Thursday, August 20, 2009

What "Battlestar Galactica" Did Wrong, What "Lost" Does Right

I'd like to start by apologizing for the slowed rate of posting on this blog. But I think it's time I explained why. I'm interning for a science fiction blog called io9. I've been a follower of this blog pretty much since the day it launched, and to be able to get involved and write for them is a huge honor. I've been posting pretty regularly over there, and if you check out my profile page over there, you can peruse the things I have written for them.

One thing I wrote not too long ago was a reaction to an essay about the finale of the re-imagined "Battlestar Galactica" series, discussing how much danger there was of "Lost" making some of the same mistakes. The essay about BSG is here, and it's well reasoned and well organized. My response and analysis of LOST is here. Both those links and this post have spoilers for both shows.

It was fun to write that post for io9, but I also wanted to take a moment to explain here on the home blog three things that I thought about while researching and writing this particular post: what BSG did wrong in its final few episodes, why I still love the show, and what LOST has been doing right.

I'll start with why I think BSG's finale was such a colossal letdown. The essay explains this really well, but the bottom line is that the finale takes a complex, interesting show and reduces it to two or three simple principles. The show dealt with warfare, guilt, redemption, religion, alienation, and all of the other big issues that good science fiction touches on. The finale wraps it all up into a pretty neat little package, the bottom line of which was simply that we need to be nice to our robots.

So the show decided that its ultimate purpose was to tell humanity that god (or whatever he likes to be called) wants us to be nice to our robots. This is already pretty demeaning compared to the idea that the show has been flirting with about humanity's callousness balanced against their ability to create life. It's clear the show is aiming for a universal message, but it comes across as saying "be nice to your Roomba, because it might one day try to annihilate society."

Of course, a critic of my position would say that I'm oversimplifying. But even if I am, I only do so to echo just how overly-simplified BSG's final message is.. The complex struggle between human and robot played out in the end like a cautionary tale, and that's the kind of "Red Asphalt" pandering we expect a great show to stay away from. If the semi-pandering "be good to the environment" sub-message of Wall-E is its weakest point, the pandering "be good to your robots" message of BSG seems to be the finale's only point.

That's only one major problem. Another chief problem with the finale is how it saddles god with pretty much the entire path of our fleet. The "head 6" that became probably the leading path maker for the surviving humans was actually an emissary of god. So, probably, was the reincarnated Starbuck, the one that led the fleet to their ultimate earthly end. The whole of the last season, in retrospect, is all a process of reducing the epic scale of the fleet's journey further and further, until we're ultimately left with their free will diminished and their journey nothing more than the result of divine providence.

The most disappointing thing is, of course, that the finale seems to betray that the writers had no idea what they were doing all along. The finale does a good enough job pulling together the patchwork of unfinished leads that cropped up throughout the show, but it's clear from what this patchwork looks like that the creators of the show never really planned where most of those leads were going.

And these major flaws in the anatomy of the BSG finale don't even count the loose ends, the vast improbability of the fleet's end, and the scientific mistakes. The finale seems to be essentially a big ball of contradictions and oversimplifications. I admit that I found parts of it moving and very fitting for the show's legacy, but the overall message of the show seems so carelessly subverted by the shoddily constructed ending.

So now the question becomes, what does the finale change about how I feel about the entire run of BSG? The answer is, not much. I still love the show. I still think that, over the course of its journey, the show got really close to revealing fascinating truths about humanity, fully exploiting the sci-fi nature of the show to project humanity now into a portrait of humanity in the future. The show is still brilliant. It's just really disappointing to see the whole run of the show discredited as leading inexorably to a witless religious fictional piece at best, and a pedantic, simplistic cautionary tale at worst.

So I would still count it among the best science fiction shows ever made. It's still filled with compelling characters, it still develops some fascinating ideas, and it still has some really great space battle action. In fact, if you discount portions of the last season, it still hangs together as a coherent whole. It just didn't know how to end in any reasonable way.

And that is why LOST, even if its finale is a colossal failure, will not self-destruct. It will still hold together for a lot of the same reasons that BSG will. Its discussion of faith, reason, fate, and choice will all still be there, even if the finale sucks.

But the finale, I think (and hope), will not suck. LOST already has a few things going in its favor. For starters, unlike the show-runners at BSG, the LOST producers have demonstrated time and time again that they have a plan for the show. It may not be a detailed plan, but it is a plan, and it's being implemented. As a clear, concise demonstration of this fact: BSG was canceled in its 4th season; LOST negotiated 3 seasons ago just when it planned to wrap up.

Furthermore, the LOST producers have made all sorts of statements about tiering which mysteries get answered and which will not get any more screen time. Of course I do not like the idea of any mysteries left unsolved, but I am much happier to hear that the producers are planning carefully how they will wrap up the show.

Also, when BSG approached its final moments, the viewers were all wondering essentially the same thing: will it be the past, the present, or the future on our Earth when the colonials find it? LOST offers no simple multiple choice question. The show keeps taking chances and doing really strange and risky things, so even the most devoted fans can't begin to guess how the show will wrap up. To me, this will help the wrap-up feel fresh regardless of how it happens.

Even if you don't buy all of that, though, remember that LOST always had a plan, if not from day one, at least from the beginning of season 2. The writers have been working on reaching a pre-determined point for 5 years, whereas BSG was working towards their ending for about a half of a season. The BSG intro in season 1 said that the Cylons had a plan, but somewhere in season 3 the producers admitted that they didn't really know what that plan was. The ultimate comfort for LOST fans is that their show-runners have always had a plan.

In short, BSG is still one of the greatest science fiction television shows ever made, despite its ending, but LOST stands to be even greater, partially because of its ending. Here's hoping the LOST producers don't prove me horribly wrong.

Phew. Glad I got that off my chest. I promise the next post will be a lot less nerd-tastic.

(Note: I, of course, invite feedback, and I imagine that anyone who cares enough about both of these shows to read this whole article will also care enough about them to formulate an opinion, very possibly different from mine. Please share it.)

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