Tuesday, April 16, 2013

How The Battlestar Galactica Remake Could Have Sucked Less

The new Battlestar Galactica started out as good science fiction. The premise was a tried and true sci-fi trope handled well: what happens if an artificial intelligence that we created decides the human race isn’t worth it?

They took the basic space opera premise of the original series-- the last survivors of a robot invasion represented by a “ragtag fleet” fleeing through space in pursuit of earth, the mythologized “last colony"--and added a compelling reason why the robots want to wipe us out. They used to be our slaves, and now they’re afraid that if they don’t annihilate us we could continue to pose a threat to them.

There were a number of great plot points to drive the concept and keep things interesting:

What is This “Last Colony” Exactly?

Is it a contemporary earth, or a future earth, or the earth of our past? Or is it the earth we know at all? This is the mystery that drives the show. The big challenge is how to provide a reasonable and satisfying payoff, which Battlestar failed to do.

There Are 12 Models.

The idea that there are a finite number of “models” is a great plot device. We’re constantly guessing who the sleeper agents are, and as we discover each new model in the form of a sleeper agent we get the satisfaction of another ticked off box. Who will be next?

Monotheistic Cylons vs. Pantheistic Humans

Though they really never knew quite what to do with this and it eventually became the source of what made the show fall apart, the the idea is a good one. There are a good many parallels that can be made to religion as it played out in our own society. After all, in our own global culture, the monotheists won. Monotheistic cultures happened to produce the most effective warriors, and their descendents formed the foundation of our present day empires. Jews, like the Cylons, were monotheists and former slaves, and were responsible for plenty of Old Testament slaughter (though that slaughter was small compared to the slaughter perpetrated by the Christians that followed), so there’s no small irony in the idea that the Cylons are the monotheists.

Starbuck Is Awesome

Starbuck, at least in the first two seasons, truly represented, more than any other female character on the show, what a woman’s role might be in a society free of gender prejudice. Starbuck held her own with the men as a professional soldier, but there was never any question that this made her any less feminine. She expressed her sexuality no more than any of the male characters, and it was never a focus. There were no mixed messages presented by her appearance—she dressed like any other soldier. She grew beyond the initial premise of a kick ass female hero to develop genuine flaws and a rich and complex personality.

What Went Wrong?

The first key moment when Battlestar began to go off the rails was early on, with the pregnancy of Boomer #2. I like the concept of original Boomer as a sleeper agent and the reveal of a second Boomer, but the writers really didn’t seem to have any clear idea where they were headed with this. Out of nowhere, it was explained that this was for the purpose of cross- breeding the two species, which might have been fine if it wasn’t for an entirely nonsensical reason. The Cylons suspected that their previous experiments in cross-breeding had failed because of the missing element of “love.”

Though they had a religion which suggested that they believed in some kind of metaphysical world, this reasoning is counterintuitive on a number of levels. Why would a society with its origins in technological advancement who had superior technology to humans believe in something so bonkers? And why would they want to cross-breed with a species that they think is so dangerous  they are making every effort to wipe them out?

This is when it becomes clear that the writers are making it up as they go along, and that the declaration that ends the summary exposition at the start of each episode, “and they (the Cylons) have a plan” is pure bullshit. Nobody on this show has a plan.

To wrap up the show, the writers resorted to deux ex machina in its most classic and literal form— divine intervention. God fixed everything. It went from science fiction to something like high fantasy, but not good high fantasy.

How Could It Have Worked?

Keep Metaphysics Out of It.

Retain the two contrasting religions and their moral parallels, but keep the literal metaphysics out of it. No shared dreams, no divine intervention, no annoying resurrected and completely undermined Starbuck in season 4. No more existential nonsense that leads nowhere.

No Final Five

The introduction of the concept of “the final five” in season 3 was another clear indication that they were just making this shit up on the fly. They had resorted to this final five business because they had already shown too many scenes from the Cylon perspective with no more than the 7 models they had previously introduced. They desperately needed some explanation for this. If they had kept these scenes to a minimum and doled out all but one of the Cylons through the course of those first two seasons (for a reason I’ll explain shortly), there would be no need for this.

The ending of that second season where they relocate to the planet only to have the planet invaded by Cylons was a brilliant move. To add to the tension, they could have saved the last Cylon reveal for the revolution in season 3, one last sleeper agent in their midst. Leaving that 12th Cylon for the 3rd season would have allowed the audience to continue the guessing game of who’s a Cylon and who’s not without overplaying the concept. After that last reveal, they could more fully introduce the Cylon point of view and make them less faceless without compromising their fundamental intent. Taking over the colony on the planet becomes a failed experiment in keeping the human threat contained in what from their viewpoint is a humane manner without having to resort to genocide. It doesn’t work. The humans win. Pursuit continues.

Baltar The Luddite

Back on Galactica, there can still be the truth and reconciliation trial of Baltar, but without the annoying affected Lawyer and Apollo subplot. This could end with Baltar coming to the conclusion that technology is the problem. He decides to repent for his part in the destruction of the colonies by becoming a devout Luddite, which makes this whole idea of Baltar as some kind of religious figure make more sense. Why would the colonists want to follow Baltar after he collaborated with the Cylons? Because Baltar is preaching against technology, the source of all the trouble. This message, under the circumstances, is going to resonate with a good number of the colonists. Also his hallucinations of Cylon #7 will be revealed to be a result of genuine schizophrenia. Baltar is not only a zealot, but he’s seriously Jim Jones crazy.

I think the discovery of Earth the last colony as a bombed out wasteland is a great reveal, further proof that the Cylons are right and we can’t be trusted.

How to Conclude The Series Without Cheating

The series ends on season 4, and as in the original season 5, the humans colonize our own pre-civilization earth. Even though they’re nearly certain that they’ve finally eluded the Cylons, after what happened last time, not everyone wants to make the trip, so you still have about half of the colonists living in orbit around the planet. With half of the colonists still on board, Baltar and his luddite zealots steal control of the fleet and steer them all into the sun. The few colonists that remain on earth had only just begun to immigrate, so they’re left with few resources and little of their former technology. With little knowledge of how to sustain themselves without the technology that they’ve grown to rely upon, they must cooperate and learn from the indigenous population to survive.

We skip forward two generations where we discover that the colonists have become fully integrated into the culture of the indigenous people of the planet, and we see that the culture of the original colonies, even their language, is slowly disappearing.

At this point we cut back to the Cylons, who after all these decades have discovered the human’s existence on the planet. The Cylons decide that for now, without their former civilization and technology, the humans are harmless, but they resolve to check back in another century or so to see if they still pose no threat, an ominous suggestion that there might be an impending Cylon invasion sometime in our earth’s future.

That’s the Battlestar Galactica I would have liked to see. At this point though, I can’t watch those first two seasons without the knowledge of what it would become messing with my enjoyment. This show could have been so much more awesome if they actually did, “have a plan.”


After writing this I thought about taking on the plot of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, but ultimately decided that it was just too hopeless. There’s no redeeming that one.