Kill Your Television Series
Has there ever been a more death-haunted TV show than Battlestar Galactica? From the culture-annihilating sneak attack on its human colonies in the inaugural 2003 miniseries, to the appallingly routine "deaths" of its ostensibly villainous Cylons, to the various revenge murders, mercy killings, and quasi-suicides of its incidental and crucial characters, BSG is saturated in mortality.
Including, now, its own. The gruelingly drawn-out hiatus between the two halves of its final season finally ended with the premiere of new episodes in mid-January, but they marked a bittersweet return. This batch of 10 or so entries is the series' last gasp, and an opportunity for creators Ronald Moore and David Eick to make good on their assertion that the show had a beginning, middle, and end built in from the start. Such concessions—that fictional narratives, like life, operate on a limited timeline and have an unavoidable endpoint—are rare in American TV, and wrapping up BSG's arc once and for all (or revealing the "'Who Shot J.R.' of it all," as Moore recently put it) is a final nose-thumbing step for a series that's thrived on them.
That doesn't make the looming prospect of a BSG-less TV landscape any less painful, but it's not like we weren't warned; Moore and Eick have been laying the groundwork for its climax for some time. By Season 4.0, which ended last June with arguably the bleakest cliffhanger in television history, and in the SciFi.com "webisodes" that bridged the gap until Season 4.5 began, a new and intense sense of urgency prevailed, signaled largely by an abundance of ticking clocks. Not just metaphorical ones, either—those have been a TV drama staple since Kraft Television Theatre first aired in 1947—but genuine instrument-panel countdowns upon which whole episodes, notably "Faith" and the half-season capper "Revelations," pivoted. (BSG was no stranger to this device: its first post-miniseries episode, "33," revolves around a doozy of a ticking clock.)
For a series that relies on the flexibility and robust risk tolerance of its fans, among whom number several national TV critics, yours truly, and apparently the married half of Throbbing Gristle, BSG has hosted more than a few such shopworn TV tropes. Alongside those prodigious beat-the-clock gambits add steel-nerved starship commanders, crusty old doctors, protracted will-they-or-won't-they romances, and characters who die and come back to life (Bobby Ewing, anyone?).
James Parker lumped such flourishes in with the symptoms of an "extended-run high-concept TV series in its decadent phase" (I guess he means that as a bad thing) in the latest issue of The Atlantic, but he clearly hasn't been paying attention. In truth, Moore and Eick have been antagonizing fan and critic expectations this way from day one, and in BSG they've habitually, strategically, and self-reflexively employed old sci-fi and soap opera saws the way oilfield firefighters use nitroglycerin. In this light, those ticking clocks function as virtual counter-clichés: they simultaneously remind the BSG faithful that a show into which they've invested time, energy, and emotion is nearing its self-inflicted end, and break with television's venal habit of denying the passage of time. In that sense, the Cylons' circular, oft-repeated mantra—"All this has happened before, and it will happen again"—serves as a meta-acknowledgment of series TV's temporal limitations and an expression of Moore and Eick's determination to buck the trend.
Granted, when the show was getting its footing in the first season and a half it had the open-ended quality of something that could go on for as long as the SciFi channel, producers, and cast were game and people would watch. But the clock began ticking in earnest about halfway through Season 2 with the appearance of BSG's true harbinger of death, the Battlestar Pegasus and its nihilistic, bloodthirsty crew—a narrative fulcrum that culminated in season 4.0's dramatic shift in the prismatic relationship of BSG's dual species. The Cylons forfeited their ability to resurrect in its penultimate episode, "The Hub," and thus finally submitted to the yokes of time and death, while the humans—or the most desperate contingent of them anyway— took a step toward virtual immortality by embracing the proto-Evangelical philosophy of ass-covering messiah Gaius Baltar). Too bad this switcheroo couldn't alter the fact that the goal both races were striving for, Earth, turned out to be as dead as BSG itself was about to be.
Battlestar Galactica isn't the first show to expire gracefully of its own volition, of course. In the 1970s, ABC's metaphysically inclined martial-arts sock-'em-up Kung Fu cashed in after just three seasons with the conclusion of its hero's—or at least its star's—daddy issues, while The Fugitive's Richard Kimble finally ran his one-armed nemesis to ground after four seasons in 1967. (A purely observational theory: three to four years is all any TV series needs to say what it has to say.)
The robust creative control cable TV series producers like Moore and Eick have, due in large part to a lack of FCC control, has only strengthened this trend. Shawn Ryan's dirty-cop epic The Shield, for example, wrapped up its seven-season arc (so much for my theory) very satisfyingly last fall. Prior to that was David Simon's season-long finale of The Wire—clumsily conceived and redundant though it was—and The Sopranos' (in)famous nonending ending, in which creator David Chase simply killed the ignition mid-episode. Two other well-regarded shows, Weeds and Friday Night Lights, seem destined to conclude their storylines with integrity intact relatively soon, and if not for some sloppy dealmaking, David Milch's prematurely cancelled Deadwood and John From Cincinnati would've done the same. It's even been announced that network outlier Lost will climax in 2011, though it'll likely take that show's entire staff until late 2010 to unravel all its plot knots and discern some sort of conclusion, logical or otherwise.
On the flipside are network television's walking dead, the decade-plus-spanning series like ER (a true dinosaur that will finally flatline this February after an inconceivable 14 years on the air), Beverly Hills 90210, The X-Files, Knots Landing, Hawaii Five-O, and Dallas—the latter of which Moore admires, and which promises to inform his BSG prequel series Caprica later this year. In these wizened warhorses, which limped along under the steam of fan complacency, advertiser bucks, and big payoffs in syndication, story and character development became moot in favor of lucrative longevity. Talk about a decadent phase: the Ewing saga, for instance, repeatedly brought its clinically depressed clan to the brink of emotional fulfillment over its 13 years, but inevitably backed off to keep the franchise breathing. As a result Dallas began to devour itself through repetition about five years in, and eventually saw fit to have one of its characters dream an entire season—which, alas, was as played out as the two or three, um, real ones that preceded it. "All this has happened before, and it will happen again" indeed.
Just as its many deaths are messy and have lingering consequences, the notion of deathlessness—including, implicitly, the immortality of those indefinite-term franchise cash cows like Dallas—is shown as anything but desirable in BSG. And content follows context: the synthetic, human-made Cylons' ability to download into new bodies post-mortem and ad infinitum only doomed them to a hollow, unenlightening cycle of rage, confusion, and despair, while the show's all-too-mortal humans leapt headlong into a purgatorial loop of victimization and violent revenge literally of their own making.
In the end, the choice for TV auteurs appears to be the same one BSG's individual characters and divided, yin-yang species face in its final half-season: to fade away slowly and witlessly or go quickly on their own terms. Then again, the show began back in 2003 with an existential query—"Are you alive?"—that's been repeated and paraphrased in various episodes throughout its run, and, like season 4.5's initial episodes, suggests a third option. There's more death to come, no doubt, but BSG's finale seems to be edging tentatively toward some sort of equivocally affirmative answer to its opening question. Just as it recedes into television history, then, Battlestar Galactica is also coming to life. How's that for death with dignity?
Mark Holcomb is a contributor to Time Out New York, and has written for The Village Voice, Film Quarterly, and other publications. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.More articles by Mark Holcomb