Friday, February 13, 2009

Mark Verheiden on Writing

On his blog, BSG co-exec producer Mark Verheiden reveals some insights into the process of writing for Battlestar Galactica:

There's been some discussion in the ether about how shows evolve, occasionally punctuated with the criticism that the writers and producers are "making it up as they go." That meme strikes me as bizarre. Of course we make it up as we go, that's what writing is all about. In the case of BSG we always had a destination in mind, but there was plenty of room for inspiration and mid-course correction, based on a myriad of factors.

A small case in point occurred during the breaking and writing of the episodes "Oath" and "Blood On The Scales." While writing the script for "The Oath", it struck me that it might be interesting/dramatic if one of our main characters suffered a dramatic set-back in the course of the mutiny. The moment wasn't in the outline, but as I was writing I considered adding a beat where Col. Tigh was shot and badly wounded during the scene when he and Adama confront the Marines escorting them to the brig.

Sometimes on BSG you could just give this sort of thing a try, but blasting a character like Tigh had ramifications for other episodes (obviously), so I checked in with Ron Moore before actually doing it. He understood the impulse to up the tension and to create even more stakes for Adama, but he felt Tigh had been through so much (eyeball gouged out, poisoned own wife, discovered he was a Cylon) that shooting him would have been overkill. But the idea of having one of the final five seriously wounded? That idea stuck...

And so poor Samuel T. Anders wound up being "shot in the cabeza" (as the scene was described in the writer's room) in "Blood On The Scales." And that plot development... well, now we're getting into spoilers for episodes that haven't aired yet.

Read Mark's full post on how stories evolved on BSG.

Mark also notes that the film that he wrote, MY NAME IS BRUCE is now available on DVD and Blu-ray, so check it out.


Pedda said...

Thanks for the link. It's always fascinating to catch a glimpse into BSG's writing process.

I understand the pratical and creative need to be flexible when it comes to medium-sized character arcs like "Who is wounded?", and I appreciate the creativity and art that results from this freedom.

However, I feel Mark's post does not really address what most people primarily mean when they complain that the writers are "making it up as they go". This isn't about a couple scenes of one individual character.

It's about the fabric, the mechanics and the premise of the show - key pillars such as the nature of the Cylons, their plan and where they come from, the nature of the Humans and where they come from, the role of destiny or the entity that is guiding the events, the meaning of Hera, the nature Kara.

Again, I understand why it is often necessary and often beneficial to tweak the meanings and interdependencies of all these elements. But like many other devoted, involved fans I wonder if the meanings and interdependencies presented in the final season bear much resemblance to what was established, implied, and most importantly, relied on, in the early years.

I mean, I couldn't give a frak about inconsistencies or retcons (like Adama's fleet career or the exact time of the exodus, I really don't care) - as long as the writers don't base crucial plot points on both the original and the changed state of this particular element.

Which is exactly what seems to have happened to some very important notions about the nature and meaning of Humans, the Sig7, the Final Five, "the plan", the inevitability of certain events, and so on. Add to that a very large number of character retoolings occurring in the late third or early fourth season (weren't the F5 a McGuffin for 20 episodes?).

That's where a good deal of the general frustration comes from.

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CoE said...

@ Pedda

I see the point you're making and I can definitely see how it applies to a show like Lost or Heroes, but I can't really understand how it relates to BSG. When I watch the series as a whole, everything that they said was going to happen in Season 1 is now happening in Season 4. They haven't changed course, they're doing exactly what they set up in the beginning. You may not have realized all the implications at the time, but it doesn't mean they've changed course. Go back and pay special attention to everything Head 6 tells Baltar in the first season and you basically have an outline for what's currently taking place.

I feel like the characters have progressed realistically. They are not the same people they were when they started, but all of the changes that have occurred in their characters have occurred because of major, life changing events that have shaped them or re-molded their perceptions of the world they live in. That's not making it up as they go, that's showing a realistic depiction of what really happens to people - they change. Things happen that challenge their understanding and they adjust themselves accordingly.

I don't see where they've set something up in an earlier season and then contradicted it. Sure, we didn't know who the Final 5 were at the beginning and the creation of their mythology may have been fleshed out when the writers realized they painted themselves in a corner by only showing 7 out of 12 cylons for so long, but the existence of the F5 in no way contradicts anything they'd already set up about the S7. They aren't from the same group, but they are connected by the fact that they are all cybernetic lifeforms. Information about one doesn't negate information about the other.

The Kobol exodus, 13th tribe threads already existed in the mythology (from Season 1), so the revelation that "cylons" existed before the ones created on the 12 colonies doesn't disrupt anything that was already set up, but gaining that knowledge did add another dimension and depth to the information that we already knew, causing us to go back and look at those details with fresh eyes. But that doesn't have to mean they're "making it up as they go along", just that they aren't giving us all the information up front, but slowly trickling it out so we gain a more rounded vision over time, which is an indispensable writing technique, not something to be nitpicked.

I hear a lot of people complaining about "the plan" and never knowing what it was or what happened to it, but I can't really take those people very seriously because it says right in the show what the plan was and why the plan isn't in effect anymore. The plan was to destroy humanity, learn to procreate naturally and take their place as the new children of God. But they abandoned it when Caprica 6 and Boomer essentially sparked a revolution in the cylon consciousness. The cylons had a plan, but life got in the way of their plans. That's just the way things are. They had preconceived notions when they made their plan and when they finally got there, they realized that they based their ideas on something they didn't really understand firsthand.

All the mystical's been there since the beginning. Head 6 has been around since the miniseries. People have been having visions since the beginning. Pythia has been strangely prophetic since the beginning. Leoben has "seen the patterns" since the beginning.

