. Gaius Baltar, the arrogant and sleazy genius that hands over the fate of humanity for some afternoon delight, survives when countless billions didn’t.

Though, looking at her now, I probably would have done the exact same thing.

As gorgeous as the Cylon female models are, it’s the introduction of these countless Cylon human models that totally screw the plot. Now, that’s not to say it couldn’t have been good and interesting, but unfortunately these Cylons begin mucking up the plot because of the whole “who are the final five!?” bullshit they were dedicated to pursuing. As the lead writer has himself admitted, they kind of made this up as they went along. Leading to a season three finale that reveals that, somehow, five long standing characters on the show end up being Cylons.

That’s not the kind of thing you can just make up, you need to be foreshadow that kind of twist otherwise you end up with…well:

Shut up, old man!

But they didn’t, and so to try and plug the enormous plot holes this revelation created, they decided to get even crazier. Like trying to plug holes in a leaking dike, however, the craziness only led to bigger plot holes until the plot was more holes than story. First off, the revelation of Earth being a nuclear wasteland was actually a really great twist. Unfortunately they then went ahead and ruined the whole thing by making the people on Earth Cylons. Yeah, thousands of years before the cylons even existed…they managed to blow themselves up. Oh, and even better, the human looking Cylons on this planet apparently developed their own mechanical Cylons, who then blew up the human Cylons…except somehow five of the human Cylons from this planet escaped. Oh and they escaped by using resurrection technology stolen from humans that was originally a “synaptic memory transfer.” Then they traveled at sublight speeds to the twelve Colonies, to warn the humans not to build Cylons. The mechanical variety, not the human looking ones. Confused yet? Good, because I sure as hell was.

Oh and to top it all off, the final five were too late and the twelve colonies are already embroiled in the first Cylon War. In exchange for the Cylons agreeing to a peace treaty, the final five gave the twelve colony Cylons (not the Cylons from their planet), the ability to make human-style Cylons.

You know, the same human cylons that eventually allow the twelve colony cylons to wipe out humanity. So yeah, great job there final five, mission accomplished.

All according to plan…

Yeah, that’s how fucked up the plot gets in this series. That’s without even going into the insane subplots like the Cylon civil war, Starbuck apparently dying and then being reincarnated (including her ship), or her finding a new Earth to colonize after hitting a bunch of random numbers during a jump. If this plot had been the maze that Theseus entered, that minotaur would still be alive today. Now I’m not suggesting that a plot has to be meticulously mapped out step by step, but you can’t just make up the whole thing as you go along. At least not with a story this massive in scope.

Another issue with a story made up on the fly is that the logic and rules of the universe are never clearly laid out.  Jumping, the faster than light travel in BSG, is never adequately fleshed out. How long does it take to jump? How many jumps can you make? How far can you go? These questions are all answered differently in each episode of the show, reducing the FTL drives to deus ex machinas. They’re there to help create tension by breaking down at inopportune moments, or to rescue the ship from impossible situations. In the mini-series, navigation officer Gata comments that no one has plotted an FTL jump that far (from current position to some anchorage where supplies are held). End of season 2? The Galactica, despite travelling away from the 12 colonies for nearly two years, apparently is able to jump back in a single jump and rescue survivors. That implies the jump drives have an unlimited range, which then begs the question why it takes them so long to make it to the nebula (with Gata at one point saying it would take 12-18 jumps). Why would it take that long when you can jump to anywhere?

How resurrection for human Cylons works is never clearly established. In fact every time the crew of the Galactica captures a Cylon, they always threaten them with “Maybe we’re too far away for you to resurrect! You’re scared aren’t you!?”. Yet we never really find out if this is true or not. The fact that all the Cylons look, talk and act the same means you can never tell if it’s the same one reappearing or not. I mean the only way I could tell Dr. Baltar’s girlfriend apart from the other cylons that looked like her, was the fact that she was a hallucination on Dr. Baltar’s part and showed up in plain view of other characters. The only way I could tell Boomer apart from Athena was by seeing which man they were currently sleeping with.

Which brings up another issue: Battlestar Galactica suffers from a bad case of Grey’s Nymphomania. What is Grey’s Nymphomania? I’m glad you asked. It’s a disease that afflicts most TV shows now, spreading faster than the STDs that the character’s in those shows are spreading. And patient zero was Grey’s Anatomy, hence the name.

The CDC classifies Grey’s Anatomy as a level 2 biohazard.

