Battlestar Galactica’s Loose Change

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Or, a look at good and bad storytelling techniques.

I just finished watching this week’s episode of Battlestar Galactica and I felt compelled to make a bit of a comment on it. If you haven’t seen the episode yet I advise not reading any further as it’s basically impossible to talk about this subject without bringing up things of a spoiler-ish nature.

More below the cut…

This week’s episode involves the appearance of a pilot flying a Cylon raider. As it turns out, this pilot was supposedly part of a black-ops mission conducted by Adama three years ago in narrative time (I suppose this puts it about one year before the Cylon attacks, although I’m not sure about the dates). The black-ops mission involved sending a “stealth” ship across an armistice line to search for Cylon activity. In other words, this episode attempts to “spring” a new take on the initial Cylon attack by suggesting that the Cylons were merely responding to the hostile actions of the colonial admiralty.

This sort of episode is nothing new to Battlestar Galactica. The second season in particular had a number of episodes consisting primarily or entirely of flashbacks. And while this isn’t universally a bad technique, it’s kind of important to at least foreshadow to a reader/viewer that there are things going on that they don’t know about so that a flashback to a revelation doesn’t come out of the blue. The second season had an episode (Black Market, I believe) that delved into flashbacks with the Lee character and revealed that he had been having an affair offscreen throughout the entire first season and most of the second season, an affair that dealth with deep emotional issues involving the death of his fiance and his son and his own contemplation of suicide. In other words, it was not credible at all to believe that the Lee Adama we had been shown throughout the series to that point had been all along half wishing to kill himself and wracked with despair and regret.

Now, this current episode is a bit of good and a bit of bad. I think a flashback can be useful insofar as it advances a plot. And, in the case of this episode, the conflict between Bill Adama and Tigh is advanced. However, it’s also not really credible to me that (a) the viewer is given no hint of any such event occurring, as it’s rather important for placing the story in context, and (b) that Adama has acted all this time as he has with knowledge of this event but without mentioning or hinting at it in any way. The whole thing smacks of contrivance and intentional deception of the reader/viewer in the worst possible way.

There are genres of literature or movies that work entirely off of the idea of having a “big reveal” at the end that allows readers/viewers to piece together all the disjointed bits of information and discover the truth. Take a look at The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, The Usual Suspects, or any number of other movies. All of these examples take a rather limited perspective of following one individual or listening to one individual’s story. Now in a story like this no individual will have a complete picture, and thus the reader will not have a complete picture either. They will, however, be able to trust that the information they are presented with is correct in a certain subjective sense.

Presentation of information is used in these examples to create confusion or misdirection. What Battlestar Galactica asks us to do is to trust the “authors” of Battlestar Galactica as trustworthy sources of information when they had been intentionally withholding information that characters knew and, to some extent or another acted upon, for three years.

In essence, we can’t even trust anything we know anymore because the authors of Battlestar have decided it would be a good idea to retcon everything we have learned to this point. What’s next? Maybe the Cylons are really just figments and the whole thing is just a dream in the head of Gaius Baltar?

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