The Lesson of Battlestar Galactica, Don't Change Your Characters

by Mike Shea on 23 March 2009

Warning: This post contains spoilers.

The final season of Battlestar Galactica is a great lesson to storytellers everywhere. If you're going to build a character-based show, a show whose story flows organically from the motivations and actions of your characters, don't radically shift those characters on a whim.

While Battlestar Galactica started to wane halfway through season 3, it didn't totally fall apart until the writers made their final big mistake: revealing the final five. Instead of choosing the option of a series reboot, revealing five new cylons outside the scope of what we've seen so far, they realized they painted themselves into a corner. If they reveal the final five from within the characters we know, they have to be a bigger deal than Boomer. So they chose five characters integral to the story: Tigh, Tyrol, Tory, Ellen Tigh, and Sam Anders.

The problem is that revealing these five characters as cylons changes almost all of the most powerful moments in the previous three seasons. Why does it matter if Tigh waged a terrorist campaign against the cylons on Caprica? How big a deal is it that Starbuck went back to Caprica to save Sam when he's a cylon? How powerful a moment is it when Tigh kills Ellen if it turns out that both of them were cylons and she resurrected anyway? So many moments became lost when they made that choice.

Instead, the writers could have chosen to expand the sphere. Bring in a new third party, something we have never seen before. Introduce the final five as some sort of super-advanced cylon that might even force the original cylons and the survivors of earth together to defeat it.

There were a lot of options open to the writers, but they chose to wreck their own work by committing a cardinal sin: changing the history of the story's major characters.

There are dozens of other problems that flowed from the show after the infamous boxing episode. Some of it, like the focus on pseudo-religious and political drama, might have been simply budgetary. Those big epic space battles are expensive. The rest of it can be aimed at an overworked writing staff whose creativity ran out before the money did.

It makes me very sad to write this. I loved this show. The disappointment of the direction it took makes me want to cry. It isn't uncommon though. We saw it with Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions. We saw it with Star Wars Episode 1, 2, and 3. Even in amazing shows like Deadwood the writers drop the ball because production schedules change and writers run out of good ideas.

For me, I plan to forget what happened after episode 308. I plan to ignore the final five story arc and remember the show before those decisions were made. It's a hard thing to do, but its the only way the show can survive for me.

And there will be other shows, I tell myself. Shows even greater than this.