That depends. Would you encourage them to cheer for a sports team who you knew would succeed all season long, only to suffer a heartbreaking loss in the championship game? Would you tell them to eat a restaurant where most of the meal will be great, but the last course will be practically inedible? Would you have them vote for a candidate who’ll prove a dedicated public servant for most of their years in office, only to tarnish all of their past accomplishments at the very end of their term?
Such is the dilemma of the Battlestar Galactica fan. Rarely has a series produced such a strong, complex, and compelling body of work that results in such an ill-conceived, poorly thought out, and above all unsatisfying ending. How do you encourage someone to start a journey that will feature tremendous highs, exhilarating adventures, and gripping emotional moments, but that you know will end in severe disappointment?
The answer is – with serious reservations.
Bound Up with the Mythology
For four seasons, Battlestar Galactica was one of the best shows on television. It featured engaging storylines with dramatic twists, deep moments of sorrow, and grand moments of triumph. It grappled with big topics like politics, science, and morality. It raised tremendous questions about the nature of identity, determinism, and sentience. Above all else, it featured a rich cast of strong, nuanced, and evolving characters whose fate the audience grew to care deeply about.
And it squandered all of that with an ill-considered, subpar series finale. BSG is assuredly not the first show to have a great run followed by a disappointing ending, but its underwhelming finale is still somewhat unique.
Rather than pure episodic television, or even season-long story arcs, Battlestar Galactica featured a series-long, overarching plot that underpinned every single episode. Viewers were reminded about this overarching plot at the beginning of each episode: the Cylons, a group of androids who had once rebelled against humanity, had returned to eliminate their creators. Their reasons were unknown, but after destroying all of human civilization, they began hunting down mankind’s last survivors, a wayward fleet of ships and refugees in search of a new home. And they had a plan.
This premise offered a wealth of questions and possibilities. What was the nature of the Cylons? What did they hope to accomplish? What was their “plan” exactly? Would the fleet find the prophesied safe haven called Earth? If not, would they find a new home? Had the Cylons infiltrated the fleet? Would the last remnants of humanity be able to build a new society out of the ashes of the old one?
Every episode of Battlestar Galactica proceeded in the shadow of these questions. From the most dramatic season finale to the smallest, most personal standalone episode, those overarching mysteries were lurking in the background, waiting to be resolved.
And that’s why the finale of BSG gives me such pause when deciding whether to recommend the show. Ronald D. Moore and his colleagues gave their audience an ending that not only failed to satisfyingly answer all the questions it posed, but which brought the show’s major storylines to such a poorly-conceived conclusion that it cast a pall over everything that came before.
Each step forward in the story was inextricably linked to its the final chapter. As a consequence, the show’s mythos, which had been steadily and breathtakingly built up episode-by-episode, came tumbling down in one disheartening finale. The collapse of that underlying structure did not merely leave a sour taste in the mouths of its fans, or simply end a beautiful song on a bad note. Instead it undermined every prior episode of the show that had been built on that foundation.
God From The Machine
The easiest and most frequent criticism of the show’s finale comes from its near-literal deus ex machina ending. Despite that critique, there’s a fair argument to be made that Battlestar Galactica’s creators nodded toward divine intervention from the very beginning of the show. Moreover, the choice to involve a godlike being who guides the plot in a work of science fiction is not, in and of itself, a flaw in the storytelling. In fact, much of the show proceeded quite artfully with that possibility in mind. But there’s a difference in how the influence of the divine manifested itself through most of the series’ run and how it was portrayed in the finale.
For the bulk of the show, the presence of the divine was intentionally questionable. Did Laura Roslin truly have visions, or were they a side effect of her cancer treatment? Were the near-blind guesses about strategy, supplies, and survival the result of a supreme being tipping the scales or were they just good fortune? Was the reborn Starbuck a godly instrument or instead some sophisticated Cylon plot? Even when the supernatural was explicitly invoked, the audience was never sure about the extent to which it was in play.
