Sunday, March 22, 2009

BSG Finale "Daybreak"

So, Battlestar Galactica came to an end Friday, concluding one of the longest sustained runs of quality television ever. Yeah, there were a few clunkers along the way ("Black Market" and "The Woman King" come to mind), but for the most part, BSG raised the bar for how we'll think about science fiction on TV, with superlative special effects, unparalleled acting, intelligent scripts and feature quality directing.

The tale of our ragtag fleet came to an end with the beautiful, elegiac, visionary and occasionally confounding episode "Daybreak." If you're a geek like me, by now you've watched and rewatched this landmark episode, and read all about the polarizing fan reaction to what transpired. I have some quibbles, which I'll get into in just a minute, but I will give credit to Ron Moore and David Eick for taking their show to the end in an uncompromising fashion, and producing one of the most interesting and dramatic cappers to a series ever.

What "Daybreak" got right:
  • When Moore was trying to break the story for the finale, he struggled for days before walking into the writers room and scribbling on the whiteboard: "it's the characters, stupid." And that's exactly right. At its heart, BSG was less about moving the pieces around on the chessboard in order to get to a perfectly logical conclusion from a plot machinations standpoint, and more about the human (and Cylon) reactions to a near apocalypse. Many complained about the time spent in both parts of "Daybreak" on flashbacks to the pre-holocaust lives of Roslin, Adama, Baltar, Lee and Kara on Caprica. Personally, I thought this was an important and moving way of reminding us of the journeys of these characters. No, it didn't exactly show us anything completely revelatory, but we saw how Roslin summoned her inner strength for the first time in the wake of personal hardship. How the Tighs were bound by love and affection in the galaxy's most dysfunctional relationship. Kara's maniacal zest for life that treads on the fine line of self-destruction. Lee's inner turmoil, balancing what he wants with what he knows is the "right" thing to do. Adama's sense of duty, and recognition that the only place he truly feels like himself is in command of a ship. Baltar's self-serving narcissism which brought about the near destruction, and eventual survival, of the human race. At the end of the day, the characters on BSG weren't stock cardboard cutouts -- hero, scientist, villain, leader, badass, robot -- they were all fully realized and deeply flawed individuals that we were lucky to spend 4 seasons with.
  • Space Porn! Holy shit, was that a battle for the ages. It's hard to believe how far we've come from the original series, where they would replay the same shots of a viper flying over and over, to the epic battle we saw in "Daybreak," which puts 99% of the visual effects we see in movies to shame. So many breathtaking images. Old school and new school centurions fighting it out. Galactica ramming the colony. Galactica passing over the moon and seeing Earth.
  • The music, as always, was note for note perfect. And how awesome was it that Bear McCreary worked in a bit of the classic BSG theme as Anders took the fleet on a mission into the sun?
  • The character endings. Adama gives Laura one last look at the destination they've been struggling for four years to reach. Whose eyes didn't water up when he put that ring on her hand, just after she passed peacefully? Ellen and Tigh finally getting the time together they've always wanted. The Agathons walking through a field with Hera. The joy on Lee's face as he decides he wants to go exploring, unencumbered by expectations, unrequited love or the Adama legacy. The peace that washes over Kara's face as she knows her journey is over, her destiny fulfilled. Caprica and Gaius building a life together, with Baltar explaining that he knows a bit about farming. For a show that's been almost unrelentingly dark, it was nice to see so many of these characters reach a place of happiness.
  • The funny! There were laughs to be had in the finale, which was suprising. Starbuck complaining about Athena telling Sharon "the plan." Gaius and Caprica seeing their "head" versions of each other.Cavil bitching about the monologuing in the CIC.
  • The symmetry. I thought the payoff of having the fleet reach "our" Earth 150,000 years ago was a good one. It brought together themes of humanity and our relationship with technology, as well as giving the audience a personal investment in the fates of the crew. It also deepened the "this has happened before" mantra that we've seen since the beginning of the show.

All that said, there were some things about "Daybreak" that just didn't sit too well with me. Overall, I give the episode an A-, just based on the stunning dramatic achievements of "Daybreak," as well as the residual goodwill toward a series that definitely takes a place in the pantheon of all time greats.

