18 February 2012

Lost in Space: BSG, Lost, and Failed Promises

Spoilers ahead, obviously.

It might seem like Battlestar Galactica and Lost have very little in common.  BSG was a cable television recreation of a classic science fiction show about the flight of the last remnant of mankind from the genocidal robot Cylons, whereas Lost was a network television original following the attempts of a group of survivors of an airline crash to survive and escape a mysterious island.  But as different as they might seem, I believe the two shows initially succeeded and ultimately failed because of one single factor: a promised yet unimaginable final resolution.

BSG was a phenomenal success for the Sci-Fi Channel, a little cable channel that had mostly concentrated on classic reruns and low-budget schlock horror films (Frankenfish, Komodo vs. Cobra, Sharktopus).  The popularity of the show, which grew from a devoted cult into a smash hit over the course of the first two seasons, would power a rebranding of the entire channel into "Syfy."  The original 1978 series had its devotees, but had largely been overshadowed by the granddaddies of science fiction fandoms, Star Wars and Star Trek.  This made it perfect for a reboot by Sci-Fi, since it wasn't as risky as a completely fresh concept but was still attainable with their limited funding.

The reboot, which ran from 2003-2009, would retain most of the central elements of the show.  Heavily influenced by Mormon theology, the plot revolves around a small fleet of spaceships that escape from the nuclear destruction of their civilization.  The aggressors are the Cylons, sentient robots who look like humans but command armies of metallic soldiers.  The long-ago creation of the first Cylons by humans, and subsequent attempts to unjustly eradicate them, are the original sin of mankind in the Battlestar world.  While the residents of the populous human planet Caprica may have been innocent of that crime, they must bear the burdens of their forefathers' cruelty.

Virtually all fans of the show agree that its quality declined precipitously during the third of the four seasons, although their explanations vary.  Certainly a lot of things went badly wrong around that time, but which one ruined the show?  Was it the increasing amount of mysticism, where the first season's vague gestures at possible prophecy were turned into magic relic hunts reminiscent of Indiana Jones?  Or perhaps it was the heavy reliance in the third and fourth seasons on revelations about the Cyclons themselves and their own internal conflicts, which made them less simplistic but also seemed to devolve into squabbles?

I think that these and the other flaws of the second half of the run of BSG are directly attributable to a single cause: the increasingly desperate attempts of the writers to provide answers to their own questions.

From the start, BSG did a lot of things right.  The characters were interesting and could even be compelling, thanks to the initial decision to bring on the serious talent of veteran actors Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell, two choices whose ability diversified a cast that otherwise threatened to be almost entirely stock characters staffed with uninspired choices.  The simple dynamic of the early show - Cylons are coming to kill us, let's run like hell - provided a great opportunity to tell more complicated domestic stories and to hint at larger things.  Unfortunately, that hinting would eventually be Battlestar's downfall: the early show opens up a lot of questions, but doesn't answer them.

In BSG, the ancient prophecies of the priestess Pythia seem to foretell events, with a dying leader (McDonnell's cancer-ridden President Roslin) guiding a shattered people of the colonies to the legendary Earth of their long-lost origin.  It is hinted that this might be because of actual religious revelation, with divine guidance at work moving people about like pawns.  Or perhaps it is simply a combination of coincidence and practical knowledge from Pythia's own journey from Earth to the colonies.  This religious dimension, with the potential for the supernatural and divine intervention, is made even more tantalizing and complicated when you consider that the Cylons believe in a single god, rather than the human pantheon of Greek deities, and their spokesperson on the show (Tricia Helfer's sex kitten character, Caprica Six) also presents a convincing case for monotheistic interference.  It's an intriguing question.  Who is at work in the world of BSG: the gods, one god, or no one at all?