And that’s because even if the audience could assume divine intervention, it was intervention through breadcrumbs. Those visions, those breaks, those bits of good fortune, were all nudges in the right direction, rather than superhighways to a specific endpoint. The protagonists did not simply receive some supernatural deliverance, but instead had to question and work to use those hints and bits of help.
Yet in the finale, that entire scheme is turned on its head. Our protagonists are effectively powerless to change the outcome of their story. The god of Battlestar Galactica sets things in motion such that our heroes’ actions have little-to-no bearing on their safety or success. Instead, a divine puppeteer is pulling all the strings.
To wit, the Cylon threat was not destroyed because of anything Adama or Starbuck or Apollo did. But rather, all of their problems were solved because of a seemingly random, yet divinely-orchestrated event. The fleet did not find their new home through careful scouting or even by following some gentle guidance from on high. They simply received the coordinates directly, via divine inspiration, along with a bafflingly perfect world to settle on.
The supernatural power invoked to wrap up the largest plot points of the story robbed not only the ending, but the series as a whole, of any agency from its characters. And that’s why the “victory” at the end of the series felt so hollow. Our heroes did nothing to earn it. They were bystanders to the eventual outcome. Their happy ending was simply delivered to them on a silver platter.
Even worse, it’s implied that they were always destined to reach that point. All the struggles, all the effort, all the pain and drama and challenges that the fleet faced in the prior four seasons were wholly fruitless because no matter what our heroes did, they were fated to end up at that particular destination.
Without getting into a theological debate, in a work of fiction there’s a significant difference between a supernatural presence giving the protagonists the chance to succeed versus mandating the outcome. The god of most of the series was a referee–someone who made sure that all parties obeyed the rules and who assisted and punished as was appropriate. The god of the finale was the power-mad commissioner who declared a victor completely independently of the competitors in the game.
And that’s problematic because at its heart, Battlestar Galactica was a show about its characters, about their struggles, about their trials and tribulations. We, as an audience, need to believe that the choices they elected to make, and were forced to make, mattered. We need to believe that their successes and failures were not arbitrary, but instead that they were the result of sacrifices toward achieving a larger goal.
We need to know that these characters’ missteps and mistakes had weight and consequence. The divine presence of the finale not only makes it so that the actions of those characters were almost wholly irrelevant to the conclusion of their own story, but even worse, implies that all of their prior actions were just as irrelevant because, come hell or high water, that story was destined to reach a predetermined ending.
It was entirely possible for these characters’ stories to still have meaning in the shadow of a divine presence, but the God Entity from Futurama put it best:
God Entity: Bender, being God isn’t easy. If you do too much, people get dependent on you. And if you do nothing, they lose hope. You have to use a light touch, like a safecracker or a pickpocket.
Bender: Or a guy who burns down a bar for the insurance money.
God Entity: Yes, if you make it look like an electrical thing. When you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.
And They Have A Plan
Ironically, in a show that posited a supernatural being who had mapped out the events of the series long in advance, the show’s creators were making everything up on the fly. “God” may have had a plan; the Cylons may have had a plan, but the writers sure as hell didn’t.
Ronald D. Moore has come out and admitted that he and his colleagues on the show were making up the story as they went along. He’s explained that when they began the series, they had no idea who the secret Cylons were going to be and only a rough idea of what the Cylons’ plan was. At best, this was a misguided way to run this type of series, and at worst, it was a slap in the face to the show’s fans.
When watching the series, there was a always sense of a hidden web of cause and effect beyond what was shown on the screen. The viewers were given the impression that the actions of the protagonists were causing ripples whose effects were unseen and unknown, but no less significant. By the same token, there was a clear sense that there were many events happening outside the audience’s view which nonetheless had a major impact on the course of the series. Each new reveal, each unexpected twist, was supposed to show us a piece of that larger puzzle.
Then the audience came to find out that the show’s creators barely had a clearer view of the big picture than they did. Every grand reveal and shocking twist was improvised. The show itself intimated that there were complex rationales behind every occurrence the audience witnessed. Instead the creative voices behind the scenes were just spitballing their way to the end.
