Everything happens for a reason (including things that happen for no reason)

The new Battlestar Galactica, recently concluded, was a terrific show — a consistently gripping drama first, a science-fiction adventure (distantly) second. For four years it delivered countless memorable moments and performances; it caused us to mull deep questions; and it left us unable to wait for each new episode.

Last week the final episode of the series aired amid promises that the story’s mysteries and loose ends would be resolved; but that isn’t precisely what happened. For the finale, the show took a sharp turn from gripping to baffling.

As ever, the character aspect of the show was front and center for the final episode, but unlike the four years that preceded it, this time it came at the expense of the plot. Here’s what I wrote about it in an e-mail exchange with my friend Maggie:

Long ago on Usenet, the awesome Internet film critic Mark Leeper wrote, about Bonfire of the Vanities,

…a comedy that ends with some dignified character summing up the film and making a sermon for more “decency” at the end has a hard time being all good either. In the 1950s and 1960s a Spencer Tracy or perhaps a Henry Fonda could sermonize and it would work. Here it is like getting to the bottom of an ice cream sundae and finding a chunk of prime rib.

I had the reverse sensation on seeing the end of BSG. It was like enjoying a really juicy steak for four years and discovering, only after popping it in your mouth, that the last bite — the one you wanted most to savor — is made of cotton candy.

Her reaction was stronger, she replied; she felt betrayed. So I composed the reply that follows — which will make sense only if you’ve seen the series, and of course it includes spoilers.

Feeling betrayed too, I’m casting about for a rationalization that can impose some sense on the finale, and I think I’m zeroing in on one.

First, look at things from [show creator] Ron Moore’s point of view. Whatever you think of his ability to structure a mythos, you have to acknowledge that in this age of globally connected obsessive fan groups, you don’t stand a chance of pulling off a legitimate surprise ending. To be legitimate requires your having planted clues, and you can be sure that the fan base will have located every clue, determined every permutation of which clues matter and which are red herrings, and constructed from them every possible ending long before the actual ending airs.

So what do you do, if you’re Ron Moore? Either you have to be cleverer than everyone else put together, which he’s not — or you go meta.

So you create the idea that there is a god, or there are gods, or some other force in the universe that takes an active hand in guiding events; you assert this force has a plan, we just don’t know what it is; you allow this force occasionally to populate the universe with persons who are needed to move things along, even if they have no right being there per the usual rules; and you claim that the motivations of this force are beyond the usual human concepts of good and evil.

In fact, “God’s” motivation appears to be exactly that of the audience: to be entertained. To that end, God — that is, we (and by extension, the writers) — will subject our most beloved characters to depredations horrifying and humiliating; we’ll even kill them off. It’s not good or evil, it’s entertainment! For the sake of entertainment, God — we — will create a holocaust. Never mind exactly why it happens, we just want to see how everyone will react. We’ll bring a character back from the dead, spaceship and all — not because it makes sense, but because it wouldn’t be as entertaining without her.

So Ron Moore = God, and he has a plan, and we just don’t know what it is. The fact that he doesn’t either just makes it more meta.

2 thoughts on “Everything happens for a reason (including things that happen for no reason)”

  1. Ok, so I wrote up a huge 6-paragraph reply to this, but have decided it might be more interesting to just throw out the hypothesis that I came up with at the end:

    This is a serious exaggeration, but it seems to me that the readers who grew up on a steady diet of science fiction/fantasy literature have a fairly high tolerance for plot inconsistencies and inexplicable character transformations. People who grew up reading mysteries, on the other hand, use those types of clues to figure out whodunnit–having an understanding of who, what, when, where and why is pivotal to their whole experience–so they have a much harder time suspending their disbelief when a story morphs under them. SciFi-oriented folks tend to focus more on ideas and situations, mystery-oriented folks on plots and characters. The works of literature that manage to contain all of them are usually considered classics and are enjoyed universally. This is a gross oversimplification (the SciFi/mystery division was meant to illustrate a type of orientation rather than what people actually read as children), but do you think maybe it helps explain it?

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