There were questions, too, about morality, right from the first season's discussion of the history of the Cylons.  Created and then oppressed by humans, the Cylons fled into space, only to return for the First Cylon War in an attempt to revenge themselves on their creators.  Lieutenant William Adama flew a combat fighter in that war and learned to hate his murderous robot enemy; decades later, BSG begins with Commander William Adama preparing for retirement, never having forgotten his hatred.  The show explores this personal grudge, as well as the cyclical nature of the conflict.  On several occasions, either the Cylons or the humans are presented with the opportunity to end the war by wiping out their enemy completely, and must sort through the complicated problems offered:  If they struck first, is it okay to annihilate them?  Can we afford not to decisively destroy them, or will we regret it?  Is it naive to pursue peace?  If we try to destroy them and fail, then haven't we just doomed our descendants to repeat this cycle?

All of these questions about vengeance and forgiveness fold naturally into a larger question about outcome: how will this all end?

Initially, this wasn't a complicated question.  How will this all end?  Well, probably humans will engage in a big climactic battle, defeat the Cylons, and settle down on the Earth that they've been seeking for so long.  The laws of television make this sort of thing almost inevitable: you need a dramatic conclusion to the show's arc, you need the villains to be visibly defeated, and you need a relatively happy ending.  And essentially, that is what happened.  But the four seasons of the show kept adding more and more other plot points and mysteries that needed a conclusion.  There were secret Cylons that not even the other Cylons knew about.  Who were they, and how did they get there?  There was a mythical Earth and a trail of breadcrumbs to follow from ancient times.  Did this mean that Earth was real and BSG was in the future?  A character has come back from the dead.  How did she, and what is she?  And, of course, Gaius Baltar had visions of Caprica Six right from the first episode: was she a delusion, an invasive piece of technology, or something else?

It's easy to ask these questions and hint at an organic and seamless resolution.  Viewers are naturally willing to accept that there is a big grand plan laid out somewhere, even though the writers actually worked things out as they went along.  And so the audience will watch the hints towards possible divine intervention and a tension between vengeance and forgiveness and all the thousand little plot threads and mysteries, and they will marvel at all this and wonder, "Wow, I wonder how this is all going to tie together?"  They assume that it all will, especially when one of the characters repeatedly assures another - and implicitly, the audience - that "God has a plan."  The writers are God, and we must believe they have a plan.

The same thing happened with Lost.  Created by J.J. Abrams, it was a spectacular hit for ABC: there was a time when it seemed like everyone was watching the show.  It ran from 2004 to 2010 for six seasons, and began to go sour halfway through.  Fans disagree on exactly when it peaked, but by the end of the show there was a lot of disgust, and the sentiment, "I just want to know how they're going to end it" was common.

The first season of Lost was a masterpiece.  Episode after episode, it kept getting better.  The cinematography, dialogue, clever plot lines, and gradual revelation of backstory was astonishing.  The characters were amazing, with Jack, Kate, Hurley, Said, Locke, and others all developing into full people and clashing with each other.  There is almost nothing bad that can be said about the first season of Lost - except, of course, that it would eventually lead to the other seasons.  The monster, the interlocking backgrounds of the characters, the conflict between destiny and free will that was the ideological center of the show, The Black Roc, the hatch, etc. - these were all strange and wonderful things that we discovered and wondered at.

It soon became a hallmark of the show that every mystery that was solved was replaced by six more.  The mystery of the hatch soon led to the mystery of the purpose of the station and the numbers and the previous occupant.  The mystery of the identity of the monster as a smoke creature led to the mystery of how/why it reads minds, how it is controlled, where it came from, etc.  And so on.  The mysteries stopped being wonderful.  They became frustrating.

The situation was the same for both shows, ultimately.  Both Battlestar Galactica and Lost played on the expectations of viewers, who believed that there must be some grand design at work rather than what there was: the semi-organized chaos of multi-year projects subject to the whims of production, cast, and criticism.  The writers of BSG didn't begin the series with the idea of a Final Five unseen Cylons, or the notion that everyone was a hidden Cylon agent (as 2/3 of the regular cast would eventually become).  The writers of Lost didn't have the saga of Jack and his mysterious father issues planned when they first started writing - in fact, the character of Jack was supposed to die early on, but his popularity meant he was retained and became central (the same thing would happen with the leader of the Others, malevolent mastermind Benjamin).  In both cases, the shows accrued countless mysteries and plotlines and problems, and in the end, well... no one could have wrapped it all up neatly.  They'd spent years painting a Magic Eye picture, and only at the end were they scrambling to work out the hidden image.

