Red Right Hand: BATTLESTAR GALACTICA 304
*He is not a secret agent. Not at all.

 

BATTLESTAR GALACTICA 304

The writer's malady is that you eventually lose some of your ability to just sit back and enjoy something without analyzing it (and usually finding fault). I don't usually do this. I can generally get through the first viewing of anything without "thinking" about it (if I couldn't, I wouldn't be able to watch Prison Break). I just enjoy the ride (because that is the point). On a second or third viewing , if not the second the end credits roll, I start looking at things. I generally look at how things are functioning and why and not so much at what I might have done differently. If it was different, it wouldn't be what it is (if I may get a little discount Zen on you) and it frequently starts some dominoes to fall. There was a scene in Battlestar Galactica: "Exodus, Part Two" that did make me think about doing it differently and how it would change the way things fall. I decided to explore this a little and look at a couple of other things while I'm at it.

SPOILER ALERT

If you're going to try to read this post, you will simply have to have seen this episode. If you don't watch the show, I'm kinda wondering why you even come here. It's fantastic TV and great writing...and for aspiring writers, the podcast commentaries make this show a real education. Speaking of which...

Ron Moore's commentary on "Exodus, Part Two"

Episode written by
David Weddle & Bradley Thompson

I watched this episode of Battlestar Galactica twice, for a specific reason, but I would probably have rewatched this one anyway. It was good. Not that "oh, this is so-well crafted" good, but the "damn, that was kewl!" good. With the k and the w and everything.

The second viewing came at a friend's house as we had about 45 minutes to kill before meeting up with some people and he hadn't seen it yet. In watching it, I came to view the last scene of the teaser and first scene of act one a little differently than I had before. While I would have come to the same thought eventually, I think it's worth noting that I came to it now because I was watching it with someone who hadn't seen it yet and I had. When this happens, I often start thinking about how the other person is perceiving the scene. Are they seeing things differently than I had? Are they seeing the telegraph I didn't or vice versa? This, however, is not the point.

The point is about writing choices. I thought about how differently Saul's poisoning of Ellen would have played had Anders come to him about handling Ellen after he'd already taken care of the matter. As it plays, with Anders making the point that it would be better for her if Saul takes care of it himself, the first scene back becomes fairly obvious. I like a little element of the unexpected. It's wrong to say that something has to have that element to be good. It's still a fantastic scene. The difference is how you view that death. With an element of surprise, you're either close to Ellen's viewpoint (or right in it if you choose to believe she knows it's coming) or you're the fly. Knowing what Saul's going to do puts you more in his position. You are better able to empathize with him (though my viewing partner had a more cheerful reaction to the events). A little bit of the-journey-not-the-destination, you know.

I would have written it with Anders coming in after the poisoning. I think Saul was resigned to doing it before Anders spoke to him, so I don't think I needed the scene to push him into action. I want to put the viewer through a different ride in Saul's head. Two rides. How does he react when Ellen tells him all the things she's done for him, including the things he didn't already know about? The poisoning comes as a more unexpected thing and gives the scene a second layer in review. Anders coming in after shows us that he didn't do it from anger, but from mercy and so is still needed.

Scene order isn't just about plot or continuity.

Another thing I want to hit in this episode is writing scenes without actors (in the conventional sense). Most shows, you just don't get to do this. In "Exodus, Part 2," there's a scene that relies on effects, but is intercut with actors (Galactica's descent into the atmosphere). Another scene...or shot...is entirely CGI (though preceded by a great Adama moment) and that's the one I'm looking at now. That's when the lone Battlestar, Galactica, is besieged by four basestars, taking hits from every angle and rocking with every impact. Slowly we pull away as the barrages become worse. We know that Pegasus will come to the rescue, but we keep pulling away until Galactica is very small and very damaged and in that striking shot, that one second, we consider (and this draws a little on the show's record of doing the unexpected) that maybe Galactica really is done for. Then that missile spins in from off-screen ahead of Pegasus.

There's a few elements at work here. The metahistory of the show for one. When you watch a show and they zig time after time, the zig becomes the zag and the zag is now zig (or other way around). It's the art of using the viewer's second-guessing you against him or herself. Can you use this in a spec script? I wouldn't advise it. Your spec is not the show and using a zig as a zag just comes off as a zig. If the show you spec usually zigs, then just zig. Or, you know, zag for zag.

There are, of course, actors in this scene. They're just not of the sort that appear on the screen and speak lines or express with their faces and bodies. The effects artists and editors have all the responsibility. Timing is crucial here, and you can't really script timing. You can try, but it's completely out of your hands. That's something worth remembering as you write. There's a lot that's out of your hands, no matter what you write.

The scene is what it is not because of the writer, but because of everyone who comes into contact with it.

Now, that Galactica descent scene. It reminds us that for all the emotion and the clever dialogue and the turns of plot, there's not much that can match up the just doing a really cool trick. My co-viewer had much the same reaction I did as the red-hot Galactica dropped like a brick through the atmosphere of New Caprica. "It can't fly in an atmosphere, can it? Naw!" The Vipers scream out of the smoking behemoth and we realize that the Galactica is by no means flying and is about to crush the "city" below like a big burning brick.


Adama gives the order.

"Jump."

My Gods, as Roslin might say. That was just cool for the sake of being cool and there is indescribable value in that. Anyone who didn't at least lurch in their seat, if not jump out of it, on the sheer awesome of that moment is dead inside. As much as writers might want to be able to get the moment of truth or whatever you want to call it in a story, equally as difficult and as noble a goal is to get that visceral reaction you only get from just doing...something...cool. Sometimes you can do it with words. Sometimes not so much.

Moving the viewer should be taken literally as much as figuratively.
©2016 Michael Patrick Sullivan