Practically every character in Grey’s Anatomy has slept with every other character. Most episodes feature the “Wall-Slam Sex Scene” at least twice, and the only episodes where sex isn’t implied or show are the ones where the cast get into a hilariously improbable crisis for their Sweeps episode. Characters have sex so often on the show that even rabbits stand up and say “come on, guys, no one has this much sex.” Now, Battlestar Galactica never got as bad as Grey’s Anatomy, but there was a gratuitous amount of partner swapping in the series. First Starbuck and Apollo, Starbuck and Baltar in a one night stand, Starbuck and Lance, Apollo with Dee, Starbuck and Apollo again, Apollo and Dee again. Then there’s the Chief having sex with Boomer, and then his wife, who then sleeps with another guy on the ship. Oh, and let’s not forget Tigh’s wife, who sleeps with several Cylons and humans alike. Heck, in the final season, Baltar has a literal harem of women at his beck and call as he becomes a kind of psuedo-Jesus for the fleet. And that’s on top of him having hallucinatory sex with his Cylon woman, even after she, you know, used him to wipe out billions of people. I don’t know about you, but I don’t usually sleep with genocidal maniacs or religious extremists (the Cylons are basically Space-Al Qaeda in BSG).

Or maybe Space-Nazis…

Taking each episode as an individual story, they’re great. The New Caprica episodes do a wonderful job of tackling tough issues like the efficacy and morality of suicide bombers, collaboration vs cooperation, and the horrors of   governments having absolute power: imprisonment without due process, cruel and unusual torture, etc. The problem with these episodes is just how little sense they make in the larger context of the story. I mean it has only been a year or so since the Cylons nearly caused the extinction of mankind, yet when the episode flashes foward a year, already people have completely let down their guard. Galactica and the Pegasus are practically garbage scows now, with only skeleton crews, commanded by an Adama with a fugly mustache and a Lee so fat he threatens to bring Pegasus down out of orbit. Really? I thought the trauma of having your entire species nuked into oblivion would warrant a more militant strategy for defending the planet. I know Baltar says he didn’t want high security measures taken, but since when has Adama listened to him? If Roslin had told Adama to strip the weapons from Galactica during their exodus, you think he would have obeyed?

Look at what happened in America after 9/11. Congress was rushing to sign the PATRIOT act into law, and even 10 years later I still have to take my shoes and belt off at airport security checkpoints. The TSA is still frisking three year olds, copping a feel with old women, and preventing people from getting onto planes with butter knives (even when it’s the pilot). [More hilarious TSA hijinks] I’m thinking that if we got nuked, it would take a hell of a lot more than two years before we started to relax. Still, like I said, if you don’t take into consideration the overarching plot, these episodes are awesome. Even when the series starts its spiral into madness during seasons 3 and 4, there’s still good stuff to be seen.

Toward the end of season 4 there’s a mutiny aboard Galactica, and it’s terrific. Great tension, great action, and even better acting (Gata’s actor in particular really shines). Alone, it’s stupendous. Taken in the larger context of the story though? It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. I know Gata is pissed about his leg getting blown off, but is that really enough to justify mutiny? Especially since he himself wasn’t all that opposed to human-cylon interaction prior to this incident. More to the point, the crew that has served under Adama for the entire show turn against Adama seemingly at the drop of a hat. What makes this episode even more confusing is the conclusion of the series. The mutiny is launched as a reaction to Adama’s use of Cylon technology on colonial ships. However, when they get to the Earth we know as Earth, they all seem way too eager to revert to a stone-age level of technology. There would be a massive riot across the world if the internet went down for more than an hour, could you imagine what would happen if suddenly we had to go back to using stone tools and collecting berries to survive? Most of us would die of pure incompetency. Why wasn’t there a mutiny over that? I know I would be dead inside a week.

I don’t understand, how do you turn it on?

Battlestar Galactica should have been a great show. All the pieces were there: top notch acting, good graphics, and a compelling premise. Like building an extremely detailed model, however, all these different pieces are meaningless until you glue them together. The plot is the glue in a story, it’s there to provide a framework and allow a story to progress naturally. Unfortunately the glue in the case of Battlestar Galactica was applied with the same grace as a four year old with a scale model of the Taj Mahal. It was just splattered all over the place, pieces of the model just randomly stuck into the field of glue until it more resembled a Picasso portrait than it did a model. BSG’s story is barely held together by a spattering of plot, so loose and ill applied, that much of the complicated overarching story is rendered completely moot in the confusion. Had the writers decided to dedicate a little more time into plotting out a coherent story, Battlestar Galactica would be one of my favorite science fiction shows. Instead, it’s simply okay, the terrible plot evened out by the acting and action so that the end result is a mediocre product. It should be seen for its great acting and action, but I certainly wouldn’t watch it a second time. It’s a show that is somehow less than the sum of its parts, and a good illustration of what happens to a story when the plot isn’t properly crafted.

