Psst. Come here, I have a secret to tell you. From one godless monkey to another: up until the point that God actually proved to be real in the BSG universe, I really enjoyed the religious aspects of the show. I found it fascinating that a race of machines could have a monotheistic culture and that the human race was polytheistic. It was not lost on me either that the monotheistic culture waged their own form of ethnic cleansing upon the religiously misguided humans. Be that as it may, what really pulled me in was the process of mulling over how a race of machines could find religion in the first place, and secondly, why the humans were polytheistic. I certainly didn’t expect that the war they were fighting was a conflict waged by proxy, with Cylons and humans as mere puppets, with Almighty God on one side pulling His strings and the six gods on the other side pulling theirs. I knew I wasn’t watching a story akin to the Iliad. I could tell that the story was driven by the characters who were actually onstage—not by God or the gods. To think otherwise would have been downright foolish.
I am only half the fool, it turns out. Understand though: I am not the fool because I was wrong. I am the fool because I thought RDM & Co. were honest brokers. Silly me. I believe it was John Joseph Adams, one of Tor.com’s bloggers and member of the BSG Roundtable, that succinctly said, “Ronald D. Moore is dead to me.”
Actually, it’s worse. His characters are dead. All of them. They’ve been gutted, fileted, and hung out to dry. Their eviscerated husks are nothing more than bitter memories of what could’ve and should’ve been. This is what happens when writers run away from their own story, when they forego the most basic rule of writing: don’t lie to your audience. Don’t dupe them. Don’t you dare take their intelligence and treat it like toilet paper. Don’t. You. Dare.
But they did.
You know what a deus ex machina is—even if you’re unfamiliar with the term. It’s when some cheesy plot device comes out of nowhere to solve all the plot problems of the story, rendering useless all the previous plot struggles that had come before it. Remember the TV show, Dallas? Bobby Ewing was dead, right? Wrong! It was all a dream! It was a dream! Some stupid moron had to have a dream in order to bring Bobby back. Science fiction doesn’t have to use dreams though, because we have way-cool high tech devices like nanotechnology, and AI—but in BSG’s case, they couldn’t even do that. They went to God Himself. Pah!
For those of you who respectfully disagree with the notion that God suddenly came out of the blue, that Head Six (Baltar’s seemingly imaginary friend) was somehow adequate foreshadowing that God really was at hand, my question is this: how? A predictive Head Six (who claimed she was an angel) was no more a hint of God’s true existence than the predictive Oracle of Pithia was for the actual existence of the six gods. They both felt mystical, yes; they both felt supernatural, yes; but there was nothing about these two parallel story lines that couldn’t be explained by the elements that had already been introduced in the story.
Hence, what we have here folks—God’s master plan brought to you by those two ravishingly good looking angels—is a classic deus ex machina. And a huge one at that. As H.G. Wells himself said regarding the deus ex machina, “If anything is possible, then nothing is interesting.”
Well, with God, anything can happen.
But you know what? Anything can happen in fiction, too. God could’ve been in this sci-fi story without it having to be a deus ex machina; God can be in any science fiction story as long as it’s structured properly.
Ah, there’s the rub. Structure.
You see, deus ex machinas come in all shapes and sizes. Some are annoying. Others are downright destructive. The annoying ones tend to be one or two steps beyond the interior logic of the narrative; but the devastating ones literally transform the inherent structure of the story—and that’s exactly what RDM & Co. did to BSG. They destroyed their own story.
If you don’t quite yet see what I mean, well, believe me, you’re not alone because I know damn well that RDM & Co. are absolutely clueless. This is why I’m going to address the mini-lecture to them since they’re the ones who are responsible for this fiasco.
Note to BSG writing staff: ever heard of a character story? Well, if you haven’t, then I suggest you watch your own TV show for the last four seasons up until the very last hour of the finale—because that’s exactly what you guys had been writing up until God showed up to save the day. Ever heard of an idea story? Hint: watch the last hour of the finale that you wretched souls vomited upon us and that is precisely what an idea story is. These are two different story forms which make completely different demands upon character and plot—but don’t take my word for it. Orson Scott Card elucidated upon these story types in his how-to book, Characters & Viewpoint.
BSG’s main characters were fully realized, breathing human beings—steeped in dire conflict, both internally and externally, all of whom were suffused with the desire and a willingness to change not only their station in life, but themselves. Ergo: a character story. An idea story is cut from a different cloth. It is meant to emphasize an idea, not a character or characters—in fact, the idea itself is the main character, and everyone else its subject. The characters serve as the idea’s vehicle, its agent. They must act on its behalf. Sure, the characters are determined; sure, they are idiosyncratic, but they are also two-dimensional because the idea itself must be fully explored. Characters following God’s master plan is a perfect idea story. In fact, characters following any master plan is an idea story.
