[For the forgetful or learning impaired, be warned again that there are of course spoilers ahead.]
Bad TV shows air all the time. Most TV is bad, and there’s only so much that can be really gained from wasting ink, pixels, or breath complaining about how much “Two and a Half Men” sucks. There’s no surprise there, and the arguments are almost too easy to make. But when a good show — indeed, when a great one — tumbles from its former glory and spends its last few moments gasping in a gutter unimaginably far from the heights from which it launched, then it’s necessary and imperative to talk about what happened, and why. That’s how “Battlestar Galactica” ended the other night, with a sputtering fall across the finish line, and I greet its resolution not with applause or joy but with the sad commitment of watching a family member finally succumb to a terminal disease. Things used to be so bright and almost transcendent, but this last season has bludgeoned the joy from the series and turned it into an exercise in how to take a fascinating fictional universe and leave it in ruins.
The entire season was one example after another of aborted storytelling and cheated narratives, but things really began to take a turn for the worse in “The Ties That Bind,” which shoehorned too many subplots into one episode, one of which followed Cally from her discovery that Tyrol was a Cylon to her attempted escape with Nicky to her murder by Tory. The whole thing occupies maybe 20 minutes of screen time, and though it’s an interesting idea that plays on the mercurial loyalties of the crew to each other, it’s a horribly botched execution that mangles what should have taken multiple episodes to unwind. The writers and producers could have mined Cally’s fear of and prejudice toward the Cylons and how she struggled to reconcile that with her unwavering love for Tyrol, which would have deepened Cally’s character and put a specific face on the general atmosphere of paranoia between humans and Cylons. But none of that happened. She was killed and mourned in a cheap memorial that betrayed everything that had come before.
That’s pretty much how the series finale played out, too: as a series of solid ideas ruined by execution, with creator/writer Ronald Moore clumsily swinging a wrecking ball at something that had once towered over the rest of the television landscape. The series began as a sharp, well-rendered examination of what it means to live in a just and free society; what it means to live morally when there are so few people left that laws can barely be enforced; the role of religion in government and vice versa; the slippery slope of the military-industrial complex; etc. But it ended with a suicide mission to save Hera, a human-Cylon hybrid whose importance is never fully explained or sold to the viewers. Cavil believes her genetic code contains the keys to Cylon salvation, now that they’ve had their resurrection hub destroyed, and her blood did beat back President Roslin’s cancer for a while. But Adama never managed to make his decision to save Hera convincing, mostly because her value was never firmly established. Yes, the theory of her relevance was constantly pushed, like when her abstract doodles turned out to be the sheet music to the “Galactica” universe’s version of “All Along the Watchtower,” whose notes can be turned into mathematical equations that plot the course to Earth. (As embarrassed as you are to read that, I felt even worse typing it.) But Hera was always a thing, never a person; she never said a word, just sat there looking beatific and trying to look like she wasn’t a randomly invented plot point that suddenly had to become meaningful.
What’s more, the flip side to Hera’s existence as a narrative place-holder is that the Galactica’s final mission wasn’t one to save Earth (or New Earth), or defeat the Cylons once and for all, or to rescue their own society. It was to do something that just didn’t carry as much emotional weight. The effects and presentation were still fantastic, despite the fact that the Cylon Colony existed on the edge of a black hole that was mentioned and then dropped. (Regular readers will now how much I hate it when movies or TV series break the Chekhov’s gun rule.) But the sequence couldn’t hold a candle to Adama’s decision to ride to the rescue at the beginning of Season Three, when he jumped Galactica into atmosphere above New Caprica and launched a Viper barrage to save the imprisoned colonists. That earlier scene had better action and suspense precisely because it was anchored to a greater emotional outcome, namely, the survival of humanity. How would that have changed if Hera had been left behind? Starbuck already knew the jump coordinates, or arrived at them without again consulting the child. What purpose did she serve?
Similarly, almost nothing was gained by the flashbacks to Caprica before the fall, unless someone out there really wanted to see Adama puke on himself again. The characters’ personalities weren’t advanced in any way — Tigh still likes booze and strippers! No shit! — and whatever sense of destiny or fate for which Moore may very well have been striving was smothered under the weight of a bad soap opera. The only revelation about those scenes was Gaius Baltar’s shame in his blue-collar father and how that pushed him to change himself, a moment that actually came home with tender resonance when he was striking out for a homestead on New Earth and broke into tears when confessing to Caprica Six that he did indeed know a little about farming. (I’m still too frustrated to begin to address the way Starbuck up and disappeared, having apparently been a corporeal projection of her own consciousness created after her death on Earth and whose sole purpose was not, as had been foretold many times, to lead humanity to its destruction but instead to guide them to a new home. Gah.) It’s accurate moments like that one that made the finale so disappointing, and have soured me on the ending. The show got close to greatness, but wound up breaking my heart and making me actively upset about its resolution. Only love could inspire such displeasure.
And oh, that resolution. Having the surviving members of the human race wind up in our collective past was a nice touch that underscored the cyclical nature of the series’ mythology, but though that also meant that the cycle of war they tried to break had pretty obviously failed, Moore rammed the point home by skipping forward 150,000 years to modern-day New York. Head Six and Head Baltar, who are apparently angels working on behalf of God (who doesn’t like His name), are roaming the streets and casually commenting on our decadence and (over-)dependence on technology. Moore seems to be setting the series up to continue in perpetuity, as Baltar and Six say that the planet looks just like Kobol and Caprica before their falls, but he’s also delivering a horribly simplistic indictment of current tech, whether he means to or not. As Baltar and Six walk away in slow-motion like, I don’t know, Neo and Trinity, the camera pans to take in the neon indulgences of Times Square before transitioning to — and this was jaw-dropping — a montage of our own robots dancing and smiling as they become ever more “humanized.” I could barely believe what I was seeing. The structural parallel between society’s entanglement with technology and the blurred line between human and human-like has always been a fantastic and well-explored theme for “Battlestar Galactica,” but to reduce it to a clip of a dancing robot set to Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” was laughable and pitiable and just damn embarrassing. (I’m guessing the song’s presence is meant to convey that in every permutation of human society, someone writes a vaguely trippy song whose notes can be converted into three-dimensional coordinates leading to a new home world, which is kind of a disappointing way to explain the song’s use in the series.) Everything epic about the show had been rendered flat and unmoving, and everything complex had been pitifully reduced. The only glimmer of hope is The Plan, a forthcoming “Battlestar” TV-movie that will purportedly reveal the Cylons’ plan and shed new light on the events of the series. I pray and plead that the movie will do what it can to restore the show and its characters to their former heights; I can’t let them go out like this. So say we all.
[For reflections of happier times, or at any rate more interesting ones, I've got a piece about the series' first season, a look at the third season finale, reflections on the current season before it sank into the abyss, and one of my all-time favorite online transcripts.]