Big thanks to commenter Cheriet79 for giving me the idea for this entry! If anyone else has any suggestions or requests for me to cover a specific topic, don’t hesitate to write in and let me know.

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20 thoughts on “Less than the Sum of its Parts: Battlestar Galactica”

  1. Havent read your recent post yet, but comment incoming ^^ just wanted to propose a review of “The walking dead” since i started watching the series yesterday (DVD). Looks interesting to me, but if this series isnt your genre, maybe you could give us another review of a quite small, but popular videogame:

    Dear esther.

    If you havent played it yet, i highly recommend you to. I dont know whats the price in the u.s now, but here in europe they dropped the price 50% from 8 euros to 4 euros via steam.

    1. Yeah, I think a Walking Dead review is definitely in order. I actually rather enjoyed the first season, but I stopped watching after 2 episodes of the second season. It’ll be fun tracking down how it all went wrong.

      No I haven’t played Dear Esther, but I’ll definitely look into getting it.

      1. today ive finished season 2. Pretty good stuff, but beware of episodes 1-5. Dont let them discourage you 😀 they are particularly…stupid xD a bit too stupid ^^ as you already mentioned “how it all went wrong” 😀 but after episode 5 it becomes better and better, i think theres some relation to the new showrunner from that point on xD Have fun ! i had it ^^

        🙂

        1. Well, good to know it gets better. Yeah episodes 1-3 in the second season just put me right off. I’m thinking I’m gonna have to wait on the walking dead review until the second season DVDs come down in price. My freelance writing business is picking up but I’m trying to keep expenses low for the moment. Hopefully I’ll find it on sale somewhere 🙂

  2. I stopped watching the show around the middle of the 3rd season (whenever Kara reappears to lead them to ‘Earth’), mainly because I lost faith in the producers to end the series in a satisfactory way. I will give Ron Moore this though: At least he admitted they were making it up as they were going along.

    Also, an issue that was pointed out elsewhere was that a majority of the female writing staff left after the second season, which I have heard (I say that because it’s been a long time since I watched the show) led to the female characters being written less competently. Were you aware of this, or were you like me and only heard about it after the fact?

    1. Yeah, I think Starbuck’s “death” and subsequent rebirth is where the show officially became completely unsalvageable. The crazy factor went too high to backpeddle at that point.

      Yeah I hadn’t heard of the female writers leaving, but now that you mention it, it makes a lot of sense. There was definitely a decline in female characterization in the 3rd and 4th season. Starbuck became WAY less interesting in the later seasons. I thought she played a good “tough girl” in the first couple seasons. She was tough and rebellious, but also very vulnerable in certain situations which kept her from becoming the femwarrior trope.

      Season 3 and 4 though she was either going downright insane with aggression or bawling like a teenager. I thought the scene where Starbuck starts screaming “You’re going the wrong way!” officially killed her character. That definitely isn’t the same Starbuck we saw in the mini-series.

  3. I thought the show was just bad… Nothing appeared to have any real basis. Good acting can’t make up for a loss of context. I did base that on watching just a couple of episodes though. Maybe I wasn’t being fair to it but then, why should I?

    1. Yeah, I can’t say I really blame anybody for hating the show. The loss of context is just a huge obstacle to overcome for a viewer. Honestly the only reason I stuck with watching it was because I try to expose myself to stories of all kinds, even the bad ones. Helps me avoid making the same mistakes. 😉

  4. Awesome post! Great insights. Like ME3, it always feels worse when the story has potential but falls flat on its face. I kept watching BSG always with the hope that the next episode would bring it back on track. Alas, the ending came and was the final nail in the coffin. One question comes to mind…well, actually several, but I’ll just keep it to one: Is it possible to have great characters and a bad plot? I’ve heard that all plots are character driven. Is there a correlation between characters and plot? I found that in BSG as the plot became worse, the characters were also less enjoyable and became more like caricatures.

    1. That’s a good question, and I’ll try tackling it next week. I’m not sure all plots are character driven though, but I’ll be sure to cover that in next week’s post! Thanks for writing in, and please, if you have any further questions feel free to ask. I’m always looking for future topics.

