Having spent a fairly sleepless night last night, realised I have a case in point for what happens when there is too much plot in a piece of media, and things get too wrapped up in their own narrative rather than let it emerge organically, a problem which can drive authors to very predictable plotlines, but isn’t just limited to plots, and a case where I think it was done just right in terms of amount of overarching narrative. These shows are the rebooted Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Maybe it’s something to do with how they were originally broadcast (DS9 was written for syndication originally whereas BSG had a very definite home in the Sci-Fi Channel), but the shows had very different in the way they approached their overall stories.
DS9 had an occasional “storyline” episode, amid a sea of more incidental (I might say “episodic”, but that would be cheap) episodes, which allowed the status quo of the story to be expressed without being driven forward onto something different. This allowed for the various plot-related elements (such as Bajor’s Prophets, the various station romances, the nature of the Dominion or who Garak really was) to be stated and elaborated again and again without necessarily being advanced. As said, this may be due to the syndication model needing slow advancement as there was no way of knowing which episode an audience would be watching, and in an age before DVD box sets and catch-up TV it would be rare for an audience to catch episodes they’d missed. Whatever the cause, the effect was a plot that moved gradually, without the viewer needing to see every episode to join the dots, but the additional character enrichment for those who did were still valuable, just not plot-critical.
Contrast with Galactica, where there’s plot advancement in every episode, so if you miss one you have to go back and catch up, despite the several minutes of “previously on Battlestar Galactica…” every time. Ideas that merited long-term effects, like President Roslin’s “playing the religious card” or Chief Tyrell’s appointment as the union rep for the fleet, were brought up as the resolution or key part of one particular episode and then dropped and never really mentioned again.Their long-term effects on the characters were never explored because the plot didn’t allow them to be, because there was always something else happening that needed to be explained or they wouldn’t reach the right point of narrative development before the plot demanded they be ignored to fit in the next crucial point. The sad thing is that the next point may well be character-related, due to the studio’s manta that “it’s the characters, stupid” driving things (which it wasn’t, but we’ll get to that in a bit). This led to inconsistent characters, acting one way to express their relation to the other characters, and another way to drive the episode’s plot forward. While this is a good thing for the portrayal of some characters (like Baltar), in others it seems that they’re so flexible that their personal interests and inclination have no bearing on their actions (like Lee Adama).
I think that the second half of season 4 of BSG needs a special mention here, as it seems to cut off a lot of the show’s established behaviours and start its own merry trail that it then needs to wrap up far too quickly. Having reached the previous “Earth” to discover an irradiated wasteland, they then decide to up sticks and leave again, culminating in a messy struggle for Hera and a panic jump that just so happens to lead to actual Earth. This while sorting out the “truth of the opera house” (magnificently executed, it must be said), what on earth happened to the earth they’re on, how human-cylon relations (in both diplomatic and personal senses) will work, the purpose of the Final Five, killing off Laura Roslin and working out what the hell Kara Thrace is/was. All this in the last ten episodes. This would have been plenty of fodder for a whole series worth of slow-burn character and setting development in someting like DS9, but they also introduce a mutiny, a ton of unnecessary flashbacks, and the kidnapping of the metaphysical linchpin of both races to squeeze into the last BSG episodes as well. Watching them and trying to keep up with all the narrative threads was pretty exhausting.
While it can be argued that the more incidental elements of DS9 weren’t too possible in BSG without having a “planet of the week”-esque feature, which the show was applauded for leaving behind, I think it could quite easily have gone into the political events and daily lives of the fleet, and how these impacted the day-to-day running of the fleet when the cylons weren’t around breathing down their necks. It would have allowed breathing space to get a feel for the characters outside of the plots, without feeling the need to drive “character” as such. The show suffered, I feel, from too much narrative, which meant that the stories were rushed through, and characters given too little chance to develop.