Thursday, April 02, 2009

Illusions of Truth: Storytelling in Battlestar Galactica

Just to add to my lengthy commentary on the finale of Battlestar Galactica, a tweet from Amazo Paul Cornell took me a wonderful collection of comments about BSG from established writers and journalists. Each author offers his reaction to the finale and ponders where they'd have taken the show if they were the creative mastermind behind it. Some polarised views there, but one strand of thinking is prevalent throughout - and that's the problems in writing a show with a fluid future; where nothing is set and everything is in flux.

I think this is a particular problem with BSG given the show states from the start that - within its fictional universe - the enemy "has a plan". This infers the storyteller has conceived a concise narrative prior to the story when in the case of Battlestar Galactica, it does not.

There is no doubt that while a pre-constructed formula to any story is technically constrictive and unbending to new ideas, but for an audience it carries a comfortable hierarchy with the storyteller - we like to feel a world is real even if its conceived, and our brains prefer that conception to have been molded before we embark on a tale. Bottomline, we like to be lead on a journey rather than taking the journey hand in hand. We prefer the storyteller to have control of the whole experience rather than in the case of BSG (or at least to some extent), a pawn to the eddies created by the story.

A rather general overview I admit - particularly in the aspersions to the BSG creative process which, to little surprise, I played no part in. Speaking generally again, a clear benefit of a a fluid storyline is the ability to expand and contract on what works and what doesn't as the story grows. Furthermore, the creative process is exciting and dynamic - it can respond to the notions and ideas of the audience and shift, staying one step ahead. So I'm certainly not berating such an approach to storytelling. If we look at BSG again, the shifts in season three seem to me to very much be based on where the show has been and an effort to find places it hasn't - and I think New Caprica and the Final Five were a brilliant way to re-engage the audience after two seasons. I think this is the strength of fluid storytelling - it allows the story maker to let the show progress at its own pace rather than a preplanned one. I recall RDM saying he was happy bringing the show to an end after four rather than five seasons because he felt the show had naturally covered its ground quicker than they'd anticipated.

Equally, while I'm not looking to berate the fluid approach, I'm not looking to champion structure. Look at Babylon 5, when the show was uncertain whether it would get its year 5 on its pre-planned arc, it was forced to compress the structured storyline into one season leaving season four feeling overtly compressed with two major cumulative wars and season five rather vacuous.

I would say the best work (as with all things) finds a middle ground, one where the storyteller has a plan and his willing to reinvent it if needs be. With Moore's show, I think that middleground is lost. Certainly they seemed to have a flavour of what's to come, but I felt in season four that some of the resolutions didn't match the notions that presented them. And one can't help feel that when you walk the fluid path, you let the show help dictate the outcome more than pre-formed structure. In other words, you create the impact then worry about the aftermath when it comes time and in the interim watch the story flow carefully letting that help inform the creative process.

That all being said, I think many of the critics in the linked page are overtly critical, forgetting that the niggles are not what BSG was about - it was about characters (which arguably is the opposite of Moore's previous work on Star Trek which was infamous for technobabble and crossing its tees). So I think certain fixations in the responses to BSG are unfair and largely irrelevant. Those who wanted a big expose on the Head Six or Starbuck's mystery should have sensibly seen that such ethereal revelations would be tonally impossible. The show was never about definitives and like life, tried to keep things grey. There was never going to be big explanations aside from one: God Moves In Mysterious Ways.

And I like that. The ambiguity and almost arbitrary love/hate the universe has for its souls, and the process it leads them is as inconclusive and as uncertain as theology has painted in a dozen cultures. How often as the Lord in the Old Testament acted in a way that for an omnipotent being been considered rather elaborate or needlessly pedestrian. Why did God put that particular fruit tree in Eden? Why did he seem surprised when Man took a bite from his fruit? Why was he not aware of the serpent's plans? He's omnipotent isn't he? And like theology, BSG's higher powers work in odd unexplained ways. Starbuck's narrative journey is extremely non-sensical (as Saxon points out in the article), but that seems very theological to me. From my understanding, gods in most religions rarely move directly from A to B, but prefer a more colourful and memorable route.

But I guess the real crux of these negative comments isn't whether as an audience we can "buy" these explanations, but a resentment to knowing they were never planned and as such we wonder whether there was the opportunity to do something better.

I think people are open to improvised storytelling - I'm certainly not against the medium, but I think unfortunately Moore's candid remarks on the fluid approach to the show worked against the show itself. His professional honesty was both commendable and insightful but practically it did damage the credibility of the story itself. For example, I thought some of the choices for the Final Five were very clever when the finale to season three aired. We'd seen Tyrol's connection to Boomer, his irrational fear of being a Cylon exposed with Brother Cavel and his instincts bringing him to the Temple of the Five. As soon as I discovered than none of that was planned to lead us to him being a Cylon, but was retrospective in its decision, the twist lost its impact. I still loved the twist and the impact of the revelation, but it did lose some of its sparkle. I guess we can cope with being hoodwinked by the mysteries of the narrative - in fact its what we watch for; we enjoy the anticipation of the big reveal. But we don't enjoy being hoodwinked by the smart retrospective eye of the writers - despite the fact it presents a different and no less impressive approach to creative writing. Both approaches look to find creative solutions to creative problems. Both approaches are manipulative in intent, but one we find it easier to stomach one technique over another.

Overall this approach never truly spoilt the show for me. After all, however they resolved the Final Five, that scene when the five were revealed will always be magical. And given the mandate of any television serial is to entertain in the moment and not to create perfect continuity nor even a perfect seamless serial, I think BSG was wise to involve fluidity into its process.

After all, audiences look more and more for story arcs within their television, yet the industry remains ever cutthroat to dips in performance. Maybe fluidity is the key to keeping a show relevant, adaptive and thereby responsive to its viewers. Maybe by on-the-spot tailoring of a show's masterplan will the epic remain relevant. While Babylon 5 managed to luck out on five seasons, it could be considered the success was a commercial fluke against the many odds. Perhaps BSG's successes and failures mark the future of epic fictional television storywriting. Pitching a show with a five year arc is not going to woo any investor, but pitching a show where your long term arc is as expansive as the viewing figures dictate - that sounds like the future of television and I look forward to seeing new shows build on BSG successes and failures just as BSG did on the sci-fi epic success of Babylon 5. The future is indeed, bright.

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