BSG tried to solve its problems with a very crude sort of deus ex machina.  Everything weird turned out to be the intervention of the monotheistic Cylon deity, which raises the interesting point that all human beings spent the whole time worshipping the wrong gods.  The mysterious circumstances that result in characters coming back to life, appearing in each other's thoughts, etc.?  Well, it was God.  Anything else that didn't make sense?  It was God.  And it was he who guides mankind to their final fate on our Earth, thousands of years ago, where they will destroy their technology to mix with the indigenous population and leave behind their ancestral sins.  It's a clumsy and completely unsatisfying resolution, and far too huge to be rushed through in the twenty minutes devoted to its explication.

Lost's conclusion is far worse, thanks to a plot that was infinitely more convoluted, but basically revolves around the idea that most of the characters died about 2/3 through the series and are now in purgatory.  While the obsessives at LostPedia classify almost all mysteries as "completely solved" in their scarily-detailed wiki, there was just too much to work through.  Unless you were a fanatic, you were going to feel that there was a lot unresolved, as can be seen in this video:



Even worse is the fact that the writers of the show had long been saying that the island wasn't purgatory - which might have been technically true (it didn't become purgatory until later in the show), but still feels like a stupid way to throw viewers off the track - what we in the literature business might call a "quibble" and everyone else might call "being a total asshole about it."  For a long time, people had seen all the elements and mysteries of the show and had concluded that there was no way it could all be tied together unless there was some supernatural legerdemain going on.  And they were right.  It took magic to make Lost make sense.

It might be fairly said that BSG and Lost took the easy way out.  They implicitly made big promises to the audience: that there was a plan and a design behind everything, that it would all make sense, that we weren't just watching a week-to-week show but a whole big complete story.  As the seasons wore on, their tried-and-true methodology started to get stale and overbuilt.  You can only introduce so many new secret Cylons before the audience decides that everyone is a Cylon.  You can only write in so many coincidences in the crash survivor's backstories before the audience decides that Jack's father is a friend, lover, or enemy of everyone on the planet.  The writers couldn't go back and couldn't change direction, so they just slammed a big hammy fist down in the way and declared that - effectively - it was all a dream.  Even if they had technically answered all those questions, it was a cheap and clumsy way to do it, and monstrously unsatisfying to an audience that needed an organic resolution.

That was the fatal flaw of Battlestar Galactica and Lost: they promised a completeness that they couldn't deliver.  They started off amazing in large part because of the mystique generated by this promise, but it also doomed their end.  So the next time a show comes around, jammed full of mysteries, remember: it's easy to ask the big questions, but hard to find the right answers.

3 comments:

  1. WOW. Thanks for letting me know I was vindicated in dropping Lost after the first season. I watched one or two episodes of Season 2, and when it became clear that, as you said, every mystery solved was replaced by six more, I gave up. And thank goodness. From what I've heard from you and others on the ending, I would have been pissed to have dropped that much time into such a letdown.

    Let's hope we never do anything this stupid in our own writing. :)

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  2. [frakking spoilers]

    While it would have ran aground of Charlton Heston-screaming-up-at-Lady Liberty convention, I was dearly hoping they'd terminate the final season at the half-way mark. They'd found the "Earth" they were looking for, but may had hoped they wouldn't find; it was suitably bleak and, particularly given the low-budget, compelling. Actually, when it first aired that was the point I stopped watching. Largely I was tired of their brand of Hot Pocket philosophy. Unfortunately I decided to return to that final season years later, and was greeted by the final episodes that were sheer nonsense... arguably even by Sy Fy standards, which is saying a lot.

    Never even bothered finishing Lost, so cheers for the write-up.

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  3. I personally feel as though BSG peaked at the escape from New Caprica. With hindsight, it would have been ideal to have ended things three or four episodes later, after a tense chase across the universe, culminating in some final decisive conflict.

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