Battlestar Galactica Ends

Edit: I can’t believe I misspelled the name of the show!

Here’s my take on the end of the best Science Fiction TV series in history: it hit the right emotional notes, and it was reasonably satisfying, but it was not a worthy ending to the series, and I suspect that as we all go back and watch the whole thing through we’ll find a lot of threads left dangling or essentially forgotten by the writers.

Now, as usual, I’m more interested in what went wrong with the show than what went right. It was very well acted and generally well written, the special effects were unbelievably good, and it took on ambitious themes and generally handled them well. Having gotten all that out of the way, there’s quite a bit to criticize.

Scale

One of the details BSG kept returning to was just how many survivors remained. It starts (if I recall correctly) slightly under 50,000 and eventually drops to around 30,000. This is, in essence, the size of a small town. It seems slightly ridiculous that the writers seem to forget just how small a community they’re dealing with. The political and legal wrangles are treated as though they were taking place in a huge nation, not a small community where pretty much everyone knows everyone. While I can believe that the people in charge might have grandiose notions about themselves (they are, after all, the last remnants of their civilization) it seems like the writers might well have tried to bring them back to Earth from time-to-time. Just what proportion of the survivors constitute the press corps? Rather a lot, it seems.

Technology

The basic assumption in BSG is that humans have pulled back on their use of computers because they went too far and ended up getting Skynet … er, I mean the Cylons … as an emergent behavior of their computer system. OK, I’ll accept that, but you do not go back to analog phones and switchboards. The whole “retro-future” technology of BSG is cute from a production design viewpoint, but it makes no sense from any other perspective. We know that our current level of computer technology has not given rise to Skynet or the Cylons, and presumably the folks living on Caprica can remember that their electronic microwave ovens and pocket calculators never gave them grief. In any event, it’s quite impossible to expect human pilots with no advanced avionics to be able to defeat cyborgs flying computerized spacecraft. But they do. In the end, it turns out that Battlestar Galactica was sufficiently networked that they could just plug a Cylon hybrid in anyway. How odd.

Warning, Spoilers Ahead!

It was God What Done It

Perhaps the worst aspect of BSG was well-and-truly foreshadowed from day one, which is the centrality of religion and prophecy to the story. The final resolution is literally a Deus Ex Machina. We are to accept that the figmentary Six and Balthar are angels of some kind and that Starbuck is Jesus, and that the basic resolution is summed up by “All this has happened before and will happen again” (which was the great revelation at the end of an earlier season). It’s particularly annoying that a show with such a sophisticated take on — say — the nature of terrorism, should come down so squarely and definitely in the “there is one god” camp.

We Will All Go Together When We Go

The worst aspect of the Finale (as opposed to the series itself) is that we’re required to accept that the entire fleet agrees to throw away their technology and become hunter gatherers. I could accept some of the forty-odd-thousand survivors doing this, but every single one? These are people who were fractious in life-and-death situations, and every single one of them is going to give up advanced medicine and hot showers so they can start fresh? I don’t think so. (Having a character say something like “wow, I wasn’t expecting everyone to agree” would be OK in a comedy like Buffy, but it’s just stupid in this case.)

Hurry Up And Wait

The pacing and structure of the Finale are odd too. The rescue is resolved rather quickly, and most of the two hours is spent on scenes which could have been much shorter or simply omitted. It’s nice to have some time to wind down from the very exciting climax, and accept that the journey is over, but it’s not long before we, or I at least, are screaming for them to get on with it. How many scenes of Adama with Roslynn heading off to die (or whatever) do we need to see? (And, the wasting of time in the Finale is particularly galling when you consider just what a waste of time the second last episode was.)

I Knew Honda Was Up To No Good

The closing sequence, where Six (the devil?) and Balthar (the angel?) are speculating as to whether this latest incarnation of human civilization will self-destruct the same way the others all did, is somewhat undercut by the final shot of primitive robots in action in some kind of ad or documentary on a TV set in a store window. Battlestar Galactica (the remake) managed to touch on many complex issues, so returning to a not-so-subtle reminder of the perils of [robot] technology seems almost imbecilic. Not our biggest problem, sorry.

Unanswered Questions

So what the heck were the Cylons doing? Apparently, we’re going to have a spin-off movie or mini-series called The Plan explaining things from a Cylon perspective. I’d be fascinated to find out exactly how they can rationalize Cylon behavior.

And, when they said “All of this has happened before and will happen again” did it include the humans ditching all their technology and becoming hunter-gatherers? Because it sure doesn’t seem like the last two iterations did anything of the sort. And if the answer is no, then the final conversation between figmentary Six and figmentary Balthar makes no sense. (Really, they should have said “it turns out that even after giving up everything, they still ended up recreating Kobol” or something. And instead of ending with footage of ridiculous humanoid robots they had chosen footage of robot planes and vehicles being used in Iraq and Afghanistan…)

And exactly how was Starbuck the harbinger of doom?

