When I was a kid, one of the stand-out moments of the week was getting to watch an awesome American action-adventure serial on TV. Airwolf, Street Hawk, Manimal, Automan, The A-Team, Quantum Leap, Star Trek, The Fall Guy, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Knight Rider, even Blue Thunder. What drove me to keep watching (and re-watching in some cases) was a blend of good characters, fun stories, and usually mind-blowing technology. These shows gave us über-advanced helicopters, talking cars, massive starships, morphing holograms and time travelling scientists.
I want to talk about Battlestar Galactica, to many just another one of those weekly shows with guns, action and silly plots. So, before I start waffling about the end of the 2003-2009 re-imagined version, and if you’ll indulge me, some history.
After 1978, Battlestar Galactica was amongst that select group which truly captivated me. Adama, the father-figure leader; Apollo, the straight-shooting fighter ace; Starbuck, the Han Solo scoundrel; Boomer, the wise-cracking buddy; Baltar, the baddy you could really hate versus the faceless metal Cylons; the Vipers, sleekly designed star fighters; and the Galactica itself: a massive, lumbering, heavily armed city-cum-aircraft-carrier in space. It wasn’t smooth in shape like the USS Enterprise, yet not as ugly and mashed together as the Millennium Falcon. The distinctive shape helped it retain its character as separate from the human players, yet recognisable as a character on its own as opposed to simply being a prop or plot device, like those two other popular fictional spaceships.
Unfortunately, the stories told in this universe rarely matched up to the stunning premise: that the Galactica was leading a “rag tag” fleet of civilian spacecraft away from their homes, which had been destroyed in an attack by their sworn enemies, the robotic Cylons, and with luck, they would be led to a world where their distant cousins had long since fled to: Earth. There was a chance for reflection on how a civilisation survives so close to extinction, yet the show quickly devolved into standard action-adventure fare, with little story or character arc development. But when you’re a kid, you don’t notice this as being a flaw. Each week is another chance to see Apollo fly around in a Viper and shoot Cylons, to see Starbuck get into more hot water and to see the Galactica swoop around majestically in front of the camera.
Many declare the point when Battlestar Galactica jumped the shark when the fleet found modern-day Earth, the show was renamed Galactica: 1980, and the bulk of the original cast departed. I wanted to see Apollo and Starbuck, not Dick van Dyke’s son (playing the grown-up version of the kid Boxey from earlier episodes). The show was quickly cancelled, but for me the jump-the-shark moment happened in the previous season, when we had a Western-themed episode. Ugh.
Well, 25 years later, after many misfires, BSG returned to TV screens on the Sci Fi Channel in late 2003 with a 3-hour “mini-series”, broadcast in two parts over two nights. Its success was rewarded with a 13-episode season order from Sci Fi and Sky (who co-finance the show). In showrunner (and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine alumnus) Ronald D. Moore’s own words, they “kept in the things that worked and threw away the things that didn’t” from the original 70s-era BSG. With this came a sense of reality, darkness and humanity that simply didn’t exist in the original. Themes were openly explored like a surgeon attacking an open wound, themes which were often grounded in our own reality and our own current events. A sliver of humanity was escaping a nuclear holocaust, enacted by the mechanical Cylons, but enabled by one of humanity’s own: Baltar, the traitor, just as in the original, yet portrayed with so much more depth than the simple evil genius, wringing his hands together and belly laughing maniacally. The Cylons themselves were extended from mere killer robots to both robots and human versions also. These human versions of Cylons would become integral to almost every plot thread unwound over the course of four seasons of television, no longer action-adventure, but a space opera, with dark drama running through its heart.
I won’t deign to recap over five years worth of television here, as it’s not my intent. Suffice to say, if you haven’t seen any of BSG yet, seek out the DVDs, starting with the mini-series. Even if that doesn’t engage you, keep going: the first season opener “33” flies the flag of the series’ intent high and clear: the narrative is merciless, unflinching, engaging and tremendously interesting. All that follows, save some inevitable stumbles in an episode here and there, simply continued to raise the bar of what was possible in dramatic television. There’s been so much craic posted around the ‘net about the very final regular episode of BSG that I can’t remember the source to cite this, but as someone out there has said, BSG’s season finale cliffhangers always managed to seemingly paint the scriptwriters into a wall, and instead of cowardly retreating from that wall, they threw their caps over, and just kept going. That they could do this and still keep the story hanging together — and well, I might add — will be one of this show’s legacies: how to really just go balls out and make good television instead of pandering to ratings, Standards & Practices and poor viewer sensibilities. Fuck it, if we want to kill a major character off in the interests of moving the story forward, we will: no-one is safe.