So I'm not really seeing where things are made up as they go along. They have a general direction in mind and they fill in the details when the time comes to have to fill in the details. Sometimes new ideas pop up in that time, but that's the nature of creativity.

If you could give some specific examples, maybe it'd give me a better idea where you're coming from.

Tighclops said...

To be honest, I feel like alot of the frustration directed at the way writers have changed, altered, or just plain rebooted various basic concepts of the show comes from a desire for predictable television.

Many (read: Most) shows on TV create a general format and stick to that format throughout their run. Shows hailed for their incredible writing and detailed preplanned story arcs (such as Lost, Heroes, Babylon 5... the list goes on) are often even more guilty of this than your average TV show. That's often the criticism of those shows - they seem formulaic, and events feel forced because the writers have some specific goal they are trying to achieve.

BSG, on the other hand, deviates from this model. While it isn't fair to say the show is completely nonformulaic (and in fact the episodes often hailed as the shows best are the ones that are "BSG-by-numbers" to some extent - see 33, Act of Contrition / You Can't Go Home Again) the writers have shown a willingness to completely snap our notions of what BSG is "supposed" to be. Sometimes this works well, like in the New Caprica arc. Sometimes it doesn't - see the criticisms of the Maelstrom arc for that opinion.

In the end, I think the anger stems because people had certain expectations for how a storyline would develop / what the basic rules for the show and the characters are - and BSG broke those expectations when they rewrote those rules. So I guess I understand the criticism.

But I feel very, very sorry for you because you are missing out on enjoying an amazing piece of television.

Pedda said...

Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

Both of you are certainly right in implying that a show that changes (and all good shows change, and thank god BSG is not a procedural) risks alienating those vierwers who've grown too attached to how things were in the old days, er, seasons. And I cannot deny this is one of the reasons why I feel Season 4 is one of the boldest in terms of its themes (convergence of the races, brutal forgiveness, the consequences of stifling dissent) - but one of the weakest in terms of execution.

The point is, had I watched the seasons in reverse order, I'd probably just as pissed - but not because S1 is the weakest, but because characters, concepts and notions and most importantly "rules" have changed and awful lot.

By the way, let me emphasize how much I love the show. There's probably nothing else in this world that I have spent so much time critisizing - because I love it so much, so many of its themes and characters and artistic elements. It's why I run Europe's biggest BSG fansite (which doesn't even come with the perks of being a prominent BSG fan in the US). It's why I've spent ridiculous amounts of money on meeting some of the cast.

Yet, there are times when I feel some of the myth-babble is just obscuring the harsh truth that the writers employ lots and lots of plot devices, and that they often do things because they are cool (see Ron Moore's defense of Baltar's fake execution dream).

The Final Five have been a McGuffin for more than 20 hours, they completely rewrote all the rules governing Cylons - making it all the more absurd that they are treated by the writers and the civilians as tradition Cylons. Discovering after three years you're the enemy (but nothing changes) isn't progressive character development, it's a sudden change to have lots of sudden new drama in the new season.

Anonymous said...

Thank God for a TV show in which the writers are willing to do things just "because they are cool" . . . I'm a fan of cool things, myself.

But seriously, I'm with CoE. Especially after "No Exit," I think the writers have beautifully enlarged the scope of the show while remaining completely true to its thematic roots.

As for the "rules governing Cylons" and all that . . . what rules? We never knew anything about this stuff in the beginning; it was always a mystery, and the show was mostly a political/action drama (a great one) with hints of a deeper mythology strewn into it. One of the amazing things about this show is that, unlike other programs, that mythology is now getting laid out for all to see, and--at least in my opinion--it works.

Anonymous said...


Right on, but you're missing the point of Verhiedin's post. It's all about him using the "writers make it up as they go along" to take credit for stuff. Pretty obvious.

Anonymous said...

Anon --

Yeah, it seemed pretty weird to just start jumping all over what we, the fans think, then go on and on about going to Ron Moore and suggesting this and that and so on. Just my feelings. So shoot me.

Anonymous said...


Perhaps you could clarify what you meant when you said that the revelation of the Final Five "changed nothing?"

In terms of what exactly? Personal relationships? Duties? Loyalties?

Actually, a fundamental change has taken place, and one that is at the heart of one of Battlestar Galactica's central tenets. Namely, that Humans and Cylons are essentially the same. Or as Gina (the Number Six Model about Pegasus) in Razor put it: "In the end, we're all just human."

Dramatically, this realization has played out most poignantly with Adama and Tigh, and over the past couple of episodes with Kara and Sam. Thus Kara could stand by a wounded Sam in Blood on the Scales, risking life and limb (and again at his hospital bedside during No Exit), while Adama could say to Tigh in The Oath: "It's been an honor serving with you, my friend."

The distinction between Cylon and Human, whether one defines that distinction by biology or belief, is blurred and bordering on the obsolete. More and more, the humans on Galactica are realizing this.

It's taken the characters a long time to get here; and none of them are totally "there," to be sure. Lee, for example, still harbors Cylon prejudice (and perhaps rightly so), but then again, Lee isn't relationally or personally tied to any Cylon, as Adama and Kara are. (And as a sidenote, if Kara ultimately turns out to be a Cylon, Lee's vestigial prejudices will evaporate.)

While in the end the Final Five (with the exception of Tory) occupy the same positions and relationships they did at the start - and thus superficially the FF's story arc represents "no change" - it hasn't been a smooth road, nor a foregone conclusion.

The fact that they did get there is one of the most intriguing aspects of the show, as it causes us (along with every human who populates the Galactica universe) to rethink everything they thought it meant (means) to be human.

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