Oh, and twelve four digit numbers doesn’t give you a very precise location within our galaxy. That’s plus or minus five light years in two dimensions. So, did the music point to Earth, Alpha Centauri, or Barnard’s Star? (There are quite a few more options, actually.)

Addendum

Another blogger points out that Earth’s fauna and climate were very different 150,000 years ago (I’m kicking myself for not noticing this, but with so many self-contained clangers it’s almost nitpicking to actually consider “facts”). Even if we accept that by 150,000 years ago they mean “roughly 150,000 years ago” and that therefore they picked a time which was by amazing coincidence relatively similar in climate to our own, this doesn’t explain away all the megafauna (mammoths, 25′ tall sloths, sabertooth tigers, wolves the size of horses, etc.) that made it through to the late stone age.

Dollhouse

No spoilers!

The basic concept of Dollhouse — a service that imprints custom-designed personalities into people tailored to clients’ wishes, and then erases them afterwards — doesn’t seem to me to be something I’d want to base TV series on, so, despite being a Joss Whedon fan, I pretty much decided I would wait until the show got axed and then maybe see it on DVD.

Circumstances — in the shape of the everyone in the house getting sick — led us to run out of stuff to watch on TV, so Rosanna TiVoed the current episode (“107” in TiVo parlance — season 1, episode 7) and we watched it together, then immediately went to Hulu to see which episodes were available online, and after watching episodes 2 to 6, we paid $1.99 for the first episode on iTunes.

The fact is, I haven’t really cared for most of Joss Whedon’s shows’ underlying premises. Cheerleader who kills vampires. Good vampire who hunts bad vampires and lawyers. Even Firefly‘s basic setup — tramp freighter eeking a living out on the fringe of an interstellar civilization the crew doesn’t much care for — isn’t exactly earthshaking. What makes Joss Whedon’s shows great is his execution.

To begin with, Dollhouse pretty much lays out all of the moral implications of its central idea on the table. E.g. it assumes that the most common service is prostitution and that it’s a job only someone who had no choice would accept (the “doll” is indentured for five years, after which — we assume — their old personality is restored). It doesn’t disingenuously put forward a whitewashed version and then treat the obviously outrageous implications as shocking twists in later episodes. Pretty much every bad thing that you would assume might happen given the scenario is essentially assumed to have happened at some point or another. Indeed, the beauty of the Whedon’s take on the basic premise is that the technology doesn’t work perfectly. Or maybe even at all.

Oddly enough, the basic premise of Dollhouse is almost identical to the recently (and deservedly) cancelled Christian Slater show My Own Worst Enemy. But My Own Worst Enemy fails precisely because it assumes the technology has always worked perfectly (up until now), that there is no tolerance for glitches, and — worst of all — the technology’s main role is completely senseless — in what universe is it helpful to give your agents cover identities, but wipe their skills and knowledge when they’re under cover?

Next, Whedon clearly has a lot of stuff figured out in a way that the writers of Lost and Battlestar Galactica did not. To begin with he’s actually willing to reveal the answers to questions because he has more stuff to follow up with. Contrast this with Lost which never answers any questions satisfactorily, and simply tosses in more random detail (I’ve described elsewhere as “adding another layer to the onion”). I won’t go into details here since this would just spoil it for you.

Finally, this show is just really well written. There’s no fat in the scripts. In the first scene in the first episode (where Caroline is being persuaded to sign on to become a doll) we get to a point where she’s deciding what to do and then BANG action cuts to a scene which may be a flashback to the way she got into her predicament, but turns out to be one of her engagements. This is not a show you can watch while doing something else — blink and you miss serious plot developments. And there’s a lot of care taken with the different personality “imprints”: when they imprint Echo (the main character) with an expert hostage negotiator’s personality, or a midwife’s, or an extreme sports nut, she is totally credible. It really seems like something that would be hard (on writers, actors, and film crews) to do each week, but so far they’re pulling it off.

I do wonder whether Whedon has a five year arc in mind, or started with the assumption he’d be lucky to survive for one season (it is on FOX after all). Certainly the plot is advancing fast enough for a satisfying conclusion to be reached by the point at which Firefly got axed. It occurs to me that he intends to have the initial arc end mid-season having altered the basic premise enough that the show will take on a rather different form beyond that. We shall see!

Cloverfield

I’m not a great fan of J.J. Abrams, and had no immediate desire to see Cloverfield when it came out (not that seeing movies at the cinema is practical for me right now). So, I find myself both surprised and disappointed by the final product. I’m surprised that it could quite easily have been great and disappointed that it fails in such simple, obvious ways.