One of the joys of watching BSG is encapsulated in a word I keep coming back to – building. There was a grand, constant mythos being constructed: the big mysteries, the overarching plot points, the teased answers to the show’s most significant questions. With each new episode the audience would uncover more of what seemed like a larger story in a larger universe of events.
There was a greater whole that we were trying to get a glimpse of. Something that would make us able to look back at the earlier episodes and catch the little character details that didn’t occur to us before, the subtle actions with bigger consequences we could see coming down the line, the hints and contours of the story that were there from the start, but which we didn’t know to look for yet.
But we can’t do that, because the writers barely knew where they were going any more than the audience did. Major plot points were fleshed out and then discarded. Names were practically drawn out of a hat for who the next secret Cylon would be.
The show’s creators promised the audience a skyscraper and started building it without a blueprint. All the while, they maintained that they knew what they were doing. Then they tried to go back and patch up the errors and mistakes they had made along the way. But eventually, the whole thing came tumbling down.
And that’s the other big reason why the show’s deus ex machina ending is so frustrating. The use of the supernatural did not simply arise as an organic outgrowth from previous events in the course of the series. Rather, Ronald D. Moore and his colleagues had to invoke some cosmic superpower in order to handwave the dozens of inconsistencies and frustrating plot holes that could not be explained by basic character motivations or events the audience had already witnessed.
And even then they fell woefully short.
The retcons were legion. Colonel Tigh is a “different kind of Cylon” because we’ve seen flashbacks of him as a younger man, while the other Cylons don’t seem to age. Chief Tyrol’s wife was secretly impregnated by someone else, because otherwise his Cylon-Hybrid baby conflicts with the established storyline involving Hera. The show did not even attempt to explain why our heroes saw our Earth’s constellations during their vision within the Tomb of Athena.
The Plan bent over backwards to try to explain the behavior of Cylons in early episodes that did not seem to jive with what we later learned about their culture and motivations. The finale itself only served to raise more questions than it provided answers and failed to fit with the story that had already been told. In the end, the show’s creators had to invent a being with a grand plan, because they certainly didn’t have one.
Now truth be told, there’s a reason so many people kept watching the show despite this lack of planning. Ronald D. Moore and his collaborators did an incredible job at keeping the audience hooked and coming up with compelling stories given that they were making it up as they went along. But you can only string your audience along for so long. Eventually you have to tie everything together–you have to reach some sort endgame, and that’s where the rubber met the road.
A Collection of Shortcuts
Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that the show had been more subtle about the divine influence. In fact, let’s set aside the supernatural elements entirely and assume that the fleet made it to their new home with enough agency to render those concerns superfluous. Let’s even assume that the show’s creators were so adept at improvisation that their lack of planning was hardly even noticeable.
All of that aside, the show’s creators still offered up an ending that failed as both a logical extension of what the audience had already seen and as a fitting resolution to the storylines the show had spent so long building.
I’ve already discussed in detail the myriad ways in which Battlestar Galactica’s finale makes little-to-no sense. But all of those problems, all of those plot holes, all of those handwaves, can essentially be summed up as the same issue:
The show’s creators decided on a destination–some point they wanted the series to end on and some message they wanted to convey–without bothering to consider whether they had adequately built to that resolution or whether it cohered with everything they had previously presented.
What they offered instead was a thematic conclusion. It was an ending that had been designed to convey certain themes, make certain points, and hit certain emotional notes, while completely neglecting to consider whether it all made sense in terms of story, character, or basic science.
My problem with the finale is that the writers seemed to have a firm emotional destination in mind, some warm, fuzzy finality, but did not really know how to get there. Instead of a steady, comprehensible build to the finale, they gave the audience nothing but a series of convenient contrivances. In the process, they made those quiet moments of triumph that are supposed to be so heartwarming feel cheap and unearned.
Not every show can have multi-season arcs set up in advance. For that matter, not every show has to be as story-driven as Battlestar Galactica. But for any show that is, there should be a believable progression to some some satisfying endpoint.