And barring another one-off special later this year (“The Plan”, another two-hour special a la 2007’s “Razor”), BSG had its last episode aired last Friday night. Two hours and eleven minutes long (including the inevitable advert breaks), this immense piece of television to me stands as one of the ultimate triumphs of modern television, utterly stunning, always captivating, and again, unflinching. Series finales run the danger of falling either into self-parody, inadequacy, or sheer farce. What we saw last week had none of that. Virtually every plot line was given closure, albeit not always with a full explanation, as was every character. This show has been so immersive over its regular lifetime that to not deliver the “what, where, when, why, how” (or at least four of that five) would cheat the characters and the story just as much as the viewers. I’m not going to go into any details as to what actually happens during the finale, as there are too many spoilerful reviews already out there, and I’m not sure I could do the narrative justice by recapping it here in a critical manner. I enjoyed it way too much to pick holes at it, even if I wanted to.
I say the finale was a triumph. The story — which I won’t go into the specifics of here as I’d hate to rob anyone who hasn’t seen it of the delight of actually seeing it, and also it’s still airing on Sky One here in the UK as I type — was crafted like a movie (albeit one with years of backstory), the acting by all as utterly sublime, the visual effects as always were beautiful without distracting from the acting, and the music: how I could go on about the music. And I will, in a minute. I’ve never seen a show end in a way that answers so many questions and leave me feel wanting, or leaves so many questions unanswered but not piss me off in doing so. I like that there are some things left unsaid, unanswered, unresolved (and believe me, there are a couple of humdingers here). There are some what feel like natural finish lines in the finale after which I’m sure the screen could have faded to black, and I’d have been fully sated, but it just kept going, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King-style. When it happened in RotK, I was shifting about in my seat in the cinema, wondering when it was going to end. While watching the BSG finale, and being caught out again by another possible ending gliding by, I was in joy that we were being given even more. But I’ve never felt more satisfied than when the Executive Producer credits appeared on screen to signify the story’s ultimate end. I can’t remember when any television show which has performed this well on bringing story arcs to conclusion without messing things up for us; employing deus ex machina with a straight face to try and close out a tale is usually bad news, and luckily this doesn’t happen to BSG. Well, not much, and even then it’s not catastrophic to the narrative, although there’s a strong tabula rasa element which some may find hard to swallow.
As I mentioned, one of the standout moments of the finale — hell, of the whole series — was the music (my last.fm profile will probably show you how strongly I think that). I’m a movie and television soundtrack geek; this isn’t news to most people, I realise. Television soundtracks often don’t interest me as much as those from the movies. They’re usually created on a much tighter timescale and budget, and they sometimes suffer as a result. However, this is a trend that’s been changing over the last few years, with shows such as BSG, Lost, even Doctor Who, getting “proper” orchestral scores. Now, I’ve complained about Doctor Who’s lack of musical panache compared to BSG before, so I won’t belabour the point here, but BSG’s score is remarkable in many ways. Leitmotifs are used intelligently, the music takes a step back when needed and never hogs the stage, and both diegetic and non-diegetic bridges are made to music from our own world, working themselves into the plot rather than standing apart and completely breaking our immersive bond with what’s going on on-screen. Bear McCreary‘s contribution to the show is similar to the comparison I made with the ship itself in the original show: the score is a living, breathing character in the story, and gives BSG a cinematic, even operatic feel that enhances almost every scene it appears in.
The score to the finale rounds out the storytelling being made here, giving us new cues to reflect the events occurring on-screen, while revisiting and refreshing the character and story motifs built up over the years. Never mawkish, and carrying a power as strong as any great actor, image or sound effect, it pulls on our heartstrings at just the right moments with just the right amount of force.
Incidentally, Doctor Who just never seems able to completely add music seamlessly to scenes, and its habit of continually jumps out of the screen and slapping you about the face, screaming “something’s happening, look, stupid, something’s happening!” is jarring, which is a disappointment. McCreary is now scoring Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and doing a good job of it, so listen out for it if you’re watching on Fox or Virgin 1. Perhaps the BBC could give him a call for the future series of Who …
So, thanks for five years of great television, Battlestar Galactica.
Thanks, Ronald D. Moore and David Eick. Thanks, Edward James Olmos, Mary McDonnell, James Callis, Tricia Helfer, Jamie Bamber, Katee Sackhoff, Tahmoh Penikett, Grace Park, Alessandro Juliani, Kandyse McClure, Aaron Douglas, Kate Vernon, Michael Hogan, Nickie Cline, Bodie Olmos, Leah Cairns. Thanks, Bear McCreary. Thanks for showing the world how to make great television. Hopefully re-watching your work so often won’t inure me to the tale, the craft or the messages. Thanks for giving me something to do on Saturday mornings. What’s left? A one-off prequel, “The Plan”, later this year, and next year “Caprica”, a prequel mini-series. But for now, BSG is still, and silent.