Some of the issues I had with "Daybreak:"
  • First and foremost, you have got to start with Starbuck. I mean, what the FRAK was that? I don't mind a little mystery, or ambiguity, but you brought a beloved character BACK FROM THE DEAD, spend a year having her question her nature and suffer one existential crisis after another, only to find her groove during the mutiny, then communicate with her dead father via some type of hallucination/projection and discover the key to an ancient Cylon song (which turns out to be the coordinates to "our" Earth), then wind up on the destination planet and then go "mission accomplished, I'm outta here" and VANISH INTO THIN FUCKING AIR. Katee Sackhoff played the hell out of the role the entire time, chewing up and spitting out whatever was given to her. And the look of peace on her face in the field with Lee was well, well earned and well, well played. But to offer no clue or no explanation to Starbuck's resurrected nature, and then chalk it up to "she was a messenger of god" is sloppy and a disservice to all the fans of the character. If she took off alone in a viper, or went with the toasters on the baseship, or went off on her own like Tyrol or Adama, or just got "lost" in the forest or a crowd -- that would have been a more compelling and less frustrating ending for the character. Like I said, I don't necessarily mind the ambiguity or mystery here. If we never understood "what" Starbuck was, I might not have liked it, but I wouldn't have HATED it. Having her defy all the laws of physics and abruptly break the rules of "reality" that we've established for four fucking years, and then DISAPPEAR is all kinds of wrong.
  • It seems like a nitpick, but during Adama's flashback, he goes through an interview back on Caprica for a private sector job, before the original Cylon attack, and is hooked up to what appears to be a lie detector. I like the notion, in that he rejects that life and realizes that he's spent his life as a warrior, and he's not yet ready to fade out of the military life. However, during that interview, they ask him if "he is a Cylon." Huh? It wasn't until AFTER the attacks, and all the events of the miniseries, that anyone in the fleet (or in humanity, for that matter) realized that Cylons could be disguised as humans. So why would a regular manager ask him that question?
  • Some of the things in the final, present day Earth coda were driving in a thumbtack with a sledgehammer. Yes, it was nice to see RDM in a little cameo reading National Geographic about "Eve." However, they could have framed that a little differently, as not to be too distracting and take us completely out of the reality of the series. And yes, the nature of the series was an epic struggle between man and machine, and coming to grips with the potential downside of our technological ambitions. But the shots of all the robots were just too damned on the nose. Again, if we had those playing in the background, or in one corner of the screen on a slightly out of focus TV in a store window, it might have made the point more subtly, and not have seemed quite so heavy handed - particularly when you have two "angels/demons" walking through Times Square offering a commentary.
  • And finally, I think the show overreached with its explanation that "god," or the "divine" was behind everything. I don't mind shows that take a position and stick to it for the entire run. BSG was never shy about asking questions regarding faith and religion. There were prophecies, and scrolls, and visions, and cults, and myths. That's fine for dramatic storytelling and for having the characters, and the audience, ponder the imponderables. But to have the wrap up of the show plainly boil it all down to "god did it" cheapens everything we've seen before. Dead Racetrack's hand was divinely moved to hit the pre-armed nukes button, which happened to launch them at the colony at the right time. Starbuck was brought back from the dead and recreated wholly and humanly (along with a shiny new viper, complete with faux-earth coordinates) because god did it. Gaius and Caprica saw "angelic" versions of themselves to pass along helpful, preordained advice, because god did it. Starbuck would be the only one in position by the FTL controls when the shit was going down, so that she could magically enter the coordinates to the "new" Earth because god willed it. If whatever divine being exists in the Galactica universe is all knowing and all powerful, and orchestrated these "moves" all along, then it completely diminishes the drama, the stakes, the casualties, the human choices and the sacrifices we've been following for four long seasons now. If the resurrected Starbuck had been killed by her almost mutinous crew on the garbage ship, would god have popped in a third magical version of her a week later? If that version had been shot in the hallways of the colony by a toaster, would a fourth version have magically popped into the CIC just to push that button? Look, I like questions of fate and faith, and think they provide a tremendous framework in which to tell stories. But RDM and crew established early on that despite the religious undercurrents in the nature of the series, it was a gritty, quasi-realistic universe. Conversely, a show like Buffy put forth a universe where magic "really" happens, and creatures and gods from other dimensions have inexplicable powers. Trek established a universe where all powerful beings like the Q can snap their fingers and move a starship to another galaxy in the blink of an eye or bring a character back from the dead. BSG, despite having robots indistinguishable from humans and faster than light travel, didn't set up a fictional world where characters can magically return from the dead, and then VANISH INTO THIN AIR. To pull that out of their asses the last 10 minutes seems a deus ex machina too far, and will always leave a bit of a bitter taste in my mouth.

