Plots and premises

So, I've got a couple of days before the kids descend again--I may edit, or I may just enjoy the novelty of peace and quiet. Anyway, I've been watching Battlestar Galactica--yes, yes, I know I'm behind the times with this one, but better late than never, right? Anyway, I'm most of the way through season 2, and it has given me food for thought on why plots are so important.

If you look at Wikipedia's definition of an A plot, you'll see that it's job is to drive the story--and believe me, stories need to be driven. Battlestar Galactica's premise is what's contained in the opening credits: The remnants of humanity are hunted by the Cylons as they search for a new home called Earth.

That's a premise. That's not a plot. The A plot for the first 1-1/3 seasons of Battlestar Galactica is that the humans find Kobol, which points them toward Earth. This is not a simple process, because the whole Kobol-will-lead-to-Earth contingent is lead by a person who is actively hallucinating, and there's a whole other you-are-a-nutbar contingent, which is equally if not more powerful.

Now I'm, oh, about another third of the way through the second season, and we no longer have an A plot. We just have a premise. And if you're like me and you like novels as well as television shows that are novel-like, the drop-off in quality is just painful. It's not only that the episodes suddenly stand alone, it's the contrivance necessary to create the emotional resonance that came organically in the first 1-1/3 seasons. Did you know that Apollo had a pregnant girlfriend, who he betrayed? That there's this Cylon raider named Scar who has been devastating the Viper pilots? That there's a huge black market on the fleet, dominated by someone who has been with it less than a month? All these things are introduced in single episode, and a HUGE deal is made of them, despite the fact that we've never heard anything about them before. It reminds me of the bad old days of network television, where a major character would fall in love, get engaged, and break of the engagement/watch their fiance die all within 40 minutes. Then six months later they would do it all again with somebody else, because it was assumed that television viewers were too stupid to care.

The nice thing about having a single big A plot drive the action is that events have a built-in emotional resonance, because they are somehow associated with this big idea. Hopefully that idea is important enough to make the audience care, but at least you only have to puff up one plotline, instead of having the characters gnash their teeth and rend their garments over a brand-new idea every freaking episode.