Plans can certainly change. The way that the characters and story evolve over time can mean that a show has to change course at some point. But that still does not excuse aimless drifting or far-fetched shortcuts to a contrived endpoint. When the ultimate payoff is as convoluted and unsatisfying as BSG’s was, no matter how great the prior episodes were, the whole series loses some of its luster.
Battlestar Galactica’s ending was not constructed by a divine being with perfect foresight; it was constructed by a room full of writers who had to contend with plot missteps and character shifts and loads of implications they either did not think through or simply ignored. And it meant that they could not adequately account for the series as a whole or believably reach the outcomes they so clearly desired.
It’s hard to envision a satisfying end to BSG that involves the crew giving up all technology, settling on Earth thousands of years ago, and becoming our oldest ancestors. It’s hard to imagine a believable finish that uses the supernatural as such a narrative shortcut. It’s exceedingly difficult to buy an ending that seems to depart from much of what had been previously established. But if it can be done, it’s at least not something that can be achieved in just the show’s last half hour of airtime.
To wit, predestination, prejudice, and the perils of technology could all have been major elements of the answer to the questions that BSG had spent four seasons asking. But the show’s resolution of those topics was shoehorned into the series’ last gasp rather than fully established and explored. The writers relied on shortcuts: on chance occurrences, on supernatural influence, on emotional beats that were decided upon by fiat rather than earned. It was all they could do to finish clearing their throats, let alone cough out the right words to express those sentiments.
The Finality of the Finale
Instead, Ronald D. Moore and his colleagues attempted to wrap everything up too neatly. In their haste, they neglected to consider a number of the troubling implications of an ending that was supposed to have a great deal of “finality,” but which only served to ignore the complexity of what had come before.
The world of Battlestar Galactica was messy. It consisted of shifting alliances, characters who were too multifaceted to categorize as purely good or bad, and plots that tugged on numerous connected story threads. It was far too complicated to be adequately resolved with just a big explosion and a magic compass.
And in the end, that was finale’s biggest flaw. Willing suspension of disbelief could excuse the plot holes. A forgiving eye could overlook the resort to the supernatural to explain untenable plot situations. But what’s inexcusable is the way the the ending shortchanges the audience on the complexity they had rightly come to expect from Battlestar Galactica. “Daybreak” almost feels like the conclusion to a different show–something unsuitably neat, tidy, and conclusory for a series that was anything but.
Battlestar Galactica was complex. The depth and nuance with which it explored everything from grand philosophical points to simple human interactions was one of the show’s greatest strengths. And the ending swept all that complexity under the rug in favor of an oversimplified conclusion.
Seventy-five episodes of intricate, interwoven storylines necessarily offer no easy answers. It’s a fool’s errand to attempt to tie up all of the characters and stories and themes across 50+ hours of television into one neat little package. The creative voices behind the show did not, and could not, manage it. Instead, they should have embraced that complexity. They could have forgone something that felt as forced as their happy ending and given us something that was just as final, but not nearly as clean.
Battlestar Galactica was a show that strove to rise above the cliches and hokeyness in the worst of its genre. For four seasons, it was a show devoted to nuance, to plot, and to character. But in its final bow, it devolved into the worst stereotypes of science fiction – overly simplistic plot fixes through what may as well be magic, faux-scientific explanations that fail the most generous of smell tests, and narrative failures that respond to the series’ big questions with cop outs instead of real answers.
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All of that notwithstanding, I would still recommend Battlestar Galactica to a friend. On balance, the series still provides an incredibly engaging, poignant, and thought-provoking experience that overcomes the considerable flaws in its finale. But I would do so with sincere reservations. Because I know what lies at the end of that path.
It’s still the journey, not the destination. The series’ build through four fantastic, captivating season, tarnished though they may be, is still worth a final, two-episode punch to the gut. But Battlestar Galactica will always be a show that reached the highest highs of complexity and depth, and yet could not find the right place to land.
It’s still a great show. But it’s also a shame.