Okay, rant over. Despite a few misgivings about the finale, I'm glad we had four years of this groundbreaking and remarkable show. Thanks for the experience Galactica, it was a pleasure going on the journey with you.



  1. Shan, that was spot-on perfect. Nothing I can add.

    I am just glad to have been able to experience one of the greatest shows to ever grace the small screen. In spite of some huge quabbles with the finale (which are pretty much the same as yours, and that's coming from a devout Christian), I am choosing to remember this show for what it was over the entire life of the series, and for THAT show, I am grateful.

  2. Thanks for the comments. I still have fond feelings for the X-Files, and they TOTALLY botched the ending there. BSG was nowhere near that mess, and for the most part, I really liked the themes and closure of "Daybreak." I just think they took the role of an "active" deity one step too far.

    Funny, this weekend I just rewatched S1's "Hand of God" on DVD, and there, the "divine" also played a role, making Gaius "guess" correctly about the location of a key component on a Cylon refinery, which spurred his conversations with 6 and eventual path toward accepting more than just hard science. This is the kind of mystical intervention that works well, because Gaius's guess and revelation could be something truly divine working THROUGH the humans, or it could be the humans taking something inexplicable like "intuition" and ascribing religious overtones to it. Great fodder for debate, without diminishing the contribution of the characters themselves. However, if you have an entire person and a spaceship created out of nothing who then plays the primary role in the denouement of the series, who then vanishes magically into thin air....well, I think that takes it to a next level that removes the mysticism and diminishes the contributions and roles of the characters we've come to love.

    Oh well. You're right. So few shows have "stuck the landing" (Angel? ST: TNG? 6 Feet Under?) that it's difficult to hold a few problems with "Daybreak" against the whole series (though I admit, it will always be in the back of my mind as I rewatch older eps).

  3. I've had to avoid your blog until tonight, such that I could complete the Daybreak episodes. I thought it was a good finish to the series, although I thought they dragged out the last 45 minutes on "our earth" longer than necessary.

    I agree completely about the WTF ending with Starbuck. I think a "preferable" ending from my perspective would have been the much talked about "daughter of Daniel" theory espoused on the internet.

    I didn't mind the plot line for the "divine" leap of faith required (although you see where that got Cavil)..... but the Starbuck thing bugged me as well.

    The writers could have confined that storyline to Baltar/Caprica, and still accomplished the same message.

    Nevertheless, a good ending.

  4. I didn't mind the extended farewells, which reminded me (and many others) of LOTR:Return of the King, since I really didn't want to let go of the characters after 4 years. But it was a change of pace after an hour of balls to the wall action.

    And it's not the "divine" playing a role in the series, or the faiths of all the characters, that bugged me. That's been in the DNA of the show since moment one. (I'm rewatching the show from S1 on DVD, and you can see a lot of there already). It's like you note: if it was just the angel/demon aspect of the head Baltar and Caprica characters, that would be fine. Or paying off prophecies and scrolls and visions. That suggests a divine presence that still leaves room for character choices. But the handling of the Starbuck resurrection and disappearance was step too far in my book. Though as you say, it doesn't diminish my enjoyment of the series, and the finale, as a whole.

    Good stuff.

  5. The comparison of the final 45 minutes to LOTR: Return of the King is a good one.

    I have seen fans of the series complain about the Return to the Shire for the final battle for years, and then when Jackson left it out of the movie, complaints came down the other way.

  6. Yeah, damned if you do, damned if you don't. For the record, I agree with PJ's choice in LOTR (though the goodbyes could have been edited more tightly). No way, cinematically, the battle for the shire, could follow the whole Mount Doom and army of the dead thing.

    Still pondering Daybreak days later, and I wish the opera house meant "more," Starbuck had a better explanation and exit, and there was more thought given to the lack of technology other than "Lee thinks we should give up EVERYTHING and go native!"

    io9 has a poll up, putting it on the "Trek Scale" of endings (with TNG Best, and Enterprise Worst). I put BSG right along with DS9, which was second best, and slightly behind TNG (which Ron Moore also co-wrote).