      1. Thanks! I probably should have said, all good plots are character driven and turn out bad with bad character development. 🙂 I guess characters can be good but don’t have to drive the plot. But I think that would make the plot seem very odd. If character development and plot have a reciprocal relationship (do they or should they?), I wonder what that would do to the whole story. :S

  5. I liked Battlestar Galactica but I too would not watch it a second time aside from the mini-series. I remember stumbling across the Razor spin-off movie, and based on a summary I read of it, decided not to watch it since it didn’t make very much sense in scope of the rest of the series which says something. Not only did the plot make sense, but I didn’t like very many of the characters at all (not to nark on their actors, their actors are great) I think its because a lot of them couldn’t get their shit together and focus on surviving instead of giving in to their drama. I guess that’s a bit more realistic though since I’m sure most people couldn’t give up their petty personal issues in wake of an apocalypse.

    1. Yeah, I saw that Razor movie, it’s on netflix along with the series. Honestly it was pretty stupid, with the sacrificial death of a character we didn’t even really care about. Not to mention it just further screws up the plot by introducing a weird oracle cylon that doesn’t do anything but make cryptic remarks. The only good part was taht the oracle was the same actor who plays the Bentusi in Homeworld, so you can close your eyes and pretend your watching something not completely horrible.

      I had the same complaints about the characters after a while, especially the romantic subplots. I mean after experiencing the holocaust of all mankind, I don’t think gossiping about who’s sleeping with who would be on the top of everyone’s to-do list.

      1. Exactly! I can say why they would do it as a means of distracting themselves from the holocaust but it shouldn’t be the only thing they do between each Cylon attacks.

  6. Hi jmsteveson,
    And how about you review some other science fiction popular series? Like Babylon 5, Stargate (some of the series), or some of the ‘recent’ Star Trek series.

    1. Sure, that’ll give me plenty to write about! Star Trek and Babylon 5 I’ve seen before, though I’ll probably need to rewatch some of it to analyze them. Stargate I’ve never seen before so that’ll take a bit more time to watch. 🙂

  7. You’re forgetting a very important part of BSG – namely the wonderful music composed by Bear McCreary. I don’t remember many tv series from the early to mid 2000s that had movie-like quality soundtracks. You can listen on Youtube to songs from the sountrack like: Mandala in the Clouds, Roslin and Adama, The Shape of Things to Come, Prelude to War, Diaspora Oratorio etc. Not to mention that music played a central role in the main plot (All Along the Watchtower).

    I’ll admit my bias – I am a somewhat of a BSG fan, but I’ll be the first one to admit that it had some serious plot holes! I mean, I always felt annoyed by the tie and suits that they wore on the show. I knew when I first saw that that they were never going to reach present day Earth – no way were they going to be able to explain that similarity. And at some point I did figure out that they never had any idea about what to do with the Final Five, despite what I think was an interesting premise. And why would you leave all the technology behind… you know, stuff like modern medicine, which saves lives. Or how exactly is Cylon DNA different from Human DNA? And why does that even matter?

    But I’ll tell you something: whenever I watch old shows that I used to like (and still do), like The X-Files, Babylon 5 or any Star Trek, I find myself thinking: “Oh, this doesn’t have the character depth and development that BSG had. These guys didn’t get to see BSG”. Or newer , post-BSG, shows like Fringe: “Nice try, but you’re not there yet”. The Walking Dead does come close in some sense, but it’s really hard to get attached to any character from that show when you know that anyone can get eaten by Zombies. I have yet to see a character on any show fall so deep into depression, darkness and madness as did Saul Tigh in BSG (for example).

    I believe that today’s shows tend to have more “human” characters because of BSG’s influence. We are unlikely to ever again see the cardboard characters that typified sci-fi shows prior
    to Battlestar Galactica. That is my theory at least, and I have reasons to believe it.

    Oh, and by the way, I found your blog while searching for discussions about the similarities between BSG and ME3. I’m referring of course to the “this has happened before and it will happen again”/ “organics build synthetics that turn on their creators countless cycles in a row” plot point.
    The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that the ME creators just stole that idea(which is not necessarily a bad thing). That being said, Battlestar Galactica had only one ending: synthesis:)

    Best regards,

    Adrian

    1. Oh my yes, the music of BSG was outstanding and unique. Honestly there was a ton I wanted to say about BSG, but it was already a pretty long post so I had to pick and choose what I talked about. Since I have no musical talent there wasnt much I could say about the music besides saying it was awesome, so didnt see much purpose in including it. Besides, the awesome music goes without saying.

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