First of all, as my wife puts it, it falls in the large and lamentable class of movies where a whole bunch of people die in order to save the hero’s girlfriend. There are many movies which somehow manage not to be in this class, even some Hollywood blockbusters somehow avoid it. (Given that Abrams’s rise to fame was by producing a spy show in which almost everyone important turned out to be members of the same family, I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised.)

Second, it suffers rather badly from the main characters being remarkably unsympathetic. This turns out to be key, because the movie might have survived its other big problem (see previous paragraph) if we actually cared about the hero or his girlfriend.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the monster is butt ugly and lacks character. When you finally get a good look at it, you’re disappointed. It’s just bad imitation Giger (and his creature looked both more alien and more sensible, despite suffering from the rather major constraint that it had to be a guy in a suit).

There’s a lot to like about the movie.

First of all, the characters aren’t superhuman, and this makes their generally minor feats all the more exciting and heroic. When they climb across from one building to another across a rubble-strewn rooftop, it seems really dangerous, but not in a “quick dodge behind this pillar to avoid the exploding cars and airplanes” way. (Perhaps my favorite moment in the movie is when there’s a jump cut where Hud is crossing the roof — the implication that things got so hairy he stopped filming — the movie really needed more of that kind of thing.)

Oh, and the story is pretty ruthless. People die really fast and you’re quickly led to believe that no-one is safe.

Next, the special effects are fabulous. (Well, except for the final shot of the creature.) It really looks like they filmed it all actually happening on a portable video camera. That’s quite an astonishing feat.

And finally, it’s by-and-large very well written and acted (like Lost). It doesn’t — with a few exceptions noted below — cheat you (unlike Lost).

Spoiler Alert!

The fundamental conceit of Cloverfield is that we’re looking at a videotape recovered from the scene of an “incident”. The tape’s structure is a day in the life of two young friends-turned-lovers which has been taped over with an incompetently shot farewell video shot the night of the incident. Throughout the movie there are gaps where “Hud” (a not very funny joke which I assume refers both to “Heads Up Display” and the guy who panics and says “Game Over Man!” in Aliens) has fast forwarded the video and left a bit of the older recording in tact as a fragmentary flashback. I think this structure is great — I have no idea how original it is — and could have been brilliant. It’s a much cleverer and less contrived premise than that of, say, Memento.

The story is generally well-paced (except for the overlong and dull beginning — which needs a jump cut with “oh shit, I think I accidentally erased a bunch of stuff… fuck fuck fuck” or something replacing ten minutes of boring throwaway characters saying boring throwaway stuff) and with two annoying exceptions (both in the subway) manages to adhere very diligently to its overarching concept. The largely invisible and laconic Hud even manages to somehow come across as the kind of person who might go to stupid lengths to keep a camera running during the events as they unfold.

The two annoying exceptions are the “montage” while they wait in the subway. Why turn on the camera to shoot nothing happening? A jump-cut to the next significant event (or even something that might look like it could have been significant) would be fine, but random shots of nothing happening don’t make sense. Later we discover the camera has a built-in floodlight (barely plausible) but they only switch on night-vision mode to do a scary reveal, and then it switches back to normal mode for no apparent reason.

It also seems odd to me that Hud, having decided to film everything because it’s important, doesn’t care to, say, tell us about stuff that didn’t get taped because it was out of shot or the camera was off. Or point the camera at his face and give us some context. Or stop and shoot some close-up footage of the first dead alien they come across. Or occasionally try to get a good shot of something he thinks might be important and either fail or discover not to be important. If it’s important, why isn’t it important to try to fill in gaps? (Hud’s an idiot, so his gap-filling could have been worthless. But it makes no sense for it to be absent. If he’s not trying to inform us, then why not leave the camera behind… even the hero’s dead brother’s girlfriend eventually stops carrying her heels around.

Given the remarkably strict adherence to its arc conceit, it surprises me that there’s no point at which the characters actively rebel against their insane mission of rescuing the hero’s girlfriend. It’s also remarkably annoying that they find her (impaled through the shoulder by a metal rod). It’s even more annoying that she’s still alive. And yet more annoying that she’s able to run at high speed a few minutes later.

From the bonus features on the DVD it’s apparent that the director considered the ending to be High Art. The ending isn’t happy (the only possible survivor is the dead brother’s girlfriend), but that’s about the point at which any resemblance between the end of the movie and High Art disappears. I didn’t care about anyone who died because there’s almost no conversation. There are places where one character will beg and scream at another character to do something, but there’s no point where — say — we discover a reason to like someone or forgive them their minor flaws, or even just get to know them, or even get some kind of intriguing hints about them. If the high concept of the movie as “found footage” is to eschew conventional components of narrative, such as character development and plot, then why wrap all this around something as dumb and cliché as a guy trying to save his girlfriend against all odds because he never told her he loved her? And why end it with the corniest of all possible juxtapositions?