Remember Isaac Asimov? He wrote idea stories. He wrote great ones, like, say, the Foundation series. Psychohistory was the idea. Psychohistory was the main character. Psychohistory was also a plan; a plan of cosmic reach, of God-like reach, sweeping across the ages to help mitigate the devastating effects of the fall of the Galactic Empire.
The key here is not that Asimov wrote a cool idea story. The key is that he constructed the story in a manner so as to inform the reader that it was an idea story. This is what competent writers do. To wit: Asimov introduces Hari Seldon (the inventor of psychohistory) and then unceremoniously leaves him behind. Because, you know, there’s a story to tell, and it sure ain’t about Hari. The narrative leaps forward in time in order to prove out the progress of the plan. New characters are introduced while previous ones fade away. It becomes pretty clear fairly quickly that Asimov doesn’t want you to get attached to his characters—he wants you to get attached to his idea. When he actually does spend some time with his characters they are necessarily clever and resourceful, but they are also necessarily two-dimensional (determined with a goal). They are never ever a threat to upstage the much more fascinating and complex main character of psychohistory.
So yes: fiction is the art of the lie, but you have to be upfront and honest about the nature of your lie; and once you have the reader’s (or audience’s) trust, you are then honor-bound to hold true to the story’s form—all the way through to its end. Let me repeat: THE STORY MUST HOLD TRUE TO ITS FORM ALL THE WAY THROUGH TO ITS END.
And that’s where BSG blew it. By radically—and suddenly—shifting the story’s emphasis from character to idea RDM & Co. not only violated the tacit agreement between storyteller and fan, but they exploded the internal engine that had been propelling BSG forward since its inception: its characters. This is not only a betrayal to the fans, mind you. This is a betrayal to the art of fiction. Look, the hard truth about fiction is this: form follows emphasis, yes; but expectation follows form. Character stories are resolved by their main characters—they themselves are the agents of their own change. Period. That’s the expectation. End of story. Therefore, I watched with boiling blood as some of the most fully realized sci-fi characters of all time, characters that I surely thought were on the verge of determining their own fate, suddenly became subservient to God’s master plan. Suddenly all their free will coagulated into an ugly red herring. All their angst, inner conflict and hard decision making suddenly lost all relevant meaning—the meaning that comes when a character affects change and he/she is ultimately the one who is responsible for it.
Folks, what I watched wasn’t the art of creating fiction. What I watched was the art of dismantling it.
As the final hour excruciatingly limped towards its end, one unbelievable plot point proceeded to follow the next: the centurions departed to find their own destiny; everyone disavowed technology; everyone spread out over the globe so they could starve to death. It was surreal. If BSG had still been an inkling of its former self, those 3 key decisions alone would have fueled enough conflict to justify 3 more seasons of the show. Instead, our tragically hollowed out characters effortlessly made their decisions and everyone else didn’t even blink; they simply followed en masse, like a hive mind, or worker bees, dutifully serving the (cockamamie) plan.
Then it got worse.
The story launched itself 150,000 years into the future. It was clumsy and jarring, but really, what else were the writers supposed to do? They had an idea story on their hands, and like Asimov’s Foundation series, they had to jump the narrative forward in order to show the fruit of God’s labor.
Which is us, of course. We are the fruit of God’s labor, and that leaves us with one last nugget to choke on: Hera. Ah, yes, precious Hera. She is our mitochondrial Eve. She was half human and half Cylon—and that has truly been our salvation, has it not? For let’s not forget, the Cylon god proved to be the one true God. And while we, as Hera’s descendants, have developed throughout the ages, building vast empires and constructing tall cities, we have obviously learned to embrace our inner machine, and in so doing, we have embraced the grace of God. For today, God is worshipped by over 2 billion people.
Wow. Maybe it’s time for the centurions to come back, don’t you think? We could all sing “Kumbaya.”
Let me move on.
Say what you will about Battlestar Galactica, whether you want to marvel at its gritty realism, its amazing action sequences, special effects, its top-notch acting and directing, or its inspired musical score—the heart and soul of the show was its characters. Yet no longer. Just like Kara, their very souls have popped out of existence, fully dissipated within the skeletal remains of a once potent character story. For what we have left is nothing more than an empty grasp of lost possibilities, that never-ending guessing game of the coulda and shoulda beens. Because in fiction, there’s a good way to lie and there’s a bad way to lie, and if you ask me, someone ought to develop a polygraph test for the Ronald D. Moores of the world—to keep writers like him honest—so we can keep vivid and fully realized characters true to form, to watch them live and die in the manner by which their world was built: in character.
So say we all.