Here’s the ending: hero and girlfriend exchange vows of love as they die. View becomes covered in rubble and goes black (presumably camera is broken). Jump cut to the end of their perfect day on Coney Island as the tape is running out. Girlfriend says something like “It was a really great day”.

I don’t hate the ending — in fact I like the end of the flashback video — but I think it would have been truer and braver and — well — better to have ended the movie differently. It seems too much of a coincidence — heck let’s call it cheating — for the story to end just a few seconds before the tape ran out. In the end, all the good qualities of the movie (and there are more than a few) are undone by the few conventions they either couldn’t bear or didn’t dare to abandon. I think if they had been willing to completely de-romanticize the story — e.g. by having the characters opt to give up the rescue, or simply never find the girlfriend — and not give the story a neat ending then they might have achieved greatness.

Oh, yeah, and the monster needed to not look like poor imitation Giger.

Sadly, the conceit can’t be revisited, except as a period piece (which would ruin it anyway). A similarly specced camera today stores footage on memory, not tape, so the intercutting would be artificial. Oh well, they had their chance and they blew it.

Interstellar Navigation by Dead Reckoning

Aside: so much for YouTube. Lousy job of encoding and it lost my soundtrack. So I rustled up some quick code and voila.

My favorite science fiction writer wrote a novel in 1967, give or take, called The Killing Machine in which the hero is attempting to locate a planet without precise coordinates, but has the assistance of a native of that planet who can remember the constellations of the night sky. The hero gets to what he believes is the correct “region” of space and asks her to look for a familiar constellation, because that will be direction to the star system in question.

This may seem far-fetched, but it’s actually extremely practical (insofar as anything involving interstellar travel is practical).

I’ve never really looked into the technique in detail, but there’s some discussion right now of a clue that the obsessive fans of Battlestar Galactica (the new series of course) who have noticed in the latest episode The Ties That Bind the constellation Orion showing up in several space shots. This would indicate that they must be getting close to Earth…

Now some folks have dismissed this, saying that it’s bad science and they’d need to be incredibly close to Earth to recognize any constellations. These folks are just dead wrong. The two brightest stars in Orion are Betelgeuse and Rigel which are extremely bright and distant stars. The belt, similarly, is composed of distant stars. Orion would be easy to recognise from a considerable distance — if you were looking straight towards Sol.

The video I’ve attached demonstrates all this using the wonderful free program Celestia. The upshot: Orion is easily recognizable from over one hundred light years out from Sol (assuming you’re on the far side of Sol from Orion) and every other constellation is distorted beyond recognition.

Why do Science Fiction Movies Suck?

Slashdot (which I still occasionally visit) pointed me at an interesting article on MSN (which I never visit unprompted) about why SF has such a poor image and why serious writers and film makers baulk at being classified as science fiction (or, worse, “sci fi”).

Two word summary: George Lucas.

Bladerunner is almost the exception that proves the rule.

It’s a good action movie that uses ideas from the book on which supposedly it’s based as texture (it’s at best a story set in the world of “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”). It has some excellent dialog, almost none of which comes from the book.

Oddly enough, Philip K. Dick is pretty much the most filmed science fiction author, and every one of his books, including Bladerunner, ends up being an action movie, despite the fact that none of his books even remotely resemble something that might be made into an action movie.

Dick’s protagonists are usually flawed and weak observers, buffeted by events. They’re the kind of guy you’d imagine being played by Paul Giamatti or maybe, on a good day, Kevin Spacey, and certainly not Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise, or (heaven forfend) Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Bladerunner is perhaps the most faithful rendering of a Dick novel in that the hero of the book is a bounty hunter who shoots androids for a living. That’s about the end of the resemblance, since every detail of the book at best is snuck in through a back door. Roy Baty isn’t a philosopher poet uber warrior — he’s a victim, gunned down matter-of-factly by a guy who finds it easier to kill people than face his wife’s scorn.

The fundamental problem — as always — has been economics. SF movies were expensive to make (today, it’s almost cheaper to make them since virtual sets are getting to be cheaper than filming on location) and expensive to make means you need a mass audience (including overseas non-English speaking markets) which means dumbing your content down to the lowest common denominator.

It’s very heartening to see brilliant, serious movies such as “Pan’s Labyrinth” being made today that transcend genre, and use special effects extensively but not gratuitously.

Going back to Bladerunner — it was made very cheaply for what it is, it was mangled by the studio in an effort to reach a mass audience, and it was a commercial disaster anyway. “Gee,” thought the studio execs, “we ought to make more of these.”

The one hope for science fiction fans is that Studio Execs will look at Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings and think, “maybe it’s better to base movies on well-loved books than on something George Lucas pulled out of his ass”. More likely they’ll produce Eragon. D’oh.

Still, there’s always hope.